KYRGYZSTAN, 2nd – 17th November 2017
I could not understand why I couldn’t book the flight. Every time I put in my payment details and hit the confirm button I would get an error message. Why was it so hard?
“Maybe I’m just not meant to fly,” I said to Dea, intending it as a joke. But was it just a joke? I had not flown in five and a half years. The last time that I’d done so the plane had taken me from a hot and sunny Bahamas to a freezing cold Toronto in a few hours, and it had struck me what a silly and unnatural thing that was, and in that moment I had vowed to stop flying and try to travel the world using only my bicycle and boats. Sure, pedalling the last couple thousand kilometres to Mori would mean I’d made a full circumnavigation only by those methods, but did I really want to abandon my principles so immediately thereafter. It was only really because we both wanted to go to Nepal, India, and Sri Lanka, and there was simply no way to cycle to these countries due to the travel and visa limitations of all the surrounding regions (Pakistan, Tibet, Myanmar). But our planned onward route meant so many airmiles – we would fly to Nepal, then from India to Sri Lanka, then from there to Africa, later from Africa to South America, and finally from the Americas back to Europe. For the rest of our journey we would be doing as many kilometres above the clouds as we would below them. Deep down I knew this wasn’t really what I wanted. Maybe there was another way…
I put the suggestion to Dea, and she came around to the idea quickly, confessing that she didn’t really want our journey to involve so much flying either. We began to look on one of my favourite websites, cruisetimetables.com, just to see what else was possible. As I understood things, sea connections between China and India were somewhat limited by the Himalayas, and from the sub-continent to east Africa by Somalian pirates, but what if we changed our route completely? What if, instead of turning south from China we just kept on going east? I knew there were ferry connections from eastern China to South Korea and Japan, so where could we go from there? We began to look at cruises heading out of Japan, and almost immediately found one that was sailing from Yokohama to Vancouver on April 26th 2018. It was perfect timing.
There was another big advantage to this new idea. It would mean finding ourselves sailing into Vancouver on a cruise ship together, almost exactly two years after an infection in Dea’s eye had robbed her of that experience. It just seemed to fit perfectly. We both started getting excited, realising that our whole trip could be about to change, take on a whole new crazy direction. From Vancouver we could cycle south down to South America, just like we’d intended back in 2016. India and the rest of South Asia would have to be scrapped, but it turned out that neither of us had really been that keen on cycling in that chaos anyway (I had been in favour of going mostly only because I thought Dea wanted to, and she apparently the same), but one thing we would both be sad to miss out on was Africa.
“Maybe we can fly to Africa from South America?”
“But then we’re still flying.”
There were no cruise connections between the continents and we’d have to be extremely lucky to find a sailing boat that wouldn’t sink under the weight of our ridiculously overloaded bikes. But I was too keen on the idea to give it up now, so I kept looking, and I found a potential answer. A company that rented out space on cargo ships had a route running from Brazil to Senegal. I sent them an email, and they quickly told me the ship sailed every week, and it should be no problem to get us on board. It was the final piece in the jigsaw. Once back across the Atlantic, from Senegal we could cycle up through west Africa to Europe. A whole new route around the world all the way home had formed, a complete circumnavigation without flying, cycled together, and we both smiled and laughed with excitement to think of it.
We put our world map up on the wall of our hostel room. It still had the coloured string on it that marked out our original plan, that we’d made back in Copenhagen. Now we peeled off that string and rearranged it into our new plan. The cuddly toys gathered around and looked up at this new map, unblinking, silent, looking like they were deep in thought. We did much the same, until one of us broke the silence with “Are we really going to do this?!” but we both already knew the answer.
There was only one slight problem with the new plan, which was that Dea did not have a Chinese visa. It had over the past year become basically impossible to get one on the road in Central Asia, something that was a big inconvenience to many, many cyclists. By some small miracle, my own chance to return to Mori by bicycle was saved by the fact that British people can get a Chinese visa with two-year validity (other nationalities being limited to three months), meaning I’d been able to get mine back in the UK before we left. But Dea was not so fortunate, and the only way she could continue with me across China without flying was to go back to Denmark to apply for the visa there… which meant flying. But she was not opposed to flying under such circumstances, pressing the pause button on our journey and making a sidetrip home, which would conviniently mean getting to spend Christmas with her family. She was very happy with this idea. It wouldn’t be all bad for me, either, I’d get to take a month off in Bishkek/Almaty waiting for her to return, and given I’d been cycling (either on a bicycle or a pedicab) pretty much non-stop for seven and a half years, that sounded alright to me too. Within a day our whole trip had changed completely. The new plan was decided, and I found myself booking a cruise (and the payment went through okay).
We spent a week in Osh, enjoying the chance to relax and reunite with our cycling friends, Liz and Miranda, who we’d first met back in Dushanbe. They had been a bit behind us over the Pamirs, and had been held up by Miranda suffering with quite severe altitude sickness. Arriving in Osh a few days after us, Liz too fell ill, and so they weren’t quite ready to resume their journey when Dea and I set off for the final ten days of cycling together to Bishkek. It began with an unpleasant three days riding through populated regions on the edge of a busy highway. On the positive side there was a half-decent gravel shoulder for us to cycle on, and the kids here were much less interested in us, with not a single rock coming our way. It was also not that difficult to camp, for despite the near-constant habitation lining the main road, taking a side road fifty metres had us out in open fields.
Near the end of the third day a car beeped and pulled up in front of us. Out jumped Liz and Miranda. The latter was still not feeling up to cycling, and would take this lift all the way to Bishkek, but Liz pulled her bike out of the back, and for the next week she would join Dea and me. We were delighted, for Liz was great company, and would prove to be a valuable third player for our nightly whist tournaments.
Liz had also timed things just right, for from pretty much the exact point at which she joined us the habitation ceased and the road grew less busy (though there were still a large number of oil tankers plying the route, leaving me for the first time seeing the great benefit that a new oil pipeline might bring). The road went alongside a narrow reservoir squeezed into a valley that reminded us of our experiences in Turkey. Fortunately there were fewer tunnels here, and while the man-made reservoir created a fairly unnatural scene, it was unquestionably a dramatic landscape, the road we were on rising and falling and clinging to the cliffsides far above the water.
The road eventually reached a peak and descended down towards a lake, offering us stunningly beautiful views as we freewheeled down towards it. The lake was as inconvenient as it was beautiful, however, for rather than continuing straight, we had to make a long detour around it. But this also gave us a chance to set up our tents with one hell of a view.
Beyond the lake we began the long climb up the first of two passes that still stood between us and Bishkek. For a whole day the climb was gentle. Liz had promised us she was a very slow cyclist, but so are we, and so we went along quite merrily all of us together. To keep things interesting we played the old favourite, the spotting things game. Liz was a big fan, and it turned into an epic contest which our guest player might even have won had she not found it so unbelievably difficult to spot a fish. Late in the day with the score at Dea 9, Liz 8, me 7, Dea thought she’d spotted her final thing – a discarded vegetable – when her eagle eyes saw an eaten corn cob on the verge. I was consulted to determine whether this counted as a vegetable, and risked being thrown in the dog house when I said that it was not, but thankfully for everyone concerned, especially me, Dea later spotted some discarded onions, and won anyway.
We camped that night on a patch of grass beside a river. The empty trailers and masses of dried horse manure everywhere revealed that in summertime this grassy area would be filled up with nomadic yurt-dwellers and their animals, but this late in the year we had it to ourselves. A bitterly cold night reminded us why we were alone. As Liz came over to our tent to hand Dea a morning coffee that she’d thoughtfully made for her, she looked at her iPhone and warned us that “It’s going to snow today,” and no sooner had the words left her lips than a snowflake landed upon her shoulder. This pass was not going to be easy.
The steep climbing began straight away, and I found myself struggling. With the effort of climbing I didn’t feel the cold, but the climbing really was an effort. I couldn’t work out why it was so hard. I was sure cycling uphill never used to be so difficult. Dea and Liz, two tough cookies, were making it look easy, going on ahead and then waiting patiently for me. In the end, however, I was just too slow, and they went on further, all the way to the summit, leaving me to battle on alone on a road that seemed to just go on and on, up, up, up. It was such hard work for me that I began to think that there must be something wrong with me, a physical ailment that was slowing me down. I even thought that maybe I had a collapsed lung somehow without knowing it, or some similar such thing, for cycling had never been this hard before.
Eventually I did make it to the top, and saw Dea and Liz, obviously sympathetic to my plight, gathering up snowballs to throw at me. What they hadn’t reckoned on, of course, was that I was also able to make snowballs, and what was more I had a basket to store lots of them in, and approaching on my bicycle I was a moving target, difficult to hit and coming at them aggressively. They soon regretted making those snowballs.
The descent began. There was a terrible irony to it, for having spent the entire morning dreaming of reaching this descent, as soon as it began we all wished it would be over. It was unbelievably cold. My fingers and toes felt completely frozen, and there was no respite. Every so often I had to stop and warm my hands and feet by rubbing them and jumping up and down. Dea and I looked at each other and knew we would have to get a bit better at protecting ourselves from the cold if we were to survive China in January, where the average daily highs are minus ten. Liz too looked absolutely frozen, her hands protected by only a pair of woollen gloves. But there was nothing for it but to keep on going, dreaming, ironically, for a bit of uphill to warm up.
Our salvation finally arrived with a little row of buildings, one of which was a cafe. We hurried inside, and basked in the warmth of being inside, sipping hot tea and eating fried eggs until the feeling returned to our extremities. Just as we were considering returning out into the cold to look for a campsite, Liz spotted another touring cyclist coming down the hill. He burst into the cafe, shivering and looking for sugar. It was Ross, a British cyclist we’d already met briefly at another hostel in Osh. He was cycling together with two other cyclists, though they had a peculiar idea of cycling together, for they all rode at different speeds, and he hadn’t seen the other two since the morning. Ross sat down with us and drank tea and ate fried eggs until the feeling returned to his extremities. After half an hour, the door burst open again, and another touring cyclist staggered in. This one was a Frenchman who sat down and drank tea and ate fried eggs until the feeling returned to his extremities. Half an hour later, and the door burst open again. The lady running the cafe already had the eggs ready to go.
Liz, Dea, and I finally took our leave, and went and camped out in the grasslands. The next morning we were reunited with the boys, and for a little while we went along as a group of six. We were strung out quite a bit, what with our differing speeds, but the road was now a great one, going only very gently downhill on a plateau, and we were further aided by a fantastic tailwind. I cycled alongside the third (i.e. slowest) of the cyclists to arrive at the cafe, a young Italian guy named Danielle. He was a really friendly and nice guy, and we had a good old chat all morning. He’d cycled from Italy, but was flying back to Europe from Bishkek, his trip almost at an end. Almost all cyclists these days were flying out from Bishkek or Almaty, Dea and I would be some of the few to be continuing, especially at this time of year.
It had been a perfect morning, so it was with some disappointment that we turned our heads to the left and saw the road not only leaving the flat plateau, but climbing up in a ridiculous fashion. We could see the whole mountain, and the entirety of the road ahead, zig-zagging up and up so high that it almost hurt to arch my neck to look for the top. I gulped. Having found the previous pass so tough, this was going to be one almighty challenge for me.
The boys all went on ahead, taking Liz with them for a while, and leaving slow old me behind. Luckily Dea, knowing how I’d struggled on the last pass, stuck with me this time. As feared, the going was tough for me, but we knew it was only about twelve kilometres to the top, so we took it three at a time. I put on some music, and simply ground out the first three kilometres. We then took a break to eat and enjoy the views, before continuing on for another three. The road was tough, not only being steep, but also increasingly busy with trucks, but Dea’s presence just behind me helped so much as we edged our way to the next rest stop. Still, we were going ever so slowly. The boys were surely already over the top, and we were only halfway up. We had no idea where Liz was. We needed to get to the top before dark, and the day was starting to get away from us, when to make things worse I got a puncture. I stopped to fix it, removing the bags and turning the bike upside down to get the rear wheel off. There was a bit of metal in the tyre that was almost impossible to get out with my cold fingers. During this enforced break, a truck stopped and a nice local man came and talked with us for a while, offering us a lift, and then giving us money when we refused, no doubt largely out of pity given our exhausted appearance. Eventually I got the metal piece out and replaced the tube. I put the wheel back on the bike, and turned the pedals around by hand to get the chain in the right gear. I couldn’t believe what I felt. It was so hard! There was resistance in the bottom bracket, which I’d known was wobbly, but I had not known until this moment was almost seized up. I broke into a big smile. “I’d thought there was something wrong with me Dea! This explains everything! Look, it’s just my f*cking bike!”
Now that it turned out that I was not, as I’d suspected, a weak and pathetic hill climber, but in actual fact a complete badass who could cycle up mountains with a seized bottom bracket, I felt much better about the rest of the climb, and began going a bit faster (for about five minutes at least, until I got tired). But the climb was also taking its toll on Dea, and the number of trucks passing us closely with heavy exhausts was as much a reason as the gradients. Also suffering was Liz, who, having fallen behind the boys, had for quite a long time been standing shivering and waiting for us higher up the mountain. Worried, she even hitched a lift in a car down to find us. Satisfied we were okay, she then hitched back up to her bike, and stood waiting some more. Eventually we reached her, and with the day almost at an end, we all pedalled the final couple of kilometres together. Rounding a corner we found at last what we had been seeking all day – a dark, narrow, unventilated, smoke-filled tunnel.
We had known about this tunnel at the top of the pass, of course, and feared it. Two and a half kilometres long and without ventilation, apparently a number of people had died in it from carbon monoxide poisoning in the past. Not too keen to add to those numbers, we’d come up with a plan to camp at the top of the pass, and go through the tunnel first thing in the morning, when traffic would be light and pollution at its lowest. It was a plan that looked like it might come together perfectly, having arrived now at the very end of the day, to find a little place selling hot coffee, and a salt shed in which the tunnel guardians said we would be okay to pitch our tents. This gave us a little extra protection from the wind and the cold of camping at three and a half thousand metres, and a makeshift barrier that I constructed from string and paper provided enough protection to stop the many people that used the nearby area as a toilet from inadvertently waking us in the night. We sat in our salt shed and drinking coffee and beer, toasting our success at reaching this summit, and looking forward to the new challenge of the morning.
We slept fine and awoke before dawn to the delightful sound of One Direction on Dea’s phone. It was time to implement our plan. We put on all of our clothes, took down our tents, and headed for the tunnel. Thankfully it looked a lot less intimidating than the night before, and proved not to be nearly so bad as we had feared. The road surface in the tunnel was not so good, but it was all downhill and only a few vehicles passed us at such an hour. It was also much better lit than we’d thought, and the air perfectly okay. Bursting out into the darkness at the end of the tunnel we were all happy and relieved, our plan had worked perfectly.
There was a little snack shop on this side of the tunnel too, and a nice man invited us in to warm up and eat Snickers until enough daylight arrived for us to continue our journey. When we did, we had an extraordinarily long downhill which started with lots of switchbacks down through the snowy peaks. It was a fantastic moment, coasting down on the almost empty road. I felt a buzz about being awake so early and enjoying such an amazing bit of cycling, a final glorious reward for all our efforts as we headed now towards Bishkek.
It was very cold of course, our extremities once again freezing and with no prospect of a cafe this time we simply had to keep descending until we at least got out of the shadow of the mountains and found direct sunlight. Along the way we saw the boys once again, just waking up in a little valley, and passed them on our continued search for sunshine. We eventually found it, and at the same moment opening up in front of us was a broad, flat plain. It was the start of the Kazakh steppe. This was the end, the mountains of Central Asia were all behind us, we had made it through. Though there was much rejoicing, there were also some mixed emotions, with Dea especially a little sorry it was over.
The boys caught us up again of course, and overtook us, but Dea, Liz and myself rode steadily together for the rest of the day, on flat roads that grew increasingly busy as we neared Kyrgyzstan’s capital. But I had a plan, and we left the main highway when we could, so that our final ride into the city took place on small back roads, that were in fairly terrible condition but almost completely traffic free. It had been a long day, begun at six a.m. on a frozen mountain pass, and ending 120 kilometres later in the darkness, walking the final kilomete on the footpaths of a busy last street, where almost being hit by a red-light running car and having to pull Dea away from a drunk alcoholic made me question whether the city life was really going to be for me. But for better or worse, this was going to be my new ‘hood’ as Liz put it, for the next month or so. We had made it to Bishkek.
To read Liz’s blog of our ride together, click here
OSH – BISHKEK
Distance cycled: 674 kilometres