KYRGYZSTAN, 21st November 2017
With the departure of Dea, Liz and Leo from Friend’s Guesthouse I was left all alone, ironically enough, without any friends. There were a couple of other cyclists, but their bikes were in boxes and within hours they were flying to warmer climes, leaving me wondering what I was going to do with myself for the next six weeks as I awaited Dea’s return.
I had planned to move from our private room into the cheaper dormitory, but it was small and cramped and had a local man living in it who seemed harmless enough but apparently had a habit of staying up late drinking beer. He even had one in his hand at nine in the morning when Dea et al cycled away from me. So I spoke to the manager of the guesthouse, a very friendly man named Nurik, and negotiated a good discount to stay in a private room for the next month. It was still more than the price of a dorm bed, but I justified it to myself with the logic that having my own space would allow me time to write, and it was therefore a worthwhile investment.
With so much time to write, I made a start on my second book, first thinking of a title, then making a brightly coloured cover, then doing the maps. Then I relaxed on the big double bed I had all to myself, watched some TV shows, went for a walk, watched the football, watched some more TV shows, and at some point eventually started writing.
For the next two weeks almost nobody came to stay at the guesthouse. The weather turned very cold, the streets outside froze, to walk around was a risky activity. I stayed in my room a lot, sometimes writing, more often procrastinating from writing. I enjoyed the break from the bike, a chance to rest and relax, but I missed Dea and my loneliness was compounded by the lack of other guests. Then after two weeks another touring cyclist finally arrived! It was Thomas, an exceedingly laid back Frenchman of my age, who had cycled from his homeland and was now unsure of his future plans. What he was sure of was that he planned to stay for a while here at this guesthouse, which was a tremendous boost for my sanity, if not my book progress. The next week or so turned into one long marathon of table tennis, ended only when I accidentally knelt on the ball, ruining everything.
On the 20th of December I left the Friend’s Guesthouse for the 250 kilometre ride to Almaty, pleased that I had at least made one friend. Unfortunately he wasn’t with me. Thomas was going to cycle to Almaty, but he wanted to wait a little longer in Bishkek, whereas I needed to get on to Kazakhstan to get a number of things done before Dea’s return at the start of January. Luckily, however, the weather had become warmer again, and the temperature as I navigated my way out of Bishkek was the right side of zero. And it was a great cycle out of the city too, for I found a route on tiny roads next to canals where there was no traffic at all. In fact I was almost at the border to Kazakhstan before I encountered any real traffic. That all changed on the other side of the border, however, where I found a big town and suddenly cars were everywhere. I battled my way through it and out onto the highway I had to follow all of the way to Almaty, before pitching our new tent for the first time. It was a cheap tent but a good one, with a big porch for bike storage. There was snow on the ground, but it wasn’t too cold, and it felt good to be on the road again.
My good feeling did not stretch into day two. There was a pass to be overcome, which I found very tough work, even though unlike Dea I had no wind to contend with. Instead my problems were caused by my broken bottom bracket which I’d been unable to replace in Bishkek and which still made cycling so much harder than it needed to be. As I forced the pedals around on the climb my right knee began to hurt quite badly. This was fairly normal, my knees tend to hurt after I restart cycling after a long break. In the past I’d just ignored it and kept going and it would go away. But I was also suffering with saddle sores, something I’d rarely struggled with before. With my pains and bad mood, the climbing just went on and on and on – it was no fun at all.
Eventually I reached the summit, completely shrouded in cloud, then descended down to the steppe, where the road was busy and not very nice. I wasn’t having a great day, and it got a bit worse when I noticed I’d lost my last full water bottle somewhere. Now I had no water and it was time to camp. I was a long way from a town out in the open steppe and in summer I would have been in a lot of trouble. But this was winter, there was water everywhere. So I went out into the empty landscape and found a place to sleep, then ran around and gathered up snow to melt with the stove. It took a lot of snow to make just a little bit of water, and it didn’t taste very good, but it kept me alive.
If that day had been tough, it was nothing compared to the next. It started very foggy, with me struggling to see the road as I began. But there was a decent gravel shoulder to cycle on to keep safe and I started out at fifteen kilometres per hour even though the pain in my rear end was getting so bad I could barely sit down. My good progress was short-lived, however, as after about ten kilometres my right knee began to hurt again, very badly in fact. The pain was under the knee cap and almost excrutiating. It wasn’t like the pain I’d had before, it really felt like something was wrong. I had to stop and sit down for a bit. I noticed that there was an old gravel road parallel to the main highway so when I continued it was on this, but cycling was still so painful. It was so bad that I got off the bike and started to walk. I didn’t know what else to do. But it was so slow, it would be Christmas before I got to Almaty. So I got back on, and tried a new cycling technique that involved my left leg doing almost all of the work, which was great right up until the moment when my left knee started hurting. It was a horrible day. I was absolutely exhausted, but I put on my music full volume and ignored all my pains and somehow made it seventy kilometres. Seventy more remained to Almaty.
The next day my pains were no better, and in fact I had an additional one also in my ankle. But in an act I’m sure the sixty-year-old me will not thank me for, I just forced my knees to keep on working through the pain, and eventually Almaty drew near. The traffic was terrible, but there were cycle paths in places, and most of the footpaths had ramps which made cycling on them fairly easy. This was good, because it was dark by the time I reached the city, and I needed to cycle almost the whole way across it. The four day ride from Bishkek had been a real ordeal, that made me wonder whether I was really going to be able to cycle the remaining 1,500 kilometres that still separated me from my goal of Mori.
I spent Christmas alone in a hostel, Skyping with my family from the floor of a laundry room, but otherwise barely noticing the festive season. On boxing day I had to make an expedition back across the city to retrieve Dea’s bike for her from Nurseit, the warmshowers host who had been looking after it for us. Thankfully my body reacted well to the fifteen kilometre walk, and the fifteen kilometre cycle back, and in between I got to meet Nurseit, a friendly and interesting man who insisted on feeding me dinner. He’d also been good enough to have my new fork delivered to him, and this too I collected. My old fork had held up so well through the Pamirs, but it was finally time to say goodbye to it and I fitted the new one a few days later with the help of Alexander, the Crankmaster, the finest bike mechanic in all of Almaty. He even managed to remove my defunct bottom bracket, with the most creative use of a chain whip I’ve ever seen. Once it was removed I tried to turn the bottom bracket around by hand, and it was quite impossible.
New Year’s Eve was one to remember. Thomas had arrived in Almaty a few days earlier, and together we went out on the town to look for a place to eat and drink and see in the new year. We wandered the cold snowy streets, imagining finding an establishment serving food and beer would be no trouble at all, yet finding nothing. All of the cafes and bars were closed, and even the streets themselves were almost empty. On and on we walked, finding nothing, until eventually we spotted an Indian restaurant, packed with people having a good time. We went inside and asked if we may eat. “Sorry,” came the response, “we don’t have any tables free.”
“Do you know anywhere we can get some food?” we cried desperately.
“There’s a supermarket down the street.”
So Thomas and I found ourselves buying a cabbage and egg pastry from the supermarket, and wandering back to the hostel to put it in the microwave. There we sat in the kitchen, trying in vain to create an atmosphere via youtube videos, craning our necks to catch sight of fireworks out the window, and thus ringing in 2018.
There were other preparations made for the return of Dea and the start of our winter cycle into China. I built us both pogies, big hand protections affixed to the bikes to keep our hands warm, and I fitted the studded winter tyres Dea had found somehow in Almaty. I bought new clothes, a down jacket, winter boots, balaclavas. The average daily highs in China in January were apparently around minus ten, this was going to be a real challenge, and we were doing all we could to make sure that we were prepared.
Then on the third of January she returned. Dea was back, Chinese visa in passport. It was so good to see her again, and we spent a couple of days in the hostel together, savouring the warmth as much as anything else, before finally getting back on our bikes together. The temperature on my phone read minus nineteen, there were 1,500 kilometres between us and Mori, and it was time for us, at long last, to go there.