I thought that once I’d ridden the Pamir Highway other hills roll beneath my tyres without complaint.
We needed to get to from Osh to Bishkek in 12 days, at the latest, in order to make it to China before our visa expired. We could take the shorter easier main road or the longer harder scenic route over the mountains.
We decided to take the scenic route because we are very silly human beings.
In our defence we were also (mis)informed that the road would be mostly asphalt.
We leave Osh after a couple of days off the bikes, with shiny new tyres, a brand new bike computer and restocked panniers.
It is just the two of us again and we are happy to be on the road. We’re back to our old pace, stopping less frequently, trying to rack up the miles. The new tyres feel heavy and sluggish on the asphalt. I miss my old tyres already.
We’ve calculated we need to do 65km/day to make our deadline at the Chinese border but assume that we’ll be able to smash that now that it’s just us again.
The first two days go well.
Day three – the asphalt runs out. We consult the map, ah, ok. There’s a big climb, but the asphalt should reappear tomorrow.
The climb is 50km, and I find the first 30 or so very hard work. My legs are hurting. The bike is heavy. My spirits low. The climb is slow and steady. It’s not until we hit the switchbacks that I begin to enjoy myself at all.
The loose surface makes the climb really hard work, and most worryingly my knees begin to complain. The hairpins are regularly banked with loose gravel making the turns fraught and frustrating.
The climb takes so long we are forced to camp a few kilometres before the top, perched below a massive pylon but with an astounding view. The mountain facing us gets swallowed up by a dark cloud as the sun sets and the temperature plummets.
Over the next week we climb a plus 1000m pass most days. We total something like 8800m of climbing over 560km.
And there’s still no asphalt.
It’s autumn in Kyrgyzstan. The leaves are turning yellow and littering the ground. The mountainsides, which in my imagination were luscious green, are golden.
The apples are ripe. The rosehips glow red. There are still flowers in some of the verges, but more seed heads and large ochre leaves.
The mountains in the distance get a fresh dusting of snow overnight.
Autumnal colours as we ride the scenic route from Osh to Bishkek, via a few mountains, many switchbacks, a lot of washboard. We were naively expecting more asphalt.
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I suffer pretty badly for the first three big climbs. When it’s not my knees when we’re climbing uphill, it’s my hips juddering downhill, or my bum after hour after hour grinding uphill, or my wrists vibrating as i hang on over the over washboard. At the end of one really difficult day, the washboard drives me mad and I’m so tired I take a tumble and get tangled in the bike. Nothing seriously damaged but a twisted ankle and a bashed shoulder to add to the compendium of aches I’m acquiring.
Oddly things improve after that for me.
I’ve been fishing for reassurance that the weakness I’ve experienced in the last few days is in my head, and I haven’t got it. Everyone has their off days, Jamie says, which isn’t quite what I wanted to hear. I remind myself not to rely on external validation. I validate myself instead.
Things reverse and Jamie has a really hard time for a few days, feeling weary and underpowered – though most people would be happy with the power in Jamie’s underpowered. I sympathise as much as I can, but part of me feels relieved that the tables turn some days.
We acknowledge, as we both come down with streaming colds, that it’s possible, even probable that we are a little worn out and a bit run down. That perhaps, in retrospect, this particular route with a deadline was a bit ambitious all things consided…
The climbs are taking 5 or 6 hours and we’re struggling to get the miles in each day.
We go to bed knowing there’s another big climb on the horizon. Or it will be once we’ve got over the hill that’s blocking our view of the horizon.
We try getting up early but the tent is soggy most mornings and the sun is slow to appear over the hills.
Did I mention there’s no asphalt?
But during all this I discover that I love switchbacks. I love how they weave back and forth and round and round a hill. Looking up and seeing the next turn and the next and the next and way up there the pass that we’ll cross at some point. I’ll never get up there, I think. Then from the top I look down and see the path we’ve come unravelling down the mountainside, swooshing in and out of view and trailing out the bottom along the valley floor and down to the plain beyond.
Then you get to go down the other side… There’s always a point looking down where my mind whispers an expletive and a little fear sparks. I’m sure it’s a good thing.
The thrill of the descents, the heightened concentration and focus when the road surface is bad, trusting the bike and my reflexes to keep us upright, always practising the cornering, split decision on which line to take, keeping an eye out for traffic and rocks and sand and another on the view unfolding before you.
I remember a time, not so long ago when I could only descend thinking “shit shit shit shit” all the way down the hill. Having to force my muscles to relax even a little. There’s still moments that feel like that, but they are pretty rare. They usually come out as a “whoa” instead, as I get some air over an unexpected rock, or a particularly vicious section of washboard rattles my brain so hard I can’t focus.
The climbs we have foreseen. We knew the numbers, the distances, the altitude and overconfidently assumed we’d manage them.
What we hadn’t foreseen was that the road would remain determinedly unasphalted. We would have loose gravel, sand and bone shaking, teeth rattling, interminable washboard.
I finally make peace with that.
We are going to grind slowly to Bishkek, hopefully in time to get to China.
It’s a relief. How much time and energy do we spend being angry that things are not like we thought they would be?
I think the worst is gravel on the flat. There’s something about a perfectly flat stretch of road which taunts you if you can’t get any speed up.
Sometimes we veer off on to some single track at the side of the road. It’s fun, weaving between trees, dodging tussocks of grass.
One time however, having got sick of the washboard I leave the road for a path in the dirt. I think Jamie, up ahead, saw me leave the road and when I come across some Modial tyre marks I assume they are his. I start following them.
I feel pleased that I’ve recognised the tread. I look closer. They are going the wrong way, it’s not Jamie.
I find my way back to the road, through the spikey scrub, and have a brief panic when I can’t see him. The light is fading fast.
I find him, obviously, and am careful about following tyre marks after that.
Throughout the ride we pass herd after herd of beautiful, powerful horses. A dozen or more in each herd.
Sometimes they gallop down the hill towards us, we think to check us out. They stand nodding to eachother as we pass, we’re not sure what it means but we like to think that they think we’re ok.
We see two herds meeting in the distance, frolicking with joy, their gladness so obvious.
We don’t tire of watching them roaming the land, there are no fences up there, they go where they please. They must be herded from time to time, most are bred for milk and meat, but we rarely see it.
One day however we are starting up the big climb to the Song Kul lake when a truck passes, with a dismantled yurt poking out the top. It’s followed soon by a Audi with the whole extended family crammed in. Next comes a boy on horseback with a donkey, the advance guard for a huge wave of sheep and goats. Another wave of sheep, goats, cows and horses, and then the dogs. The nomads are coming down from Song Kul. Winter is coming.
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The lake is set in a wide open plain, which is the summer grazing for the herds of many Kyrgyz nomads. Not all have left by the time we get up there. There are still many yurts dotting the landscape, and a few yurt villages offering accomodation to the visitors. At 3000+m it is often very cold – 200 days of snow a year.
We decide to camp, perhaps foolishly, and are very cold. We wake to feel, before hearing, horses thundering towards us, the frozen ground vibrating below us. They pass us and continue on to the lake.
The stunning high altitude (3016m) Song Kol lake. This is the summer pasture for the flocks of many Kyrgyz nomads. Most have – wisely – headed down the mountains already.
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After Song Kul we head mostly downhill – with quite a bit of up – until we at last hit the main road and the asphalt we expected several hundred kilometres ago.
It’s downhill all the way to Kochkor.
We spin the shifter to the highest gear and cruise downhill for 50km in to kochkor. The tyres that felt sluggish when they last saw tarmac now feel light as air.
We decide to forego cycling the last 200km of asphalt and get a lift to Bishkek. We now have a week to get in to China before our visa expires, and have been hearing worrying rumours that the borders may be shut for a holiday.
Once in Bishkek we plan to get some transport across to Almaty in Kazakhstan. From there find our way through the bizarre border-shopping-complex of Khorgos.
But immediately, we need to rest.
Scenic route through Kyrgyzstan? Check.
We made it.