Someone once told me that travel is perhaps one part geography, and nine parts imagination.
I had set off for Kyrgyzstan in September 2019 on a cycling trip for 45 days with a Polish girl (Joanna) I connected with on a Facebook group for cycling with women. I had imagined launching from the outer banks and landing in the shifting dunes of the Silk Road, slowly pedalling one stroke at a time but instead, what I got was the conjuring of dust and light and a taste of what it is like to be a roving nomad.
If you asked me many years ago if I would ever be cycling and carrying all my belongings and camping in the middle of nowhere, I would laugh. I could barely ride a bicycle a few years ago and it is almost comical to be travelling for hours hunched over my handlebars on those stark desert rides.
I was smitten by the landscapes of the Silk Road and the romance that follows. Kyrgyzstan may seem wild to a lot of people. After all, the place is known for its poor human rights record, lack of freedom of expression in matters of faith, and where patriarchy runs deep in the valleys. The trail-like arterial roads carried more than items for trade: it was a superhighway of sorts carrying goods, people and ideas. It was this flow of life that I wanted to be part of, where I get to be among nomadic people who wander the inhospitable voids dotted across vast mountains.
We took the old Soviet train from Bishkek to Balykchy. With few obvious signs of life and fewer vehicles, we arrived at the sleepy town of Balykchy and got on our bikes with jelly-like legs. We began our way along the Silk Road route that eventually connects the alpine ranges of Naryn Province in central Kyrgyzstan, to the Chinese border at Torugart Pass.
At an elevation of 1,900m, the landscape was still rugged and we passed cemeteries that almost looked like cities of the dead.
On our first night we camped, and recalled feeling very lost. Our face was a froth of dust and sunscreen and sometimes sweat beaded on our skin as though we were being boiled alive. We had one too many bars of Snickers, our only sustenance as roadside truck stops were filled with greasy menus.
Over the next few days our wheels rattled and glided. Sometimes there was nothing to signal for; there was hardly any life on the road apart from one or two occasional Lada cars. Out of nowhere, we met two German cyclists in their 50s trudging from the opposite direction having done the Pamirs and the Naryn region. They shared that they have been on the road for four months cycling through the “Stan” countries in the peak of summer. They regaled us with a colourful account of their journeys, like when they cycled in the searing heat of 50°C in Uzbekistan, and meeting the wonderful people of Tajikistan.
As we headed towards remote villages at the crossroads between Song-Kul lake and Naryn region, we were confronted with one climb after another, and at that point I turned around and saw a huge storm looming. I thought to myself, what if I get struck by lightning? Where can I find shelter? There are no villages here, or are there?
It was a constant mental monologue, but there was more at stake if we didn’t power through.
Slowly, we finally reached Keng-Suu village – a cold, windswept valley on a traditional herder route to the jailoo (pasture) on the way to Song Kul lake. It was beautiful but we saw men in a very sorry state, drinking their problems away and inching towards us like zombies with the women doing all the work. We didn’t feel safe camping here after an unfortunate incident where a young boy flashed us. It was time to keep moving to save our sanity, appetites and possibly friendship.
Over the next few days, we pitched our tent in places that shall now be known as: Camp Sore Butt, Camp Weird 12-Year-Old-Boy, Camp Can’t Eat Snickers Bars anymore, Camp Tired Of Washboard Roads.
The end of my trip required more resting, hiking and slowing down as I suffered a fall. This did not dampen my spirits as I hiked to the Lenin Peak Base Camp, spent time in a walnut forest in Arslanbob with 1,000-year-old trees and explored Kazakhstan.
The views expressed are the reader’s own.
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