Kyrgyzstan is known as the Switzerland of Central Asia, and I have not been in the country long at all before this status is thoroughly confirmed. Leaving the vast, windswept and barren plains of Kazakhstan behind me, I follow a bumpy dirt road towards the mountains. To the south I can see the spectacular snowy peaks of the Tien Shan range. Loosely translating to mean ‘Mountain of Heaven’, the Tien Shan range is one of the highest in the world, and also certainly one of the most beautiful. Whereas in Tibet the mountains seemed to go up more gradually due to the huge distances involved, the Tien Shan mountains really seem to tower above you, incredible in their majesty. They intimidate and awe you; they really feel like ‘proper’ mountains. Covered in snow, they form a continuous wall on the horizon and stretch almost 3000km across Central Asia. I will be following the Tien Shan range all the way to their end in Uzbekistan.
It is hard going on the rough track as I am stuck in top gear due to a gear cable snapping, and as the road starts to climb it becomes harder still. I have been riding for hours without seeing another person. The hills ahead of me are green and vibrant – a lovely sight after the many weeks riding in desert and steppe. My map shows a rough shortcut cutting straight over the mountains rather than following the dirt road all the way around them, so I turn off the road and start pushing my bike uphill. The road is rough and very steep, but I eventually sweat my way to the top as the sun is setting. I still haven’t seen a single car or person so I pitch my tent on the side of the road, getting in just as another thunderstorm hits. There have been so many thunderstorms in this part of the world.
The next morning I am stunned by the sight of a two-wheel drive Lada coming up the road behind me. The road had been so steep and rough than I had assumed it was only used by horses, tractors and people on foot, yet here I find a tiny car loaded up with five stocky Kyrgyz men, seeming to defy gravity and physics as it makes its way steadily uphill. It is the first of many examples of how tough Ladas are. These things can go anywhere – if you are looking for an apocalypse car I would make the strong case for a Lada. The soviets built those things to last!
In due course I make it over the mountains and come down the other side, passing shepherds on horses driving hundreds of sheep up into the higher pastures. The sheep look puzzled to see me but the shepherds wave me a friendly good morning. I am now in a huge valley surrounded on three sides by snowy mountains. It is stunningly beautiful. I follow the small roads west towards Karakol and the only way out of the valley. It is relaxed riding, slightly downhill and there are more horses on the road than there are cars. The people are very friendly and when I stop to buy snacks I find that Kyrgyzstan is much cheaper than Kazakhstan.
Storm clouds gather and I am soaked to the bone when I finally reach Karakol. The town is smaller than I had expected and in my excitement I ride right through it before realising my mistake and turning back. I treat myself to a burger and chips, the first western food I have had in months. Relief washes over me – I have made it! It has been exactly one month since I left Kangding in China, and in that time I have ridden over 4700km without a single day off. It feels almost surreal to be here. So many times in the last month, while exhaustedly pedalling against the ruthless and unrelenting Tibetan headwinds, I have daydreamed of being here, of achieving the goal I have set myself and of finally being able to take a rest. And now here I am.
I check in to the cheapest hostel in town and to my amazement find my friend Faith there, having arrived a few days before. Faith has also just completed her Chinese marathon and, like me, now wants nothing more than to put her feet up. I am quickly and firmly pointed to the shower (my first in a month) and we have time for a proper catch up. Having ridden many of the same roads, it is great to reminisce.
Many of the pains and miseries of the journey have faded in my mind and I realise that my recollections are already rose tinted. I think that this is often the case for people who undertake and complete extreme challenges, and that this is a big part of why people continue to push for further expeditions. Perhaps it is a self defence mechanism for the mind, forgetting the painful bits and keeping a firm hold of all that is positive. Either way, selective amnesia is a big part of how I am able to keep going forward.
I am fuming when I learn that the ‘restricted to foreigners’ road in China’s Xinjiang Province, on which I was almost arrested and was forced to detour an extra 600km around, was happily ridden by Faith only one week before me. She tells me a little smugly that they never stopped her and she saw only one or two checkpoints. I do not know whether something happened in the region after she passed through to tighten security, or whether I was just particularly unlucky, but it is certainly exasperating.
In the end I spend four days in Karakol, resting up, washing my filthy clothes and taking lots of showers. It is an amazing feeling of luxury to do nothing after a long period of being very active. After my extended period of solitude it also wonderful to have people to talk to again – in English! Being around other backpackers feels wonderful and it is great to catch up with Faith. I have my first proper taste of the silk road markets at the Karakol Bazaar, eat lots of chocolate and drink lots of beer. It feels well earned.
Unfortunately I am not able to find anywhere in Karakol to buy a new gear cable to fix up the Duchess, but it is only another 400km to the capital of Bishkek and should be fairly flat so I figure I should be able to make it there alright, even stuck in top gear. I think about staying a few more days in Karakol, but the weather is due to get much colder so I decide to ride west to try to stay ahead of it. Faith decides to spend a few more days recovering so we say goodbye and plan to meet again in Bishkek. I joke that having randomly caught and bumped into her three times already, I am now going ahead for the first time. It is sunny and beautiful as I hit the road once again.