I've said it before and I'll say it again, Trailblazer guides take some beating.
— Adventure Travel
Tales from the Saddle (sample)
Now or NeverHalf way through his 4½ year , 70,000km bike journey across Europe, Asia and Africa, Charlie Walker spent time in Bishkek, dealing with necessary Central Asian bureaucracy, before heading out for some adventure in the mountains of Kyrgyzstan.
Time drifted by in Bishkek as I waited for four visas. I passed the days wandering the city and researching the road ahead. Evenings were spent speaking with other cyclists over big plates of rice and warm glasses of cheap vodka. Most of the tourists I met were awaiting visas to leave Central Asia before the winter temperatures set in.
Bishkek is a pleasant city with wide, clean streets and a surprising amount of greenery. The weather was clear, revealing the high snow caps that loom over the city’s south. Each afternoon a shouted adhan (call to prayer) would blast from speakers on the minaret of a mosque neighbouring my guesthouse. The pre-dawn adhan, however, was from a different and audibly younger muezzin (caller); his voice timid and somehow hesitant while simultaneously beautiful and melodic.
In the village of Tosor I stocked up on food and turned south, away from the water, on a barely credible dirt track which I cycled past twice without spotting. It was rough and steep; sandy in places, rock-strewn often and rutted always. It required all my concentration and my lowest gear to dodge the various obstacles and make painfully slow progress towards the mountain pass. I climbed into a narrow, crevice-like valley with a v-shaped wedge of snow cap floating in the opening at the end of it, luring me onwards like a carrot to a donkey. Next, I emerged into a gaping valley with grazing flocks and the track winding back and forth across it as it rose higher and higher. A hot sun beat down but when it dropped the temperature plunged with it. My water bottles were thickly iced when I crawled from my frigid tent in the morning.
As the switchbacks began at the head of the valley, a couple of 4x4s overtook me but soon returned, deeming the pass impassable. Each offered me a lift back down but stubbornness drove me on. The path became so steep, decayed and covered in ice that I often had to push my bicycle. Snowdrifts lounged across the way and the parallel stream had become a babbling trickle between well-established banks of ice. My speed slowed further, my breath began to wheeze and my head ached dully. I even felt my cracking lips throb. It wasn’t extremely high but it had been over a year since I was at comparable altitudes, and I was unacclimatised; stopping every few yards to catch my breath. After seven hours of continuous labour (and only 18km of progress) I reached the pass, a little over 4000m, and pedalled between two glaciers. From the lake, the road had climbed 2500 vertical metres in the course of only 32km.
Layering up with clothes and freewheeling down the other side, I dropped to warmer climes in an empty valley following a westward river. A slightly sinister scarecrow figure on the roadside had an old cooking pot for a head; it was riddled with bullet marks. A lone horseman was nearly pitched down a rocky drop when he rounded a corner and his mount took fright at me and mine. I camped above the snowline and used my second sleeping bag for the first time.
At a boulder-bedded river crossing I lost balance and plunged my foot into the bracing water. Thankfully I soon saw a yurt where Maryn and her husband happily fired curious questions at me over homemade bread and smetana (Kyrgyz sour cream) while my socks and shoes dripped dry by the stove. My hosts were in the process of packing up to move to the lake for the winter months and were concerned for me, fretting about the inadequacy of my little tent.
The valley started showing signs of life: flocks of sheep shuffled around and gormless black yaks lazed on the dusty path. There were herds of horses; big, strong and fat from a long summer in the still-plentiful (but now brown) pasture.
A boy on a horse came and rode alongside me and soon asked to ride my bike. For the rest of the afternoon Max freewheeled for the downhill stretches while I rode his handsome horse, Tita, with a slender, whippet-like dog bounding alongside.
Max invited me to sleep at his home in the village of Uzun Bulak so we turned onto a side track to get there. The 3km he estimated to his home were closer to 15km and took us past an old Russian train carriage where a friendly old crone and her pretty, quick-eyed daughter served us tea. I have no idea how that carriage came to be stranded in the mountains, over 150km from the nearest railtrack.
Uzun Bulak turned out to consist solely of Max’s home where we drank tea and looked through his family photo album. He also showed me a photo of his six-month old daughter that his parents are unaware of. He is due to marry next year but was reticent about the idea of married life. He lives alone and seems to like it that way. He is only 19.
We spent twenty minutes outside shooting at old vodka bottles about 30m away. I never hit but Max never missed; picking them off one by one, left to right. We ate a dinner of pasta and goat ribs by lamplight before sleeping.
I woke in the morning to Max’s amused face and the question: ’Ty parydiosh sivodnya?’ (Will you go today?) The window behind him was white. I peered out at the formerly-brown landscape, now carpeted with two inches of snow. Heavy flakes were still falling. He suggested I stay for the day so, after packing cartridges with powder and shot, we both mounted Tita and went in search of wolves. I sat behind the saddle on a thin cushion with my legs dangling and a gun slung over my shoulder. As we trotted out into the whiteness, Tita’s spine ground uncomfortably against my sit bone. It was going to be a long day.
The snow-muffled silence was profound and broken only by hoof fall and the sound of livestock tearing dry grass from the hard, snow-buried earth. Whenever we spotted another man, however distant, we would detour over to shake hands and discuss the health and whereabouts of livestock. Everyone was alert for the prowling black smudge of a wolf in the distance but we saw none and returned to the house after several hours with numb toes. It was still snowing when we sat down to kartoshka (a Russian potato dish) and a bottle of vodka. We made a different toast with each shot and called it a night when the last drops had graced our gullets.
The next morning the snow was even deeper but had at least stopped falling for the time being. I thanked Max and began pushing towards a small pass at the head of the valley. Some parts of the track were buried by up to a foot of snow and I floundered pathetically, often slipping and falling, for the 90 minutes it took to cover the one mile to the pass. Skidding down into the next valley, I had to brake with my heels as my brakes were locked in blocks of ice.
From Naryn I was treated to a day of paved road before returning to corrugated gravel tracks once more. A herder insisted on struggling up a gentle incline on my bicycle for a couple of kilometres while I ambled happily alongside on his donkey. Soon I was rounding hairpin turns on a series of switchbacks that took me, at length, up and over a 2800m pass. I camped among trees with vibrant orange leaves before attacking another climb. As I neared the pass my stamina fizzled out and the sun set forcing me to camp above 3000m, using snow to insulate my tent. Another long descent brought me to a welcoming but extremely poor family who invited me for a potato lunch in their tatty yurt. The mother was only two years my senior but looked closer to 40 and had five young children.
Apple orchards and walnut groves lined the road for a stretch before wheatfields, mid-harvest, replaced them. Two donkeys reared and hoofed each other ferociously on the road in a village where tarmac began again. I cycled through the city of Jalalabad en route to Osh but, due to absurdly complicated Soviet border demarcations, I had to make a three-sides-of-a-square detour to avoid riding through Uzbekistan.
During this detour I saw a billowing dust cloud a little way from the road with a small crowd gathered beside it. Scrambling down a slope I discovered it was a game of Ulak Tartysh (known in surrounding countries as Buzkashi). This ’sport’ simply defies belief: loosely akin to rugby on horseback with no teams, no boundaries and a headless goat carcass for a ball. The rules eluded me, but the gathering I saw had about fifty horsemen all thrashing their mounts (and often each other) with whips in the frenzy to get hold of the buz (the goat) and make a break from the mob. The prizes included carpets and Chinese televisions. Some men wore homemade, padded head gear and several had bloodied noses. There wasn’t a woman in sight.
I was offered a horse and declined at first but soon climbed into the saddle after my brain was flooded with a heady mixture of adrenalin, testosterone and a ’now or never’ reasoning. I drifted around the fringe of the violently seething throng, reigning in my foaming-mouthed mount, with no real intention of actually getting involved. However, someone must have spotted the hesitant white man at the melee because suddenly the fracas engulfed me and the buz was plonked across my lap. The carcass was unexpectedly hard with a mud-matted fleece and I looked up with terrified eyes as the frenzied horses and their indiscriminately whipping riders closed in on me. I believe another man must have whipped my horse’s hind because he sprang into action, and charged through a gap in the mob. After only a few yards I had space to hang the surprisingly-heavy headless corpse down by my left side before swinging it up and flinging it over my right shoulder. I didn’t look back but galloped on, regaining my lost balance, and looped back around to the crowd where I thankfully returned the horse to his owner.
People seemed amused by my unmanly conduct and I received a good-natured jocular cheer before having to shake many hands and pose for many camera phone photos. A little group of men sitting in the shade of a tree waved me over and I sat down to drink beer with them. Ibek, aged 22, was getting married the next day and we all toasted him several times. A friend of the group walked over leading a limping horse. A deep gash above its front right hoof needed attention so the men took turns to hose the muddy wound down with their sterilising urine. I was asked to do my part and, having just drank a couple of beers, I was able to oblige. Ibek then invited me to be the ’official photographer’ at his wedding and we were soon loading my bike into a car to go and wash up for his bachelor party. While doing this, an intimidating man with semi-Slavic features arrived and asked in barked Russian who I was and what I was doing.
’I’m a tourist. I’m going to Ibek’s wedding.’
’No. Where are you going with your bike?’
’No! Where to on your bike?’
’Lon-don. I am cycling to London.’
’Osh next, yes?’
’Yes.’ ’Go now! You are not welcome here.’
’What’s the problem?’ He scrutinised me through his mirrored glasses but decided to say no more and simply stared impatiently at me. My new friends had fallen submissively silent and Ibek whispered in my ear that the man was secret police. I was left with little option but to say an apologetic farewell and good luck to Ibek before riding away. It was a sour ending to an interesting day but I was in formerly Soviet Kyrgyzstan; paranoia and distrust of foreigners from the authorities was to be expected.
Charlie returned home to the UK in late 2014. He's currently working on a book. For more see: charliewalkerexplore.co.uk
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