Before leaving the UK, cycling had become a therapy of sorts whilst temporarily transitioning back from university life to plan this trip. It gave me a fresh perspective on the surrounding hills, quaint villages and countryside that I’m lucky enough to call home. Crisp early morning’s exploring the Chilterns would become savoured hours in the saddle as the rides progressively evolved to longer affairs. I wasn’t born with boundless bundles of motivation however, so a horizon goal of a 200-mile sponsored ride was necessary to prise myself from the perilous comforts of a warm duvet. I quickly discovered that once you’re out you’re happy. Despite this shocking discovery, I knew that without the fear of spectacularly falling short of this sponsored ride, the depths of a cosy bed would inevitably convince me that warmth trumps happiness every time.
I guess the same scenario applies to the touring life. The original goal of Sydney, as arbitrary as it is, was a necessity in preventing me progressing to an aimless amble over the earth’s contours. Or more likely, around them. Yet, I rarely wake struggling for desire to ride my bike. As tedious or uncomfortable as some days are, after sitting still for a little while I soon get ‘itchy feet’. An innate calling for the road tells me I need another early morning start, a little more pain in the legs, or just a healthy dose of tedium in my life. It’s not that I want to reach Sydney, or wherever it is now that I am aiming for, soon – quite the contrary. To draw a more than questionable comparison; I’m like fish, I just have to keep moving. Or at least that’s what I thought until England were so cruelly knocked out of the World Cup semi-final.
Leaving the desolate town of Murghab on a few hours of heartbroken sleep – I was struggling for motivation. Not in the least because six weeks of barely touching alcohol had left me vulnerable to less-than-friendly high-altitude hangover, after drinking just two damn beers. Yes, it was actually two. If 3600m was enough to induce this state, climbing up to 4655m probably wasn’t advisable. It was one of those mornings where the lure of spending the morning exploring the comforts of a warm bed resonated strongly with me. Yet I had to leave, my bike wouldn’t crank itself over the highest pass of the Pamirs, the Kyrgyzstan border, or to the city of Osh. I’d foolishly promised Rozel that I would be in the city for the Wold Cup final come what may. Such was my wanderlust for football returning home.
All that lay between me and a tragic non-English cup final were 250 high altitude miles on a dirt track, knocking over six high passes, three of which were over 4000m… Those beers were now starting to feel more and more like a bad idea.
To add to the amusing situation, leaving the strange town that is Murghab, the scenery resembled the moon. Despite feeling positively Martian, this definitely wasn’t a match made in heaven. Exposed rocks protruding from sheer dry dirt walls provided a monotone backdrop that would continue for the next few days riding. The landscape was broken only by arrow straight dirt tracks flanked by decrepit power lines that ran away over the horizon, leaving me in a perpetual state of ‘pursuit’. Riding through these large central plains between peaks leaves you incredibly vulnerable to both high winds and a vacant mind. Which is more toxic? I’m still yet to decide.
As dictated by the universal laws of the road, the high winds however were of course a headwind that funnelled profusely southwards across every plain or valley that I cycled. Not one cyclist I’ve spoken to who rode that section had experienced otherwise. Basically, I’m trying to paint the picture that if you were one of those German tourers I mentioned previously (see ‘The Authentic Tajik Experience’), it would probably have been the day you would’ve oiled your chain the night before, packed extra rations of food and gone to bed an hour earlier. Running on just three hours after the football, I anticipated a good amount suffering. I was right.
Prior to the advent of real discomfort, it was a nice surprise to run into a couple of good friends I’d previously cycled with way back in central Turkey. Gwilym and Kathy were now right at the tail end of their ride from the UK to Bishkek, and it was so refreshing to see a familiar face such an alien environment. Never has stopping for a catch up over a gourmet lunch of dry bread and tepid baked beans done so much for a rather subdued morale – it’s laughable how much my food standards have dropped since Kazakhstan. They were sensibly taking it slow, as Kathy was suffering from an acute altitude sickness. The road had now become pretty tough, which wasn’t helped by a blistering wind descending down from the summit. We wished each other the best and I vowed to see them later on in Bishkek.
The higher I climbed, the worse the headache got. I started to wonder whether I could reach a certain altitude where it would cease to be a hangover and I could just become tipsy again? Reaching 4500m, I was really starting to struggle, both for breath and power to fight through this wind. Now able to see the summit just a few hundred meters away, I was pinned back on the final switchback, taking what felt like an age to roll those last few meters. To rub some salt in the wounds, it heartlessly robbed me of any joyous thoughts of a long downhill descent, making me pedal hard to keep rolling down the damn mountain.
Washboard roads combined with the strong winds dashed any hopes of managing to sleep low that night. As the sun began setting over the peaks, I found myself marooned up at 4100m debating whether it was better to sleep in an exposed blustery plain, or a valley resembling a wind tunnel? I opted for the wind tunnel, cowering behind a small dune whilst attempting to pitch my tent with cold hands.
The mercury quickly dropped as the sun left the valley. I awoke to find all water frozen solid and the tent nicely frosted up, it was a ‘dejavu’ of winter-months spent cycling through eastern Europe. Another day in the Pamirs, another open plain and headwind. This plain however contained the beautiful lake ‘Karakul’, which is Kyrgyz for ‘black lake’ despite it looking blue… I guess they don’t have Specsavers up here. I later found out the whole thing was made by meteorite impact and had hosted the world’s highest sailing regatta – thanks Wikipedia. At the time however I was set on completing the final two 4000m climbs that separated me from the Kyrgyzstan border.
After leaving lake Karakul and its associated town, I was greeted again by rough dirt roads whose surface would come to be etched into mind whenever Tajikistan is mentioned. The afternoon was spent digging deep, pushing myself to summit, then riding the next plain before summiting again. One of those afternoons. Tajikistan had been an incredible experience of friendly faces and breath-taking scenery, but I now felt ready for change. I gleefully rode the mountainous 10-mile descent that encompasses the no-man’s land between nations, just taking in the novelty of the rugged green mountains that passed me by.
A poor sheep strapped to the roof of a Land Cruiser provided some amusement whilst waiting to cross the border. I waited with a Swiss couple and French medic who, likewise, were finishing up their trips cycling the Pamir highway. If there’s one thing you can be sure about cycling this route, you won’t be short of a cyclist’s company. The region really is the premier high-altitude route, with these hardcore riders squeezing its completion into their work holiday’s. No doubt coming back far more stressed and tired than before but with a story to tell and stomach bug to pass about.
I camped up that night on grassy river bank, looking out at the white mountainous spires of Lenin peak. A 7100m sentry that signalled the near end of my Pamir adventure. I cooked dinner that evening dreaming of the culinary delights that awaited me in Osh and Bishkek. In central Asia you can guarantee you will receive one of two meals, Plov or Lagman. Two months of eating these is most definitely two months too many. For now though, I lavishly spiced up my noodles and tin of miscellaneous meat with a handful of paprika and watched the sun set over the mountains.
This was the final stretch of the Pamir highway. 130 miles, three big climbs, that was all that separated me from a bowl of pasta. Motivated by the thought of eating, what definitely wouldn’t be one of Italy’s finest, I rode hard all morning. Happily ticking of the 3500m and 3600m passes before 9am. Climbing the final stretch of the second pass, a German cyclist stopped to chat. He passed on a warning that kids had been hurling stones at him all morning – consequently he remarked that Kyrgyzstan was his least favourite country. Great, I’d only been here a day and wasn’t thrilled by the prospect of riding 500 rock dodging miles up to Bishkek.
I finished the climb to find a young girl playing high up on a pylon. Upon seeing me she quickly dropped to the floor, picking something up off the ground. Arm raised, covering the side of my face, I was ready. She turned and presented me with a small collection of wild flowers picked from the grass and wry smile. Well, I wasn’t ready for that. I pulled out some sweets from my bags and we sat eating them on a barrier overlooking a spectacular snaking road into the valley below. Damn German cyclist hasn’t got a clue.
I later saw that Jay and Lauren (the couple killed in the terror attack) were also given flowers by this little girl, I messaged them about it and we had a good laugh. I guess this makes the memory and photo I took of it all that much more poignant.
Of course the rest of the day was spent heading into wind, but that was the norm eh?! I was pretty shattered by the time I reached the bottom of the final climb, 80 miles down yet I had time to give it a crack this afternoon. I sat down for a rest on a bench next to a bloke who turned out to be a gravedigger, we had a good ‘chat’ in my severely limited Russian vocabulary of about ten words, explaining what I was doing and where I was going. Soon after he went off to dig in the field and I conked out on the bench. Seeing me flat out, he came over to pour some Sprite into my water bottles to fuel me for the climb ahead. Thinking about the warning I’d received in the morning, it all seemed laughable. The Kyrgyz people were incredibly friendly, something I’d come to see time and again.
It didn’t take long to before I was incredibly thankful for Sprite. Two mind-bending hours in the saddle comprised of listening to everything and anything that could possibly distract me from the monotony of cycling that climb. Yet, rounding the final switchback, I really began to feel a euphoric satisfaction. That was the last climb of the Pamirs. I’d bloody done it! Two kids even ran alongside me giving me a push to help with that final stretch. Breaching the summit, I cycled between yurts perched on green fields for a few more glorious evening miles before camping up.
When things go wrong on a trip like this, they make for a good story; yet when they go right, when you cycle far through a beautiful place, those memories are just for you and you alone to indulge on. I can’t adequately explain that satisfaction, that euphoria, or the image of the sun setting over the yurts whilst I was weaving down the road, hand’s off the bars and grinning from ear to ear. It doesn’t make for spectacular reading but it’s these fleeting moments, even when encapsulated in what is often a dreary, tough or tedious day’s cycling that reduce the rest to white noise. When I read back through this in a few months or years time, I know that exact warm feeling will come flooding back like it was yesterday. For now, the Pamir highway – complete. Almost.
I decamped from my riverside spot and rode the remainder of the hill down into the agricultural lands surround Kyrgyzstan’s second city, Osh. Encountering streets buzzing with a crazed city traffic that I hadn’t encountered since Azerbaijan, oh I was ready for this. I found a hostel and slept the afternoon away. That was, until, the World Cup final. I cycled to an Italian restaurant to meet some friends, which snowballed to be a huge gathering of cyclists and overlanders. I even got recognised on the way as ‘the Bristol cyclist’ by a guy I’d never met. Turns out, he’s from Bristol and heard about me from Gwilym and Kathy back in Turkey! Small world. Good company, beers, a world cup final and of course, pasta. It was a fitting end to crazy chapter of this trip. The most adventurous, arduous, yet always exciting so far.
Well, it wasn’t truly the end. When planning this trip my Dad had himself caught the cycle touring bug, deciding he would join me for a section of my journey. The world-famous Karakoram highway. Known informally as the ‘eighth wonder of the world’, it stretches between China and Pakistan, holding the acclaim of the highest international border, highest paved road and highest highway in the world. When suggesting dates for him to fly out to Osh, I hadn’t anticipated the ‘success’ of England’s world cup campaign and my consequent speeding through the Pamirs to keep up. Consequently, I had arrived ten days early. After a few days catching up on the tour de France, I wasn’t about to stay put for a week.
So started the 400 mile detour. I decided to cycle up to Bishkek, take in the sights of Kyrgyzstan to get a better feel of the country I was already growing fond of. Knowing I would have time to rest up in Bishkek, I was keen to get stuck into a good hard cycle. Over the next five days, I woke early, rode until late and absorbed the stunning mountainscapes of central Kyrgyzstan. Electric blue lakes bled into rivers that weaved through rocky canyons whilst I absorbed all from the vantage of undulating cliff-edge roads. I would cool off from the intense heat with a swim before riding on to see what awaited me round the next corner. The riding was much tougher than I’d expected and I struggled to deal with the intense 40+ degree heat at these low altitudes. Each day I would hopelessly sweat out my sun cream, which eventually led to the backs of my hands forming blisters and scarring over.
It was then somewhat a relief to climb high out of the heat again. 40 miles of pure uphill climbing took me from 800m to 3100m and seven hours from my life. I was still feeling the effects of the Pamir and damn that climb really took me to a place of pure hell. Despite a pair of screaming legs and weary body, I couldn’t whinge for long. I realised that it had been six months to the day since cycling off my doorstep to see the world. It already felt like an age ago. Here I was, camping in a field in Kyrgyzstan doing something I’d always dreamed about. I looked back through photos of my pale face leaving home on that rainy January morning. I took a portrait of me and my tired eyes, grubby face complete with cycling cap as a 6-month marker to look back on. Already I could almost trace the journey through the subtle changes in my face. I was exhausted but happy.
The next day I rode the last 100 miles complete with 1000m switchback climb and second ‘tunnel of death’ to enter Bishkek. Now, I knew the cycling was over. I was taking a week off the bike, something I realised I hadn’t done since Baku and was excited not to stretch my legs for a bit so to speak. I enjoyed just doing nothing and the luxury of having a choice of food. Although, as per usual, this only lasted a day. The evening rolled around and was happily spent going out for beers with friends from the hostel whose birthday it was. A few beers amongst travellers with some spare time on their hands is a dangerous combination however. Over drinks we hatched a plan. Rumour had it there was a man who trained eagles, who happened to be advertising for volunteers a few hundred miles away. The guy lived close to lake Issyk-Kul – Kyrgyzstan’s largest lake, popular with Russian tourists. I suggested we should hitchhike over that way, camp by the lake and hop between lifts before volunteering for a couple of days. It would be an adventure…
We promptly messaged the ‘eagle man’ and before waiting for a reply, made some signs, packed our bags and began walking to the nearest motorway out the city. Immediately we were picked up by a guy going right our way. After a few hours drive, we thanked our driver and set off walking to a secluded spot down by the lake. It felt good to have shed the bike for bit and any inkling of carrying on cycling that inevitably comes with it. We pitched the tent, hanging out in the afternoon sun just listening to some music and swimming in the lake. It was bliss. I rustled up a little vegetable pasta on the stove that saw us soon to sleep. A morning swim and message from the ‘eagle man’ (probably a sentence I will never say again in my life) later and we were back on the road with fresh signs swaying at passing cars. The eagle man had no space for more volunteers but had kindly organised for us to stay with his friend, the yurt builder nearby.
Within hours we were meeting our adopted Kyrgyz family in one of their yurts (of course). It was all such a random experience. We were warmly welcomed into the group, spending the evening having a good laugh larking about and building the yurts for tourists arriving the following day. Both the kids and adults were hilarious and humour easily transcended all language barriers, easing us nicely into this little taster of Kyrgyz living.
The following day I was tasked with hauling things down in preparation for the lunch, before spending the afternoon dodging downpours of rain to dismantle the yurts again. Unfortunately, that was all I had time for as Dad was flying into the city the next morning. I really loved my few days with the family. I wished them all the best, made myself a new sign a hitched back to Bishkek where Dad was waiting for me at the Hotel. A hotel, it’s been a long time since I stayed in one of those.
There he was, it was so surreal to see him actually there. We planned this such a long time ago it never felt real. All these places seemed impossibly far away when looking over the maps on the dining room table, yet here he was, standing in front of me in Bishkek. It was exciting. It was time for a father son catch up.