Miles on the clock: 21,055
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.
I rode out of the city with flu and followed the road east through sprawled villages and eventually into farmland. Riding slowly and sleeping long, I soon shook the lurgy and began the climb towards lake Issyk-Kul. Clouds gathered and rain fell as I approached the large lake that wallows between two walls of mountains, each with 5,000m peaks. Due to geothermal activity and the heat retention of its 2,000+ feet depths, Issyk-Kul (the world's second largest saline lake) never freezes over despite truly brutal winter temperatures. Even in late September is was still comfortable to swim.
I saw the melancholy remains of decayed Soviet health resorts; forlorn and forgotten. Crumbling concrete staircases; a lifeguard's rusted high chair leaning sadly to one side; shuttered restaurants and hotels; shattered windows of abandoned shops; paint peeling from gaudy murals on cold, concrete walls. Issyk-Kul was the lake for rich communist party members. I was to see many such signs of Soviet decay during my journey through Central Asia.
Layering up with clothes and freewheeling down the other side, I dropped to warmer climbs 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 (traditional Central Asian nomadic tent) 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.
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. While riding such an obedient and sturdy horse, I spared a thought for Nicky: my semi-wild and wholly-stubborn Mongolian pony. He was stolen from me and I wondered where he might be now. Probably indifferently grazing some grass poking through the snow and unaware of his owners, past or present.
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 two miles he estimated to his home were closer to ten 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 100 miles 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.
I woke in the morning to Max's amused face and the question: "Ty parydiosh sivodnye?" (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.
The flakes began falling again and I once again plunged a foot into icy water when crossing a stream. Soon after I reached a village where a family invited me in and I drank tea, chatting with the babushka, while my three left socks dried and a blizzard passed. The sun appeared and lured me back onto the road where I was soon fighting through more falling snow in a thin gorge with the pastel blue river rushing below. When I woke in my tent the next day my socks were frozen into solid boards and I had to be stuffed down my pants for half an hour before I could wrestle them on.
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 miles 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 2,800m pass. I camped among vibrantly orange-leaved trees before attacking another climb. As I neared the pass my stamina fizzled out and the sun set forcing me to camp above 3,000m, 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.
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 to actually get 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 spring 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.
"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?"
"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 stare 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 fairwell 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.
We shadowed a turquoise river running through red mountains. The scenery was grand with mountains in every direction and quaint villages dotted along the way. A village called Gagarin in a district called Lenin; goats grazing on steep cliffsides; children always either going to, or coming from school but apparently never in school; a shopkeeper having to use his calculator to add 50 to 50 (a common sight in Kyrgyz shops and markets); bold little boys trying to yank me from my saddle with hand-grabbing high-5s.
At the end of another set of switchbacks, and surrounded by snow, I made my final Kyrgyz pass (3,600m) and descended to Sary Tash which sits at a crossroads between Tajikistan, China and Kyrgyzstan. Across the Tajik border, the Pamir mountains stand tall and imposing over the little village. At a reduced price, we stayed in a guesthouse that had been closed up for winter. There was no heating and we had to use an axe to hack through six inches of ice in the waterbutt. Inside, our visible breath billowed into the freezing air.
I left my companions and took the turning west. The road followed the wide valley marking the northern boundary of the Pamirs and provided an excellent view of its tall peaks throughout the day. I camped near Peak Lenin (7,134m) and, after a beautiful moonset, enjoyed a startlingly clear night sky during each of my several visits to the bushes throughout that night. My full, two-litre water bottle was frozen solid in the morning.
The border post I was heading towards was not ususally an international one but due to the Pamirs being closed this summer (after ethnic fighting erupted in Khorog, the region's capital) this alternative crossing was rumoured to be technically open. I arrived at the Kyrgyz side and was lead into a room where a grumpy commanding officer made phone calls and asked me questions before saying the Tajik side of the border was closed. I lied that I'd called their embassy in Bishkek and was assured it was open. Grudgingly, he stamped me out of Kyrgyzstan and I cycled the six mile gravel mountain road through noman's land. I had heard stories of corruption at every level in Tajikistan and especially of difficult police and military so I emptied my wallet and hid all my money in my bags except for a crisp $10 note which I put in my back pocket ready to make a bribe with it if I received trouble and the border was "closed". As things turned out, I was greeted warmly and given an apple and a bunch of grapes while they processed my passport details and stamped me into the country; "Welcome to Tajikistan" the officer said in heavily accented English. Later I chuckled at my suspicious mind as I stuffed my cash back in my wallet.
A lean, friendly-faced man called Momei invited me to his home for lunch. I sat with his brother and sons eating mutton soup and circular bread while his wife and daughters sat in the kitchen to eat. I was not allowed to meet his wife. This very conservative Islamic tradition came as a shock after relatively relaxed Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan. Later that afternoon a young boy calmly aimed his toy pistol at me while I toiled up a hill. As I drew level he said in English with a cold inflection "I love you" before pulling the trigger and pantomiming a recoil. Although only a kid playing, this strange incident chilled me and left me pensive for the remainder of the day. Tajikistan had a gruesome, ethnicity-based, 5-year civil war in the 1990s. I have never particularly like toy guns and it upset me that parents would buy them for their children in a country that was devastated by war so recently.
In the town of Garm I got my first dose of Tajik government propaganda in the form of a hundred or so roadside posters of President Rahmon (the unpopular despotic president since 1992) inspecting (Chinese-built) road works, laughing with schoolchildren, and standing in a wheatfield holding a loaf of bread and wearing a solemn expression. The uniformity of propaganda posters in Central Asia is startling and almost the exact same posters (but of President Nazarbayev) are currently plastered all over Kazakhstan. The same barrage of clichéd posters greeted me (including a particularly fetching one of Rahmon and Putin walking down a tree-lined country lane, hand in hand) when I arrived in Dushanbe two days later and pitched my tent under a fecund walnut tree in the calm courtyard of a hostel.