“This…is…simply…breathtaking”, Matt gasped as he looked at the snow capped Kyrgyz mountains that surrounded us. Harriet was slumped over her handlebars and breathing heavily; she didn’t respond. For the first time in our trip we were cycling at over 2,500 metres. High-altitude thins the air and can cause extreme exhaustion and confusion. Matt reasoned that Harriet must be experiencing both because his well-timed double entendre didn’t get the response he thought it deserved.
In the last three days we had climbed 5,400 metres over 320km - the equivalent of cycling to the top of Mont Blanc and a bit extra. Our legs were in pieces. And the biggest challenge was to come on day four with another 1000 metres to climb in just 15km, reaching 3,180 metres above sea level.
The morning had started with war gaming on how we were going to make it to the top of the mountain. Field Marshall Ford was in charge of tactical breaks, traffic management and well-timed double entendres. Lieutenant General Talbot was in charge of podcasts, tackling headwinds and, most importantly, tasty snacks.
At base camp we fuelled up on cookies, nuts and a healthy dose of swashbuckling optimism and set off. After about 15 minutes our fuel tanks were below empty and the swashbuckling optimism had buckled into soul-crushing pessimism. Over the next two and half hours, with inclines of 12%, we dragged our sorry bikes inch-by-inch to the top, stopping every 10 minutes to catch our breaths and refuel.
We’d love to say that at the top we were greeted with a panoramic view of the snow capped mountains of Kyrgyzstan. In fact, there was a 2.5km tunnel with potholes, limited lighting and carbon monoxide so thick you could cut it with a knife. So we donned our face masks, switched our bikes lights on and disappeared into the tunnel like a Harry Houdini trick.
We emerged into sunshine on the other side, beaming and with lungs filled with lorry exhaust. The next 70km were a delight as we snaked our way down 2,500 metres to the Kyrgyz capital, Bishkek, for a couple of rest days.
This week’s highlights:
Sleeping in a yurt on the mountain plateau. A farming family who we shared tea with were kind enough to offer us their spare yurt as thunder and lightening cracked and rumbled murderously overhead. We eagerly accepted!
Passing big herds of horses being driven up onto the high plains by shepherds on horseback for summer grazing.
Reaching the top of the first mountain and being clapped in by a bus load of European tourists, including a Fraser of Leven in Fife, whose strong Scottish brogue and crushing congratulatory handshake brought a taste of home to the Kyrgyzstan mountains after 9,000km of cycling.
After the gruelling days of climbing high, the thrill of flying down the other side of the mountain and overtaking trucks on the switchbacks was a spectacular white-knuckle ride.
Staying at the Sakura Hostel in Bishkek, where we dutifully lined our bikes up next to the fleet of other steeds that have been busy carrying other cycle tourists north towards Mongolia, south into Kyrgyzstan, east into China (in previous years) and west from where we’d come. Bishkek is a fabulous crossroads for adventurous souls.
This week's lowlights:
Tajikistan obviously didn't like the cut of Matt's jib as they unceremoniously rejected his visa application (their loss). This forced us to detour through upper Uzbekistan.
Harriet dropping our loo roll and hand sanitiser bag 10ft down a drop toilet. The image of the bag sat 10ft deep and on top of a few months worth of human sewage will forever be burned into Harriet’s retinas. Matt immediately questioned why Harriet didn’t lower herself down and wade through the sludge to retrieve the bag. It was easier to find a replacement bag, apparently.
In Bishkek we’ve got a few days to recover, plan the next set of double entendres and apply for our Indian visas…fingers crossed! Closed Chinese borders means that further progress overland is not an option.
This marks the end of our Central Asia leg and, hopefully, the beginning of our South Asia chapter. If you need us, we’ll be bouncing nervously between the embassy and craft beer bars in Bishkek. Sláinte!
Incredible effort, Harriet, and incredible Pics. That descent must have been loads of fun after the climb! Keep up the great work, X
Loving your posts, and your tenacity x