The polluted city of Osh, Kyrgyzstan offers a brief respite from the hardships of the road. A local three course meal costs as little as $2 and roadside food vendors sell a plethora of fresh comca and dumplings. A culture that would be Chinese had Buddhism been the major religion spends the day working long hours in office buildings and industrial manufacturing plants and evenings in fancy restaurants that line the main strip. A 30% discount on all produce can be found in the morning at the local bazaar where vendors compete for business selling local fruits and vegetables, and arguing over small variations in price. The zealous traveler is quickly reminded of the beautiful countryside when one looks to the south, where snow-covered peaks have an orange glow in the evening sunset.
After reading countless tales of Marco Polo and other earlier explorers crossing the vast mountain range separating Tajikistan from Kyrgyzstan, I was excited to for the journey to the Pamir Mountains. It is said that Marco Polo crossed the range during winter time, but after my brief trip to the region I find that very hard to believe. Unfortunately I was unable to receive a Tajikistan visa, as well as GBAO permit which is officially required for travel within the Pamir’s. But from several accounts from various tourists and cycle enthusiasts I heard that there are relatively few check points when traveling through the mountains on the Krygyzstani side of the border. With no rush to get to China, I stocked up on supplies at the bazaar, checked out of my cheap guest house and pedaled south.
Departing from Osh, the two lane road climbed through the Alai Mountains. The small road was often filled with trucks carrying coal from one of the largest coal mines in Kyrgyzstan located in the valley between the Alai and Pamir mountains. When there were no trucks there were herds of sheep and cows moving from village to grazing, and children in uniform walking to a from school. Everyone seems to know the word “Bye” and when cycling through each village I was greeted with waves and “Bye”….”Bye”….”Bye”. The road followed the river, and the first two nights I camped at its side. I watched the landscape change as I slowly climbed above 10,000 feet, trees vanished and hills became barren. The wind also took on a shape edge that seemed to cut through even the thickest clothing. On the third day I awoke to the smell of burning brakes and instantly knew that there was a steep climb ahead of me.
Slowly I pedaled from 3,000 meters (10,000 feet) to 3,600 (12,000 feet) climbing the tallest pass in the Alai range. Snow and bits of hail greeted me at the top. There is no break from breathing when cycling at this altitude. By this I mean when I stopped breathing to swallow I would get out of breath. At the summit however the air was so cold that it almost felt like taking a drag off of a cigarette, in that you could feel its contact with the phylum in your lungs.
I descended the pass to the large valley between the two ranges, and quickly realized that I was in an environment of extremes. The valley floor never dropped below 3,000 meters, and has the strongest winds in the country. It is not uncommon for the wind chill to bring evening summer temperatures to 0 C, and in the winter the average temperature is -35C! I soon realized that I was ill-equipped to handle these extremes especially as the effect of the elevation slowly permeated my body.
I had to remind myself that days before departing for the Pamir’s I had spent a full month pedaling through the arid deserts of Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, during which my diet consisted of mainly melons, bread and a few tomatoes as heat seldom brings the felling of hunger. On many occasions I pedaled all day without more than a few bites of bread. My body took on a new form, that of a desert nomad handling a daily average of 120 km and temperatures of +45 C.
Within hours of descending to the valley floor my head began to ache and my limbs felt like they were underwater. However I denied the invitation to stay at a warm guest house and instead loaded up on bread, salted meat, and vodka at the small of village of Sary Tash. I searched for more clothes or even a pair of shoes but could not find more than a pair of wax dipped work gloves that are so bright they seem to glow in the dark.
Half wondering if I would find myself back in the village again by evening I followed the Pamir highway and slowly inched my way to the Tajikistan border. My first thought was to attempt to sneak my way into Tajikistan but when I got closer to border I noticed that there were barbed wire fences and heavily armed patrol guards. “Maybe they will have drinking water and by asking them they will see how cool I am and will then be obliged to let me enter visa free” I thought. I approached the border and when the patrol man walked up to me I asked “Do you have any drinking water”. He didn’t seem to understand so I asked my second question “I just want to spend one night camping in Tajikistan, do you think you can let me through visa free?” The second question seemed to get through the robust skull of the camouflaged individual, and he laughed. Back to plan “A” I thought so I grabbed my empty water bottle and shook it upside down. The guard then opened the gate and invited me to dinner with the rest of the unit stationed at the post.
The guard told me to go into the station and wait in the dining room, not sure which door lead to the kitchen I opened door after door and interrupted some sort of interrogation which almost got me kicked out of the station! Lucky for me my new friend appeared just in time. Soon after I was sitting at a table with 6 armed patrol guards who quickly started to act like normal Central Asians, after the bottle of vodka was passed around. Bread was broken for everyone at the table, and we ate a large chunk of cold lamb fat with chai and bowls of vodka. The guards were ecstatic when they heard that I was from America and quickly asked questions in broken English mixed with Russian about Mike Tyson, Arnold Schwarzenegger and O.J Simpson. After close to an hour of festivities I noticed the sun falling low in the sky and decided it was time to bid my acquaintances farewell. “We have nos, then you leave” a large Russian looking man said to me. “OK”, I said as he pulled out a large bottle from the refrigerator. I had tried “nos” on several occasions in Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, but Kyrgyzstani nos is an entirely different beast. I was poured a small handful of green pellets the same size and shape of sprinkles. I put the handful of sprinkles under my tongue, one of the fastest methods of delivering a drug to the system. “Holy shit…this stuff is strong” I thought, either the nos was especially strong or the combination of alcohol, nos and elevation had just gone to my head. I felt like I was completely drunk and about to vomit so I jumped on Gaby and pedaled away so that I could be alone in my discomfort.
I pedaled back in the direction I had come and passed a small spring unnoticed on my arrival. The cold, clear water had a sobering effect on my mind and I decided to camp nearby. The drilling in my head continued but the sound of water kept me calm.
I am not sure exactly how cold it got that night, but I awoke the next morning with completely frozen water bottles and icicles all over the inside of my tent. However the cold sensation could not distract me from the morning sun gracing the snow-capped mountains. Tall, blonde grass swayed in the wind, clear passed over timeless rocks and the Pamir’s overpowering presence had a magnifying effect on my heart. I was completely surrounded by snow-capped peaks all over 4,500 meters. I spent the next 3 days camped near the spring deep within the Pamir’s. Each day I would walk over the smooth rocks in the valley and climb small peaks only to realize that the beauty was unchanged. The evenings were just as soulful as the daylight hours, for when the sun went down the galaxies appeared. The evening sky was split in two by the white Milky Way glob. The evening begins with the fall of Scorpio in the south and the rise of Orion in the north. Freezing and wearing all my clothes I would delay putting on the tent fly, completely enthralled by the Kyrgyzstani night sky.
It was on the third day that I noticed cumulus clouds and felt the wind picked up. Like a large white sheet, fresh snow was being blown off the top of the large peaks, making each peak look like it had a tail. The morning sun was covered in a thin layer of grey clouds, and I could feel a change taking place. I decided it was time to break camp and find a valley at lower elevation where I would be safe from a snow storm. I pedaled 50 km towards the east and took side roads that lead me to a gigantic coal mine. The mine was noticeable from miles away, in that it looked like a volcano of ash. Surrounding the mine was a workers camp made up of trailers, mud brick houses and broken beer and vodka bottle. Pedaling over inches of crushed coal I rode through the camp only to notice that it was empty. I continued on and followed a small river around the mine and into a canyon. The wind continued to get stronger, and my fingers and lips began to feel numb. I quickly needed to find a place to hide from the storm, as it was getting dark and colder. Finally I came upon a large rock that had an enclosure which would protect me from the wind and rain. Without much thought I quickly set up camp but not before the rain brought down a small avalanche of rocks from the top of the large rock. “Shit that was close” I thought, I could have been sleeping when that happened!! My tent and ground tarp were now soaked and I looked around for another place to camp. “What would Baba do” I thought? I am too tired to go on and there is no shelter here from the wind. I mustered all my remaining strength and picking up large rocks from the river bed built a temporary wall in front of and behind the tent. The rock wall had a noticeable effect on the wind. The sun fell and the wind slowly died down. I set up my tent a second time.
Soon after the wind picked up again and was so strong that my tent began to rip. It was pouring raining but I had no choice but to leave the tent and find more rocks to hold down the tent from the wind. After about 20 minutes of work I was wet, cold, hungry and I couldn’t even get my stove to start because of the wind. I searched my panniers and found a packet of soup mix, I mixed it with cold water and drank it with mushy, rain-soaked bread.
The next day it was time to depart and head to a lower elevation. I climbed again the large 3,600 meter pass but quickly descended below 3,000 meters. Once again I saw trees, animals, and inhabited villages. The evening temperature was well above freezing and for the first time in 4 nights I slept well!
I am now back in Osh and am soon departing to explore the northern regions of the country. I have booked my flight to Japan and will be flying from Bishkek (the capital) to Sapporo on Oct 21st. There is plenty of remote mountainous territory here; I just hope I can get to it before the snow does. Tomorrow I head north to Jalalabad and continue on dirt mountainous roads to the remote lake of Song Kul. I will then cycle to the nature reserve around Issyk-Kul lake, visiting the historic city of Karakol and then on to Bishkek. My posts in Kyrgyzstan will be infrequent as there is no internet to be found outside the cities. I will touch base again as soon as possible.
Ciao from Osh, Kyrgyzstan -Julian