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  • Mark Smith

Where We Are Going


I’d have written this entry long ago if the only thing involved were a travelog about Kyrgyzstan. But that’s the last thing on my list. Google the country and you’ll get an idea of what it’s like to pedal there—beautiful and empty. All the blogs say so, and whatever mystery remains will provide the spice you were looking for when you planned the trip.

For me there was no plan. Like most junctures in my life, the Kyrgyz Republic, as locals prefer to call it, appeared by chance—an improbable series of mouse clicks that ended at a list of classified ads wherein wounded souls attempt to allay their fears and frustrations by netting a fellow rider with whom to “share” them. This is just my interpretation, but I can think only that few finish these itinerant partnerships entirely unscathed.

I arrived at this conclusion after my trip to Kyrgyzstan.

But we’re not there yet. We’re still at the beginning, in the pre-dawn darkness at Manas Airport outside the capital of Bishkek, or two hours later at the Garden Hotel, from whose windows my new cycling companion Ann and I watched a crystal dawn flood the city’s southern edge, a dun waste of busted Soviet hangars, and light the snowcapped mountains beyond. Such is the character of honeymoons—gauzy views of reality, the pleasure of indulging the other half’s peccadillos.

“Let’s go have a coffee,” said Ann. The stuff at the Garden Hotel’s breakfast buffet had been unidentifiable as such apart from the color. A dose of the real thing was in order, for sure. And furthermore, globalization being what it is today, good coffee is available all over Bishkek, in numerous Starbucks imitation establishments, one of which Ann had located a short walk from our hotel—a well-named place called Traveller’s Coffee.

A smoothly decorated basement venue with fair wifi, Traveller’s Coffee quickly became our Bishkek headquarters for all java concoctions and food. While Kyrgyz eateries usually feature elaborate mixtures involving horse offal, TC boasts an agreeably familiar selection of western dishes that visitors can actually eat and enjoy. The prices would feel at home in Manhattan, but we still returned that evening for dinner, and again for lunch and dinner the following day. By our fifth visit, TC’s culinary limits were well in view, but no worries. Our Bishkek exit was nigh.

Horses run wild across the mountainsides and valleys, alone and in herds—fleet wonders in the chill silence—yet each is spoken for, owned by some yurt-bound family who watches them all without a single fence.

With guidance from Sultan Asanbek Uulu, our designated driver and one-man cycle tour support team (www.travelkyrgistan.com), we shot out of town the next morning at 7am sharp, just in time to skirt the city’s notorious traffic and two hours before Traveller’s Coffee would open its doors—a minor blow to my cycling other half.

Hardy cyclo-tourists shrug off the dangers of dodging trucks on Bishkek’s western highway and ride directly from downtown, up the valley to the left turn at Kara-Balta, whereupon they grind out 75km and 2000m of climbing to reach Too Ashuu, the 3180-meter mountain pass to the next valley. Ann and I sat back, snapped photos and let Sultan do the driving.

Promises promises... But self reliance is a better route.

We were still in the switchbacks four kilometers from the summit when we passed a lone cyclist all in black, heaving hard under well-loaded black panniers, a crazed pirate.

“That guy’s working,” I noted.

Cyclists vigorously advise their fellows to avoid riding through the Too-Ashuu tunnel, a black hole that dives into the mountain flank 200 meters from the top. “Hitch a ride through,” they say. The tunnel is only a kilometer long, but it’s narrow, its entire length lit by a handful of Christmas tree bulbs, and they forgot to surface the road. Boulders intersperse with mud, and 200 teetering trucks lumber through the oozing blackness every hour, come hell and high water. Sultan slowed to a crawl, easing the van over a large drop in the pavement level and into the black hole with a silent prayer.

Ann and I were inspecting our panniers one last time before the descent when the Black Pirate pulled up with a grunt by way of greeting. Mid-forties with salt and pepper beard, black bandana and wild eyes, the man evoked terrifying energy. The seat of his well-worn cuissard hung loosely over sinuous buttocks. His leg muscles twitched under skin flocked with grit. An animal of the road.

“Can you believe them fuckers?!” he spewed disgustedly, referring, one assumed, to the tunnel attendants on the other side. “They tried to wave me off, said I had to get a car across. I said, ‘Fuck ‘em!’ And Fuck the trucks too!”

All this, before we’d introduced ourselves. Such is the brotherhood of the western cyclist lost and at the mercy of the Asian horde.

The Pirate stayed long enough to apprise us of his origin (Wales) and itinerary. In twenty odd days he had just ridden straight across China, a country he esteemed of little to no interest and peopled with unsavory folk, most of them dirty or dishonest. Now he was going home, he said, glancing across the next valley as if the green hills of his youth were nearly in sight. He had 7,000 kilometers to go. And with barely a nod he was off, half a mile down the mountain by the time I got my right shoe clipped in, looked at Ann and said,

“You ready?”

Tash Rabat, a 15th-century caravanserai or trading post along one of the ancient "silk roads," huddles at the end of 15-kilometer-long movie set, or so it seems.

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