A Journey Nowhere

Kyrgyzstan Part 1 | Almaty to Barskoon | Day 335

Majestic wild horses, endless green meadows, breathtaking snow capped peaks; Kyrgyzstan is a place of fairy tails. Turns out the real cowboys live in Kyrgyzstan, these kids are riding before they’re walking. Boys around eight years old gallop full speed through the hills herding their flocks over high passes. Every spring shepherds and their families leave the valleys, pack up their homes, and move to their temporary mountain farms or yurts; circular felt covered tents where the entire family eats and sleeps in one room. We too are migrating, winter is coming to an end and we can return to the mountains.


We have been waiting for this day to come since we left Nepal, five months ago. The day when wildflowers burst, baby animals take their first steps, and the snow has melted enough on the highest of roads of Central Asia to pass through. The day we can return to the mountains for a second round of peddling high passes and mind blowing valleys. For the last two months we have been riding through the more developed parts of Asia experiencing the more comfortable side of cycle touring. After a couple weeks in Tokyo our legs are fully rested and we are ready to ride. 

"We too are migrating, winter is coming to an end and we can return to the mountains."

We touched down in Almaty just after dark. The tiny airport was already a stark difference from the one we left in Japan. Kazakhstan, is the ninth largest country in the world, but most people probably can’t even place it on the map. Almaty is the largest city, with blocky buildings along wide boulevards lined with tall trees, but it is calm in comparison to Tokyo. This is the first post Soviet country we have visited and we are both a bit mesmerized by the Russian language and the mixture of Kazakh, Russian, and Mongol faces. It will be a short journey across the southern region of this country, barely enough to get a whiff of Kazakhstan.



Leaving the hip metropolitan city of the south, things seem to deteriorate. Long roads between small villages had this massive country feeling a little abandoned. Towns seem slapped together, with short cement or mud houses. The people, though still friendly, are a little more rugged and intimidating looking. A hundred miles into our route: to my right lay the Lle- Alatau mountain range, with layers of hills cascading to the road. To my left was a dusty, drab, lonely plateau, reminiscent of the plains of Oklahoma or Wyoming. Most of Kazakhstan is wide open, dry, and flat. 

The closer we got to the border the more exiting things became: grass is greener, views more dramatic, and the air is crisp. A lonely frontier border-crossing stranded out on a bumpy gravel road in the middle of one of the greenest valleys imaginable, was the only structure standing between us and the heart of the Tian Shan Mountains. We approached the group of bored military men with their old rifles and machine guns in hand. Both countries carelessly inspected some of our bags and ushered us past the barbed wire fences and gates. The first few miles of Kyrgyzstan were instant magic, wild horses sprinted past, fresh rivers meander through the rocky valleys, and low lying clouds clung to the clean imperial looking mountains. 

"A lonely frontier border-crossing stranded out on a bumpy gravel road in the middle of one of the greenest valleys imaginable."



A dusty sedan swerved past us and pulled us over. – Que up the techno music. We had read numerous accounts about the country’s alcoholism problem, and less than an hour into the country we got a good look at it. A couple kids scrambled out playing with toys on the gravel road, a man with vodka bottle in hand stumbled out and immediately throws up, the driver, an off-duty police officer showed us his badge just before taking a shot of vodka. Everyone was dancing, this roadside party was out in the middle of nowhere Kyrgyzstan and quite a spectacle. The police officer’s wife, who spoke a little English, started taking selfies, dancing and inviting us to join them for a meal. Initially we agreed to dinner, never having turned down a free meal, but within the mile drive back to their house the party mobile stopped three times to get out and take shots. Bleary-eyes and escalating attitudes had us second guessing how the rest of this evening would turn out. We decided to pretend there was a misunderstanding and slip away further into the hills of Kyrgyzstan to find a hidden place to camp before nightfall. 



Lake Issyk-Kul: a glowing blue, glacier fed, high elevation, lake looks like an ocean in the distance as we round the corner from Karakol. Issyk-Kul is the tenth largest lake in the world, and takes up a huge chunk of the country.  We bunker down in Barskoon, a small town on the southern edge of the lake at the local English teachers house. That evening we gave English lessons to a couple of her students and discussed idioms and other ridiculous intricacies of the English language. Nora, a 14 year old girl tells us she will be moving to Brooklyn next month to start high school. Imagine coming from Barskoon, a dusty, one store (which happens to be in a shipping container) Kyrgyz town moving to a place like Brooklyn…. “They’re going to eat her alive.” 

"A glowing blue, glacier fed, high elevation, lake looks like an ocean in the distance."


A cascading river leads us from the dry atmosphere of lake Issyk-Kul to lush valley walls lined with cute conifers and waterfalls spewing from the cliffs above. Shephards are beginning to make there way higher in the valley as the mountain begins to thaw. We are introduced to a new world with every thousand feet of elevation gain, each having less life than the word before it. Flat desert turned to grassy knolls, which turned to colorful bare rockfaces, which then turned to snowy glaciers. Just when we thought things couldn’t change any more, we climbed to a harsh plateau guarded by sharp peaks encircled with dark surly clouds.  

"We climbed to a harsh plateau guarded by sharp peaks encircled with dark surly clouds."



"We rolled over a couple patches of snow, deeper into the heart of the Turksay Ala Too mountain range."

"Each turn of the crank brought us closer to the dark abyss brooding on the horizon."
 


We diverted from the maintained mining road to a rough jeep track, bouncing along further over a second pass slightly higher than the first. We rolled over a couple patches of snow, deeper into the heart of the Turksay Ala Too mountain range. Each turn of the crank brought us closer to the dark abyss brooding on the horizon. Peak after peak are swallowed whole by the darkness as the storm approached. Finally the closest mountains have disappeared and the winds began to wail. Sleet was slapping us in the face and we had to make a decision, fast! 

Thankfully, I remembered on the GPS about a mile ago, in 8 bit letters it said, “Emergency Shelter.” We flew back, desperately hoping this “shelter” really existed. A beautiful sight emerges, an empty shipping container lined with dried up animal dung, “Thank God!” and we rush inside. 



After about an hour the storm let up and and we pushed on through the snow, navigating our way back over the pass. If it wasn’t huge patches of snow, then it was “death mud” which stood in our way. The type of mud I’ve seen in pictures from Peru and Thailand, but never had the pleasure of experiencing myself, until now. Death mud is known for decapitating detailers, slaying chains, and murdering brake pads. It’s heavy, sticky, and everywhere. 

“Death mud”

But soon snow patches turn to snow fields, forcing us off the road to navigate our own way over the pass. Deeper and deeper, we are thigh-deep in snow carrying our bikes, only to find a sloshy river running beneath it. My feet are frozen, stinging so bad I can’t think. Just when we think things can’t get much worse the gods deal us another shit-storm, another gang of dark clouds have gathered on the horizon. This one building stronger and looking more intimidating than the last. 



“Holy shit there is another shipping container up here!” But it is well sealed and our prying bike tools can’t unlock the door. If we set up the tent we chance snapping the poles. We opt to wrap the rain-fly around us, keeping as warm and dry as possible. Huddled on the far end of the building we shiver eating our trail mix and frozen snicker bars. Thankfully the wintery storm passes just as quick it started. 

"Barskoon pass had gotten the best of us, it was time to turn back."

At this point we are crawling, literally moving a kilometer per hour. Six kilometers on the pass and five hours later, the “road” ahead didn’t seem like much of a road at all. Daylight was dwindling along with our hopes. Sleeping at 12,500 feet, in these conditions, sounded like a nightmare come true. Thrashing through the snow; wet, cold, exhausted, and in danger of frostbite we had to make a call. Barskoon pass had gotten the best of us, it was time to turn back.


 

  

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