The Middle Road

Another day, another mountain pass. It had become a daily routine and after we once again descended to an altitude with an appropriate night time temperature for my inappropriately thin sleeping bag, I wrote this in my journal:

“Today involved frustration, exhaustion, cold, instant noodles (what day doesn’t), endorphin highs, seemingly endless climbs, washboard (what day doesn’t), spectacular views, adrenaline-inducing descents, numb feet, and one constant reminder of why quitting everything to go on a bike ride 7 months ago was the best decision I have ever made.”

I’ve tried to write something better since, but that adrenaline/endorphin inspired note has been the best summary of taking the so-called ‘the middle road’ across Kyrgyzstan I’ve been able to make: Two concurrent emotions of feeling like I am exactly where I want to be and the complete opposite, in which the only thing I want to be doing is have a regular day that doesn’t challenge me to the point of having a tantrum about gravel, after which I can return to the comforts of home rather than my tent and sleeping mat with its phantom, unidentifiable puncture.

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The Fergana Mountains as Hubert cooks dinner

We succumbed to the temptation to take the minor roads; those tiny, narrow white lines that squiggle across the map into the middle of nowhere. Our chosen route would take us off smooth asphalt at Jalalabad (no, not that one) and up across the high level grasslands of the Jailoos to Lake Song Kol. It was exactly the Kyrgyzstan we wanted to see: nomad territory; yurts and yaks.  We decided this route while sitting in the comfort of a hostel, beer in hand, and under the circumstances these armchair explorers could be forgiven for thinking that this seemed like a good idea at the time. The alternative was the main road: smooth, efficient asphalt in which the progress of a day’s ride can be measured on the map in inches rather than the width of your little finger. But we anticipated that the regret we would feel for not trying the more interesting route and getting off the beaten path far outweighed the regret we knew was coming for willingly choosing a terrible road.

The end of the (good) road
The end of the (good) road
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Washboard

After a couple of days of the middle road we really doubted this assumption. Washboard (for the uninitiated, think of a dirt track where someone has managed to fit a wave machine to) was ubiquitous. The concentration needed to weave between the left and right edge of the road to avoid the worst of these bumps took a lot of the fun out of riding and it was often better to shun the roads althogeather and take to the trails blazed by herds of cattle across the Jailoos in the approximate direction you want to go.

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Giving up on the road…
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…often to our own detriment

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It was slow progress made worse by the fact that we knew we were late in the season for this route. The shepherds pack up their yurts and head off the Jailoos around mid-September and I was counting on sleeping in one of those yurts to deal with the low temperatures around Song Kol we were warned about (by a woman who simply  laughed in my face when I told her where we were going). We knew we were cutting it fine with our timing and were constantly nagged about the need to crack on and make distance each day when more snow appeared across the landscape and by the numerous herds of cattle coming the other way. Slow progress in what feels like the wrong direction can get to you after a while.

But this frustration was, to an extent, compensated for by what we saw. Kyrgyzstan has been such a stunning and rewarding place to ride. I’ll admit that myself and Hubert were suffering at first from post-Pamir syndrome: a tendency of ambivalence toward the natural beauty one’s surroundings that fell slightly short of the “Epicness” of that particular region of Tajikistan. But as these symptoms gradually decreased I came to love the smaller-scale yet concentrated beauty of this country. Rather than a barren, grey plateau broken up by peaks boasting heights well above 5000m, the Kyrgyz hills were full of vegetation that created a collage of warm oranges, yellows and browns of early autumn. And it was diverse: One morning we were rolling through golden wheat fields that reminded me of Azerbaijan and not long after we were climbing a pass that ran alongside a mountain stream enjoying the shade provided by a forest of fir trees – it felt like I took a wrong turn and wound up at Yosemite.

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El Capitan?

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Then there were those occasional moments of sheer beauty or those that bring about a real sense of accomplishment really made the whole thing worth it. We forgave the incessant washboard when we reached the top of another unexpected pass that wasn’t on our map to see a panorama of the Jailoos, the Naryn Valley and a joyous descent of twenty-odd switchbacks in front of us. We forgot about the unexpected, daily mountain passes when we were treated to a proper coffee (frothy milk and all) by a man in a village that’s shop didn’t even sell Nescafe. It was during these moments that that the camera shutter in my mind’s eye clicks and I know I’ll picture that exact moment when I remember this chapter of the trip. This selective amnesia affected me in the short term, too: as soon as I made it down the other side of a mountain pass I found myself wanting to do the next one because these moments of reaching the top of a pass, the views that come with it, and the subsequent descents, make all the difficulty of climbing on the worst quality road I’ve had to deal with worthwhile.

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Reaching the top of another pass. Hubert wished that was champagne
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A stunning view and switchbacks-a-plenty


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Arriving to Song Kol was another example of these moments. It was 7 days in the making and, with a handful of yurts left, we’d made it on time and the sense of achievement was great. As we cycled along the track surrounding the lake, the water changed from dark blue into bright, mirror-like silver at it reflected the light from the setting sun. The temperature soon plummeted without the sun and we rushed the nearest Yurt to spend the evening where, after asking whether we were vegetarians, our hosts walked off holding something I couldn’t make out to tend to their animals for the night. The next morning we couldn’t help notice the addition of a goat’s head hanging from the yurt wall which confirmed that the ingredients of our dinner.

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Yurts by Song Kol
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The final Pass taking us out of Song Kol while recovering from a stomach bug…I was glad it was the last one.

With five mountain pass in almost as many days on terrible road, it had been one of the toughest routes of the entire trip. Yet on the day we returned to asphalt, for all its ease and efficiency in getting us closer to Bishkek, I only wrote a single paragraph in my diary to remember it. Back in civilisation we once again had to put up with the noise of passing Chinese trucks rather than the occasion vibration on the ground of a pack of wild horses running past our campsite as we tried to sleep.  Our disappointment proved we were right in our estimated balance of regrets and in spite of everything, the decision to have a simultaneously terrible and amazing time on the middle road was the right one to make. It just took being back in civilisation, with all its underwhelming conveniences, to realise it.

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