Kyrgyzstan is a country that sits on the Central Asian plain. It is dominated by the Tian Shan mountains which shadow the valley that traces the Silk Route from the China to the Mediterranean. For millenia, this land-locked, craggy republic has been a mixing place for cultures, religions, ethnicities and ideas.
This August, Seven Expedition Rider Joe Cruz went there with Joel Caldwell, Logan Watts, and Lucas Winzenburg for a three and a half week trip into the mountains on his Seven Treeline SL.
What follows are photos from the trip and excerpts from Joe’s excellent journal:
They’re tiny encouragements, those dust whorls in the heat and the bits of dung and trash, brake lights on the sprinter van we hired to transport us from Bishkek, a moment ago the firm handshake of the driver with whom we share no language. This dirt patch off the edge of broken asphalt contouring along deep blue Lake Issyk-Köl, our bicycles gear full plastic grocery bags in excitable heaps. Now we’re stashing a week’s worth of food into frame and saddle packs, the fruit of hours trying to puzzle the ingredients from pictures on the outside packaging. Finally the perpendicular road wavy with children who say hello by putting their hands up and laughing, some chase us but most just continue playing as they were, the adults smile and shake an arm with genuine seeming joy, early on we pass a few cars horns honking and occupants pressed against the windshield in grinning greeting. It will transform into a two track and then a path and then just our pedalstrokes rising towards a Tien Shan ridge line that points at the sky like tips of neatly lined up spears. The glint capped peaks are inevitably further away than they seem. We see our first yurt even if it’s just another farm building, a woman leaning forward a wheelbarrow between fencing, a flat green pitch for ball kicking and used now for it by a hollering half dozen, an old Subaru.
We’ve come here because of the legend of Kyrgyzstan’s beauty, mountains and steppe, high meadow yurt camps, Silk Roads and the history of Soviet presence, Islam and horsemen and crashing cold rivers. None of the confirmed superlatives will match our wide eyed skipping heart wonder in the place.
The route we’re on goes fainter yet. To the left a cleft vectors away with just a cowpath on one side, that’s where we’re headed. No jeeps come through here, vertical walls clack echo funnel embrace.”It’s like we’re sequentially visiting all the US national parks but impossibly next to each other,” we laugh but Joel’s right and this is an entrance into a serene wildness that we’re grateful for. We’ll be asked a few times over the next weeks why here? and I can’t help but think our stammering incomprehension at the question is a snapshot of this very moment.
Yesterday was a hard day so we slept a punished sleep. From the giant’s toy block strewn campsite, we’d ascended and climbed with forty minutes of pushing the bikes to a keyhole opening through the peaks to a plateau. Wending through lakes over marshland, a horsetrack here or there but mostly just pointing the bikes and going. Above us, seems like right on the stitching of our pulled close hoods, rolling billowing grey boiling hissing wind.
That evening we camp early because the setting won’t let us not. Tents in a line pitched into the gusts, but down low cross legged around the stoves it’s quiet enough for us to mark the long pauses between when we say anything. After sunset we’ll smell dungfire from distant yurts, tomorrow there will be unfettered horses concentratedly ignoring us as we pedal away.
Invited into a yurt, bread and jam, my first fermented mares milk. Tastes like a thick creamy demented kombucha with the heavy smell of horse, we’ll drink a fair bit more of it over these next weeks and often chased by Russian vodka to make sure we wobble and squint on our way. As we leave we’re given a coke bottle that we think is more kumys but we find out later that it’s butter. We laugh, seems like it’s crazy but we’ll enjoy it in our soup.
Two horses with their riders on a long slow traverse to meet us at our camp. Maybe a grandfather, father, son. They nod and smile, not effusively but companionably, we bid our happiness at being here, they continue on.
Lowland sticky dust is behind us now, yesterday we visited Tash Rabat and found it shrugging unremarkable. At least the tourist yurt camp nearby had excellent food and beer that we chilled in the stream. The highlight was meeting and mingling with Kyrgyz visitors who beamed with pride at our truthful confessions of the unrivaled beauty of their home.Turned the bikes around to head back into the sparsity, a northern course traversing valley folds, back to altitude to a splendid nothing.
We’re fitter now, we’re faster, we see better now, we’re slower. In a day we reach lake Song-Köl, subject of postcards and also popular with Kyrgyz tourists. The serenity of the place wrestles with trash and blowing toilet paper, our chests squeezed tight. Wind comes through indignant and a drop then another, we rush to put up our tents close to the shore and dive in. I eat raw ramen while listening to the lash and beating against the fly. Tomorrow we watch a game of Kok-boru, a kind of polo. The primal raw striving, sweat and close contact shoulders that’s always present in sports but here is closer to the surface, the horses dancing for footing, surging, the jockeys bent low off the side of the saddle to grab the desiccated goat carcass then lifting it hip high to gallop fury and dust toward the goal.
The last 40k run is on a dirt path alongside an aqueduct all the way to Bishkek’s edge. Rolling west and the sun setting onto the backs of our hands, heads down riding flat out. During a break all of our fingers are trembling, share the last cookies and I produce a Snickers bar out of a secret cache. Now there are people everywhere, dogs and tidy developments or a shanty or just an urban shepherd. Now traffic fumes cacophony, we turn on our headlamps to be seen on the city streets but the bright comes mostly from behind us, from where we’ve been.
First photo above by Joel Caldwell, all others by Joe Cruz.
There is so much more on this trip at Joe’s website. Read it. We are extremely proud to work with cyclists like Joe, who see, in this world, whether close to home or very far afield, the opportunity for real adventure.