As I mentioned at the end of my last entry – we slept in no-mans land the night we left Tajikistan but we were not alone. We had put up the tent the first place we could find as the light was fading fast and cooked the last of our food for dinner. We went through the very delicate process of shutting the door on Julien’s tent ( the zips were broken in so many places and it could take several minutes) and were willing the heat from our food to warm us up. We heard a vehicle come along the road, we heard it stop – we looked at each other knowingly and waited. We heard the footsteps coming over the loose rocks of the river bed we were sheltering beside and then we heard the unmistakable sound of guns being cocked. Then “Privet” (hello in Russian). We replied in our best Russian and started to try and open the door again, we managed to get it half-way open to see 5 soldiers (think they were Kyrgyz army) with their cold looking guns. One of them asked to see our passports and asked if we knew we were in no mans land and if anything happened there was no one to help us. We smiled, nodded, shone some light on our passports, directed them to the photo pages and said we would be on our way early in the morning (I say we – I mean Julien le Kazak did the talking of course!). They seemed satisfied and left. We sat in silence until we had heard the truck disappear and then both made the same comment – Did you see their torches? These guys were patrolling one of the most heavily trafficked drugs borders in the world and their torches were the little lights in the end of disposable lighters. We had had to use our head torches to show them our passports and our faces! Still – nice to be warned there’s no one to turn to if you get any trouble by 5 guys with guns but no light!
Once safely across the border checkpoint and into Kyrgyzstan we had our sights firmly set on the city of Osh. To us it meant food and access to money to buy it. We had probably fixed out thoughts on this target a little too narrowly, fooling ourselves that the tough plateau and mountain riding was out of the way and that proper tarmac roads would ease us to Osh and down from the altitude. Unfortunately there were still 3 x 2ooom + passes ahead of us. The first of these we managed to truck surf most of the way up. The small trucks loaded down with coal could only crawl up the road and were just slow enough for us to be able to grab hold of the trailer and be pulled along. It was a killer for the arms but worth it to save the legs! As we descended down the other side we began to lose some serious altitude. After the barren landscape of the Pamirs it was a welcome sight to see trees again, in fact anything green and alive! The air felt like it was becoming thick with the returning oxygen and we sucked it in as we free wheeled and cruised along. The downside of this was that the last pass was a 2hr switch back climb and whilst we were not gasping for air any more – the oxygen instead flooded to our muscles where it turned into lactic acid, which made for some screaming legs!
We had dreamed of food and beer in Osh and even though it was late when we arrived we headed straight to a cafe for exactly that. The next morning we slept late in the luxury or a bed before heading to the market to continue the refuel. After the lack of food (in choice and quantity) in the Pamirs, the endless stalls of produce were a treat for the eyes and the stomach. Unfortunately too much for my stomach again and I spent the next day in the bathroom or bed! Not long after Julien and I had to go our separate ways as he was hurrying on to Bishkek to try and arrange further visas. We said our goodbyes in traditional manner – on the side of the street with the last of our vodka – before Julien and his bike disappeared into the morning traffic and I went back inside (still in my pyjamas!). I spent a couple more days exploring the city, including a walk up to Sulayman Too (Suleyman’s Throne) – a sacred mountain complete with lucky stone slab that people slide down to heal the part of the body that it makes contact with (minimum of 3 slides required apparently – I could have been sliding all day!).
From Osh it was a couple of days ride up to the village of Arslanbob – an Uzbek community which has thrived here since their ancestors moved from Bukhara 28 generations ago – on the outskirts of the largest walnut forest in the world. Unfortunately the spokes on Carra’s rear wheel gave way twice more on the way up to the village. The 3rd spoke snapped as I was riding. I could not run the risk of any more going as the wheel would probably have totally fallen apart so I took everything off the back of the bike, put it in my back-pack and walked the remaining 10km up to the village. My intention had been to help with the walnut harvest and stay for a couple of weeks to experience life in the mountain village. However, this Uzbek community maintain (mostly) traditional conservative Muslim customs and the idea of me working was unthinkable as I was a guest with the family who hosted me. So I spent a couple of weeks hanging out in the village and the walnut forest. I was also in town for their daughters wedding as I tried to find a way to fix my broken wheel. Finally during the wedding I was able to help out a bit with the cooking for the endless stream of visitors who came to the house for 4 days beforehand. An incredible amount of plov and çay was prepared over the outdoor wood stoves during this time.
After finding a local mechanic who helped me repair Carra’s broken spokes and waiting out an early snow storm and freezing temperatures, I set off back down the mountain for my last 600km to Bishkek. There was more spectacular scenery and freezing temperatures. I have never been so cold as the last night I spent in my tent when I could not sleep because I could not feel my feet without rubbing them frantically back to life – which then made them hurt with the returning feeling. The road was lined by remnants of Soviet industry; coal mines and hydro-electric dams. But mostly there were run down villages and the deserted jailoos of the Kyrgyz herdsmen. They live on the plains and pasture lands in the summer months in old caravans and yurts. The yurts are dismantled and taken back to the villages during the winter and ghostly circular marks are left on the ground in their absence.
After sleeping next to a barrel of pickled veg in the storeroom of a cafe and listening to a car load of Kyrgyz guys working their way through several bottles of vodka – I rolled the last few kms from the mountains into the city of Bishkek. It felt a bit more like limping into the city to be honest – I had broken a tooth on a stray piece of bone in some meat just after leaving Arslanbob and Carra had broken another spoke and her handlebar bag somewhere along the way. After the barrenness and solitude of the mountains and plains in the last few months there was a bit of culture shock in the city. Especially as there is a large ex-pat community in Bishkek and I found myself tucking into a bacon panini and a glass of mulled cider in a cafe still decorated from Halloween. The strange mix of emotions of finishing big trip dominated the next few weeks. In this time I packed Carra up into a box and we flew back to Istanbul. From the airplane window I had a clear view back to the mountains I had crossed and then over the desert plains of Kazakhstan and the coastline of the Black Sea. It was a strange perspective – watching the landscape from my journey but from the air and in reverse. In 5 hours my flight took me back to the place I had started from 7500km and 6 months before. And my overwhelming feeling as I looked down (despite the comfy seat, complimentary beer, smoked salmon and Turkish delight) – was that I wanted to be back out there in the middle of those spaces.