After leaving Bishkek a migrating bird fell from a telegraph pole and started to spasm a metre from my feet. I can remember catching the tortured look in its eye, in the short moment before a small, fluffy dog bit into it and carried it off at a proud trot. This was just after my shopping bag had split; tomato paste was slowly freezing shards of glass to the nearby pavement, scant consolation for the other canines cursing their lack of bounty from the sky. I didn’t feel well, I was cold, and I was setting off solo in the snow to do the final 800 or 900k through the mountains from Bishkek to Kashgar and to China.
It wasn’t that high or that hard but I had to try and persuade myself to take it more seriously than I usually would. First up I had compensated by buying many kilos of food and loading them up on my already heavy bike. It meant I spent a while browsing in the warm supermarket at least. I still have many cans of tinned fish.
The previous day had gone ok. Just a short 60k from Bishkek to the town at the turn-off to Osh, Kara Balta, compressed into the afternoon after a lazy departure. I was getting to grips with the checklist when you find a place to stay: Radiator? No… Extra blankets? Yes… And, with your one change of clothes plastered to your decrepit body, and grime covering your face, endearingly, with a humble grin, hot water?
I settled into my room, like something from Breaking Bad, and went out for dinner. It was Friday after all. The place I wanted to go to was closing, as were the next two I tried, and I made do with a trio of large, lukewarm meat dumplings from the counter of a local shop, with plenty of beer to wash the food down and the nausea away. Unfortunately the door to my room wouldn’t open; the lovely housekeeper and I spent the next 30 minutes turning the absurdly shaped key in the absurdly shaped lock in many slightly different ways, to no avail, as the dumplings slowly and damply stuck to the surface of the double-layered polythene bags. I lucked out with a slightly less shit room in which to feast on cold dumplings and cold beer, while the housekeeper plied the door open to retrieve my stuff. I was really having a great time.
The hotel had clearly seen grander days. They must have thought this special key design would be brilliant, in the early years, as the front door is basically a massive sculpture of the key that was unable to open my room, concealing a battered door that made the whole institution look as welcoming as a crack den. The great housekeeper seemed to have kept the faith, though, and the mopped linoleum floors inside glimmered throughout the long and empty corridors.
Having witnessed the sad demise of the migrating bird, I set off into the mountains. Day one was a simple 80k to the foot of the steeper climb. Day two was a mammoth slog up to 3200m, ending, once over the top, in the pitch-black, descending into a snow storm, unable to feel my hands. There was nothing there except snow and ice, nowhere to put a tent, nowhere to stay, so I caved in and started to try and hitchhike. Mammoth fail.
My seriousness about reaching the top before sundown had quickly evaporated, drinking sugary instant coffee and chatting to the locals at a solitary truck stop about halfway up. Having left it to the last minute, I set off to do the final 500 metres or so climbing on icy roads within the cloud of snow enveloping the pass. Every left turn exposed me to a bit of an icy gale, but my new tyres were doing me proud; when I tried to stand on my feet I slipped all over the place. A little bit of short breath kicked in because of the altitude and I finally felt like I was doing something difficult, after many months of swanning around on a bike. I reached the top, got a vague assurance that there was somewhere to stay somewhere, pointed my bike towards the crest of the hill, and started to roll down just as the sun left the empty valley. One hour of blissful but excruciating cycling under the stars later I gave up.
A ford transit van, carrying local passengers from Bishkek to Osh, stopped immediately and the two drivers ushered me into the absurdly warm cabin, put the fan heater on maximum, and gave me bread. The passengers were awesome. A friendly guy from Osh would strike up conversation with me – “are you Muslim or are you Christian?”, leaving little room for prevarication, in-between heading out into the freezing cold snow storm, laying down his mat, taking off his shoes, and praying under the stars. I had asked to go to the next town, which was miles away, but was the only place name I knew. So I started looking for a place to get out, but there were none unless I was going to camp on a metre of snow in the snow storm. The drivers were laying into me about how stupid it was to get out the van, because they wanted me to give them money, in-between handing me more snacks. In the warmth, and enjoying zooming through the night with this group of people, I excused myself from the warped bravado of a cycle tourist, and went with them about 100km to the town.
The town was called Toktogul, and sat on the northern shore of a large man-made lake of the same name. I was now only at 1000m or so, cycling through a lunar-like landscape of sandy rock, before climbing again to join a river valley through the mountains to the south. After many days alone in the cold, going up and down this isolated road carved through unending mountains, I reached Osh.
In Osh I ate huge amounts of food, drank copious amounts of a local dark beer, available in 1.5 litre bottles, and put the wire heater on in my cheap hostel. I needed to leave Osh to cycle to China. South over the mountains to Sary Tash, and east through the valley to the border at Irkeshtam. It was about 250k. I needed to do it quickly as it was just getting colder and colder. But I spent too long looking at the weather forecast along my route – snow, with night time temperatures of up to -20 – and instead chose hibernation, not leaving for 3 or 4 days.
Eventually though I set off to finally get to Kashgar and China. I had been putting it off for months, as it was my nominal finish line. I hadn’t prepared very well though – I got over the mountains to Sary Tash, being English expecting at least a cash machine and a coffee shop at this tiny outpost at 3200m, and had to blag a free place to stay as I only had 5 dollars (and they were sellotaped together). Crisis was averted though, by a legendary guy that let me stay and gave me a meal in his hostel, and I hitchhiked a 200k round trip the next day to get to a cash machine.
The route through the mountains was spectacular as ever. In the few villages school children would run alongside me (at 3000 metres in -5°…) and push the back of my bike, and the truck drivers transporting precarious loads of coal would flash wide toothy grins as they beeped their horns. I stayed in a guesthouse in Gulcha, and at a home stay in a small village, eating the best plov I had in the whole of Central Asia, with yak meat, and extra yak steak, fresh apricot jam and baked bread. Then the extended family arrived and we all set up camp in the living room, sleeping near the embers of the fire.
The route to the top took an age. Struggling more and more with short breath and gradually wobbling my way up hairpin after hairpin. But it was more than worth it.
Leaving Sary Tash after the cashpoint debacle I needed to get to the border 80km away sharpish. It was Friday and they closed for the weekend. In keeping with my general extreme relaxation I didn’t know when the border closed though, just that it was run on Chinese (Beijing) time, meaning it would be closed 3 hours before I thought was reasonable, and there was the small matter of needing to get a lift through 150k of restricted Chinese territory once I left Kyrgyzstan. So I left at 6.30am, knowing in the back of my mind that this was a complete fools mission, in what I think was about -10°. It was so stunning though, and I wanted to cycle out of Sary Tash, at least, rather than get a lift on the last stage of my journey to China.
Straight in front of me was Tajikistan and the Pamir Highway, towering over the valley and covered in snow. To my right was one road into complete nothingness, the continuation of the Sary valley, and Peak Lenin on the Tajik border, at 7134m the second highest mountain in both countries. And to my left was China, and then down, down, and down to Kashgar and the start of the almighty Taklamakan desert. I cycled as fast as I could for about 30km, super chuffed that my beard was turning to ice, before turning my mind to the complete lack of vehicles I had seen going my direction and the fact I was nowhere near in time for the border. So I stood still for about 10 minutes, in complete white nothingness, waiting in indecision. Then I set off, as that was stupid. And then I heard a car.
We zoomed to the border and I made it to the immigration control with three minutes to spare, at 6pm, including time spent winning five matches of table tennis in a row at the lonely border post, trying to barter down the extortionate price for the taxi ride with some ping pong diplomacy.
I was in China, at last, and I spent the first few hours negotiating prices.