The stretch after Murghab can only be described as like cycling on the moon. Or mars, but colder. Nothing but rocks and mountains and a few supremely isolated yurts. No trees, no villages, not even any yaks.
We were pedaling towards the highest pass that any of us were likely to ever cycle over : the Ak Baital pass which stands at 4655m. We cycled with a mixture of anticipation, excitement and… breathlessness. Pedro was keeping his eye on a packet of potato chips we had bought in Murghab, at 3000m it was already like a balloon, but as we climbed higher the packet continued to expand and Pedro was hoping it would burst.
We never knew how the last few kms of a climb were going to affect us (or a packet of crisps…) as we got higher and higher and the road for steeper and steeper. A few kms from the top we stopped, we could see the pass. The road didn’t look steep, it wasn’t steep by usual standards. But above 4000m everything is hard work – breathing, walking, let alone cycling a 40kg bike up a mountain on a gravel road. The remaining 2 km took us an hour as we huffed and puffed our way up. Style was not on the menu, getting to the top in any way possible was. With a mixture of pushing, cycling and very frequent pauses to stop and enjoy the view, aka breathe, we (and the crisps) finally made it to the top. The packet never burst…
Unfortunately, the clouds obscured the view we felt we had earnt. But with the cold air, there wasn’t much time for hanging around and after a short celebration we descended to an altitude a little more favourable for camping.
The cold evenings meant that the four of us had dinner parties in the tent, sheltering from the elements. The added bonus being that the hosts’ tent got warmed up for the night from the heat of the extra bodies. On a few occasions, we tried making yak or cow pow fires with mixed success. It all depended on how old the pow was, as to how much yak poo smoke we ended up having in our faces.
At these altitudes the elements were harsh. The sun burned, the wind was strong and the cold well… was cold. The dry air chapped our skin and if any of us were anything less than copious with suncream application, noses soon became beetroot. It was sometimes shocking to see the faces of the young children that lived in the villages above 3500m, often their skin was wrinkled and aged of someone much more than 10. Their cheeks red and sore from the exposure to the fierce rays. A mother in one homestay specifically asked if we had any sunblock, and we left behind what we could spare in a plastic bag. Other people – adults and children alike – would go out in balaclavas, with nothing but their eyes exposed through the fabric.
We had three 4000+m passes between us and Kyrgyzstan, but first we were to spend the best part of 24 hours cycling around Karakol lake. After hunting for a shop in the village of Karakol, the last village before the border, we spent our remaining som on a few eggs and an onion. Exciting times… Having not seen many cyclists for a few days, we ended up making a camp of seven cyclists in five tents : one Portuguese, two Dutch, one Spanish, one German, one Japanese and me. Quite a mix.
No space in one tent for all of us, various quick dinners were eaten before each dived into their respective warm shelters.
The lake was so beautiful, that without planning it, we ended up spent the morning there. Painting, swimming and generally being lazy, denying the fact that there were some mountains to climb.
The day turned into a hard one. All of us struggling a little more with the altitude, dwindling food supplies and a fierce fierce headwind. When the headwind was joined by a stretch of washboard that looked set to stay until the border we decided to call it a day and make camp.
Thankfully a few jeeps passed who were more than happy to share their water supplies so that we could cook dinner. Less thankfully, it turned out that without knowing, we had made camp just beside a military bunker…
The military were friendly enough, but there appearance from what we thought was the middle of nowhere, did take us more than a little by surprise. And despite their best intentions of delivering us two cans of mystery tinned food when we were on the verge of sleep, and their continuous night time wanderings close to our tent, it has to be said that sleep was light to non existent that night.
With a final push we conquered the washboard and made it to the Tajik border post, where it was clear that the guards entertained themselves by playing volley ball and hunting marmots.
As we pedalled over the final 4000m pass through the 15km of no-mans land, the scenery changed almost immediately and the moon like rocks finally became lush and green.