Tandem to Turkestan
by Cass Gilbert
It's that time of day again.
The Tannoy crackles. A throat is cleared. In perfect unison, the valley is filled
with ricocheting azans, clashing from a dozen mosques across town. Strategically
placed in a high minaret, the closest muezzin has the lungs of an opera singer,
belting out his calls to prayer, carrying far across the rooftops.
From the vantage point of a crumbling citadel, Rosal and I look out upon a desolate plateau of rolling steppe and snowy peaks, buffeted by a storm that darkens the sky. We stand and listen, for there is no effect greater than the call to prayer to remind us of where we are. And like clockwork, this barrage of sound stops as abruptly as it began. The valley is filled by silence, until cars, trucks and urban life below become discernible once more. We shelter from the driving rain in an old chai house, complete with Turkmen carpets and thick slabs of tree-trunks as tables. I imagine this den in deepest winter, the streets coated under a foot of snow, the wood burner working overtime to keep the steaming chai flowing.
The last week has seen us bus our way to Erzurum, Eastern Turkey, the highest and most exposed town in Anatolia. Once an important junction on the Silk Road, it's from here that we begin our journey on this ancient trade route. Just a few hundred kilometres from the border with Iran, the influence of its conservative neighbour can be strongly felt. Women in full chador peer from black cloaks. Old men, bearded and time-worn, sit respectfully thumbing prayer beads, greeting each other with the traditional citation: Salem Alekum: Peace be upon you.
Our tandem bicycle, christened
'The Limo' after the cries it evokes from passers by, has become a constant
source of curiosity. Like a mobile home, it carries a wardrobe of winter and
desert clothes, camping gear, spare parts, maps, history books, computers and
cameras. Together with my girlfriend Rosal, we will wind our way through Iran,
Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and North West China into Pakistan, experiencing
nomadic traditions and witnessing the changes undergone in Central Asia since
the fall of the Soviet Empire. Over four months, we will ride round the Caspian
Sea, across the Karakum Desert, past the great walled cities of Buchara and
Samarkand and over the glacial passes of the Tian Shan.
Taking to the road at last, a gentle climb leads us out of Erzurum, beyond a sprawling army barracks and a convoy of jeeps. Passing a few lingering buildings we emerge onto open steppe, rolling far into the distance on either side. I had no idea Eastern Turkey was this desolate, beautiful in its bleakness. Snow powders the hilltops and shepherds tend flocks of long-tailed sheep, leaning on crooks to watch and wave as we pass. Ruddy-faced, a makeshift assortment of waterproofs and woollens shield them from a sharp wind that never settles, forever churning the clouds overhead.
Engulfing the sun once more, a storm veils the hillside. Catching us up, it unleashes hailstones with a force that makes us hide our faces from their icy sting. Pulling into the truck stop town of Horasan, little more than a collection of shops and run down houses that rise from a river of mud in this torrent of rain, we stop before a weathered signpost which reads 'Otel' and are immediately swarmed by men and children. Rosal stands by The Limo as I follow the hotelier into a cafe, a few scruffy kids in pursuit. Thick with smoke from the cigarettes of a dozen men, it's very much a local hangout. All eyes turn to me. "Merhaba," I venture. Hello. My greeting is met by a dozen nods and a few toothy grins. Up a flight of stairs and along a dimly lit corridor, I'm shown a basic room, two beds and four walls. At least the price is good -- just over £1.
By morning, puddles of murky water have gathered in the broken road. The slow and gentle climb continues, steering us further into the hills, past men wandering by the roadside who greet us politely with a look of startled surprise. School children in dirty blue frocks shout to get our attention, waving enthusiastically as soon as we look round. In the distance, nomads have settled on a plain, their white tents distinct against the muted tones of the hillside. Above, the remains of old forts remind us of the historic importance of the Silk Road, protecting caravans of camels laden with silks and spices from marauding bandits, as they travelled both East and West.
And like a modern-day caravan ourselves, we join a line of slow moving cargo trucks heading to Iran, lumbering their way towards the top of a pass. Leaning out of their cabs, drivers wave encouragingly. We crest the pass at 2300 metres, looking out upon a range of snowy mountains, clusters of grazing sheep and villages of squat square brick homes, plumes of smoke spiralling into the wind. 'Wolfdogs', the huge breed of dog trained to guard Kurdish villagers from wolves in the winter, watch us but thankfully don't give chase. Beehive style piles of dung adjoin every house, in which smouldering fires are lit to be dried for fuel.
Though we feel no danger in any way, noticeable are the amount of military checkpoints that wave us on, their armoured vehicles incongruous on the open steppe. Three years ago, these roads were too dangerous to travel, as tension between the Kurdish separatists and the Turkish military reached flashpoint. Even today there remain some 600,000 troops stationed across Eastern Turkey. In one small town alone we pass perhaps a hundred tanks and troop carriers parked neatly in a long line, a bus stop wall pocked with gunshot and bunkers embedded into the hillside.
A hundred kilometres on we arrive in Agri, our home for the night. Invited into a bicycle shop, tea is served in shapely glasses and sweetened with lumps of sugar. A crowd of onlookers gravitate toward the tandem, inspecting brakes and squeezing tyres with approving nods. "Choc guzel" (Very nice indeed) is the verdict. Kebabs form our sustenance, washed down with rice pudding in one of the many 'Pastis' bars, haven of cake and tea, smokier than a London pub. Although it's a lively town influenced by its student population, it is clear we remain in a conservative area, shown to upstairs tables where couples are served while the men gather below.
Blessed with a strong tailwind, we make short work of the ride to Dogubayazit. A tandem offers companionship and the kilometres roll by quickly. It's a beautiful day, interluded only briefly by a storm that propels us even faster. The surrounding steppe dwarfs us in its solitude; the plain we cross looks freshly mown, so smooth is the grass that carpets it. Mount Ararat, Anatolia's highest peak, dominates the skyline. Pulling into town, we lurch our way along a pot-holed street to the Saharan Hotel, gathering point of overlanders on their journey to and from India.
Our first few hundred kilometres have prepared us a little for the road ahead. Eastern Turkey has evoked the emptiness of the Central Asian steppe. New to us both, the tandem has proved a wonderful way of travelling, an instant success with those around. Tomorrow we will cross the border into Iran.
From our table at a kebab eatery, stoically facing a half dozen skewers of liver, we watch as a growing crowd clusters around the tandem. Today we've crossed the border from Turkey, wheeling our bicycle through a doorway framed with a portrait of the late Ayatollah Khomeini, to arrive in the Islamic Republic of Iran. Rosal has donned her veil and covered her hair. From now on, beyond the cloistered room of a hotel, no-one will be privy to more than her tiny hands and diminutive face.
The sun beats down and the sky is washed with blue. Above, a canyon wall rises steeply into the glare of the afternoon light. Riding through a landscape of dry rock, our surroundings open into unexpectedly lush valleys, broken only by a clutter of truckstop towns. Marand is the first city we reach and the mosaferkhune we find, a simple and cheap hotel, is just a few metres off Khomeini square, set behind a glass front and stencilled with colourful Persian script. We awaken the manager, dozing on a bed in the hallway. It's been a tough day. Not in terms of distance but more because of the oppressive heat and a build-up of trucks and cars, cramming the road like blocked pores. Nerves have frayed and we both need a rest. With relief, we lock our door and finally Rosal can remove her headscarf, falling fast asleep in our shoe box room.
Arriving in this new land is both exciting and daunting, accentuated by our own concerns and the hype of Western media. The adjustment to an unfamiliar language and tradition, currency and climate, are just some of the challenges of travelling. As night falls, we awaken and take to the street. Faces peep furtively from doorways; hands shoot out unexpectedly from passers by, welcoming us to the city. Khomeini is everywhere, looking down from billboards, walls and shops, on the back of buses, in restaurants. But our deepest impression is the chador. Under Iranian law, all females over the age of seven must conform in public to Hejab, the all-important moral code of dressing. A group of veiled girls, cloaked from head to toe in black capes, hurry home from college, a few rogue fringes escaping from under shawls.
A steep climb leads us away from the city's concrete sprawl and into the fertile valleys once more. It's Friday, the day of rest for Muslims. Like Turkey, Iran seems a nation of picnic lovers. Families of fragile grandpas and stooped grandmas, languorous fathers and football obsessed teenagers (Where are you from? Engelestan? David Beckham!) relish home made feasts, alluringly served on carpets rolled out on the grass. Gathering momentum like a torpedo, we rocket by to frantic waves and yelps of delight. Through forests and along undulating plains, the road eventually flattens and widens into the industrial outskirts of Tabriz.
Our arrival coincides with the last stage of the 16th Azerbaijan Bicycle Tour, named after this North Western province. Unexpectedly, we are confronted by dozens of cyclists procuring road side spots for this Iranian version of the Tour de France. We reach the city centre in time to catch the sound of spinning wheels and a blur of riders, before our own bike is engulfed at the finishing post by a throng of cycle enthusiasts, circling us in a tight knot, shaking hands and snapping photos. Invited to the closing ceremony, we sit amongst the competing teams; Iranian, Turkish, Kazac, Turkmen and others. It's a surreal scene. On the right hand side of the hall, lycra clad youths in neon shorts and skin tight tops sip on glucose drinks. Segregated to the left, a sea of black chadors, apparently oblivious to those around but throwing surreptitious peeks at the legs on show.
Cyclist Habib takes us back to his house, our first time in an Iranian home and a chance to experience family hospitality. We sit on a carpet propped up with cushions, admiring the open design and simple decorations. Downing rounds of tea, we work our way through a bowl of fruit before half a dozen giggling children, waited over like king and queen. Away from the eyes of the street, Rosal is allowed to lift her hejab; everyone gazes and swoons in admiration. With our Persian limited to a phrasebook, silences are filled by beaming smiles until a banquet appears, served on a tablecloth laid out on the floor. Plates stacked high with chicken, salad, sour cherries and crispy rice, seasoned with red currants are placed before us. We're forced to eat until we can no longer move, then encouraged to stretch out and relax our weary muscles. After undergoing a thorough photo shoot with every family combination, we thankfully retire to bed, exhausted, at one in the morning.
Tabriz was once the capital of Persia and the following day we delve into our favourite hunting ground, the bazaar. Some three kilometres long, with foundations dating back a thousand years, we permeate a labyrinthine maze of tunnels lit by cylindrical skylights and naked bulbs, each quarter specialising in its own wares -- swathes of material, polished tea urns, sumptuous silken carpets and luminous gold. Like good cyclists, our attention lingers over the confusing array of food, gazing upon sacks of salted pistachios, tiers of multicoloured spices, sachets of saffron and blocks of walnut halva, as well as grisly pendulums of meat and animal hooves.
Then it's time to move on, continuing our journey towards Central Asia along a mountain road that plummets dramatically towards the Caspian Sea. We bid this friendly family goodbye. Such incredible hospitality, almost overbearing in its zeal, puts our own Western preconceptions of Islamic people to shame. Two strangers invited into a home, we could not have hoped for a better welcome to Iran.
the Karakum Desert
Incongruous in the vast bowl of the Karakum Desert, shadowed by the dusty Kopet Dag mountains, Turkmenistan's capital, Ashgabat, is perhaps the most peculiar city I have visited on my travels. It's a city synonymous with the country's egocentric leader, Saparmurat Niyazov, aka 'Turkmenbashi', Head of All Turkmen. Complimenting his magnanimous title, an equally modest slogan is emblazoned on every wall and billboard across town: Halk, Watan, Turkmenbashi! People, Nation, Me!
Crossing the border from Iran, a sinewy descent from a mountain pass deposits us on the outskirts of the city. Passing a kilometre of extravagant fountains, one would hardly believe we have reached the fringes of the Karakum, one of the hottest, bleakest deserts on Earth. Usurping podiums once home to Lenin, enormous placards of Turkmenbashi adorn every building in an array of poses; clutching a bouquet of flowers, assuming a look of concern, smiling benignly. In the centre of town, a golden statue twelve metres high resides on top of the capital's own Tour Eiffel, the Tower of Neutrality. Like a surreal jewelbox ballerina, rotating with the sun on a motorised platform, arms outstretched, Turkmenbashi hails the sunrise and bids farewell to the sunset.
Our first night is spent in an old colonial style hotel, the Oktyabrskaya. It's a basic room lost down a long, noisy corridor where faces peer surreptitiously from doorways. By day, we wander this spotless city of soulless boulevards, immaculately manicured and lush with a myriad of fountains, firing jets of water that sparkle in the midday sun. Glittering with mirrored glass and intricate domes, palatial government buildings in a fusion of Islamic and Roman styles catch the eye. An army of gardeners tend shrubs, polish statues and sweep roads, a world apart from the chaos and confusion of Iran.
Changes in Turkmenistan have been widespread in the ten years since the break-up of the Soviet Union. Russian and its Cyrillic script has been abolished and streets renamed, while Turkmenistan's national language and traditions have been reintroduced and cultivated. As visitors brought up with our own western mind-set, there's a fascination in witnessing the fall of communism, epitomised by Ashgabat's crumbling modernist apartment blocks and disused Circus,sculpted like a flying saucer and emptied of life. Aside from its cultural evils, healthcare and schooling standards have plummeted since the break-up of the Union and in this climate of nationalism, the hardships faced by the remaining Russian population are evident. It's easy to see the appeal of this nationalistic stance adopted by the government. Subdued mercilessly in the late nineteenth at the battle of Geok-Tepe by the Russians, then ravaged by Stalin's cartographic reinvention of Central Asia after the Bolshevik Revolution, it's aimed directly at the proud nomadic clans of the Turkmen people. Unanimously re-elected into office, perhaps the plethora of Turkmenbashi images have succeeded in sending out their subliminal messages; in any case, opposition parties are banned and voting is rigged. But to the outsider least, this quest for a newer, purer Turkmenistan is losing its way in Turkmenbashi's own eccentricities.
With only a ten day visa, we press on across the south eastern Karakum, Desert of the Black Sands, towards Uzbekistan. Following a highway that traces the Silk Road, cracked and broken like an old scroll, the sun burns brightly overhead. A tumultuous headwind, bane of cyclists, blusters towards us, swirling dust into our eyes. Lost in the blur of heat, our surroundings are marked by hardy shrubs, gnarled trees and ramshackle train stop towns, weather-beaten and half engulfed by sand dunes creeping forward like an relentless tide. Reaching the city of Merv, once queen of the ancient world, we look out upon an eery sandscape sprinkled with wind-eroded archways and mausoleums. Barely discernable on the muted horizon, we ponder the desolate remains of this once thriving metropolis of two million people, vanishing silently into the distance as we ride on. Resting in roadside chaikhanas, typical tea houses, we chew on 'shashlik', skewers of kebab mutton chequered with succulent fat.
Our thirst is quenched with gazly su, shots of carbonated rusty water sweetened with a squeeze of syrup. Our lips are chapped and our throats as parched as the desert around us, despite the copious litres of water we greedily consume. As dusk falls and the sky is saturated with stars, we listen to the clatter of old trains, shunting cargo through the night on the Trans Caspian Railway. It's a gruelling few days; past lone camels, forlorn bus stops and discarded Russian trucks, bonnets gaping open in abandoned surgery. Emerging finally into the industrial sprawl of Turkmenabat, a haze of chimneys and decrepit Soviet-era factories rise above the dusty veil of the desert. Slowed to a pitiful crawl in the face of such unrelenting headwind, our potholed road, melting like marzipan in the midday sun,culminates in a score of checkpoints manned by disinterested pot-bellied guards. It's been the hardest stretch of our journey to date; we've only just made it to the border in time. The tandem is a great icebreaker and formalities pass smoothly, our bags subjected to the most cursory of inspections in exchange for a test ride around the compound.
After several hundred kilometres in this fifty degree furnace of the Karakum, buffeted by its sandblaster-style wind, we inspect ourselves in the distorted bathroom mirror of our hotel. Sand has permeated our every pore, gritted in teeth and buried in ear holes, gathered in the folds of our clothes and swept into our pockets, in memory of this desert crossing. Sadly, our ten days visit to Turkmenistan is over. After our surreal stay in Ashgabat, crossing the fringes of the Karakum Desert has given us a taste of what this country is really about.
Silk Road, Uzbekistan
In all other parts of the world light descends upon earth. From Holy Bukhara it ascends.
-Central Asian saying.
Looking out upon this arid setting, feeling the heat of the searing sun, buffeted by the relentless headwind, we bid farewell to the Turkmenistan. We've crossed the Uzbek border and change is embodied in a profusion of dopys, the traditional hat of its people. Embroidered with stylised motifs, a sea of four cornered skullcaps bob before us, perched on the heads of money changers who wave calculators and wads of dog-eared currency aloft, in eager welcome to Uzbekistan.
Soon, desert gives way to cultivated fields. Beautifully kept Uzbek family homes line the roadside, centred around the shade of grape trellised courtyards, backed with orchards and enclosed by heavy but ornate wooden doors. Alive with droves of shrieking children, our tandem is met with smiles, waves and handfuls of apples, freshly shaken off trees. Women, their mouths filled with gold teeth that glint in the sun, wear multi-coloured headscarves and dresses, flashes of colour as we pass. Pausing in a small village, we sample a delicious bowl of 'laghman', thick noodles in a meat and vegetable soup, dunked with sesame sprinkled bread and gulped down with green tea -- the perfect fuel for the day ahead.
Pushing on through the afternoon, finally the shapely skyline of Buchara's mosques and medressas are visible, rising dramatically from the surrounding cotton fields. After our long haul from Ashgabat, we imagine ourselves every bit as eager to reach to this fabled city as the caravans of traders before us. Wheeling our way through its narrow streets, awesomely shadowed by aqua-blue domes, we look up to its magnificent medressas (Islamic academies) and their intricately tiled archways. In the sixteenth century, this tangle of alleyways and covered markets bustled with silk laden camels whilst the city's caravanserais, or travellers' inns, teemed with traders, exchanging their well-travelled wares.
Finding lodgings in a traditional home, we venture up the hundred and five morbid steps of Kalon Minaret, the Tower of Death, from which criminals were once flung. Before its surrender to the Tsar of Russia in 1868, Buchara stood as feudal city-state, walled in from the world around, the notoriety of its leaders as renowned as the splendour of its mosques. Brutal Emirs advocated a thriving trade in Russian slaves, ruling over their subjects with tyrannical fervour and religious zeal. In those troubled times, the forbidden city of Buchara was no place for strangers.
Back on the road to Tashkent, our only fear today is the barrage of Russian trucks and convoys of Turkish semi-trailers that hurtle by. I admire the more gentle pace of horse drawn carts, manned by age-old grandpas, a portrait of burnished faces and wispy beards, long quilted coats, leather boots and grimy dopys. Their world seems timeless. Co-piloted by wide-eyed grandchildren in faded baseball caps and ropey singlets, they place a hand on the heart and smile as we pass. There's little else to see. A horizon that seeps into haziness, canals choppy with diving children and the darkened vaults of tyre repairers; yet there's a charm to the landscape that makes for peaceful riding. An expanse of featureless cotton fields reflect the lingering strains of a Soviet system, in which Uzbekistan devoted itself exclusively to cultivating this raw product. Its knock-on effect has been disastrous both environmentally and economically, in its unsustainability and the lack of value-added exports. Returning the land to more self sufficient use, such as fruit and vegetables, is one of the many tasks the country faces since independence.
For all the architectural splendour of the Silk Road cities, it's perhaps the choyhonas punctuating the highway that reveal the true pulse of this land. The quieter of these atmospheric tea houses, with their quilts and cushions for impromptu naps, seem almost too sleepy to offer more than a few skewers of shashlik kebabs, crates of chilled Coke and of course bottles of vodka, a legacy of colonial times. Fringed with fruit sellers, lazily presiding over stockpiles of watermelon the size of bowling balls, these havens of shade make perfect pit stops for weary cyclists. Others are more lively affairs, offering jangling outdoor music, hectic with bus loads of stiffened passengers. Sitting at low tables stained with tea, we eye their enormous woks of steaming plov, the national dish of rice, meat, sheep's fat and carrot, immersed in clouds of smoke wafting from smouldering charcoal grills. A stream of bystanders gather to admire the bike, pouring over our maps, insisting we toast shots of vodka to friendship and drunkenly hugging us goodbye.
As the sun sinks deeper on the horizon, the landscape is bathed in the golden, tranquil light of the late afternoon. Weary-looking farmers trundle home on three wheeled tractors, heaving trailers crammed with tomatoes. Silhouetted against the sun, a child sweeps a scythe in a gleaming ark and a family crowds around a picnic of tea, bread and fruit, a herd of cows tethered nearby. Camping in fields and orchards, we forge on through meandering valleys. Breaking away from cultivated land, the road snakes parallel to the Trans Caspian Railway line, whose steel trail we have followed since Turkmenistan. We ride through a Soviet-style town of leafy boulevards and a string of smaller villages, running alongside a concrete water channel in which we stop to bathe. The day is long and in a border confusion typical of a region carved up by the Soviet Union, we loop into Kazakhstan for an hour, where roadside kids seem rougher and laugh raucously at the tandem.
Two days later we close in on the outskirts of Tashkent, leaving the peaceful ambivalence of the fields behind, merging into the concrete sprawl of the capital city. It's the end of this dusty stretch across the cotton fields and cultivated plains of the Uzbek people. The turbulent histories of their Silk Road cities have inspired us and their mellow choyhonas have proved perfect respites from the midday sun. Soon, we will climb towards the high pastures of mountainous Kyrgyzstan.
We arrive in Osh, just a few kilometres inside Kyrgyz border yet unexpectedly Uzbek in population. Amongst a profusion of dopis, the embroidered skullcap synonymous with the Uzbeks, a scattering of kalpaks reassure us that we have indeed crossed the border into Kyrgyzstan. As tall as a top hat, shaped like a lampshade and fashioned in felt, kalpaks are the clothing identity of the Kyrgyz people, and my favourite of all of Central Asia's millinery designs.
The sight of these two charismatic hats jostling for position belies the ethnic violence that scarred this region, the Fergana Valley, just a decade ago. Overriding the traditional system of clans, tribes and religions, Soviet instilled borders were conceived in 1924 to enclose claustrophobic pockets of rival ethnicities, necessitating control by a strong central government: Moscow. The result of these cultural intrusions was an area of continual tension. This culminated in widespread nationalist uprisings, spearheaded in the valley over June and July of 1990, across Central Asia, in the months preceding the break-up of the Union. Today, huge posters of the two countries' flags promote friendship between the peoples, though the very nature of their interwoven borders, the darkest shadow of the Soviet era, leaves this fragile region prone to dispute.
The tandem is soon stowed away in a hotel as we take to the streets, heading for Osh's bazaar, renowned as one of the liveliest outdoor markets in the area. Stooping under low coverways, we marvel at the eclectic variety of merchandise on offer, a flood of cheap Chinese stereos, clothes and shoes intermixed with finely crafted riding boots, the aromas of medicinal herbs and spices, garishly elaborate cakes and stockpiles of fruit as far as the eye can see. Old men shuffle by, perfectly noble in battered kalpaks, thick glasses, wispy beards and long overcoats. Soviet military badges fixed to their lapels are another testament to the country's colonial past. Rotund women chatter behind prams loaded with bread, their dark hair braided in long plaits and their ears elongated with heavy jewellery. 'Bosh! Bosh!' - I'm coming through! - shouts out an entourage of men pushing carts stacked high with grisly animal parts. We stop for a bowl of plov -- buttery rice sprinkled with meat, raisins, chick peas and cloves of garlic -- soaking up the atmosphere. Suddenly, a blood curdling scream resounds over the commotion. We needn't worry. It's just another sound effect from a nearby video saloon, serving a medley of Jean Claude van Damme films to a captivated countryside audience.
The dusty mountains that surround the city prompt us forward once more, towards the rolling plains and the summer pastures that we long for. Passing a string of villages, it's a peaceful scene; horses, calves, donkeys and cows all tethered before ramshackle homes with orchard gardens and rusty, creaking gates. "Hoopa!" is the cry of surprise the kids call out as we pass. Beyond Jalal-Abad, the road turns to gravel and swivels east, facing a blockade of mountains, rising sheer and craggy in the distance. At just eight hundred metres in altitude, we can hardly imagine our trail will find its way through this natural wall to Kazarman. Lying on the other side of the Fergana Range, it's just one pass of many that links this crumpled country.
Dipping briefly into a gorge, we begin the first of an onslaught of climbs. The road deteriorates and makes for hard work on the tandem, loaded as we are with food for the days of rough camping ahead. Exhausted, we struggle through endless layers of foothills until the valley widens around a dried river bed where a stampede of muscular horses charge from one end to the other, a trail of dust and wild cries in their wake. We've stumbled across a game of o'lak, the macabre form of polo played with a severed and headless calf in lieu of a ball. A posse of horsemen, clad like cowboys and some fifty in number, chase the rider with the carcass, grappling roughly for the meat. With regular breaks made throughout the day for tea, a few riders trot over to investigate the tandem, the smell of horse-sweat mingling in the air. Held once or twice a year, today's bout carries fifty som in prize money, around a dollar. Bigger games can fetch three times as much, as well as the honour bestowed upon the victor.
Ahead lies twenty kilometres of switchbacks, zigzagging their way ever higher. Here, the mountains loom larger and more rugged, offering an increasingly dramatic view with every hard fought kilometre. We pause regularly to refill our water bottles from streams fed by melted snow. Only a line of rusty electricity pylons, like skeletal sentinels, seem proof of man's existence. Pitching our tent below the pass, we cook up a huge bowl of pasta in readiness for the final push. That night, a storm lashes around our tent and we awaken to find ourselves lost in a swirl of cloud cover, our last few kilometres shrouded in mist. An old Russian signpost and a huge slab of ice mark the highest point of the pass, some three thousand metres in altitude; props for a triumphant photo.
Our rest is curtailed by darkening clouds and streaks of lightning that flicker across the sky, pummelling us with a torrent of hail and rain. Plummeting down the other side, I can barely see a few metres ahead, let alone the sheer drops that giddy us at every turn. Slipping our way over rocks and fording streams of gushing, murky water, my frozen fingers claw clumsily at the brakes as we negotiate the narrow track that unfolds haphazardly like a ball of string far below. Stopping to replace brake pads worn through to the metal, the cold sets in and Rosal, a tropical Australian at heart, hyperventilates and blacks out briefly. I feed her our last few biscuits, and we push on to lower altitudes in the hope of some respite.
At last, the clouds thin and a few beams of sun permeate through. After a nine hour day, we reach Kazarman, a sleepy town nestled on the valley floor, our bike and our bodies caked in mud. We head for the bazaar with hungry eyes, dining in a restaurant set in an old railway carriage. Steamed dumplings filled with potato and chives are gulped down and that night the owner invites us to his home, a chance to rest, dry off and drink tea. Tomorrow, another pass stands between here and the Naryn valley. It's our last hurdle to Son Kol, a high altitude lake that's home to shepherds, the mushroom shaped yurts which are their homes, and the wild horses that gallop in this spectacular country.
Kol Lake, Kyrgyzstan
Central Asia. A vast tract of land, a medley of gruelling deserts, fabled walled cities and lonely mountain passes. A land layered with turbulent history and complex identities, of nomadic traditions shadowed by a Soviet system. Like all long journeys, ours has been a spectrum of encounters, hospitality, challenges and emotions. Yet as we near the conclusion to our ride, I begin to realise the real motivation that has driven me across Turkestan: Son Kol.
Set at 3000 metres and wrapped by mountains, Son Kol is a lake whose shores are home to a scattering of bosuy, settlements of shepherds who pitch their yurts, graze their livestock and unwind after the hard winter months. It's a region with which I am already familiar, for it was here that I first sensed the deep-rooted traditions of this country over the summer of last year. Invited into a yurt, I rested on a sheepskin blanket, watching horsemen gallop across the plains, their long coats flapping in the wind. Gamely working my way through a sheep's head banquet, this one night in Central Asia embodied everything that I hoped to find in my travels, fuelling a desire to return.
So, as hard as this final climb must be, I know a little of what awaits. Leaving the riverside village of Kortka, I'm impatient as we wind through a series of interlocking valleys, looking up to rocky outcrops patched with alpine forests. Via a trail of ascending switchbacks etched into the mountainside, we flit from on end of the valley to the other, higher and higher. Cresting the pass high above the tree line, an old Russian truck pulls over and a gang of bawdy Kyrgyz invite us to kumys, an intoxicating local brew of fermented mare's milk. Served into a generous bowl from an oil drum, we gulp it down with chunks of fresh bread. It seems an appropriately Kyrgyz reward for our hours of toil, as storms swirl across the sky, blotting out the light and soaking up the clouds.
Plummeting down the other side, it's colder now so we ease to a stop, hiking away from the track towards a huge, rolling hill that affords a view of the lake in the distance, reflecting the last light like a giant mirror. It's not long before three curious kids from a nearby yurt scamper over, oblivious to the biting wind in their makeshift woollens, eager to help us pitch tent; camping is in their blood. But we don't have long. The skies of Kyrgyzstan forever churn with action and drama. As the shadow of rain draws closer, tingeing the light like a filter, hurriedly we boil up a few bags of instant noodles and retreat to the comfort of our sleeping bags.
By morning, the plains are coated beneath a layer of snow, the tent crackling with frozen ice. Motioned over by our friendly neighbours, we stoop through the doorway of their yurt. There, a feast of fresh apricot jam, thick cream and warm bread are laid out before us, as water bubbles over the traditional iron stove, or kazan, that resides at the entrance of every home. I look around me. The architecture and furnishings are mesmerising. Supported by a willow frame, layers of felt and sheep fat, bountiful and natural resourses, provide walls for these mushroom shaped dwellings. Tasselled ropes adjust the tyndyk, the central roof that slides across like a natural skylight, letting shafts of light in and plumes of smoke out. Decorative hangings and thick shyrdaks, multicoloured felt carpets, add warmth and personality. Hauled up the mountainside by tractors each year, the bosuy is the true home of the Kyrgyz, perfectly evolved with its surroundings.
Travelling can be hard. Yet it seems as if the hardest travelling evokes the strongest impressions, as if discomfort and change reawakens the senses. Sitting cross-legged, the whole family pile in, clad in kalpaks, wool coats and patched up over-trousers. More than ever, I feel aware of where I am, what I am doing and perhaps most importantly, why. I watch as a collection of faces tuck into breakfast, filling the yurt with smiles and laughter, a beautiful meld of Asiatic and Mongol features. Beside me, a miniature two month baby is snugly wrapped in bundles of fur. Three generations living under one roof. It's a simple life: no electricity and the trappings that go with it, a life ruled by day and night. Yet undoubtedly there's a harmony within the family that seems missing so often in the West today, and I feel fortunate to be sharing it.
That day, there's little to see as we ride our way around Son Kol's muddy shores. Blizzard like conditions throw a scattering of yurts into muffled silhouette; wild horses appear and disappear out of the mist. Occasional glimpses of craggy mountains heavy with snow remind us of the ranges that surround us. Russian Ladas amble by, stopping regularly for engine tinkering as small fleets of tourist Niva jeeps bounce past, faces pressed to steamy windows. Then it's just us, the cold and the few metres of road ahead. We push on, until finally the sight we've long waited comes into view -- two yurts pitched by the lake. Home to the Osmons, a family I stayed with as part of an eco-tourist project last year, these enclaves of warmth and hospitality seem all the more alluring to our weary eyes.
And sure enough, the moment we haul back the heavy protective felt flap of their yurt and gaze inside, all the discomforts of these last few days seem worthwhile, even necessary. Shrugging off our water-logged clothes, we collapse on thick shyrdaks and sheep skin rugs, gratefully slurping the hot cups of tea that are placed in our frozen hands. Pulling out photos from last year, we watch the family pour over them. Grandpa Osmon seems particularly delighted. An 82-year-old Tajik in riding breeches, with a splendid marine blue kalpak and pin prick eyes, he peers intently at his portrait in the flickering light of a candle. A radiant smile creeps over his face. Offering me a spirited handshake, he mutters a stream of Kyrgyz before proudly showing it off to the others.
Warming up on a bowl of soup, we bed down with the family. Like a sleepover, blankets, cover and pillows are everywhere. As we all curl up and say our goodnights, a wonderful feeling of warmth seeps through my body. We've made it back to Kyrgyzstan on our own steam, in keeping with the surrounding contours of the Kyrgyz' own lifestyle. At times, travelling can seem too much about movement. On a journey that has been all about arriving, it's a wonderful feeling to have returned.
© Cass Gilbert
and Rosal Fischer
Rough Guides Newsletter
other stories by C Gilbert