In the cosmic mountains

It is 7.30am and still just dark in Kyrgyzstan’s capital city, Bishkek. I sit in the courtyard of a youth hostel with my breath clouding before me and steam braiding away from my instant coffee.

This is a significant moment for me. I am at my journeys geographical midway, half behind, half ahead. Soon I will take a flight to New Delhi, India, and steel myself for a new and different set of challenges. From the solitude of cycling some of the world's most remote roads to an overpopulated country of 1.2 billion people.

This first act of my journey came a dramatic conclusion over the past few weeks. I have just traversed the Pamir mountain range by bicycle.

‘The Pamirs’ colloquially describe the mountains of Tajikistan's ‘Autonomous Province of Mountain Badakhshan’, or ‘GBAO’.

During the ‘Great Game’ of the late 19th century Afghanistan's Wakhan province was established as the buffer zone between Great Britain and the USSR. The Pamirs, therefore, served as the USSR’s strategic frontier.

The ‘Pamir Highway’ is a 1200 kilometer Soviet highway built in 1933 to connect military and administrative headquarters in GBAO with supply lines coming through Kyrgyzstan. As the world's second highest highway it loses out only to Pakistan's ‘Karakoram Highway’.

The Pamir Highway represented a disproportionately critical checkpoint in my story. I suspected that the height of the road and the regions sparse population would make it extremely challenging by bicycle or even impassable in winter. Accordingly, “beating the winter” has been a constant motivation for me since I left London six months ago.

The highway proper begins at GBAO’s capital, Khorog, more than two kilometers above sea level. Between Khorog and the Kyrgyzstan border, some 500 kilometers to the north-east, lay five major mountains passes. Four of these exceed 4000 meters in altitude, the largest a whopping 4655 meters.

Prior to Tajikistan I had never experienced extreme altitude nor extreme cold. The effects of altitude are demographically un-selective. Therefore, it was with some trepidation that I climbed steadily out of Khorog and prepared my assault of the first pass, Koitezek.

It was in Europe’s Alps that I honed my col-smashing skills. A favoured technique is to sleep directly below the pass and tackle it with fresh legs first thing in the morning. With this intention I pitched the tent 400 vertical meters shy of the col on the edge of a braided river valley. At first light I would hit the monster with a swift and efficient uppercut and be down the other side by lunchtime, spending minimal time at the climatically mercurial high altitudes.

The plan was initially executed to perfection. In the morning I rose quickly was moving under a low sun. The wide, exposed valleys offer such sparse encouragement to vegetation that the frigid and patchy snow covering, increasing in density as I climbed upward, was welcome if only to give some character to the dusty landscape. The gradient increased and the road writhed to and fro across the mountain like a snake in the rough.

At these highest altitudes even Soviet engineering can’t withstand the ravages of nature. The surface degraded into gavel and “washboard”, corrugations left by trucks in unpaved roads, particularly hated by cyclists for their propensity to shake loose all the fittings in body, mind and bicycle.

As I neared 4000 meters I was attacking the climb with neither speed nor efficiency. My breathing grew heavier, faster, rasping and irregular. I had long run out of gears but to push out of the saddle was to incur in the legs what I term “full lactic flush”, which is as painful as it sounds. Soon I was alongside the bike but even walking became increasingly unsustainable. I set myself targets, “200 meters at a time, 100 meters at a time, come on, you can do 50 meters!”. Between each interval I would be bent over the handlebars, lungs heaving for more in the thin air.

It was slow work, and to be repeated as on all but one of the following passes. Descending on unpaved road was often only marginally faster. The washboard descent of Koitezek was so jarring that at one point I heard a loud bang and turned to see my fuel bottle skittering and spinning behind me. The bracket had sheared clean off the fork.

For all my efforts to ‘beat the winter’ I was perhaps just too late. Having been delayed in Dushanbe waiting for bike components it was early November by the time I left Khorog, a month later than intended. Temperatures decrease by an average of 6C per 1000 meters elevation so above 3000 meters the temperature never exceeded 0C, and at night dropped well below -10.

Travelling in extreme cold was an entirely novel experience for me which continually presented unexpected challenges and more than a few mishaps.

Each day my primary concern was ensuring I was able to eat and sleep adequately. Darkness would descend by 5pm so the evening routine began no later than four. I cook using a DIY stove made out of a Turkish soda can which is filled with burning alcohol. Early on I discovered that the alcohol won’t light unless it is at something nearing room temperature (a room in Britain, not Tajikistan). Therefore, I would spend twenty minutes of each morning and evening cramped in my one man tent warming the can between my legs. Intermittently I would strike matches into the stove and pray for ignition.

On one morning I was following this routine and busying myself with the mornings other logistical tasks meanwhile. Achieving ignition, I moved the burner to its stand and congratulated myself on another small victory, thinking hungrily of the hot porridge and coffee which was now only minutes away. I was only alerted to the fact that some of the alcohol had spilt when I felt a warm sensation around my crotch and peered downward to find it merrily alight. I simultaneously flapped at the flames and thought of how difficult it would be to describe this potential injury in sign language without being misinterpreted and causing great offence.

With relief I soon smothered the blaze and dealt with no worst discomfort than a chill and unfortunately placed breeze for the remainder of the trip.
Adapting to the altitude and climate of the Pamirs has been the most technically challenging episode of my journey. Each day was its own exercise in survival and being alone left little margin for error.

Progression was, therefore, an empowering experience. Every meal, every mile, and every sleep was carefully engineered. Every victory, however small, was felt and appreciated. I rolled alone through landscapes of monstrous peaks, cosmically patterned by snowfall intermingling with the burnt earth beneath. Landscapes which for most humans and animals is utterly inhospitable and therefore completely silent. Inhospitable for most, but not for me - So I would grin pridefully each morning, another day behind me, another night survived.

To the Pamiran people who live these conditions throughout their life, survival likely feels less empowering. GBAO province comprises 45% of Tajikistan’s landmass, but only 3% of its population.

The harsh environment is reflected in the settlements, which are exceedingly basic.
GBAO’s easternmost town Murghab was established initially in 1891 as a Russian military outpost. A dreary sprawl of single story white bungalows, Pamiran architecture speaks of precautions against the 2500 seismic tremors recorded each year. Murghab’s bazaar comprises a few raggy lines of shipping containers and gutted out vehicles, each haphazardly crammed with everything from tinned food to yak-hair socks to toy AK-47’s, and probably real ones if you know who to ask.

Pamiran people are, however, exceedingly kind and hospitable. On numerous occasions I was offered tea and even occasionally accommodation. After a particularly cold night at the base of the Ak-Baital, the highways highest pass, I rode into Karakul, a small settlement bordering the azure waters of the misleading named “black lake”.

In drab snowfall the town looked almost derelict. I wasn’t optimistic as I followed a spray painted arrow on a crumbling building towards the “welcome cafe”. I stamped my numb feet up and down on the frigid ground to encourage some circulation and called “hello!” while loudly rapping the door.

A woman emerged from the house opposite and hustled over, smiling and ushering me into a small warm room with a wood burner at one end and a rug to sit on at the other. She was clearly a seasoned professional at reviving apathetic and frost bitten cyclists. She whipped three hot stones from the wood burner and covered my feet with them. To date hot-stones from a Tajik wood burner are the only effective way I have found of keeping one's feet warm while cycling in winter. I only asked for tea but after ten minutes in the next room she re-emerged with a steaming plate of fried potatoes, tea and coffee.

From Kara-kul lake two passes, one per day, remained between me and the Tajik border. From the second pass, which also marked the Tajikistan border, I had a 45 kilometer descent to the Kyrgyz town of Sary Tash, an afternoons work at most. I was overly confident. I had already navigated three passes and three quarters of the highways total distance. Two final hurdles remained before a return to the comparative civilisation of a major settlement.

Forgetting how quickly the weather can change in the mountains was the first of several mistakes which gave my Pamiran story a completely unprecedented finale.

I set off north and quickly dispatched the first pass in an increasingly icy and ferocious headwind. Frosted earth became a patchwork of snow drifts and as I pushed the bike up the final pass to the Tajik border all topographical details were utterly obscured under a thick white blanket.

In incremental efforts I heaved the bike level with a cluster of shabby pre-fabricated huts and shipping containers which served as passport control. A German and Polish couple saw me bent double gasping for air and invited me into the cabin they had slept in for coffee and dates. They were riding tricycles, and would wait for a passing shared taxi to take them and their rides over down the opposite side of the pass to where the snow cleared.

I was optimistic that the snowfall would be similar on the Tajik and Kyrgyz sides of the pass, and render unridable only the uppermost slopes. I anticipated an hours pushing downhill would deliver me below the snow line to complete the twenty kilometers of no-mans land to the Kyrgyz border and the forty total kilometres to Sary Tash on the bike. I wished the Europeans good luck and said I’d see them that afternoon in Sary Tash.

My first mistake was forgetting how mercurial mountain weather can be. The second was forgetting to check the weather forecast before leaving Murghab, three days previously. I hadn’t realised that the Kizil-Art Pass, which I was at that moment straddling, crosses the eastern end of the Trans-Alai mountain range. The Trans-Alai spans Kyrgyzstan’s southern border and is responsible for Kyrgyzstan’s continental climate. It is, I found out, possible for the weather conditions on each side of the range to be entirely different.

I slipped, slid and was dragged downwards through narrow steep sided valleys, hoping as I rounded each rocky outcrop to see blessed grey tarmac re-emerging from the deep drifts. I remained optimistic. So confident was I of the snow clearing that I even turned down a ride on a shared taxi.

Again and again I would await the next bend in the road in anticipation of being returned to my saddle, but every time I was disappointed by continuous dazzling white, as far as I could see.

Eventually the road levelled in a wide flat valley and my heart sank. My only chance of reaching clear road was to lose more altitude. I stared morosely up the valley where I could see the jeep tracks winding along the valley side. Winding, but staying quite horizontal for at least another ten kilometers.

Even on the flat the road was utterly unrideable. The snow lay about me four foot deep, broken only by occasional passing jeeps which left two compressed runnels in the road. Many times I attempted to cycle in the runnels, but it was akin to bowling down a quarter-width lane. Any sideways movement of more than a few inches would bring the wheels into contact with the high loosely packed walls, causing a twisting slide and usually an ungainly nosedive into the powder.

Almost more frustratingly, it was impossible to even push the bike efficiently. The runnels were too far apart
to be able to walk in one and push the bike in the other. A single runnel was too narrow for man and bike to share without continually tripping over the bike or smacking one's shins with the pedals. After a particularly eye watering overstep I remedied this last grievance by strapping a piece of sleeping mat to my shin.

Progress was agonisingly slow and my expectations of reaching Sary Tash that day were slipping away. I re-evaluated my situation. I wasn’t presently in danger. The weather was calm and I had an extra nights worth of emergency food. Even at this pace I could walk the entire distance to Sary Tash in two days. An undesirable prospect but possible.

Mistakes, however, had been made. My iPhone was unusable in such low temperatures and I had no paper map of Kyrgyzstan. Visibility was good and I could follow the road courtesy of the tracks left by jeeps. More snowfall though would cover the tracks and render the road invisible. If the jeep tracks were covered I would be immobilised.

My thoughts turned to my immediate problems. I had been pushing for nine hours and daylight was rapidly fading.

I realised I was as close as a cyclist can get to being ‘benighted’, a climbing term used to describe being stranded overnight unexpectedly. I had spent plenty of nights camping over the previous few weeks, but the temperature had dropped significantly and I had no experience camping in deep snow.

Feeling increasingly nervous I trudged onwards into the enveloping darkness, looking for somewhere, anywhere inside to sleep. I knew finding such a place was unlikely. I was twenty kilometers from the nearest town and the few shepherds huts I passed had been boarded up, their inhabitants having moved to warmer climes for the winter.

A decision had to be made, I had to commit to the night. Lurching the bike toward off the track I waded through thigh deep snow to a nearby electricity pylon. With mitted hands I set about digging a hole ten by ten feet, just large enough to house my one man tent. Of course I had no idea what was beneath the snow and in the slightly desperate vigour which I employed to distract myself from panic l snapped a peg on the rocky ground beneath.

This was the moment to pull out all the emergency stops. Every piece of equipment I had was either worn or piled under my sleeping mat to insulate me from the frozen ground beneath.

I grinned cheekily as I cooked a spot of pasta from the warmth of my sleeping bag. This was a proper adventure, proper survival. I thought masochistically that I might have been disappointed if the Pamirs hadn’t thrown up a night like this.

The night passed in broken sleep. Each hour I would awake shivering despite wearing 8 layers of clothing including two down jackets. I developed various exercise routines to keep warm, the favoured being vigorous shoulder rolls due to lack of space in the tent. As soon as I was warm it was a race to the bottom. I had mere minutes to fall asleep before getting cold again.

The weather remained clear the next morning and I wandered on across a pearlescent plain, brilliantly white and utterly silent.

I finally reached Sary Tash that afternoon, footsore, weary add starving. Technically the Pamir Highway concludes 180 kilometers beyond Sary Tash in the Kyrgyz city of Osh, but for me this was the end of the line. The previous days had taken a significant toll on me and I fell ill the following day.

I had no qualms about hitching a lift the final kilometers to Osh, my first and only lift of the trip to date. I had proved everything I had wanted to prove to myself, and learnt all that I was going to.

Mentally I had left Central Asia already. My mind fluttered onward as it does now to a new chapter in this tale, to new unknowns, to new challenges and new roads to ride. B

Comments

  1. Day 197

    Wow! What an adventure of endurance and determination. Again, excellent descriptions. We can feel the intense cold and discomfort and look forward to hearing that you have reached the safety of a warmer climate. Best wishes.

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  2. Your perseverance is incredible Kit. Keep going strong!

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