The late afternoon rain had started as the driver dumped us and our bags at the restaurant by the road. He seemed to think it was a suitable spot to end the trip; we figured a random restaurant was as good as anywhere to plan our next move. He had overcharged us for the two hour ride from Bishkek to near Toktogul Lake. Perhaps that’s why he gave us a small vial of his cologne before parting ways. Ilona lacks a smelling nerve (no, really) so only I could appreciate that strange treat.
We were officially on the bike trip now….So the first order of business was to sit down and eat.
Inside we rested on carpets around a low square table, eating laghman noodles and guiltlessly drinking sugared tea while resting truck drivers shot bemused stares at our biking outfits. I just have to write, lest I forget, that one of them had a Jack Nicolson-esque face. Large window frames held stretched plastic sheeting, sheltering us from cold mountain air.
Pedalling to one hundred kilometres – the arbitrary milestone I share with you now – took three days to complete on the second-hand mountain bike I’ve called home for the past six weeks. We hadn’t planned it this way, and maybe this is just hindsight speaking, but each of those days offered me a new challenge. If I had faced all these hurdles at once, I could have overcome them but some private tears might have been shed in the process. Instead, the obstacles came step by step, culminating in a modest distance I was proud of. It felt hard-earned and adventurous.
Our leisurely dinner at the restaurant that first night wasn’t because biking had exhausted us. By that metric it had been an underwhelming day – a few kilometres from our hosts’ house to a taxi stand on the edge of Bishkek. Instead, we were hanging around to see if we could sleep inside the restaurant. The cushions and carpets tempted us more than a wet first night in the tent near a busy road. But it wasn’t to be – the waitress wouldn’t let us, and the plastic windows did little to block the sound of passing semi trucks.
Both beckoning and foreboding, the trailer had appeared a few kilometres down the road, just off to the left. It was late in the afternoon, and we needed to find shelter.
No, it was not physical. My first challenge was instead an early initiation into the tumbling thoughts that can come with cycling freedom; the trailer’s pink walls closed me in with them that night. In record time we had managed to break every rule Ilona had told me about choosing a place to sleep. Walking our bikes off towards the trailer into the grass, bad timing saw a man in an old Lada stop and try to speak to us in Russian. Busted. Children walked within sight of us, outside their own house. Once we hoisted ourselves up into the trailer through the destroyed back door, I wasn’t comforted. The trailer didn’t look recently occupied, but had been used as a place to sleep by souls before us. Would we have visitors tonight? Halting possible scenarios from swarming my head became easier once it was dark and we were cozy in our sleeping bags. Thanks for the shelter, freaky Kyrgyz trailer.
Day two brought the first of the hills – humble, and humbling. Despite their modest size, grade and beautiful smooth asphalt they still stole my breath quickly. On the first I pulled off to the side, watching Ilona carry on ahead over the crest. After some thought I clumsily dismounted and resigned myself to walking up the remainder, pushing forty kilograms of bike and stuff.
When I started on this trip I did not know how to bike up hills; I realize this now. In my past life, hills were generally mounds on the bike path encountered enroute to the ice cream shop. You know, enough to make you feel like you could justify the kiddie cone. Walking up hills is much more in my comfort zone, and besides, I cycle in my hiking boots!
Ilona didn’t say anything the first time I walked – she just snapped a photo marking my vanquishing. It was the next time I stopped mid-hill that she gently suggested I try instead to take a quick break, drink some water, and continue cycling. Pushing, she explained, may seem easier but will tire you out faster. She was right, of course. The hills continued to humble me, but I substituted walking for oh-so-frequent water breaks and (less) frequent pity parties in my head.
Day two also filled me with pride – we cycled sixty kilometres, bringing us within sight of the first one hundred. We also had our first night in the tent**. Along a tractor path to a terrace overlooking a long green valley, farmers worked late into the evening below. We could see southern Kyrgyzstan’s mountains – creator of a beautiful jagged sunset, direction of our momentum. This was only the beginning.
**(This isn’t technically true. We demo’d sleeping in the tent together a few nights in Bishkek in the backyard. Now you know…)
Late next morning, Ilona was waiting at the bottom and she was wearing her helmet. Usually we were staying within sight of each other but she had been far ahead. When I caught up with her I asked why she had suddenly helmeted up, and she told me ‘you took a long time, I thought you had an accident…’
The last challenge I faced before I had one hundred kilometres in the bag were the downs that came with the ever-increasing amount of ups. The day after climbing my first real hills on a bicycle, we were crawling up switchbacks with 12% grade, all before lunch. With them came equally steep downhills. And on that day, some rain.
We zoomed down the wet and curvy road. Spray in the face and no end to the descent in sight, I was afraid of the sound my brake pads made against the wet metal rim, not used to it. It didn’t seem impossible that something on my bike might fall off, or I’d careen off the cliff if I went too fast around a bend.
It was a delicate balance I struck. Unable to brake fully and risk skidding into a passing vehicle, I learned to squeeze the brakes gently but often. They were only released for enough time to gain a bit of speed, a few seconds maybe. One time I came to a complete stop, just to reassure myself that I could. So, was not breaking any downhill speed records. Ever.
That afternoon we reached and passed this milestone without fanfare or celebration, save for a quick high-five in my head. There it was: One hundred kilometres cycled on the M41, the famous Pamir Highway. And for me, my first one hundred cycle touring!
It was a meagre distance that a keen road cyclist could pump out in an evening after work, but this comparison served to further highlight the landscapes, people and experiences packed neatly into a tiny patch of Kyrgyzstan. She was quickly revealing signs of things to come.