What happened when we cycled at snail’s pace and said yes to everything one winter day in central Kyrgyzstan (2,300 words).
Today, not the today that I’m writing about today but the actual today, I’m in Kenya, thinking back to Kyrgyzstan. I miss what happened there, which can’t be recreated, which makes it sweeter. Telling these stories accurately and vividly feels like a difficult task and sometimes intimidates me. I mean just look at this lead-up before I even get into it: what if I let you down?
Is it true for you that your travel partner can be having a very different experience, even as you are sharing a tent, a room, a car, a bicycle, a direction of gazing? Yesterday I asked Evan for help with remembering the route we rode from Suusamyr to Lake Issyl Kul, in the middle of this petite and jagged Central Asian republic (that’s Kyrgyzstan). I learned Evan feels differently. Not that he disliked the place, but that sometimes he found it “desolate, like it was god-forsaken.”
His memory amazes me: he remembers where he has slept almost every night since he left the UK on a bicycle three years ago. There are a few camp spots in Turkey that escape him; I poke fun at him for this.
So Evan feels vindicated when he quickly orients himself with Google’s satellite imagery of Kyrgyzstan: swatches of topography captured in different seasons, juxtapositions of snowy and grassy landscapes stitched together. He scrolls along the A367 and finds exactly where we slept each night. The hills near Chaek, the trees near Bashkaingdy, the gully near Kyzart.
But he is also getting a little exasperated. He clicks to measure the distances we rode per day in this part of Kyrgyzstan. He half-jokingly says “those days are over!”
He is probably only 30% joking.
This is the other reason he gives a different answer to me when asked “what is your favourite country?” On the day I’m trying to recreate here because it was such a wonderfully Kyrgyz kind of day, we “only did” 33 kilometres. This modest distance was heresy for Evan, but he had a dilemma: he liked me a lot, knew me a little, and didn’t feel comfortable saying “come on, we just stopped back there.”
This day is one of the better answers I have for “what was Kyrgyzstan like?” As we remembered it together, Evan mostly agreed that the small distance was for good reason.
KM 0-10: MAUSOLEUMS
On that morning, I zipped opened the mesh to squint at the sun but remained inside the tent, cross-legged on the mattress. A fallow field spread out in front of me, behind me a cluster of small mausoleums, Kyrgyz grave sites.
We were camped on the edge of tiny Bashkaingdy, our possessions strewn about. The previous afternoon Evan had cycled back to Bashkaingdy to buy groceries from a little shop, while I wallowed here in the tent between swallowing down chalky, bitter Ciprofloxacin (an antibiotic) with filtered water.
Selfishness seems easier to justify when you’re sick. We brushed off the drunk man who swaggered over to question why we were camped in broad daylight at the edge of someone’s—his?—field. I suppose what you’re supposed to do in writing honestly is to see the awkward directions the writing could take and choose those directions to write towards. It’s uncomfortable to admit that I didn’t handle my explosive diarrhea with Leave No Trace principles, and it’s hard to end this sentence without “…but I did this other thing responsibly!”
We had been here between the field and mausoleums for the previous day’s entire afternoon—I had been too sick to cycle, unwilling to hitch a ride, reluctant to be hosted with its accompanying social obligations. The tent was half hidden by naked trees but visible to the teenaged boys who trotted over on their horses. After seventeen hours or so here, it was time to leave.
Late that morning we slowly climbed up a mercifully paved road, past the cluster of beige mausoleums built with beige bricks rising from the winter’s beige soil and grasses. Through this part of Kyrgyzstan we seemed to pass villages of the living less often than villages of the dead. Laurence Mitchell writes about these villages of the dead in a fascinating blog post, explaining their eclectic mixture of Soviet, Kyrgyz, sedentary and nomadic elements.
The mausoleums were one more thing to gaze at that morning as we rode slowly, and maybe they distracted me a little more from my self pity. One accented the view through a road cut towards a wall of snow-capped mountains, and I remember wondering how each day in Kyrgyzstan managed to keep surpassing the previous day’s landscapes.
KM 15: A POSTER OF WHERE?
The previous two days had felt remote. The Suusamyr Valley had threatened to swallow us. During those days we cycled past fantastically steep alluvial fans coloured rust, sections of road freshly cleared from landslides, and others that still needed clearing. A wolf howled at night, men on horseback trotted down snow-crusted dirt roads during the day.
The return to paved roads brought the return of trucks, which brought the return of roadside restaurants. It felt like it had been a long time since we’d been inside these warm establishments where tea and noodles are almost guaranteed. But it hadn’t been long, a few days at most.
And it hadn’t even been long since breakfast at the edge of that field, where Evan ate jam straight from the jar and where I felt fragile but ready to try to cover some distance.
We ate and drank tea near the windows with lace curtains. I was fascinated by the wall poster of a viscerally familiar scene: mountains, pines and a glacial lake, like the Canadian Rockies. To me this was globalization: the poster had a Chinese logo, but the photo could have been from anywhere. It could have been from Canada, from China, or even from Kyrgyzstan, as all three countries have such rugged beauty inside their borders.
Such posters of idealized landscapes, be they mountainous or tropical or quirky montages of waterfalls and butterflies, are favourites of Central Asian families and restaurant owners. I giggle when I see them, but I see the point. They warm a space with their colour, they bring the world inside.
KM 18: A HORSE
Once a friend joked that I’d marry a Central Asian man, the wedding held in a yurt. If that had been my priority, I think I’d have proposed to the Kyrgyz cowboy we saw from the road, dragging a horse out of the creek it had drowned in.
Him and the others waved us over once we paused at the side of the road, trying to figure out what we were looking at, what it was that looked like legs sticking into the air. The Kyrgyz cowboy’s striking features wrenched me briefly from my infatuation with Evan. I’ve never considered myself a lover of cowboys but that’s what he looked like, with his hat and stance and coy demeanour. Maybe that’s why I was too shy to ask for his portrait.
We were still full from the restaurant and barely a few kilometres past it. Still, we accepted their waves by pedalling over the grass and crossing the creek that killed the horse, which was now laying on the grass, looking waterlogged.
Look, the enthusiasm of the Kyrgyz is special, but we turned down many invitations to stop, to chat, to drink tea together. We had accepted this invite because we had an agenda, to gawk at the horse dissection.
This made them awkward. The family let us look for a while, then urged us to come inside their home, a little farther up a gentle hill. Maybe what we were doing was the equivalent of a stranger coming into my apartment on Saturday and watching me clean the toilets. We got the message and let ourselves be led inside.
I remember the young woman most, because she was my age, because she lived a life that perhaps seemed coherent to her, but to me seemed split in two. She brought a tablet into the room, to show us pictures of her in Bishkek wearing the fashionable youth’s take on western clothes: uncovered dark hair in cascades, not-quite-tight skinny jeans and dresses. Here she was living in a house built of mud warmed by a stove fed with dung, pregnant, here to help her husband’s (the cowboy?!) family.
She brought tea and sugar, bread and omelettes into the dark room with walls lined by wooden armoires holding porcelain. I didn’t want to leave. I rarely want to leave.
Maybe if we had popped in for dinner a few days later, we would have eaten horse. The Kyrgyz take pride in their horses, the vehicles of their nomadic heritage. They ride them, play games with them, ferment their milk, and also eat them. The horse’s organs were being prepared for dog food, its meat for market.
Now that the family had fulfilled their idea of hospitality via omelette, we were more welcome to come and watch them make the best of things. The men cut the corpse open throat down to genitals, the woman sorted out the organs on a plastic tarp, everyone helped wash them in the creek. If they were sad I couldn’t see it, the atmosphere was one of normalcy.
The dog had to be kept away, but Evan was allowed—with some giggles—to stare into the dark, strange-smelling cave of the excavated horse. He stomached this, but got queasy when the stomach was slit open, revealing wiggling worms clinging to its interior. He doesn’t like looking at that photo.
KM 20: A DANCE PARTY
Evan coaxed me away and we said our goodbyes, our thanks, “spasiba, spasiba!” and we crossed back over the creek now swirling with organ juices. I sound like a broken record, but we stopped again a few kilometres later. No one even asked us to. The brief winter daylight were quickly receding, the need to prepare for dinner and breakfast had crept up on us. We stopped at another shop for more food. In Kyrgyzstan, we gained weight.
The contrast felt bizarre. If I had looked carefully I might have still seen the family’s house behind us, the pregnant women with her belly shawl, the cowboy, the rural modesty. Now were in a small village, no metropolis, but some of the women now dancing with us were in sequinned tight dresses and high heels. Not exactly what we expected when we entered the shop to get groceries.
Our boots scraped the floor, we were awkward, laughing, sober and ungainly in our winter clothes. Our groceries were in the corner, and Evan and I had been separated by our genders. I was dancing with this man or that, he with the women, who were more forward and flirty than the men. The group was small but the music was loud. We didn’t hang around long enough for the inevitable vodka peer pressure to start.
It all took only fifteen minutes or so, including the initial purchase of bread, yogourt with fake fruit colours, cabbage and carrots. One of the party participants gave me a pink plastic flower to remember them by. It lasted for months wrapped around my handlebars, gradually losing its fraying petals before flying off somewhere in Canada.
KM 33: A GULLY
The only time of day where I felt a sense of urgency was dusk, when we raced against the cold to set up our tent and get dinner cooked and eaten. We made our home in a gully just past Kyzart, about thirty three kilometres from where we’d left that morning.
Finally, Evan had a chance to do something as fast as he wanted. He set about moving rocks, flattening ground, pitching the tent and blowing up mattresses, that least-desired task. I chopped vegetables with cold fingers holding a colder knife. The gully didn’t completely hide us, but no-one was around and we felt we had nothing to fear, which on this evening was exactly right.
The pleasures and quirks of Kyrgyzstan made an unbroken chain and it’s hard to constrain myself to a single twenty-four hour period. If you’ve read this far you know that even with that goal I bounced around, that the previous days bled into this story.
The pictures below are from the next morning, twenty-four hours after Evan ate the jam and I decided I would try to continue and leave the field and the mausoleums, my guts feeling empty. Waking up in the gully was wonderful in itself, with the sun warming us and Kochkor— a real town—feeling close. We popped our heads up over the gully’s walls and saw horses, and shepherds on horses all against a backdrop of snowy mountains. Can you see why I miss Kyrgyzstan?
As we packed up, Evan realized his front fork was broken. Our sudden need for assistance brought more interesting interactions, but that’s another day for another day.
Why was I back in Kyrgyzstan for a second visit? If it wasn’t obvious from my cheesy swooning in this post, I returned in pursuit of Evan.
I probably caught Giardia lamblia from drinking unsafe water in Kyrgyzstan. If you’re curious about how we find, carry and treat our water while bicycle travelling in Asia and Africa, check out this photo gallery.