We’d been prowling long enough up and down the river so that my patience sheared apart. Fuck it, I stepped in, three, then six more steps and the water swirled up past my knees. It felt warm and alluring, though I knew that was entirely the contrast between it and the shivering rainstorm windblow that we’d been shouldering into for most of the day. I oriented the bike, already starting to ride up in buoyancy, parallel to the current, and took sideways footfalls pausing for a secure stance here and there. It was wresting and dragging, but fifteen meters coughed me up on the other side. I waved to the others to cross. Dubious of my success, they kept searching for a wider, shallower section.
Early days for us, these, in Kyrgyzstan. From the Central Asia city chaos of Bishkek to the hired sprinter van ride out to the far eastern part of the country to now, we’re breathing the place in. Sharktooth mountains of the Tien Shan range, unfurling green valleys, galaxy night skies. Nomads and Islam and vestiges of the Soviet days.
Shivering with all my clothes on and every inch of cord cinched goretex battened down. It’s grey enough for the sunglasses to be too dark, but I keep them as a shield against the stinging drops. I meditate. The others find a way over, in silence switch to dry socks and we press on. I lean close to the touch screen of the GPS and blow hard—it won’t register my frozen fingers across droplets unless it’s near dry—and scroll ahead. We’re about to turn hard west from what had been a southerly course. I shrug to myself that that’s where the gusts are coming from. This section is open wet and tussocky tundra, no discernible track so we are justing pointing our fat bikes toward landmarks that fall on the map line. It’s that stupid satisfaction of half luck and half intention when I yell here’s more or less where we should turn and at that moment if you look at the ground just right you could see the two faint marks of an old long abandoned road. The wind picks up fiercer, I’m riding shoulder to shoulder with Joel. Logan and Lucas are a bit behind us, we’re all in our easiest gear struggling on the flat. Sometimes we holler words across the enforced loneliness, but mostly I let myself be absent in the rattling rustling of my hood, the jet engine howl in my ears, the squinting to look up for cracks in the low clouds. We’ll ride this way for a couple of hours into dusk and a brief window from the storm. I’ll sleep the sleep of exhaustion and elation.
I’m listening to the thwap tick thwap on the fly and shuffling a bit, thinking about breakfast. There’s enough ambient light in the tent so that I have a good guess about the hour. Logan, whose tent is closest to mine, calls out. “Have you been outside yet?” I say something about the rain and he laughs and tells me to check again. Heavy bloated flakes stream in half way between a float and a fall when I pull the zipper open. There’s a few inches on the ground and our gear is covered, we’re both laughing. Mountains in August, we’ll be sweating in short sleeves on the dusty plains in a week. We pack up that slow, ass dragging packing and along the way all sheepishly confess that we slept in the same layers, namely all of them, that we wore all day yesterday.
Today was supposed to be a lengthy bushwack along a narrow river cut north of us. During planning the walking track was visible in the close satellite images, and some Russian trekkers had posted photos on Google Earth of their traverse a few years back. Given the conditions, we opt instead for my backup plan contrived for bad weather or slow progress. The psychical drag of the 50k per day pace we’ve been on is enough to have us stick to the more obvious route, though even that plan is uncertain because at closest zoom it looks like the doubletracks don’t link up, though they obviously should.
Pedaling away from camp in a classic New England wintry mix, our tread cuts down to the grass on our way to the narrow ascending dirt road. Fistfuls of mud are flung up over our heads in comical rooster tails. It’s day four of the trip and we’re nearing what will be the thirteen thousand foot high point, elevation-wise, of the three weeks. Ahead of us, that elemental battle: rolling roiling clouds close to the earthly peaks leap forward and then are beaten back by wind, bolts of sunshine crack through, heating things up and putting the frost deeper on the defensive. But then the tiniest of whorls and the grey mounts an counter. Nearing the top we stop at a lake to refill bottles, we’re all sweating not just from the effort but because the temperature really is rising now. We’re queasy for it, since that means worse mud. Soon we’re stopping every 100 meters to clear the chain and seatstays. Gobs accumulate enough to knock the chains off our single rings, Lucas hangs back to shake out his rig in a pooling chocolate milk puddle.
Then we’re at the lip of the ridge with switchbacks receding below us. Joel doesn’t say anything, just brings his camera to his eye to grab the dappling light and now wispy tendrils. Something breaks in us, something about the focused corralled tension of traveling in rough conditions, something about the turning inward and hiding inside yourself against toes frozen for hours and always just a stray chill away from shivering, something about struggling to breathe and riding flat out to keep a walking speed pace. It breaks. Logan rolls up, Lucas too, and we’re all descending now sliding now missile re-entry through the turns, the crunch and dirtspray across ruts and manualing over cracked boulders.
The track, two stark dirt ribbons through low grass like a fairway, straightens over downvalley rollers. I’m whooping off the brakes and there’s warm yellow light on the backs of my bare hands. Cold watercourse crashing alongside, the occasional yurt and shepherd and roaming free pack of horses, we have 40k of this in front of us, rolling down it, none of us ever having seen a road that lifts us like this.
Joe Cruz—Revelate Designs and Seven Cycles Ambassador—is a professor, writer, and expedition cyclist. Read more from his Kyrgyzstan bikepacking trip at joecruz.wordpress.com and follow @joecruzpedaling.
Joe Cruz is a philosophy professor, writer, and expedition cyclist. He has toured and raced bikes the world over. While Joe perfectly well likes rugged, remote, and challenging trips, his favorite bikepacking always includes a substantial cultural and historical element. He thus counts Tibet, Pakistan, and Peru as highlights. Joe and his wife split their time between rural Williamstown, Massachusetts and their beloved native New York City; his blog is Pedaling in Place. Instagram @Joecruzpedaling.