1US$ = 10 kyrg sum
149 km time 7:21, climb 940m
4719 km to date
Dodging through busy Naryn I narrowly avoid running over a child. Following Alex, the crowd turns to watch him as he passes, oblivious to the possibility of two of these funny looking Americans riding past them in the same day. They turn, they stare. Their backs to me when I shout. They turn. They freeze. I steer. They move in the same direction. Dodge, deek, dodge. Squeal. Very close. I don't look back to the sound of crying.
The gate across the road up ahead seems too early to be the border crossing according to our maps. Alex agrees. “Hope they don't look for our entry stamp. Don't want these assholes telling us our visas have expired too.” They wave us down and we try to ignore them, but we’re caught. It’s too hard to play the usual game of waving back and continuing. The gate is blocking the road. But the good news is they are smiling. A man in a dirty uniform and hat ushers us towards his trailer. A fat shirtless man with the same hat sits at a table with a young, scrawny man spitting watermelon seeds.
We're ready for the usual game of waiting and posturing while the guards ponder the stamps on our passports. Instead, the fat man emerges from the trailer with another watermelon, plov, lepioshka and plates. We are to sit down and eat, he says. It’s lunch time.
A truck pulls up from which several men emerge. One wears a t-shirt with "Tajikistan Marathon" screened on. Alex offers to trade. The man refuses. Alex offers more. Still no deal. Alex persists, until the man agrees to sell the shirt for $20. Alex has been terribly ripped off but seems pleased with his purchase. "Think about it Doug. How many of these will you see back home? None. A good buy, right?"
After heaps of plov and endless melon eating, we pose for photographs with the "guards", who seem reluctant to allow us to wear their hats, but they soon give in. Leaving, we're not convinced we're in Kyrgyzstan. We don’t have a visa stamp, and we don’t have Kyrg money, nor do we even know what it looks like. We have nothing official telling us we’re in a new country. Puzzling.
Brandt breaks the head off the water filter and can't find his purifiers in the enormous handlebar bag. This is the last time we attempt to use the filters. Hey, anyone from Pur water filters out there reading this, your filters suck. We wait once again while he rearranges days worth of broken cookies and dirty socks in his panniers.
At a fork in the road it seems clear to us that, by our maps, we believe we are now in Kyrgyzstan, despite a complete lack of signage, or anything to suggest that we’re in a new country. The fork in the road is here, on the map, in Kyrgyzstan. A "gai" checkpoint officer guy approaches us out of nowhere. He's so drunk he can hardly walk. Alex seems to like asking the most visibly intoxicated people for help. He tells us both roads lead to the same place. We choose the high road. It looks better. For now. Within a few kilometres it is so bouncy the vibrations knock my walkman into the off position. My arms are numb. Glowing pink mountains, red rocks and an opaque blue, winding river lead the road higher. The steep, red mountains spill quickly into the river. The road follows the river and power lines follow the road. At least the scenery is cool.
At a narrow tunnel we stop. Kamaz trucks bounce from the darkness from a swirl of dust. It is barely wide enough for one truck and completely black. As I enter the tunnel my headlamp flickers, and shuts off. Perfect. I'm following Alex's tiny lamp when he decides to start riding. Swearing, I jump on my bike and coast behind. He's ahead, further away now, and I can't see anything. BOOM! I'm stopped, and it felt like my wheel has crumpled. A trip ender, I think. I can feel that my tire is flat so I push my bike blindly towards the light. Alex has continued riding, too far ahead to hear me shout. As dusk settles, I feverishly try to fix my flat before I’m lost in the dark. Arrgh! The spare tube I used is defective, sputtering to softness moments after I restart, soaked in sweat from pumping. I pump enough to keep going, having to pump again a minute later when I feel my rims on the road. It’s dusk now, and I have no idea where they are. Cars pass and passengers shout at me, telling me they are further ahead. They chug by, leaving me in their black smoke.
Pump. Bike. Pump. Bike. I can’t find them, and I’m panicking. By the time I’ve re-pumped for the fifth time, I find them on a roadside pullout. I’m all bothered and annoyed, and Alex is annoyed at me for being annoyed. And he’s right. This is not the best of sites, but it’s slim pickings around here. The road drops steeply into the reservoir below. My bad vibe hurts camp morale, made worse as Brandt boils potatoes and corn long into the night. We’re starving, of course. Earlier, in Naryn, Brandt returned from a fruitless shopping trip empty-handed, “they really didn’t have anything.” Now we’re paying for it.
115 km time 6:37, climb 1480m
4834 km to date
Leaving separately from camp this morning, I can feel that we’re not all together in spirit. Alex leaves first, then, me, leaving Brandt behind. Soon after, Brandt whizzes past me on a downhill but on the following uphill I leave him as a spec in my tracks. That feels better.
We’re to fill up at a town on our map marked, “Karakul”, but when we reach the town limits we find nothing but a truck garage and some rusty equipment. A lone repairman sends us further up the road, but there we find only an empty mill. Only after we have given up, resigned to our pasta and apricot stores to feed us for the rest of the day do we stumble upon the town. A modest outdoor market replenishes our Snickers supplies—this may be our last market for a few days—and we are able to get our hands on some Kyrg sum by changing money with the “liquor store guy”. We’ve found that the booze peddlers are the most willing to “obmen dollars”, or exchange for Kyrg money.
Our road opens up into a wide river valley with pastures and farms on either side. I snap a picture of a Kyrg man guiding a donkey cart. Once again, the headwear of the country has changed. In contrast to the white-on-black beanies of Uzbekistan, the Kyrg men wear a black-on-white, almost wizard hat shaped lid. He smiles curiously as I capture his mug. The roadside river looks refreshing, I stop and jump in to cool my chaffing thighs. Ahhhhhh. There’s no cool way to ease crotch rash, but who’s looking? The water is glacial cold.
The road climbs steeply out of this valley and at the peak we catch a glimpse of the Toktogul reservoir. Gazing across the lake we see our goal—it must be only 20 kilometres as the crow flies, yet the road will take us 80 kilometres to circle. It’s bone-numbing descent to the lake. The bikes rattle. Alex’s rack loses a bolt. I get yet another flat. As I’m roadside fixing it, Brandt wheels by, “you ok”? Actually, no, I’m not—I could use a better pump if you don’t mind. But Brandt doesn’t slow down, and leaves me fuming.
At the lake’s edge we stop to investigate our hunch. If we could just get a boat, we could save half a day of pedaling. There must be ferry boats, tours, fishing charters….Er, not here. All we find is a leaky rowboat, and even the gold-toothed owner sceptical that we can make it across in his fine craft.
Our maps tell us that at the lake’s apogee there’s a road that would cut across a mountain pass and link up with the Susamyr river. On paper it looks like a huge shortcut—maybe saving us two days of riding. At the end of the lake, however, we see no such road, only a rough trail looking like someone’s private drive. Locals warn that such a road does not exist, or if it does, it’s “ochen plahoee doroga”, a very, very bad road. Worse than this one? How is that possible?
Huge thunderheads darken the sky as dusk descends. The eastern sky glows in a brief flash of lightening. Looks like it’s headed this way. It doesn’t look like we’ll make it all the way to Toktogul tonight. Brandt has ridden ahead to find a place to camp and to stock us up on water and food. When we reach him he has done nothing, only saying, “doesn’t look like there’s much here.” Alex takes command of the situation in our remaining minutes of daylight, instructing Brandt to fill the water jugs while he and I look for food and a camping spot.
Brandt shoots back sarcastically, “Fine, Alex. Just tell me what to do.” The rift deepens. Meanwhile, Alex finds a guy willing to sell us fish. I find us a lakeside camping spot. We feast on a great fish and rice stir-fry, watching the lightning show around us. I drift off to the sound of rain pattering on our tent.
119 km time 8:54, climb 2850m
4953 km to date
top of Toktogul Pass, Kyrgyzstan
It rained hard during the night. The tent and grass around us are beaded with drops of water. I welcome the new climate. It’s a relief to see greenery. We’ve just learned that the time zone has changed again, so this means that we no longer have to face darkness at 8pm at camp.
Alex and I quickly down some lepioshka and break camp, knowing that the town of Toktogul is just down the road, where we’ll stock up again. Brandt insists on cooking ramen noodles, annoyed that we won’t wait up for him while he unpacks his stove, searches for the noodles, finds water for the pot, lights the stove…
At the Toktogul market Alex and I are already stocked up on food by the time Brandt arrives. One of our vital items is cooking oil—we sauté virtually everything we cook. We have a hard time making sure the oil we’re asking for, “masla” is cooking oil rather than engine oil. The kiosk vendors have a good laugh at our concern. Other treats we find in Toktogul: raspberry jam. Mmmmmmm. After changing $10 for sum with a young kid, he chases me down later accusing me of passing counterfeit notes. We brush him off.
Brandt arrives in town and he’s pissed off. This is it, he says. He’s had enough of us and no longer wants to travel with us. As of today, he’s going it alone. Despite our pleas (we genuinely don’t think he’ll survive on his own), he insists. I have to admit, I’m happy. Alex and I travel much more efficiently as a pair, and have more fun. Brandt has been a mismatch and an anchor since day one. Alex shares these sentiments, but I think he’s disappointed to see that the team has disintegrated.
And then there were two. Brandt disappears into the market with his bike and that is the last we see of him. Ahead of lies one mammoth climb. The maps show us climbing nearly 10,000 feet over the next forty kilometres. Wow. We’re glad we were able to stock up with lots of Snickers to get us up.
I munch on doughnuts as we start the first of endless switchbacks. Like the Karakul climb, Kamaz trucks line the road, engine parts scattered about. We play a game of, “count the truck parts” at each roadside truck. One point for lug nuts. Two points for a blown tire. Five for a blown carburetor. Drive shaft dismantled? That’s worth ten points. Every truck seems to carry three people. There’s the driver, the cook and the mechanic. Considering that roadside restaurants are few and far between, the cook makes sense. The more truck parts we see, and the more we are jarred by the brutal Kyrg roads, the mechanic is a necessity as well. It’s like an in-house roadside assistance infrastructure.
Behind us a dark storm builds. The fierce wind howls up the valley. A light rain begins to fall on us, then heavier. Within half an hour the temperature has dropped from 32 to 17 degrees. The wind knocks us about as huge rain drops pelt our helmets. Shivering, we stop to put on our cold weather gear—not seen since Ukraine. We huddle under our bikes with a tarp pulled over our heads. Our lips are blue. Is this what the mountains are going to be like? Holy fuckin’ shit!
Within twenty minutes the rain has stopped. We emerge from our makeshift lean-to and restart, still in full foul weather gear. The river we’ve been following since Toktogul gets smaller as we climb, tributaries breaking off left and right. Potholes and general road shittiness get worse as we get higher. Trucks descend in low gear at 15 kilometres / hour. Ascending trucks are less frequent; maybe we’re outpacing them. We’re at 2400 metres, but we still have 30 kilometres to go! I’ve been spinning in first gear for hours, alternating between sitting and standing to shift muscles. This climb seems to go on forever.
The top! The road has long since switched to dirt and potholes outnumber smooth road. A monument declaring “Toktogul” marks the top, where nomadic Kyrg families mill about. There’s a dramatic backdrop of glaciers that makes a great photo opportunity. When we ask if they’ll take our picture, they insist on posing in the photo with us.
It’s 7pm and still light out, so we coast, dodging potholes, for another hour, feeling triumphant. It’s been an amazing day, climbing 2850 metres. We camp on a grassy riverside next to a yurt. It feels weird knowing that Brandt is out there somewhere pitching his own tent, probably feeling very lonely.
5113 km to date
We awake in a new climate---brrrrr. My nose is numb as the only body part protruding outside the sleeping bag. My thermometer reads 3 degrees. It’s a bundle up before going outside day. My legs and arms are stiff from yesterday’s killer climb. Outside our tent is surrounded by a flock of sheep. The old guy from the yurt next door greets us as we prepare breakfast, squeezing our tires and seats, calmly asking where we are going as if he sees velo-tourists camping here every day. We make "pancakes" from eggs and flour and raspberry jam topping we paid too much for at the Toktogul market yesterday. Even though the old guy declines our offers to share our feast, we easily down the entire jar.
Pot cleaning, the task that has fallen under my watch by default, is a difficult task this morning. The glacial water instantly numbs my hands. My foot slips in, wetting my toes. They’re cold for hours.
Before departure we examine our bikes. I've lost a bolt from my pedal and Alex has a broken spoke from yesterday's descent at day's end. Our chains are dry and squeaking fro the rain and dirt. They seem to groan as we load them up for another day of punishment.
It’s an easy start to the day. We cruise along with huge vistas surrounding us. Snow-capped peaks line each side of the road, gently sloping to green pastures, 10 000 yard fairways with the occasional hut or yurt in sight. Purple flowers appear and increase in density until the lower pastures are a purple cloak. We bob and rattle down the corduroy road, gently pedaling.
At a line of Kamaz trucks parked roadside, the friendly driver eagerly shakes our hands and invites us for breakfast from the front bumper, where a plateful of meat , cucumbers and lepioshka are displayed. Boris, the driver, is Russian. His mechanic is Kazakh and his cook is Uzbek. They all look quite different though borne from the same social regime. Asked why we have seen so many broken trucks along the way, "Soviet machine", is his reply. He then seems to ask, “so just how good are Mack trucks, anyway?”
The road sweeps left against the natural tendency to follow the river valley. Soon we see a road coming from the north, the source of Fergana-bound transport trucks we’d been seeing all day yesterday. This rough road being a necessary but pathetic artery linking Bishkek, the nation's capital, to the industrial center in the Fergana valley. We find our road hooking right and towards the river valleys we want. A boy giving us directions seems happy enough with the Yuppi drink crystals we have given him in payment.
Our descent continues, meeting the Susamyr river and the village of Susamyr. We search for food, finding no open stores, "magazin zakriteI”, the store is close, the all too common greeting. The only visible commerce is a row of eight kiosks all bearing the same Turkish imported chocolate. Do people live on chocolate, cigarettes and vodka? When I ask the gold-toothed babushka where I can find lepioshka, she shrugs dismissively, “ya n’ znaiyou”, I don’t know.
The meadows narrow as we descend into the Susamyr valley. Soon we’re in a narrow canyon of pink walls, bouncing above the frothing river. More than once we stop and admire the impressive Susamyr. Wonder how long it would take to kayak to Chayek? Imagine coming back here to start rafting trips!
It has been a huge mileage day on pretty crappy roads. We reach Chayek on the leading edge of a fierce thunderstorm. Taking shelter next to the village banya, we’re tempted to jump in and scrub ourselves down. But upon entering we’re met with a frightening cast of strung out looking locals. They stare at us in a collective daze. We decide it would be better to put this one off. Given the weather, we also vote to check in to the gastinetsa, the guest house. The $10 is worth it.
The guesthouse workers are quite taken with us, following us to our room, making sure we are comfortable. The young administrator is mysteriously sexy. Flipping through our dictionary, she settles on the word, “exchange”, and looks at me suggestively. “Doug,” Alex says, “she either wants to sleep with your or change money with you. We need Kyrg sum and neither one of us has seen any action on this trip, so you can’t really lose.” No such luck, but we do end up with a mitt full of local Kyrg bucks.
192 km, peak elev 2700m
5305 km to date
It’s one of those running on fumes days. We have to make it to Issek-Kul today. We’re low on food, and there’s not much between here and Issek-Kul. Besides, the visions in our head of an idyllic alpine lake, surrounded by snow-capped peaks, cottage resorts, sailboats, young Russian waitresses….well, we just have to get there.
Village after village we pass have virtually nothing to sell in their markets, if you can call them markets. I’ve eaten four Mars bars because that’s all they seem to have that’s edible. We don’t waste time looking for more. The riding is like the day into Astrakhan: strong, unrelenting. It’s amazing how fast we are as a team of two. We bag pass after pass over 2000 metres, peaking once at 2700. Anything over 2200 we find the pavement turns to dirt and the potholes grow. “Ochen plahoee doroga”.
The town of Kochkora is a fork in the road for us. Bearing left takes us to Issek-kul with several hours more of riding. We’ll double back after our stay at the Issek-kul spa and take the other road south, to Torugart Pass and China.
Thunderstorms chase us all day, but we seem to stay one town ahead the worst of it. As we round one more corner the lake unfolds ahead of us. Instead of idyllic cottages and sailboats, however, we see an array of drab soviet-style industrial developments. This doesn’t matter; we’ll find the beach somewhere. It’s only one last pull into town, but what home stretch would be complete without a flat tire? There’s not much left in my tank as we reach town.
We weave our way along the waters edge, looking for the center of town and a hotel. The first one we find wants $20 for the night—a ripoff, we think, and go looking for an alternative. In the town bazarre we meet our first bike tourist! He’s an East German biker who says he biked north on the Karakoram highway. He says we should stay at a nearby soldier’s resthouse. We take his advice and bike through the gatehouse to find the Gastinetza. It’s a good deal—we don’t even mind the lack of hot water. For the rest of the evening probe the East German rider on his adventure. What was Torugart like? How did you get permission to bike in China? His answers are evasive. It becomes clear to us that this velo-tourist has spent most of his time hitching rides—he hasn’t many actual biking stories to tell us at all.
We spend the day stocking up at the market. Not knowing how long it will take us to get to Kashgar, we’ll need a full load. Bikes are tuned , gear is cleaned. An on looking Russian kid gets too close to Alex as he cleans our stoves and gets gasoline sprayed in his eyes. The screaming little kid runs in circles as we panic, trying to get some water to flush his eyes out. Geez, what do you do if you accidentally blind a kid in Kyrgyzstan?
The young hotel administrator walks in on me in the shower. She apologizes in horror and runs away. I’m thinking, “hey baby, what’s to be afraid of?” Later, I’m drying out our maps on the furniture when there’s a knock at the door. It’s the administrator, and she says her name is Natasha. Curiously, she examines the maps lying around the room and we start with the Russian small talk. Where I’m from, how old are you? Are you married? I ask her what she wants to be when she grows up and she replies, “a hotel administrator, of course.” We sit down on the bed, and then the weird stuff happens. Like a velo-tourist’s best fantasy, she begins to massage my back, then flips me over and kisses me on the lips. This is good. Very good. Is this for real? Please, Alex, don’t come back. Please don’t come back. Suddenly, there’s the sound of voices down the hall. Natasha springs to attention, panic on her face. She jumps off me, makes for the door, and runs out of the room, leaving me alone and all worked up. Damn!
Alex comes back later, and doesn’t believe a word I say.
153 km time 8:00, climb 1550m, peak elev 3100m
5458 km to date
40 km before Naryn, Kyrgyzstan
Despite my hormone-biased pleas, we leave town early in the morning. I cast a goodbye glance and wink at Natasha, who is working the desk along side her supervisor when we wheel by. She scowls back.
We’re back on the road, headed for China. Today is Thursday, and we figure if it takes us two days to get to Torugart we’ll make it there before it closes for the weekend. It’s a long two days, so we’ll be stretching it to make it there by the end of the day tomorrow. The weekend closure is a rumour we’ve heard that, like all information in this country, is impossible to verify.
At the Kochkor turnoff we stare down the road back to Chayek one last time, straining our eyes to see if Brandt will emerge from the western horizon. There’s no sign of him, so we push on towards China. In the town of Sary Bulak we make a startling revelation. We’re sitting on the curb, sipping imported Turkish fruit juice. Around us men stagger in the mid-day sun. My gaze passes from man to man. “That guy is drunk. So is that guy! Hey so is that other guy!” Like a Twilight Zone movie, it occurs to me that everyone in this town, except the two of us, is blindly drunk. A man approaches me and collapses on to me as he slurs something in my ear. I kick him away with a shot to his chest. Two women, both sober, come running, embarrassed, and pull him away from us. Why is it that every man over the age is sixteen is plastered by 10am every day in this country? Everybody is pissed!
Soon we are climbing hard towards the Dolon Ashsuusu pass. At 3100 metres, this will be our highest elevation of the trip to date. Roads now alternate between generally crappy and completely shitty. Rain starts to fall on the chilly descent so we stop for hot çay in a small village that is no more than a collection of trailers. It warms our hands as we sip back cup after cup inside the trailer / café. Outside, two very drunk men start throwing punches. There’s a bad vibe here. We decide to get out of town before things heat up too much.
120 km time 6:36, climb 1380m
5579 km to date
100 km before Torugart Pass
Back in Issek-kul Alex met a guy named Muhammed, from Naryn. He’s given us his address in his home town and insists we call on his family. His wife, Jasmina, is a police officer and he says she will have information on the Torugart pass opening. Finding the apartment, we knock and young guy our age answers. Stammering “Muhammed”, “meeting” and “Issek-kul”, we are instantly invited in for lunch. Muhammed is still away, and Jasmina is at work. The young guy is named “Attabek”. We go through the usual storytelling while his silent wife brings in endless piles of lepioshka and pots of çay, waiting for Jasmina. As I slouch back in the comfortable chair (the first I’ve seen in many weeks) with my feet crossed I am told that crossing my legs is offending Attabek. The wife must be about twenty-five, but she looks much older, living her life in the kitchen and having children. She looks like she must have graduated at the top of her class in “Babushka Camp”.
Jasmina arrives, and leads us to the police station. Strangely, she walks on the opposite side of the street, leaving us with Attabek and another young fellow, “Max” (9 years old, who speaks English), walking together. Max says that it would be unacceptable for Jasmina to be seen walking with other men in public.
Naryn yields us no further information. Despite our best efforts, we still don’t know if we’ll make it to the pass in time. Today is Friday, and we’re worried that the pass will be closed for the weekend. If it is, we’ll be stuck there till Monday. Max has latched on to us, stalling our departure. As we pull away from town Max runs after us, yelling desperately, “Alex, please remember me!”
Over the rest of the day we make multiple inquiries about the weekend border. Most of the people we ask are drunk. We learn nothing. Somewhere along this road is a pullout to the Tash Rabat Caravanseri. This is a place I’ve read about in Giles Whittel’s book. Like all information around here, though, verification is impossible. There is no sign of anything resembling a turnoff.
Finding a campsite is easy though. At dusk, we stop pedaling, pull over, park our bikes, and set up. With nothing but grassy plains around us, we camp near the road. Not having seen any trucks in the last couple of hours, we dare each other to pitch the tent in the middle of the road. It feels like the middle of nowhere.
101 km time 7:08, climb 1650m
5681 km to date
Torugart Pass, Kyrgyzstan
Brrrrrr! It’s 7C at wakeup at 2200 metres. We’re determined to make it to the pass by 2pm today. We’ve heard a rumour that it may be open till two on Saturdays. We break camp and move out, bundled in all our clothes. They peel quickly as we climb past 3000 metres.
Near the pass two men stand idly. What the heck are they doing up here? Approaching us, it’s clear that, surprise! They’re pissed drunk. (and of course, it’s only 10am). At first they’re friendly, giving us blank stares when we ask in Russian if they can verify what time the Torugart border closes. But as we try to leave, one of them grabs Alex’s handlebars. He won’t let go. It’s unclear if they want money from us, or they just want to fuck with us. We’re shouting at them. One of the security items we’ve carried 5000 kilometres, a canister of mace, is within reach of Alex’s arm. “Doug, I’m not wasting our mace on these fuckers. These guys are just drunk and stupid. Let’s get going.” We leave our friends waiting for the next peleton of velo-tourists. We’ve got some miles to lay down if we want to make the border. Alex breaks a spoke, but this doesn’t slow us down. He releases his rear break to make way for the wheel wobble. We can fix this later—in China, if we’re lucky today.
The road worsens, degrading from rutted asphalt to corduroy dirt, complete with baseball sized boulders. At one stop, kind of a “Little House on the Prairie” looking ranch at 3500 metres, we stop for directions. A child of about eight is standing near the road. We ask where his father is and he makes the signal all men make when they are referring to, want to, or want you to start, drinking—flicking his throat with forefinger.
We parallel the Krebt At Bashy, wrap around them, and the 5000 metre Tien Shan ranges unfolds ahead of us. It’s magnificent. At a pass two children stand, selling kumos from gasoline jerry cans. Kumos is just awful stuff—a drink the Kyrg people seem to love. It’s fermented mare’s milk. Tastes like sour mile, tonic water and yeast, all combined together. Yeeech.
We’re on a plateau, hovering at around 3400 metres. Ahead is Lake Chater Kul, where we know Torugart is near by. Bouncing along the corduroy road, we’re paralleling the electric fence along the border. Every 500 metres we pass a watchtower where a guard stands watching. We wave. He doesn’t wave back. We wave again. This fucker. What’s with the attitude? Everybody waves at us. Riding closer, I get it. This is no guard. It’s a dummy.
We’re too late for the border now, and it’s time to have a little fun. We park our bikes and climb the watchtower. The dummy is in fact, a dummy, dressed in Russian army accoutrement. We tear his hat off, strip his uniform of souvenir buttons, and pose for pictures of us throwing him from the tower.
Then things get surreal. Approaching the border, it’s clear that we’re not getting through today. We learn this from an army outpost. At 10 kilometres from the border, we’re on the edge of Lake Chater Kul—a nice spot to spend an extra day, we think. The only bummer is we’ll miss the Kashgar Sunday market.
There are three yurts sitting at the water’s edge. We approach, asking if we can camp there. The family surrounds us: two daughters, teens on horseback, mom, dad, infants, grandparents. The teens take a spin on our bike, nearly falling over from the weight of the fully loaded bike. They examine every piece of our equipment as we unpack and pitch our tent. They laugh as the rub their hands over the tent’s nylon. Mysterious, smooth.
We are invited into the yurt for çay and kumos. Carpets of red, yellow and blue hang from the walls. The latticed walls rise to the ceiling and meet at the skylight, which kind of looks like stitches of a baseball. A Snicker’s box sits on the wall as “art”. The son wears a Harley Davidson jean jacket. The gold-toothed mother churns away at the butter. She looks about fifty, but says she’s thirty-five. The daughters look 8 to 11, but they’re thirteen and fifteen.
I’m getting good at faking “I’m allergic” when I decline the kumos. The problem with drinking it is that they’ll refill your glass. Drink it too slow, and they ask you what’s wrong. Nothing like a lie to get you out of drinking kumos. The çay is different. This time it’s diluted with milk, kind of a çay-au-lait. A heaping plate of lepioshka sits in front of us.
Everyone takes a ride on our bikes. Alex & I likewise get a ride on the horse. The older daughter hovers as we unpack. Alex places the walkman on her head and cranks the volume. Her face changes, from curiosity, to wonder. Axl Rose screams into her ears. She is forever changed, enter the rebellious teen. She grudgingly returns the walkman. Later the father returns, flipping quickly through our dictionary. He fixes on the word, “present”, pointing to the walkman hopefully. This daughter must really get her way around the house. We offer alternatives: postcards, pins, but to no avail. The daughter refuses to look at us the rest of our stay.
Cold night last night. I awake to see frost on heaps of manure outside our tent. The dog that cleaned off our pots last night is now happily munching on one such mound. Next to the yurt mom milks the horse, stopping as the horse lets fly a huge load of piss, missing the milk pail I hope. I go over the hill to do the same.
We’re low on food, cooking up our version of “rice pudding” for breakfast. It’s our creation. Rice, well-cooked, with cinnamon, raisins, and sugar. A whole pot of it fills us both up.
We get another invitation for çay. Mom kneads away on the lepioshka. Mmmmm fresh bread on the way. I take the family photo. The family is confused, expecting to see the photo come out of the camera like a Polaroid. I explain that we have to get the film developed, and that we’ll mail the photo. Alex asks, “Doug, how do you send mail to a nomad?” Indeed, the father writes the address on paper for us. It reads: “Mohammed, Naryn, Kyrgyzstan”. I suppose that’s their version of General Delivery.
Throughout the day the nomads approach our tent as we do bike repair and write home. The younger daughter takes a listen to Guns ‘n Roses, but doesn’t seem as enthralled, knowing that Axl won’t be staying with her when we leave. The young son inspects every bike part.
Alex disappears with one of the sons on our bikes for several hours, returning with a big grin on his face. He helped herd some sheep on the bikes. He also has our water bottles filled with bubbly water he says came from a natural spring near by. Meanwhile, I’m invited to help with the slaughter of a sheep. I actually cut the throat!. Looks like we’ll be feasting tonight. As the dad butchers the carcass, he explains the functions of each of the innards as he cuts them off and feeds them to the salivating dog. He pulls out the lung, puffing as he cuts. He holds up the bowels, making a farting sound. I hold back a wretch, thinking, “baa baa.” Later, the sheep is “barbecued” with a blow torch. Russian soldiers stop by to join the barbecue. Hope none of them saw us destroy their dummy brother in arms yesterday. We chew endlessly on grisly mutton—black and crispy on the outside, bloody and red on the inside.
64 km time 3:19
5745 km to date
Torugart Pass, China
This is it. We’re making a run for the border. We awake early to another frost, break camp quickly, and are ready to go. Not fast enough, though, to escape a morning dose of kumus. We bid goodbye to our host family and ride easy the final ten kilometres to the border. The bubbly water from the spring has “rusted” over night, now a scary looking orange colour.
Whitel wrote that we should expect “border crossing drama” at Torugart pass. We’re already nervous by the time we reach the first in a long line of trucks. Will our visas work? Will the money we spent on country invitations help us? How will we explain the fact that the invitation has the names of five riders on it, and we’re only two?
“Ot kuda v?” Where are you from? We glide past more than a kilometre of parked truck after parked truck, each precariously carrying an overflowing load of anything from wool to scrap metal to pelts. Alex stops at one truck that seems about ready to spill its load of what appears to be pieces of a crashed airplane. “Doug! Check this out. Machine milled bolts. They’ve got to have what we need in here.” Good eye, Alex. After the beating our bikes took on the descent from Toktogul we need some spare parts. I lost a bolt from my pedal. Alex broke the clamp holding his pannier to the rack. He digs around for a few minutes and emerges with a handful of bolts. “These ought to work.” The bewildered drivers shake their heads and wave us on.
We pass burly, sturdy truckers who stop mid-conversation and stare, bewildered, at the two guys on bikes. “How long have you been waiting?,” we ask in Russian. The answer, “two days”. Further up, “one week”. “Two weeks”. And near the front, “one month”. One month!!! Oh no! A month here? Does that mean the border is closed? Are we stuck here at the end of the line. I gaze at the surrounding buildings. It looks like a frontier gold mining boomtown. Dusty shacks line the road. I almost expect to see the word “Saloon” written above one of them. This is the wild, wild east, I guess.
There’s a complex of official looking buildings at the end of the line. Must be the border. We meet two Americans there—a couple of Peace Corps dudes from Uzbekistan, Ben and Mike, who are doing a bit of backpacking. Also trying to get in to China, they’re confused about how to cross too. They’ve been here two days, and have a confused traveler look in their eyes. “This place is lawless. The whores keep the drivers happy.” For the past two days they’ve stayed in the highest hotel in the world, at three dollars a night.
We’re told the border opens at 8am, but we’re there at eight, and nothing happens. At eleven, the guards show up. They’re the same ones from last night’s barbecue, but they pretend not to know us, sending us surly looks. One by one they pile out of the truck in their ragtag gear. One in winter clothing, one with a “Don’t Mess With Texas” pin on his lapel, another in tennis shoes. They are mismatched and unimpressive looking. I wonder if this is considered to be a crappy posting. Guess it beats Chechnya.
Their attitude continues when we present them our passports and visas. “Nyeto kamaz sugodnya”. No trucks will pass today, he says. He takes our passports and visas and disappears into China. We’ve decided to “travel” with Ben and Mike. At least having four guys is close to the five on our invite. One missing person is easy to explain. Everyone around here seems to empathize when we say, “oh, the fifth guy, he’s sick”—as we hold our stomach and feign barfing. Ben and Mike, of course, are delighted. They’d be screwed without us.
Ten minutes passes, then thirty, then an hour. Strangely, no one else has approached the gate but us. They seem to be hanging back, waiting. Finally, the sergeant returns and tells us no trucks will be received by China today. Shit. He says they’ll only let us through if there’s a jeep on the other side ready to pick us up, but we’d have to phone Kashgar to arrange one. No, we can’t use his phone. He shouts at us in Russian, presumably to leave his guardhouse. We pretend to not understand so he shouts louder and we crack up in front of him.
Is this a trip-ender? What will we do now? Retreating to a shaded area near the gate, we discuss our options. Alex ducks under a truck and starts to take a dump, still talking. Two men, hearing a voice, walk in circles trying to find the source of the English words from under the truck. They don’t find him. I’m laughing so hard I can’t say a word. Meanwhile, a relatively clean looking car (that is, made in the last 20 years) pulls out and two fat Chinese men in identical track suits with red stripes down the leg pile out and approach the guard. The guard takes them into the station. Thirty seconds later they come out, climb back in the car and are waved through the gate. Ah, so this is how it works, eh? Again, a 4x4 Opel approaches and more Chinese guys, these ones wearing larger than life eyeglasses, follow the same routine. One of them speaks English, so we offer him $80 to take us over. He promises to return for us as the Opel accelerates through the gate. We sense that we’re screwed.
It looks like we’ll be here for a while. I find a restaurant that will sell me some lepioshka. A man slurping soup stands and, staggering, announces that the proprietor should charge me extra since I’m a Canadian. Defiant, I pay him a thirty sum and walk out, flatbread under arm. Back at the gate I learn that another driver has offered to take us across for $300. We counter at $160, but he rejects our offer. Meanwhile, a tour bus has arrived, popping out one bewildered looking Swiss tourist at a time. They are hustled into the waiting room one at a time under kalishikov muzzle. A really pretty Swiss girl strikes a conversation with us while she waits. I’m instantly infatuated, but she’s shoved through the gate into the office before our romance can blossom.
Chinese guards appear, point to us, and demand our passports. The youngest looking of them, peach fuzz sprouting from his chin, points excitedly to a character on our invitation. His commander nods, waving us forward. We scramble towards the gate, but the guard demands to know where the remaining two cyclists are. He doesn’t go for the fake barfing mime routine, that they’ve taken sick and are stuck in Bishkek. Scowling, he tells us to wait here for two hours. No, no, no…we’ve been waiting all day! Our bikes push towards the gate. He steps in our path to stop us. Just then an army truck trundles to the gate on the Chinese side. Another officer, this one presumably outranking the guy in front of us tells us to load our gear, including the Peace Corps guys, in the back of the truck right now. We rush to get it all in before someone changes their mind, jumping in after our gear as the engine rumbles to life. The truck rolls forward just as Ben climbs in and immediately we’re climbing on a narrow road through “no man’s land”, to the top of Torugart pass. At the top we pass under a huge archway declaring “CCCP”. We’re through. We’re in China. Will they let us keep going? A million questions race through my mind. What about the bribe guys? In my head I’m declaring a quiet victory. At least we made it this far.