Spirit of Adventure in Kyrgyzstan
Story & Photos: Max Burgess
February 15, 2019
Max Burgess quit city life in London to pursue adventures on two wheels. Settling in the medieval city of Kraków in Poland, he set up a cycle travel business, Podia, and then began ticking off his bucket list. But when he started out on a bike race in Central Asia with friends Justin and Jon, he didn’t realize it was about to become much more than a sprint to the finish.
I’m with my friends Jon and Justin and we’re two days into the Silk Road Mountain Race. It’s an epic 1,700km self-supported bike-packing adventure in Kyrgyzstan that takes in 26,000m elevation – the equivalent of cycling three times up Everest. It’s 10pm, pitch black and we’re at 3,200m, just beyond the Karakol Pass. The temperature has dropped to below freezing and we’re trying to ride further down the mountain to camp at lower altitude where it will be warmer.
“What’s that flashing light?” asks Jon. “I don’t know, but we can’t just leave – it might be another racer. There might be a problem,” says Justin. “What are we supposed to do?” I ask. Our feet are cold after several icy river crossings. The first one we took our shoes and socks off, after deeming it wasn’t rideable; the next couple we tried to ride and inevitably fell in.
“It looks like it’s getting closer,” says Justin. “I think it might be a shepherd,” I add. “What do we say if he invites us to his yurt?” We all look at each other and reply in unison: “Hell, yeah!” As the light beam gets closer, we start to distinguish the features of the shepherd holding it. Standing at the edge of the road with a dog at his side, he brings his hands together and places them by his cheek – the universal sign of sleep. He leads us towards his yurt. It’s a circular tent, most of the space inside taken up by a platform that acts as a bed. It could easily sleep five people.
A Shepherd’s welcome
Our host makes a fire and boils water on the stove while beckoning us to take off our wet clothes. He reaches out and grabs Justin’s wet feet and motions for him to take his socks off. He then offers Justin his slippers while hanging the wet socks behind the fire. We all follow suit.
We exchange names and find out our host is called Melis. He pours tea into small bowls, as is customary in Kyrgyzstan, and takes a seat on a small stool opposite the door, a place of importance for Kyrgyz people. We are perched on the edge of the platform and begin to explain what we are doing in his country. Melis starts lighting candles and doesn’t stop until there are enough to illuminate our faces.
Melis is one of the semi-nomadic farmers of Kyrgyzstan, the customs of his ancient culture preserved in part by poverty and by the geographical isolation of the Tian Shan mountain range. The mountains cover a staggering 80% of the country, their peaks reaching dizzying heights of more than 7,400m. In the summer, farmers often graze the flocks in high mountain pastures, helped by their sons, while their wives remain in houses further down in the valleys. Here with Melis is Aaly, his teenage son.
As we sit talking to Melis, we drink what feels like our own body weight in tea and the warmth slowly comes back to us. We show him photos of a carcass we had passed earlier that day. We had assumed it was a wolf, its bones, rotten skin and some large teeth providing an interesting sight to stop and steady ourselves from the altitude sickness.
In fact, it’s a snow leopard, its carcass recently exposed in the melted snow. Kyrgyzstan’s mountains provide the perfect habitat for snow leopards, but they are rare and shy. In recent years, the country has become a key figure in the conservation of the animal.
It is wolves that Melis and Aaly are more concerned about, with the damage they can do to their livestock. From below our bed a rifle is brought out and handed to the teenager. He marches outside the yurt and lets off three rounds to scare any nearby animals who might be harboring desires for mutton.
We take out our sleeping mats and sleeping bags and blow them up. After watching us, Melis brushes them to one side with a chuckle and begins to pull off mats and blankets from the pile at the end of his bed. The three of us get buried under a mountain of covers and cozy up next to each other.
Aaly jumps onto the platform, pulls off another large and heavy cover and with a big smile throws it over us. We are now struggling to breathe under the weight on top of us; there is definitely no hope of turning over.
We wake up in the morning to a gust of crisp air from the open door. I see the rising sun catching the snow-capped peaks of the mountains across the valley.
We get up and are immediately greeted by hot tea on the table, as well as bread and kumis [fermented mare’s milk]. We are all struck by Melis’ hospitality; he has so little, yet he would happily share it with three people he has never met.
We slowly make our way outside to drink tea and coffee while admiring the stunning views. Aaly has also woken up, but the only thing on his mind is to ride one of our bikes. He puts on Jon’s helmet (just in case), jumps on the bike and starts pedaling around in front of the yurt.
Part of me wishes he would take my bike and finish the race for me, while I stay and tend to the sheep with Melis. It’s at this point I start to suspect I won’t be completing the Silk Road Mountain Race.
Beginning of the end
After five days on the road, we were 24 hours behind on our 13-day schedule. It seemed that our strategy of enjoying the unspoiled natural beauty of Kyrgyzstan and the wonderful people that inhabit the land was not conducive to a race. Those at the front had put their heads down and rode, sleeping only when their bodies demanded it and, in order to save time, limiting their interactions with the local people.
Justin and I decided to end the race and continue with our own adventure. Roughly following the race route, we made strategic shortcuts that enabled us to carry on at our leisurely pace. Jon carried on to checkpoint two and eventually quit the race just short of checkpoint three.
If I am honest, I never came to race. It was an opportunity to ride with friends in a country I had little knowledge of and embrace scenery that was as epic as I was ever likely to experience. My journey was special and what will stay with me forever is the memory of the kindness, generosity and hospitality of the Kyrgyz people. People like Melis and his son Aaly.