Monday, July 17, 2006

Training Wheels

It's been two weeks of firsts. We completed the shakedown leg of our bicycle trip: Naryn to Kazarman to Jalal-Abad, and now we are in Osh. It was only about 250 kilometers. How could it have taken us 10 days of riding? Well, I guess because we were just starting out.

We had our first rain- the exact second we actually pushed off and got into our toeclips. But we rode on into what turned out to be the only rain we cycled in for the whole 10 days. A half kilometer later, we had our first mechanical problem- a bungee cord left sitting on the rear rack found its way into Chris’ rear sprockets. Less than 10 more kilometers down the road, we got to our first little pass. That night, our first thunder and lightening- with the added entertainment for me, of Chris’s nighttime antics. I woke up in the middle of the night to find him trying to crawl out of the tent. He wanted to watch the boy herding cows against the stormy, electric night sky.
He’d warned me he talks in his sleep but I hadn’t heard about the walking. I insisted he was dreaming, he insisted he was wide awake. But logic won over his feeble mind when it was pointed out that boys don’t herd cows in the middle of the night in a thunderstorm. The next night he saved me from falling off a roof. But at least I was prepared for it when he woke me up yelling, “Stop! Stop! Stop!”

On our fourth day, we had our first pass. It took less than 5 hours to summit and we were pleased that we felt no effect from the altitude, having become well acclimatized during our previous days spent backpacking and trekking up to 12,000 feet.

One of our firsts will no doubt not be our last. Sad to say, it was our first headwind. In fact, it was a week of headwind. Relentless. People had a strange concept of the birth of this breeze. Everywhere we went, they told us that just over the hill, there was no wind. I think they just have never been over the hill. Another bit of useless advice was that the wind only started after lunch. Well, we’d start out earlier and earlier each day- but guess what? So would the breeze. It was driving one of us crazy but at least the other one, the one who was drafting behind the wind-breaking leader, would appreciate the cooling breeze that kept the 90 degree temperatures at bay.

Another first was quite hard to accept. Our first lift. Granted, it was the third offer in two days. My jiloo duk (stomach) had cancelled my appetite so I was hungry and weak, and the wind had slowed us down. Once we broke down and accepted the ride, we had no regrets. Especially looking at the gravelly, 13-kilometer climb.

We also had our first encounter with the traveling watermelon man. About 15 cold and thrilling kilometers down the other side of the pass, we actually turned and rode back up when I understood what the man was shouting from his parked Niva. We sat on the rocky ground, slurping and smiling and spitting seeds, incredulous at our good fortune.

Well, now you are looking at my last first- my first photos ever posted to a blog. Thanks to Edilbek Manabaev in Osh, the most knowledgeable and friendly and helpful Kyrgyz man I’ve so far met, you are able to see these pictures and read some of the snippets I wrote in my tent.

Snippets from the Tent
June 26. Karakol. We're finally ready. Almost. We've still got a phone call, internet, and lunch shopping to do on the way out of town. Oh, and a bit of sightseeing.
We've really had a fantastic week here in this mountain town just past the east end of Lake Issyk Kol. We had a delicious swim in a protected cove on the ride out here. Our taxi driver was new, and very patient. When we got to the Vogzal, I'd forgotten that I had planned to find a Universal - a station wagon- to transport the 2 of us and our bikes the 400 kms to the capital of Issyk Kol Oblast. But when we got to the place where the taxis hover, looking for clients to all destinations Kyrgyz (except Osh, which has its own bazaar meeting place),someone recognized me and put me in a taxi to Karakol. With his brother, or cousin, or whatever you might call the relationship between him and the driver. It took an hour for Chris to break down the bikes sufficiently to fit them in the Audi trunk. Then we drove all over town to do the final errands _(now there's a word with no meaning: final)_ except he was very unfamiliar with Bishkek so I had to navigate. Anyway, we made it out to Karakol where we settled into our 5 bed yurt at Turkestan Yurt Camp, in the center of town.
Sergey has done an incredible job with this place since I was here 6 years ago. Lots of strategic plantings and yearly expansion has turned this place into a shady hobbit haven of colorful yurts.
We took a day-ride to the local beach. Young people were fascinated by our bikes, but one young man, a Muslim in his early 20s, mainly enjoyed the chance to practice his English and learn more about Americans. He asked about our relationship and the age difference. He guessed us to be 6-8 years apart, and put Chris at 30. So I guess I’m 36 now, which suits me fine. The water was refreshing, but a little dirty, as the nearby river empties into this cove of the lake. On the way back we stopped at Gulya's, Amy's host mother. She prepared a fantastic spread of chilled eggplant rollups with cheese and tomato, the usual homemade jams and bread and fresh thick cream, endless milky tea and bantering in three languages with various translations going back and forth. I asked her son Samat about the bandage on his finger and the iodine painted up his arm. He showed us the cut on his finger that he got a few days prior when stripping some wire. Then he showed us the puffy red line under the iodine stain that had already reached his arm pit. It was hot to the touch and he felt himself to have fever. We decided to treat him with Cipro for 5 days. I later found out it worked. They sometimes take these things so casually, but both Chris and I felt it was very serious.
Next day was the 50 km roundtrip mountain bike ride up the Karakol Valley, my favorite local Kyrgyz haunt. It wiped me out. I must have been in fantastic shape last year, because it was a breeze then, but I was struggling up the hills this time. Of course, lack of acclimitization -it is 1600-2600 meters, this ride-and a bit of residual jet lag- we'd only been in country 5 days- could have contributed.
After that was a day of organizing in the morning before we set out for our backpack trip around 1 o’clock. We ordered a taxi just to expedite the running around that had to be done, and it turned out to be Valera, Alsu's husband. I had loaned them $100 last May to buy the car so that he could start driving cab. They have had a successful year, except for the unnecessary loss of their 3-day old son, so they were able to repay the money when we returned from the trip. I suppose our 20 dollar cabfare helped.
The hail on the way there was a sign of things to come. We took Assan, a 10 dollar a day porter, who carried our loads like a Nepali-in flip flops. We carried 20+ pounds each too. The way in, along the Jetti Oguz Valley is beautiful in itself. I'd ridden up the previous year but as we neared the place where we headed west towards Telety Pass which ends in the Karakol Valley, a sight emerged that I had never imagined. Then I understood the directions Tahir was giving us, “Across from the White Mountain.”
"Which mountain is it? I asked, as I was following along with the map during the directions giving phonecall. (He was supposed to guide us on this trip, and or his friend Loha ,but that fell through. Taha told us several days ahead of time that he wouldn't be able to go after all, but Loha only told us at 11pm the night before the trip was to start. That's why we had such a late start, because we were trying to find a cheap guide or a decent porter. The first porter that we got was a skinny as a rail and probably still in high school. Didn't suit us for crossing a 3850 meter pass with a snowy, 40 degree descent. Assan at least, was beefy looking and came to us through someone I knew. He worked out okay, except when we descended waist-deep snow going over the Telety and camped in a down-our- we ended up having to cook and serve him dinner because he was recovering in his tent. But back to the the white mountain- it was a wall of snow and glacier and a delightful surprise. We turned past it all too soon and made our way up through a forested trail that let us out into a high meadow where we camped amongst curious cows. Here Assan earned his keep, as he tossed stones and Kyrgyz epithets at the invasive bovine beasts.

July 8
That sliver was not a river, but just the reflecting gravel road stretching even farther into the uphill headwind.
"This is not my idea of fun," I recited silently, even while knowing that it wasn't helping me get any closer to water, which meant camp. Of course by now I've arrived, because you always get what you need when you need it. Tonight it was not only a clear stream to camp by, but there was a secluded 2-foot deep, fresh running, bathing pool; a spring "bubbling out of the heart of the earth," as the proprietor of the Shorpo, Tea and Bread truck stop across the way pointed out; and soft, green, level grass to place our tent. Which is currently being buffeted by very strong winds. But the road was hard today. I actually broke down with doubt. “Will I really be able to make this?” It's only our third day, but it seems that 40 kms a day should not be so hard. But we've had a wicked headwind. The lobsterman says 25 knots with gust over 30mph. All I know is that I rode downhill in third gear and had to walk going up. The gravel was loose, the surface was washboard and the temperature was in the upper 90s. As I said, not my idea of fun.

July 9
"Why don't you go faster?" asked the Russian-speaking kid riding double on the horse, as he looked at Chris, ahead, and then back at me, balancing carefully while creeping uphill in my lowest gear.
"Wind, load, grade," I replied, leaving out that I was tired, female, and almost 50.

This was after a filling visit at one of the yurts at the top of the pass. Delicious sheep shin and noodle soup, whole wheat flat breads and the Kyrgyz treat called kaimak- a sweet cream that spreads like butter and is made fresh every day. Four and a half hours, 20 kilometers and a 1075 meter climb with more than 33 switchbacks. That's almost 3500 feet climbing to an altitude of over 9400 feet. Not bad for the 4th day of our trip. Especially since yesterday, I was about to give up. In fact, this morning, I was very nervous about my performance. Not that I was being judged by anyone but myself. I did have to trade Chris some weighty food for the lighter stove and bowl, and I wore my boots instead of packing them on the bike, but it was still me turning those crank arms up and up the hill.

What do you call a cooling breeze from behind? A tailwind? A Godsend.


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