I didn’t know you could get so affectionate to a road. I realised it only a couple of days ago when we finally left the M41 at an anonymous junction in the small town of Kara-Balta, Kyrgyzstan. At that intersection, the same road we had been following for two months abruptly ended, right in front of a meaningless grey building, as if all the places and countries it had crossed never really mattered.
Since Dunav, in Uzbekistan, through the Pamir mountains, in Tajikistan, and then all the way across Western Kyrgyzstan, the M41 has been a companion and a story teller. A companion because in the desolation of the Pamirs, the road would be the only reminder that somehow we were still in civilised territory and that we would get somewhere, eventually; and a story teller because of all the people who have crossed it: explorers and merchants of the Silk Road, nomads, the first brave cycle tourers hitting it decades ago, and then us. Remnants of caravanserais, abandoned soviet gas stations, decadent buildings. And when we thought it couldn’t give us anymore, there came a bend and a new surprise.
This feeling has been particularly strong since crossing into Kyrgyzstan. That same road tirelessly stretching ahead, finally having left behind arid landscapes and coming back to life through green carpeted mountains, red rocks and turquoise waters.
We never thought about Kyrgyzstan much as focused as we were on the Pamir, but it turned out to be another of the amazing surprises the M41 would keep throwing at us.
Upon leaving Osh, the traffic wasn’t the friendliest, but I suppose that magic always happens once you hit the hills. On beautifully asphalted road we would roll and climb through the Kyrgyz countryside, people as friendly as ever – perhaps a bit less excited than the Uzbeks and Tajiks to see cycle tourers (which was a welcome change). Hurds of horses roaming freely, sheeps rapidly strutting their fatty bottoms to make space to trucks on the road, chasing dogs, all the honey/pumpkin/melon fruit vendors. And, more than anything else, the orange and purple colours of the trees and of the best Autumn of my life.
Indeed, we didn’t know much about Kyrgyzstan and, for once, I kind of regretted not doing the meticulous research I have always been so accustomed to do before any journey; we simply stuck to the most direct route to Bishkek, unaware of how much beauty of the Eastern Kyrgyz countryside we were missing. All we knew was that after Toktogul we had two more passes to climb, but once again I made the mistake of not thinking much of them. The first climb was a long 65/70km ascent, at times gradual and at times steep. The last 5m were very challenging. Thinking I was in my own right to catch a lift, having already proved I could do the tougher Pamirs, I stopped a truck driver and got in, not feeling guilty whatsoever. Ross, however, decided to keep on cycling while I waited for him at the snowy top. When he arrived, he looked very proved and without milling around too much we decided to descend to warmer temperatures.
In the following days the weather changed for the worse. Staying in the hotel we had found just before the start of the second pass was not an option (budget!!), and with a snow storm hanging on us we thought it would not be safe to ride up to 3600m. We rolled into the nearest gas station and within ten minutes we had already managed to organise a lift for the final 100km to Bishkek. And that was very lucky. The road to the pass was, in fact, icy and covered in snow. Many lorries stranded on the steep hairpins unable to move forward, with their wheels spinning in the slush. The wind blowing strong and lifting the snow into the air, making the road visibility very poor. Yes, we were glad we got a lift, it just felt the most sensible thing to do.
We actually know of some cyclists who have ridden that same road on that same day and we still can’t decide what to actually think of it. Are we not as hardcore adventurers as we “should” be, or was that just a symptom of unnecessary stubbornness and lack of common sense to hit the road in those conditions? As we like to say in these situations, to each their own! In any case, chapeau to them for making it in one piece.
Not being able to get a Chinese visa has forced us to look at flying to Thailand. We booked a flight to Northern Thailand just on time to attend Loi Kathrong Festival in Chiang Mai, which had been on my wish list for a very long time. As excited as I was to finally leave the cold behind, cutting time short in Kyrgyzstan felt a bit of a shame: so many things to see and yet, so little time. But someone once told us that we should always leave “a reason to go back” in any country. Regarding Kyrgyzstan, we have left far too many of these reasons behind and we are already looking forward to the time when we will return to finish the unfinished.
After a few days rest in Bishkek and having avidly indulged in any sort of international food we could put our hands on, we made our way to Almaty.
In three days we cycled 260km, during which we crossed a peculiar border post into Kazakhstan with some reporters filming the guard checking our belongings, hit a small hills range, had a boring taste of the Steppe and rode into the traffic of Almaty. It feels like being in an episode of Back to the Future, as the high buildings of the financial centre and shopping malls heavily occupy the ex-capital skyline. People dress and behave like Westerners, wealth is evident and prices are easily comparable to London. At the lovely European Backpacker Hostel we found a little oasis where to calmly change our mindset from “the next little village is in 50km” to “the next single-origin espresso place is around the corner”.
It certainly is a funny way to end our Central Asian adventure, with the M41 over, and the close and personal contact with the kind people living this part of the world that has now become suddenly inexistent.
And, while the traffic keeps busting frantically on the main road just around the corner, from our window we can still see the snowy mountains tops. A sight that will always resemble a special part of our journey through half of the world.