• Newsletter

Mare’s Milk Brandy And White Frost

White Frost

After my little illegal detour on Chinese territory – where  we aim to be since the start – we return to the charming M41.

The final kilometers piercing the Pamir mountains are scarcely tarred, as if to test our 908s and our lucky star. But our karma contains bicycles as well. Once our eyes soak into the surreal turquoise of lake Karakul, we know we chances are we’ll bump again into our French buddies, JP si Jacques.

We’ve left them behind in Murghab, where we dined and chatted until midnight. Indeed, we soon spot their bikes parked in the courtyard of a lovely guesthouse by the lake. This time they have more company: Peter, an Irish doctor cycling from Istabul, and Dave with Rich, a laid-back couple of friends from the UK. After we hud, JP tells us that we are about to feast on the best yak butter and kefir. Soon enough the host starts hoisting freshly baked bread to the table, along with the aforementioned dairy delights. The butter has the colour of honey and it tastes divine. I look at Ana, she looks back. Guys, I say, why don’t we camp together tonight? We decide on a markpoint on the GPS according to their estimated mileage for the rest of the day, and we set off.

The air is brisk in the Pamir. The red clay carpeting the road, the greyish mountain hovering in the horizon, the soft blue freckled with cloud – all colours burn like in a Gaspar Noé movie.

Our motorbikes grant the luxury of arriving to our designated campsite hours ahead our cyclist friends. And we didn’t even have to push. We take our luggage off, and I go about exploring the surroundings, while Ana strips to her jogging gear for a very demanding if brief routine. We are at 4200 meters altitude, sharp, so an hour later I see her struggling against the slopes, her head all wrapped up in scarves for wind and cold protection. In the meantime I found a tree trunk laying not far from our spot. In this treeless place  all wood has been used to build the new fence separating Tajikistan from China, and this trunk is a lucky leftover. I figure we could later harvest it for a nice camp fire. But as the night settles in we lose hope that our friends will ever catch up. We resort to a cold can dinner and we tuck into our sleeping bag. It’s so cold. As we’re about to fall asleep we hear a ruffling noise. It’s the cycling pack. Happy to reunite, we all set to work. The tree trunk is carried to camp, the wood is chopped, the pile is built, food is cooked and hi-tech down jackets weighing less than my keychain are pulled from the cyclists’ bags while everybody settles by the glimmering fire. The sky is beautiful. We’ll have a good rest up here.

In the morning everything is covered in white frost and the tent is soaked in condensation, even under the sleeping mats. But nobody is in a hurry, so we lay our stuff in the sun and we fix our breakfasts.

Inevitably we’ll go our separate ways again. After the first river crossing we wave good bye, at least until  Bishkek, China or Laos. That’s where we are heading to, we would never leave the Silk Road unfinished, so one way or another we’ll make it there.

After two hours of riding we reach the border post to Kyrgyzstan. We turn heads for a last glimpse upon some of the most beautiful mountains on the planet, the forbidden Pamir, inaccessible to its very inhabitants.

We are leaving behind one of the most complicated borders, traced by Stalin to control the most incontrollable provinces of the Soviet Empire: passes so narrow that can only be crossed at the peak of summer, baffling minority villages deported on the bottom of remote valleys that can only be reached on a mule after a long and difficult journey. We leave behind the mythical river Panj, yet untouched by the Taliban, a border ridden with holes contiguous to Afghanistan. But even the border we are about to cross isn’t more lucky. Three countries meet in this point pinned on the roof of the world, united by a common geographic destiny, divided by politics and religion.
Tajikistan is the poorest country of Central Asia, one  that lingers still in the memories of a long civil war: half of its population survives on aid,  and the last three generations have lived on cabbage and cotton. But now many NGOs are working to push out of the desperation of one culture, by returning to the most simple things: traditional agricultural techniques, the reactivation of long forgotten water networks, and the precious forgotten manual art of weaving. China is a vulture standing by the side, ready to take advantage of a moment of weakness. The proof: the newly border fence erected overnight, that exists on no official map. To the north, USSR has left behind a Kyrgyzstan in search of a cohesive national identity. But the country moves faster than its poorer neighbour: it is rapidly replacing the wrecks of kolkhoz with yurt camps ready to welcome visitors. It has already build a sustainable network of tourist infrastructure and implemented winning visa regulations. Residents from almost all countries – sadly Romania is excluded – can stay on the Kyrgyz territory for 3 months without a visa. We had to pay a hefty amount for a 30 days stay. Border crossing is painless. Do we need any papers for the bikes? I ask. But all they reply is: “welcome to Kyrgyzstan!”

The roots of this new country aren’t turkic, but Persian. The landscape is just as stunning.

First town we cross is Sari Tash. A sad accumulation of shacks and skeletal people. We need to insist to get the generator working at the gas station.

Then we struggle to get a bite to eat. A confused woman serves us fried eggs with cheap salami. It tastes bad and it is expensive. A tour the rest of the places – this is a depressing town to linger. So we move on.


Brandy from Mare’s Milk 

After Sari Tash the road is very good: tarred, smooth, traced in fast hairpins. Unfortunately we ride under relentless rain. Only hours later we reach lower altitude and clement weather. We quench our thirst at a fountain – a man on horse stops by to stare. Gradually we start meeting more people and seeing quite a few houses and yurts. So the first opportunity for a bush camp , we take it.

Even our sketchy Russian comes in handy. Next to the spot we chose for pitching, there’s are horses and people rambling about, so we pay a visit to the owner’s place to ask permission to camp. The lady of the house is again quite confused about our ‘mission’, but she gladly agrees and invites us over for tea. But after we pitch we are so tired that we decide to do that the next day.

In the morning we are treated to a nice domestic show: the mares are milked and the milk left to ferment in a sheep’s skin. In one or two days it will become kumuz, a slightly alcoholic beverage that is considered like a national treasure in Kyrgyzstan.

Ana likes it, but then again, she seems to like everything; I confess: I am not a fan.

Meder (29) is the only adult in the compound,; his nephew Mohammet Ali (14) is watching Tom & Jerry on TV. We suggest a tea, they boil the water, we bring the leaves. Then Meder spreads bread, butter and cream (kaymak he says).

Meder tests Ana’s DRZ:)

Even if today is the first day of the Ramadan, we see many shepherds celebrating with vodka and mare’s milk brandy. When we make the mistake to allow ourselves to be lured into the party, a dude plants noisy smooches on Ana’s cheeks and hugs her. All for a litre of kumuz.

By noon we reach Osh. A town sitting for millennia at a major Silk Road junction. Nothing betrays the conflicts from 2010, we are moved to be here so soon. In the lively Central market it’s business as usual: Uzbek and Kyrgyz vendors and shoppers live side by side, as if nothing happened. But not long ago this was a battle ground. Streets were burnt, people died, families were broken. It’s all gone now; we sit down for a juicy kebab and yet another variant of a Silk Road staple: manti (meat dumplings).

As our laptop is not working, we also stop for a few hours in an Internet cafe; so when we finally leave town we have only a few hours left before dark. We scramble up the hills in search of a campsite, and we settle for a spot by a river where truckers are stealing gravel and a bunch of dudes are swaying down on used tires. Shivering with cold we decide to shower and do our laundry, and in the morning we thanks ourselves for doing so.

After a breakfast of tea, dried apricots, tomatoes and kurut, crackers and nots, we hit the road. For the next days the plan is to avoid all tarmac, and zig-zag our way across the mountains, visiting the Song Kul lake on the way. The first stretch does not disappoint: it’s free, empty and beautiful.

Recent downpour have scarred the land, so there’s plenty of streams to quench one’s thirst. The mountains rise between deep valley where vultures hover with an eye on the sheep and goat.

When we reach the high pass rain threatens to catch up. A wall of dirty snow has been rendered into graffiti by local tourists. But beyond the pass is the real show: wrinkled peaks barely touched by a dying  sun, pierced by a tempting succession of hairpins. We do them, then we remember we have a camera. Too late for a photo op now, so you’d better ride over here to see for yourself.

In Kazarman we  feel terribly hungry. We fetch lunch in a creepy looking communist canteen:  the micro-raion feels frozen in time. Later we ride into a landscape that appears even older. Seen from the top the valley looks like the dinosaurs are still roaming an Earth at the age of geological infancy.

We will not meet our mileage target: at the next stop my side-stand plate cracks open again, so I cannot start the bike. We set camp, but we happen to be in a nice place close to a stream, so it’s not all bad.

In the morning I ride the DRZ to the nearest village, Ak-Kyia, in search of a welder. People point to the teacher’s house. Her husband, Akmatov Abai sorts me out; I promise to return with my partner for a chat. When we’re back, the daughter in law serves us bread, tea, butter and cherry jam. Ana is entertaining the teacher, Mrs. Osiya, while Akmatov Abai wants to have me trying all the fermented beverages in the household (made from millet, barley or corn, even stale bread).

After Ak-Kyia we have some fun on a sandy stretch. For us a dry and hot intermission is a luxury to be cherished.

The second part of the ride up to the plateau of Song Kul is a different ball game. Ana is taking a beating, and rain returns with a vengeance.

Even if the views are sublime by the shores of the lake, with shiny rainbows and green grass shimmering, all we want is for the rain to stop and for the temperature to rise, even by one degree.

Many yurts dot the field, but most are guesthouses; we prefer a local family compound. Searching for one, we are pushed to lower altitude. The landscape lifts our soul, but the weather is too damn hard on the body. Ana asks me to stop, almost crying with cold. Her lips and fingers are a weird shade of purple. We knock on a door: the house appears to be deserted, so I pitch hastily and boil a porridge, anything to heat ourselves up a bit. Lightings and thunders explode in the valley, but we are at shelter. In the morning the sky is blue, as if we have imagine the whole thing.

I say nothing beats the sight of blue sky after days of grey. The nearby stream is cold as ice and we have again white frost on the tent. A couple of Polish riders pass by: they tell us they had minus 5 degrees last night at the lake. Perhaps it was a bit warmer down here…

The trail is soon to end. As the valley becomes wider, I can smell the tarmac. But I am not bitter, we’ll soon be in Mongolia, we’ll have plenty of trails to ride. It just happens that we mark Ana’s first 10.000 km on tar.


Vizualizaţi 2013 – Kyrgyzstan pe o hartă mai mare