Thursday, July 16, 2009
WAY OFF THE BEATEN TRACK
The scenery was getting spectacular now as we pedalled slowly into the hillside. We were rolling through indigenous areas where little has changed through the generations. People still lived in yurts and these large circular tents could be moved from valley to valley as the family searched for better grassland for their animals. The trail now disappeared and we were now down to just a horse path. An old lady pointed up at three rocks sticking up from the pass and signalled it was here we should aim for. We came to a massive empty plain, where a glacier probably melted a few millennia before. We were still about a 1000M below the pass and it was already getting very difficult. We were invited into a yurt camp and for the first time, the locals considered our task to be possible. People came from the surrounding yurts to witness the arrival of the 2 'lost' tourists looking to get to Bishkek. A sheep had been slaughtered that morning and we watched as they cooked it. We got a big bowl of mutton soup (head and all). Markus found the cheek a little chewy but the lips were surprisingly meaty. A local boy was summoned to bring a donkey. It was decided that the best way to get to the top of the pass was to put our bags on the donkey and we should manage our own bikes. Everyone was happy that a plan had been arranged and so a bottle of vodka was opened to toast our departure. At this altitude, sheep head soup and a large measure of pure vodka would not be the recommended nutrients for a safe passage through this mountain range, but the general encouragement, helpfulness and welcomes from the people was incredible. It was looking like we may even make the top of the pass before the day was out. But of course, it was never going to run that smoothly. We got off to a great start. We were barely able to keep up with the fully loaded donkey. The young boy sat up on the animal and whipped it frantically to get it into top gear. Animals have a tough life out here. It reminded me of a time in Turkmenistan, I once saw a guy punch a donkey in the face. After an hour of this needlessly fast pace, the animal was truly exhausted. A older passing sheppard was fearful the donkey would get a heart attack and ordered the boy to get off the animal and take it back down the mountain to rest. Using sign language, he seemed to be signalling that it was pointless to go the top, as the other side was just full of cliffs and glaciers, so we would never get down it anyway. The air starts to get thin at our present altitude of 2500M and now we had our bags loaded back up on our bikes and were pushing with everything we had. And that large shot of vodka wasn't helping. Some areas were so steep, the 2 of us would push one bike at a time. Each kilometre was taking over an hour now. But we were so far into the mountain that we might as well continue as go back. About 2 hours before sunset, 2 guys arrived up on a horse. Obviously, the word was out down in the valley, that the donkey couldn't take our stuff and that we were managing on our own. We had plenty of food, but these guys brought up food and directed us towards a yurt. These 2 guys were just fantastic. They seemed to be fascinated by everything we did. They watched us put up our tents and were amazed at all the stuff we could carry on our bikes. The way the sleeping bag could be packed into such a small bag, the way the mattress could be blown up. The tiny, but powerful stove. And we had plenty of food and suitable clothing for the journey over the pass. Conversation was based around sign language and basic Russian. It was a great evening and the 2 guys offered to take our bags on the horse, and to guide us to the top of the pass in the morning. It was all coming together nicely.