Bike-Packing Day 5: Running on Empty
I suppose it’s inevitable that after 3 tough days without sufficient food, it eventually takes its toll. I have no stored reserves, so if I fall short, it’s hard to catch up.
This morning, after scrutinizing the map, Kati assures us it’s all downhill for the first 25km, where we can get breakfast at Kojomkul – our long-awaited resupply point. So, after coffee with honey, we’re on our way, anticipating a free ride to breakfast… Ha!
Of course, there’s no such thing as all downhill. There are some brutal spikes that call for power, of which I have none. “Steve, did I spy some blue tin foil in your handlebar bag? Is it chocolate? Can I have some?” He hands over 2 squares and as the sweetness hits my tongue, my brain immediately registers help is on the way and opens up the energy bank – yeehaa! Pistons pumping and I fly up the hill and literally feel the furnace firing, but the high is short-lived and pretty soon I am back to empty…
I try to distract myself with the scenery, but it’s not working. “I’m not gonna make it to breakfast”, I declare,” I suggest we stop and cook up that last freeze-dried risotto”. I get no resistance, so I guess we all feel the same. Before we find a suitable spot though, we pass yet another yurt camp and the inhabitants beckon us over. Without hesitation we turn off the road and bump across the grass to be warmly greeted by granny & grandpa (who live here for the summer) and brother, sister & their respective spouses plus a whole host of youngsters (who are visiting from Bishkek for the holidays).
Out comes the i- Translate (which is how we figure out all of the above) and then out comes the proverbial fermented horse milk – “there’s no getting out of this guys, so do your best to be polite”. We swallow, smile, nod, thumbs up for the camera. “No more really, thank you, that was delicious!”
We are then invited into the caravan for chai and this really IS delicious, accompanied by bread, butter, cream and homemade berry jam. Kati and I stuff our faces, while Steve handles the translator and shows photos of Cape Town.
When we finally say goodbye, the sister hands Steve a 1/2 loaf to take along with him (I think she noticed that he never got his fair share).
The road from here to Kojomkul gets more and more dusty and corrugated as we near the town and the heat grows more and more fierce as we drop in altitude.
When I spy a clear pool alongside a rapidly flowing river, I am in like a robber’s dog, head and all. It’s FREEZING, but man do I feel a whole lot better afterwards! Kati & Steve think I’m bonkers, but I think they’re secretly envious…
When finally, we reach our longed-for destination, it is literally a 1-street town, named after the strongest man in the world – apparently, he lifted a 600kg rock onto his back! There is a large monument erected to this famed giant and his tomb looms large on the mountainside.
The only store is closed, but we find the owner, who opens up and we are presented with a wide array of largely empty shelves – there are sugary drinks, cookies, sweets, chocolates, rice, pasta and some dodgy-looking canned goods, but we need REAL food.
I dig around in a dingy side room and bingo – tomatoes, cucumber, onion and green pepper! There’s a small fridge in the corner- yes, cheese! Using i- Translate I ask for tuna fish and get an odd looking can as well as some corn. Bread? Nyet, No. A local with a smattering of English comes to our aid and next thing an old lady appears from somewhere with 2 loaves of bread (stale, as usual, but beggars can hardly be choosers).
As we cycle off, I think of all the things we take so for granted in our daily lives – clean drinking water straight out the tap; hot showers; clean, plumbed toilets; washing machines; endless choices in the grocery store; fabulous restaurants; good coffee; warm, comfy beds; etc, etc, etc. According to Wikipedia, Kyrgyzstan was the 9th poorest country in the USSR and is now the 2nd poorest in Central Asia, after Tajikistan. Yes, the people have very little and yet they all have a place to live, they’re busy, the children all go to school, they seem well-fed and largely content and on the whole are very friendly and welcoming. Maybe they’re happy with their simple existence?
In the next small town, we encounter a foreign aid initiative in the form of the CBT (Community Based Tourism). We are sceptical when we see the faded Tourist Information sign, but indeed it is open and manned by a young US Peace Corp worker, who explains about the network of home-stays and other tourism offerings that have been set up with the help of the Swiss and are now self-sustaining.
Bizarrely, there is also a dinkum functioning traffic light and pedestrian crossing in this virtually traffic-free town, where children, sheep and cows roam the streets without a care in the world!! Go figure.
Leaving town, the road runs alongside a massive river. It’s a leaping, churning, seething, raging, tumultuous, milky mass – if you were to fall in you wouldn’t last 3 seconds! We see a few rickety swing bridges. No way we’d ever dream of attempting a crossing!
We also see a seriously professional- looking raft lashed to the river bank. You must be truly cooked to attempt such a thing!
We end up camped on the river bank lower down, where it has slowed to the pace of a regular rapid – still fast, but we can approach in places to wash ourselves and our clothing.
Dinner is risotto with veggies. The tuna we were planning to add turns out to be some sort of mystery meat with a layer of fat and some weird leaves on top and a jelly layer below – it looks totally GROSS, but Kati happily tucks in and declares it quite good. Bet it’s horse meat…
We settle down to sleep and are deep in slumber, when we are awoken by loud whooping noises. Herders moving their animals along maybe? But at this time of night? They continue intermittently and I dose and wake, but then they seem to be getting louder and closer. Sounds like a hoard of marauding Indians. I am starting to get uneasy. Steve opens up the tent and peers out.
There is a fire burning in the trees about 300m away and we see flashlights all around. They seem to be moving towards us and surrounding us. I start to get really freaked out and realizing I have nothing on but my G-string, I grope in the dark for some clothing in case I need to run. But where would I go?
The road is up a steep hill and the raging river lies ahead. I think of the cyclists killed in Tajikistan a year ago and my mind goes numb with fear. We crouch by the tent door, watching the lights, when a horseman with a flashlight passes a few meters behind our tent. He continues towards the fire, then all goes quiet again and the flashlights dissipate. Just youngsters partying.
They must’ve been out looking for wood. All innocent fun I guess (but when there’s vodka involved anything can happen). I can’t imagine falling asleep again, but somehow I do and in the morning, when Kati says she slept like a log, it all seems a bit silly…