Geography is a strange subject. Unlike in a language or in history or maths, where you learn an already-accepted knowledge, in geography you learn a snapshot in time. Like a dental check-up. The dentist peers in to your gob and notes down how everything looks. A year later he does the same and notices any differences. When is the last time you had a geography check-up?
My last check-up was some time in 1989. Since then the Berlin wall came down and the whole of eastern Europe shuffled around. Then the USSR disintegrated and its component countries were ejected in all directions. So much has changed that I’m basically back in the chair getting root canal work.
Our disastrous departure from China put us at over 3,000m in a mountainous and remote part of a new country. It was completely dark except for the starlight and was bitterly cold. The border guards gave us some hope that there was some (not very good) accommodation right at the border. But there was no sign of such an establishment. Our only option was to drive and hope we found something before the first known hut, 100km away. Drive too slowly and it would take hours and we’d die of hypothermia. Drive too fast and the BMW candle-power headlight couldn’t show me the way. And we’d crash. Then die of hypothermia. We went as fast as we could, driving by feel. Shivering uncontrollably on an empty road, it was a relief when finally some headlights came up behind us and I ushered them past.
It was Steven and his family from the China group. He was about 4 days behind their ideal schedule so was doing the same as us; going as fast as he could in the distance he could see. I overrode Stein’s breathless wheezing and stuck with them. Steve’s high powered xenon headlights lit our way at a safe distance. But occasionally the road would dip and curve and suddenly we were in darkness again as the car disappeared. Then we had to race, blind, to close the gap somehow. It was too risky to let this happen again so I had to stay really close to him, and we managed this configuration for about 100km. Had we not had a lead vehicle this journey would have taken twice as long. Who knows if we’d have even made it.
Shapes in the valley hung in my peripheral vision and I stopped the bike. Was that a yurt? Back from the gravel track, in darkness, lay a handful of yurts. It was a gift from the gods! We were still a few kilometres from the other yurt camp so I deployed Nickiy to see if anyone was home. It was 02:00 China time, so midnight in Kyrgyzstan. A small light danced across the meadow and within about 5 minutes, Yuri and his team were lighting the stove in the yurt, pouring hot minestrone soup down our necks then pushing us into the sauna. We were revived! Their hospitality was amazing. Hurrah for Kyrgyzstan!
You know a place is special if it is as beautiful during the night as it is by day. The valley into which we awoke the next day was just such a place. The trickling river phased in and out with the sounds of grazing sheep and horses. The sun warmed our deluxe yurt and shone upon the steep hillside. The green carpet rose high above us and transformed into teeth-like rocks on the peaks. It was incredible and sublimely peaceful. How could we be only 100km from China and be in such a place? We ate our incredible breakfast and zoned out for two days as our bodies unravelled from 21 days of rushing.
Founded on a nation of nomadism, Kyrgyzstan is famed for its hospitality. Any traveller calling at your house after sunset should be welcomed in to stay and be fed. If you were so poor that you didn’t have enough food, you would despatch people to fetch your more wealthy relatives, so they could provide for your guest. As a nomad, food is best if it can walk along side you until you eat it. So vegetables don’t feature heavily in the Kyrgyz diet. Nor do vegetarians.
The cities in the country are joined by approximately one tarmac road. There’s not much that exciting to see in the cities, and getting between them involves running the gauntlet of the police everywhere. As the only people not speeding in the whole country, we were a little surprised to be stopped. For speeding.
But most people visit Kyrgyzstan for its rugged beauty and its 7,000m peaks. Trekking around its high-altitude lakes or riding ponies over mountain passes will deliver you majestic views. Best of all, you don’t need to carry camping equipment as yurt camps are dotted throughout most of the country. Capable of being carried by just 2 horses, these portable houses weigh in at about 400kg. This includes all the structural wood latticework and the rugs, ropes and felt cover. Give a few skilled builders one hour and you’ve got a 30 square metre living, sleeping and eating area. Or if you give it to the world record holders, you’ll have the same yurt ready for action in 17 minutes!
We were still on the silk road and the modern nomads began to show their faces. At our guest house in the capital city of Bishkek, suddenly we were surrounded by cyclists and motorcyclists from all over the world. I always thought people came to “do” the silk road, but I now realise that is idiotic and the wrong way round. Traders travelled on the silk road because that was just how people got from Europe to Asia and back again. It was that simple. Why would modern travellers be any different to the traders 2,000 years earlier?