If you’re looking for a historical, unusual, challenging and epic path to follow by bicycle, the Silk Road has to be it. Not many are up for it, but, after setting off from Shanghai, China, this past May, the 24 participants of the “Silk Route” trip organised by Tour d’Afrique began a 12,000-kilometre journey west, following in the footsteps of great explorers and adventurers toward Istanbul.
As one of them, I knew it would take us a little more than four months to complete the trip, but didn’t quite expect all the blood, sweat and tears. We also couldn’t have known that the journey would be this eventful, varied and memorable.
Cycling the Pamir Highway in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, known to locals as the “Roof of the World,” we were challenged by frigid temperatures, rough and unpaved roads, steep climbs and dangerous descents. Fortunately, our hard work was rewarded by numerous chances to visit some of the most beautiful and interesting places on earth, with the added bonus of doing it slowly, covering approximately 120 kilometres a day and with several pit stops along the way.
Cycling toward the “Roof of the World” really is not easy going. Fortunately, as we headed into the mountains, the scenery was welcoming – green hills flanked by snow-capped peaks – and reminded most of us of the Alps. Still, riding at altitude on unpaved passes in freezing weather made for some tough days, especially at our highest camp. At an elevation of 4,200 metres, we were exhausted and spent time hiding from the cold inside our tents. The weather kept changing from beautiful, sunny skies to ominous, dark clouds bringing hail and snow to our camp.
Numbed by cold as we prepared our dinner, we were thankful to our local drivers that we made it through this day. They invited us into one of the trucks and showed us the true value of smooth Kyrgyz vodka in such a climate. After a few shots of the local distillations we were glowing from the inside and could take on the cooking tasks with renewed vigour.
Later, coming out of the mountains, the journey down was much rougher and rockier. We followed the Gunt River from its high elevations, where it was mostly small streams originating from melted snow, to the great mass of water rushing toward Dushanbe and beyond.
Following the steep terrain like this day after day, we were often met by local mountain people, pastoralists who made things extra special through their remarkable hospitality. One day in Kyrgyzstan, we stopped to have some snacks a short distance from a family going about their daily business. From where we sat, we could see two yurts, a few kids pulling one other around on what looked like a sled tied to the back of a donkey, a couple of women sitting near the yurt, a flock of grazing sheep and a few horses roaming nearby.
When we wandered nearer for a closer look, we were welcomed with open arms by the grandfather. We played with the children and watched the women roll balls of yoghurt to be dried in the sun. Before we knew it, we had been invited to lunch inside one of the yurts, where a tiny baby was lying inside a most beautiful and colourful crib.We were offered fresh bread, cream, watermelon and fermented horse milk for lunch. All but the horse milk went down easily as we chatted via the translations of a young boy who attends school in the village 20 kilometres away. Through him we learned that the family included the grandfather and grandmother, their daughter, her husband and several children of their own. The wild stock belonged to them, and the daughter’s husband was working in the fields somewhere.
After lunch we gave them a few postcards from home and were sent on our way with warm hugs, friendly smiles and full tummies. I know if some people came to my doorstep back home and asked if they could have a look around, I would probably call the police, but our Kyrgyz hosts made no hesitation opening their homes to us. It was a privilege to have a taste of everyday life in the rural mountains of Kyrgyzstan.
Two days later, we made camp on a beautiful grass field with a stunning view of the Pamir Mountains. While water was delivered by local boys on their donkeys, other locals wandered over to see what the strange foreigners were up to. Children helped us pitch our tents, adults joined in chopping carrots and everyone happily swapped bicycles, donkeys and horses, all showing more interest in the other’s modes of transport than their own. A local army general who was helping us cross the border the next day had even offered to bring along a few of his guns for our enjoyment. Some of the cyclists in our group can now say they have fired a Kalashnikov and an AK-47.
As we passed the time, a group of locals soon returned from a successful hunt. A sheep was added to the marmot they had killed and it went from a live mammal to the barbecue in a few hours with the help of several Swiss-army-knife wielding men, who made use of every part of the animal. It was a privilege to watch as our dinner for the night was slaughtered and cut up before being cooked – you don’t get any fresher than that!
This meal, rounded off with Kyrgyz vodka, is undoubtedly at the top of many a cyclist’s best memories of the trip. Although we didn’t see any festivals or join any organised tours during our trip, I think the hospitality of the locals and the opportunity to have had a taste of how the mountain people go about their daily business were much more interesting. We saw how they get fresh drinking water, how they prepare their food, how they dress their children, how they build their houses and how they treat others. And frankly it is truly beautiful.