THE YURT LOCKER

En­dur­ing six-hour climbs, ierce storms, glacial melt­wa­ter baths and yak-hair mat­tresses, Dan Mil­ner seeks out Kyr­gyzs­tan’s epic moun­tain trails

Mountain Biking UK - - CONTENTS -

A pi­o­neer­ing MTB ad­ven­ture across Kyr­gyzs­tan with yurts, yaks and en­ergy-sap­ping 4,000m climbs

The horse was tall and mus­cled. Its rider Aibek, not so much. He was maybe nine years old and his feet just touched the heavy stir­rups that hung al­most re­dun­dantly be­low him. At home, this would be like seat­ing a nine-year-old be­hind the wheel of a Maserati, slid­ing its seat for­ward and hop­ing for the best. But here Aibek ma­noeu­vred his horse with the skill and con­fi­dence of a rider three times his age – and right now I was glad he could. Aibek’s horse was our taxi across fast, glacial melt­wa­ters and my fate lay in his hands. Perched be­hind him, my bike sand­wiched awk­wardly be­tween us, we lurched over piles of loose gravel to reach the far river­bank. For Aibek, rid­ing through this wilder­ness was just a reg­u­lar day – or at least it would have been if he didn’t have a moun­tain biker cling­ing ner­vously to his back. We were the first he’d ever seen.

Safely de­posited on the far bank, we were soon back on our bikes and fol­low­ing Aibek to the end of our day’s ride, a hud­dle of yurts pitched on golden grass­lands over­shad­owed by glacial giants. Storm clouds dark­ened over­head as we kicked off dirty bike shoes to en­ter a dark yurt. The warmth was wel­com­ing and we sat on thick, patterned car­pets while our host, dressed in an in­tri­cately em­broi­dered waist­coat, served us chai. A broad smile spanned her round face, be­fore she left us to pon­der where we were and what we were do­ing here. It dawned on us that, 3,500m up on the side of a moun­tain in Kyr­gyzs­tan, we re­ally had lit­tle idea of what was com­ing next. But then, that had been the story of the last five days. Kyr­gyzs­tan was a place to ex­pect the un­ex­pected.

Aibek’s equine Uber ser­vice was just one of many un­usual ex­pe­ri­ences that were shap­ing a pi­o­neer­ing eight-day ride through Kyr­gyzs­tan’s south-western Alai Moun­tains. Nes­tled be­tween China, Uzbek­istan, Ta­jik­istan and the Bo­rat-tainted Kaza­khstan, this Cen­tral Asian coun­try is al­ready plied by ad­ven­tur­ous bikepack­ers. They pound the Pamir High­way in search of masochis­tic en­light­en­ment, but re­main blink­ered to Kyr­gyzs­tan’s end­less sin­gle­track, which sits out of view among the sur­round­ing peaks – their loss, be­cause there’s plenty. In a coun­try where the horse dom­i­nates ev­ery­thing from trans­port in­fra­struc­ture to restau­rant menus (‘rec­tum of a horse and ab­dom­i­nal fat’ any­one?), the Kyr­gyz peo­ple’s thou­sand-year-old equine cul­ture has left a legacy of tan­ta­lis­ing rid­able trails among the moun­tains that blan­ket the coun­try.

Lure of the wild

It had been cu­rios­ity re­gard­ing what these horse trails had to of­fer that had sparked plans with H+I Ad­ven­ture’s Euan Wil­son a year ear­lier. Helped by sug­ges­tions from Kyr­gyz trekking guide Dim­itry Kaliyuk, who’d also be or­gan­is­ing sup­port for us, we’d sketched a route start­ing south of the town of Osh and fin­ish­ing eight days and 140km later at the base of Lenin Peak – at 7,134m, Kyr­gyzs­tan’s sec­ond-high­est moun­tain and a lure to alpin­ists. Be­tween these two points would lie a string of semi-no­madic yurt camps, wild un­rid­den val­leys, sev­eral 4,000m passes and nearly 5,000m of climb­ing – ex­actly the kind of in­gre­di­ents to en­tice Red Bull riders René Wild­haber and Tom Oehler and videog­ra­pher Dou­glas Tucker to join us.

But now, un­rolling our sleep­ing bags among the musky odours of a yak-wool-shrouded yurt, the ex­pe­ri­ences were pil­ing up so thick and lay­ered that the ini­tial, ex­cited flurry of pre-trip emails seemed a life­time ago – as did the rain-soaked start to our ride atop Kyzyl-Kasa pass just a few days ear­lier. From that first push on the ped­als, ac­com­pa­nied by a drum­roll of thun­der, we dived into an un­fa­mil­iar world de­fined by a sen­sory over­load of bark­ing dogs, gal­lop­ing horses, snort­ing yaks and al­ways jagged, tow­er­ing peaks. Plas­tered in mud, we pulled to a stop that evening among aging Ladas, their per­se­ver­ance stand­ing tes­ta­ment to ei­ther Rus­sian re­silience or the skills of Kyr­gyz me­chan­ics. Hang­ing our gear to dry on an elec­tric ca­ble that dou­bled as a wash­ing line, we gulped down bowls of mys­te­ri­ous stew and peered up at a seem­ingly im­pen­e­tra­ble wall of rock that dwarfed our yurt.

“To­mor­row we climb to 3,800m,” mut­tered our guide Dim­itry in an al­most apolo­getic tone, be­fore adding

need­lessly: “It’ll be hard.” We soon learned that Dim­itry was given to un­der­state­ments. The climb to the 3,854m Kum­bel Pass took us nearly six hours. Af­ter just two, the gravel road we fol­lowed gave out to off-cam­ber sin­gle­track. We ped­alled and pushed but were ul­ti­mately left kick­ing steps up a steep scree face.

Climb­ing above the height of the Alps’ high­est ca­ble car, we were ush­ered on not by the echoes of cow­bells but by the cheers of four horse­men. Steer­ing the seven horses that hauled our group gear across the most re­mote stages of our tra­verse, these en­er­getic Kyr­gyz riders threw us thumbs-ups in en­cour­age­ment, be­fore dis­tract­ing us from our slog with stun­ning dis­plays of horse­man­ship. At one point a rider vaulted onto the back of his horse in one seam­less move. “He is lo­cal cham­pion,” said Gena, an older horse­man dressed head-to-foot in camo, point­ing at Chin­giz. Chin­giz isn’t a cham­pion in leapfrog, but the na­tional sport of buzkashi, an an­ar­chic ver­sion of no-rules polo played with a head­less goat car­cass as a ball.

Sum­mit­ing that first high pass re­warded our breath­less ef­forts with a 1,600 ver­ti­cal me­tre de­scent down a trail that might have been built just for bikes. We dropped down into a steep-sided val­ley, its enor­mous mul­ti­coloured rock walls stand­ing like enor­mous Dulux colour charts around us, be­fore ex­it­ing fast and loose an hour later along­side a tum­bling, crys­tal clear river. Kyr­gyzs­tan’s trail re­wards are there to be reaped if you’re will­ing to earn them it seems – a les­son that was driven home over the next few days by a suc­ces­sion of high passes fol­lowed by in­cred­i­ble de­scents.

By day three, when we sum­mited the 3,287m KoshMoinok pass, ac­cli­ma­ti­sa­tion was eas­ing the climbs, but any chance of stop­ping to rest at its sum­mit was dis­patched by rum­bles of thun­der and flashes of light­ning that lit up the peaks around us. We de­scended the best trail of the trip –a per­fect, nat­u­rally-bermed path that slashed a line of black dirt through vivid green pas­tures – in a tor­ren­tial down­pour, and when we reached our sim­ple guest­house in Kyzyl Shoro vil­lage, we were spit­ting grit from broad smiles. We sluiced mud from our legs helped by a bucket-wield­ing, smil­ing tod­dler and washed our bikes in a nearby stream. Once dry and in­side the guest­house, as a spread of hot dishes was laid out be­fore us on the thickly-car­peted floor, we learned that win­ter tem­per­a­tures drop to -40ºC here. I glanced at the out­house toi­let through the house’s rat­tling, sin­gle-glazed win­dows and tried to imag­ine life in this re­mote cor­ner of Kyr­gyzs­tan in win­ter. I couldn’t .

Top­ping out

We rode away from the guest­house next morn­ing in damp clothes left steam­ing in the warm sun­shine, ped­alling past the vil­lage mosque and into clouds of dust raised by pass­ing trucks head­ing to a nearby coal mine. We had a 15km, 1,500m climb ahead but spir­its were high, ig­nited by in­ter­ac­tions with lo­cals – a fam­ily gath­ered around an out­door clay oven handed us fresh-baked flat bread, and we stopped for chai in a yurt of an­other. We also saw our first other for­eign tourists – a small trekking group de­scend­ing the trail we were climb­ing. Their bewil­dered ex­pres­sions gave a nod to the 4,303m Sary Mogul pass that lay wait­ing for us. Six hours later we reached our camp spot – a small plateau nes­tled at 3,900m, just be­low the pass. Here, be­tween vast, hang­ing glaciers

I took my first bath in four days. Dip­ping in the glacial river, it was per­haps the quick­est bath I’ve ever taken.

We climbed the Sary Mogul pass at first light next morn­ing. The high­est in our trip, its nar­row, loose and steep climb was also the most com­mit­ting. But de­spite the dif­fi­culty get­ting there, when we squeezed onto its nar­row sum­mit ridge – a unique clus­ter of grubby moun­tain bik­ers, laugh­ing horse­men and fart­ing horses – we found we were shar­ing it with more trekkers, who mum­bled in French and He­brew un­der enor­mous back­packs, It seemed we’d joined a pop­u­lar hik­ing trail.

Rolling off the tiny pass on a trail that was scar­ily of­f­cam­ber but well trod­den, we im­mersed our­selves in a new land­scape of glacier-capped un­named peaks. Cross­ing the pass be­gan a new chap­ter for our jour­ney, one that would re­place the soli­tude of our ini­tial days with yurts busy with climbers at the Lenin Peak camp. Ped­alling out of the de­scent and jump­ing on the back of a pickup truck for a dusty, hour-long shut­tle ride out of the val­ley to Sary Mogul town, we passed the yurts, horses and yaks that have shaped Kyr­gyzs­tan’s 2,000-year his­tory. These liv­ing in­gre­di­ents of an an­cient way of life sat next to dozens of old Soviet rail­way car­riages, each now perched track­less on the dirt and up­cy­cled into houses, with in­con­gru­ous licks of smoke curling up­wards from pro­ject­ing chim­neys.

Two days later we were stand­ing on the top of our fi­nal pass, the 4,133m Trav­ellers Pass, look­ing across a lumpy sea of ice dot­ted with is­lands of grey mo­raine. This was the end point of our 140km ride, and faced by an im­pen­e­tra­ble wall of ice that rose im­pos­si­bly to Lenin Peak’s sum­mit, we ac­cepted that this was the do­main of sweaty, ice-axe-wield­ing climbers. We U-turned and steered our bikes back down the trail we’d climbed ear­lier. The de­scent was fast and playful, a dozen switch­backs lead­ing to a buff rib­bon of sin­gle­track that wound its way lazily through rolling grass­land. At last, for the first time in eight days of once-in-a-life­time ex­pe­ri­ences, we knew what to ex­pect.

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