They’re tiny encouragements, those dust whorls in the heat and the bits of dung and trash, brake lights on the sprinter van we hired to transport us from Bishkek, a moment ago the firm handshake of the driver with whom we share no language. This dirt patch off the edge of broken asphalt contouring along deep blue Lake Issyk-Köl, our bicycles gear full plastic grocery bags in excitable heaps. Now we’re stashing a week’s worth of food into frame and saddle packs, the fruit of hours trying to puzzle the ingredients from pictures on the outside packaging. Finally the perpendicular road wavy with children who say hello by putting their hands up and laughing, some chase us but most just continue playing as they were, the adults smile and shake an arm with genuine seeming joy, early on we pass a few cars horns honking and occupants pressed against the windshield in grinning greeting. It will transform into a two track and then a path and then just our pedalstrokes rising towards a Tien Shan ridge line that points at the sky like tips of neatly lined up spears. The glint capped peaks are inevitably further away than they seem. We see our first yurt even if it’s just another farm building, a woman leaning forward a wheelbarrow between fencing, a flat green pitch for ball kicking and used now for it by a hollering half dozen, an old Subaru.
We’ve come here because of the legend of Kyrgyzstan’s beauty, mountains and steppe, high meadow yurt camps, Silk Roads and the history of Soviet presence, Islam and horsemen and crashing cold rivers. None of the confirmed superlatives will match our wide eyed skipping heart wonder in the place.
The first giddy expectant revolutions were at five thousand feet, by the end of tomorrow we’ll have ridden to twelve thousand through trees and subsequently none to grey rock moraine staircases, a narrowing canyon, limpid plateau lakes. Along the way curious unfettered horses standing in the way to get a steady look at us, a herdsman’s grin, a yapping shepherd dog, the sound of mud scraping in our tread, dungfires from afar until we don’t see anyone anymore. Our camps will be on grass as smooth and low as a fairway, and we’ll sit it our kitchen circle whiskey drinking and marveling.
And in our chests we’ll ride through the realization that, whatever we expected this place to be, it’s more than that in the way that the unfurling kilometers of green levitates and astonishes us.
A man in fatigues on a small horse trots into the middle of our site, his tone curious greeting nodding he shakes all our hands and asks until we realize and say, “USA, America!” and he laughs and asks “New York City?” and Joel and I nod vigorously, point to my Yankee cap, he laughs nods more, we stand in a circle reckoning that we’re on this patch together. Lucas says that elsewhere we’d be happy to have reached this view at the end of two weeks of riding but here it’s just our beginning.
Just a half day, that first one, so we sleep the swallows of labored breath and contentment, galaxy and shooting star afterimages and cricket chirp echoes. The earth is so soft under us that we hardly need inflating pads. Dream of the smell of sage and it’s there vivd and pressing when we wake, repack and off, climbing again.
Sometimes we ride in twos and shuffle through to chat—Lucas, Logan, Joel—amusing that we’re a pair of LW’s and JC’s. Other times our line stretches, goes invisible, and when alone: every direction, even the valley behind, everything seems looked up at because your pulse is traveling its way there, reeling up summits and sunbeams, glacier glint and falcon wingtip. Talk to the herds to use up the words that aren’t doing any good anyway. Lunch together again, afterward nap.
The route we’re on goes fainter yet. To the left a cleft vectors away with just a cowpath on one side, that’s where we’re headed. No jeeps come through here, vertical walls clack echo funnel embrace.”It’s like we’re sequentially visiting all the US national parks but impossibly next to each other,” we laugh but Joel’s right and this is an entrance into a serene wildness that we’re grateful for. We’ll be asked a few times over the next weeks why here? and I can’t help but think our stammering incomprehension at the question is a snapshot of this very moment.
At the river we cross in four different ways, me with goretex socks, Logan barefoot, Lucas in sandals, Joel tries to ride it, total fail and he grins and we cheer howl.
I feel it like nostalgia, or like the whisper of a name on tongue tip, that there is beauty here that is remarkable so that beauty itself should be remarked. I want to make inquires of the blades of green, of the rust lichen, of the cloud tendrils that reach around the highest pyramids but then grow tentative and retreat, shadows and chilled air the groundlocked analogue. Shoulders tensioning and bobbing into the effort, the climb is at the limit of my traction and fitness, and I find the ache behind my ribs is a kind of answer in that it says something of what beauty means, the aim of striving heaving coiling, the aim of aiming.
We end below the pass but it’s in our sight, leaving it a task for tomorrow with the plateau marsh crossing that follows. Right now we’re too elated to wonder anything about that. Trapezoidal and cubed rocks all round, crouch behind them to talk over the wind and warm our fingers. After dark I’m in my tent, Joel and Logan are reclining in their down bags and they go silent to track in the black the sound of pebble fall along a route high up on the slope, rocks shifting sluffing left to right. When they tell the story we’ll choose and hope that it’s a snow leopard that imagined it perceived the four of us transfixed and wondered.