Shuffle roll over in the tent, check time gather the quilt about, plat glack plat of drops on the fly a continuation of the sounds to which I fell asleep. Logan, whose tent is closest, hears that I’m up and asks whether I’d been outside yet this morning. I pfft at the rain and he suggests I take a look. Unzip the top of the fly, wet heavy snow sluffs off, ground covered and the flakes are falling hard in orderly Euclidean slants. Twelve thousand feet or so, stuttering breath to laugh together through the thin layers of fabric.
Yesterday was a hard day so we slept a punished sleep. From the giant’s toy block strewn campsite, we’d ascended and climbed with forty minutes of pushing the bikes to a keyhole opening through the peaks to a plateau. Wending through lakes over marshland, a horsetrack here or there but mostly just pointing the bikes and going. Above us, seems like right on the stitching of our pulled close hoods, rolling billowing grey boiling hissing wind.
Takes us some time to find a spot to cross the river, we’re all shivering, I’m wearing all of my clothes and buttoned up lockdown. Scrolling through the track, it was a bit more south and then a sharp turn west along what should be a visible trail and it is, but just. The now gale flapping howling in our faces so we pedal the flat ground with the effort of a canted up but hardly walking speed, hail then rain then hail again. It may have been the main thoroughfare across the plateau forty years ago, you can catch its traces but not by looking for them, more the feeling of seeing the faintest stars from the peripheral corners. Too dark for sunglasses but they’re on to shield eyes and I’m inexplicably laughing at the stinging sharps against my cheeks. The effort has at least thawed my toes and a little bit of the icy instinct to isolation that I feel, my sense of sociality glaciated even though I rode shoulder to shoulder with Joel.
Hours toward evening, pop out on to a wide mining road with giant steel utility line statues that we know head up valley toward a mine. We revel in the speed and ride for another while before finding water and pitching the tents in a basin. Rain again, cold and dinner is quick silent so sleep is the only last thing.
In about an hour we’ll pack our things, that grim accepting packing with hunched shoulders and hooded faces, leave tracks behind us to ascend, not just to a pass, but to our own forward glint.
Kicking up these rooster tails of mud, I can feel every now and then a dirt turd flip around and land on the bill of my cap. But the insult is a last gasp, we’ve gone from a sludgy mist lid on the sky to blue cracks to pulling our hoods back. We know from the map that we’re approaching a precipice, a series of switchbacks down to a long river valley that we’ll hare straight west on.
We didn’t know it would be an embrace, an assurance, a dreamscape that leaves us headshake clinging to those hours and telling stories about the track for days after it’s a wheel’s memory. I think that span, the morning snow, the frustrations of the mud slog up and past the high point, the clacking rollercoaster descent and then whooosh, silence of our big tires on green carpet doubletrack for days; I think that span snapped and adhered this place to us so here’s where we never want to have missed or ended.
Joel carves off the track, finds a straight line toward the lone horseman who is herding cows. I see them in the distance grip hands, their silhouette somehow metaphorical. The handshakes here are hearty and intentional. Sometimes we see the younger boys light up when we offer our greeting, feeling older at regarding us strangers at close distance. But they’re already impossibly composed in our view, riding hard and skillfully, bundled against the chill.
That evening we camp early because the setting won’t let us not. Tents in a line pitched into the gusts, but down low cross legged around the stoves it’s quiet enough for us to mark the long pauses between when we say anything. After sunset we’ll smell dungfire from distant yurts, tomorrow there will be unfettered horses concentratedly ignoring us as we pedal away.
We talk about the close relationship between expectation and fear, the way that those naive images set the pace and landscape before you’re even pressed by the cold and colors.
Invited into a yurt, bread and jam, my first fermented mares milk. Tastes like a thick creamy demented kombucha with the heavy smell of horse, we’ll drink a fair bit more of it over these next weeks and often chased by Russian vodka to make sure we wobble and squint on our way. As we leave we’re given a coke bottle that we think is more kumys but we find out later that it’s butter. We laugh, seems like it’s crazy but we’ll enjoy it in our soup.
Naryn is our first resupply opportunity since setting out. We arrive on the sixth day, all of us digging at the bottom of our bags for a piece of candy that got loose. Finally eating those things that we’d been avoiding or that we bought by mistake. We spread the butter on stale flatbread, it’s a legitimately delicious lunch.
We talked up the pizza and desserts we’d eat in town, but in the event it was the inevitable letdown. The day we spent in that urban setting, the trafficked streets and notably unhandsome Soviet architecture and art, the repeating sequence of shops—mobile top up, money change, liquor—the unromantic reality of it: our eagerness to head out again was axiomatic, but more than that I think we were sheepish and wanted to escape from our pretense that this is an uncomplicated landscape as if all one valence threatening to collapse into no meaning at all.
In the south and moving west, the day of the grit sticking to our sweat and the cloying steadiness of our cadence isn’t our favorite. The only mistake would have been expecting it to be our earlier lifting valley, and fearing that it wouldn’t be.
Two horses with their riders on a long slow traverse to meet us at our camp. Maybe a grandfather, father, son. They nod and smile, not effusively but companionably, we bid our happiness at being here, they continue on.