Not wanting or wishing or chasing something else. I’m in stationary timestopped movement liberated from hoping for a better view or a softer light or a more ragged horizon. Kyrgyzstan is stasis that I know isn’t permanent but that I can at least be present in heat and contentment.
Within this fixity we’re zigzag brownian motion through a depression in the round hills. See the vee of what we judge is the high point, each of us on his own path surfing tussocks and babyheads. The shepherd told us to stay left of the wash but Logan’s up above me to the right on the shoulder of the ridge. He’s moving pretty good, I think he’s grinning. Joel’s well ahead, steal a glance behind at Lucas swiping sweat from above his sunglasses, I start off again. It wants to be a bike push kind of section, we’re feeling stubborn instead, churning our easiest gears to float forward.
We top out, shirts soaked from effort. The soft grassy tread and tall sky somehow absorb the ifs so that we’re left with now and here.
Lowland sticky dust is behind us now, yesterday we visited Tash Rabat and found it shrugging unremarkable. At least the tourist yurt camp nearby had excellent food and beer that we chilled in the stream. The highlight was meeting and mingling with Kyrgyz visitors who beamed with pride at our truthful confessions of the unrivaled beauty of their home.Turned the bikes around to head back into the sparsity, a northern course traversing valley folds, back to altitude to a splendid nothing.
Ascend into that sensory inversion where the sweep before us expands, bursts toward the sky and where your own self-awareness shrinks crowded out. This is the spatial analog to the frozen time of not waiting for something better, where there is no distance to cross because you fill all the corners of the universe, where the universe spans you and so you’re already a completion.
The breathless work of straining climbing, the wet weather gear when drops turn to torrent, backtrack when a lone horseman on the quiet unused track we’re on emphatically assures us that the river crossing 50k down the way will be deep over our heads. We laugh when he mimes our bikes getting swept away and all four of us cartwheeling underwater in the boil and hydraulics. It’s a section that on the map about which I had questions, we debate pressing on anyway, but we’ll be glad we didn’t because on the reroute the descent into Baetov rocket drops us down to transcendence with a red gold glow on the canyons like forever in front of our wheels.
We’re fitter now, we’re faster, we see better now, we’re slower. In a day we reach lake Song-Köl, subject of postcards and also popular with Kyrgyz tourists. The serenity of the place wrestles with trash and blowing toilet paper, our chests squeezed tight. Wind comes through indignant and a drop then another, we rush to put up our tents close to the shore and dive in. I eat raw ramen while listening to the lash and beating against the fly. Tomorrow we watch a game of Kok-boru, a kind of polo. The primal raw striving, sweat and close contact shoulders that’s always present in sports but here is closer to the surface, the horses dancing for footing, surging, the jockeys bent low off the side of the saddle to grab the desiccated goat carcass then lifting it hip high to gallop fury and dust toward the goal.
The horserider is on a line to intercept us, closer and I see that she’s in a boxy pink jacket, closer still and her socks match. Her feet don’t reach the stirrups but somehow she rides without so much as a bob of her cap, maybe nine years old and brimming with confidence. I convey that we’re headed to the pass out of the Song Köl basin, she wrinkles her eyebrows for a second, points, thinks, looks up at the sky. Points to me and the guys coming up behind, pantomimes that first we’ll go to meet her parents and brother to have chai in the yurt. We fall in in a line behind her, she helpfully waves us along.
Fatima’s father is kind and welcoming, shows us photos of his champion kok-boru days, laughs easy and teases Logan for his beard. We can see the source of his daughter’s smart sparkling assurance, and the visit stays with me long after against the backdrop of a country where women’s lives in rural areas seem so little self-directed, a country where bride kidnapping is still a reality.
We plunge down again, another swirling carving majesty downhill, we’ll camp half way down, roll onto startling tarmac and a string of towns before onward.
Lucas went into the shop to get another couple of liters of beer sold in plastic 1.5L bottles, we like the kind that comes with a tiny packet of corn nuts attached to the cap. We’re sitting outside chatting and horsing around with the little kids on their bikes. Lucas has been gone a long time, but then again it’s easy to picture any one of us laboring over the selection of years old frozen solid ice cream bars trying to decide between them. He comes out grinning his ass off, red faced. “Yeah, one of the ladies in there, it’s her birthday, she’s turning 55. So they made me do shots with them.” We howl, half jealous, decide to camp at the edge of this sleepy town.
A shepherd, just a twentysomething kid, comes around to check us out. Trade tidbits, and eventually he reveals that his cousin lives in the USA in New York City. Shaking our heads in wonder, he calls her, it’s morning Eastern Daylight Time, speaks to her for a moment and hands me the phone. Nuri is stunned that we’re in her mothers village, that we’re talking to Tamerlan, that we’re riding bikes in her native country. She lives a fifteen minute walk from the neighborhood Joel and I live in. The phone gets passed back a forth a few times so Nuri can translate Tamerlan’s questions and our answers. He’ll come back in the morning, wants to see more of Joel’s photos on the camera, Joel rides his horse around an Tamerlan tries the bikes. We meet his siblings and mother, she gives us bread and equally warm waves.
Last days in long valleys to a passes, camps, whooping rides down, a detour to one more resupply before pointing the bikes endward. We camp part way up Kegety pass, sitting in the warmth to soak it up before evening and the inevitable chill. In the morning we pack up, our last day on the trail so bittersweet and the agitation of the knowledge that we’ll have to shift into a different rhythm.
The descent is so long that we’ve stopped worrying that we’ve reached the bottom. Passing through lovely parklands now, off to my right there’s a Kyrgyz family picnicking on a broad ornate blanket. I wave and they do back, then I realize that they’re waving me to join them. Point the bike off the track and descend, they’re smiling and gesturing that I should stop and eat and the spread of beautiful food and their close joy encircle me. The boys arrive and food is pressed into their hands, we sit on the blanket and I try not to get my muddy legs on it.
There are a dozen members of a family there, sisters my age with their children, their smiling directing mother that they’re all deferential to, brothers uncles teenagers. We drink apricot flavored water, bread, heavenly jam, a stew with potatoes and tomatoes and tender meat. The rain starts to fall again and doesn’t let up this time, starts falling hard. We gather up the picnic and run to the van, all able bodied among us making several trips to put the food and picnic items into the dry. The grandmother is walking up the hill with her cane, she’s bent over it into the steep part. I’m the only one to see it so I skitter down and proffer my arm. She makes no big show of appreciation, no special acknowledgement the way one would if a stranger rushed over to help. She reaches to me and we slowly lift ourselves to the level of the road—eighteen footfalls that take a full minute—where I hand her off to her son but not before she squeezes my forearm once without looking at me.
I’m the one who’s been helped up right then by the implication that we’re all of us together at a picnic sharing bits of our happiness and hearts. I’m the one supported back to that road and so all the tracks that we’ve traveled here. Maybe that’s why we say beauty leaves us speechless, beauty is reaching this standstill while in motion.
The last 40k run is on a dirt path alongside an aqueduct all the way to Bishkek’s edge. Rolling west and the sun setting onto the backs of our hands, heads down riding flat out. During a break all of our fingers are trembling, share the last cookies and I produce a Snickers bar out of a secret cache. Now there are people everywhere, dogs and tidy developments or a shanty or just an urban shepherd. Now traffic fumes cacophony, we turn on our headlamps to be seen on the city streets but the bright comes mostly from behind us, from where we’ve been.