The blizzard had begun on arriving at the top of Alabel Pass. The snowflakes whipped around us as we prepared to descend into the gathering storm. Our vision was reduced to mere metres as the icy wind tried it’s hardest to blow us back up the hill. As our altitude decreased the air temperature increased gradually, the light snow turning to stinging hail, sleet and then to fat droplets of rain.
Waterproofs on a bike don’t live up to the hype. The combination of wind-blown rain and spray from passing traffic seems to force it’s way through any zips and closures no matter how seemingly firmly closed they are. The near freezing temperatures, wind chill and soaked clothing forced us to stop and consider our options. We happened upon a ski lodge, and quickly made the decision to finish early and dry ourselves out.
With my parents arriving the following day we knew we needed to make it to Bishkek, some 150km from the ski lodge with a 15km climb up a mountain pass. We put out our gear to dry and psyched ourselves up, determined and ready for a long day out, and an early start.
The lie-in was great, and leaving at 1030 felt like we’d already resigned ourselves to failure, but as each kilometre passed we felt more and more confident. The temperature was a cool -3 degrees, so the snowflakes bounced off of us rather than soaking us to the skin. As we started to climb we removed some layers and were feeling good. Just past the halfway mark we noticed an aged petrol tanker that was also grinding it’s way up the steepening road. A quick bout of acceleration and an extended arm later and we are one with the lorry. The next 7km, or 1h10, is spent with our noses plastered to the back wall of the tank, pedalling a little to take some strain from our tired arms. With the benefit of hindsight we’re not too sure if we gained much time with this little escapade but I gained a shoulder-twinge from an old climbing injury and Noémie an aching bicep.
Arriving at the top of the pass we were faced with the next obstacle. A 3km long, infamous tunnel with no ventilation, heavy traffic and little lighting lay before us. A traffic light alternates every few minutes allowing a stream of traffic just enough time to pass through before cars, lorries and minibuses flood into the other side. Not wanting to choke on the fumes nor face oncoming traffic, we opted to hitchhike our way to the other side. We proceeded to make enquiries around the parked up lorries, our only realistic chance with two loaded bikes. After trying 3-4 we found a willing accomplice who had an empty trailer. We loaded up our bikes and sat up front with our new friend. The next 3km went quickly, sharing some chocolate that a local had given us that morning. We barely had enough time for basic introductions and mumbled pleasantries in semi-Russian before the light at the end of the tunnel.
On the south side of the tunnel we had left a snowy wonderland with little wind and manageable temperatures. Exiting the tunnel we quickly discovered we had entered another world. When we saw the gale force winds scouring the snow drifted road it became apparent that cycling would just be down right dangerous.
The built up traffic snaked down the mountainside in a chaotic jumble of broken down lorries, stuck cars and the occasionally moving police-lead convoy. We wove our way down between the stranded vehicles, skidding around like a skiing debutant until we saw tarmac underneath our tyres again. The never ending beautiful valley distracted our eyes just long enough for our wheels to find more potholes than we would have liked and our arms grew more tired than our legs from constant readjustments. The road got better and we started to enjoy some speed when Noémie’s back tire gets a flat. With the puncture repaired, we arrive in Kara-Balta, a town nestled in between mountains illuminated by the setting sun, our bellies driving us now as we searched for food.
1930. 60km remain. We are in the bottom of the valley now – flat all the way to Bishkek but trials still remain. Unmarked roads become a blur as darkness descends quickly upon us, the mood changes rapidly and for the worse. We struggle to keep on the right lane as trucks pass close by on one side and potholes on the other. The endless unlit suburbia of Bishkek flashes by like a slow motion zoetrope of neon signs and fatigue, the hours flick by slowly and deliberately. We arrive at the hotel a little after midnight, a very early check-in but one well needed.
154 kilometres, 1000 metres of ascent, 9h30 on the saddle, one snowstorm, 1h10 pulled by a truck, a tunnel crossed by hitchhiking, one puncture. Our 365th on the road was the hardest of the year. A year of nomadism, of memories and anecdotes. Each day is different, full of both good and bad surprises. Nothing fixed, everything can change. The Earth continues to spin whilst we pedal against it with only one desire: to live every moment.
To celebrate our one year anniversary of life on the road, we collected all the photos of each site we camped at and made a ‘tentlapse’, our year of camping in 1 minute.