Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Day 12 Sary-Tash – Karakul

Distance: 105kms

Couldn’t get breakfast – even bread – anywhere in town and so pedalled off towards the Tajikistan border hoping the 5-egg dinner from last night would do its job. It was with a gulp that I rode headlong into the mountain range of 6000m, snow-capped peaks that awaited me.

First stop was the Kyrgyz border control where I had to get stamped out. The security presence was significant, with AK-47s slung over guards’ shoulders and an overly enthusiastic German Shepherd giving me a hard time. At one point it latched on to my pannier and I suspected my calf might be next. I motioned to one of the guards that he should shoot it.

The next 20 kilometres were stunningly beautiful, with snow-covered peaks everywhere. But the view wasn’t free: I had to pedal to 4300m on a steep goat track. I say pedal but actually there was half an hour or so of pushing in there as well. A fantastic distraction was provided by two eagles sitting on the roadside, then soaring up the mountain valley. Equally distracting was the sight of two English guys in a rally car coming down the mountain. They were crawling along in their Volvo but stopped to find out more about why someone would be cycling this remote stretch. “Hello old boy” the gentleman shouted from the driver’s seat. “Fancy a shortbread?” All that was missing was the cravat and tweed jacket. He then proceeded to pull out a tray of shortbreads that he’s obviously carried from England (they were heading to Mongolia as part of a charity rally), which I gladly accepted.

After a short conversation I continued to the pass and the Tajikistan border control. The border post is one of the highest in the world, and is basically a collection of old containers fashioned together on a mountain-top. I sat at the boom gate for 5 minutes while they finished their lunch and then went through a painless administration process. The next 10kms descended down the valley and followed an impressive electric fence that served as the Chinese border. It was 10 feet high with 32 individual wires (Frank had counted them) and ran for 200kms (pictured left).

I dropped down into an eerie valley with no vegetation, little oxygen and baking sun. The going was made difficult by the fact that the bitumen was literally melting under me. I had to stop three times to remove large clumps of tar that had attached to the wheel and prevented the wheels from turning. Quality road building obviously. Peeling the tarmac off my calves was also unpleasant.

I hadn’t realised there was another pass (becoming a common theme) but sure enough I would rise to over 4300 metres again for the second time that day. Though I had been higher in Tibet, and had no trouble on the first pass, this next climb caused me real trouble. I had headache, dizziness, extreme and nausea that got worse the higher I climbed. Because I was in a valley there was no point retreating, as I would only lose a few hundred metres of altitude that I would have to reclaim. I dismounted and continued on foot to minimise exertion, stopping frequently to rest. I took a fruit chew out during one of my rests and knew I was in trouble when it took three minutes of fumbling to open the packet. I hadn’t seen a car in five hours and I was losing it.

Towards the top of the pass I hit another obstacle – a collapsed bridge. I pulled my shoes and socks off, headed downstream and carried my bike across the icy, knee-deep river. I was exhausted by the other side and still had five kilometres to travel to the summit. At the top I was able to see the spectacular Lake Karakul for the first time – a spectacular body of water flanked by icy peaks (pictured below). I dropped down to the lake at 4000m and immediately dissipated the symptoms of altitude sickness. I was 30kms from my destination but out of the danger zone.

The side of the lake was incredibly barren and the lush green hills of Kyrgyzstan were well and truly behind me. I cycled into
Karakul, a tiny windswept village, at 6.30pm and found a place to sleep. As well as eating dinner with the family I also put my stove on to get some carbohydrates. The combination of high altitude and cheap fuel meant that it took an hour to cook, and the results were disappointing. It was quite possibly the worst meal I’ve ever had, and definitely the worst I’ve ever cooked. I told myself to eat the fuel while gagging on the soggy noodles….

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