Our maps were useless by the third day. The tiny, barely traceable white line that twisted up into what was vast nothingness had abruptly stopped, as did the good road surface, and we carried on what was known amongst those travelling Kyrgyzstan by bike as ‘The Middle Road’ for another week of riding. Five days of riding a road thats surface resembled rough seas and five days of mountain passes. It was probably by the fourth day of following The Middle Road that we were starting to fantasise about the ease we could have enjoyed if we stuck to the main road to Bishkek.We could have taken the main road, on which you enjoy your fair share of mountain passes across the country that is known as the Switzerland of Central Asia. Yet, from the comfort of our hostel in Osh, we had succumbed to the temptation to take the minor roads right into the heart of the country. Our chosen route would take us off smooth asphalt and up across the high level grasslands of the Jailoos that shepherds set up shop during the summer grazing months for their yak herds. In the summer months, the rolling green hills are littered with white domes of farmers’ temporary homes in in front of a backdrop of snow capped peaks. Kyrgyzstan is a nomadic country that’s flag even includes the shape of a yurt’s frame. To see this traditional nomadic life, you need to get off the beaten track; hence, beer in hand, we decided to take ‘The Middle Road’.
It seemed like a good idea at the time.The condition of the road made it hard going, much harder than anything we encountered in Tajikistan. The concentration needed to weave between the left and right edge of the road to avoid the worst of these bumps took a lot of the fun out of riding and it was often better to shun the roads altogether and take to the trails blazed by herds of cattle across the Jailoos in the approximate direction you want to go. It was slow going, made worse by the fact that we knew we were late in the season for this route. The shepherds pack up their yurts and head back to lower ground around mid-September and I was counting on sleeping in one of those yurts to deal with the low temperatures around Lake Song Kol we were warned about (by a woman who simply laughed in my face when I told her where we were going). We knew we were late and were constantly nagged about the need to crack on and make distance each day, no matter how difficult the road was, as snow appeared slightly lower down the mountains around us each day.
But all the difficulties were compensated for by what we saw. Kyrgyzstan has been such a stunning and rewarding place to ride. I’ll admit that we were suffering at first from post-Pamir syndrome: general feelings of ambivalence toward the natural beauty one’s surroundings that fell slightly short of the “epicness” of Tajikistan. But as these symptoms gradually decreased I came to love the smaller-scale yet concentrated beauty of this country. Rather than a barren, grey plateau broken up by peaks boasting heights well above 5000m, the Kyrgyz hills were full of vegetation that created a collage of warm oranges, yellows and browns of early autumn. And it was diverse: one morning we were rolling through golden wheat fields that reminded me of Azerbaijan; not long after we were climbing a pass that ran alongside a mountain stream enjoying the shade provided by a forest of fir trees. It felt like I took a wrong turn and wound up at Yosemite.Then there were those occasional moments of sheer beauty or those that bring about a real sense of accomplishment really made the whole thing worth it. We forgave the incessant washboard when we reached the top of another unexpected pass that wasn’t on our map to see a panorama of the Naryn River Valley and a joyous descent of twenty-odd switchbacks in front of us. This selective amnesia worked wonders: as soon as I made it down the other side of a mountain pass, that we encountered daily, I found myself wanting to do the next one because these moments of reaching the top, the views that come with it, and the subsequent descents, make all the difficulty of climbing on the worst quality road I’ve had to deal with worthwhile.Kyrgyzstan, and The Middle Road in particular, helped me realise the bipolar nature of cycle touring: the good and interesting come with he difficult. At the time, sometimes you wish you were anywhere but here and as you leave the appreciation comes flooding in, even before the rosy tint of hindsight clouds your judgement. You’re proud of what you did, grateful for what your saw, and glad you took the harder route.Nothing illuminated this like the moment The Middle Road came to an end. We were back on asphalt and the ease of riding back in civilisation should have been joyous. Yet it was somewhat of a disappointment. Yes, the option of roadside restaurants rather than a pot of instant noodles was a welcome change but it got boring quickly; after the first day back on the main road I only managed to write half a page in my diary. In it, I just complained about the drone of passing Chinese trucks rather than recalling the sound of a pack of wild horses running past our tents in the middle of the night, as we had experienced a few days earlier up on the Jailoos. The decision to take The Middle Road may have been simultaneously terrible and amazing idea, but it was the right one to make. It just took being back on asphalt to realise it.