After a week of meandering up idyllic Kyrgyz valleys, Kit and Magda approach the lofty crux of their trip. Gnarly passes, flooded river crossings, muddy bogs, technical descents, mechanical issues and sheer exhaustion would see the two tested like never before.
The first obstacle was Pereval Arabel at 3.839m. Somewhere bumping through the wide open valleys and muddy bogs, Kit managed develop a pin hole in his radiator. What was a minor inconvenience on the gentle slopes became a major concern climbing the steep, unimproved trail to the pass. The KTM’s big single cylinder was generating a lot of heat spinning the rear wheel, looking for enough traction to push the overloaded bike and rider up and up. Kit had to stop at every other switch back to top off the radiator and let the bike cool off. What’s more, early clouds which had brought welcome cooler temperatures, were now building into serious storms as the morning turned to afternoon.
Torrential rains (and some snow) on the 3.800 m plateau turned alpine creeks into swollen rivers. A well-maintained road bisected the plateau on its way to a nearby gold mine. Riding along it, a new F-350 pulled up alongside Kit and two Scottish blokes informed him that the road and the mine were an off limits dead-end. When Kit told them his goal was to cross the river and descend Dzhuku pass they just laughed and drove off.
Magda and Kit arrived at where the crossing was marked on the map only to find a chest deep, impassable muddy torrent. Exhausted with daylight quickly fading, they decide to take advantage of a short window in the deluge and set up camp. Spirits were low (and soggy) as the two climbed into bed after a cold supper. The two fell asleep with the hope that the next day would bring warm sun and receding waters.
Morning did bring clearing skies and a slightly lower and more lucent river. As Magda navigated her bicycle through freezing water, strong currents and submerged boulders, a local shepard on his horse showed up to watch the show. Kit, still nervous about getting the KTM stuck and waterlogged in the icy river, asked him if there were any other crossings. The nearest bridge was 20km of trackless bog away but apparently just downstream was a better ford. Whats more, the rider offered to help pull the bike through with his horse if it got stuck.
The alternative ford turned out to be much more manageable for a motorcycle and Kit crossed with minimum fuss. Safely on the other side of the great river, Kit and Magda layed out their wet gear to dry in the late morning sun. Thinking the worst is behind them, they soaked up some rays as well, resuming their quest later that afternoon.
After crossing a few km of treacherous bog, Kit arrived ahead of Magda to 3.633m Dzhuku Pass. From this side it was really nothing more than a gate in the glaciated Mountains of Shadow surrounding the high plateau. And, thankfully, some firmer ground. As Kit waits for Magda to push her bike through the Dead Marshes, huge herds of orcs err.. livestock pass on their way to their summer grazing grounds on the plateau. First horses, then cows and finally sheep and goats. Thousands of loose animals in a land without fences, guided only by some hardy locals on horseback.
One approaches Kit, who notices an assault rifle casually slung over his shoulder. Lacking the language to ask if it was for protection from predators or humans, Kit instead inquires about the state of the road ahead:
‘Mashina? not possible.’
‘Maybe, but not easy..’
After crossing a bridge clearly not designed for wheeled traffic. Kit and Magda were faced with two different paths down the steep, scree covered slopes of Dzhuku pass. One, an old mining road, appeared to end abruptly half-way down a cliff. The other, apparently the main path used by all the migrating livestock, was wider and well defined to the bottom.
The problem was that the surface was covered in loose rock, ranging is size from marble to bowling ball, knocked down from above by a million hooves. Without vehicular traffic to move the stones aside and make a path, the whole trail was a treacherous, slippery death-trap for anyone walking down it, much less an overloaded 260 kg motorcycle and rider rapidly approaching exhaustion.
Attempting to ride just resulted in increasingly dangerous slides and a few crashes. The KTM only sustained minor cosmetic damages, but continuing this way could only lead to more serious damage to motorcycle and rider.
The two hobbits are able to slowly walk old Bill down the slopes of Mt. Doom. Kit ponders why we didn’t just ride the Giant Eagles here?
6 hours and only about 2 km / 250m of elevation later (the latter section being a hellish crawl), the duo finally made to the first level spot to set a tent and proceeded to collapse into camp. A fast dinner and the sleep of the dead where quick and inevitable.
Morning light showed a few kilometers of rocky trail remaining before exiting into what Kit and Magda had heard would be the most beautiful scenery of the route. Still feeling the trial of the previous day, Kit had a late start followed by a slow, careful descent of the remaining path. Even so, it was still before noon when the two forded their last river into the head of the magnificent Dzhuku valley.
Thoughts of “why the hell am I doing this” were replaced with a sense of awe as glimpses of Dzhuku pass and their great trial faded in Kit’s rear-view mirror. In their place some of most epic scenes of the trip appeared. Desolate tundra was replaced once again with a broad valley full of life. The stark contrast of black rock and white glacier with the melded, earthy tones of evergreen forest and rich earth.
The two happily rolled down the gently descending track, epic vistas made that much sweeter by their cost in sweat, blood and equipment damage.
One tantalizing aspect of touring in Kyrgyzstan is how quickly the landscape can change. Even at bikepacking speed (often 50 km per day in the mountains) you can visit 4 or more distinct biomes. In this case Kit and Magda woke up just below Dzhuku pass at ~3.400m amid alpine tundra and neon lakes surrounded by rugged mountains capped with white glaciers. By lunch they had found Dzhuku river and followed it down the growing valley amidst chartreuse grass and evergreen glade. In the warm light of late afternoon céladon brush contrasted with rusty sandstone. Almost at sunset, they pulled into Kyzyl Suu village set on the arid shores of lake Issyk Kul.
In a day they had traveled from the High Sierra, to the North Cascades. Then descended through Grand Staircase-Escalante to finally end up at the feet of the Wasatch on the shores of the Great Salt Lake. It was an incredible climax to perhaps the most trying section of their entire journey.