The Soul of Manas
Traversing Kyrgyzstan’s Talas Range by Mountain Bike
Tracey Croke // Photography by Toby Maudsley
I cower behind my bike, hoping it will shield me from a flustered flock of sheep launching off the steep mountainside above. Whoosh. Thump. Over the track and my head they jump, hurtling towards the creek below. My mind flashes forward to home – and to the distinct possibility of my husband answering the door to the police. ‘We’re sorry to inform you that your wife has been killed by a flock of freaked-out sheep.’
Marauding sheep are, however, the least of our worries. Our group has a far more serious problem on our hands: we have lost our way for the third time today, and need to get to the next valley to meet our support horsemen, who have all our camping kit, food and equipment. To make matters worse, dusk is fast approaching.
It’s just the latest challenge on this pioneering ten-day mountain-bike expedition across Kyrgyzstan’s Talas mountain ranges. If our group of seven manages to complete it, we will have travelled 140 miles along ancient nomad trails, climbing to altitudes of more than 4000m, over ten mountain passes.
As we try to decide which direction to turn, three nomads appear over the hillside. When we explain our situation to them, they warn us that we are about to head down a dead-end. One of the nomads, Anarbek, tells us: ‘You have to go back to the top of the pass. There is no way through here.’ Confused, Patrick, our expedition leader, points to the trail on the map that we had been following. Anarbek says: ‘Forget the map. This trail is washed away. Come back with us and we’ll show you the way.’
The nomadic clan canter off in herculean splendour, with us following behind them, carrying our bikes on our backs. At the top of the pass, Anarbek leaps off his horse and points to a large hole under his knee. ‘I must change into my best trousers for my guests!’ He gregariously whips a pair of military style camouflage pants out of his saddlebag, then tells us that his son, Kojomkul, will show us the rest of the way. ‘But first sit with us,’ he insists. ‘You need meat – and tea.’ As quick as a magician’s trick, a bright blanket is laid on the ground and a large steel bowl brimming with chunks of cold, cooked lamb appears.
The nomadic clan canter off in herculean splendour, with us following behind them, carrying our bikes on our backs.
Our journey to Anarbek’s rug started in Kyrgyzstan’s capital, Bishkek. From there, we spent two days driving into the Talas range. With me is our team leader, Patrick, an Australian expat living in Kyrgyzstan, British photographer Toby Maudsley, Kiwi IT consultant Gareth Humphries, a local guide, who is also called Anarbek, and two Kyrgyz horsemen who carry our camping gear and food – gentle giant Umar and fatherly figure, Kalmat.
The entrance to mountains, 60 miles from the town of Talas, was marked by a grand, arched gateway and a mammoth statue of the folk legend Manas, rearing his horse under Kyrgyzstan’s national flag. Manas was reputed to have united 40 clans to create the nation of Kyrgyzstan that exists today, and he is still a spiritual superhero in the country, entrenched in its national identity.
Some marked trails were non-existent or had been washed away by landslides. Impossible passes, blocked trails, treacherous rivers with no crossing points followed.
When the tarmac disappeared, we bumped along a double track until our four-wheel-drive submitted to the rubble. We set up camp by the Baikyr River, below our first pass, Chon Kyzyl Bel, eight kilometers south of the Uzbek Border, and Patrick laid out a set of large-scale, decades-old Russian maps – the only ones available of the region – to go over our plans one last time. Our aim was to ride our bikes 140 miles southeast to Kara-Suu Lake, a journey that will see us climbing a total of 10,000m, careering down another 11,000m, and shivering our way across 30 glacial river crossings. I use the term ‘riding’ loosely as difficult terrain meant we had to push or carry our bikes some of the time. Locals said our route was “complicated” and unlike anything they had heard of.
The trouble with old soviet maps is that they lack enough detail to calculate accurate distances. Each day we would set off without knowing how long the day would be, or what type of terrain lay ahead. We were playing catch-up from day one. Some marked trails were non-existent or had been washed away by landslides. Impossible passes, blocked trails, treacherous rivers with no crossing points followed. One day, a sudden snowstorm forced us down the mountain. To avoid hypothermia, we accepted an invitation from two drunken shepherds to join them for a warming tipple in their truck. There, we played a waiting game with the weather and engaged in a circle of communication charades with our increasingly inebriated comrades.
Diversions racked up, our days got longer and our sleeps got shorter. But the Talas had a canny knack of wiping the weary slate clean with its daily dispatch of awe. Over every pass lay supernaturally-lit biblical panoramas that location scouts would’ve drawn their last breaths for. The place names – “Eternal Ice Mountain” and “Big Red Saddle pass” – were apt descriptions of the spectacular sights. Every climb was rewarded by a long descent into a vast, open valley.
Along our route, we traded laughs with passing dzighits – mountain cowboys. So incredible are their riding skills that they can pluck a small stone from the ground at a full gallop. One young dzighit we met put on a performance for us, then promptly jumped on my bike and pulled a perfect wheelie.
Nomads grazing their herds saw us coming from miles away and intercepted us with offers of chai. Their local knowledge always got our dream journey back on track, not least when we were hopelessly lost, with dusk rapidly approaching.
As promised, Anarbek’s son, Kojomkul, guided us to the elusive trail that we’d been seeking all afternoon. Close by we heard a chorus of thumping. We all stopped to watch the spectacle of culprits: silhouettes of wild horses prancing and rearing to a full moon. I convinced myself that it was a message from Manas to tell us our luck would turn soon.
My concept of time was lost in fatigue. Hours later, we popped over a ridge and an infinite blackness confronted us. An immeasurable distance away, a dot of orange hope glowed. Kojomkul flashed a knowing smile. We waved our head-torches anxiously. A white light appeared. Relief saturated the atmosphere as we realised that Umar and Kalmat had waited all day for us at the agreed spot. The orange and white lights slowly drifted apart; they were coming to meet us.
After another two hours of cycling along skinny rocky trail, Kalmat appeared on the exposed mountainside. He had the expression of a father who was relieved to find that his silly children who had got lost out playing were safe and well. He grabbed my bike, slung it on his shoulder and marched off down the mountain.
Eventually, we stumbled into camp, made amends with Kalmat and Umar over a shot of cognac, put up our tents and dragged ourselves gratefully inside.
There’s a common Kyrgyz expression: ‘Manastyn arbagy koldosun – I wish the soul of Manas to protect you.’ At the start of this journey, I wondered if such protection would extend to a few frivolous foreigners on mountain bikes. I slept soundly, knowing it did.
Tracey Croke is a Sydney based travel journalist originally from Manchester, UK, who likes roughty-toughty travel, off-track adventure and exploring with her bike. Her quest for a good travel story has involved venturing into post-conflict Afghanistan, sleeping in a swag next to a croc-infested billabong and having her smalls rummaged through with the muzzle of a Kalashnikov.