The dusty doubletrack we’d been rolling along was taking us closer to a border we had no intention of crossing.
We’d watched the Chinese-manned guardhouses slowly growing larger long before we reached the double wall of razor wire, 3 metres tall and glinting in the sun, stretching impossibly to a vanishing point in either direction. Despite the fact that we would not be crossing any borders, we’d still be subjected to frequent checks, inspections, and interrogations.
“What happens if one of us doesn’t show up at the next checkpoint?” I casually asked our ‘fixer’ Yerlan as I rummaged around in my dusty handlebar bag for my passport containing its Chinese ‘proximity visa’ – the paperwork we were required to carry just to be within sight of the country.
Yerlan paused for a moment, weighing his words. “Well, if they don’t already know where you are – which is unlikely – they will simply come and find you. You will then be shot without question.”
We were hugging the Kyrgyz side of no-man’s land, a remote 15 kilometre-wide strip of barren borderland separating Kyrgyzstan’s South East from China’s remote North West.
Remote? Think ‘furthest point on Earth from an ocean’ remote. So remote that none of its mountain-fed rivers ever reach the sea.
As we were to discover multiple times over the next two weeks we didn’t need to be actively crossing any borders to go through a checkpoint – and these could (and did) spring up in the most unlikely of places. The PC term for it was “active monitoring”, which was more than a little unsettling seeing as we were not even in the country that was actively monitoring us.
While China’s observation of its neighbours is nothing new, its plans for this sleepy little undeveloped country are.
In the preceding centuries, passage through this area was a central part of the important Silk Road trading route, connecting the East and the West. The Chinese government’s 21st-century ‘Belt and Road Initiative’ is fundamentally a reinvigoration of this traditional trading route, with significant development slated for Eastern Europe, Africa, and Central Asia.
Spanning four continents and at a cost of over $1 trillion, it is the largest infrastructure project in history.
And as we’d learn, the impact on Kyrgyzstan would be much, much greater than simply a new road.
Rewind a half-dozen months.
Sitting in the office one mundane weekday, I received a strikingly similar email to the one that my mate Shannon from Serk Cycling had sent which sparked an adventure that saw us riding up to Mount Everest base camp. He’d included a link to a proposed bike-packing race in the ‘Stans, with a note along the lines of “Let’s get here before this place becomes a superhighway”. The video became my daily escape, with each viewing stirring an incredible wanderlust for this central Asian wild west.
Through the cycling adventure scene, Shannon had been in contact with Nelson Trees, the brains behind the PEdALED Silk Road Mountain Race – at that point a soon-to-be-launched 1,700km self-supported race across remote Central Asia. The organisers had scoped out the route, and Nelson had pointed Shannon to some remote sectors of the course – that is, the most remote sectors of an already remote race.
Shannon didn’t need much convincing to want to experience it for himself.
Really, though, it was a way of justifying a once-in-a-lifetime cycling adventure into an increasingly rare undeveloped pocket of the world – a pocket of the world that was set to fundamentally and dramatically change forever. We got the sense that we’d be recording a frozen moment in time. Something that not just future generations, but, for me, my own children, would never be able to experience in the same way.
Other than browsing Daniel Weststeyn’s excellent piece on cycling Central Asia’s Pamir Highway, I intentionally self-limited my research. Part of the appeal of this trip was going to be discovering the country in person, warts-and-all; smelling it, seeing it, and feeling it shudder through our forearms as we wound our way along the unpaved gravel roads of the former Silk Road trading route.
On the gravel front we would not be left wanting. Whilst a typical GPS roadmap for a metropolitan city might be a gigabyte or two of memory, the base maps of every road in the entire country of Kyrgyzstan amounted to a measly 7MB. Of the sparse bits of electronic spaghetti we were following on Etrax (the Garmin unit providing our maps) less than 15km were paved, and even then that was really more of a roughly connected series of tar-filled potholes.
The rest was groad. Glorious groad.
Given we’d be following sections of the original Silk Road trading route it seemed romantically appropriate to commence our journey in Tash Rabat at the castle-like Caravanserai – a thousand year old traders’ inn. Situated at 3,200m, this point along the Silk Road provided the entry to Kyrgyzstan after departing China en route to the West. It was a protected pinch-point high in the valley where traders could recoup after crossing the dangerous Torugart Pass in the Tian Shan Mountains.
As we surveyed the yurt camp and roaming horses around us it was hard not to feel a tiny sense of connection. Like the traders before us, we’d be carrying everything with us – albeit with the added luxury of butane canisters, GPS, and waterproof down.
“We buckled our saddlebags closed and clipped in. After all the planning, we’d finally commenced.
A journey to the middle of nowhere, and the exact place we wanted to be.”
The chipped and broken road that would be the beginning of our journey unwound before us, clear of the snow that sees it closed for nine months of the year, and free from floods, landslides, or avalanches that often render it impassable in the summer. We shivered in the lingering morning shadows cast by the imposing limestone and quartz crags of the ‘Dragons Teeth’ towering high above the valley floor.
At altitude, the air was thin. It was quiet, save for a gentle breeze rolling through the valley and flapping through our tents as we packed down. It was the literal breath of fresh air wisping away the travellers’ fog of a journey halfway around the world – a journey comprised of countless hours in airports, endless bag searches, humid transfer lounges, boarding and re-boarding planes, and stress about maxed-out short-stay visas.
We buckled our saddlebags closed and clipped in. After all the planning, we’d finally commenced. A journey to the middle of nowhere, and the exact place we wanted to be.
The one thing I hadn’t considered was what nowhere looked like…
In terms of topography and grandeur of vistas, Kyrgyzstan is like the Rockies or the French Alps, or as post-Soviet incoming president Askar Akayev would describe it: “the Switzerland of Central Asia.”
The difference is that travelling from any Kyrgyz population centre, the development abruptly stops. Outside of the towns there are no paved roads, no power lines, no permanent houses, and no infrastructure for miles. The majority of the country is covered in mountains (85 distinct ranges to be exact) including the Tian Shan range, which over 2,500km straddles the border with neighbouring China to the South East.
Kyrgyzstan is one of the most sparsely populated countries on earth which, when combined with the mountainous topography and the fact that the government holds 25% of land as part of the Land Redistribution Fund, means that there is a lot of uninhabited, undeveloped space.
PEdALED Silk Road Mountain Race director Nelson Trees explains the noticeable lack of development thus:
“Kyrgyz think differently about development. They almost have a nostalgic memory of the Soviet era. At that time towns had industry, cinemas, restaurants, a thriving community. In post-USSR Kyrgyzstan there is a regression to farming and a nomadic lifestyle that comes from necessity, not choice”.
During our own journey we’d often be alerted to the presence of nomadic farmers well in advance of seeing them thanks to a curious family member on horseback. As we rolled along, we’d watch the dust cloud grow nearer over the space of twenty minutes until we’d finally meet, exchanging information for cigarettes via our fixer, Yerlan. While we didn’t always have the time to accept the invitations, invariably we’d be asked back to their yurt camp.
It was at these camps where we could finally appreciate the depth of poverty first hand. A combination of the removal of financial support from the former USSR, a lack of significant natural resources, and insufficient agriculture see the national poverty rate sitting at 32% (which pleasingly is down from closer to 60% a little over a decade ago), with 75% of these people living in rural areas. The average annual Kyrgyz income is $700USD.
As is often the case with travel, we found that it’s overwhelmingly those families with the least to give that offer the most. Whilst we could politely decline the generous offers of a meal (there were ten of us after all) it would have been a social faux-pas to say no to a warm cup of the traditional Krygyz drink, Kumis.
The production of Kumis has only slightly been modernised in recent times. Traditionally, fire-blackened goat skin bags were filled with fresh mare’s milk and draped over a horse for the day to warm in the sun. The bouncing and shaking throughout the day reduced the coagulation of the milk. Somewhat. Today you’re more likely to find large plastic containers of fermenting Kumis hanging in the doorway of a yurt, where passers-by are encouraged to punch and shake the container, although the families we met simply stirred the mixture on occasion … with the addition of dung.
Over the space of a couple of days the mixture begins to ferment. By the time it is poured into an all-too-full mug it has soured and naturally effervesces as it becomes alcoholic. The thick, warm, fizzy milk with an earthy buttermilk aftertaste certainly is an acquired taste but it would be incredibly rude to say no – even with the vivid thought of a mug-full of warm Kumis sloshing through our guts for the rest of the day.
We squinted in the hot sun while we sipped down the warm-milky welcome gesture, trading stories via our fixer Yerlan. He explained that the reason for the interest in us is that with no television or radio, we are the family’s entertainment, and there may not be another traveller for some days.
It’s a stark reminder of how isolated we are.
We would go for large stretches of time without seeing a car, building, or even a temporary camp. The lack of infrastructure is a double-edged sword. We’d be giving up some basic comforts, carrying everything we needed on us for sometimes days at a time. On the flipside, we were free to simply set up camp wherever we pleased, as there are no land owners in many of the areas we travelled through.
Joining the reformed crew from our Tibet trip, Matilda Raynolds described it as being like “the whole country is our campground”. It certainly felt it each day, as we hand-selected each campsite based on nothing more than a loose proximity to water and some pleasant surrounds.
And pleasant they were. There were many nights where there was literally no-one, and no sign of humans save for some rocky double-track stretching to infinity either side of us. Just us, the dull bubble of water boiling for dinner, some cheap Russian cognac, and stars – a galaxy of stars.
It was these moments of solitude that we found ourselves pining for only a week later as we rode – accompanied by the constant hum of traffic – on blacktop through Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan’s larger, wealthier, and more populous cousin to the North.
Our plan to cross the border to Kazakhstan was initially a product of interest – “when are we likely to get the opportunity again?”– but as we discovered, the stark juxtaposition of the neighbouring countries would provide the best direct insight as to the real-world impact that Kyrgyzstan would encounter under China’s Belt and Road Initiative.
Regardless of which estimate you choose to believe on the value of investment in China’s Belt and Road Initiative – from $1 trillion right up to $8 trillion – it very quickly becomes an incomprehensible string of meaningless noughts and zeros.
Incomprehensible, perhaps, because there is nothing in human history to compare it to.
When podcast historian Dan Carlin finds himself getting caught up in overwhelming numbers (like the million-plus men injured or killed in WWI’s Battle of Somme), he dives into the impact to individuals. Similarly, with 70 countries spanning 4 continents involved in the Belt and Road Initiative, our understanding of the project’s impact came not from a helicopter view, but by looking at just one region.
When I first learned of the Belt and Road Initiative via Shannon’s email my first reaction was “what’s the big deal?”. Surely a road in the middle of a country – even a pristine one – isn’t that much of a fuss. But I soon realised that the Belt and Road Initiative is not as simple as a highway being thrown down the middle of a country. It’s everything that goes with those highways – railway, high tension power lines, hydro etc – and the satellite businesses and support structures that pop up around it.
“Kyrgyzstan’s small capital Bishkek in 2018 looks a lot like Bishkek in 1998. Just the posters have been updated.
All of that is about to change in a massive way”
– Shannon Bufton
It’s the gas stations and roadhouses. The accommodation and surrounding restaurants. It’s the towns and villages that pop up around these businesses that themselves require schools, shops, trade, housing, police. The arterial of new roads that connect areas once effectively inaccessible, opening these areas up to tourism and the world. I thought back to my trip to Mount Everest 12 months prior, where our morning shuttle to base camp took an hour. Only years before, that same journey was a dangerous, day-long, bumpy and therefore tourist-limiting trip.
Last year when travelling through Tibet we spoke with many locals who were experiencing first-hand China’s soft-power movement. We passed through numerous villages which had been modernised. Each Tibetan family had been given a house with running water, electricity, gas, sewage, and a cash payment that could be used to buy a vehicle, stock, or start a business.
We would speak with the older generation about their fears for the loss of culture and the significant changes that were taking place, while the younger generation informed us how they had yearned for this change. They wanted to be connected to the world; to fashion, nightlife, the internet, to current events, a job away from the farm. Interestingly, it was the same feeling that Shannon Bufton would describe to us growing up on a farm in rural Victoria. The feeling of needing to escape a predestined life, of forging a new path away from that set by previous generations.
As cycling tourists, this is where things get tricky.
On one hand, we want to experience these ‘untouched’ places free from modern influence, but at the same time there is a preference for connectivity, security, comfort food choices, and more than an air mat under your back.
At one point on this trip we were two days ride from the nearest town – which itself was a full day’s drive from anything resembling modernity. Our surrounds were a real-life Narnia. We gazed out on chalky snowmelt rivers snaking through deep gorges, their walls carpeted with flowers and scattered with impossibly-tall pines. As we bounced along the bumpy rock-strewn road I found myself thinking both how incredible this place would be with some fast-rolling hotmix winding through the middle of it, but then I also wanted the exact opposite: to keep this increasingly rare pocket of untouched beauty to ourselves.
Therein lies the dilemma of the tourist.
It was at this point in our ride that it really hit me.
The impact of The Belt and Road Initiative in this pristine place is not just a multi-lane superhighway carving its way through the countryside. In addition to trade and functional travel, it opens the doors for a tourism market hungry for authentic, removed, ‘grammable, and unique experiences.
In Kazakhstan, we saw firsthand exactly what this looks like, where we were never more than a few moments from being passed by a coach, truck, or car; where we were never far from a cafe or restaurant, and where our sojourns into the countryside were through ski resorts, past overflowing campgrounds, and via switchbacked roads lined with safety fencing and bordered by engineered retaining walls.
It was certainly far from bleak – quite the opposite; it was beautiful countryside. It’s just that it didn’t have the breathtaking isolation that we had experienced bikepacking through Kyrgyzstan.
“Emotionally you want to keep it this way, to hang onto that.
You don’t want it to change, but that’s not my right … the only thing I can implore is that if you have the opportunity, you need to see it now before it changes.”
Earlier in our trip we had the feeling that we were recording a moment in time, an epoch in history. One where we would repeat the well-worn travellers tale of ‘at least we got there before …’, something that previous travellers whose journey here was longer and more arduous than ours no doubt also muttered, and will be repeated by future tourists rolling in on tar roads before the hotels and restaurants are established.
So it goes with travel.
But replaying the ever changing landscape in my mind – from barren deserts, to open fields covered in spring flowers, through snow-capped peaks and seemingly into Narnia itself – I knew that we had seen this version of Kyrgyzstan for both the first time, and the last.