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Do you want to go on a trip of a lifetime?
That was the title of the e-mail forwarded to me one morning from Stephanie, a product manager I work closely with at Specialized.
Define ‘a trip of a lifetime’. This woman served in the Peace Corps when I was playing collegiate tennis and growing mutated DNA strains in petri dishes. Yes, there was a life before bikes.
But ever since I met the bicycle, I have done my fair share of exploring and pushing my limits. From racing around the world at the highest levels to conquering terrain and distances I didn’t know were possible.
But a trip of a lifetime? Tell me more.
The answer: bikepacking in Kyrgyzstan. Don’t judge, but I needed to google Kyrgyzstan. Camping? I don’t camp. Do you know me? At this point, camping to me was the Holiday Inn. That’s rugged enough.
Ever camped? Nope. So, what will you need? Everything. Do you have a sleeping bag, tent, or mat? Nope. So, you need everything. Everything.
I ordered what I could on Amazon that would be delivered in time, including freeze dried food, a tent, a mug, and a spork. Yes. A spork. They said I needed one of those.
I packed my bags, bike, and spork, and off I went.
Traveling to Kyrgyzstan is a time investment. With a delayed flight in LAX, I would miss my connection in Beijing which would put me in China for over 24 hours and that requires a visa. The airline told me that I could be deported and never make it to my final destination. Deported like, put in jail, or just sent back to the United States?, I asked. And can I still get miles for that? I made it to China and was thankfully not deported, however, I missed my connection as promised. The airline gave me a hotel, and I awkwardly discovered the room came with a roommate. Who knew.
Four flights later, via a rented bed in an airport, I made it to Bishkek, the capital of Kyrgyzstan. The Mediterranean climate welcomed me with views of a bowl of agricultural abundance filled to the brim and surrounded by high mountain passes laced with snow. This place was beautiful, and this was only the beginning.
I met my driver, who did not speak English, and off we went for a day in the car to meet the rest of the team. After several hours of driving, we took a left turn onto a gravel road that stretched out for what seemed like an eternity. He pulled over at a cluster of yurts, the first civilization we had seen for hours, and quickly leapt out to embrace his friend and deliver the melon we stopped to pick up from a roadside stand on our way. He gave me some homemade vodka that he’d distilled out of grapes in his bathtub, and we ate goat butter, skillet pancakes and horse stew. I was told I needed to drink vodka before and after every meal to ensure I wouldn’t get sick. Twist my arm, I will have no problem following that rule.
We sang, danced and laughed, as he put a fur coat on me and a feather in my hair. These are my people. I was content. No, those are your people, he expressed, as he animatedly motioned in an outside direction. I didn’t believe him, but sure enough, my team from Serk Cycling, Specialized, and CyclingTips were riding right by us! We ran outside to motion them down, and they were equally shocked to see me as I’d arrived a day late and was expected to meet them elsewhere on the journey. But there I was, in some remote location on the Silk Road in a yurt with a feather in my hair accompanied by my luggage, spork, vodka, and new friends.
I quickly built my bike in the field, packed up, and we rode to a place called Dragon’s Teeth. I was overwhelmed by the beauty immediately as sharp rocky peaks rose out of the lush grassland and glacial rivers. Eagles circled above us, and a herd of cattle and goats peacefully grazed. Was this place for real? I have traveled around the world and I have never experienced such a magical place. I was completely enraptured with emotion and slightly terrified of what was to come.
We camped – by which I mean, I learned to camp. The team was patient with me the first few nights, as I learned to set up my newly purchased tent and needed to borrow necessities like a JetBoil and whiskey (thanks to Andy, Tils, and Andy’s sister).
The days were warm as the sun shone high and it was accompanied by cool evenings with the brightest stars you have ever seen. Only a few times a rain shower would pass, or the wind would whip through the mountains and threaten to blow over our tents.
One morning I woke up to my eyelashes frozen shut as I wore everything I brought to try to stay warm, but I couldn’t be happier to be in that specific place, at this specific time. My bike took me to this destination, and just as it has taught me so much throughout my career, here it was again, teaching me more life lessons of independence, culture, and challenge.
We were expertly guided by Shannon of Serk Cycling and his crew. Yolan, a Kazakhstan native, was pivotal with his ability to speak the multiple languages and understand the bartering and bribing processes to get us safely across borders and protective areas between China, Kazakhstan, and Kyrgyzstan.
Our driver was a Russian man named Sasha, with a full grill of gold teeth. He loved blasting Queen early in the morning while drinking fermented yogurt and smoking a cigarette. You have to trust a guy like that. And I did. With my life.
Riding on the Silk Road was like entering a place where time stood still. The land was untouched yet saturated with history. The animals roamed free. The nomadic culture was pure and welcoming.
I am an avid historical marker fan. There aren’t necessarily historical markers on the Silk Road but you can feel the depth of time beneath your tires. The stories of those that have traveled there before are embedded in the rocks, gravel, and soil, and they seep into your pores and you become a part of the ancient passage. The more remote you get, the louder the stories are that you feel and hear in the air.
The historical travelers of the Silk Road were carrying with them what they found most valuable, whether it was silk and myrrh for trading, or philosophy and religion for sharing. Meanwhile, I was traveling with what I found most valuable — my Specialized Diverge and my spork. I soaked up the views and the richness, and absorbed all I could to make this trip a part of history.
We didn’t see many people as we traveled across the country, but those that we saw welcomed us with vigor and warm mare’s milk. Nothing quite quenches your thirst on a hot day like warm fermented horse milk that’s been sitting on the side of a yurt baking in the sun, but when on the Silk Road, drink up! It has an essence of sour and smoky curdles, but it is filled with hospitality. The children would run out of the huts, and if they had the luxury of a bicycle or a horse, they would show us their vessel of exploration and hope we had candy for them.
Once again, I was amazed by the ability of the bicycle to be the universal language of adventure and community. Being a professional cyclist, I have often joked about leading a nomadic lifestyle, but this nomadic culture was something so different yet so familiar. I couldn’t help leave Kyrgyzstan with a faint trace of envy. Life was simple out on the Silk Road. It was unchanged. It was beautiful. It was simple. I selfishly wish it would always stay this way.
Every day the views just got more insane and we would squeal with delight over each painful mountain pass and sweeping valley descent. We hiked our bikes over boulders and forded through rivers. We just kept saying, this is “effing Narnia and where the hell are we”. The Silk Road, baby.
Wild horses would run alongside us as we pedaled along. I grew up on a cattle ranch and am a cowgirl to the core. The pounding hooves and poetic muscular cadence triggered something inside my soul as I realized that I was just like these horses. I was born to run, and ride just like them. I left a piece of my heart with those powerful animals gliding along the Silk Road. Wild and free with nothing but the horizon holding us back. Well, that and when it got dark, it got cold and I needed to set up my tent, which I wasn’t that proficient at yet.
And did I mention that it was absolutely breathtakingly beautiful? Pinch me. Wild horses couldn’t even hold back the tears in my eyes as I was left astounded by the landscape full of wildflowers, mountains, and a magic green carpet to ride.
As I have transitioned from a professional road racing career into everything gravel and adventure, it has been a process for me to let go of the pressure, lower my tire pressure and become more adaptable. I struggled at the beginning of the trip as I craved structure and schedule. I even made bikepacking lame a few times as I threw in some efforts on the road – bags, mug and all. I don’t regret this; it was a great way to get out some energy and find my space of brooding and crazy that I crave. But each day, I found more solace and tranquility in the very nature of being present.
I was a part of something so much bigger than myself. I grew with this challenge that was outside of racing, work, and life as I knew it. I spent a lot of time riding alone to connect. I talked. I prayed. I asked myself those dark and probing questions I like to avoid. I didn’t come up with the answers, necessarily, but I gained confidence and a heightened sense of existence. I have challenged myself in so many ways on the bike, and this experience was such a different test. I didn’t dig deep physically to find that place of flow that I often search for, but I found it through the peace and serenity of being remote.
I left this trip a stronger version of myself and with a glimpse at history. As a result of China’s investment in this area to foster a modernized trade route through the Belt and Road Initiative, this landscape may transform through increased tourism and traffic. With the positives that can occur due to economic growth and infrastructure, also comes the risk of exposure and exploitation of this secluded and protected world. But now, I am forever a part of the Silk Road’s story, and I encourage you to be as well.
I have embraced this new state of adventure and carry a spork with me whenever I travel. I even received a sleeping bag for Christmas, and you just don’t know what my next destination will be.
When someone asks you if you want to go on a trip of a lifetime, grab your spork and your Diverge and go. The Silk Road and your next trip of a lifetime is calling. Adventure awaits.