Cardboard. Scissors. Foam. Lots and lots of packing tape. Nuts and bolts and grease and grime. Papercuts and dirty fingernails.
Two boxes. Two bicycles. One taxi. Several bridges and one long highway. One big airport with two security checkpoints. Two passengers, two tickets. One plane.
Final-calls and jet engines and seats in the upright position. Eyes out the window. Minarets in the distance, minarets getting smaller, minarets disappearing beneath the clouds. Ten thousand feet. Twenty thousand feet. Thirty thousand feet.
Five hours. Four thousand kilometers. Three countries, far down below. Borders indistinguishable, just mountains and rivers and forests and earth. Two flight attendants, reminding everyone to buckle their seatbelts. One final safety check before landing.
Immense snow-capped mountains out the right window. Mountains piggy-backing mountains. A flat expanse of nothingness to the left. Steppe, all the way from here to Siberia.
Wheels touching down. The screech of brakes and the applause of passengers and the unclicking of seatbelts before the plane has even stopped. The stern admonishment of the pilot over the intercom: all of you, back in your seats.
And then all is still. I rub my tired, bleary eyes and peer out the window into the waking dawn.
It is 5AM in Almaty and we have not slept all night. Lauren got a few hours on the plane, maybe, mouth open and neck twisted painfully to the side. I managed twenty minutes, perhaps thirty, that kind of sleep where your head droops forward slowly, slowly, slowly, then jerks back up in a fit of myoclonic panic. We are exhausted.
It is 5:10AM and we are in a long, bustling immigration queue. An old woman behind us slowly sneaks her way around our bodies until she is in front of us. She is not subtle but probably thinks she is. We are far too tired to say anything. We let her go on ahead.
It is 5:30AM and we are watching suitcases parade about on the baggage carousel. They are small, with little plastic wheels and shiny zippers. Canvas handles and pleather straps. They are not our bicycles.
It is 5:40AM and two large, brown boxes burst out from behind the car-washy rubbery strips separating the world of passengers from the world of baggage handlers. We heave them off the conveyor belt, inspect them, and remark to each other how grateful we are that they aren't leaking sleeping bags and toothbrushes and underwear out of holes on their sides. They look pretty good.
It is 5:45AM and we get to work reassembling our bicycles.
It takes a little while.
The cardboard bike boxes we found at a Trek store in Istanbul were small, as far as bike boxes go. Things just don't fit so well. In addition to removing the usual seatpost, pedals, handlebars, and rack to pack everything into a bike box, we also had to take off tires and tubes. The boxes barely closed.
And now it's daybreak in Kazakhstan and it's time to put all these things back together, the tires and the tubes and the bars and the racks and everything else we've disassembled. We're tired, if I haven't mentioned that already. We're moving slowly. I discover halfway through assembly that several of my spoke nipples have broken, and this delays things down even further. By the time we have everything up and running it's maybe 8AM. Lauren and I stuff the clothing and camping gear we'd been using as in-flight bike padding back into our panniers. We hit the road.
We pedal into Almaty. It's twenty kilometers from the airport, and we take a leisurely route through some quiet suburban backstreets. It's easy to find our way: just head for the mountains. Off in the distance, big snowy peaks tower over the city's tall, shiny buildings. All of it, due south.
Kazakh drivers pull by and stare. They poke their heads out the window and crane their becks and look back. "Otkuda!?" they shout. Where are you from?
America!, we call back.
"America!" they exclaim. "Then why are you here?"
That's a good question.
Flying here wasn't necessarily the plan. Not that there has really ever been a plan. But there was at least a rough idea. Bike to Istanbul. Keep on biking. From Istanbul through Turkey, from Turkey through the Caucuses. Through the valleys of Georgia and the lakes of Armenia and the forests of Azerbaijan. Across the Caspian by boat, then into the steppe of Kazakhstan and the deserts of Uzbekistan and the high mountains of Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan. From there, maybe Kazakhstan. Maybe not. From there, somewhere.
The Earth sits at a 23.5-degree tilt, and this makes things complicated. Seasons change. We reach Europe in winter and it is too cold to cycle, and so we take a little time off. And then suddenly it is so very hot. The northern hemisphere thaws and warms and catches fire.
The Earth is a sphere but it's a bumpy one. Less a blue marble than a raw gem, angled and unrefined. There are plains and depressions and frozen lakes smooth as glass, but so too there are ridges that cut into the stratosphere. There are places where the planet just piles up on top of itself like a rumpled carpet. Thousands of feet of rock and mass and ancient worlds.
Central Asia is one of these places. It's a battlefield of past wars. It's where capitalism came to blows with communism and where British imperialism drew swords with Russian expansion, but well before then, half a billion years before then, it's where the Himalayas crashed into the Tian Shan, where the Karakoram slammed into the Hindu Kush, where the Kunlun dug in against the Suleman. Whole rocky ranges charging headlong into battle. It has left its mark, this tectonic meleé. A graveyard of granite. They call it the Pamir.
The Pamir Mountains are among the highest in the world. They stand at their proudest in eastern Tajikistan, in the cold, windswept provinces of Gorno-Badakhshan, but from atop the Pamir plateau they leap across rivers and spill into neighboring Afghanistan and Kyrgyzstan and China, too big and unruly for borders to contain. The taller peaks pierce the sky at 24,000 feet; the mighty Kongur Tagh sits at a regal 25,095. The few navigable passes that have been artfully carved through these mountains—first by water, later by Russian engineers—still clock in above four thousand meters. Fifteen thousand feet.
The Earth can be a temperate, tropical beauty. And the Earth can be a harsh, inhospitable place. At high elevations, temperatures plummet. At 15,000 feet, summer days are chilly and summer nights are always freezing. At 15,000 feet, summer is winter and winter is something else entirely. Winter is one thick blanket of snow that doesn't get dug up until next year. Winter is ice and deep, penetrating cold. Winter is death.
It is May and we are in eastern Europe and it is hot. It is not winter yet. It is not even summer. We are headed to the Pamir—why not?—but the Pamir is still very far away. We move slowly and we take breaks and we can also do a little math. We do the math and estimate that, at our current pace, we won't reach Tajikistan until maybe September. Probably October. Possibly November.
We consider our options.
The first option is to forge ahead. To get in the saddle and ride fast, ride hard, keep an eye on the calendar and the weather report. Cross Turkey and the Caucasus and the Caspian and reach the Pamir as early as possible. Cross our fingers for no mechanical problems, no health problems, no early snows in upper Tajikistan.
The second option is to take a shortcut. Box up our bikes, hop onto a plane, and skip four or five months of cycling in four or five hours. Reach Kazakhstan in May, Kyrgyzstan in June, and tackle the mountains of Gorno-Badakhshan in the height of July, when it's warmer—though still not very warm.
The first option surrenders our spontaneity: our weeks out of the saddle, our lazy days off, our curious detours. It'll mean getting there by bike, but rushing through everything in between. And, after all that, maybe still arriving too late.
The second option surrenders something, though it's hard to put a finger on what. Principles, maybe; ego, probably; our desire to get as far as we can with our own pedal power, to carve one long, unbroken line across the earth. It'll mean getting to Tajikistan in the best of seasons, but missing a whole lot on the way.
In the end we buy the tickets. We box the bikes. We enter one tube and come out another, many thousands of kilometers away, without seeing anything but the back of headrests and the impressive yet diminutive landscapes out the window. We reach central Asia in late spring and we head for the mighty Pamirs when it's most safe and enjoyable to do so.
And then, once that's out of the way, we'll pedal back to Turkey on our bikes and see what we missed.
So, man roaring through Almaty in your old Lada station wagon, wondering loudly out the window why we're here but not stopping long enough to find out. That's why we're here.
Almaty is a fancy city. It's shiny and classy and glassy and glossy, a patchwork of lush parks and sparkling fountains and bronze statues stitched together by wide, tree-lined sidewalks and bicycle paths. It's the old capital of Kazakhstan, and still very much the country's financial and cultural center. Lots of money from Kazakhstan's fossil fuels industry gets funneled here. It shows.
But it's a tough time for the country. It's a tough time for much of central Asia. Due to plummeting oil prices and American-led sanctions against Russia that have weakened the Russian-dependent economies of the upper Stans, the value of the Kazakh tenge has plummeted more than half in the past five years. Only a few years ago Almaty was more expensive than London, but for the moment it's become relatively affordable.
For this reason—or some other reason we can't really figure out—there's a ritzy Holiday Inn on the edge of town basically giving away rooms for five thousand hotel points per night. We'd each gathered up a small stash of hotel points before leaving on our trip, and we have been rationing them very, very carefully since setting out. One night here, one night there, mostly shelter from the rain and cold in Europe. But this deal in Almaty is just too good to pass up. We book three nights for the price of one almost anywhere else.
We arrive at the Holiday Inn. We are sweaty and sporting deep bags under our eyes. We have been in Kazakhstan for five hours but it is still only 10AM. We beg for an early check-in and the superbly friendly receptionist behind the counter grants our request. We're handed two room keys, given a closet in the lobby to stash our bikes, and shown to the elevator. We enter our room, drop our panniers on the floor, and collapse into bed until late afternoon.
I don't leave the room for a few days. I wash clothes in the shower and dry them in the big bay window overlooking the Tian Shan range. I give my shoes a thorough rinse in the sink. I duct-tape the power button of the hairdryer in the bathroom so it keeps running even when I'm not pressing it, prop it up against some towels on the counter, and let it heat my wet shoes for the next fifteen minutes until they're toasty and dry.
Lauren's a little more outgoing. She sleeps until noon but then goes for a walk around town each evening. She comes back with sushi platters and Indian food and Chinese dishes for us to share.
Together, we repair our tent. It's gotten a few dozen small holes in its mesh sides and nylon floor over the past year, and we take advantage of our dirt-free, climate-controlled room to sew up the mesh and patch up the nylon.
We watch the sun set over the mountains and consider the hundreds of thousands of feet of climbing in our near future. We're supposed to pedal towards those mountains tomorrow, those big ones out the window, those big ones all covered in snow, but we get spooked and decide to extend our stay in Almaty one more day.
It is our fifth day in Kazakhstan and we are on the dusty outskirts of the city. We left our lovely hotel room a few hours ago and have since pedaled out of Almaty's glamorous downtown. We seem to have left the glamor behind, for out here there are no more shiny buildings and no more grassy parks. Out here, it's a rotten hellscape.
The air is putrid and thick. Our lungs feel tight and our nostrils burn and my eyes are tearing. We're enveloped by haze and diesel exhaust and smoke from burning piles of garbage in the gutter. The Air Quality Index, we learn later, is fifty percent above what pollution professionals deem hazardous to life.
The roadside is littered with dead birds. Every ten or twenty meters I swerve from the shoulder to avoid crushing a carcass under my wheels. Hundreds and hundreds of big, black birds who look like they've dropped from the sky just today. Like maybe this toxic air is, indeed, not conducive to life continuing to live.
Dead birds in the gutter, men fighting in the streets. We pull into a gas station for a break and watch two drivers scream at each other over who got to the pump first. They get out of their cars and puff up their chests while another petrol pump sits empty ten feet away. A little further ahead, back on the road, two groups of men are standing outside their cars in the middle of the highway yelling at one another. They have maybe had a fender-bender, or maybe one cut the other off. We arrived late, so this isn't really clear. We pedal by as one punches the other in the head. Once, twice, thrice, fist meets face.
It's a frenzy of horns and brake lights and mad drivers, this road. Russian I don't understand is shouted from cars. Vehicles swerve around potholes big enough to swallow our bikes. Half of the drivers operate from the left side of the car and the other half steers, British-style, from the right. No one can really see each other and no one really cares to look. The folks in their automobiles aren't so worried about hitting the dead birds in the shoulder and so bird innards splatter everywhere. I look down and I can see the corn they ate for their last meal and the eggs they weren't able to lay before dropping from the sky.
Thunder cracks and the hellscape pulsates light. The mountains to our left disappear behind thick grey clouds. We rush into another gas station just before it starts pouring. The road runs iridescent as motor oil lifts up from the tar, and a strong gust blows dust and debris into our faces. We cough on the irritants and look at each other through the haze.
Welcome to Kazakhstan, and excuse me, but why are you even here?