Pearl-white snow and a torrent of hail and then dark.
We enter the tunnel.
I feel it first in my lungs. A tightening, like air being sucked out of a paper bag. Like my airways are filling with something they shouldn't be. Something thick. Like I need a certain amount of oxygen to live and this just isn't enough oxygen to live.
There isn't enough of the good stuff. At 3,200 meters, the air is about a third thinner than down at sea level. There's oxygen here, but every breath draws in less. We're still cycling uphill. We're breathing hard. Sharp, shallow breaths.
There's too much of the bad stuff. Carbon dioxide. Carbon monoxide. Dust and dirt and diesel. Lots of combustion in a very narrow space. The air here, it pours out of rusted Soviet mufflers and it just sits.
A few fans drone overhead. It's a feeble attempt to percolate the air, to push a little of this toxic haze out into the mountains. They don't do much.
They make noise, mostly. A dull hum that reverberates through two miles of concrete and morphs into a ghostly howl. In pleasanter settings it'd be an annoyance, but here in the void it feels like the only thing to hold onto. One low, endless note.
Lights flicker and some trucks flash by. We keep close to the wall. We brace ourselves against cavernous potholes and swerve around big bolts banged loose from automobile undercarriages. We continue to climb.
My body feels weak. Cold in places and numb in others. Heavy. We have had a long day and eaten little. I am taking long breaths and getting less than my lungs bargained for. We have been riding through this tunnel for probably just minutes, maybe ten, maybe fifteen, but I become untethered from space and time. I am somewhere deep within a mountain. Precise whereabouts unknown.
I see a light and I rush toward it.
Ordinarily in moments of distress, lights at the ends of tunnels are to be avoided. Don't go into the light.
Here, it's a literal light at the literal end of a literal tunnel. We unceremoniously crest the tip of Too Ashuu somewhere toward the southern end of the tunnel and we begin to roll. The light grows and the light widens. We exit the tunnel.
Outside, it's still hailing. Still frigid. Still dark and still dreary. Same big stormcloud, pummeling the earth from above. We pull over and put on every one of our coats and layers. Just as I yank closed the zipper of my soggy raincoat and squeeze my damp hands into my waterproof mittens, the sun breaks through the clouds. No matter. Rain or not, it's going to be a cold ride down.
We coast into a gorgeous green valley. We freewheel past yurts and cows and little Kyrgyz kids and their enthusiastic waves. We pass a French cyclist coming in the other direction, stop to compare notes on roads cycled, and ride on just a little longer. We camp a ways behind a gas station in a big pasture with mountains so close and smooth it looks like you can just walk up the sides of them.
But no walking for us right now. Our legs have had a very long few days. We're ready for a little rest. We'd been hoping to find a guesthouse, somewhere to shower, but had no luck on our way down from Too Ashuu. Then, in the morning, we catch word of a nearby lodge just down the street from our camp. Lauren goes to inquire while I fry up some pancakes on the stove.
No luck on rooms. They have a few available, but they're far pricier than we can afford. Instead, we negotiate for a camping spot: about seven dollars per night for a space to pitch our tent (which we don't really need), but also access to the showers and wifi and power sockets and coffee machine and common area, all of which we can definitely use. We hastily cram our things into our panniers—our laziest packing to date—and hurry over to Suuslodge to unpack once more.
We take showers. We check email. We charge our devices and drink hot beverages and sit at a warm table indoors while rain pummels the tin roof above. We talk with some of the other guests and play with a few kids really eager to explore our tent and poke at our bikes. Later, much later, we set up camp. We sleep.
It's 2AM and Lauren is rustling around on her side of the tent. Crinkling sleeping pad. Deep breaths into a narrow valve. A frustrated sigh. An expletive or two.
I pull my neck gaiter—each night doubling as an eye mask—from my face. "What's going on over there?"
Lauren groans. "My sleeping pad just went totally flat."
It's November in Tanzania. We've been on the road for five months and sleep most nights in our tent. Out in the bush, atop acacia thorns and dry twigs and leafcutter ants. We drop our groundcloth on the ground, erect our thin nylon tent over that, then dive inside and begin pushing air into our inflatable sleeping pads. We sleep all night, soundly, a little crinkly, as if on foil clouds.
It's January in Spain. Seven months biking the world. We're in our tent and Lauren is nibbling on sunflower seeds. Pepas, as they call them here. She bites down on a seed and thin splinters of shell explode outward onto the tent floor. Each night, bits of sunflower seeds everywhere.
Lauren sleeps and Lauren rolls on her pad and Lauren packs her Thermarest away each morning. The sunflower seed shells do what the acacias and the sticks and the ants can't. They prick the pad and pierce the film. Night by night, thin streams of air begin to escape.
Lauren patches some and misses others. They're tiny, these holes. They're almost impossible to find. So every evening Lauren blows up her pad, sleeps a little, then reinflates her pad at midnight, and again at 3AM, and maybe once more at six. It's a pain, but it works.
February. France. I inflate my pad one night and hear a ripping noise. The Thermarest is fine but some of the baffling has come undone. The top of the pad bulges in a way it shouldn't. It's delaminating from within.
I call Thermarest and they're very helpful. They label it a manufacturing defect and agree to swap out my two-year-old well-worn pad for a brand new one. I explain that I'm not in America at the moment, but Lauren's parents can bring out the replacement from California when they visit us in April. A parcel sets course for greater Los Angeles.
It's April in Montenegro and there are three Thermarests in our room. One, crispy and clean and new, kindly brought over by Bob and V. One, a little more battered, a bulging tumor in the top-right corner. And Lauren's, covered in little bits of fabric tape and still losing air.
Lauren asks if she can keep my delaminating pad and send her leaking pad back to California with her parents. I hesitate. The delaminating pad is no longer covered by warranty. The delaminating pad may very well continue to delaminate.
But, it can hold air. It has been just fine so far. I don't have a need for it, and it's just going to end up in a landfill anyway, and that bulge at its upper end doesn't really matter. It's still comfortable to sleep on, as far as thin inflatable air mattresses go. I warn Lauren about the risks, but say sure, she can have my old pad if she'd prefer it.
And now it is June, eleven months on the road, and the faulty Thermarest has suddenly given out.
We have no one to blame but ourselves.
A sleeping pad isn't always a necessity. In hot weather and warm weather and cool weather, a sleeping pad is mostly for comfort. Task: to cushion the body from rocks and bumps and irregularities. But in cold weather, it's all about insulation. Task: to raise the body as far as possible from the frozen ground below. In cold weather, a sleeping pad is really, really important.
We're at 2,200 meters and it's nearly freezing. In a few weeks we'll be in the Pamir, camping above 4,000 meters, and it will be far colder. Tackling the Pamir without a working sleeping pad wouldn't just be uncomfortable, but reckless.
We break out the headlamps and fabric tape and get to work on the pad.
We spend a futile hour between two and three in the morning sticking fabric tape to a delaminated mattress. It does nothing. There is no hole in the fabric: the fabric itself is the hole. It has separated from its airtight membrane and it's just spilling out air. A punctured pad might still hold air for a few hours. This Thermarest is fully deflating in just a minute or two. It's like trying to trap air in a burlap sack.
We don't sleep much. We'd planned on continuing onward this morning but we really need to get this pad fixed before summiting our next pass. We use the last of our duct tape, get a new roll from the kind owners of Suuslodge, and wrap the entire thing around the midsection of Lauren's Thermarest. Layers and layers of the shiny silver stuff. Surely this will do. We blow up the pad and Lauren lies atop it and it's flat within ten minutes.
We turn to the internet. Call the warranty department is the consensus. Or, hey, you'd better get a new pad.
Easier said than done. We are in central Asia. We are on the Silk Road. This was once a place you could find almost anything. All the world's luxuries. But times have changed. Shipping routes and mega-freighters and Eurocentric trade. The Silk Road is not what it once was. Quality camping gear is in short supply.
We call our favorite outfitters back home—REI, Big Agnes, anyone awake—and inquire about international delivery rates and times. Kyrga-what? a woman on the other end of the phone asks. Can you spell that for me?
Expect a month, they all say. But we have no control over what gets stuck in customs, and for how long.
What about Tajikistan? we ask. Would delivery there be any quicker?
A pause. Tajerka-who?!
It's shaping up to be a cold night. We sit inside until it grows dark and fill our thermoses with warm water. We head for the tent.
The kind owner of the lodge stops us as we're leaving. It's so cold, she says. We shrug. We'll have to make do. Listen, she whispers, if you want you can sleep here on the couches. Just be up by seven so the other guests don't see and complain, okay?
Warm water, warm couch, warmed hearts. Our tent sits empty and we sleep well.
We have one 3,200-meter pass behind us. The Too Ashuu was some of the toughest cycling we've ever done.
But there's another 3,200-meter pass just ahead. The Ala-Bel. It'll be just as high, just as cold and snowy. Fortunately, it won't be so much climbing.
We're in a high valley. We came down some from the Too Ashuu, but only a little. We're still at 2,200 meters. From here to the Ala-Bel will take some work, but it shouldn't be so steep.
We ride. We pedal through some really gorgeous scenery. Glaciers. Streams. Mountains, of course. Mountains in every direction.
We share the road with cars and trucks but also tractors and horses and sheep. Whole herds of them, kicking up a ruckus and fleeing for the ditch at the sight of us an our puny bicycles. Sheepdogs growl as we roll by.
We climb gradually. The sky greys and it begins to rain. We pass a man standing outside his vehicle and we smile. "Photo!" he shouts.
We get plenty of requests for photographs, traveling as we do. Usually we go along with it, objectifying as it can often be, but some days we just have to say no. Today's one of those days. We got a late start, and we're headed up a big pass, and it's really important we make it to the other side before dark. We're down one sleeping pad, and it's going to be cold regardless, and besides, it's raining right now and we don't want to stop. We wave, we point to the sky, and shrug.
пожалуйста, he begs. Pozhaluysta—please!
He's welcome to take a photograph of us riding by, but he seems to want a photograph with us. We apologize, smile, and keep riding.
Five hundred meters later, a sedan passes. It stops up ahead and the man gets out. Before we're even in earshot he's miming shutter-presses and mouthing pozhaluysta, pozhaluysta.
We pass, a little more peeved than the last time. Fewer smiles. I shake my head back and forth. He reaches for the back of my bicycle and I bark a firm nyet! in his direction. We ride on.
We don't make it very far. A gold sedan skirts by us once more. It parks up ahead. This time, two men exit the vehicle. They stand in the middle of the road blocking our path. Pozhaluysta! the first man says, and I can't tell if it's an earnest plea or a cruel sneer. In Russian, a lot of things can sound like a cruel sneer.
Nyet! we shout. Leave us alone!
Lauren's in front and she threads her way in between the two men. She keeps going. I make to follow. I gnash on my pedals, lean to the left, and get in between them.
And then the man on the right pushes me off my bike.