The story beyond the landscape of Kyrgyzstan’s Tian Shan mountains. Words & photography :: Nick Gottlieb.
“Kumis?” A teenage girl called out as she ran to flag us down in front of her family’s wall tent.
“No thanks,” I attempted to pantomime. Over the past ten days, I’d already ingested more fermented mare’s milk than my stomach could handle. But my partner Carl pedalled up and accepted without hesitation, perhaps more interested in a warm yurt to sleep in than the viscous, sour, tepid, and often chunky liquid we’d been offered at every single stop on our trip here in Kyrgyzstan’s Tian Shan mountains, aka: the “Mountains of Heaven.”
We stayed the night, the girl’s mother offering us their yurt while she, her daughter, and her two sons slept in a converted train car next door. They treated us to a dinner of bread, tea, and an entire goat that had been boiling since morning. Our hosts saved the most prized organs for their guests, eagerly handing us the eyeballs. For the second course, they brought out a steaming plate of ramen cooked in goat broth and adorned with bits of chopped liver and kidneys. Carl enjoyed a few glasses of kumis. I did not, my politeness overcome by my desire to keep my dinner in.
I had no idea what to expect from this trip, neither from bikepacking, a fancy term for cycle touring and a sport I’d never done before, nor from Kyrgyzstan, a country most people cannot find on a map. Carl, who I’d only just met recently after moving to Canada—I’d flagged him down after backcountry skiing after seeing his Montana license plate—had invited me on this trip while on a mountain bike ride. I said no. A few weeks later I figured, “Why not?” and said yes. My prep work was limited to downloading topo maps and making a serendipitous last-minute connection to a local driver through an old friend. Carl’s prep work involved nerding out on previous renditions of the Silk Road Mountain Race, a bikepacking event held in the area we’d be traveling through. I’m embarrassed to admit that neither of us did any reading about the people of Kyrgyzstan, its turbulent political history, or the diverse lifestyles across Central Asia that rely on water originating in the Tian Shan range.
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Mars, the driver, showed up as promised and gave us a tour of downtown Bishkek—Kyrgyzstan’s capital city—still scarred by bullet remnants in the main square from an uprising in 2010. After the brief tour, he drove us about 300 kilometres east and dropped us in the dark outside a small town near Lake Issyk-Kul, the second-largest mountain lake in the world (6,236 square kilometres, elevation 1,607 metres). We pitched a tent in the dark just off the road, crawled in and hoped for the best.
We woke the next morning surprised to find ourselves on the side of a beautiful glacial stream, surrounded by sandstone cliffs and towering snow-covered peaks. We were also surprised to find two other bikepackers camped next to us. A French couple travelling our planned route but in reverse, they warned us about the 13,000-foot pass we’d be tackling over the next two days. We smiled and nodded, ears clogged with hubris and excitement, eager to embark on our own journey rather than talk about theirs.
We probably should have paid more attention. After a solid day of riding and a night camped at 10,000 feet, plagued by painful altitude-induced headaches and harassed by a group of strangely territorial cows, we bushwhacked back up to the “road”—a boulder-strewn path that climbed 1,500 feet in under a mile. There’s a certain grade and road condition combination where hike-a-bike devolves into “push bike one step forward, hold brakes, use bike to pull yourself up, repeat.” This stretch was well beyond that threshold.
But it was worth it. From the top of the pass, we could see back down the steep glacial valley we’d just climbed as well as out across an unexpectedly flat alpine swamp with no roads in sight, and no descent. We knew we would be in for some “off-trail” travel on this trip, but didn’t realize it would be at 13,000 feet through a hummocky, marmot-infested swamp—especially when the “on-road” portions were rocky mountain paths that could only be driven by the old all-terrain Soviet military vehicles they were built for. Not wanting to camp high again, we pushed through, riding what we could, plodding through what we couldn’t, wading where we had to—eventually finding our way to a gravel road that serves the Canadian-owned Kumtor gold mine, the second-highest mine in the world.
As I write this, two years after our time there, a former prime minister of Kyrgyzstan has just been arrested for allegedly circumventing Kyrgyz environmental regulations and allowing Kumtor to dump mining waste on the surface of nearby glaciers. The rivers flowing from these glaciers support the pastoral lifestyles of the mountain peoples of Kyrgyzstan, the irrigated agriculture of the valleys below, and countless other communities and modes of life downstream, throughout Central Asia. The quiet, atypically well-maintained mountain road we had pedalled along offered little hint that the Kumtor mine has been a defining political feature for much
of Kyrgyzstan’s turbulent history. The mine opened in 1997, just a few years after the Soviet Union collapsed, and while the nascent Kyrgyz government initially embraced the opportunity, Kumtor has been the site of repeated environmental disasters that poisoned water supplies, sickened and killed villagers, and polluted Lake Issyk-Kul.
We knew nothing of this on our ride, as there was no one around to tell us. Instead, we simply enjoyed the views and the smooth-pedalling descent off the high plateau and into a narrow alpine valley dotted with occasional yurts and wall tents, and a run-off stream we drank from freely (right below the mine).
Later, as we waded across a creek, two families waved us over to the side of the road. Their truck had broken down so, naturally, they had stopped for a quick picnic and insisted we join them. Communicating mostly through pantomime and the maps on our phones, we told them about our trip and they responded with stories about their lives; how they spent the summers there in the mountains and the winters in Bishkek. They shared bread, horse meat, and soda with us and then broke out a bottle of vodka, followed shortly by a second. They weren’t concerned about the truck (or anything really), and after our extended picnic they changed their tire and hit the road, leap-frogging us along the bumpy dirt track before eventually waving goodbye as darkness fell and we set up camp.
The miles rolled by. We battled a headwind so fierce that we could barely ride downhill. We raced two young boys on horseback. We left the grassy alpine valley and the glaciers behind and entered a steep, forested river canyon reminiscent of BC’s Kootenay region but with the volume of one of BC’s massive coastal rivers, riding along the rim of a gorge full of wild rapids. When the canyon gave way, we found ourselves in the desert, pulling our buffs over our faces to keep sand out, trying not to absorb too much of the new landscape through our lungs.
After cresting a pass on a freshly paved highway—the best road we’d seen yet—we descended into a broad valley near the Chinese border, the dry and desolate terrain now punctuated by bright green fields of agriculture irrigated by another glacial river. A partially-paved road under a new Chinese transmission line brought us into At-Bashy, where things seemed different: instead of a semi-nomadic husbandry-focused lifestyle, this was a larger town with permanent structures and a strong Islamic influence. We spent the night in a house owned by a pair of doctors. They spoke no English, but some English-speaking fellows we met at the water spigot on the main street assured us that it was a guest house.
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Sure enough, we were treated to multiple meals (mid-afternoon dinner, regular dinner, breakfast) and a hot shower. Glittering pillows and a karaoke machine with a pink donkey on top of it gave the dining room a surreal feel. The blanket in my bedroom had the word “happinese” embroidered over a chaotic tie-dye pattern. The food was good, the shower was needed, and the tour of the family photo albums—complete with graduation photos from Soviet-era medical schools, was fascinating. The kumis—well, it was disgusting. This was the last stop where I even tried.
From the comfort of my home in Squamish, looking at photos on a laptop made in China running on power harvested from BC rivers, some of which swelled, flooded and wreaked havoc on my home province just months ago, it’s hard for me not to re-consider our journey to Kyrgystan within a larger global-environmental context. Rather than reduce the doctors we met in At-Bashy or the family in the train car into funny and memorable travel anecdotes, I need to recognize these snippets and stories are also facets of full lives, tiny windows into people’s experiences—in Kyrgyzstan today and in the Soviet times of yesteryear—but also into ways of being in the world that evolved over generations of living on the steppe, a unique product of thousands of years of both natural and human history.
It’s hard not to think about the fact that these lives are being transformed by climate change and ecological collapse. Having spent time breathing their dusty air, and drinking water from their receding (sometimes poisoned) glaciers, I can’t help but wonder how the people of these mountains will adapt as dust storms become more severe, the summer heat more intense, and the reliable glacial water supply not so reliable…?
And what role do we play as residents of “the Global North,” post-imperial European and settler-colonial nations? Nations like Canada, which has the highest cumulative emissions (since 1850) relative to its population of any country on Earth? (Kyrgyzstan is near the lowest.) And as the Kumtor mine demonstrates, this north-south inequity is about much more than atmospheric carbon: 75 per cent of all mining companies globally are Canadian, and many have devastating ecological and human rights records in the countries in which they operate.
Implicit in these crises, and particularly in the north’s collective failure to either make any serious progress on climate mitigation or to financially support the south’s efforts to adapt—is a value judgment. In the Western worldview, human development exists on a linear scale of progress from “less developed” to “modern.” Casualties along the way, whether they are yurt-dwelling Kyrgyzs enjoying some vodka on the side of a creek poisoned by a Canadian gold mine or entire Pacific Island nations that will disappear because of sea level rise—are bumps in the road, ridden over, absorbed, and forgotten under the inevitable forward momentum of progress.
We are experiencing real-time effects of climate change and ecological collapse—caused almost exclusively by people engaged in one particular way of being in the world—so perhaps it’s worth revisiting that value judgement. A just response to climate change must be one where the life of a girl in a train car in the alpine grasslands of central Asia making good use of every part of a dead goat is treated as just as meaningfully as that of a Silicon Valley billionaire; where understanding how differently people experience this bizarre journey we’re all on—being alive—is the first step we take in figuring out how to fix this ecological trainwreck; where we stop poisoning the rivers in the Mountains of Heaven and start better understanding all the different ways of being this planet supports.
That is a journey I am ready to take (just please don’t offer me any kumis).