“Don’t look up too often.” It’s the best advice I hear while biking to the top of the 3300 m pass. On the gravel road, I just keep my head down, heart and legs pumping. I can see the next corner of the switchbacks, but it probably isn’t the top anyway.
I’ve just inhaled my second Mars bar of the morning and my body is still begging for calories. As the group's sole vegetarian, my mind fixates on what will be for lunch.
On my birthday, eight months ago, I told myself that this year I would do something hard. Really hard. Something significant. Life changing even. This meant something self-propelled, to reassure me that the old body in the mirror was still friends with the younger guy in the head.
I wanted a trip to learn something about myself – about the boundary between “I can” and “I can’t.” I reasoned that everyone has a point at which they’ll say “I quit.” I knew that this point didn't depend on physical strength or even mental strength. It depended on the quality and appropriateness of my plan, including how I intended to manage the pain and discomfort. I wanted to make a good plan and then carry it out. I found a trip, booked flights, visited a travel clinic, choose equipment, and trained, trying to do the recommended 300 km per week in the saddle. I thought, “How hard could it be?”
My plan started the moment I sent the first enquiry to Red Spokes, a great travel company from the U.K. Their slogan is “Biking with Altitude.” Right now we’re on their inaugural trip to Kyrgyzstan, a central Asian country and former Soviet republic bordering on China and three other “-stans.” I’m in a group of 12 reasonably fit mountain bikers, some 20-somethings but most in their 40s and 50s. We’re thoroughly enjoying the opportunity to be the guinea pigs for this new adventure. Red Spokes had initially rated the trip 6/10 for difficulty, but our group has convinced them to raise this to 8/10.
The trip is fully supported, with vehicles to carry equipment and staff to cook, set up the tents, and dig the latrine each night. In addition to the camping, one night we sleep in a yurt, a round, portable structure made of felt, stretched over a folding wooden frame. Yurts are very common in Mongolia, Kyrgyzstan and central Asia, often as summer homes for families herding sheep or horses.
It’s now day six on the bike. Two hours ago, the temperature in the valley was 37 C. As we climb higher, I realize that it’s dropped about 10 degrees.
When I round the last curve, I see the vehicles stopped at the top. I’m the last one in. As I approach, my fellow bikers stretch a roll of toilet paper across the road as a finish line. They cheer for me as I pump my fist and grin.
Lunch is roast chicken. After 20 years as a vegetarian, I’m suddenly not feeling very loyal to my tofu clan. I’m thinking, “What the hell, I really need the protein.” This is going to be life changing.
Best. Chicken. Ever.