In more than 2000km of riding, the first damage to my bike happened while it was lashed to the roof of a van driven by a surly Kyrgyz man.
Joined by a fellow cyclist from England, Ed, we caught a lift from Osh to Toktugul to cut out the time spent on the busy road, a decision we congratulated ourselves on as our van weaved through frenzied masses of traffic.
Taxi drivers are accustomed to stacking bicycles on the roof and do so with speedy efficiency, but a distinct lack of consideration for the delicate componentry.
I watched anxiously as tie down straps secured the bikes, mine at the bottom with the derailleur precariously close to Jack’s frame.
Our driver took potholes at 80km/hour and made alarming overtaking decisions as horses were herded across the road ahead.
All quite unsettling given his seatbelts weren’t functional.
It must’ve been one high-speed pothole too many for my poor derailleur, as the following morning I found I couldn’t change into my lowest gear.
Thankfully, given the strenuous gradients to come, Jack managed to fiddle it back to working order.
Toktugul Reservoir was formed in the 1970s by a Soviet-built dam on the Naryn River, a description that doesn’t conjure a picturesque image.
But when its mirror-like surface came into view I gasped in awe, prompting our driver to helpfully remark “Toktugul water”.
We then had an amusing back-and-forth via Google Translate in which he insisted on driving us further north while we explained we wanted to stop at the lake to camp, then cycle the rest of the way to Bishkek.
He could not make sense of our desire to ride through the mountains and the translation app came back with “But it’s very cold there” and then, “I don’t care, I just feel sorry for you.”
He dropped us on the roadside and we bashed our way across spiky grass and scrub to the shoreline to pitch our tents.
It was a glorious spot for sunset and sunrise with the lake’s calm surface painted in vivid purples, pinks and oranges.
Our options for the final stretch to Bishkek were to follow the M41, which meant plenty of large trucks and a dangerous tunnel, or to head east through the apparently beautiful Suusamyr valley towards Lake Issyk Kul before turning north to Bishkek.
Then we had a closer look at the map and spotted a road that instead weaved through mountainous terrain, far away from the highways. It looked like something of a shortcut.
We checked its elevation climb: 5024m over 200km.
More than FIVE KILOMETRES of up.
We reviewed the crowd-sourced camping app iOverlander. Even remote places like the Wakhan Valley are dotted with camping spots entered by other travellers.
On the “shortcut” there was not a single dot.
We discussed the risks of taking a route that would likely take us four days, with nowhere to restock food, no information online to gauge the state of the road and what we suspected to be some fairly grunty climbs.
We concluded that our decision would hinge on whether we could find food and petrol before leaving the main road next to Toktugul.
Our minds were made up by a well-stocked shop in Torkent where we bought carrots, capsicum and potatoes and filled our petrol bottle.
We had no idea what the next 200km held but the anticipation was exciting; one final blast into the unknown before our return to civilization.
The road turned to corrugated dirt quickly as we followed a river up a valley. Two little boys joined us on horseback for several kilometres, offering up apples from their pockets when we stopped for lunch. Wary of germs after my multiple encounters with diarrhea I fed the apples to their hungry horse, whose mane was a tangle of prickly seedpods.
The road began to climb steeply into the hinterland and its quality deteriorated, with bigger rocks and deeper ruts.
We began thinking about finding a campsite but first needed to locate a better water source than the mucky stream next to the road.
I approached an elderly woman standing outside her yurt to ask if there was water nearby. She pointed up the valley where the road climbed further. My heart sank. Then she gestured at an aluminium drum, extending her hand for my bottle. As I thanked her profusely she again gestured toward the entrance of her yurt, a signal I interpreted as a dinner invitation. I turned to Jack and Ed and we all nodded; a hearty meal in a yurt was far more appealing than setting about cooking our carrots and buckwheat.
We sat on colourful cushions as our friendly host poured cups of tea.
The yurt was unchanged from the style and materials used to build them for thousands of years. Animal skin stretched over a wooden frame that could be dismantled to carry on horseback.
Sitting in pride of place in the yurt was a black flask about 1.5m tall.
Made from what appeared to be animal skin, its appearance was fearsome enough, and then our host began mixing it with a wooden paddle, which created a muffled sloshing sound now etched in our memory.
We understood the vessel was filled with kumis, an alcoholic drink made from fermented raw mare’s milk and deeply embedded in the history of peoples on the Central Asian steppes.
I’d read the accounts of Western tourists who biliously forced it down to avoid offending their Kyrgyz hosts.
We sipped the sour, fizzy milk and tried to avert our eyes from its ghastly black container.
“Just pretend it’s a craft beer,” Jack muttered.
Kumis-making was clearly high on the list of daily tasks. It involved milking the horses then pouring the pail into the black flask.
The woman would then spend ages blending the contents with the wooden paddle. I asked to have a go and she moved my hand to the correct position. We both roared with laughter at my amateurish technique.
Dinner was a large plate piled with mutton, cabbage, carrot and potato. Our host and her husband kindly ate the pieces that were mostly fat, leaving us with the meatier chunks.
We pitched our tents outside the yurt and fell asleep to the snoring of the yurt’s patriarch and distant barking of dogs.
During the night I got up to go to the toilet and my torch beam fell on the family horse, peacefully sleeping standing up, tied to a wooden stake.
At dawn the yurt’s patriarch was up scanning the hills with his binoculars, whether looking for wolves or working out where his neighbours were grazing their stock, we weren’t sure.
We waved goodbye to our friends.
Soon the little yurt will be bundled up and onto the back of a horse as its nomadic occupants move to lower lands for winter.
We set off again on the rough, red road, grateful for our glimpse of life in the Kyrgyz mountains.