Silk Mountain Race
„Carlos, what the heck are we doing here?“, I’m yelling to Carlos while my arms and legs are freezing and I’m simultaneously trying to escape a snow blizzard following us. “Well, because it’s so beautiful here”, replies Carlos. “I can no longer see the beauty!”
Every single time we are questioning ourselves how to prepare for such a venture. We keep on discussing our theories and phantasize “it won’t get that tough”. In 2016 we participated in the Japanese Odyssey and believed we knew what to expect. So we traveled to Kyrgyzstan thinking we knew what we were doing, and prepared for the Silk Mountain Race. A few days in the mountains with an SUV should help us to acclimatize to the altitude. In the north of Germany where we live there are no mountains at all. And we have no experience with altitudes and thin air.
When we crossed the start line we felt great and well prepared: 1750 kilometers off-road tracks and 26,000 meters altitude are lying ahead of us, accepting help from others is not allowed.
Not enough red blood cells
Our approach towards the route was more or less pragmatic. 1,750 km divided by 11 days makes approximately 160 kilometers per day. On day 1 we realized our equation didn’t work out in a country with a geography defined by gravel roads, wash board tracks and alpine terrain.
Day 1 takes us across Kegety Pass at an altitude of 3,800 meters. Our estimation regarding the gear transmission was just as naive and arrogant as our expectations regarding the alpine weather changes. Bright sunshine could turn into a proper thunderstorm within minutes. A few riders crossed the pass, despite a snow blizzard, on that first day. We set up our camp at an altitude of 2,800 meters and decided to wait for the thunderstorm and the night to pass. Next morning we took off at 5 am – sky and head almost clear – to cross the pass. Carlos’ doctor had told him before that he had very few red blood cells and that he might expect problems with the altitude. We handled this fact in the same manner as the weather, the transmission and the comfort zone of our sleeping bag “it’s gonna be alright!” Shortly after that I find Carlos curled up begging to leave him behind. Still 400 meters to go. We knew what to expect, we’ve been here before by car. Narrow steep tracks, air as thin as paper for us lowlanders, the summit a sea of stones the size of devils marbles. Numerous rabbits which turned out to be rocks made me smile and also reach the top. I waited for Carlos; together we pushed our bikes across the highest point.
We made it! And we got carried away on the downhill ride. Meandering through a labyrinth of rocks was tough and I tried to avoid damaging my derailleur, it’s just day 2. Looking back I see Carlos’ front wheel slipping away, he crashes down a 5 meter cliff, his bike another 5 meters.
Feverish nightmare and drunken Kyrgyz horse riders
Everything was OK, but the first two days had an impact on the coming days. Rocks, stones, mountains, washboard tracks, reduced optimism, reality check, mountains. Our mood turned out to be the negative equivalent of the altitude profile. But we just kept on going.
One night I wake up in a Chinese construction site with vivid feverish dreams realizing something is different. The first day on paved roads is lying ahead of us. I should be happy. But I feel heavy as lead, my tires are glued to the road. I’m week and without any energy, no matter what sort of nutrition I’m trying to supply. I drag myself to the next town where we meet Rob Qurik and Chris Hall. The two English guys had to give up due to technical problems. Rob suspected I might suffer a heat stroke. It was quite hot yesterday, it sounded logical, though I showed none of the symptoms typical for a heat stroke. We still had 70 kilometers and lots of meters in altitude ahead of us before we reached the first checkpoint at the yurt camp. Around 3pm, we left the town, but a few kilometers later I had to stop for a break, I simply couldn’t keep going. Ibuprofen should be the remedy and it did solve the problem. Pushed by Ibuprofen we managed the first 35 kilometers rather quickly. When night fell we faced an almost vertical ascent, steep as a wall. Cursing we pushed our bikes uphill for the next four hours towards the summit. It was pitch-dark, temperatures were below zero, and the altitude was quite a challenge.
When we finally reached the top around midnight we were stiff, but our Garmin promised an easier path to the next checkpoint. However, yet another 35 kilometers through no-man’s land to the upcoming checkpoint were peppered with steep, 10 meter high ramps and marshland. Then we encountered three drunken Kyrgyzes on horses; they didn’t want to let us pass. Endless discussions followed, somehow we managed to get away, but soon after, before the next ascent, a 12 –year old horse rider caught up and the discussion continued. We escaped and finally reached the checkpoint at 2:30 am. We were surrounded by blinking trackers: more than 30 riders had reached the checkpoint. We felt as if we were back in the race.
Somehow we must make it to the next city
Just five hours of sleep, I wake up inside a damp yurt, Carlos is also awake, he feels great, but he leans over me and looks alarmed, my body is swollen and I cannot move. Walking is tough, forget about biking. Carlos and I decide to stay here for a day and see if I feel better. Sleeping in a warm yurt helps, we were surrounded by nice people who also decided to take a rest or quit the race. Next morning we get together with the English guys Max and Justin and set off for the next town. Both, Max and Justin, had trouble with their stomachs and the effects of the altitude. I am stoned with painkillers, and the only target is Naryn where I want to celebrate my birthday with some beer. Approximately 150 kilometers on paved roads lie ahead of us, we ride most of the distance in Max’ and Justin’s slipstream. The two were twice as fit as we, despite their upset stomachs, and soon we fell back and pedaled our own pace. A short thunderstorm is followed by a sandstorm: we reach Naryn around 10 pm and are rewarded with pizza, a shower and a proper bed.
Naryn also called sh** city
We didn’t expect to spend the coming days in bed; we left the hotel only if we really had to. Everybody had an upset stomach and so the city got the nickname “shit city”. All the riders who stopped in Naryn went to the same restaurant and everybody got the food bug. In a kind of delirium we contacted Rob Quirk who took care of his sick friend Chris Hall who also had an upset stomach. He decided to get a cab and we met. Soon we were a gang of five not really fit guys trying to escape the cabin fever. Our plan was to stop racing, but to enjoy the country and its people and recover. But obviously traveling in Kyrgyzstan simply can’t be easy. Carlos and I took turns in feeling down and depressed. One day his body was a wreck, the next day mine. Our romantic imaginations of shortcutting and enjoying the country evaporated once we faced reality: when you’re lying in your +7 degree sleeping bag at -7 degrees, and Rob Quirk with his beanie frozen to his head yells ”Let’s go, a blizzard is approaching”.
Everything worked out
Looking back, everything worked out perfectly. We got to our limit, we left our comfort zone, got to experience the country and its people, got smarter and found new friends. The fact that we had to quit the official race doesn’t feel like a failure, looking at all the experiences and impressions we got. Hard to say whether we would have had the same experience if I hadn’t been sick and could have continued the race.