Only Bread to Baetov: Food Poisoning in the Tian Shan Mountains

At 7am the alarm went off (feel free to cue up the “waves” ringtone on your iPhone to set the mood). We were in our cushy-ish hotel in Naryn city after having a couple of days off to rest. This is ALWAYS when it is hardest to pry yourself from the grips of city comforts. Knowing that we had more than a week between towns of any significance on the horizon only added to the challenge of getting moving.

At some point around 8:30am we were finally all packed up and ready to hit the road, but first we had one more bit of business to attend to, and that was (of course) to stock up on bread. We hit the local baker and then swung through the street market one last time to grab any final provisions before starting up the climb out of town with our bikes loaded to the gills.

We had our sights set on Kyrgyzstan’s remote border area with China, where the population thins out from the typical “Kyrgyz sparse” to essentially non-existent. With the majority of this zone sitting above 3,000 meters, the weather can be harsh at any time of the year, and it even becomes a bit more tricky to track down water, so signs of civilization are largely limited to military posts looking to keep track of anyone flirting with the Chinese border.

On our third day after leaving Naryn, we reached a fork in the road. In one direction was a road that led to a track we knew would go through as the Silk Road Mountain Race follows it, but the other way was a mysterious soviet track hugging a ridge that looked like it would have some epic views of the picturesque Kokshaal-Too range. With about 10 days of food strapped to our bikes, we figured we’ll go for it and see what happens!

The road turned to jeep track before slowly fading away altogether. One river after another and another we crossed until our toes were wrinkled up like raisins. Just after crossing the deepest braid we had come across in this valley to this point, we sat on the side of the river to have a snack when a man approached on a horse. With our limited communication skills quite apparent, he silently pointed in the direction we were heading, then pointed at the river we were sitting next to before marking a line on his chest to indicate that we were going to have trouble with one of the rivers ahead.

After spending a solid hour going up and down this section of the river trying to find a spot where the flow and depth didn’t seem so difficult to navigate, we made the decision that no one likes to make… We’d have to backtrack to that fork in the road and meet up with the route that we knew we could safely connect. There’s nothing I dislike more than bailing on a route, but sometimes it’s the only decision to make.

Back on track, we rode through trails lined with Soviet-era barbed wire fences on our way to Köl-Suu, an alpine lake set in a rugged canyon that fills with turquoise waters and empties to a dry lake-bed depending on the day you’re there.  After some days of rain, the lake was filled for us and was one of the most impressive sights in all of Kyrgyzstan.

Maybe it was the soup at the yurt we stopped in for lunch or maybe it was some expired chocolate, but Chrissa was feeling pretty horrible at this point so we spent an extra day off in the little yurt village at Köl-Suu. Getting food poisoning is basically a right of passage on any far-flung bicycle trip, so this was probably bound to happen at some point. You’d only hope that it wasn’t occurring in one of the most remote areas of an already remote region.

After forcing down a few pieces of bread, her first food in 36 hours or so, Chrissa was determined to hit the trail again. The way was mostly flat (or so we thought), so she hoped to gain back her strength over a couple of days with what should be easier riding and her bags topped up with Kyrgyz bread.  

Of course, that ever-changing Tian Shan weather had plans that didn’t quite align with our “easy riding”. Daily thunderstorms with snow, freezing rain and relentless headwinds meant very slow, miserable, progress.

In trying to outsmart the daily afternoon wind we spent a frigid morning pedaling non-stop to get to the next small settlement. It was then that our fortunes started to change. The sun came out, finally thawing out our purple-hued fingers and toes. On the side of the road we spotted a little piece of paper taped to a post… “Wait… does that say our names!?” And it did!  It turns out that a lovely German couple whom we met the day before left us a little gift to boost our spirits in the form of a melon (which we obviously killed on the spot!). Thanks, Timo and Hanna!

Things were looking up! We reached the settlement, mostly dodging the worst of the wind. A kind shepherd even invited us to stay in his family’s cozy little trailer for a night out of the cold! We Google-translated our way through sharing stories, ate piping-hot soups, and drank (errr.. forced down) glasses of fermented horse milk.

The next morning we said goodbye and set out down the paved road in hopes to cross with some folks on the Silk Road Mountain Race which had started the previous day in Bishkek. 70 Kilometers later we debated on starting our way up the next climb or if we were done for the day. Within moments it hit me like a brick wall… I was going nowhere.

We scrambled to set up the tent by a river and I immediately laid down inside. Flat on my back, I was motionless for an hour or so… It was only a matter of time and my time had come. Rain pelted the tent nonstop as I zigged and zagged back and forth from my sleeping bag to my designated barf-zone™ outside throughout the night.

We stayed one more day in the dreaded campsite of horror and despair as (unbeknownst to us) the Silk Road Race leaders passed by only a short distance away. After forcing down some more of our dwindling stash of bread (this was the only thing either of us could stomach at this point), we slowly pushed on toward the first real town we’d seen in 10 days or so, Baetov.

The first of the racers that crossed with us were still in “Race-mode”, so many went by with their heads down, buried in the pain cave, but slowly the group became more social as we got further along. Stopping to chat with these folks, and put faces to Instagram-handles was a real highlight of this section of riding. Much needed after some difficult days in the unforgiving Tian Shan.

We summited the final pass before the 1,500 meter plung into Baetov and marveled at the landscape changing around us.  We arrived in town, opened up our bags which were still full with a weeks worth of food we never quite regained an apetite for, and had a nice hot shower for the first time in more days than I care to count.