21st November 2018
#FASTFAR | Silk Road Mountain Race | Philippa Battye
A last minute place
A month before the Silk Road Mountain Race was due to start, I had no spot in the race. However I’d found myself watching the race ‘teaser’ video over and over again, and I couldn’t get those mountains out of my mind. A pal and fellow racer who was already in Kyrgyzstan had a word with the race director on my behalf. Vouching that ‘I probably wasn’t a liability’ did the trick and a few days later my place was confirmed!
3 weeks left an ok amount of time to get things together. I’d go with pretty much what I had (same kit I’d used for touring in Europe earlier in the year), with little time left to panic. On the bike I swapped in some 45mm WTB riddlers, and switched my 42T chainring to a 36T. I was as ready as I could be, and my hopes for the race were simple - have an adventure, meet some cycling nutters, explore a beautifully remote and rugged country, and enjoy myself.
We rode out of Bishkek around 10am and after 50 km or so we turned off the tarmac heading south in the direction of the mountains. We were faced with the challenge of getting up and over the 3780m Kegety Pass, having started the day at an altitude of 800m. Winding up the pass in late afternoon, I was nearing 3000m when the sky darkened ominously as the rumbles of a storm moved in. Surrounded by jaggedy snow topped mountains, I felt small and insignificant as cracks of thunder soon boomed off the mountains. Rain then hail pelted down on us. This setting, the loud cracks and sense of exposure at that altitude would normally rattle me. However seeing (and hearing) another rider Josh up ahead and knowing there were riders nearby meant I didn’t feel worried, just elated by it all instead!
For fear of pitching and then sleeping in a soggy tent I kept moving until the rain subsided. This was at around 6pm, as I’d decided against summiting and descending Kegety in the dark. I set up my camp on a bed of fresh hailstones with frozen fumbling fingers. I cooked up some instant noodles shovelled in with a tyre lever as I’d forgotten my spoon. The sky cleared and the few remaining clouds turned a hazy pink as the light faded. Zipped into my tent and sleeping bag, I lay there thinking this was going to be a mad ride, excited about what else lay ahead.
My calmest and quietest memories were being on my bike just before sunrise. Waking was never the easiest, but coffee and porridge cut through some of the sleepy haze. Enough to get me out the warmth of my sleeping bag and eventually onto my bike. In the morning darkness, there was little more than a promising glow hovering on the horizon, the rest of the world asleep. Then a distant flash of a bike light would catch my eye, a reminder that I was one of many on this bonkers endeavour. Dawn would break, the sun warming the hills up ahead, then me. These moments made me appreciate the fact this was race not a ride. In normal circumstances I doubt I’d have the will to get myself on my bike before the sun has risen - those first cold, dark moments are tough! However the experience of riding through a landscape as it slowly come alives is always worth that initial discomfort.
The next few days to CP1 are blurry, but there was definitely some climbing, and it was hot (45 degrees were reported…). I would cool off in rivers when I could, and inhale ice creams two at a time at any rare opportunity.The climb up to Son Kul lake to CP1 was my first real taste of taking my bike for a walk, which prior to the race I wasn’t particularly well practiced in! It was a welcome relief to ride in to CP1 - friendly faces, decent and plentiful food, and stories from the rest of the race and riders. A few hours at a checkpoint feels like a time out from the race, and engaging with a bit of the rest of world allows you to step outside your own mind. After a few hours I packed up some takeaway plov (traditional rice and meat dish) and headed off with rider Josh. We rode for a few more hours, losing some altitude before opting for a dumpling dinner, washed down with our first taste of fermented horses milk (not good) and an early nights sleep in a yurt.
We’d done some time on a washboard road the day before and continued on it in the morning. The terrain of the route varied from smooth tarmacked China built road to rocky steep mountainous single track. However it was the tortuous washboard roads I struggled with most, each relentlessly rhythmical bump sapping my patience and any remaining sense of humour. Soon enough we rolled onto a brief stretch of tarmac, and we were whooping loudly with joy and momentary relief - such is the affect a smooth surface can have on your mood and bum!
We stopped in Baetov to stock up for the long shopless stretch of the route which lay ahead. 16 snickers and a pile of instant noodles formed the bedrock of my supplies. We rode out of town and onto a desert like plain, where timeless old ruins scattered the landscape. Mountains in the distance loomed, and having woken at 1600m we could see where we were headed, the first big pass of the day being 3400m. I spent much of the day riding with Josh, Russell and Ben which was welcome company, convening at the tops of passes and yurts for tea. After the second pass, it was a fast descent on an amazingly arrow straight track, hurtling towards a vast horizon of mountains as the colours of the day grew darker and warm. It was a challenging but incredible day of riding,and the sense of contentedness among us was palpable (Russells grin was a giveaway) as we set up our tents for the night.
The next morning the ‘Chinese road’ crossed endless dry river beds, and frustratingly I’d run out of water. After a few dry hours I came across the pair Luke and Charlotte who were sat at a miserable brown river flowing slowly under the Chinese border fence. Crouched next to the stream filtering water, I necked 4 bottles straight while Charlotte and Luke told tales of altitude sickness and other ailments. I’d just passed another rider appearing from a yurt who told me he’d scratched due to food poisoning and was waiting for a pick up. Apart from a horrible chesty cough which was affecting my breathing, I seemed to be maintaining relative health. I’d accidentally been taking double doses of chlorine tablets for 3 days thinking they were paracetamol which may have been responsible for this. I like to think the swimming pool environment I’d created in my stomach was keeping most bacteria at bay.
After the tarmac road came some excruciating washboard. This coupled with my misconception that the long gradual descent on the elevation profile might mean some easy miles made it tough going. Reality mismatching my expectations was a common theme for the stretches I found hardest. When the track seemed to disappear into a mostly dry very wide stoney riverbed, I stopped in protest (against what I’m not sure) feeling fed up. As I looked around, I took in my surroundings fully, and I may as well have been at the top of the end of the world. I was here under my own steam, and the sense of distance from civilisation was elating. To push on through this place seemed like a crazy waste of the effort it had taken to get here, so at that moment I thought sod it, I’m sleeping here tonight. It wasn’t even 5pm and I knew if I’d continued I could have made CP2 in few hours, but my motivation to race in this moment was at zero.
PHOTO CREDIT: JENNIFER DOOHAN
At that moment a young girl with the kindest face came over on a horse, and with no english spoken asked if I’d like to stay in her families yurt. I nodded and smiled a yes and followed her over to a far flat grassy bank. I was immediately taken into the warmth of the yurt, encouraged to keep eating the bread and jam they’d laid out, accompanied by a constant flow of chai. Unable to eat anymore, I ventured outside and it had started snowing. The two eldest daughters were on horses herding yak in the direction of the yurt. Next thing I know I’m on a horse being lead by the youngest daughter, as the other sisters began to tether the yacks to a chain for the night. Looking back it was a surreal evening. I felt as though I’d pressed the timeout button on the race, leaving my mind untroubled and in a pleasantly numbed state.
It was a leisurely start the next morning, and not far from CP2 I was caught by Brendan, who’d been a great riding pal on and off since the start. He’d been battling bouts of food poisoning and now had issues with his achilles. Sadly his mind was made up that CP2 would be the end of his race. Friendships form quickly in these types of races, with a familial sense of ease. I enjoyed the story of one rider who apparently crawled into another's tent in the middle of a particularly cold night, desperately seeking warmth. We arrived at the stunning checkpoint mid morning, and I decided I’d sleep there that night, my only aim to ride the out and back parcours to the dry Kol sul lake before dark. Any desire to race was rapidly subsiding, and I struggled to see how I was going to get the motivation back. Body tired, despondency growing, I began to ask myself why I would continue to race this ride, and what was I trying to prove and to who? The debate in my head was about racing, not riding my bike, so until I decided, that’s what I’d keep doing.
Not long after leaving the check point the next morning, a route POI stated ‘steep ascent’, which I personally felt understated the 2 hour push up the brutally steep grassy slope. After what felt like forever, I reached the top and sat down to eat a snickers taking in the expansive silence between bites and heavy breaths. Looking out at what would be one of my favourite views of the race, I spy an eagle gliding high above, before flapping those huge wings, swooping down effortlessly then disappearing out of view.
I arrived in the town of Naryn after dark with an almost full moon in the sky. I found my pal Lee there, who was still suffering from her unknown illness. I suspect she could sense my loss of will, so we agreed to head off along the route together the following morning, ‘touring style’. Good company and mellow riding made for a good day for the mind. However I was struggling up the hills, and my breathing was quick and shallow, with a worsening hacking cough. We were riding the stretch of the route which cuts back on itself after returning from the 300 km loop out to CP3. The race route continued up onto a 3800m plateau, and advice had been issued not to attempt the 5 hour push across it, or the descent in the dark. It felt near freezing where we were at 3000m and I’d estimated that I wouldn’t be off the plateau before dark the following day, forcing me to camp high at 3800m. I found the prospect intimidating, and with my limited mountain experience I didn’t feel prepared enough to put myself through it. It was the straw that broke the camel's back. That was the moment I said out loud I was scratching, opting to skip the loop and double back instead continuing along the race route to the end. My determination to suffer in order to succeed had gone, and for once I wasn’t letting my pride and ego tell me what to do. My hopes for the race had been met, and from the sense of relief I felt, I knew I’d made the right decision.
The following day we rode onto the town of Kochkor where we holed up in the ‘western restaurant’ to indulge in real coffee and dubious mayonnaise pizzas. We ordered a steady stream of food while the likes of Bas Rotgans and Pete Mcneil who were still racing joined us. They ordered a similar stream of food and shared stories of their rides before stocking up and heading off together towards Shamshy Pass, for what would be their final push. We waited for another friend Rickie who had also scratched, to continue the following day as a three over Shamshy Pass and onto the finish.
Shamshy was the lesson in pushing I’d been needing, guided by a couple of pros who couldn't have been more generous with their patience! Waiting for me at the top of the pass while it snowed, I inched up towards them, as they shouted and cheered encouragement down to me. They later told me the speed I was going made it look like I was going backwards (very possible) or drunk. It was the final night before reaching the finish, and we celebrated around a roaring fire, dangling smelly wet socks over the flames, finishing the last of our supplies. Now we were just 3 pals enjoying a bike ride, and I couldn't’ have asked for a better way to end such an adventure.