Before the Silk Road Mountain Race, Rickie Cotter journeyed alone in Kyrgyzstan to find some peace – and some fear – for herself. She ended up finding far more.
Words Rickie Cotter Photography Ellen Mosman
“Can you find me a bra? A dog has eaten mine.” Panic over, it’s in his cage. He’s just sitting on it.
Kyrgyzstan is a place to expect the unexpected – a place where every day opens the door to something crazy, and that uncertainty brings with it a wild charm. And possibly even an unnerving charm. But that too, is part of the charm.
I needed to leave. To turn off the internet for four weeks. I wanted to just ride my bike and needed to feel fear. My head was hectic leaving Bishkek, Kyrgystan’s capital, but as soon as I headed into the silence of the mountains I felt free.
I could breathe.
Bigger than big.
Kyrgyzstan, a landlocked country in the middle of Asia, is vast, bigger than Europe and harsher than the US. I cannot explain to you the sheer enormity of the mountains. To ride uphill for seven hours into an endless range of rock, creeping ever closer to the clouds, turn by turn. Each pedal stroke stealing precious air from your tight lungs, yet your curiosity drives you forward, the reward of a visual feast, a final view that will take your breathe away and humble you in a heartbeat. The experience is impossible to put down in words.
A couple of weeks before the Silk Road Mountain Race, I headed off to explore some of the rest of Kyrgyzstan where the race is held. Racing is so brutal and rushed. I didn’t want to ‘smash it’. I had lots of curiosity about the Kyrgyz culture and land so I wanted to take the time to be in it, soak it up and learn.
Step into our yurt.
I stop for a moment to catch my breath and eat a biscuit on a high plateau when three young boys run toward me. I’m not in the slightest bit worried as I have chocolate biscuits so it feels like a good ice-breaking opportunity.
They stand and stare; no words. I remain seated on the grass and gesture for them to join me and then I wave around my last two biscuits. I give them both biscuits as a sign. The youngest of the three breaks a biscuit in half, smiles and returns half to me – he glances to his older brothers and they nod to him in a soft sign of approval. That right there sums up the Kygyz way; sharing everything you have even though you have seemingly nothing. Hospitality and warmth.
We sit and learn through signs and laughs. We run up to their yurt and the boys want to push my bike for me. I’m struggling with the altitude and, as the weather turns, we head inside and huddle.
Mama is churning the milk from the cow outside and Papa is just taking a nap. I get up and tuck Papa’s feet under the blanket. Everyone laughs so hard there are tears.
Their older sister turns on the old digital radio and all of a sudden an Ed Sheeran song comes on which we sing along to. I get out my tools and electrical tape and we fix the solar-panelled torch, the only source of electric light for miles around. I have no idea what I’m doing but I figure it’s worth a go and we bodge it and are rewarded with some light.
Rocks for goalposts.
We head back outside to play football and I’m the goalkeeper. I choose the role so I don’t have to run across the plains chasing a football that’s rolling 3,000m down a mountain while being unable to breathe. They think I’m really good at saving goals, but the truth is that I keep moving the stones in to make the goal smaller when they are not looking.
We ride a donkey and tie up the horses. With the help of the dogs I usher in the goats. I find it hard not to stroke the dogs, but they are very much working beasts and not pets.
I stay for dinner and we all eat off a giant plate of noodles, potatoes and mystery meat (I’m normally a veggie but not wanting to be rude, I eat it). Afterwards I produce a cereal bar with chocolate from Tesco’s cheap range. The excitement reaches fever pitch. Mama cuts it into tiny squares and every morsel is savoured. She gives me a nod, shining a gold and toothless smile; a lifetime of wrinkles across her face and deep brown, warm eyes.
Her eyes tell me she is older than I guess. Her hands are weather-beaten, dirty and well used, these are the tools that feed this family. Here is a woman whose life is the polar opposite of mine yet we connect very deeply with a silent respect for each other. I envy the simplicity, but this life is too hard for me. I’ve been westernised; I’m no longer like my pure ancestors. I have more rights as a Western woman – women here are not on an equal level. I accept this even if I don’t agree with it, because I’m in their world right now.
In the morning I point to the horizon, following an old horse route deep into the mountains. Everyone goes to work; we embrace, mama touches my cheeks with both hands and gently grasps my face, looks me in the eye and wishes me well, not with words but with her eyes.
I don’t look back, I climb.
Hunter and hunted.
I hear a thundering sound; it’s not from the sky, I can feel it in my chest, it echoes in the ground. I look up and I’m cast in the shadow of a bird with a wingspan that crosses the entire double track I’m on. I feel like prey. My senses are on fire, but I’m not in danger, I’m being flanked by nature, wild beasts all around.
The thundering grows close. Over a blind brow, in a blaze of sunlight, a ripped, powerful pack of Kyrgyz horses rise up into view. I stop in my tracks. The eagle floats gracefully above them, framed by an endless sky and never-ending horizon.
I smile, then almost cry. Right now, I’m as free as that bird and as wild as these horses. I’m alive and I take in every single sense that this moment gives me.
Into the distance they run, I clip in and chase the sun to the horizon.
Night-time comes on the plateau, it’s high and cold. I should camp low but I feel at home up here. A full moon casts light on the surrounding mountains; using my torch makes me feel stupid. I turn it off, I don’t want to disturb nature’s balance. I fumble around, with the only light coming from my stove. I’m barefoot and the ground is starting to freeze… I regret my ‘one pair of socks’ rule. My nose runs and my ears burn. I cup my noodles, my slurping loud in the silence of the mountain. A spoonful of noodles slides off on to the ground, but I scoop them up with my fingers and throw them into my mouth. There’s no one here to notice.
I have a rich night of dreams, replaying snapshots of the visions I’ve had throughout the day. I feel unbelievably privileged.
I’m eager for 4am, when I’ll rise with excitement so that I can witness dawn and fill another day with life-affirming memories.
At their mercy.
I was always at the mercy of the weather gods up here. One day I had to bag my feet, my toes hurt with the morning frost, my wet socks stuck to my frigid toes as a late night river crossing had left my feet and shoes sodden.
I had to stop. This was bad. I slumped to the ground and tried to cross my legs under my folded knees, rubbing frantically at my toes; the smell was ripe. I wrapped up each foot in an arm warmer and tied carrier bags over the top. The sun was teasing me in the distance. I tried to trick my mind into refocusing on something else.
One side of the valley was blackening, sleet inbound. I was glad of a headwind as the weather front approaching was more promising; on my shoulder, sleet was chasing me, and I in turn chased the sun. Eventually my toes forgave me.
A mug shared.
A shepherd, high on his horse, looks down at me. I’ve been riding a while and am dirty, weathered. I raise my mug.
“Chai?” He nods and dismounts. I make tea on the stove which mystifies and delights him.
He offers me a cigarette. We smoke and drink chai sitting in the dust. Through my broken Russian words and sign language we talk of cattle, yurts and the common question of how many children I have? Being a woman on a bike is not common here and the ‘Where is your husband?’ and ‘How many children?’ questions happen often.
I’d bought a 10p wedding ring from a bazaar and lied about my status. We sat, time stood still. His dog sat diligently watching the cattle. We both drank from my cup; a side each.
We are the same age. Our lives and chariots very different, but his soul was warm and open. Much like mine.
He grasped my dirty hand, his hands as rough as sandpaper. Both his hands held mine, a gentle full handshake, deep, meaningful, a goodbye.
We rode off.
You can never leave.
I became engrossed in the ever-changing landscape, I felt connected to the Kyrgyz people. Nomads, travellers of the land seeking food, water and life. They, by horse. Me, by bike. Wanderers with purpose. Sometimes surviving, sometimes thriving. Tiny elements of a colossal mountainous world.
I need more of this place and these people. I have more lessons to learn and more time to give.
I’ll return to Britain all the more richer for knowing this place exists. But I’ll also be left with a growing curiosity and the answerless question – what else is out there in the world?