It must have been past midnight when I finally managed to fall asleep, so when the phone rings at 4:30 in the morning I feel far from rested, but at the same time I know I need to get moving. It’s almost 12 hours since I arrived at the checkpoint and as I pack up everything, notice that Christophe and his blue shoes are missing which means that probably he already left during the night while somebody else is sleeping in the bed which initially belonged to him.
I enter once again the tent where the “wedding” table is setup, have a quick breakfast and I unfortunately wake up the volunteers in the process. While chatting they tell me that it’s been a quiet night with no racers arriving in the night, at this point it seems that only 11 riders made it to this checkpoint.
When I cycle out of camp I notice the headlight up on the old soviet road which serves as a reminder that there will be a gruelling push-bike to get out of the Kel Suu basin. The morning light starts to illuminate the scenery, the sky is still grey and murky while a fine drizzle seems to be the prelude of a rainy day. On the plus side the hurricane against which we’ve fought yesterday has died down and the air seems to be still for the moment.
The old soviet road is quite enjoyable, with several wild canyons and with a single trail at the finish which made it all worthwhile. I take a small break when I rejoin the main border road, take down the rain pants and I settle down in the saddle and start grinding away at the kilometres. An there’s quite a few kilometres to grind, to be more precise almost 80 kilometres in straight line, in an almost lunar landscape, with plenty of river crossings. Fortunately most of them are small this year and I can ride them on the bike with almost no issues.
From time to time a I see yurts and scattered derelict buildings while the grey day adds to the gloom of the moment. On the left side of the road the barbed wire fence which marks the border with China is always visible while on the right, in the distance I can see a long chain of jagged peaks stretching to the horizon. Somewhere in the middle of them lies the 4000 meter pass which we have to climb (and descend) in order to get to Tash Rabat, the 14th century caravan Serai and the only surviving stone building in an area of 100 miles.
Even if I feel a bit better physically today the 80 kilometre straight road gets me mentally in the end and I have to plug in my earphones for the first time in the race and I have a near psychedelic experience while listening to the first part of Narcissus and Goldmund by Hesse. It does help with the boredom and with the kilometres and it keeps be awake until the track takes an abrupt right turn before the Chatyr Kol lake and starts traversing the plateau, without any kind of visible road towards the mountains on the other side.
This is where the adventure begins again and this where you don’t need any kind distraction. And in a way this is why I’m here. These moments are hard to describe to anyone who doesn’t take part in adventure races. And even if you manage to paint a vivid enough picture you’ll won’t manage to get everything across.
Because in a way you actually have to be here, a tiny speck on a huge plateau, trying to find your way towards a ancient caravan pass, without any road or footpath, tired and worn out, chased by storm clouds and negotiating river crossings where you end up knee deep in mud. You have to struggle for every breath of air and for every step as you push your bike towards the pass while the clouds break up. You have to be there, constantly searching for moving spots in the distance, hoping that they’re not random yaks but other souls and who knows, maybe other fellow racers.
It’s moments like these which stick with you after the years and it’s moments like these why you sign up for races like the Silk Road Mountain Race. Because in moments like these it’s not the race but the adventure which counts, it’s the complete immersion in the moment and in the challenge at hand, it’s about decision making and being truly out there. And this is a spirit which I think needs to be kept alive in a world in which the word “adventure” has become so overused.
The moving spots in the distance in this case did actually turn out to be fellow racers, Arno and David, and I manage to catch up with them half way through the descent to Tash Rabat taking advantage of my squishy Canyon. The descent is amazing in itself, a rideable single-track following the green valley towards the caravan-serai. I find it amazing that basically right now where on one of the branches of the ancient silk road. And I like to fancy that in a way the merchants of the past which faced the perils of the road centuries ago had a bit of the same spirit which we have in us today. Back then, like now, each travel and each race had it’s fair share of unknowns and of nights spent beneath the stars and at least from these points of view we are alike.
After catching up with David and Aron we continue together towards the caravanserai, trying to find the path which meanders along the mountain river without getting wet. When we finally reach Tash Rabat it’s relatively late and we try to talk with one babuska near the monument for getting a yurt dinner as we don’t have too much left in the bags for night and tomorrow morning.
While we eat the plov, the cookies and an AMAZING watermelon we chat quite a bit with Nelson and the team finding out that organizing such a race is maybe more of an adventure in itself. On the way down from Tash Rabat to the main road I loose contact with David and Arno as I have to stop to inflate and then deflate the tyres. Night falls and as we start the first climb on the road to Baetov the storm clouds in the distance are periodically y illuminated by lightning while tail lights of David and Arno are still visible in the distance. Otherwise the night is calm and the full moon is out, the temperature is quite pleasant so I decide to continue a bit more for today hoping to find some shelter.
This turns out to be, as a couple of nights back one dry drainage pipe under the road where I set up my bivy and where I fall instantly asleep (as opposed to the struggle I had in the last nights in the guesthouse and and the yurt at Kel Suu). The sleep is interrupted only once in the middle of the night by the hoof sounds of horses running on the road above me. I fall almost instantly back to sleep, with the earthen sounds disappearing in the distance.