The climb up and out from Lake Toktogul will I think prove to be the longest and highest of the whole cycle, right from Ireland to Japan. The reservoir is at 900m and whilst the mountain pass peaked at 3400m, 2500m of uninterrupted climbing over a total distance of 60km. To put that in perspective, take the famous Mont Ventoux climb of the Tour De France, the climb that killed Tommy Simpson and where Chris Froome recorded one of his most celebrated victories on the anniversary of the death. Mont Ventoux has a 1600m altitude gain and peaks at 1900m. Cycling the Himalayas is simply a different proposition, especially with 30kg of pannier weight on the bike.
I had been daunted by the task for several days, as I could see the knife edge on the elevation grid on my route planner. I had broached the subject carefully with Rob a day or two before the climb. I tried to strike the right psychological balance in description that would not scare him back into Uzbekistan, nor have him full of false confidence and leave him halfway up abusing me, furious at the apparently endless pain ahead. I think this trip will have done wonders for me as a parent on long car journeys.
Over the first half, he definitely thought I had inflated the ordeal, we cruised up occasionally even able to hold a conversation, that is when we could hear each other over the crashing and frothing river we were following. Beekeeping was the way of life here, every few hundred meters we saw another country village of blue and yellow hives housing their buzzing population, some were even efficiently loaded on to caravans like great bee apartment buildings. I wonder how this housing inequality affected their quality of life and behaviour as it does in human residents. Men and their sons were decked out in bee keeping gear, even some foolhardy toddlers peering in the hives. In this quasi-Islamic region of Central Asia, it seemed ironic how only the men were veiling their faces.
The screw started to turn as the gradient increased in the second half, the surroundings became less luscious: trees were replaced by boulder outcrops. For a while the territory became more inhospitable and the road snaked aggressively up these ridges. A hardening mentality was setting in, but this broke apart with the mountains, as they opened to reveal a wondrously green alpine meadow. Swathes of flowers lasting for kilometers carpeted the sloping sides and were grazed by horse herds, the providers of transport, food, milk, and housing (skins on the gers) for the nomads living up here in the Summer months. These great green half-pipes made the most wonderful setting for a Summer retreat I could imagine from the urban life that was forced by the extreme winters. The last quarter of the climb contained about 3/4's of the pain, and called for the most motivational playlists each of us had: bouncing italo-disco for me, hard-core techno for Rob mate. Our breathing became fast and loose overtaking the grinding revs of the pedals. False summit after false summit came and went, each pretender stole away a bit more will-power.
A great Soviet landmark statue sign marked the true crown of the pass, year round snow all around here at 3400m. The moment I stopped to wait for Rob, full cold weather gear had to be used for the first time since Bulgaria in April. We grabbed a few summit selfies, and emotional as we undoubtedly were we called the better halves with the first bit of signal we had had in days. Nads was particularly choice in her words: 'oh have you just done a hill then?'.