Thursday, September 2, 2010

The Asy Plateau

28th – 31st July 2010, 125km

It honestly looked a lot flatter on paper. Jump over a few contour lines at the start, sail over the plateau, coast down the valley on the other side. I reasoned with Ali, that ‘if jeeps can do it, so can our bikes, it’s going to be beautiful and it means we don’t have to go back on the highway!’

Taking the Asy (aka Tassy, Assy or Assey) Plateau route from Kokpek to Turgen looked brilliant on the topographical map in the flat, air-conditioned café in Almaty. In fact, the closer we got to ‘the Asy’, the more enticing this route became. At some point, and it is hard to discern when exactly, it developed a life of its own. The Asy was not just a way to get back to Almaty, it was The way to return. It was the alternative to a flat, cycle back on a highway. It was a means to get intimate with mountains and yurts. It was the antidote to all that dropped our mood in Almaty. By the time we were in Kokpek, after visiting the canyon, looking down at where the highway gave birth to the road to The Asy, there was really no choice. We had unknowingly sculpted a Siren.

We pushed off on the initially asphalted road to Lake Bartogay with a bulging mental dossier on the path lying before us. Our Kazakh friends from Shelek had poured over our map like their masculinity depended on it and given us some important tips regarding road choices. They also left us with these comforting words: “there are big rocks, they are sharp, they will cut your tyres”. Two Dutch cyclists we met in the canyon had just come from the Asy. In their eyes the scenery had outweighed the pushing…just. Finally, after skirting the southern border of Lake Bartogay, a turquoise alpine lake at the foot of our first climb, we passed two Belgians on bikes. Grazed knees and big smiles greeted us. They spoke of gorgeous passes and stunning rivers. It is possible Belgians are overly optimistic folk who don’t have the heart to warn fellow travelers of their impending pain.

We ascended up a valley whose mountain walls gradually closed in around us until we were winding through a narrow gorge. Centuries ago a river would have poured down between the hills either side of us, carving out the contours lying before us. The ancestry of our path was unfortunately well evident in the large, coarse rocks of the dry river bed we were following. Several kilometers of pushing soon brought us to the summit and revealed fold upon green fold of stunning alpine meadows, but, alas, no plateau.

There is something very special about being so high. We were only a mere mountain range away from a major road, and yet I felt out of reach. Altitude and rough roads had us isolated. Like in Mongolia, we were at times wrapped in silence. The sort of quiet where you start hearing a buzzing, white noise in your ears and can identify a scurrying mountain fowl hundreds of metres away. Being high gives me a boost I liken to potential energy, the higher you go, the more downhill you’ll be rewarded with. With tall mountain peaks encasing our horizon these emotions were gliding in, until, out in the distance, we noticed a dirt path winding up and over a pass. Surely that’s not our route, I wished. Surely it was time for our plateau. I bravely turned on my GPS and glanced at my preprogrammed path. It became evident that the hills were not done with us yet. As we rolled over another green fold the unexpected valley giving way to the unexpected second climb became brutally visible.

If pushing our bikes downhill over a dry river bed didn’t make it obvious enough. If the old troughs and tapped mountain springs dotting our path were a little ambiguous. Then when two herders on horseback casually raced up and down our see-sawing path it became painfully clear that we had potentially chosen the wrong form of transport. At the valley floor we made a rendezvous with the Asy river and eagerly filled our water vessels. Dramatic rocks sculpted by years of wind were camped out in the valley, their layer cake formation revealing a prehistoric past. We didn’t have long with the Asy river before briefly parting ways. While the water snaked through sheer rocky gorges we waltzed with contour lines as our road trended in the upwards direction.

Nothing is quite as disheartening as pushing up a ridiculously steep patch of road, rounding a bend and then being sent back down to the same altitude only to repeat the same routine over again. ‘Why send us up, if you’re just going to slide us down?’ I asked the bike gods. There was no reply, and the two herders on horseback overtook us again, after their break in the valley. Thankfully the pretty mountain views kept our spirits buoyant and carried us up the pass, before dropping us rather roughly into the awaiting Asy Plateau.

‘Plateau’ is a slightly generous description of the 20km of rolling dirt road laced over numerous crests and troughs that slowly climbs a further 500m in altitude. The Asy river emerged through the mountain cracks and we now followed its crisp waters. We unloaded the bags and waded knee deep to cross its path, before darting over many of its tributaries over the coming kilometers. The plateau was a metropolis of yurts, livestock and 4WDs. Over the spring the shepherds would have negotiated these same mountain passes to bring cattle, goats and horses up from their winter grazing grounds on the steppe. Not too long ago, it was a journey the animals would make by hoof. Now trucks have given the livestock a reprieve.

As the plateau rolled to an end the mighty peaks of the Tien Shan had gathered a heavy dusting of snow. Kyrgyzstan was now mere kilometers away and the Turgen-Asy Observatory, perched on its hillside, seemed a little surreal. At this stage my sarcastic suggestion to make a detour to the observatory was met with an appropriate groan from in front. The downhill was the sole item on our mental agenda. Following a cold night yesterday, we were eager to descent as fall as possible today before darkness would bring the cycling to a halt.

The road flattened out over 50 metres before dropping haphazardly downwards. As I perched myself at the beginning of our descent a Russian jeep pulled up alongside. The result of some botched Russian and rather good charades inferred that the driver hoped we had packed a good set of brakes. After several kilometers of constant braking our fingers had similar hopes. Thankfully the 400m we dropped in altitude was enough for a slightly warmer night by the roaring Turgen river.

There is a level of fatigue, after which heavy traffic, noisy neighbours or in our case gushing alpine rivers cannot penetrate your mind. It’s like a nifty defence mechanism the body develops to ward off anything threatening the precious REM. We woke early from a night of such protection, eager to get back to Almaty that day. The morning saw us practicing more arthritis inducing braking before the start of glorious asphalt and our smooth, speedy roll all the way to Turgen. It was a descent we devoured. Hello potential energy. Goodbye Asy.

kokpek to Turgen via Asy Plateau


linda said...

Hi guys, great that you made it on the Asy plateau. I am still impressed by the photos we took and the memories we have got. Nice to read your regards Linda (one of the Dutch ;-)

Ali said...

Nice to hear from you! Already the photos make me look back on it fondly, despite the pain.. :)

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