Splendour (and hardly any politics) from the top of the world
In May I was asked by the Financial Times if I’d be interested in going cycling in Kyrgyzstan for an article. I thought about the proposal for admittedly not very long and then decided to go for it.
I spent most of June in Kyrgyzstan as a result, with about 8 days of it on the road as a guest of the cycle touring/bikepacking outfit, Pannier CC, and the rest in Kyrgyzstan’s wonderful and very charming capital, Bishkek.
The resulting article, product of a week’s riding above and around 3000metres, is now up on the Financial Times website and available here, complete with some supreme photography courtesy of Pannier. I hope the FT link gets you in, though for non-subscribers I’m advised you may have to register an email.
For puritans and non-FT subscribers, the article is also, pleasingly, also going to be on paper, at least in the UK and Europe editions of this weekend’s FT, published Saturday.
It was great to have opportunity to spend longer than a week in Kyrgyzstan. Most of the country is above 2000m, its mountains are old beyond those of Europe, and amidst the beauty it is very easy to feel consistently like you are very much above the rest of the world.
Additional to this, Kyrgyzstan is generally regarded the central Asian state that has moved closest to being a democracy since the fall of the Soviet Union. The human, cultural and geographical reasons for this, hard to pinpoint as they are, are nonetheless fascinating to consider. Like many low-income countries, and particularly one so landlocked as Kyrgyzstan, it is also one of the world’s countries least responsible for climate change, and yet - far from water as it is - most vulnerable to the effects of those changes.
As a product of these overlapping factors, I am working on a more substantial article at the moment, which examines the interaction of democracy and climate change, but also looks at if (or how badly) Western democracies have had their sense of purpose corroded, in ways that inhibit meaningful action against both climate change, but so too the industrial and military forces that cause both it and its grave human consequences.
I will keep you posted on the development of that project. For now and for once, it was admittedly nice to write quite simply of landscapes and travel in them. The bicycle - as often in my life and writing - is a presence that somehow fends off the pessimism that the world can induce, while also of course also being a great solution to some of the causes for that pessimism.
The article is here, with the opening below:
All that separates the blue of the lake and that of the sky is a dark line of mountain peaks, serrated and snow-capped. The lake is Son-Kul, 3,000 metres above sea level; close to its shores is the village where we slept, the stoves in its yurts still smouldering, having kept at bay the chill of an impossibly star-filled night.
A child from the village pedals his small bicycle among the many lying on their sides outside the yurts. Soon they are upright and being readied by our group of 10 as we prepare for a 330km ride east, along the back roads of Kyrgyzstan, a week-long trek through the Tian Shan mountains that will take us to Issyk, the country’s largest lake. Handlebars are straightened, bikepacking bags affixed to frames, bolts tightened — though the ride’s first bumps and vibrations will still shake a few loose — before everything beds in to the rhythm and rigour of the dirt tracks and gravel roads.
We ride out into a grassland plateau, following the twin white lines of a vehicle track, more grass growing up between them. Wild horses gallop alongside, startled by the strange, wheeled creatures rolling beside them. A Londoner in the group, debuting his new bike, turns and smiles. “You don’t need much money to be happy,” he says quietly, half to himself, half to me. “Only a bicycle.”
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