Bikepacking in Kyrgyzstan is one thing but one event in history will stay in my memories forever. The fall of the Berlin Wall on 9 November 1989. I was born in East Germany, not too far from a deadly border that divided families and friends over the decades. I spent the first ten years of my childhood in a country where freedom was non-existent. I grew up in a state where a corrupt government and one of the best organised and funded secret services in the world made sure they justify their own existence first, and then think about the people. On that day in November, I received the biggest gift in my life, my personal freedom. A gift for life, hopefully. Something many people have fought long and hard for peacefully.
Growing up in East Germany taught me to live with not much. I didn’t experience any poverty. We always had enough food, mostly grown in our own garden, and also all other things needed for everyday life. Our flat was small and I shared a room with my sister before she went off to university to become a teacher. But there is nothing I really missed as a child, but I still remember the hours standing outside of shops with my brother and sister cueing for bananas and oranges for special occasions like Christmas. Those were the luxury goods of my childhood.
Looking back now, thirty years later and with many adventures in my CV, that night in November and the first ten years of my childhood have shaped me significantly. I learnt that freedom is not an entitlement, but a precious gift. My life wasn’t shaped by the materialism which exists in modern western societies. I learnt to live with little and to accept that things are not always readily available. Experiences though, like the Saturday night spent playing board games with the family, have shaped my life. And appreciating freedom and learning to prioritise experiences over things have led me to my bikepacking adventures, and prepared me at an early age for expeditions like bikepacking in Kyrgyzstan.
Even though we had limited choice, my parents still took us on at least one holiday a year. They also travelled by themselves. As I was too young to join them, and they would only be granted visas with their children back home as security, I loved their pictures and stories from their visits to Russia and other countries of the former Soviet Union. Judging by my parents’ pictures there were plenty of Lenin statues around in those days, and not much has changed since then in Kyrgyzstan.
Last year, when clearing out my room at my parents’ home in Germany, I stumbled across a toy model of a KAMAZ. A Russian truck that, even after more than 30 years, is still found driven on the streets of Kyrgyzstan these days. I was a bit gutted that I had missed the chance to take part in the inaugural Silk Road Mountain Race in 2018. Following the race as dot watcher, I was instantly hooked, and it didn’t take long for Nelson Trees, who organises the event, to talk me into a last-minute spot when we cycled the first night at the Highland Trail in May this year together.
My love for travelling and adventure is something that dates back to those days of my childhood. At the age of 9 I started learning my first foreign language – Russian. It was then, at primary school in Heiligenstadt in East Germany, when I got handed a German book called ‘Briefe an Freunde’, ‘Letters to Friends’ in English. It is a reference work for writing letters in Russian, published in the same year I was born. Not many books from my childhood days have made the journey over to Scotland, which I happily call home for more than 10 years now, but this one did. And when I finally sat in my room, with a lot of film footage from my trip, looking for ideas for a script, the book caught my attention. Bikepacking in Kyrgyzstan had inspired me so much that I wanted to write a letter to a friend, describing my experiences, but also connecting them to my past.
Once fluent in Russian, my skills in speaking and understanding the language have since rapidly declined. But when I cycled out of Bishkek in the beginning of August, with temperatures above the 40C mark, I was not only reminded of my childhood, but also slowly picked up the language again. I was able to read road signs and labels on food, which made cycling independently across the country easier. Although Kyrgyz is the official language, many people still speak Russian in this part of the world. And as the days went on, I could remember basic phrases and even have simple conversations.
While I was very keen to document my journey, I wanted any photography and filming to be the least intrusive on the country and my own personal experience. When I left for Bishkek there was no pressure to come up with a film. But as almost two years have passed since I filmed Wild About Argyll, this was a welcome opportunity to return to filmmaking.
The great thing about a bikepacking setup is that it leaves very little room for taking extra stuff, and I also had to strike a fine balance between carrying enough warm clothes, good camping equipment, enough food for a few days and my equipment for filming and photography. ‘No Stone Unturned’ was filmed and edited on an iPhone, with a mini tripod and a smartphone clamp, and a small DJI OSMO Pocket. When I fell into a river when filling up my water bladder on day eight, my memory card with the footage didn’t survive. I could only use the footage from my phone for the final film. I deliberately left my drone behind, as it would have been too intrusive on my adventure. As I still wanted to portray the sheer scale of the country I had to be creative. The filming of one scene in the film included a substantial hike back and forth along a steep mountainside. It was totally worth it.
Bikepacking in Kyrgyzstan was the perfect way to experience this amazing environment. In a country covered 80% by massive mountains I was never short of wilderness. But as most Kyrgyz in the mountains still live as nomads in yurts, I also never felt lonely. A number of times, just when I thought I had found the most hidden spot possible, I was surprised the next morning by a local on a horse, welcoming me to their country and offering me tea. On one occasion I reversed that, by inviting a local man and his cow for tea, when they both passed my tent in the morning on their way to work. I had just put water on to boil and there was plenty for both of us. The only thing missing was a second cup, so I quickly repurposed the tomato paste can from dinner the night before into a coffee mug.
The ten days travelling before the start of the Silk Road Mountain Race gave me time to be myself again. To escape the echo chamber that social media often is, to escape a busy Edinburgh full of people in August. I could travel at my own speed, I could stop wherever I wanted. I didn’t plan a route, all I had was a guidebook on my phone and maps.me and OsmAnd Maps as navigation apps.
I made my own decisions, most of them brilliant. If they weren’t too good, I had to live with the consequences, no one else. Like on the day when I stayed an extra night near Karakol Pass, hiking up one of those majestic mountains in my cycling shoes. I had to cycle almost a full day on two slices of bread with some leftover honey the next day, and was happy to meet two Canadian backpackers, who gifted me a Twix bar, which tripled my calorie intake for that day.
While bouncing over those bumpy roads and constantly swallowing the dust I had plenty of time to reflect on my life. On the way back home I watched Steve Jobs’ brilliant 2005 Stanford Commencement Address. There’s one particular bit of the speech I listened to over and over again: ‘‘You can’t connect the dots looking forward. You can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something, your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever. Because believing that the dots will connect down the road will give you the confidence to follow your heart, even when it leads you off the well-worn path. And that will make all the difference.’ Back home I also read Scotti Lechuga’s excellent account of her Silk Road Mountain Race experience, in which she describes the ‘unpacking’ of her life during the race.
I started to unpack my life, connecting the dots and writing a script. My life had led me off the well-worn path and Kyrgyzstan was no different. While I came to the country with doubts and insecurities, this bikepacking adventure gave me the confidence to follow my heart, however bumpy the road there might be. To leave ‘No Stone Unturned’. Not just in those ten days cycling, but throughout my life.
I wrote all my thoughts down and matched them with the stunning scenery of Kyrgyzstan. The result is a new film. It reflects on my past and will hopefully inspire more people to see this country with their own eyes in the future.
‘No Stone Unturned’ was supported by YellowJersey and is available on YouTube here: https://youtu.be/3Fbz52-fANY It is subtitled in English, German and Russian. Markus’ detailed account of the Silk Road Mountain Race is available on the Aussie Grit Blog. He has also written an article on how to prepare for bikepacking races for The Draft.