Julian Sayarer is a long-distance cyclist and travel writer. He has circumnavigated the world by bicycle, writing books about roadside anthropology across Europe, Palestine, China and the United States.
Photography by Stef Amato / pannier.cc.
ALA-ARCHA NATIONAL PARK, Kyrgyzstan — Around a low table in the Ratsek Hut, a mountain refuge at nearly 11,500 feet above sea level, a group of 10 passes a bottle of cognac. Atop the roof above rests a single solar panel, which all day keeps charged the battery that now powers the hut’s single dim lightbulb. Towering in the darkness outside are the peaks of the Tian Shan Mountains, weathered spines of rock and ice millions of years older than the more famous Himalayas to the south.
The hut is named for an old Soviet climber, Vladimir Ratsek, renowned for scaling many of the nearby summits. Here at altitude, we are preparing for a bicycle ride across Kyrgyzstan’s high backcountry from one of its great lakes, Son Kul, to its largest, Issyk Kul, a distance of some 185 miles. Reasons for embarking on the excursion, which will be of some difficulty, vary across the group, but each of us agrees it is temporary hardship that is mysteriously fulfilling. At the table, someone calls it “type-two fun,” a category of activities that seem enjoyable more in retrospect.
A member of the volunteer staff at the small refuge tells us about the Ak Sai glacier, the terminus of which is just a short hike into a high gorge to the south. Ak Sai, he says, has only a few years left to live. All across Kyrgyzstan, the glaciers that lurk in the mountains are melting and in retreat. About a week after we leave the country, one collapses just a few valleys over from Ak Sai, creating a dramatic avalanche that is captured perfectly on the phone of a nearby hiker, who ducks behind boulders as the ice and snow rushes overhead. Twenty-seven million people and counting have watched the video.
The stability and circumstances of the climate in Kyrgyzstan are in some ways as unremarkable as a melting glacier in the 21st century. It is a small country that consumes little energy, most of it from aging hydropower plants from the Soviet era, which have waned in their output as rainfall and river pressure drops. In the capital, Bishkek, the country’s only coal station makes up any shortfall but tends to smother the city with smog, especially as winter approaches.
With annual greenhouse gas emissions of 1.7 tons per person, the people of Kyrgyzstan are among the world’s least responsible for anthropogenic climate change. (People in the U.S. each contribute 16.2 tons.) And yet like so many who live close to the land and sea — whose livelihoods depend on ecological balance achieved over millennia — they will bear its brunt. Here at the central point of the Eurasian landmass, Kyrgyzstan is far removed from large bodies of water, which ease extreme temperature fluctuations. The country is so rugged — 90% of it is above 6,500 feet — that neither trade nor connectivity offer much of a cushion in the approach to a future full of turmoil and change.
As much as this might be typical of many places, there are also more unique losses. The earliest known horses, far smaller and more dwarf-like than we are used to, evolved on the Central Asian steppe; along with their still-wild successors, their grazing and watering habits are being upset by climate change. South of our route is the world’s largest walnut forest, Arslanbob, where harvests are now being obliterated by pests or late snow falling on spring blossoms. This region is the original home, too, of the humble apple, the extraordinary genetic diversity of which is being eroded by advancing climate change and deforestation for timber or grazing.
In terms of human geography, by whatever quirk or twist of fate, Kyrgyzstan has always been by some margin the most democratic of the Central Asian post-Soviet states. Perhaps it was because of the reputation of Bishkek as the greenest city of the USSR, or the many Soviet dissidents who fled here and left their mark on it, like Greek communists in exile on Aegean islands. Or maybe it was through the intermingling of intellectual currents with the nomadic cultures that retained higher connections than to nation or economy. From somewhere, a version of democracy emerged.
“If the government fuck up, then we protest and change it,” is how a woman in Bishkek puts it when I ask her about politics. “They know this. For 20 years it was this way.”
– Son Kul –
We spend the night before we begin our ride in yurts on the shore of Son Kul. The drive here, in a van with 10 bicycles strapped to the top, is up grueling rutted tracks, the mud dried and baked by the summer heat — really no place for this vehicle. It moans as we round light green mountains that fold and lift together, cut by shards of sunlight through cloud, toward blue water as still and pure as the dusk sitting over it.
Before the final winding stretch of the journey, we stop to stretch our legs, and our driver’s teenage daughter, who had come along to practice her English, dances in the wild grasses at the roadside. She pirouettes into the landscape, rolling green hills dotted with wildflowers behind her, an impossibly wonderful and innocent sight. But then I notice her phone leaning on her backpack, the moving image repeated on the screen, recording a post for social media.
That night, I am happily conscious that I know little or in most cases nothing of the jobs my fellow riders work back home. At no point will I hear the awful question, “What do you do?” Perhaps the scale of the adventure we are about to embark on is enough to define us away from the question, to set us briefly free. Deep in the mountains, thoughts of work and the nagging presence of technology recede with the phone signal.
Riding out the next morning along grass, gravel and dirt track, I sense, as I always do when I get on a bicycle for a long ride, a forward motion that gives direction and purpose; things begin to make a perfect and clear sense. Strands of thought weave themselves together. Conclusions form easily. It is only when the wheels stop turning that I realize nothing is really clearer, that cycling creates a poetry of mood and motion that only for a time quiets doubts and dilemmas.
On a high plateau, a herd of horses crisscross our path and gallop with us, kicking up a plume of dust that, as it settles, leaves us in amazement at our location. Along with it comes a beguiling sense of oneness with nature.
This idea of oneness, or detachment from the self and from the human, is at the heart of efforts by many citizens, writers, thinkers and activists now trying to fathom a consciousness that can match the climatic and whole-Earth changes we’ve set underway. Dipesh Chakrabarty, for one, refers to the foundation of a planetary politics that would allow us to decenter the human from our approach to climate change. “This decentering of the lived experience of the Earth has practical implications,” he says. “We forget what we’ve done to the Earth.”
The relief from which we observe, that exteriority, can obscure how integral we are to each degree of temperature rise now affecting all of creation, from humans to glaciers and apple trees. It is not simply that we can measure the temperature rise — we are the temperature rise. It is us and we are it, every bit as much as the mercury is the thermometer. Egocentric as we are, is the process of being in the world, rather than in control of it, one for us to lament, or to fear? Is achieving such a perspective even possible?
In Kyrgyzstan, a Cornell University scholar named Karim-Aly Kassam has long explored the concept of how humans engage with a changing climate. From Central Asia to the shores of Lake Oneida in New York, he focuses on the testimonies and traditions of Indigenous and rural peoples, whether they are nomadic pastoralists or farmers who likely support Donald Trump. Drawing on their informal democratic processes like community meetings, he seeks to explore three things: group dynamics, a relationship to place and a relationship to time.
Often uniting these divergent strands is the “seasonal round” or ecological calendar, by which Indigenous and non-industrial people mark time in accordance with place and nature. Out go hours, months and minutes, in come the first blossoms, frosts, snows and harvests. The season serves not only as a natural measure of time, it imposes a commonality of climate on those whose lives it touches. From this, there forms a group.
“Industrial and linear ways of looking at time are the new kid on the block in human consciousness,” says Kassam when we talk by phone. “This is actually a recent phenomenon and might not be around very long either. Ecological calendars have stood the test of time and space because, even in the third millennium, they remain relevant. We ourselves are natural beings, and so the ecological calendar makes us recognize the natural in ourselves. They are both particular and universal, and they fundamentally link us with who and where we are.”
Events anchored in nature can be many things: a first landslide of dry earth, birdsong or a ripening fruit tree. They signify a time when a human process should begin: plowing earth, for example, or moving herds. These natural markers are relational rather than self-referential. Whether viewed spiritually or meteorologically, a higher force exists in them.
Touring cycling shares something of the spirit of non-mechanized time. Each of the riders in our group comes from a place where watches tick to abstract moments that correspond mostly to what is demanded of us, a demand that is generally attached to capital. In cycling through the in-between, however, we abandon the limits of barriers and terminals. Along the way, everything becomes transition; the world is no longer binary, the demands lapse.
Much of Western society does not center these philosophies, but our modern, industrial lives — in ways accentuated by the pandemic — have opened doors to a craving for more meaningful processes like travel, family, nature or simple spare time. As groups, however, we struggle more than ever to build a politics that can realize these rights.
– Road And Relativity –
Each day, we wake and ride. We seldom drop far below 10,000 feet, though we avoid camping much above that height to escape the light, shifting sleep that occurs in the thinner air.
Now acclimatized, ascents even to 13,000 feet are no problem, at least not in terms of altitude sickness. This quick adjustment in our bodies is a testament to human adaptability, one of our finest evolutionary traits, which allows us to make the new relatable and the lost relinquishable. Up here, the process plays out biologically, in oxygen and blood, but it also mirrors processes of social adaptation. What was shocking can come to appear normal. This allows us to cope, to live free of the sense of shock so that we can go about our days.
But what happens when that sense of shock is necessary, when going about our days as normal leads inexorably to disaster? Climate change can be viewed as a giant corporate fraud by oil companies and executives who long ago knew the consequences of burning the hydrocarbons they were selling. Responses to its effects are being managed — in so much as they are managed at all — by militarized borders that fatally prevent people from escaping their collapsing ecosystems. Under such conditions, the process of adaptation can be so profoundly harmful that it risks normalizing the uninhabitable and adjusting to the abominable.
High up in the mountains, climate adaptation is not optional but integral. Seasonal changes, so much harder to see from within the industrialized world, are up here immediately apparent, which strengthens communal relationships and resilience in a way that doesn’t occur in diffuse Western societies. Down below — isolated from both nature and often one another — we risk being crushed beneath creeping change. Kassam observes that Tajiks in the Bartang Valley saw frost coming later, so they began successfully growing wheat some time before research was published that suggested such a thing would be possible. Isabell Haag, another scholar who has done research in these parts, notes that communities are planting new vegetables and fruit trees for the first time, and those with financial means are installing gabled rather than traditional flat roofs in preparation for heavy rainfall. “These people are not without agency in responding to climate change,” says Kassam. “But they are not only victims of climate change — they are essentially first responders to it. They are the vanguard.”
Remote communities can make practical adaptations to their systems, but reordering national and global governance to tackle planetary warming is more monumental a challenge. Down from the mountains at the state level, there are few discernible features of Kyrgyzstan’s democracy. It is young, small and often jeopardized by both corruption and ethnonationalism. It does have a mostly free press. It is accommodating to the Uighur organizations that fled from western China and now keep their culture, language and poetry alive in Bishkek. Its elections are free-ish, fair-ish — though changes of power here often come not through elections but because of them. Governments fall to mass protest, sometimes because of irregularities with the electoral process. The street, crucially, has power to change what the ballot box attempts to retain.
The contrast with the West could hardly be greater. In the West, unlike in Kyrgyzstan, we rarely change governments through mass protest; that possibility was ceded in return for guarantees of a robust political culture and calm streets. But was the promise fulfilled? In the U.S., a coal baron’s billions are given the same rights of speech as the homeless asking for a home. Electoral boundaries are optimized by design — rigged, but legally rather than conspiratorially. Many people, especially migrants, are disenfranchised as a matter of course, corroding that old-fashioned starting point of a democracy: “no taxation without representation.” It is not truly one human, one vote.
Nothing could be further from the conclusions of Kassam’s work in rural Kyrgyzstan. “Democracy is often spoken of without an understanding of the responsibilities of it,” he says. “Sovereignty is not only about political institutions and rights — it is about ecological possibilities. Ecology, knowledge and awareness of habitat, connectivity to it: That is what drives sovereignty.”
Perhaps in addressing an issue as considerable as climate change, the input of pastoralists is more important than government figures. Excluding elite perspectives is sadly almost unthinkable in Western democracies, which have morphed from a device for containing elites into one that overtly aspires to balance their interests against those of the majority. And at the same time, information-gathering channels in post-industrial democracies are deteriorating, with the organs of politics and communication often put specifically toward shutting out granular, local information of the sort that underpins both successful climate change responses and also rising social problems.
Because they are smaller than entire nation-states, we are accustomed to seeing Indigenous cultures like the Kyrgyz or Tajiks as groups. A tribe is a tribe in a way that the population of a country doesn’t seem to be. Somehow, in the West, we lack this ability to look at ourselves as a group, leaving us listless in the face of climate change and the imperatives it produces.
– Group Resilience –
Together we are 10. Responsibilities for cooking, cleaning and various chores are happily shared. There is a camaraderie to encourage mutual support, a sense of kin and entwinement. We have a common goal: 185 miles to cycle.
In our home countries, little if any such obviously shared purpose exists. In a society of millions or billions, we become accustomed to thinking that there is no higher purpose than ourselves and our own output. Western capitalism offers nothing better as its moral foundation than the primacy of the individual: Those who get left behind are less capable, or less lucky. A threat like climate change is collective and extends across borders between nations and species, but a society so attuned to thinking only in terms of individuals struggles to adjust.
I ask Kassam how robust groups are built. “Expertise is not enough,” he says. “Different and multiple ways of knowing are essential. For example, when trying to solve a particular kind of wicked problem, we are looking for an optimal solution. But when you reach one mountain peak, you see from there another peak, a higher optimality. In each case, the process needs to be participatory.”
As Haag puts it, seasonal rounds in the Pamirs are “an accumulation of generational knowledge, and a source of information that is only available because people have anticipated changes in their local surrounding across generations, synchronizing their activities to yearly weather conditions. Over time, this transgenerational knowledge includes valuable information.”
Together we pedal forward. One afternoon, we ride a road more solid than most. It leads to a quarry, and alongside it, there are larger and more permanent houses. Money, apparently, is being made from the hewn stone.
Going slowly with a cargo of white rock along the worn road, a truck driver pulls to a halt beside our pack of bicycles. “Otkuda?” Having in the past cycled through Russia and Ukraine, I recognize the Russian for “Where you from?” Britain mostly, we say. He responds with “Otkuda yedesh?” “Where are you coming from here?” We give him the details of our lengthy ride; he is silent but etched very clearly on his face is: “Why?”
We are accustomed to these questions and the guilt that comes with them. That this ride is far from easy, and entirely voluntary, is something we regularly joke about. We are of the rich world, yet here we cycle in the poor one, performing an act of temporary and avoidable hardship where lives are already hard. Is there a purpose to such an act?
In Kyrgyzstan, the most esteemed national sport is a game called kok boru. It is similar to polo but instead of using long mallets to hit a ball on the ground, teams of (exceptionally skilled) horsemen wrestle a decapitated goat or calf toward the opposing goal. Riders crash their horses against one another to stop them mid-gallop. The carcass is heavy and cumbersome and yanked between riders. The game is grueling. The prize is honor. But is there a purpose?
There is an implicit inference that something with no obvious functional purpose, or no economic purpose, must be purposeless. But in fact the opposite is true. We have become detached from everything larger than us, from the goals of a society or the imperatives of a species. Industrial society, as Max Weber described it, has become a world “robbed of gods.”
Behind this emptiness is the hand of time. Time gives value to what we do, and to what we don’t. It is inseparable from purpose: How can there be purpose without time? We only have purpose because our time is finite.
Danger arrives when our eternal and organic measures of time are replaced with synthetic versions, just as modernity more broadly excels in the production of the artificial. The Bishkek teenager dancing pirouettes against the wild hills of Kyrgyzstan is reduced to a phone video for unseen friends and strangers. So too is the viral clip of the collapsing glacier. A ballot dropped in a box is tasked with containing our dreams and values. Everything is a simulacrum, a shadow of its full self. We traded the enormity of ideas for accessibility to them.
Under these conditions, everything becomes available but somehow flattened, purposeless. Ours is a two-dimensional world where we are aware of everything but can change nothing. Democracy is the system charged with delivering our sense of purpose, but clinging to its decaying structures does not implement progress for crises never before seen. More catechism or incantation than system, it is far less real than the progression of seasons or erraticisms of climate in the mountains that govern the lives of mountain peoples.
The choices we in the urbanized West are presented with are also less rational or immediately impactful than planting a new crop or building a gable roof. Indigenous peoples have little influence over the direction of global affairs, but what power they do hold, they wield. Industrial democracies, on the other hand, have great power to dictate the terms of human behavior on Earth, but eschew it.
– Gravity –
We camp the night before our final day in the shadow of mountains around Tosor Pass. In the morning, we set out up a broken road that for significant stretches has entirely collapsed. We lift bikes over flooding streams and push them along tracks riddled with rocks. The pass is carpeted in compacted snow and lined by boulders the size of small houses. One day they will be smaller; one day, time will have shrunk them.
Enormous mountains surround us, absorb us. Wind lashes at our cheeks; a gritty rain throws itself against our faces. The sweat chills on our skin. Together we snack a little, pull on gloves so that numb fingers can still pull brake levers.
Finally, we start the descent down toward Issyk Kul. A manageable track eventually begins to re-emerge more clearly from scattered scree. We gain speed and, lifting in and out of the apex of each mountain bend, for a while we become larger than ourselves. Possibility unfurls before us. For two hours down, we become unstoppable, effortlessly powerful.
Later, from the shore of Issyk Kul, I look across the water toward a sawblade of peaks and recall that the Chinese name for these ranges translates as “celestial mountains.” Celestial: the passage of time determined by moon, sun and stars. The gatekeepers to time as it is experienced by the groups living among these mountains.
It is true that perhaps some of the purity of pastoralism exists only in my imagination, that I am guilty of romanticism. In some ways, a ride such as this is just an advertisement for capitalism’s ability to perpetuate itself, an opportunity for a few malcontents to recognize that off-ramps exist, to feel content for a time. A week of euphoria maybe compensates for a year of ennui. Many of us now consider a sense of belonging and purpose a luxury, but perhaps it is essential, and all the more so at a time of turmoil and uncertainty. Perhaps these are the very things that build momentum toward a system of collective awareness, preservation and progress: a system in which we have a version of control built from harmony, not one manufactured from capital. A system from which we need not escape.