I landed in Bishkek, the capital of Kyrgyzstan, in the early morning hours of a hot August day. I had a few errands to run in the big, ex-Soviet city before thumbing a ride to the northeast corner of the country where I would begin my world-first expedition: to run, solo and unsupported across the Tien Shan mountains and the entire country of Kyrgyzstan.
Inside the national mountaineering office, I traced my fingers across a map on the wall, explaining my planned adventure to the local officer. I was in the office to buy gas canisters for my small stove, and also on the small hope that I could find a decent map of the interior – no luck. The country had not been officially mapped since the Soviets were in power, now 25 years ago. What maps did exist were outdated, in Cyrillic, and did not cover the ancient nomad trails I would be running on. The officer had asked to hear my plans, so using the map on the wall I outlined my thoroughly researched route and talked him through the expedition. Only when I had finished tracing my finger along my route towards Osh, Kyrgyzstan’s second city and my finish line in the southwest corner of the country, did the officer say anything. Slowly, he began to shake his head. No. You can’t do that. It’s not possible. No. And that was that.
What I didn’t know then was that he would be the first of many locals to shake their head at me and tell me that was I trying to do couldn’t be done. Almost every day (although there were plenty of days when I didn’t see any people) I was told that my adventure was impossible and that I would not succeed. Right from the start, it became a journey of mental resilience as I tried to block out the negative.
Five days after landing in Bishkek, I found myself standing at the side of a quiet road, staring ahead at a gravel track leading directly towards my first mountains. Finally, after so much intense planning and training, lists and spreadsheets, packing and repacking, logistics and acclimatisation, I was here. It was time to find out if I really could do this – if anyone really could do this. Unceremoniously, all by myself on that quiet road, I took my first steps towards the Tien Shan. A few steps later I stopped, remembered to turn on my GPS tracker, and then really – officially – began.
On my back, I had to carry everything essential to solo survival in the mountains. I would often be several days between villages, or any civilisation, so I needed to be self-sufficient in the wild, unpredictable mountain climate. In my 36L backpack I carried my ultralight tent, stove, down sleeping bag, some warm and waterproof layers, and enough dried food to keep me putting one foot in front of the other until the next chance to resupply. I also had a GPS, loaded with a route that I had designed from satellite images and what little maps I could find, my small camera, a phone that just sometimes had signal, and a power bank to keep all of the above going. Life was truly stripped down to the essentials, and it was undeniably refreshing. For 23 days I never once had to think about what to wear in the morning: I only had one option.
With a full water bladder and five days worth of freeze-dried foods, my pack weighed in at twelve kilograms. Over the course of the first week, my body suffered considerably to cope with the added weight. I used trekking poles to help distribute the work to include my arms as well as my legs, but it was my feet that got it the worst. They would be red and swollen every day from the heavy mileage, and I took to soaking them in glacier-fed streams several times in a day to reduce the pain and swelling. Daily yoga practice next to my tiny tent helped keep my legs going and relieve the back pain caused by my heavy pack.
Aside from the incredible mountains, I was attracted to Kyrgyzstan by the people of the Tien Shan, the Kyrgyz nomads. They still live the traditional way in yurts, on high mountain pastures called jailoos where their herds of goats, sheep, and horses graze throughout the summer. Whenever I run past their yurts, I am invited in for chay and kymys – tea and fermented horse milk. The latter is a rather acquired taste.
In contrast to the people I meet in towns who tell me my path is impossible, the nomads are incredibly supportive of my expedition. We speak one common language: a love for mountains and nature. I am often greeted by a shepherd on the trail who will ride out on his horse to ensure that I have everything I need, and give me advice on the trail ahead. One memorable shepherd even offered to sell me his horse so I wouldn’t have to run anymore. I’ll admit I was tempted.
By mid-September, the nights became colder and frost was frequent. Nomads would invite me into their yurts to sleep, where the warmth of the stove and their families would provide a much better night’s sleep than in my ultralight tent. The generosity and hospitality was humbling, and I’m certain that without the nomads, I never would have made it.
Day 17 is an unusually hot day. My route takes me across a valley, the lower elevation and the sheltering mountains on all sides creating a hotter climate than I’ve become used to running in. I am sweating more and using my water too fast. On my GPS, I have streams and rivers marked, so I know how far it is to the next water source. Unfortunately, after I have already taken the last sip of water, when I arrive at the next river it is bone dry. The long, hot summer has taken its toll on the Tien Shan. I continue onwards, hoping the next river will save me. By the time I reach it, it’s been hours since my last drink. I spot the line of leafy green trees in an otherwise sparse landscape, and hurry towards them – trees are always an indication of water. I speed up, grateful that the thirst will soon be over. I reach back to my outside pocket where I keep my filter straw, and detach it from it’s clip. I reach the trees and carefully climb down the riverbank, and then my heart plummets – this river is also dry.
The sun is setting, and I am forced to continue into the night, climbing a large mountain pass, hoping to pass a spring with the gain in elevation. It’s now been so long since I’ve had a drink that I’m suffering from a headache, and my running is becoming difficult from the extra mileage I’m having to commit to. The sun sets completely as I reach the top of the mountain pass, displaying a stunning mountain sunset before leaving me in complete darkness, seriously hindering any chances I have of finding water. It’s nearly midnight when I finally reach the next large river marked on the map. I am too exhausted to express any emotion other than a desperate disappointment when I discover that it’s dry as well. I have now run over twenty kilometres and a mountain pass since my last drink of water. The situation has certainly crossed from being uncomfortable to blatantly dangerous.
Unable to lift my feet for one more step, I make the reluctant decision to camp for the night. I pitch my tent on the dry riverbed, and try to sleep despite the intense thirst. To make things worse, because all my food is dehydrated, I’m going to bed hungry. I am in physical pain, lying awake on my air mattress and staring at the nylon canopy of my tent as the wind shakes it through the night. My head is pounding and my stomach is rumbling. My throat is so dry it hurts. I seriously wonder what I’m doing out here, trying to survive across such a hostile landscape. I have to ask myself whether the risk is worth it – whether I should be here at all. Hasn’t everyone been telling me all along that this expedition can’t be done? I decide to quit in the morning, as soon as I find my way to a road or a village where I can get back to Bishkek from. It isn’t the first night I’ve gone to sleep on that final thought.
In the morning, it’s only twenty minutes of running before I come across a large, clear, glorious river. I literally sit down in the water, drinking greedily through my filter straw while I boil water with my small stove for a hearty breakfast (porridge, as usual). The mountains can be undeniably cruel, but salvation came just in time.
Feeling fortified from a long breakfast and an enjoyable splash in the river, I carry on. I’m now entering the final stages of the run, and despite the extreme stress of the previous day, I somehow feel a renewed confidence that I can do this. By this point, I’ve survived a lot: altitude sickness, serious navigational errors, food poisoning, extreme heat, extreme cold, swollen joints, and blisters so big that wearing my shoes was almost impossible. Every day was a mental battle of finding the strength to run through the exhaustion, and the resilience to ignore the constant reminders that I was attempting the impossible and was destined to fail. Running out of water was arguably more serious, but I had passed that test too. With less than 200km to go until I reached Osh, I decided, finally, that I was going to make it. I could tackle anything, and although I would continue to be tested up to the very last day, I would make it. For all the people along the way who told me I would fail, I would make it. An impossible path would be proven possible.