“Can you see the bridge?” Brian shouts down to me. A moment of confusion and elation pass between us. I am on the cobble marge of the Kara Koba, washing dishes from dinner with water from the stream. It is achingly cold, running fast over a polished, rocky bed. I face upriver, and below the obscuring larch and birch, I spot a span of rusted box girder. Brian sees my face, and knows what my the lightbulb expression must mean.
An hour before, we had stood at the old bridgehead and watched the track run out into space. Nearby a ford roared with the freshet, and we discussed our options for the crossing. The creeping shadow line of evening encouraged dinner, sleeping bags, and procrastination until morning. With no way across the river, we were crushed, again. Two kilometers of drifted switchbacks had filled our afternoon, depositing us on the floor of the valley wet to the waist and covered in mud. Rolling out of the snowbound forest, slush dropped from spokes and racks, and we moved into sun, leaving a postholed, pannier-plowed track behind.
Now, our deliverance appears right under our noses, and we jog up to the bridge and walk out on rough milled planks wired to ancient steel. Clear snowmelt runs below, wrapping rocks in foam and racing out of the gorge above: tomorrow’s work. The way seems clear, for this moment only, and we are giddy that another puzzle piece has reluctantly found its place.
This track, once a road, was built between 1915 – 1917 by Austro-Hungarian prisoners captured on the Eastern Front in the Great War. They toiled in these remote mountains at the edge of the Russian Empire, thousands of miles from the fighting. They cut this rough track through the mountains with shovel and pickaxe, rope and saw, bridging the Kara Koba five times in the wild gorge just upstream from us. They connected the valley of the Burkhtarma, once the northern route on the great Silk Road, with China and the basin of the Cherny (Black) Irtysh.
For their achievement, the track is still called the Austrian Road. The Czech, Slovak, Austrian, and Hungarian prisoners who labored in this remote wilderness left no trace save the occasionally level path cut into the hillside and over these successive passes and gorges. They worked and died as two empires collapsed around them: their own, and that of their captors. As the storm of revolution broke in 1917, this small work gang was surely caught in the middle. Were they repatriated by Trotsky in time? Or did they join the Czechslovak Legion in its long fight from Europe to the Pacific, and race the nascent Red Army along the Trans-Siberian Railroad in armored trains bound for Vladivostok and Allied evacuation to America? No one knows.
We left China in storm and wind, hoping our way would be smoother in Kazakhstan. Things did not start well. We were held at the border for seven hours as Chinese officers looked through the photos on our cameras and the Kazakhstan guards asked us about Jessica Alba, our homes (“Please tell us one thing your state is known for.”), and our plans for their illustrious country. All this, before they informed us our visas are fake and we cannot enter the country – Kazakhstan does not issue five-year visas to Americans. Except that they do. Once the immigration office in Astana finished its three hour lunch break, they informed our erstwhile captors that the rules had changed last year, and to let us go. One would think knowing current visa rules would be a top priority for boarder guards.
We followed the border fence north. The wind hounded us until the road turned to dirt and began to climb. The thousand-foot dunes of the Ak Kum desert (‘white sands’) reflected bright sunshine behind, and as usual the land gave no shade. We sweat, and salty Rorschach lines grew on shirt and hat as sandy gravel switchbacks turned desert to steppe, then to scrub and subalpine meadow. The air cooled as the road climbed, rising 3200′ in under ten kilometers, making it a bit steeper than the Mt. Washington Autoroad with a worse surface condition. Beyond the Mramorniy Pass, we rolled over the White Pasture of Akzhailau and ascended a second pass, Tikkabak, where conifers appeared and we caught our first glimpse of mountains wreathed in snow.
In this exertion, we worried about our border permits. We had arranged for them to be processed in February, but our contacts had failed us spectacularly and only informed us a few days before we entered the border zone that we did not actually have permission to be there. Our afternoon cycling along the actual border fence was one of worry and uncertainty, but as we climbed we committed ourselves to this route; it would add 350km to go back and around the mountains. With every checkpoint, police jeep, and document request, we escaped unstopped, still, miraculously, fixed on our goal. The rangers, soldiers, police, schoolchildren, horsemen, and shopkeepers that asked us our route all nodded, some pointing back the way we had come, saying the road disappeared if we went north long enough. Beyond the great lake of Markakol, a park ranger pulled his jeep over to tell us the Austrian Road would be impassible and we wont reach the Burkhtarma. When we insist, he smiles and wishes us good luck. We have found, so far on this trip, that everyone is nearly always wrong, and the only way to know what lies ahead is to go and have a look for yourself. If there are any grains of truth in their advice, they will reveal themselves.
A kilometer later, the next bridgehead appears, with the girders swept parallel to the far shore with planks sloughed off into the current twenty feet below. The mountainsides drop to the river in mixed meadow and taiga, and we scout the left bank, sure of our forward momentum. In two hours of heavy lifting, we portage along cliff bands and over frozen avalanche debris, walking in the river when necessary. The third bridge stands, repaired at some point with sawn telephone poles still sporting their wire hangers. On bridges four and five, the planks are gone, leaving only the bent, rusted girders, and we engineer solutions our mothers are encouraged not to ask us about. In nine hours of extreme effort, we make eight kilometers.
The track is mud, rock, and snow. It rises against mountains now considering spring in carpets of wildflowers, European globe-flowers and irises purple and yellow, ruthenica and bloudowii. Snowfields beckon above forest bands, but with such a slow day, our food won’t last and we are wary of what slow, grinding hardship will present itself on the morrow. The skis stay on the bikes, but we stop from time to time and gaze up at the ridges still holding their snow, at the Sarymsaty (‘Garlic’) Ridge, and onwards to Burkitaul and Aksubas Peaks, ‘Eagle’s Eyrie’ and ‘Head of White Water’, respectively.
The land is stunning, and utterly empty in this season. There is no one in the valley of the Kara Koba, the last mountain village of a few hundred nearly two days behind. We soak in the green, white, and blue, the moisture of a clean, alpine landscape. The steppe worked us, but here, despite the absurd physicality of the travel, we are revived. Cresting our last high point the next morning, we are confronted by the valley of the Burkhtarma. This is the Burkhatskiy Pass, and, along with the Tarbagatay Ridge, marks the vague, shifting ecological boundary between Siberia and Central Asia. To the north, we see Russia and Belukha, the great glacier-clad peak at the heart of the Altai Mountains. Three thousand feet below, the valley opens and we see the arrow-straight asphalt ribbon that will connect us again with civilization.