A Bike Ride Through A Melting World

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.



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