June 5 – The Horseman

My repairs on the rear tire seem to be holding up fairly well as I’ve only lost a couple of psi in the rear overnight – what a welcome to the day. I sat in my tent this morning with a cup of tea and piece of bread catching up on my daily journal and importing my photos onto my laptop.

Today I’ll drive an old double track up to Naryn, pick up a few items at market and continue up a different mountain valley road which will connect me to Lake Issyk Kul on Saturday. The road follows a river bottom and I hope I’ll have good camping for the night. I pick up fresh tomatoes, cucumbers, bread and a couple of “farm” raised duck breasts. I make a sandwich in town consisting only of bread, tomatoes and the cucumber; no mustard, mayo, meat, cheese, or condiment of any sort, and it’s amazing how good something so simple can taste. It makes me take note of all the options we’re used to living with in the US and this is by far the best tasting sandwich I’ve had in quite some time (probably since I left mayo behind…).

I drive up the canyon for a couple hours and find a great spot on the river to set up camp. As soon as I stop start unloading the bike, like clockwork, one of the local herders on horseback stops by my camp and starts up a hand gesturing conversation. It’s the typical exchange of names, where are you from, how long will I be staying, do you have any cigarettes, anything to eat, etc. I toss him a tomato I was planning on eating with dinner and he asks for a second for his friend who is still sitting on his horse up by the road. I only have one left, so I tell him no and he is on his way. Both men depart with a smile about the mini bounty they picked up from the traveler.

I’ve been eating nothing but a variation of pasta for a few weeks now, so when I scored the duck breasts at market, it’s been dinner on my mind ever since. I made simple salad with the veggies and fried up the duck breasts. This was the finest meal of the trip so far – certainly topping anything I’ve had on the road or the countless nights of pasta. After dinner I bathed in the icy cold river (I was well overdue) and called Nettie via sat phone before crawling into the tent to catch up on my photo downloads and journal entries. I fell asleep about 9:00, clean, and on a full stomach.

I woke up at around 10 or 10:30 pm to the sound of voices outside my tent.   I could hear two men talking and first assumed it was a couple of locals stopping by to take a look. It’s very common in this part of the world to have people stop by at all hours of the day to say hello and see what you’re doing – if the tent and camping equipment isn’t obvious enough, they want to ask for themselves the standard basic questions. I listened to the men talking for a minute or so, hoping they would leave, but also knowing something wasn’t quite right. I leaned up to look out the side door and quickly caught the eyes of one man who was squatting down outside the tent.   Within an instant and before I could say anything, he leapt on me without hesitation and immediately worked to smother my head.   The first thought to go through my mind, was “shit, this actually happening”, and followed by “damn dude, you didn’t need to ruin my tent”.   As soon as I felt his weight come crashing down on me, I felt the weight of a second man land on me as well. At this point I realized I was in a tight spot and this might get serious as the man on my back was still struggling to smother my head and mouth.  As I started fighting to keep my airway open, I was simultaneously kicking with my feet to keep my legs clear; as much as one can buried in a mummy bag. The two men then tried to move me and I assumed it was a kidnapping. It all happened fairly fast, but I think they only moved me a couple of feet before dropping me – maybe just outside of the tent, maybe nowhere. The man around my legs gave up at some point when he must have realized my legs weren’t going anywhere as I was stuck in my mummy bag. I now had just one man to deal with and found I was easily controlling my head and hands, so I started to work on the sleeping bag zipper with one hand while keeping my head and airway clear with the other. The men did their best to rough me up a bit while I was in the bag, with a few punches to the side of the head and ribs. With all of the tussling and down feathers from the bag, nothing felt to have landed solid and their attempt at a beating quickly felt to be over quite quickly – not to say I didn’t feel the blows it in the morning.

After the minor pummeling, the man on my back switched gears and started maneuvering to get a bag over my head, which was still partially buried in my bag and under the miscellaneous shredded tent fabrics. A bag over the head confirmed my earlier fears of a kidnapping and I knew a robbery was one thing, but kidnapping was a situation I couldn’t let myself get into. I had to do the most to understand the situation as best I could without the use of my eyes. I couldn’t let them move me and I would do anything I could to make sure this didn’t happen.

I don’t travel with any sort of self-protection due to the different border crossing requirements and differing laws, country to country. I carry a small hatchet that I use for miscellaneous items around camp, motorcycle recovery, and if needed it could be used for self-protection, albeit a bit of a crude device.  During the last few minutes of the ensuing struggle, I continued to ponder the hatchet and decided in an instant, or maybe I already subconsciously knew, if things started to get too bad, I needed to save enough energy to break the man from back, grab the hatchet, (which I keep at the head of the tent when sleeping) and use it. The man on my back was both light and weak enough; I knew if I need to, I could throw him off and grab the hatchet. For now, if I could limit the damage on the ground and keep from being put in their vehicle, I’d be ok with losing some belongings. I had no plans of exacerbating the situation for the cost of a few items or the little bit of cash I was carrying. Besides, I love “adding to cart” on Amazon…

I didn’t put up much of fight; I think just enough to let the men know I wasn’t completely rolling over on this. My concern with a full fledged fight was I didn’t know exactly how many men there were and if they have weapons or not. I recognized I was on the bottom, but as long as I kept them from moving me, wasn’t exerting undue energy and not getting beat unconscious, I felt I was controlling my situation as best possible. A robbery continued to be the least of my worries.   Things seemed to simmer down a bit, but I think the lightweight man on top of me was realizing I could move at will.   He gave up on the bag and went fora rope over my head. I somehow caught the rope with my right hand about the level of my forehead and didn’t let it pass any lower. The struggle continued, but I had a death grip (fitting use of words) on the rope and wasn’t about to let it move any lower than it already was. It was crystal clear to me that if the rope made it around my neck, it was game over for me – there was no way I was going to let it happen.  Another bit of time passed and we were both motionless, so I tried subtlety going to work on the bag zipper again with my left hand.   This didn’t go over well and apparently wasn’t as subtle as I thought, because this is when I received the first blow to the back of the head. Wow, “that one rang my bell”, I thought, as he stars started to disappear. A few more seconds and another blow to the head – more stars than the last time, this wasn’t a good sign.   I knew I couldn’t take too many more of these before I lost consciousness. As the final blow caught me in the back of the neck, I struggled to keep conscious, still knowing I had to continue to hold the noose from slipping around my neck.

I decided (maybe the only choice) at this point to go passive, see what happens and conserve the energy I had left, which I still felt was enough to break free if needed. I covered up my head as best possible with left hand and lay still as the man tried to tighten the noose around my hand and forehead even more. As soon as I thought things were going to subside a bit, he crashed down with his forearm into he back of my neck and did his best to pin my head to the ground.  I didn’t see stars this time, but the pain in my neck was noticeable, even with the amount of adrenaline running through my body. I again focused my efforts on my breathing, still thinking if I needed to put up a full fight, I wanted to be as fresh as possible and certainly needed to clear the stars out of my vision before this was going to happen.   Not much movement from either of us for the next bit of time; the man on my back adjusted his grip on the noose every so often and I could hear the other man going through my bags. I knew this was going to be over at some point in the near future and then my thoughts shifted to the question of what was going to happen next. Where they going to throw me in the river, still in my sleeping bag (that would be bad)? Go back to beating me (certainly better than landing in the icy river)? Try again to pick me up and haul me off? Kill me? I didn’t think the latter was going to happen at this point, I thought they would’ve done it already if that were the intent. My biggest concern now was the river.

I snapped out of that thought when I received one more crashing forearm blow to the back of the neck and the man started yelling at me as be loosened his grip. I assumed he was telling me to keep my head down, as he jumped off me and ran away. I looked up as the men were cresting the hill and then I saw the headlights as they started up the car and sped off. It was quite dark out as the moon hadn’t made its way into the canyon, but I could vaguely see the car from the glow of the headlights.

I got up, got dressed and took inventory of the situation. The robbers are gone, what do I do next?   I think I was still a little hazy from the blows to the head because my first thought was that I wanted to fix my tent. At some point it dawned on me, I had a bigger issue and I needed to get my head straight and get a plan. I decided I would to pack up he bike and get moving in the opposite direction of the car. As I was packing up, I realized my electronics bag we missing, which had my iPad, navigation, passport, emergency beacon, sat phone, and other misc. items – there was no way to send an emergency signal or call for help. I knew I couldn’t find my way to the next town on these labyrinths of roads in the night without nav. I had no choice but to head in the same direction as the robbers and back to Naryn. I decided I could drive with my lights off and pick my way down the mountain road; if I saw headlights, I would need to spin around and head the other direction. There’d be no way a car could keep up with me on the bike – I’d be served fine doing this. I loaded my bags on the bike, got ready to leave and realized my key was missing – it was in my tent, in my electronics bag. No problem, I have a spare in my pack.   I dug around and found it – thank god. I put it in the ignition and went to fire it up- nothing. I tried again, nothing. The next two attempts brought the same results – shit, the programming must be bad and the key isn’t going to work. I’m stuck here.

The robbers didn’t get my wallet or cash, as they apparently didn’t look as thoroughly as you’d think they would.   It now dawned on me, there’s a chance they’ll be back once they discover there wasn’t any money in the bag except a few dollars worth of Uzbekistan Som. I decided my only option was to hide out until morning.   I grabbed my sleeping bag, hatchet, Leatherman and went searching for a spot to hide out for the night. My options were limited as I was camped on one of the only flat pieces of real estate in the valley floor; the small camp site was surrounded by steep canyon walls; I was essentially in a bowl, surrounded by water on two sides, a cliff on the third and the pullout of the road directly above me. I found a spot about 50 yards from the camp and sat down curled up with my sleeping bag around me.   I checked my phone and it was now 11:30 and I knew I’d have to stay awake until morning.   It wasn’t long after I wrapped my bag around me, I saw headlight coming from the direction the robbers fled – I ducked down as the lights went by. No problem, just traffic. The passing car, confirmed the idea I should probably flag down the next car headed towards Naryn and have them drop me at the police station – seemed like a better option than laying here on the wet ground for the next 7 or 8 hours.

15 minutes passed and I saw the opportunity of headlights coming down the road.   As the car approached, I ran up the hill waving my headlamp and arms, clearly in an attempt to get them to stop. The vehicle was getting closer but wasn’t slowing down much, so I lowered my light on the vehicle and saw two young me in a white car approaching.   Shit- did the robbers do a double back? Was it them who just drove up the road and now they’ve turned back? The driver came to a quick stop beside me. He driver didn’t look over but I saw the passenger start to get out, so I quickly moved over to meet him, still clutching the hatchet in my hand, hidden as best possible behind my leg. I told him I needed to go to Naryn. He shook his head no. I told him again and the answer was the same- he just stood there looking at me with other hands in his pockets – was he hiding a gun? I gave him a friendly “ok goodbye” wave as I started to back off. He turned, got in the car and they started to slowly drive away. I looked down for the license plate and it was missing. Holy shit – I think I just went face to face with one of the guys who robbed me. Likewise, what’s he thinking at this point because I could identify him for sure now.

I moved back down the hill toward what was left of camp as they drove off down the road. I need to get back to my hiding spot and wait this out – no way I’m flagging down another car tonight. A bit of time passed and I again check the phone; 12:00 and all ‘s well. No sooner did I think, only 6 hours left – no problem, and I see headlights coming up the road again. I didn’t see a car all afternoon, and now this is the third car I’ve seen in the last half hour – something wasn’t right. As the lights got closer, I heard a police siren and a man speaking on a loud speaker. It sounded like police; how would they know about this, town is a couple hours away and there’s no cell service up here.  Likewise how would they get here so quick? A siren and amplifier, but no lights – no way, it couldn’t be the police.   After the car pulled to a stop, I watched the silhouette of a man get out of the car and head down the hill with a small flashlight or some type of headlamp. I remember seeing the hint of a bluish light at some point during the robbery. The light that was coming was clearly the blue tint of an LED. It was too familiar; there was no way I was coming out. The man started yelling (something) and whistling for me – for all I know he was calling “olly olly oxen free”, but regardless, I knew I was going to lose if I poked my head out.

I knew it without a doubt at the time and it was eerily confirmed later by one of the policeman – the men had come back to kill me.

While the man with the light searched the area, I left my sleeping bag and slithered deep down into the brush that lined the riverbank. Growing up learning to hunt in Montana, I knew exactly what I’d have to do to keep quiet and find a position I could defend from, as well as attack if needed. There was a patch of heavy brush on one end of the small camp area with only one clear way around it. If they came over here, they’d most likely walk around the brush. I decided to hide out on the other side, where I’d most likely be able to see them before they saw me. My plan was to shine my headlamp at them as soon as they rounded the corner and identify if they had a weapon or not. If they did, I’d have to attack in an instant. I held on tight to the hatchet in one hand and the headlamp in the other. I knew I’d only have a split second to react, so I sat on my haunches, crouched in the brush ready to jump as soon as the men came around the corner. I could hear them searching the area for what felt like about an hour, then they went back up to their car and parked almost directly above my hiding spot, I assume in a attempt to wait me out.

I sat as still as possible, needing to adjust now and again as my legs would start to fall asleep from time to time. It’s an understatement, but what a crazy feeling knowing someone is 50’ away, hunting you with the intent to kill. As I sat there, my mind would start to wander to my family and I’d have to fight off those thoughts and continue to focus on every sound, every shadow, and every movement I thought I saw in the darkness. Some time would pass, and my mind would drift back to my family. I needed to stay focused – I needed to stay focused – I needed to stay focused – I knew my life depended on it.   The men left after a couple of hours, but I still had a terrible feeling they may come back and come back silently next time. The loud approach didn’t work with the police interpretation, so the silent attack would be next.

I sat as still as a statue and continued to stay acutely focused for the next 6 hours – it was exhausting. Every time my mind would start to drift to a thought, I’d have to snap it back and again get focused on my surroundings. I could feel the slightest puff of wind; heard a mouse in the grass (which sounded like an elephant at this point) some distance away; I could smell the willow trees and the dirt below me; and see every shadow move as the moonlight was slowly working its way down the canyon walls. I’ve never been so focused on my surrounding as I was for those 7 hours.

At around 6 in the morning, there was enough light I felt like I needed to come out of hiding (plus I think I was starting to go hypothermic) and face the day. At least in the light, I would be able to see cars coming and have the advantage of surprise again. I cautiously gathered up the rest of my belonging and moved to a better location up the hill and above the road. Hidden in the rocks and from this vantage point, I’d be able to see cars coming as well as who was driving. I waited until about 9 am for the first car to come by and I could see there was an older woman sitting in the passenger seat. As soon as they got close enough, I bolted down and jumped in front of the car, undoubtedly startling the passengers (ironically, they probably thought it was a robbery). The driver was a older man with 3 passengers, all women.  They were on their way to Naryn and agreed to give me a ride with no hesitation. It was easy to tell I was in distress and helped me get my items into the car and hide the motorcycle as best we could. As soon as I got in the car and we headed down the road, I felt the flood of emotions for the first time since this started.  It’s amazing how the mind will deal with the worst conditions when it has no choice but  to cope.

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