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Oct 16, 2019

Bikepacking in Kyrgyzstan

by Nick Gottlieb

"Alright, let’s do it – Kyr­gyzs­tan."

When Carl asked me if I want­ed to go bikepack­ing in Kyr­gyzs­tan, I said no. Kyr­gyzs­tan is so far from British Colum­bia that when you’re shop­ping for flights, they take just as long going east as west around the world. But about a month lat­er, I real­ized it was the per­fect excuse to get the hard­tail 29”er I’d been think­ing about, so I shot him a mes­sage say­ing, Alright, let’s do it — Kyr­gyzs­tan.” Before we knew it, we had two DV9s on the way from Ibis and real­ized we need­ed to get our shit togeth­er, buy flights, and fig­ure out exact­ly what this bikepack­ing” thing real­ly entailed. Carl duti­ful­ly pre­pared for the trip by read­ing race reports from the 2018 Silk Road Moun­tain Race while I down­loaded a GPX track from Bikepack​ing​.com and spent the rest of the sum­mer on kayak trips around BC. By the time our flights to Bishkek rolled around, nei­ther of us had man­aged any real shake­down trips or even test­ed our bikepack­ing setups… but we’d both rid­den our DV9s around our local trails in Squamish and had a blast, so we were ready.

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Hard to believe this moun­tain ter­rain is just out the door from the cap­i­tal city.

One of my bags didn’t arrive, so we spent a day in Bishkek on the phone with a cou­ple dif­fer­ent air­lines and with the non-Eng­lish-speak­ing lost bag­gage office at the Bishkek air­port. The next day, I tracked the bag down — it had been in Moscow — and we picked it up at the air­port and hit the road, dri­ving six hours to our start near Lake Issyk-Kul. Our dri­ver — a friend of my partner’s col­lege pro­fes­sor from a trip he did to Kyr­gyzs­tan in 2005 — left us in a pull­out on the side of a dirt road in the dark, leav­ing us hop­ing that we had every­thing we need­ed. And that it would all fit on our bikes the next morning.

Riding in the mountains
It’s hard not to be psy­ched when this is the land­scape out of the gate on day one.
A mountain in Kyrgyzstan
The price of admis­sion for an alpine lake-side camp: a freez­ing cold creek cross­ing and short hike-a-bike up to the road in the morning.
A lake in Kyrgyzstan
That hill in the back­ground was more ride­able than it looked. The next one around the cor­ner was not.
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Sand­stone cliffs tow­er­ing over a fast glacial stream. Not some­thing we get a lot of back in North America!

Thank­ful­ly, in the morn­ing, we man­aged to rig up all our gear on our bikes and began our climb through a stun­ning val­ley sur­round­ed by glacial peaks. It remind­ed me of parts of Switzer­land, but with sand­stone walls tow­er­ing over the glacial streams and yurts instead of farm­hous­es. A cruisy day of get­ting used to our loaded bikes, dodg­ing cows, and cross­ing the occa­sion­al stream led us to a camp on the side of a beau­ti­ful alpine lake at around 10,000’. We live at sea lev­el and Bishkek is only about 2600’, so 10,000’ made for a rough night, espe­cial­ly for Carl, who – in his enthu­si­asm about the Silk Road Moun­tain Race – only brought a half-length sleep­ing pad and a 40F sleep­ing bag.

Con­tin­u­ing up towards Dzhuku pass the next day, rid­ing turned to walk­ing, which in turn dete­ri­o­rat­ed to clum­sy vari­a­tions on push the bike one step up loose rocks, grab both brakes, use the bike to pull your­self up the loose rocks.” Hike-a-bike with loaded rigs at 13,000’ is tough going. At the top of the pass, the road” dis­ap­peared entire­ly and we had a long, off-trail cross­ing on a high plateau, com­plete with riv­er cross­ings (sor­ry bot­tom brack­et!). Not want­i­ng to camp high again, we pushed through to the next pass, putting in a 12 hour day, descend­ing into an incred­i­ble, wide-open, grassy glacial val­ley. Well — it was a 10 hour day until we were stopped by some friend­ly Kyr­gyz folks with a bro­ken down truck pic­nic­ing on the side of the road. Two bot­tles of vod­ka lat­er, we put in anoth­er cou­ple hours of rid­ing, camp­ing at dark. Those two hours might’ve been our fastest mileage of the whole trip.

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Full ser­vice at the guest house” in At-Bashi. The hosts didn’t speak Eng­lish but the fried egg­plant-toma­to sand­wich­es spoke for themselves.
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Carl descends towards the desert. The feel of the coun­try­side changed com­plete­ly as we trav­eled from Naryn to At-Bashi.
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We lost track of how many stream cross­ings there were. What’s real­ly impres­sive, though, are the tiny cars that peo­ple dri­ve through these same crossings!
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My ulte­ri­or motive for the trip — scout­ing the incred­i­ble white­wa­ter of the Tian Shan moun­tains. Carl takes in the Naryn Riv­er at high water; it carves through a canyon rem­i­nis­cent of the big rivers of Idaho.
"Google trans­late wasn’t get­ting us any­where…"

Riv­er cross­ings, riv­er canyons, and rolling green moun­tain­scapes led us down to the desert. We climbed over a dusty grav­el pass and descend­ed into a huge val­ley stud­ded with small agri­cul­tur­al towns, irri­gat­ed with the water of two glacial rivers flow­ing from the tow­er­ing moun­tains on the south side of the val­ley. Hot, tired, and dehy­drat­ed, we found our­selves rid­ing in cir­cles around the town of At-Bashi look­ing for a hotel or guest house. About to give up – Google trans­late wasn’t get­ting us any­where – a cou­ple guys who spoke Eng­lish stopped us on the street and found us a house to stay at that turned out to belong to a cou­ple who were both doc­tors at the local hos­pi­tal. It wasn’t clear if they reg­u­lar­ly oper­at­ed a guest house or not, but it was a sur­re­al expe­ri­ence with great food, eclec­tic home-décor, and a fam­i­ly pho­to album of Sovi­et-era Christ­mases and med school graduations.

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MELS pass, the start of a 5000’ descent into Bae­tov, one of the big­ger towns of the trip.
A sign saying Come in for ice cream dear tourist
It’s a trap!
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The vari­ety of ter­rain on this route is incred­i­ble. Here, Carl is descend­ing from a high ele­va­tion forest­ed pass into desert coun­try that looks like the Amer­i­can southwest.
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This was a sur­pris­ing­ly pleas­ant — albeit long — climb. What a road!

Anoth­er few climbs and descents brought us through the last of the real desert and back into more famil­iar land­scapes. The climb to Song Kol lake trav­els through a forest­ed lime­stone canyon rem­i­nis­cent of north­ern Utah, cul­mi­nat­ing in a series of switch­backs that are to grav­el bik­ing what Italy’s Stelvio Pass is to road bik­ing. From Song Kol, anoth­er 5000’ descent (one of many of that scale) brought us back to a main road where we feast­ed on choco­late wafers and pas­tries filled with pota­to and gar­lic. Every store in Kyr­gyzs­tan has a bulk cook­ie sec­tion. Even the tini­est bode­ga-style shop in the tini­est town. Bulk cookies.

Riding next to the river
Dusty wash­board­ed roads through beau­ti­ful canyons were the theme of the trip for a cou­ple days as we ped­aled up the Kokomeren Riv­er towards our last few passes.
A river
The larg­er towns in Kyr­gyzs­tan are in huge desert val­leys fed by giant glacial rivers from the high peaks. The riv­er cor­ri­dors are oases in an oth­er­wise dry and inhos­pitable landscape.
Kid on a bike
This local cyclist invit­ed us to stay with his fam­i­ly for the night. They fed us an entire goat. The eye­balls are a par­tic­u­lar del­i­ca­cy that they gen­er­ous­ly gave to their guests.
Riding the DV9
Two-track, grass­land, glaciat­ed peaks and storm clouds — pret­ty much sums up our last cou­ple days.

We hung a right up the Kokomeren Riv­er, which we would fol­low for the next 100km or more to its source near Karakol Pass. We dodged storms by wait­ing in yurts and wall tents with friend­ly Kyr­gyz folks feed­ing us tea and kumis – fer­ment­ed mare’s milk. Or at least, Carl was still drink­ing the kumis – I’d giv­en up on it about half way through the trip, my stom­ach bug final­ly over­com­ing my polite­ness. Here, in the upper Kokomeren val­ley, the first rac­ers from the Silk Road Moun­tain Race passed us at 9pm after trav­el­ing an incred­i­ble 90 miles with over 13,000’ of ele­va­tion gain in the first 12 hours of the race.

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About 1000’ into our 10,000′ descent back to Bishkek, the snow cov­er melt­ed off the road and the sun start­ed pok­ing through. It was almost enough to make us for­get about the pre­vi­ous four hours hike-a-bik­ing in a blizzard!

On our last full day, we tack­led the last two moun­tain pass­es, rid­ing past and cheer­ing on all the SRMR rac­ers head­ing the oth­er way, includ­ing a quick road­side Squamish reunion (and com­mis­er­a­tion) with some friends doing the race. Every report I’ve seen from bikepack­ing in this area has shown a snow­storm on Kegety Pass. Our trip was no dif­fer­ent. Blow­ing snow and a hike-a-bike so steep and loose that I had to shoul­der my bike for sig­nif­i­cant sec­tions… all as we approached 13,000’ again. The near­ly 10,000’ descent through beau­ti­ful snow-cov­ered moun­tains, through a band of for­est, and back out into the sun­ny Bishkek val­ley made it all worth it, and after one last night camp­ing in the moun­tains, we cruised dirt canal roads right back into the city.

Kyr­gyzs­tan is a stun­ning coun­try full of var­ied ter­rain rang­ing from glaciat­ed peaks to dense Asian Spruce forests to wide open deserts, with incred­i­bly friend­ly peo­ple and a brand of cen­tral Asian Islam­ic cul­ture we’re not often exposed to in the West. We saw a wide vari­ety of bikes among the SRMR rac­ers, all the way from a tan­dem road bike to a full sus­pen­sion moun­tain bike, but we felt the DV9s were a per­fect tool for the route we did. Light enough to not be cum­ber­some or feel too slow on the road sec­tions, but beefy enough – and with big enough tires – to ride all the descents, and more than that, to actu­al­ly enjoy them!