"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 Bikepacking.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.
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.
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.
"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.
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.
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.
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!