Let’s go Hike-a-Bike, up to the Highest Height: Bikepacking the Tian Shan of Kyrgyzstan
Dates: August 22, 2018 – August 27, 2018
Location: Karakol, Kyrgyzstan to Naryn, Kyrgyzstan
Distance: ~325 km
Activities: Cycle touring/bikepacking
Resources: Tian Shan Traverse
Photos by Brittany
Downloadable GPS tracks and interactive maps for each day are at the bottom of the post.
Sidenote on the Kyrgyz flag
We just realized when we were in a museum the other day that the symbol in the center of the flag of Kyrgyzstan is a “tunduk” – the roof of a yurt.
There’s a sampling bias in vacation photos, and we’re guilty of it too, which means you won’t see photos of the hail that pelted our faces or the wind that threatened to stop us in our tracks. This section was hard and underestimated by a number of people in the past week as we cycled in the opposite direction of the first Silk Road Mountain Race. From the link you can see that 93 racers started and only 36 are still active. Of those 36, some are clearly too far back to finish by the September 1st cutoff. As we overlapped with the race for all 325 km, we met and talked to about 20 – 25 racers and shared information about the road ahead.
It didn’t start out tough. Brittany and I packed up in Karakol on a sunny day and bought some of the best bread yet (doughy, chewy, oniony) and quickly made it 40 km down the highway to the accompanying noise of lumbering trucks, tiny cars being pushed to the limits, and the aroma of incomplete combustion products.
Soon enough we got on an unpaved road and started to climb into the mountains. About 20 km into the unpaved section, my body decided to start shedding weight through my intestines. This would continue for day and a half and slowed our progress as well as destroyed my confidence in my command of bodily functions.
On the second day, we had one small river crossing before starting to push our bikes from about 2900 m to 3650 m. At first, the road quality was good, just a little steep for our gearing. Once past the second lake (the first the colour of turquoise, the second a bit opaque), the grade steepened and the road changed to loosely consolidated rocks and scree. We camped after only 30 km and tackled the remaining push in the morning. As we went to sleep, our tent briefly lit up as the leader of the race ran his bike down the hill. I just had time to get out one cheer from my sleeping bag before his light was out of sight.
The next morning we crested the pass to meet 2nd and 3rd place in a foul mood after a couple of river crossings had left them wet for the prior night in the subzero nighttime temperatures. They talked about quitting once they got out to the next road but both have since finished so some food and warmth probably went a long way towards restoring their resolve.
We pushed our bikes for much of the next 10 km as the bumpy bog land was uncomfortable to ride (and slow, to boot) and saw 4th and 5th place in the distance but we were a bit off track and didn’t speak to them. As we neared the river crossings (warned they were waist-deep), dark clouds rolled in and a hail storm started. This bit of moisture combined with the surface clay quickly packed our tires and drivetrains with mud and forced us to walk again. We completed the crossings in the waning storm but were able to find knee-deep crossings in both cases. As we finished the second, blue skies returned and gave us a reprieve.
It was around 4:15 and we had only gone about 20 km but in the next 3 hours we were able to get in another 35 km despite battling bouts of rain, ferocious winds, and numerous tributary crossings too deep to ride but in conditions unsuited to stripping down and wading. Instead, we would walk up river until the tributaries were braided enough to jump from rock to rock.
The evening cleared up long enough to set up camp but the rain returned in the night and there was a sharp snowline visible on the surrounding mountains in the morning. This was repeated over the next few days – nighttime rain, daytime clear.
On the fourth day we expected to enjoy a gentle descent but headwinds negated the elevation loss. We saw a herd of yaks for the first time and a fox sprinting between them. Soon after the yaks, we were hailed by an old man at a house (unusual, most dwellings at this elevation are “portable” yurts). We accepted the offer of tea because we had purposefully underpacked on food with the intention of buying bread from locals. In addition to the tea, chips, and bread, the man (grandfather), daughter (in-law?) and grandson also showed us photos taken in the winter of Marco Polo sheep and snow leopards. Of the few hundred snow leopards estimated to live in Kyrgyzstan, he had managed to capture three in one shot! Regrettably, we did not get a copy of the photo.
Days 5 and 6 rounded out the section with less adversity. We were better able to take advantage of the descents and the continuing drop in elevation brought the return of summer weather. On one morning, after waiting out a brief spell of rain, a man on horseback rode across the field to offer us Kymyz – fermented mare’s milk. It tasted like an alcoholic yogurt; very thin and maybe a bit fizzy. We also got to descend through a tree-filled canyon for 20 km, crossing the river numerous times on progressively more substantial bridges. This was the highlight of biking in both Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan for me.
Our last night we camped at the confluence of two rivers – one muddy, the other extremely muddy. We bathed in the less muddy one (and drank its silty water) and were grateful to accept an offer for dinner from a Swiss couple who were “overlanding” (doing a driving tour on rough 4×4 roads). Since we had not planned on taking six days, we had little left in the way of food. A problem they did not share as they cooked us pasta with a ratatouille, fried potatoes and salami, and vodka. It was much better than the meal we planned to scrape together with the last bits of potato flakes and rice that we possessed.
Now in Naryn we are taking some downtime. As I write this, Brittany is eating pizza at the locally famous “Nomad Cafe” (Lots of the racers told us about it) while I am chained to the guesthouse by another bout of indigestion. I tried to join, but after one block my body decided it was for the best if I went back, lay down, and sipped some water (hopefully untainted). If nothing else, this section of the trip has been a great weight-loss strategy as I am feeling particularly gaunt. Brittany has fared a bit better and still has a healthy glow.
Next is travelling towards Song Kul (a famous alpine lake) and then likely leaving the Tian Shan Traverse route to head to the city of Osh instead of Bishkek. However, our plans are constantly in flux.