Sleeping Beauties: Bikepacking in Kyrgyzstan

The Vitals

Dates: August 30, 2018 – September 7, 2018

Location: Naryn, Kyrgyzstan to Osh, Kyrgyzstan

Distance: ~316 km cycled

Partners: Brittany

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.

The Trip

A good one word synopsis of our last week of riding is “discouraging”. After the stomach issues that plagued me in the first section of the Tian Shan Traverse, it was good to leave Naryn feeling strong and we put in a solid day’s ride to At-Bashy. This included a small mountain pass gained on asphalt out of Naryn and then a longer gentle descent on an old road before joining some washboard and dust for the final drop into the town. This was, by all measures, a successful day. We had done the 60 km we had set out to do, we were setting up the tent at 4:30 (so time to relax and cook in daylight), and we felt healthy.

Bottle of Jarma to go from this family in At-Bashy

The next morning we continued to ride west towards the 15th century caravanserai of Tash Rabat. The first 30 km were spent on more washboard and dust which is the first contributor to the “discouraging” charge I’ve levelled against the week. I think we kept a generally positive attitude but it honestly just isn’t that much fun to have your eyes glued to the road trying to lessen the vibration of the washboard and, when cars pass, you get a healthy shower of dust over your body and into your nose and lungs (just check my tissues for proof).

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Instead of going to Tash Rabat proper, we decided to do some cross-plain exploring away from the washboard road. This was a successful venture made with a strong tailwind. With our shortcut, it looked that we would be at a river to camp at right around the 60 km mark on the day. Leading up to the expected campsite, we climbed a few hundred meters on a decent road and then contoured to… a dried up gulley. So now a decision – continue in hopes of finding a stream somewhere (nothing marked on the map for about 20 km) or give back the elevation we just gained all the way to the last river about 5 km back?

Top of the hike-a-bike

We decided to continue, as you knew we would, and encountered another hike-a-bike section. The double-track disappeared to be replaced by an animal trail that was so deeply rutted that our pedals would hit the edges if we tried to ride. Out of the rut, the ground was much too bouncy to ride comfortably so we got off the bikes and pushed for a couple of kilometers to the top of another pass. From the top we could sight a trickle of water below so at least we didn’t have to put in an 80 km day. While setting up camp at the stream, we found a horse carcass polluting it so Brittany filtered a little upstream.

Late in the day

We ate dinner around 9:00, which was followed by the onset of a fever and utter exhaustion for me. Brittany got up sometime around 7:00 a.m. as per usual but when I tried to stand I was brought to me knees by a wave of nausea. In the end I spent another 4 hours in the tent drifting in and out of sleep. At 11:00 I was just well enough to pack up.

Feeling sick on the bike

With all the elevation gained the prior day, we were able to coast 95% of the 13 km we rode that day but my body just couldn’t find the energy to pedal so when we reached the river and a local family told us there would be no more water until after another 600 meter climb, we thought we would just pitch a tent. The family wouldn’t hear of it, insisting that we sleep in their two-room house. I was fading quickly so accepted the blanket they rolled out for me in the sleeping room and was unconscious again by 1:30 p.m. I’m not sure what Brittany did all afternoon but every couple of hours I would try to stand up but I’d always be back in bed asleep within a few minutes.

For dinner we were offered macaroni with what we’re pretty sure was horse vertebra with bits of meat. This was not recovery food for me so I picked at dinner while wondering how to be a good houseguest. Brittany gave it a go but I don’t think it’s a recipe we’ll be making for friends at home.

The little girl of the family
The little boy

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After sleeping all day I wondered if I would be able to sleep at night but the fever ebbed in the evening and I easily put in another 10 hours, this time joined by Brittany and the entire family.

Thus ends my tail of woe but Brittany was able to pick up where I left off. In the morning we gently made the climb to the next mountain pass, trying not to over do it for my sake, and then had a gorgeous 1500 meter descent to the town of Baetov.

Looking down to the road 1500 meters below

We rolled into town at 12:30 ready to rent a room, shower, and recover some more. As soon as we stopped, Brittany panics. “Where’s my phone!?”. She dug through her bags and coat but couldn’t come up with it. It’s the primary device we navigate with (my GPS is just used for tracking). She decided almost immediately it was worth it to backtrack for at least a few kilometers in case it was nearby. After an hour and a half, which I spent reading in a parking lot following the shade, she returned hotter and dustier than ever but just as empty-handed.

We found a place to stay but a room wouldn’t be ready for us for at least an hour so I decided to try my luck on another phone search. In our conversation after Brittany’s fruitless search, we recalled the last place she used it which was about 8 km back up the road. I had also spent the majority of the time behind Brittany so there was only a small section where I thought it could have fallen out unnoticed.

I cycled back the 8 km keeping my eye on the ditch but didn’t see anything. I dug around in the bushes at the turnaround but still was skunked so I remounted and started riding the opposite side of the road, eyes still glued to the ditch. After one or two kilometers (and some false positives – cigarette packages are square and shiny like phones) I found the case. Partial success! I got off my bike and dug in the bushes and looked on the road. After a few minutes I found the phone but sometime in the past few hours a couple of car tires had also found it. The screen phone was smashed and a feeble light would flicker when you tried to turn it on. I brought it back in case we could recover the data with our computer (we couldn’t) and Brittany was happy to at least know where it was. All in all, a frustrating and unrestful “short” day of biking.

We’re not sure if these are old houses or for the deceased but there are groups of them all over the place

In the morning we did manage to start off on another very successful day of biking. Good pavement and a lot of descent gave us 40 km easily before we put in 20 km of work back on the dusty washboard starting the climb towards one of Kyrgyzstan’s most famous sections of road and Song Kol Lake. We found a luxurious flat patch of grass under a rare stand of trees next to a crystal clear and fast-flowing brook of cold water. Paradise after our trials and tribulations. We definitely felt back on track.

Starting up to Song Kol Lake

We had already decided to quit the Tian Shan Traverse once we reached Song Kol and find our way to the city of Osh in the southwest instead of continuing to Bishkek in the north. We packed up in the morning expecting to return on the same road the next day but instead, Brittany was already on her way back down after one. A slow 6 km ended in nausea and dry-heaving for her and it was clear no famous switchbacks would be climbed so she coasted back to our paradise campsite for another night. Rather than return with her right away, I stashed my luggage in the bushes and climbed the switchbacks for the views and the photo-op but stopped short of the lake itself before returning to Brittany.

The famous road

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Our last day in the saddle was a 20 km downhill coast on the washboard back to the highway at Ak-Tal, accompanied by a defeated feeling. Too much illness and too much poor-quality road had left us with that discouraged feeling that is only waning now on our fourth rest day. We made it to Osh through a combination of hitchhiking and taxis over the course of three days.

Our first hitchhike in a truck. The driver subsists on Coke and cigarettes.

Osh had become our destination due to the volume of people, tourists and Kyrgyz alike, who told us it was more worthy of a visit than Bishkek. We haven’t been to the capital, but Osh is a vibrant city with an embarrassment of riches for the malnourished traveller. We’ve spent our time eating and walking the shady streets and lounging on the tapchans in the garden of our guesthouse. We’ve gained full bellies which no longer seem intent on expelling everything we put in them, and also a rekindled sense of excitement for cycling. Our next section is the Bartang Valley in Tajikistan starting Tuesday, assuming our visas are approved on Monday.

Pony Ride!

Despite the waves of illness and the broken phone, which are just bad luck, our three weeks in Kyrgyzstan have validated every report out there about the hospitality you experience in this country. Children still run from the fields or their yards to shout, “Hello!” and “What’s your name?” and adults still constantly ask us where we’re from and offer chai, fruit, or rides down the road. We still lean our bikes outside of cafes in small towns and leave them out of sight. I’m not even sure I know where the key to our lock is since we’ve never used it. When we leave Kyrgyzstan in a few days it feels like we’re unlikely to return, but the positive vibe of the country has always shone through and at times even been overwhelming.

Hanging out at our nice campsite attracted the locals.

GPS Tracks

Day 1

Day 2

Day 3

Day 4

Day 5

Day 6

Day 7