Kyrgyzstan 2021 Part 1
This year, for our two-ish weeks of vacation, Megan wanted very badly to do the Nahanni adventure. Again. And it didn’t happen- again. This is the third time she’s been unable to make it work, due to unforseen circumstances or whatever. This year it was, like last year, COVID stuff. Canada was inaccessible.
So instead, we decided to go to Krygyzstan- this was for a lot of reasons but the two big ones were this film by Kyle Dempster and the Silk Road Mountain Race. Being unable to find a reason not to go, and a million reasons we should, we pulled the trigger on some plane tickets.
We hemmed and hawed for a while about doing the actual race, but decided it wasn’t quite the experience we were looking for, so we opted to do the infamous Tian Shan Traverse instead. We didn’t have 20 days to spare so 12 would have to do. This turned out to be just about our limit for the terrain, which I’ll get into later.
Training, Logistics and Testing
We had about six weeks to figure everything out and get into shape for the ride. That means making sure the bikes were good, we had the right gear, creating bike boxes to transport them across the ocean, etc. We also had to figure out where we were going to leave all of our stuff- we’re nomadic and move locations every six weeks or so. Stashing our cars and all of our earthly posessions while we were away was non-trivial. There was a lot to do. Somehow we postponed most of the major bits until a week or two before. I had parts coming in the day before we were supposed to leave on the plane.
Luckily Megan is great at talking to people and managed to smooth out all sorts of logistics issues- A friend of a friend ours offered to stash our stuff, we hooked up with some Lithuanians via the comments section on bikepacking.com to handle transpotation to the start of the ride and Megan managed to find accomodation for us in all of the necessary places (like Dubai on the way back, super fun 24-hour layeover). I mostly did bike fiddling and mechanical stuff.
We didn’t train especially hard for this, but we probably should have done more. I did some hill repeats and tried to focus on strength for the inevitable hike-a-bike with heavy bikes, and Megan put a lot of pedal time in. Something that I felt helped a lot but was kind of unintended was all of the push-ups, lots of the hiking was upper body heavy and I felt well-prepared.
We didn’t do a whole lot of gear testing either since our setups are mostly dialed, but we did change quite a few things. Megan picked up a quilt and a new inflatable sleeping pad. I got a different sleeping pad, and different bars + grips. Megan got two new amazing bags from Alpine Luddites. In hindsight this was probably all a lot to change right before a long trip without adequate testing. Much of my kit was just based on my Emerald packing list, but the things that changed weren’t insignificant.
I decided to use the only bike I have, a Surly Wednesday and Megan went with her bikepacking rig, a Salsa Woodsmoke (27.5).
After a 15-hour flight to Dubai, and then a 4-hour flight to Bishkek we arrived at 4AM local time. The previously-mentioned Lithuanians we were collaborating with had pointed out Iron Horse Nomads to us as our sort of local goto, and they arranged for someone to pick us up at the airport. It’s always novel to see yours (actually Megan’s) name on a piece of paper among a dozen others held by some random person waiting to pick you up.
After a short shuttle ride into a new city, we picked up fuel and other things we forgot (like the multitool, oops) and assembled bikes. Packing all your food and such into the bikes and seeing how heavy they are is always a no-return moment. We left later that afternoon for the long shuttle ride to our starting point, Kysyl-su on the southeast side of lake Issyk-kul.
The jetlag hit me pretty hard on the way there and I mostly snoozed the whole ride despite the valiant attempts by our new friends to make conversation. We got in around dusk and found the one hotel where we met some latvians who were also there to do the route. They seemed impressed at our desire to do the whole thing in ~11 days instead of the allocated 20.
Something crazy happened, in that someone actually stole Megan’s phone out of the car. She couldn’t find it, and just then some old guy walked in off the street waving her phone around saying (in Kyrgyz) “Is this anyone’s phone?”- we pulled up the CCTV footage and some rando had walked in and taken it right out of the car while we were all standing there distracted, then this other guy got it back somehow. It was a weird start to the night. We were a little more guarded after that.
We passed out after showers and stashing our bikes and a late, simple dinner of rice and eggs. The room + the meal were something like $15.00 USD, I think.
We got up early, setup our bikes and had everything ready to go by 6AM. No breakfast, just some donut holes that Megan had managed to transport mostly un-mangled from the US. One of our friends took some pictures of us as we started off into the chilly morning.
It didn’t take long before we were out of town and climbing up the valley towards Dhzuku pass. Progress was slow, but our bikes were heavy with water and food. It was immediately unreal and magical out there. Lots of yurts, horses, cows, etc. everywhere. Cars passed us occasionally.
We tromped through a few streams, and eventually the trail got steeper and narrower, hemming us into the little valley. The trees eventually disappeared and a few lakes made their appearance. A man with golden teeth driving a Mitsubishi Delica flew by us and camped somewhere up the road before it became more or less impassable.
After a few hours of soul-crushing hike-a-bike at
11,200ft we decided to call it a day. We were tired of
splattering the bikes with cowshit and picked a nice spot next to a
stream before the final hellish push up the pass. We’d done 37 miles and
about 6k feet of climbing- under our goal of 50-a-day but we knew the
first day would be tough.
The jetlag and our lack of acclimatization was also showing, 11k felt very rough. Megan fell asleep at 6:30PM and I not long after.
Oh, and we said “Yarrr!” all day- or at least I did.
We managed to make it up at 6AM despite a rough night of sleep- our new Ultamid is missing a tie-down meaning one side flapped in the wind all night repeatedly slapping Megan. Not great. We were puffy and still kind of tired when we forced ourselves to get out of the tent. We sheltered behind some rocks to get out of the cold while we ate breakfast and packed up.
It was immediately hike-a-bike straight up. Dhzuku pass is pretty high up, something like 12k feet and it took a while to push our bikes up the loose, babyhead-sized gravel path to the top. We stopped a lot to catch our breath.
Eventually, we made it to the top and could start riding. Sort of. It was slow going along the “flat” section after the pass, something the map called an “Alpine Cold Desert”, which I felt was apt- just grass everywhere, game trails, and mud. It was marshy, and felt like we were in a big bowl surrouned by glaciers and peaks. Very pretty.
After getting lost a little, a few stream crossings, riding on grass and dry mud and every other surface you can imagine, we made it to an actual road and moved quickly. Well, as quick as you can with fully loaded bikes at 12,000 feet, anyway.
After more arduous, slow riding up dirt roads we came to Arabel pass, which was just breath-taking. It felt good to get away from the altitude headaches, and even better to move really fast. The downhill eventually gave way to flat, and some rain, and I forced us to keep going for a while despite the thunder and sideways droplets.
We pitched the tent after the rain ended in a small, semi-sheltered ravine near some interesting rock conglomerations.
Somehow my shoes dried overnight- I think it was that windy. I think I’d slept well but I don’t remember. It took us a couple hours to eat breakfast and pack, by which time a boy had come over on a horse and invited us over for tea. He was only 14, but would be very happy if we’d come by. He watched while we packed up everything and got ready to go. Along the way we met his horse (“Toro”, with a small star shaved in his side) and saw their captive fish- caught in the river and placed in a small, dammed stream near the house. Presumably to fatten up and eat later.
Turns out “tea” meant “breakfast” and by the time we arrived, there was a whole spread of foodstuffs on the table- lots of dairy, some apricot preserves, and bread. I couldn’t really identify all of the dairy but it was great. We hung out and tried to chat around the language barrier, which was great fun.
Later, Megan got to milk a cow and they showed us how they rendered the milk into various things- cheese, cream, curds, etc. They gave us both some Kumis, fermented horsemilk, and I ended up drinking Megan’s portion. It was fun to start the day buzzed on a weird, musky drink. It definitely made for light riding.
We said our goodbyes after a couple of hours and threats to make sure I was married to Megan, and we were off.
From what I remember, we were mostly on chunky double-track until we got closer to a main-ish road, and I spent a long time looking at the river. The day went from a semi-overcast to nice and sunny pretty quickly. For some reason I refused to air down and just rattled myself all the way to the beautiful river from above. It was mostly pleasant riding for a while and we saw a couple of adventure-y looking motorcyclists heading up to where we had just came from.
Towards the end of the day, as we headed up into a small set of double-passes, it started to rain (and thunder). I felt okay and kind of egged us on, but Megan was feeling apprehensive. It was very beautiful where we ended up, but the rain hit us pretty hard and it was a bit miserable. Everything got wet and we were both a little frozen. Our bikes ended up covered in mud.
There was some hike-a-bike, too. The descent was amazing though. Everything kind of dried out and we were in some on-again/off-again sunshine. We put in a few more miles on the highway and ended at probably the best campsite of the trip, right on the river in a beautiful valley.
Our slowest day to get out of camp, we spent a bunch of time waiting for the sun and drying out some of our gear. Luckily both happened. It was a really nice morning, but it took us almost three hours to get up and away.
We followed rolling hills in the sun along an increasingly closed-in gorge- definitely some Class IV/V sections in there. It’d be a fun descent I think, if your skills were up to snuff. I’d like to come back here for sure.
Once we made it out of the valley, it was onto large, expansive grassland and less fun riding. Mostly just dusty, forever-flat roads where we were repeatedly blasted by the trucks going by. Not quite as engaging. We made it all the way to Naryn in the early afternoon where we resupplied and had a real meal. I even had cell service, though I didn’t really want it.
We left later and immediately put on to some pavement up a pretty steep, long climb on the side of the highway. We were on roads for a little while after this so time flew by, and then we had the best descent, during golden hour, ever.
We rolled forever downhill, on really smooth roads. It was nice after the long slog earlier. This eventually gave way into us losing the trail and mucking around until dark, but it was good while it lasted.
We blindly trusted another little campspot on GaiaGPS since it’d found us our beautiful river one, but this turned out to be nothing- we used it anyway. Right on the side of the road. Kind of noisy all night but we were so tired we didn’t care. We’d put in 63 miles and it felt good to be above our needed daily average for once.
Below is the previous page from when we were planning.
We’ve got two weeks off this August and the planning has dwindled down to one thing: Kyrgyzstan bikepacking. This is my personal planning document.
- Surly Wednesday
- 3.8” Tires
- Full Tubeless
* Straighten out Chainring * Get new chain * x Redo tires * x Check solar panels for charging * Find bike box to get bike to K * Call local shops?
* New Chain * Spare links (powerlinks or whatever) * Moloko/H Bars or something * New Bike Shoes * x Gas tank bag * Replacement debit card? * x Find in PDX
* Clothes * Helmet * Sunglasses * Warm gloves * 2x Bibs * 2x Jerseys * Rainjacket * Rainpants? * Socks * Puffy * Sleep System * Drybag frontroll? * Bags * Framebag * Snack Bag * Gas tank bag * Seat bag * Misc. * Zip-ties
* Logistics: * How do we transport the bikes? * Tent or Bivvy? * Tent. * Do I want to bring the fatbike? * Yes.