A Cyclist's Bucket List
Bikepacking in Kyrgyzstan
The word about Kyrgyzstan is finally getting out and rightly so. The so called Switzerland of Central Asia is a remarkable place to ride bikes, but don't expect good cheese and chocolate, rather epic gravel trails, endless hairpins and herds of goats.
This was going to be my third trip bikepacking in Kyrgyzstan and I wondered if I had bitten off more than I could ride for this one; I was planning to bikepack solo, from north to south in the depths of a frozen central Asian winter.
For this trip, I would require the best kit possible; comfortable warm clothing and a reliable bike that’s just as capable on-road as it is off. As for bikepacking bags, they would have to be from Apidura’s expedition series.
I was to ride on a Kinesis Tripster ATR, my titanium adventure bike. I had set it up with 42mm Schwalbe winter tyres and a 1x11 SRAM Force Hydro groupset. For total comfort over the intended long days on the bike, I had to choose my favourite saddle; the Brooks Cambium C13 Carbon. I had worried how the rubber and carbon might stand up to the extreme cold, but I needn't have.
The Journey Begins
After spending 18 hours on planes and in airports, it was a shock to the system to be navigating the busy, grey, icy streets of Bishkek where smog lingered in the air. I hailed a taxi into town, and as the boot bounced up and down on my bike box, my choice of a trusty titanium frameset for the trip was justified.
It was such a huge relief to be here and straight out riding the next morning. I quickly escaped the smoke and steam billowing from the industrial fringe of the city. Soon, I would be in the mountains, tackling 200km on my first day. With one pass completed, the long descent brought home the full impact of windchill, when the air temperature dropped to -20°C. I was already wearing a Gore Wear Windstopper Long Sleeve Jersey and Gore-Tex Active Jacket over my merino thermals, but with temperatures this low, I required a down jacket on top too.
The water bottle in my Apidura Food Pouch was as solid as a rock, even the cheese in my full frame bag had frozen. This was unreal.
Reflecting on the Challenge Ahead
I found a homestay in the town of Kochkor and on reflection, I actually welcomed the harsh reality of the first day. It concentrated my mind on how I was going to survive this trip, especially considering I would be camping over the next couple of nights.
Song Kul is a beautiful alpine lake surrounded by grazing sheep and nomad's yurts. At least, that's what it looks like in summer. So, I was intrigued to find out how it might look in winter.
On the gravel road winding its way up to 3400m, I passed a village where the local old men told me I was crazy; it was impassable. However, I wanted to see for myself because over the years I've learnt that people's perceptions of what is possible can vary. As I rode up the endless washboard gravel trail, the surface alternated between loose stone and deep icy snow, making progress quite slow.
Camping Under the Stars
I finally set up camp just before sunset and began melting everything I needed to eat and drink. I unloaded my tent and warm clothing from the 17-litre Apidura Saddle Bag. The tardis-like Full Frame Pack housed my food, spares, tools and first aid kit and the bar bag had two sleeping bags inside.
As I heated up a hot chocolate the stars began to appear above my frosted one man tent. I sat back in a clichéd but pertinent moment of self-reflection, contemplating our small insignificance. Bikepacking takes me to some amazing places, but maybe best of all it allows me to explore the stars and galaxies.
The gravel road to Song Kul was getting deep in drifted snow and no one had set a track for months. I struggled, pushing onwards until I was forced to dismount and carry my bike through the deep snow. Eventually, sanity prevailed and I turned back. However, my determination and the time I wasted almost got me in serious trouble.
I reached the summit of Dolon Pass at sunset. It was the second time I'd climbed above 3000m on the Tripster that day, but this was different. Gone with the sun was the last scant trace of warmth - the frosty air engulfed my lungs with every breath. As I descended at over 40kph, the windchill would have topped -40°C.
As I entered a deep gorge where the snow lay thick, hidden from the earlier winter sun, the LCD screen on my GPS was visibly freezing. It was just too cold to camp, I had to keep riding. My second GPS told me I was 16km from a village so I pushed on with the SRAM Hydro brakes applied lightly to create a little resistance; I was that desperate for some body warmth.
In a blur, I was inside a strangers house, my beard thick with icicles created by my frozen breath. An old lady handed me a bowl of bubbling cold white liquid. It was Kumiz; Kyrgyzs champagne. Fermented horse milk was not what I wished for at that moment in time, but I was thankful for the kindness and warmth. I would lose only the skin on the ends of my toes. The Gore Wear thermal socks had done their job paired with my Northwave Extreme XC Winter Shoes.
A few days later, I was in the town of At Bashy near the southern border with China. The landscape was wide open steppe, flanked by high impenetrable mountains, all covered in virgin snow. The herds of horses were kicking the snow to expose grass for grazing.
I was headed for Tash Rabat on the silk road. It was an old Caravanserai, an ancient resting stop for traders who journeyed over these tracks for centuries.
What I Came For
I was becoming more and more alone the further I travelled down these roads in the depth of winter. The weather had closed in and a light snow hung on the wind. I finally turned off into the mountains and onto gravel. The beauty of a true adventure bike is how it can handle both road and gravel surfaces seamlessly.
Lurking ahead, steep mountain faces pointed out of the haze of the blizzard. The remnants of a few old tracks created by yak farmers remained. Luckily, the 42mm tyres on my Tripster were still cutting through the snow to provide good grip. Then, after 12km of testing off-road trail riding, I saw what I had come for – the stone dome roof of the vast Tash Rabat. The building was an amazing sight, nestled way out here in the middle of nowhere. I stopped for the night, waiting for the sun to return.