Tian Shan Traverse, Kyrgyzstan

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Joe Cruz - Pedaling in Place

Joe Cruz

Pedaling in Place
Kyrgyzstan soars to every superlative and defies you to invent new ones. It’s beautiful, culturally compelling, and physically challenging: Grass carpet single and double track for days through rolling river valleys between 5,000 meter snow covered peaks, delirious mountain passes with the clack and rattle of scree under tires, and friendly and outgoing nomadic horsemen herding sheep and cattle. This central asian country will race your heart and is a dreamscape for adventurous cyclists.
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We’ve camped at the edge of a small village and a young sheep herder has come out to greet us. With us lacking Kyrgyz or Russian we communicate through pantomime. He has an idea. His cousin lives in the USA, so he calls her on his mobile so that she can translate. Nuri is stunned that we’re in her mother’s childhood hamlet and talking to Tamerlan. The cousins want to know why we chose Kyrgyzstan for cycle touring. For us, the question hardly makes sense anymore. We’ve been here for two and half weeks and the rumors of Kyrgyzstan’s sublime beauty and of the outgoing friendliness of the people have been confirmed tenfold.

Photos by Joel Caldwell, Joe Cruz, Logan Watts, and Lucas Winzenburg

Kyrgyzstan is in the cloud scraping peaks of the Tian Shan—in Chinese it’s the range of the ”heavenly mountain” that meets up with the Pamirs and Altai. The country is glaciers and crystal blue sunshine and mirror lakes, long lonely valleys with low grass like a golf fairway. It’s nomads who have moved their herds to high pasture in summer, living with their families in yurts. It’s breathless four thousand meter passes, scree slopes and lumpy marshland plateaus requiring river crossings. It’s roaming curious horses and the smell of sage at every star domed wild campsite. And it’s blocky central asian urban areas with Soviet era monuments and facades.

This nearly one thousand kilometer route follows a curve from the far east of the country back to Bishkek, the modest capital. It’s different from more familiar Silk Road tours that take in Osh and the Pamir Highway in the southwest, as it’s oriented toward a wilderness experience. On the other hand, this trip is well within reach for an intrepid rider looking to try out a more remote bikepacking tour than usual. Though the terrain can be rough, the cultural and logistical dimensions of travel in Kyrgyzstan are not difficult. To us, the ‘Stans first and most mean hospitality, history, and amazing landscapes. Certainly don’t let the news make you think otherwise.

A substantial mix of riding textures awaits. There are day long climbs up through trees and then above treeline on dirt tracks that get narrower as they get higher. There’s cumulatively a few hours of hike-a-bike. There are dusty wide dirt roads where you’ll pull up your buff to cover your nose and mouth when trucks come by. Much of this trip is doubletrack through grass where a couple of times a day a beat up Russian Lada will come chugging through or a livestock truck struggles along. Sometimes we couldn’t quite find the track, but that was fine: we pedaled over the steppe in the direction that we were seeking. We had three to six day spans between towns, so there was a sense of remoteness but not a complete lack of infrastructure. Almost every day we encountered Kyrgyz on horseback eager to come over and shake hands and acknowledge our visit, even if we could rarely communicate anything more ambitious than our joy and appreciation.

Between us we’ve been to many corners of the globe, but by early on in our trip to Kyrgyzstan, we were ready to declare its landscapes as transcendent as any we’ve seen.

  • Distance

    613 Mi.

    (987 KM)
  • Days

    20

  • % Unpaved

    95%

  • % Singletrack

    5%

  • Difficulty (1-10)

    7.5

  • % Rideable (time)

    98%

  • Total Ascent

    49,000'

    (14,935 M)
  • High Point

    12,600'

    (3,840 M)
  • Highlights
  • Must Know
  • Camping
  • Food/H2O
  • Some of the most sublime landscapes we’ve ever ridden.
  • Friendly, outgoing locals who may invite you into their yurts for chai, kumys (fermented mare’s milk), or vodka.
  • Wild and remote steppes.
  • Curious and confident herds of horses visiting camp.
  • The descent toward Beatov—starting around mile 285/kilometer 459—affords views that somehow exceed the already stratospheric standard set by the rest of the country.
  • Song-Köl Lake (well-loved by Kyrgyz tourists and therefore with no shortage of trash and signs of overuse, but still spectacular).
  • Kok-Boru, games where horse riders compete to drag a goat carcass to the opposing team’s endzone.
  • Fly in and out of the capital, Bishkek.
  • When to go: Due to a lot of snowfall at higher elevations, July to September is the best time to ride this route.
  • Changing money is easy at the numerous small money changing storefronts in Bishkek. Rates are published on the outside and are fair. You get a slightly better exchange rate with big bills—US$50’s and US$100’s. Money can also be changed in Naryn and Baetov. Don’t expect to anywhere else on this route, however.
  • In Bishkek, Naryn, and Baetov we had no trouble finding English speakers. English was very rare elsewhere.
  • We hired a sprinter van and driver to take us to the start of the route in Kyzyl-Suu. Making this arrangement wasn’t complicated: we went to the main bus/taxi stand in Bishkek, found an english speaking driver, and relied on his help in asking around until we found transportation. It cost approximately US$150 total for the four of us with our bicycles and gear. Obviously, one could ride from Bishkek to Kyzyl-Suu, and there is likely to be an interesting route north of enormous Lake Issyk-Kul. This would add 3-5 days to the trip.
  • Kyrgyzstan is mountain country (think Colorado or Switzerland). Come prepared with appropriate clothing and kit. It can snow at elevation in midsummer while the valley bottoms will have you sweating in shorts and t-shirt.
  • There will be river crossings, so have a plan. E.g., bring a pair of sandals to change into or a pair of gore-tex socks to wear.
  • We did this trip on three fat and one plus bike. They were ideal for the diverse and sometimes broken demanding terrain we encountered. At least one day is through rolling marshland with no regular track. Experienced riders with a good attitude could do this route on standard 2.2 inch wide mountain bike tires, especially with front suspension. There are numerous sections, however, where a traditional touring pannier setup with 1.7 tires on a drop bar bike would likely be overwhelmed or at least not much fun.
  • The route includes an out-and-back spur to Tash Rabat, a 15th century silk road caravanserai and a well known tourist destination. We found the ruins there underwhelming and can’t recommend it. Still, it is an historically important area and the restored structure does give a sense of a romantic past. There are a few tourist yurt camps on the Tash Rabat road where an excellent inexpensive meal can be purchased.
  • With its wide open spaces and traditional nomadic culture, wild camping in Kyrgyzstan is not only a cinch, it would be madness to spend the night in any other way. Our biggest camping challenge was deciding between merely gorgeous versus unspeakably astonishing campsites.
  • Naryn has reasonably budget friendly lodging options including homestays and hotels. Stop in at the tourist office straightaway to avoid riding around town to check vacancies.
  • Bishkek has a wide range of lodging, from US$10/night hostels to expensive western chain luxury hotels.
  • It is crucial to ride a setup that can carry at least five days of food, preferably extendable to six or seven. The first 170 miles has no resupply opportunities. Riding fast could cover this distance, of course, in fewer than the five and a half days it took us, but we think that would be missing the beauty of the place.
  • Do initial shopping in Bishkek; Kyzyl-Suu has no grocery store to speak of.
  • Naryn has large grocery stores and a lively outdoor market.
  • After Naryn, resupply opportunities are more frequent but still sometimes several days apart. Reliable groceries and restaurants can be found in At-Bashy and Baetov. There is a small store in  a tent on the south shore of Song-Köl, but it is seasonal and the stock is highly contingent on when the merchant last drove to the market. There are more permanent small stores at Kojomkul and Djong-Alysh (the route includes an out-and-back detour to the latter). Selection at the small stores is very limited and will require that you get creative with your meals. #ramencircus.
  • Herdswomen will sell delicious loaves of bread that they’ve baked in their yurt, but some won’t be able to help seeing it as an opportunity for a ludicrous markup.
  • Water is widely available in streams, rivers, and lakes, but should be purified. We each had a carry capacity of 3-5 liters and that was plenty sufficient for getting us between sources.
  • At the end of your ride, be sure to visit Sierra Coffee in Bishkek. The great staff and friendly expat owner serve beer, real coffee, and excellent food.

Additional Resources

  • Kurt Schneider

    That’s a beautiful trip. Well done.

  • Joe Cruz

    Appreciate the kind words, Kurt.

  • Martin Kasemsan

    Breathtaking pictures, thank you for sharing!

  • Kel

    Amazing. This country is number 1 for me to visit and bike pack. Thanks for sharing.

  • pipistrellus

    Hi Guys! May it be that I met you at the CBT office in Naryn? It must have been about August 20th. I started in Bishek and proceeded to Karakol via the Kemin valley. From there on our paths were more or less the same :-)

  • Joe Cruz

    Hey Pipistrellus, thanks for writing. I don’t recall us meeting any cyclists in Naryn—though we briefly hung out with a fun trio of Poles right before we arrived there. We were there on August 7th or so, and by August 20th we were a day away from returning to Bishkek. I regret that we missed you! Incredible place, no?

    Joe

  • charlesbinns

    Hi. A fascinating write up of an amazing trip. I am hoping to visit Kyrgyzstan next year and found your article very useful. How did you research the route from your trip – did you use maps or are there other resources available with possible routes? Also what sort of mileage were you doing per day – I ‘d like to get an idea of what is feasible given a likely fairly limited timeframe.

  • http://www.bikepacking.com/ BIKEPACKING.com (Logan)

    Here’s our guide to route planning: http://www.bikepacking.com/plan/route-planning-guide/ … that’s a good place to start; particularly satellite imagery and various mapping layers.

  • Joe Cruz

    Hi Charles, thanks for your nice words. I can say a bit about my procedure for creating this route.

    First I put together in one place (like in a single google doc) links to web resources including blog entries, youtube videos, and info from tour guides. These came from multiple search terms including biking, trekking, horseback riding and motorcycling. Looking through these gave me a sense of the terrain in various parts of the country and offered a strong sense of how much ground I thought we could cover in a day. (In the end we aimed for around 45 miles/73k per day.)

    Secondly, I put my hands on a paper map—I ordered the GIZI one—just to get a big picture and to have something material to place markers on and in general to visualize a route without getting disoriented in the micro details. By then I knew that we wanted to visit the more rugged eastern part of the country near Karakol. The paper map had a lot of tracks that we ended up taking marked on it, so I could sketch out a plan under the assumption that the route would be Karakol to Bishkek (ultimately we didn’t start in Karakol because the road from there to Kyzyl-Suu where we’d start ascending into the mountains didn’t seem that interesting). At this point I was simply literally making pencil marks on the map.

    I then translated that sketch to a plotted route in ridewithgps, which often meant I had to make even more specific choices about particular tracks than were represented on the paper map. This involved switching between the various background map options including the satellite view. I then kept expanding the route until it was a length that would fill the number of days we had given my assumptions about how far we’d travel in a day. That expansion was guided by the landmarks and places (e.g., Song-Kol lake) that I knew we had to hit that I’d gleaned from the web sources.

    And then the final step in fine tuning the route came from exporting it to Google Earth and looking at maximum zoom at every kilometer of it to see if I thought that it could be done on fat bike. Some tracks are more trekking and horse oriented, and usually you can tell that from Google Earth. I find especially useful the user-uploaded photographs that are tied to their location on the map. Clicking on those would give me a ground level view of the textures of the track and usually that was sufficient to tell me what I needed to know. Zooming in on villages and counting the number of buildings and streets would also usually tell me whether we could expect there to be stores there for resupply. This phase generated notes on particular things that I wanted to keep track of, like stuff that would be navigationally confusing.

    There’s the summary of it. It took a few months working sporadically.

    Hope that’s helpful,
    Joe

  • pipistrellus

    Hi Charles – For this region, the old sovjet maps may be of good help, even they are at bit outdated. There is a nice android app (from ATLOGIS Geoinformatics) which, at least in the commercial version, allows to cache the maps on your device, so you don’t need any data connection out in the field. I can highly recommend this.

  • pipistrellus

    Hi Joe. Thanks for the clarification. What a coincidence – there were three or four guys with fat bikes, at least one of them with a carbon frame :-) And yes, this is a VERY incredible place! My next trip is in preparation already ….

  • Joe Cruz

    Yes, wow, a coincidence indeed! By the way, I’d love to hear more about the Kemin valley leg of the trip. Time constraints prevented us from doing our route as a proper loop, but it sounds like you’ve scouted just the section one would need. Might you have any info to share?

    Joe

  • charlesbinns

    Joe & Pipistrellus that’s very helpful, thank you. I am waiting for my GIZI map to arrive on Monday and will start planning then. I am also finding that looking at the routes offered by commercial companies leading tours in Kyrgyzstan is providing useful pointers as to where to visit etc (I plan to tour independently). Half the fun and most of the headaches are in the planning as they say so I am looking forward to getting stuck in over the coming months.

    Thanks again for your advice and great photos by the way.

  • pipistrellus

    Hi Joe. Thanks for the interest. The Kemin valley is really nice, I left it via the Kök-Arik pass (3889 m.a.s.l.). This one is, in general, quite similar to the Kegeti, but much more eroded and less ridable, as it hat not been maintained for a longer time. There should also to be an option the proceed further on to the end of the valley and to leave it via the Ak-suu pass (4052 m.a.s.l). As far as I know, the Ak-suu includes a traverse on a glacier and is even less ridable. The last part, along the Isik-Köl lake, is well paved (at least to Kyrgyszian standards :-) ) and should not take to much time to pass.

    https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/c34ee7fcfd58e44991efaab27c1b57686aa89795e8d92092958f279b8ebaf32e.jpg : Kök Arik as seen from the Kemin Valley

  • Galya Yurasova

    My lovely Tyan-Shan mountains. I was there with bicycle in 2012. The best place for riding

  • Galya Yurasova
  • Joe Cruz

    Great photos, Galya, thanks very much for sharing them!

  • Lieven Loots

    I would be interested in knowing your camera carrying set up while on the bike. Do you use some kind of holster or just dangle it by its strap? Does it move around lot while cycling?

  • Joe Cruz

    Hi Lieven,

    Well, I think there were several different ways of carrying our camera gear, as we were running different sorts of setup and the carry method changed depending on conditions. Speaking for myself, I shoot with a micro 4/3 camera that is small enough to fit in the Revelate Periphery front pocket. I’d just take it out to snap photos; it has a short hand strap for security while moving, but nothing more.

    Joel and Logan had full frame Canon 5D setups with pro lenses. I think they both often carried the camera clipped to Peak Design Capture Clips attached to the left shoulder strap of their backpacks. (You get a clear view of this in the third black and white photo, which is of Joel.) In foul weather they’d move the camera inside the backpack. Maybe Logan can comment on how much that method has the camera moving around while pedaling.

    I can’t remember how Lucas carried his lovely Leica (the b&w photos are his). Perhaps exclusively in his backpack.

    Joe

  • Lieven Loots

    I am carrying an old GF1 hanging by its strap around my neck, which is then kept close to my upper body by closing my backpack buckle over the camera strap. It works really well for keeping the camera from swaying when cycling, but even if it is a small camera it still starts hurting my neck after a while. Also having the strap around my neck for quick shots I can’t get the camera far enough from my body to have a good look at the rear screen for framing shots so it is often a hit-and-miss afair (luckily more hit than miss). I am now researching the use of an (equally old) GH1 during mtbing, and will need to figure out an alternative set up, as I can’t immagine having that hanging around my neck for a whole day (and to think I used to carry a Nikon D300 and 18-50 mm f2.8 – but then I was still young). I noticed the Capure Clip in the photos and will have a closer look into these, as well as possibly a small handle bar bag/accessory pack. Thanks!

  • Stijn Christiaens

    Great tip!! Planning to do same or similar coming summer. Looking for a partner in crime…. Anyone?

  • Stephane Bertox

    Hi, I greatly appreciate your photo trip report.
    How do you do to hold your camera on the shoulder strap of your backpack.? This will merit a full article of carrying techniques for SLR cameras during a bikepacking trip.

  • Joe Cruz

    Hi Stephane. Both Joel and Logan are using Peak Design Capture camera clips to secure their cameras. The clips work extremely well.

  • Stephane Bertox

    thanks

  • Kevin Machtelinckx

    Amazing photos and route. What were you using for purifying water? Tablets or physical filtration (pump-type)?

  • J Lit

    A friend and myself have just booked flights and will be trying to ride as much of this route as possible. We only have 15-16 riding days, given the shorter time frame we will have to lop off a bit at the front or near the end (or a combination). Do you have any recommendations on which parts to sacrifice? We’re not worried about altitude or acclimation as we will be coming from a reasonable altitude to begin with.
    Also you mentioned in one of your posts that you targeted ~70kms per day. How realistic was that and how long were your days. We were thinking about a similar distance and hoping to keep the riding to 8-9hrs/day.

  • Joe Cruz

    Hey J, sorry for the delay in replying, Logan and I were on a trip!

    I’m psyched that you’re doing this route. It’s unrelentingly beautiful and you’re going to have a terrific time. I think there’s no question that you can fit some slight variation of it into your timeframe. Our 20 days ended up with leisurely pedaling at the end when we realized we were ahead of our schedule. The key is to not get demoralized at a lack of progress on the first six days; they’re the hardest, and if you mistakenly use them as a reference, you’ll feel like you’re behind the 8 ball when you’re not. (It might also be worth repeating here that those first days, from the start to Naryn, have NO resupply. Be able to carry all your food for however many days, likely 4-6, that it will take you. Water is abundant and never a problem.)

    Let’s suppose you get to Naryn on expedition day 5 or 6. If you have 10 days from there, you’ll have to hustle, but you’re in business. Don’t spend a day in Naryn, just resupply and blow through. You can completely skip the excursion to Tash Rabat (mile 247), it’s not worth it. You can also skip the resupply side trip at mile 518—which you can do if you’ve stocked up in Kojumkul. With those three amendments, you could probably do the whole route in your time frame, depending on how much you want to rally.

    If that still looks tight, the obvious thing is to ride west from Naryn through Dostuk to reconnect to the route. You’d be skipping some long miles of dusty road in the south, so that’s not a loss. But on the other hand you’d miss the very nice portion from the plains up to Baetov. That really is a beautiful bit, so if you could see you way clear to riding hard with the savings indicated above, you should prefer that over the west from Naryn shortcut.

    Finally, your questions: the 70k/day was a struggle for the first five days, and then a cinch afterward. Yes, I suppose we rode 8-9 hours/day, sometimes shorter or longer.

    Hope that helps a bit and keep us posted on your trip!

    Yours,
    Joe

  • Joe Cruz

    Hey Kevin, thanks for the kind words. We mostly used Steripens and had tablets as backup. Maybe Logan was also using a pump type filter. Water was almost never silty or off-tasting.

    Joe

  • Stevan Beer

    Hi, looks super fun! I’m thinking mid August into September of this coming summer. Considering doing a loop into the Almaty region of Kazakhstan to return to Bishkek. Thoughts on that? Did you guys find any white gas in Bishkek, or go with alternative fuels for (I’m guessing) your Whisperlite International? Cheers!

  • http://www.bikepacking.com/ BIKEPACKING.com (Logan)

    Hi Stevan. We didn’t ride any in Almaty, so I can’t answer that. But I can comment on stove fuel. Your best bet is to use a multi fuel stove such as the International. The only sure bet is standard petrol. We did manage to get a couple large butane canisters given to us by some trekkers who were leaving the country when we arrived. So it is possible to procure those in Bishkek, although we didn’t find out the source.

  • BBischof

    Does a rigid plus single-speed sound like an awful idea for this? It seems like the single-speed is the only thing that might be a problem.