A six-hour, $8 cab ride delivers me from the Tajik border to the city of Osh in southern Kyrgyzstan. Recent rainfall has washed out the Pamir Highway in two places and our tiny Honda Fit—sometimes filled with as many as seven people—hardly seems “fit” to navigate the flooded roadway. Osh, known for its ancient bazaar, was a stop along the Silk Road connecting China to the Mediterranean, a degree of history that has my head swimming in attempted comprehension.
Traveling to a region as remote and unknown as Kyrgyzstan (kur-gist-AAN) means that I have much to learn and few expectations. I’ve just completed five days shooting for Panthera, an international conservation NGO working to protect the snow leopard throughout Central Asia. This has served as my crash course on “life in Kyrgyzstan”—providing facts, character of the people and context. Now, I’m en route to the Osh Airport, and a Tez Jet flight to Bishkek. Upon my arrival in the capital city, I’ll rendezvous with three adventure cyclists from the U.S., embarking on a three-week bikepacking trip through the Tian Shan mountains. Proper adventure and an opportunity to apply what I’ve learned. And in doing so, I hope to glimpse the heart of the Kyrgyz people who’ve populated these mountains for the past millennium.
We power up the final climb—Kegety Pass. Then two hours downhill through country that reminds me of Yosemite. A man invites us into his home for chai and hand rolls us a cigarette out of newspaper. God, I love it. We continue on down to Bishkek and I get separated from the group. Two hours riding alone along an aqueduct brings me to the first town of any size in a week. Bishkek?! Nope, I’m still 45 kilometers out! Feeling deflated, I inhale a king-sized Snickers bar and put my head down and pedal. A CLICK-CLICK-CLICK coming from the rear wheel stops me in my tracks and reveals a three-inch nail in the back tire. Logan has the pump and who knows where he is? My dreams of a mighty feast and shower begin to fade. Plucking the nail from the tire, I begin to run with the bike. The hole self-seals. God bless Stan’s!
Everything is soaked. Clay sticks to our tires, forcing riders to dismount and clean their wheels and drivetrains. Slow going. After two hours slogging, I see a faint brightening to the west—light at the end of the tunnel! Descending several switchbacks, I exit the fog bank as dramatically as it overtook us the previous day. What follows is some of the most glorious riding of my life: imperceptibly downhill through waist-deep grass, accompanied by a lovely tailwind and an endlessly setting sun directly ahead.
After three long, hot days of climbing, we top out at our high point just above 13,000 feet. The Tian Shan Mountains near Lake Issy-
Kul are in the running for the most beautiful peaks on Earth. Fifty percent of us have vomited from either altitude sickness or stomach sickness, or a combination of the two. An extensive plateau stretches out in front of us and as we sit for a lunch of tinned sardines in red sauce, an ominously dark storm front sweeps toward us with startling speed. The transition from sweaty hot to freezing cold is unlike anything I’ve ever experienced. Wearing nearly everything I have, I slowly pedal across the grassy plateau into a brutal headwind and pelting rain. We navigate two river crossings before a third, deeper and swifter than the others, brings us to a halt. With the continuing downpour I realize that the water is only becoming more impassable. Two per bike, so as not to lose them in the torrent of rushing water, we double up on the bikes and wrestle them across. Soaked and exhausted, but back on solid ground, we continue. A crossroads of mining roads offers no shelter, dispiriting us further. We make camp in a field in the pouring rain. Cold dinner in our individual tents. I “sleep” in my base layer, riding layer, rain gear and mummy sack pulled tight. I’m freezing. When morning finally comes, we awake to three inches of snow.
Crumbling crypts, generally topped with the crescent moon of Islam, dotted the landscapes through which we rode. Elaborately built sometime in the distant past, they’ve been allowed to erode along with the memory of their unnamed occupants.
A young girl—granddaughter of Yakut, reformed poacher and head of the Mingteke Conservancy—climbs a wooden ladder to the rooftop of her home to better view the goings-on. I spent five days in the Alay Valley documenting the work Panthera is doing in three such conservancies. Wildlife have been depleted nearly to nothing and with Panthera’s support, some local communities have taken initiative to protect what wildlife remain, moving in the direction of ecotourism and a sustainable future. Once rapidly-reproducing ungulates—such as the ibex and Marco Polo sheep—are allowed to return to healthy populations. A few annual, well-managed hunts will provide food and money to the communities.
The day begins with an invitation into a family’s yurt for chai. Home-baked bread and jelly accompany the warming drink while we communicate as best we can through smiles and hand gestures. We make an offering of a few American dollars in thanks and are gifted a plastic soda bottle filled with a mysterious butter. Unbeknownst to me, this act of Kyrgyz hospitality would save me five days later, when a town we were counting on for resupply had no store and I survived on butter and stale Russian tortilla squares.
“Joel!” I wake with a start. Moments later I’m astride a Kyrgyz horse, riding through a wheat field. Dreaming? Tamerlane, a local herder, has brought a beautiful horse for me to ride. Feels damn good to be riding a Kyrgyz horse after having admired their beauty from afar for the past two weeks (the next horse I ride will take off running and then try to throw me from the saddle amidst a boulder field). Tamerlane gives us water and naan. I give him my pocket knife. We ride on.
Our final climb—Kegety Pass. Beyond this, it’s all downhill to Bishkek. We make it halfway up before the skies darken and the winds begin to pick up. We find a skinny bit of flat land between the road and cliff edge to make our camp. This rock serves as the dining room table. It’s ramen, again, but we’ve learned. Tonight it’s ramen with peas and carrots!
Premier bikepacker Joe Cruz created our incredible route through the Tian Shan Mountains. We all benefited from his knowledge of the area—gained from hours spent pouring over satellite imagery and old Soviet maps— including this French couple we encountered descending from Song Köl.
After climbing up and over Kegety Pass, we rocket down the northern side of the Kyrgyz Ridge. Descending toward the welcoming green landscape of lower elevation, today—our 20th day of riding—only 75 kilometers separates us from Bishkek, hot food and a bath. Descending in a shower of loose rocks, through national park beauty, we stop to talk with Masta, a Kyrgyz herder tending his flock along the roadside. In short order he invites us into his home, a compound of buildings much more permanent than what we’ve encountered in similarly rural areas. Our last experience with Kyrgyz hospitality is particularly memorable for including chai, a cigarette hand-rolled using newspaper, and a karate lesson.
After a 10-switchback climb we find a yurt selling warm beer in plastic two-liter bottles. In pursuit of a beer buzz, we head for a hilltop overlooking Kyrgyzstan’s largest freshwater lake. A storm rolls in and we watch garbage pass by like tumbleweeds. Depressing. We hem and haw about where to camp and end up pitching tents in heavy rain. Dinner is sweet crackers, hazelnut spread and anxious thoughts of impending diabetes.
*Travel tip for KGZ: Avoid the [few] suggested tourist stops— always underwhelming—while nearly everything else is immensely beautiful and raw.
The following day I witness a sporting event that is unlike any I’ve ever imagined. Kokoboru, goat polo, is played mounted, four versus four. A goal is scored by dropping a goat carcass into the opponent’s kazan (goal). Players dangle from their mounts, scooping up the heavy corpse at speed. Looks dangerous as hell.
My steed, the Borealis Crestone. Fully loaded for a week without resupply. Carbon frame, fork, seatpost, 3.8-inch tires set up tubeless. This bike can take you anywhere, the only limiting factor is your imagination.
Seatpack: all of the clothing I’m not wearing (extra socks, Gore-Tex socks, rain gear, buff, extra shirt, puffy jacket, base layer)
Frame bag (in the triangle of the bike): food for six days and stove
Jerry Can (top tube bag): pocket knife, lighter, batteries, zip ties, tools, sunscreen, etc.
Handlebar roll: tent, sleeping bag, sleeping pad, pot, spork
Bartender bag (second bag on handlebar, looks like a drink holder): 20 Starbucks Via packets (because I’m soft), snacks while riding
Elsewhere on the bike: two liters of water, spare tube
After two weeks of riding, I’ve gained a sort of glacial inertia. Gone is the punchiness of the early days, the desire to pound up a long climb and scream down the other side. Pedaling steadily has become the norm, whether steeply up for an entire afternoon or along a flat bumpy road, it makes little difference. My life is measured one pedal stroke at a time.
Riding into Bishkek I catch countless double-takes and interested stares. These folks have never seen a fatbike, not to mention one this laden down. I love that I’m finishing alone. Though never the plan, it makes it all feel intensely real and allows me to savor the last few miles.
The meal—at one of Bishkek’s finest restaurants—is calorie- dense and gloriously devoid of processed sugars. Post-shower, I meet the boys in town for a few celebratory beers. I wander Bishkek aimlessly for two days: wash the bike, rendezvous with the Panthera crew, and turn 32 years old. The time is invaluable in that it provides much needed separation between the awesome ruralness of the past few weeks and the super-urban awaiting me in New York.
And then I’m ready to return home.