Kyrgyzstan, where on earth is that?” This was the typical response we heard from people when we told them where we were going there, but we weren’t usually standing at the check-in counter of the airline that was supposed to take us there.
In our check-in attendant’s defense, it was 4:30 AM on a wintry Sydney morning, and they were actually flying us to Kazakhstan, from where we would ride to Kyrgyzstan.
Most people have heard of Kazakhstan: ninth-largest country in the world, site of the first successful space missions, and the home of Borat. Fewer people have heard of its smaller, mountainous neighbor Kyrgyzstan, and fewer still of the Tian Shan. Stretching for over 2,000 kilometers along the borders of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and China, the Tian Shan is a mountain range of epic proportions with dozens of peaks over 5,000 meters, interspersed by hundreds of glaciers, remote alpine valleys, flanked by dense forests, and dotted with turquoise lakes. Best of all, there are hardly any tourists. In fact, there are hardly any people at all.
Despite being part of the great Silk Road, the legendary trade route that connected China to the Middle East, only a handful of foreigners had even laid eyes on the Tian Shan until a few hardy Russian explorers, including Nikolai Przewalski (yes of Przewalski’s horse fame), ventured there in the second half of the 19th century. Although the region was successfully incorporated into the Russian empire around this time, its strategic military importance saw it closed to foreigners for most of the Soviet era. With the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991, the Tian Shan began to creep onto the destination lists of intrepid trekkers and mountaineers, but it still remains perhaps the least visited of the world’s great mountain ranges.
Our plan was to ride from Kazakhstan into Kyrgyzstan and then follow old Soviet jeep tracks through the Central Tian Shan before descending down to the giant Lake Issyk-Kul, the second-largest alpine lake in the world. We wanted an adventure, and here was the place to find one. Caine (the photographer), Angus, Jeremy, and I would be riding unsupported a long way from civilization on a route that, as far as we knew, no one had even ridden before. Perfect.
The staging point for our trip was Almaty, Kazakhstan’s largest city. Situated at the base of an arm of the Tian Shan, Almaty is watched over year round by a backdrop of dramatic snowy peaks, a very real reminder of the daunting task ahead of us.
In Almaty, we needed to stock up on food and fuel. Food was easy, particularly as the markets of Central Asia are filled with a wonderful selection of dried fruits and horse-meat sausage (yep, they really love horses here). Fuel proved more problematical. Our pre-departure investigations as to the presence of propane canisters had drawn a blank so, to be on the safe side, we brought an MSR Expedition and a Trangia alcohol-burning stove. As it turns out, a steady stream of Korean imports meant that canisters were relatively easy to find whereas spirit-based fuel was completely absent due to the region’s chronic alcoholism. Just when we thought we would have to splutter our way to culinary satisfaction on dirty petrol, our stomachs (and lungs) were saved by none other than the chemist, of course. After convincing a few very skeptical pharmacists to part with 80 vials of medical spirits, we were ready to leave.
The first days of the trip saw us riding along the hot, flat steppe — the low grasslands that stretch from China to the Ukraine. Although the snowy peaks of the Tian Shan were never far from sight, it was hot on the steppe, really hot. As we began our climb into the barren hills that edge the Tian Shan, we spent a day resting in Kazakhstan’s Charyn National Park, a green river oasis in the base of a spectacular canyon of richly-colored and sculptured sandstone.
Our entry to Kyrgyzstan was through the Kakara Valley, a wide expanse of gentle green pasture dotted with the summer yurts of semi-nomadic herders. Upon our approach, children would often rush out of the yurts to offer us big bowls of kymys — fermented horse milk. Not exactly what we felt like drinking after a long, rocky, uphill slog.
Hitchin’ a ride. The cyclists had to share a truck bed with a dead yak and a live horse.
Just over the border in Kyrgyzstan, we left the wide expanses of the lower Kakara Valley and followed a rutted dirt track through dense conifer stands along the steep rapids of the Kakara River. There is some fantastic trekking to be done on these lower peaks, and it was quite tempting to set up camp, leave the bikes, and explore the surrounding area. However, we were all keen to push farther into the Tian Shan. Our enthusiasm heightened as the conifers thinned out to sparse alpine meadows, and the first fingers of snow began to appear on the surrounding slopes.
At the top of the Kakara Valley, it was our plan to temporarily cross back into Kazakhstan and follow the Kokdzhar River to its headwaters at the base of the Mingtur Pass, a high crossing back into Kyrgyzstan with allegedly spectacular views across the Tian Shan. From our maps, this looked like the obvious route and the path of a once-present jeep track. The only problem was that the Kokdzhar River didn’t seem to exist. The track we were following clearly continued up the Kakara River, but there was no sign of what should have been a sizeable river junction. To ensure that blame for the navigational error was equally apportioned, we all independently checked the GPS and identified the surrounding peaks. Confident we were indeed in the right place, we decided to leave the track and head for where the entrance to the valley should have been.
This meant crossing the fast-flowing, boulder-strewn, and freezing Kakara River. Many of the Tian Shan rivers can only be crossed in the morning because the snow melting during the day increases their ferocity by the afternoon. We always crossed rivers standing upstream from our bikes to avoid getting caught under them in case we were swept over. Strange as it may seem, it was often easier to cross deeper rivers as the trailers’ waterproof stuff sacks meant that they floated above the boulders.
After successfully crossing the river and navigating our way across a flower-covered meadow made bumpy by marmot burrows, we located the remnants of an old track that came to an abrupt end at the point where two steep-sided hills met. Here the entire gap was filled with a surprisingly deep channel of water that prevented easy access to the valley beyond but then unexpectedly petered out to a series of small rivulets. It appeared that a major land slip had obscured the entrance to the valley and substantially altered the flow of the river. We could enter the valley by pushing our bikes over the ridge of one of the hills, but clearly no one had been this way recently.
The end of the Cold War and the breakup of the Soviet Union left Kyrgyzstan without the money or motivation to maintain infrastructure along its mountainous border with China. As a consequence, many once-marked tracks are long disused. There was no way of knowing whether it would be possible to get through on bikes or if we would make it to the end of the valley and then not be able to cross the Mingtur Pass. Adding to our hesitation was the fact that we would be hemmed in on both sides by icy peaks with no alternate routes available. It is an unusual and slightly scary feeling to embark on a trip with such an uncertain outcome. But this was the adventure we had come for and we were well prepared.
Fortunately, we convinced ourselves to press on because after cresting the hill and using all our weight to stop our rigs dragging us down the steep slope on the other side, we tumbled out onto the bleached river bed, and spread out before us was the most picture-perfect alpine valley any of us had ever seen. A shallow, sparkling blue river wove its way around the valley floor, giving way on the sides to spongy grass dotted with low bushes of dense green, bone white rocks, and the occasional gleaming patch of ice. The next three days, spent weaving back and forth across the river bed with only the alarmed squeal of marmots registering our presence, were the sort that outdoor enthusiasts live for.
Although we had been purifying our water on the steppe and the inhabited valleys, the water in the icy streams of the high Tian Shan was a delight to drink and meant we could safely travel without supplies of weight-adding water in our trailers. This turned out to be a huge bonus because as we approached the Mingtur Pass our progress was often reduced to below walking pace as we struggled to push our rigs up slippery scree slopes. The tight valley walls and imposing cliff faces made the task feel even more daunting. In places the track was so steep it was hard to imagine any vehicle ever getting up it. As we neared 4,000 meters of altitude, however, a number of barren ridge lines came together and the land flattened out to a gentle roll.
For much of the afternoon, we had been turning our jackets to the occasional dusting of snow, but right on cue the clouds cleared to reveal a 270-degree panorama of snowy peaks, including the giants Khan Tengri (7,005 meters) and Pobedy Peak (7,440 meters). Even though the mission was only half complete, we had a great sense of accomplishment and constant grins as we set up a camp with spectacular views. The day was made even sweeter when Angus cooked a great dessert of stewed wild rhubarb that we had picked earlier. The next day’s downhill ride was as epic as we’d hoped it would be.
From the Mingtur, our plan was to make it to the iceberg-filled Merzbacher Lake at the snout of the Inylcheck Glacier, a massive body of ice that straddles the Kyrgyz — Chinese border. To do this, we needed to resupply in the mining town of Inylcheck, one of the very few settlements deep in the Tien Shan. Our arrival in Inylcheck could have been a scene straight from a J.G. Ballard story. We first saw the town from high up on the rusty cliffs at the point where the Ekilitash River tumbles its way into a silt-laden braid of the Inylcheck River. The town, spread out in the steep-sided glacial valley below us, looked big. Replete with apartment buildings, schools, a hospital, a bus station, and numerous public places, it was sure to have a store where we could get the supplies we badly needed to make it to the glacier and out of the mountains safely. Busy giving each other high fives and taking photos in front of the sign announcing the opening of The Kyrgyz Peoples’ Mine, we were slow to notice the disturbing lack of life on the streets below.
The long white line. The guys stare down the road at what awaits them.
It’s often hard to tell whether Soviet buildings are in a state of construction or disrepair. As we coasted into the town, an eerie silence suggested the latter. Inylcheck was completely deserted. The first thing to do when arriving in a deserted town is to concoct a series of highly unlikely explanations for the absence of people. We settled on the arrival of a badly dressed Austrian mountaineering party, leading to a mass exodus in search of technicolor clothing items. This done, and with the surreal feeling of missing lives wearing off, the prospect of three days of hard mountain riding on only one day’s ration settled in. All four of us slumped down on an empty street to somberly discuss the best strategy. As so often happens when traveling, however, at the point when adventure is skating on the edge of danger, an improbable solution presented itself. The silence was suddenly punctured by the distinctive low grumble of a Soviet truck.
In the cab were two grubby Kyrgyz miners and a local nomad. In the back of the truck was the nomad’s horse and a massive dead yak. The miners explained that they had come down into the valley to procure the yak, which the nomad had found and killed for them. They offered to take us back to the mine with them. After loading our bikes and trailers on the dead yak (we found this endlessly amusing as the style of trailer we were using is known as a ‘yak’ — the miners just thought the altitude was getting to us), we roared up a series of precarious switchbacks, struggling to prevent the horse from stepping on us or our gear. Here, at nearly 4,000 meters, surrounded by steep, snow-covered peaks, was a colony of troglodytic Kyrgyz miners, living in a series of old railway carriages.
As we chowed down on the soft parts of the yak that needed to be eaten first, one of the engineers explained to us that the mine was a joint Kyrgyz-Russian venture and was located in a notoriously harsh region of the mountains known as Kurgak, or “no water” in Kyrgyz. The following day, after giving us a proud tour of the mine, the chief engineer loaded us in an enormous old Soviet truck and beat a trail through the desertlike mountains to some baths that the Soviet army had constructed around a natural hot spring. It was truly one of those bizarre travel experiences.
Although the miners couldn’t spare us enough supplies for an assault on the glacier — in fact without the yak, their own supplies didn’t look too hot — they did pack us on our way with a couple of loaves of fresh bread and, more importantly, gave us a lift to the top of the next pass, saving a whole day’s riding.
As we made our way out of the Tian Shan, we stopped in the beautiful Karakol National Park and finally gave in to our desire to do some hiking. After setting up a perfect camp next to a little bubbling waterfall, we struck off up the opposite side of the valley.
The trail we were following took us through mossy pine forests and waist-high floral meadows before thinning out to a few scraggly bushes and finally just rock, ice, and lichen. We gained nearly a kilometer of altitude in just over four kilometers of walking. In case you thought three weeks of strenuous cycling would prepare you well for a jaunt like this, it doesn’t. We hurt.
Ready to roll. Clean and rested, the group prepares to ride off into the rugged countryside.
The pain was worth it, though. In a scree-lined depression at the top of the ridge lies the legendarily clear Ala Köl Lake. The awesome deep blue hue of the water almost fooled us into thinking it would be a good idea to go for a swim. Our enthusiasm was only checked by the fact that it was still half-covered with ice in mid-July. The trail to Ala-Köl would be best done as an overnight hike or part of a multi-day expedition taking in the hot springs in the valley over the ridge. As we only had small day packs and our tents were a thousand-odd meters below, we hurtled ourselves down in semi-controlled fashion as the weather closed in around us.
Our adventure in the mountains ended with a long gentle ride down the lower slopes of the Tian Shan to the shores of Lake Issyk-Kul. Based on the fact that its depth prevents it from freezing solid during winter, the name Issyk-Kul means “warm water.” As an Australian, I can assure you that this is highly misleading. On the positive side, it was cold enough to chill a few bottles of Tian Shan Lager. And it’s not every day that you get to pitch your tent on a sandy beach in the middle of the Asian continent.
We counted more than 1,000 kilometers of mountain riding, 29 punctures repaired, only two of Jeremy’s dehydrated soy protein meals eaten, and countless amazing views. All in all, the trip was a resounding success. We had flown halfway around the world, completed the trip (almost) entirely unassisted, and unlike most bike tourists, we had spent a great deal of our time nowhere near roads. If you like outdoor adventures and have ever been guilty of saying the words, “imagine how cool this place would have been before it became popular,” then you’ll enjoy the surprise on your travel agent’s face when you ask to book a flight to Kyrgyzstan.
Eddie Game is a marine biologist and freelance travel writer. When not working on the conservation of coral reefs, he seeks out adventures in the least visited parts of the globe. He is currently based in Brisbane, Australia.
Caine Delacy is an accomplished freelance photographer and marine biologist based in Perth, Australia. Caine’s real passion is rock climbing — he divides his time equally between holding onto rocks himself and pointing a camera at others doing the same.
This article originally appeared in the December/January 2012 issue of Adventure Cyclist magazine. Adventure Cycling members receive a subscription to Adventure Cyclist each year and have full access to digital editions. Join today!