Kyrgyzstan, the Wild Land

Oct 18th, 2023

This article first appeared in the July/August 2023 issue of Adventure Cyclist magazine.

The first time I heard about this country, I had to search for it on the map. I had no clue where it was, and I definitely had no clue of the Kyrgyz culture, their traditions, or its mountains.

Back in 2017, I crossed the border from Bolivia to Chile and started meeting more bikepackers compared to the other countries I had cycled through in South America. I was happy to swap adventure stories as well as exchange ideas for new places to explore and find new tools and gear that makes a day on the bike a little easier. In southern Peru while staying in a casa ciclista, which means a “house for cyclists” and offers a completely free stay, I met a lad from France who was drawing a line on wheels across the globe. He started in Australia, crossed Asia to Europe, and arrived in Brazil on a sailboat. Many stories were shared over the dining table during my stay. I was quiet and took in the details about his ride through Kyrgyzstan and Central Asia. Listening to his adventures, I realized those countries have a lot of similarities with Mongolia, a country I had dreamed of visiting since I was young. As an animal lover, I remember looking at the massive Mongolian plateau on a map I had in my bedroom. Countless times I imagined myself galloping on a horse visiting the nomads of the Altai Range.

Kyrgyzstan was presented to me as a wild country with amazing mountains and a variety of different landscapes where nomads live during their short summers. I soaked up his tales while eating a big bowl of pasta with a basic tomato sauce, my usual diet for that year. So many ideas rushed to my mind during those conversations, and inevitably, Central Asia and especially Kyrgyzstan were added to my list of countries to visit soon. As I continued crossing the Andes, I knew that Asia would be my next long bikepacking route. I considered the option of traveling for a year to cross the continent and explore the mountains and the ancient roads of Central Asia. Unfortunately, this idea never came to fruition because of the world’s pandemic lockdown. At that time, I was enjoying traveling alone across Latin America (Patagonia to Mexico) and also Asia (Iran, Armenia, and Georgia), and getting to know myself in a deeper way. The people of each country welcomed me and treated me like a member of their family.

bikepacking kyrgyzstan
A storm was coming when packing up our campsite. A curious shepherd came to ask us if there was a problem. “Niet problem!” we said.
Ana Zamorano

When the world opened up and allowed for travel once again, my life was a bit different. I had a job, which meant I wouldn’t have as much free time as before, and I was not single anymore. From the beginning of my relationship, Diego knew that bikepacking through Kyrgyzstan was my next goal. The winter before the trip, I gifted him some bikepacking coffee table books with great storytelling and awesome photography. I thought it would be the best way to introduce him to an unknown country and hoped it would spark his curiosity. My plan worked — Diego became engrossed with learning more about Kyrgyzstan and decided he wanted to join the adventure. We acted quickly and bought tickets for July 2022, and Diego invested in a bikepacking rig for the trip. As it was his first time riding outside Spain, he chose to stay three weeks while I planned to stay for almost two months. Known among adventurers is that it’s not the time you spend traveling on a bike but rather the density of it that has an effect on you. I recall Diego telling me how exhausted he felt in just one day due to the different encounters with the locals and the riding itself in the ever-changing weather. A day traveling on a bike feels like a week of a normal life, and a month can really be like a year. So many experiences and feelings happen in 24 hours when you’re by yourself in a remote land and outside of your comfort zone.

The day we landed in Bishkek, the capital of Kyrgyzstan, we were equally excited and tired from the long flights. Our bikes, bags, and equipment arrived safely and were ready to mount. We managed to get our luggage sorted out quickly, got settled into our accommodations, and went to explore the nearby area. The Osh Bazaar, the main market of the city, was about five minutes from our doorstep. The main goal was to buy groceries for the following eight days. Kegety Pass, the first and highest pass of the route, was due on the third day and we had to get ready physically and mentally. We always carry food for two extra days as you never know what can happen in a remote area where you cannot find more than a few shepherds, wild animals, and herds. The bazaar was surprisingly quiet, and the prices were fixed. This was a surprise as I imagined the city to be like Tehran or Istanbul, just as chaotic as any capital. This is exactly why I travel, to learn and experience firsthand other ways of life.

bikepacking kyrgyzstan
The lush and green landscape with a wide gravel path after Kegety Pass was more than stunning.
Ana Zamorano

Our first morning was spent devouring three bags of nuts, a heap of noodles with vegetables, and a huge watermelon in less than 20 minutes. It seemed incredible to be in 35°C (95°F) heat under the strong sun and see white glaciers in the distance. Bishkek is situated in the Chuy Valley at the foot of the Tian Shan Mountains and the snowy peaks of the Kyrgyz Ala-Too Range. These mountains became the backdrop to a walk we shared with Nico, an Italian friend I connected with when we both were cycling through Europe a few years earlier. A typical Kyrgyz tombola helped us to disconnect from our tiredness and share in laughter with a friend.

After a big breakfast the following morning, we were eager to leave the city and start cycling toward Kegety Pass. Diego had read a lot of blogs about this pass at 3,780 meters (12,400 feet). The truth is, he had memorized the whole way and the Kyrgyzstan map in case we got lost and had no battery in our devices. After three long days of climbing this pass on our heavy bikes, we finally reached the top. During the first day, we had encounters with people from the capital spending time in nature. As we gained more ground in the second stage, we were closer to the glaciers and found ourselves alone in the empty green valley. It was hard to continually ride at altitude, and the landscape was progressively more beautiful and we stopped frequently to take photos. Herds of wild horses, long waterfalls, glaciers in the background, and endless green slopes were all we saw during the second day.

While wild camping, we joked about how lucky we were with the weather. I guess we had tempted fate because we woke up greeted by dense fog and light rain, which followed us to the top of the pass. We crossed paths with two shepherds on horseback; trying to communicate with each other was interesting as we did not share a common language. This exchange was the opposite of the next one, when we met a French bikepacker cycling down the Kegety who told us there were more than 200 horses blocking the narrow path on top. Snow covered the ground as we reached the herd. Finally, I was able to live out one of my childhood dreams, challenging my inner shepherdess to move the herd to create a path for us. The two shepherds we met a few hours earlier appeared in search of the herd and led them to the other side of the valley. This moment felt dreamlike and straight out of a movie: misty fog, two shepherds wearing large capes on horseback while guiding the herd, and the two of us trailing at the back, pushing our bikes.

bikepacking kyrgyzstan
This big family was celebrating a funeral in a yurt. Tons of food, a guitar, and some bottles of vodka were the main ingredients.
Ana Zamorano

Knowing the southern face of the pass would be much harder than the north, we searched for the easiest singletrack down toward the next valley. We had to push our bikes down for some parts and got lost in others. Despite this, we kept our motivation high as Diego managed his first big pass really well.

After the thousand-meter descent, we had the pleasure of exploring the new valley. A crystal-clear river, stunning green slopes, horses, cows and sheep grazing peacefully, and a handful of yurts scattered across the landscape. Some Kyrgyz people continue to live a nomadic lifestyle, with many people from the lower land villages still living nomadically during the summer season. The summer is short in Kyrgyzstan, and snow can start covering the higher lands from September. Depending on the snowfall in winter, they can set up their camps as early as mid-spring.

Members of these nomadic families who settled in the valley waved at us as we cycled by and invited us into their yurt, which are traditional homes built with removable wooden frames and felt covers. Each family member has a specific role and task: the women are responsible for collecting cattle droppings and drying them in the sun to serve as fuel for the long winter ahead, and the men are responsible for taking the cattle to higher land for the more fertile pastures. This allows the milk of the mares, sheep, and cows to transform into two types of butter. One type has a liquid consistency and the other solid, but both are equally delicious in our opinion. Spending time in yurts is a great way to get to know the nomadic culture and an opportunity to support the community by buying fresh butter, homemade bread, and kumis, the fermented mare’s milk that plays a huge part in the Kyrgyz diet.

With the sun shining, we were able to take a refreshing dip in one of the freezing cold rivers Kyrgyzstan has to offer. Our favorite river was on Karakol Pass and was bluish-gray in color from the glacial sediments, which we didn’t know was on our route. It was a great lesson for Diego, who had extensively researched the route, that it’s always the places you didn’t know about that create the best moments. This pass was stunning and we were unsure why nobody had mentioned it to us beforehand. Big slopes took us to the west and closer to a new part of the Tian Shan Range. Cycling on the black, rocky terrain made a magnificent contrast to the snowcapped mountains and glaciers in the background. Karakol Pass gave us not only a stunning view but a great learning experience.

The weather at altitude can be very unpredictable. We were awakened by a shepherd who curiously approached our campsite. He had a bottle of vodka in his hand and a cigarette hanging out of his mouth. “Problem?” he pointed at us while looking at our tent. We replied with a phrase we used frequently during our trip: “Niet problem!” Most of the conversations we had with locals were based on this and a few other Russian words we learned on the way. I added some other phrases to the few I still remembered from my time cycling through the Southern Caucasus: bike, tent, camping, food, supermarket … just the easiest and most useful words when you do not share a common language. A storm was coming toward us, and we had to try to escape it. Luckily, we packed our belongings quickly and started cycling under the gray sky. One hour later and we were soaked — the animal shelter we found did not protect us from the pouring rain. We had no other choice but to knock at the door of a yurt where we were welcomed in with hot coffee and biscuits. My phone’s translator app helped us explain what we were doing in the middle of those mountains. It makes me wonder about the differences between us. These families settle there to survive, and we were on vacation. As I shared our route, the questions asked of us were different compared to my previous solo trips and related to our age, where our children were, and the idea of having a family in the near future. It’s always funny explaining the outlook of westerners in these matters. The yurt was filled with laughter and warmth.

Having dried, Diego and I continued discovering new passes and another great valley. After riding along lush, green fields, we came across the village of Suusamyr, allowing us the chance to stop for a couple of days. We needed to recover our energy levels, refuel, and contact our family and friends. That was the point when we realized that life in the villages was similar to the life of the nomads. During the winter, both at high altitude and in the lower towns, they all have the same needs for getting fuel to burn or picking the vegetables of the season such as carrots or cucumbers to survive the rest of the year.

bikepacking kyrgyzstan
This teen is quite famous among bikepackers, as his family lives in a yurt near a famous pass. We were happy to meet him and his siblings. The photographer: One of his sisters.
Ana Zamorano

From Suusamyr on, the landscape changed from the high mountains and white glaciers to reddish-brown valleys. It took us mentally back to our visit to Utah or northern Argentina. Big canyons along a blue river accompanied us, as well as three Spanish cyclists we met on the way. The views from above were nothing but unique. Everywhere we went, we saw the different layers of the landscape, from the rock formations of the valley to the fresh snow on the high mountains.

We could reach Song-Kol, the second largest alpine lake in the country, within two days. It felt like a sea despite Kyrgyzstan being landlocked and far from the ocean. Food was in abundance during the time we spent with a family, who treated us to generous servings of local cuisine. Laghman (noodles with meat) and paloo (rice with beef) are the most typical dishes. With the weather constantly changing, we were thankful to have a roof over us as we watched snow fall.

As soon as we left this corner of the country, we were able to enjoy another type of landscape. It was time to descend through a completely different scenery of tree-lined slopes that appeared out of the blue. We removed layers as we descended toward a valley in the Naryn region, the highest part of the country. The last 40 kilometers before we reached the city proved to be the most difficult stretch for me and was the point where we split paths with the other bikepackers. The sun was growing stronger, which made pedaling down the broken road harder, and it probably didn’t help that I fell sick for the first time in the country. Staying in the city of Naryn helped me to make a speedy recovery while Diego prepared to fly home as his time in the country had come to an end.

bikepacking kyrgyzstan
This man from a yurt wanted Diego to wear his kalpak, the Kyrgyz traditional hat.
Ana Zamorano

I prepared to head out alone once again and cycle the passes of the Tian Shan until the city of Karakol. However, I shared the journey with two fellow bikepackers, Martuki and Johnny, who were great companions through passes like Arabel and the Burkhan Valley. This remote area gave us a new perspective of the Tian Shan Range. The green pastures that I first appreciated with Diego during July were no longer shining as the sun beat down over it. August brought a brown hue to the environment, making these pastures worse for the cattle. Encounters with the nomads of this region were more frequent as winter was just around the corner and storms were more noticeable. The “excuse” to knock on the doors of yurts we were passing was the need to dry our clothes. Being invited to join a funeral to share a celebration of life with family members and the time we spent with a solo man in his campsite were the highlights of the last few days cycling through this part of the Tian Shan. Approaching the border with China, we were given the most incredible gift of magnificent glaciers and stunning landscapes.

bikepacking kyrgyzstan
A nomad kid plays with some of the fishing tools they have in her family’s yurt.
Ana Zamorano

The city of Karakol, located in the eastern part of Kyrgyzstan, is based at the crossroads of Central Asia and is a fascinating playground for nature lovers and a great place to visit the second largest saline lake in the world: Issyk-Kul. Remembering that this city was a stop on the Silk Road and a popular area during the Soviet Union because of health resorts and hot mineral springs, it was the perfect place for my last stage of the Tian Shan traverse.

Kyrgyzstan is known as the “little Switzerland of Central Asia,” not only because of its climate but also for its landscape. Undoubtedly, this is a country made for bikepacking. It offers you tons of adventures, awesome places for wild camping, beautiful traditions, and multiple paths to get lost through its untouched nature. There is a proverb from the nomads that says “a horse is a man’s wings.” So, I took the liberty of adopting this Kyrgyz saying and adapting it to us as bikepackers: “a bike is a cyclist’s wings” and allows you to experience places like these.

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