I descended and the air was approaching -20 already; around me the valley was steep sided, dark and cold. I noticed the snow had fallen much thicker this side of the pass despite travelling downhill at about 40kph according to my GPS on the bars. If you do the maths this apparently gives a windchill of -42c! It was certainly cold, the coldest I’ve ever cycled in and the road was sketchy; compacted snow combined with encroaching darkness. I was just about warm enough but it felt too cold to camp in this uninviting gorge and I needed to lose more height as rapidly as the icy road allowed. When even the GPS LCD started to get frozen lines I questioned if I’d made the right call to attempt this pass so late in the day…..
The plan was simple; to cycle across Kyrgyzstan from one border to another and take the most dramatic route I could. It all sounded pretty easy with no visas, flights booked and having ridden here twice before. I knew what to expect in theory but in practice one small detail was different – I was doing it in the heart of a Central Asian winter. It was going to be a good test of the so far invincible Kinesis Tripster ATR. The Tripster had as ever been adapted for the trip, I had opted for 700c over 650b due to availability of studded tyres, I had made the gearing easier and gone to a rigid fork over the Lauf I have been using.
Why you might ask? Well there is something about a cold dry winter climate that was drawing me back to Central Asia. It was the opportunity to witness the stunning landscape but see the area in quite literally a new light, but I maybe underestimated the challenge involved.
Now onto the route. I’d start in Bishkek and follow the same road I’d done before towards Issyk Kul, but this time I’d detour south towards Kochkor. Here it all got less certain because I wanted to take in some gravel tracks to the scenic alpine lake called Song Kul. At over 3000m it would be cold and snowy. I would then head to Naryn before carrying on further south towards China. If time allowed I’d return back north as far as I could, but riding to the north west on snow/gravel roads. Well, like all the best intentions the final route didn’t work out quite like this….
Here is a link to the route on Strava that I intended to ride
I was nervous about this trip. While there’s often a nervous excitement before trips, this was more than that. I was into uncharted conditions; the cold, the snow and would people would be around? Would the small village shops be open for food? I was riding totally on my own armed with just a few words of Russian, in fact I’d meet only two people I could communicate with for the entire trip.
I was on Aeroflot to Bishkek from Edinburgh via London and Moscow and it was already getting bumpy. There was a thick mist covering the ground as we entered Kyrgyzstan airspace just the tops of the mighty Tian Shan poking out, the plane had zero visibility until we landed safely onto a twilight tarmac patchworked with snow. I was glad to make it and remarkably my bike was here too! I stayed at Friends Guesthouse with a very friendly host, but the place was a winter building site with renovations underway. I left my bike box stored here and waved goodbye.
The bike was running perfectly and I was glad to have the studded tyres because the roads in Bishkek were busy and icy, it was super sketchy riding.
The freezing fog ensured all car fumes remained in the air around me as the Marshrutkas (shared taxis) buzzed about, all sliding and their wheels spinning on the ice as they stopped to pick up passengers.
Once on the road to Kant I was able to ride on a compacted snow hard shoulder that was bumpy but kept me out of danger, as the picture below shows. It was slow going as I reached the delightfully named Tokmok.
It was 4 years since I last rode this section and I had flashbacks of sites along the way; mostly mundane memories involving food!
I didn’t stop much all day as I managed to start covering good ground. I forked off south at a place called Kemin, finally on roads that were entirely new to me. I climbed to a cold high plateau headed towards Orto Tokoy reservoir and relaxed, I was smiling while inhaling the surrounds with every icy breath. This lake was in a super scenic spot that was tempting me to stop and camp.
Maybe I should’ve but either way the sun was fading so I stopped to get some photos beofre it was too dark. It was windy and as I set up a self timer a gust caught the tripod. With my heavy DSLR on top it toppled over…I ran but it was too late. The camera was OK, but the tripod leg took the impact; the head snapped and leg bent! Disaster as I was reliant on a tripod for timing images.
I now had a flashing light on the saddle pack and on my helmet a Lezyne 700 lumen Duo front and rear light. I was about warm enough but everything was freezing solid around me from food to water as soon as the sun set. A parked police car buzzed me and then flashed me, I wondered if flashing lights were illegal here? I kept riding and nothing happened.
Kochkor was dry and dusty, no snow had fallen here, but it was well below freezing and pitch black when I arrived. I stayed in a friendly guesthouse I had been directed to by some locals.
Next morning the town was quite a busy place as I looked to fix my tripod. I also bought a local simcard with Beeline Telecom and a bargain of 10gb of 4g data all for £0.90. Not a bad deal. I found some glue and tape and with a kid helping me out I fixed the tripod head back together, I splinted the leg with a plastic bottle, it was to some extent fixed. This is the patient kid who held it while I taped and glued the tripod!
I left Kochkor to head for Song Kul the scenic alpine lake. It was a shame to leave Kochkor asit was a dramatic setting with mountains all around; below are some pictures from Kochkor area:
The road soon entered the mountains with stunning peaks on the horizon and glimpses through side valleys of even higher snowy tops. The riding was snow free and pleasant I was really enjoying myself out here!
I had turned onto the gravel track and optimistically headed for Song Kul via a pass of 3440m. The snow started appearing thicker again at about 2300m altitude.
Trying to trackstand for the camera;
I passed a village and all the old men hanging about implied the road would be too snowy and impassable up to Song Kul. However I wanted to see for myself so I waved them good bye and carried on riding uphill. The lady in the image below is cleaning clothes in the only part of a lake that is clear of ice – where a stream runs in.
The road was lonely but beautiful as I slowly bumped along on washboarded gravel. I knew I’d be camping tonight so I stopped before sunset to set up and start boiling water. After the sun had set the clear winter sky was simply remarkable. While the Milky Way didn’t stand out because in winter you only see the less bright and dramatic part. The lack of distraction results in the sky becoming a complete blanket of stars with vast depth that it made mt eyes water. If it wasn’t -20 I’d sit outside and just enjoy feeling humbled…..I wandered over to take some pictures and stumbled on some clear water ice, in SPD shoes I went head over heels like a cartoon. I landed with a thud, a panic hit me, a light shock set in “what have I hurt?”. I was winded but fine, I was lucky an accident here would’ve been pretty serious…
I filled my Nalgene water bottle from the pan and used it as a hot water bottle inside the inner of two sleeping bags and I was pretty warm. I soon realised that having the down bag inside didn’t work because the weight of the synthetic bag compressed the 850 down and lost the thermal benefits of such a light down bag! I swapped them over and was so much warmer. However by morning the tent was a white frozen condensation cave – my breath freezing instantly. I put the sleeping bag in the direct sun to melt, but it just stayed frozen the air was so cold!
I was back on the bike and headed uphill again. I soon reached the final herder’s winter farmhouse and the road literally ended! A bank of snow covered the way.
I walked a bit but it wasn’t to be, at 3250m I turned back. I soaked up this wild, remote and very snowy scene and realised Song Kul was indeed impassable as the 10+ people had told me! In summer the herders go up to graze the pastures, in winter no one goes there. Below are some pictures from my attempt to reach Song Kul;
From this point it was all down hill and I wanted to see if I could cover the 120km to Naryn. It was optimistic given the time was 12.30 already but I might as well see where I got to…..it was a decision I might later regret.