I can’t believe where I’m riding it’s ridiculously beautiful. The snow capped peaks the bleak empty steppe, just me on my bike alone with my thoughts and the occasional truck.
The next big challenge was Dolon pass at over 3000m, it was a steady and constant 5% gradient most of the way – so a complete slog fest! I met a friendly balaclava’d horseman while I stopped to eat a snack and he immediately invited me in for a warm chai, but I declined knowing I had to keep pushing on to make the distance up and over the pass tonight.
I reached the top at about sunset and as I started downhill it soon got seriously cold (-42c windchill), the GPS display soon had frozen LCD lines across it, my Gore kit and down jackets held up well as I raced along.
I soon descended to 2500m and started looking for camp spots through the darkness, literally anywhere flat and less than knee deep snow. I soon realised I had no option but to ride another 16km to the first village, the valley was too steep and the snow too deep. I was also getting way too cold making camping seriously tough here. It was dangerous riding on the dark icy and snowy roads with cars hurtling along like it was a dry summer’s day. I had my Lezyne Duo headlight flashing super bright and I put my head down to make progress. I tried to generate warmth by pedaling hard with the brakes slightly on too! The picture below I think illustrates the coldness…..
I spotted a kid in the first village I reached, he was outside a house and I asked about somewhere to stay. He immediately invited me in and his family refused to let me do anything. I guess the ice over my beard made it look worse than I actually felt! Either way I was very cold and I was soon sat down drinking Kumis – fermented horse milk AKA Kyrgyzs champagne. I’ve had it before but this was extra special. It visibly bubbled as it sat there, taunting me because I was hungry but this was all they had and I’m too polite to eat my own food! I drank 5 bowls because the grandmother “Bahbooshka, bahbooshka” as she kept saying in Russain refused to let me stop and it’s fair to say she was not a lady I wanted to mess with. It was a good recovery drink and I soon felt myself again. A bit of bread and I was off to bed. I cold hear the grandmother on the phone telling people she had a tourist from England staying with them, so I guess it added some excitement to their evening.
The next morning the grandchildren were all off to school and I had some freshly baked bread with blackcurrant jam and some more bowls of Kumiz of course! The Ladies explained that both the father and grandfather had died, it made me reflect on how tough life was, they both had nasty coughs and my mind wondered what had happened.
I got an interesting lesson on how they make Kumiz; first the milk is reduced on the fire, a mix of ground maize and maybe wheat or barley is added and boiled. It is left in buckets for 2 days to work, then filtered to leave the clearer now fermented bubbling liquid. Yum. I tried to pack my bike but they insisted on more bread and it was late before I got away.
Naryn is the third largest city and it’s altitude means it’s a barren place in winter. I stopped for a tea on my way through. I saw two Americans and they briefly chatted, they had lived here for 2 years, as aid workers I assumed, and they had never seen a cyclist in winter ever before. “Interesting” I said “at least I’m the first at something!”
The Naryn region is very poor 58% live in what the UN describe as extreme poverty, hence I tried to spend my money widely and generously as I could. Independent bikepacking means you don’t give a penny to tour operators or third parties that effectively reduce the spend in areas like this, I like to think my presence and albeit small spending directly helps.
I ride the next big pass back up to about 2700m in between Naryn and At Bashy, it’s pretty easy but stunningly beautiful, I am now closer to China and the mountains are wilder and bigger, it’s also snowier on the steppe again.
The road is not busy but I’m keen to get onto gravel again soon. I stopped in a pleasant enough town called At Bashi, I look for a place to stay and get directed to some rooms, a basic hotel. Years of travel teaches to reliably make fast judgments about people and I think I’m pretty good at it. On this rare occasion the hotel owner was shifty, I didn’t trust him. I locked my bike up well, and kept valuables on me. I went out for food then I came back and my passport was demanded. It was returned but I was suspicious of why?
I slept OK, it was warm, if nosiey being above a cafe/nightclub. The next morning I packed my bags, but outside it was maybe -15, misty with a light snow falling and certainly not inviting me out. Eventually I opened the door to leave and was pushed back inside by two undercover/secret police. They showed ID and demanded my passport. It seemed the hotel man had reported me. He had seen an old Russian visa and claimed that I had over stayed my visa. It was a challenge to explain this to the police who didn’t even realise the British don’t need a visa, nor do I need to register and to make it harder no one spoke English. I thought I was making progress after they made a few phone calls. However the police officer instead got angry, pointing aggressively that I needed to follow him, he then said prison and made a hand gesture of prison bars. It’s fair to say I was starting to get a bit worried. It was time to stay calm and I hoped things would work out OK. Once again I calmly said “no problem, this visa is old” with crossed hands and “Moscow Ruska, not Kyrgyz Republic,” he then replied in the only English he spoke “yes, big problem” looking angry.
Next thing I know he burst out laughing along with his colleague, I play punched him to his amusement and soon realised the call had cleared it all up and he was winding me up! The bugger had me pretty good! He then insisted that they were the Kyrgyzstan anti-terrorist police division and needed to search me, he was just nosey with my kit bags! He also searched my phone, given he can’t read English it seemed pointless as he said “MI5? MI6?” I replied “Bond, James Bond”, eventually we shook hands and they left.
The final part I’ll write about was Tash Rabat. An old Caravansary in the remote hills near the restricted border zone with China and as far as I could go without a special permit. The weather was still light snow making the approach dramatic but not a place to stop.
The gravel road was fine but the snow getting deeper as I passed up 3000m altititude.
I fianlly caught glimpse of the stunning 14th century Caravanserai and I hoped to stay at this amazing building overnight. I climbed the hill above and sat down giving me time to imagine those who have rested and been thankful before me.
Traders from Iran to India would have stopped here for centuries as they carried silk, black pepper and other highly prized goods. I left me bike by the door secured by a twist of wire and wandered inside.
I headed out and the herder opposite appeared and said I had should stay with him as it was too cold and with wolves roaming. He lived alone and had no real food so I cooked pasta and soup for two. His diet cut off out here appeared to be just bread and tea with a little jam.
That night he fired up a generator and switched on a small TV, the signal came and went. So he opted for a DVD, fine I thought, except it was an American horror movie dubbed into Russian. Why, out here would you show a film about a mass murderer and sitting there by the door is a shotgun looking back at me. Scenarios raced through my head as it went on. I slept well eventually that night….
The next morning as expected the weather cleared and the view was amazing, I helped the farmer spread hay for the sheep before I left.
After Tash Rabat the ride out was the best day of the trip cycling through a stunning valley of untouched snow.
I met a solo horseman and some herds of sheep and yaks but nothing else until I emerged back onto the Steppe to find a lorry had crashed in yesterday’s snow storm.
I detoured back to Naryn on some snowy back roads through villages of drunk men. I had time to ride further North again, but on the final descent I coughed up a huge lump of nasty phlegm, I had developed a bad cough and felt rough, thoughts of pneumonia went through my mind. This was not a place to get seriously sick. I called it a day but what an adventure this had been.
While the pictures may attract others to ride here in winter blowingly beautiful, I should caution you first; The cold takes its toll on the body and I got pretty sick – it took weeks to recover from a stubborn chest infection/mild pneumonia, the roads were super dangerous because the narrow strip of tarmac was fine but cars didn’t slow down and they expected me to hop onto the icy hard shoulder. Even with studs and the Tripster’s great handling this was not always easy. If things went wrong it’s really hard to get help, shops were often closed or very low on supplies. The towns were impressively bleak, Naryn was so cold the guesthouse owners refused to let me walk to the shops even. Put simply it’s much nicer in summer but I didn’t come here to have a nice time I came to explore my limits and a world so alien and tough that its fascinating to cycle through. I certainly found those limits and there’s a certain satisfaction in that.
Did I regret the winter trip? Absolutely not, the people I met and observing a winter way of living out here in the mountains and vast steppes was fascinating, but I’d recommend a summer trip here if you’ve never been before!
The bike performed perfectly as ever and a huge thanks to Kinesis for supporting the trip. If you decide to follow in my footsteps you’ll certainly need a bike as good and reliable as a Tripster!