The geopolitical linchpin of Central Asia, Kyrgyzstan is one of the world’s few remaining countries where it is still possible to adventure into the unknown, well off the beaten tracks of mass tourism. The mountainous profile and a lack of tourist itineraries should enable the country to retain its “undiscovered” image for some time to come, offering the intrepid traveler a unique human, physical and geographical experience.
I have on my smartphone’s memory amassed a heap of notes on many different countries, including several Central Asian countries, but absolutely nothing on Kyrgyzstan. Once I’d checked that the country’s COVID restrictions would not prevent me from traveling there, I booked my plane tickets in a massive rush of blood to the head. I fly in less than three weeks. I soon get the impression that I have been a little hasty as I know zilch about the country, and I even have no idea which areas of the country are suitable to ride. I got in touch with a guy, Fred Horny, he knows the area well, and with his legendary enthusiasm, he gave me the name of a French guy called Stéphane, who runs a local tourist agency www.kirghizie.fr. I contacted him immediately; this guy is passionate about the country and knows it like the back of his hand, and he opened his Kyrgyz address book for me! What a stroke of luck. As my time is limited, I cannot afford to waste precious time traveling between areas to ride. There’s absolutely no information on MTB cycling, so taking a stab, I decided to start my ride from a valley that stands out from the vibrant red aerial photos.
Three flights into my journey, I arrive in Osh. My driver, Abdoukadyr, is waiting for me, and we seem to hit it off immediately. He whisks me off to a small eatery where we have a bite. His suggestion that we pick up a spare wheel for the car before heading off gives me insight into the state of the roads to come. We drive for 4 hours into the vast Alay Mountain range, where many mountains top out at over 16,400 feet. This is where my ride begins, to the north of the Alay mountains. My objective is to ride south across the whole range and finish in the Pamir.
In my head, I have flashed out a fantastic ride. Still, as we progress into the valley, I begin to doubt the feasibility of the whole idea. Unbelievably steep slopes, vast screes of stone, vertical cliffs, a narrow gorge, and the mega dust cloud are trailing our car. In simple terms, “What the heck am I doing here?” Apart from the broken track that we drive along, I cannot see any other trails, just huge boulders and cliff faces. Tiredness must be kicking in, it’s been 35 hours since I left home, and I have barely slept. When we reach the village of Kojo Kelen, it is almost 8 p.m., and my driver drops me off at the valley’s only guest house, where I feel very welcome.
The next day, I take my time to emerge. It’s cold here on the valley floor, and I decide not to leave before the sun has warmed up this part of the world. It dawns on me that I am 4 hours of off-road driving from the nearest big town, and I sincerely hope that I haven’t forgotten anything. I spend the first morning soaking up this new environment where I am already at 7,220 ft above sea level. I must acclimatize slowly. The first locals I meet are amazed to see a bike in such a place, and I stop to admire the magnificent cliffs that rise in front of me. Once at the top, the view is spectacular; I feel like in paradise. Let’s forget the angelic bit; I am more of a tortoise now, as I make very little progress between stopping to take shots or catching my breath. Time is moving on, and the weather begins to get worse. I reach a pass at almost 9,900 ft, and the storm breaks behind me. I don’t hang around and immediately start a descent. It’s a good trail, and I am off.
The first raindrops catch up with me as I ride past a hut at the edge of a field. I see a farmer about 300 yards away. He is using a donkey to plow his potato field. To catch his eye, I stop and make hand signals to ask if I can shelter in his hut. The reply is immediate and positive, and he joins me a few minutes later. It’s very cramped, barely 150 sq. ft. There’s a rug covering half of the clay floor.
A few cooking utensils hang from nails in the beams. Akilbek opens the door of his hut. This is his home. I realize that my rudimentary Russian will serve no purpose, but the ten or so Kirghiz words learned from my driver might spare my blushes from speaking in grunts and other onomatopoeia for the rest of the week! He tries on my glasses and helmet, and we laugh. Once the storm has passed, I bid adieu to my new friend and ride down an awesome trail to the valley floor. I am in the mood, everything seems clearer to me, and my confidence grows.
The following day, I decided to explore another valley that crosses mine, and I was already feeling better and climbed a well-marked path at a reasonable speed. It’s here that I meet Mamat Isa, all alone on his mountain. He’s cutting a field of grass. No mechanically powered farm implements here; it’s the old-fashioned way, with a scythe! He offers me a drink of koumis, fermented mare’s milk. It would be rude to refuse, and I even dare to drink directly from the bottle. If my stomach reacts badly to this beverage, it’s the end of my trip! But at the same time, it’s all part of the adventure. I am surprised; the milk is tasty and pleasant to drink.
I continue my way until the valley comes to a dead end. To my left are vast glaciers and mountains over 16,000 feet high. To the right, there are deep gorges with a steep slope above them. There is no way out.
And that’s when I meet Aptisalam sitting on a rocky promontory guarding his flock in a breath-taking setting. I offer to share a few of my biscuits with him - my only food for lunch. He accepts, we chat, and he invites me to visit his home. We go down to his house, where I meet his family. His wife is warming up some milk in a pan over a warm wood fire. She’s shy like their daughter, but they invite me into their hut, and I am given the best seat. We eat bread, cheese, and milk.
I leave them and start the long and exhilarating descent back down the valley. I've got my bearings, and I am feeling on the form. I head back down for a last warm night in this valley that has adopted me.
It’s D-day for me. I must leave my nest and the hospitable home of Matmatjakyp and his daughter Magina who has looked after me well. I load up my stuff and attach my sleeping bag to the bike. I strap on my bags, and, with sadness, I ride away from this beautiful valley.
I know that the next part of my journey will be difficult. While I’m on my bike, I’m alright; but when I must carry a bike on my shoulders, things will get complicated as I’ll have to carry about 60 pounds. And today’s program includes two passes at over 9,800 feet.
I reach the first pass after a relatively easy climb of 3,000 feet. I drop down into a new and seemingly untamed valley. I come across a young boy sent to meet me. He tells me that he knows who I am and I will sleep in his father’s home this evening! I look around me, but we are in the middle of nowhere. I had contacted a person in the next valley the previous day to organize the rest of my journey, but I had hardly imagined that they send someone to meet me 5 hours by foot from the nearest village! He takes me to the yurt where he and his mum live in the summer. They cook me a delicious omelet, and I fall asleep in their warm home while another storm breaks.
I set off again on the bike, but I don’t feel great, to be honest. I have another 1,000 feet to climb, it should be a cinch, but I fell ill and don’t know how to describe it. I can't go any further. My breath is fast. I initially stop every 100 footsteps, but that tempo rapidly drops to stop every ten steps. Only the weather pulls me to keep going as it is too threatening to hang around here for long. It takes me over 3 hours to reach the pass at a snail’s pace.
Once over the top, it’s a long descent to the next village. I get the impression that I have changed countries and am dropping down into a valley in Pakistan. I get my energy back. I feel that I am regaining control of my journey. I arrive in the next village, just a few houses scattered amid a plain of pebbles. I am looking for Begali’s house, he’s my host today, and we need to organize my bivouac for tomorrow evening. He warms up some water on a wood fire for me to shower and cooks up a meal from potatoes, tomatoes, and morsels of mutton. We spend the evening going over our plans for the following day - food, tent, mattresses, donkeys, and a horse.
We leave the village at 11 o’clock the following morning. Everything is loaded on the two donkeys, except for me. I’m loaded onto the horse; it is my first time on horseback! It’s some baptism of fire as we are due to climb 5,250 feet, the equivalent of 6 hours in a saddle, up into the high mountains. The track is broad, but I quickly learn that horses are easily frightened when the first lorry passes us, and I somehow avoid being dumped on the ground. I prefer wilder spaces. We quit this magical valley and start our ascent to just over 13,000 feet, where we stop to set up camp for the night. The sun has just dropped below the horizon, and it’s bitterly cold. We pitch the tent, which would be more suited to a beach in Bali than here! We don’t have any mattresses, but we huddle up to eat our meal in the tent, and we quickly fall into a deep sleep.
I wake to find everything is frozen outside. It’s 6.30, and today is the biggest day of my trip where nothing untoward wants to happen to me as I will be alone at over 13,000 feet.
Men rarely come up here. I set off in the cold, wearing layers of clothing. The climb is grueling, the rocks, the slope, and the shade. Once over the pass, at more than 14,400 feet, I am suddenly in a magical landscape of lakes, glaciers, peaks, and plains that opens out before me. To the south, I am struck by the extent of what I must tackle, the adventure is there, and I am here. This immense valley, of which I can only see the first few miles, will take me to Pamir.
I attack the descent carefully through the fields of shale. The stone here is so sharp that a calf muscle, a derailleur, or a tire, can be easily shredded. I must be careful without tiring myself, but I want to ride. Fully concentrated, I continue to plan my trajectory as if in a minefield. As if every yard was of utmost importance. I cut across the coombs and descend through the mountain pastures, tracing every inch of my route. There is no path to follow.
Further on, the route is carved into the flanks of the mountain. I need to ride and avoid crashing and breaking anything. Technical passage after technical passage, they follow one another; I ride beside a vertiginous gorge and then reach a flat and wide valley that marks the end of the hostile terrain. But there’s still another 15 ½ miles to go and a river to cross, which is, being alone, what I fear the most as the river will be extremely dangerous. I cross the first ford. The current is powerful, and I manage to keep hold of the bike. I get out of the water, frozen. I find the trail again and head towards the Pamir that suddenly reveals itself. It’s a mega slap in the face! Not only do I realize that my journey is coming to an end, but this is also a completely new landscape.
When I arrive in Sary Mogol, Umar, my contact, is expecting me. With incredible kindness, he guides me through this dusty village. It’s scorchingly hot. In just a few miles, I have gone from the coldness of the mountains to the heat of the desert. It is 4 p.m., and I have only had four biscuits to eat since yesterday evening.
At last, I get to eat an authentic meal that I wash down with a bottle of Coca-Cola! Once done, we load my bike onto Umar’s pick-up truck and head to the base camp of Lenin Peak. As we arrive at the edge of a constellation of lakes, the hanging glaciers are caught in the last rays of the sun. Night falls, and the temperature drops quickly. I meet up with Meder, my Kyrgyz photographer. We get to know each other; it’s an excellent opportunity to work together.
The next day, we head towards the ridge of Petrov Peak, a mountain frequently used by climbers to acclimatize. There is no question of going to the summit as you need ropes, crampons, and ice axes, but I’d like to get to 13,800 feet before it becomes mountaineering. The view from this ridge is nothing short of exceptional. We spend all afternoon there. We get to the base camp on the way back just as a storm breaks.
We wake up to a beautiful day, and the Lenin peak taunts us. We head to camp 1! I set off on the trail, the bike strapped to my back. I leave some things at the base camp, which means that I “only” have to carry about 55 lbs, including the bike. It’s far more reasonable. I’m on form and meet some French people, and, unbelievable as it might seem, I meet one of my Instagram followers! Crazy!
A Traveller’s Pass. We breakthrough 13,100 feet and set foot in the long valley that has been forged by tonnes of ice from the Pamir glacier. The stony descent on the other side of the pass is a joy on the bike, though well exposed. The steepest slopes must be traversed on the bike, or a fatal fall is certain.
The people I meet here, and even the mountaineers heading to the Lenin Peak, are amazed to see a bike at these heights. I ride across a fantastic landscape, pumped up by the magnetic energy flowing in this place. The temperature has dropped drastically. I finally made it to camp one by the end of the day.
The welcome at Tien Shan Travel is brilliant, with a hot shower and an excellent meal. I fall into a deep sleep, the wind beating the tent all night. The high altitude causes me to drop in and out of periods of apnoea; I wake tired. Meder is entirely out of it and feels unable to accompany me further. I leave alone with one crazy idea in my head. Let's see if I can make it to the summit at 16,900 feet. I lift the bike onto my back and begin to climb slowly.
At around 15,750 feet, I decide to stop my ascent as I am already beginning to toil and feel the dizzying effects of being at such a high altitude. I am not sure that I will be able to ride the area above me down because there is a rocky bar where you must climb straight up. And by this evening, I need to be back down to the valley bottom, as it’s my last day.
I throw in the towel; I think that I would need a whole day to make it to the top. I don’t have enough time, and I am exhausted but at the same time happy to have accomplished all that I have. I turn back and throw myself into an incredible ride to camp 1. I meet with Meder there, and we drop down into the Pamir plain. This is where my bike comes into its zone, flying down a mountain at full pelt. I spend the rest of my day waiting for Meder in a landscape that I will never get tired of looking at.
Once at base camp, I take my time and recover a little. My friend Umar arrives on time, as usual. We cross the Pamir plain under a threatening sky. From the 4WD’s radio resonates some traditional but rather sad music as if the country does not want me to leave. And at the same time, I don’t want to leave either. This country has given me so much. I have met so many lovely people, seen such magnificent landscapes, and completely disconnected from my life in the West.