Words | Sandra Williams Photos | Phil Green
Kyrgyzstan sounds dangerous. It’s landlocked mountainous borders with China, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and Tajikistan however seemingly isolate it from the rest of our crazy world. It’s like a Switzerland of Central Asia but with only an eighth of the population density. Where the sun bakes the mountains, filling rivers with snow melt, leaving alpine pastures of wild flowers and where the friendly Kyrgyz move at a slower pace of life on donkey and horseback with few cars.
It’s perfect cycle touring territory. Rolling meadows of nomadic farms beside lakes with quiet scenery to touch the soul, alpine passes to challenge the legs and the lungs and whooping great descents to yurt camps that build an appetite for homegrown and home cooked feasts.
I’m not going to tell you our exact route because that’s special between us and Escape Adventures, a perk of an assisted bike adventure where their guides and local contacts research the best routes, off the beaten track of other cycle tourers. Our guides on this trip, Brian Alder and Ashley Peters, knew their stuff and took us out of our comfort zone into a true adventure, cycling through rugged mountainscapes, over alpine passes and through stunning valleys where we glimpsed into the life in the ‘Land of the Kyrgyz’ staying in village homestays, yurt camps and in tents.
Our party was made up of our guides, two drivers an interpreter and 10 riders, originating from as far afield as Portland, Phoenix, Holland, Switzerland, Kyrgyztan, Golden Bay, Arrowtown, Wellington and Auckland. Our interests and dietary requirements were as diverse as our hometowns, a passion for cycling linked us and robust conversation was a theme of the trip. Some days the lunch conversations continued on for miles as we shared new views of the world.
After 12 days and 550 kilometres, I have a new appreciation for how far I can ride and the capability of a Sprinter Van and Kyrgyz drivers as they forded wash outs with our tents, food and gear and followed just out of sight as we navigated roads that were potholed, corrugated, rocky, sandy, hard packed, slow rolling and fast rolling all in the same day.
The trip begins and ends in the city of Bishkek. I arrived a couple of days early to deal with jetlag, get used to the heat of summer and to explore. The Silk Road passes through this friendly multicultural city with its solid Soviet architecture. A walking guide brought it to life for us with a story for every monument and within the stately tree filled parks there were many, each marking a significant moment in Kyrgyz or Soviet history. There’s signs of the Soviet past everywhere outside the city too, in contrast with the nomadic farming life where Yurts are camped next to ruins of communist farm buildings and machinery and water races that still flood irrigate the land. Vodka and beer are imported from Russia and made local and there’s plenty of variety to sample.
Every great adventure has great food memories and in this country of farms and orchards Kyrgyzstan delivers. Deep red tomatoes, refreshing cucumbers, eggplant, raspberries, strawberries, cherries, plums, apricots, nectarines and melons. Organic and sold at farmers markets to be envious of, alongside tightly packed alleys of sneakers, jeans and dresses and scented spices measured out and sold in paper wraps. The best meals are traditional Kyrgz and the style is influenced from its past as part of the Silk Road with added lashing of mutton added, and some horse. An open mind and adventurous palate is required, especially if you favour a vegetarian diet. If in doubt, there’s always boorsoq the local donuts.
Whilst I had the option to hire a bike, I chose to take my own, a Santa Cruz Highball 29er. After bike packing in New Zealand on it, I decided that the security of knowing I’d be comfortable on my own bike was worth the adventure of navigating air travel with it and packing spares to ensure I was self-sufficient. Lugging my bike through hot airports was soon forgotten as I appreciated my light hardtail and my wide carbon 29er wheels that allowed me to run high volume tyres at a lower comfortable pressure without risk of puncture.
Escape Adventures are John Etherington, Mandy Richards from Golden Bay. Their full-time passion is creating and leading adventurous cycle tours in stunning and interesting locations around the world to find the extraordinary. They have a travel agent they work with who are experienced in connecting travel to remote locations like Kyrgyzstan where getting there is half the fun.
My advice would be to get in now before the adventure seeking hordes of tourist discover it and change it for ever. It’s going to happen. We rode a short strip of new seal with relief because it was a rest from knarled gravel road but this also brought trepidation because it was a sign of things to come.