Kumis and Glaciers: Stories From Bicycle Touring Kyrgyzstan’s Tian Shan Mountains

Wild horses, high mountains, glaciers, and nomads—Ana Zamorano first heard stories of adventure and misadventure from bike touring in Kyrgyzstan while riding in The Andes. The allure of adventure was too enticing and she made a pact to experience the vast valleys and high passes of the Tian Shan Mountains herself. Read on for her retelling of a trip that included loaded high-altitude touring, a glimpse into the region’s nomadic culture, and endless mountains in the distance. 

The truth is that I have always dreamt of riding these great steppes, like the adventurous merchants who traversed this land to buy, sell, and trade wares between the East and West. What I never thought was that I would travel through this region on a heavy bike while carrying ally my travel essentials. Kyrgyzstan, and Central Asia broadly, had been a goal destination for a long time. Although it is true that the pandemic put a stop to my two-year trip through the Andes, Iran, and the Southern Caucasus, it did not dampen my desire to continue exploring this part of the globe.

This is what led me to dream up a plan and journey in Kyrgyzstan. This time I wasn’t alone and arrived with Diego. We would travel for twenty days through the first length of the Tian Shan mountain range located between Kyrgyzstan and China, where peaks reach the 7000 meters rise up in the midst of dreamlike landscapes.

Our journey started in the country’s capital, Bishkek. Founded in 1825, Bishtek is a relatively new city and I expected it to be bustling, but it turned out to be just the opposite. Upon first arrival, w spent time resting from the travel, setting up the bikes at our accommodation, and going to the central market to buy all the food we planned on carrying for the following days. Endless stands of nuts, noodles of all kinds, freshly baked bread, and huge watermelons awaited us. For the first time on a trip, I saw a quiet and well-organized market, without the hustle, bustle, and fixed prices. From day one, Kyrgyzstan was defying my expectations. The first contact with the locals and the first culinary test always marks the beginning of an experience from which you will surely not return the same person.

Once I was packed, it was time to visit some of the corners that this city has to offer to visitors. Between the summer heat and the long days, I was finally able to meet Nico in real life for the first time. He is an Italian I “met” a few years ago, thanks to a poster of his bike tour I saw in a mountain clothing store in the Dolomites. “Birds of a feather flock together,” as my grandmother would say. It was clear from our first meeting that Nico has a lot of energy and would make for an entertaining companion.

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 enormous peaks served as a constant backdrop throughout the walk through town and we could still appreciate them while we threw some darts in a typical stall, similar to a festival tombola within the central square of the capital.

Still, we were both feeling fatigued from travel and our much-anticipated crossing of the mountains would start the next day. Diego was quite intimidated by the upcoming experience as it was his first time bike touring outside Europe.

The well-known (among cyclists) Kegueti Pass would put us to the test during the first few days. It is a long ascent and it was during this climb that we encountered the first shepherds on horseback. They were managing their flocks with a bottle of vodka in their hand. We also had our first encounters with groups of locals in search of the fresh waterfalls that are found in the first portion of the pass. Through all of this, we kept on focus on gradually gaining elevation, no matter the speed.

Our bikes were loaded down with a week’s worth of food along with the basic equipment for wild camping, including waterproofing clothing. With our bags and panniers filled to the brim, the bikes were a struggle to pedal. The landscape did not help as we were often stopping to take photos of the scenery around us. However, the memorable parts of bike touring are not the number of kilometers you do per day, but the experiences you leave with. By halfway up the pass we were already completely alone in the middle of that long and steep valley with its peaks dressed in pure white.

The next goal was getting as close as possible to the top of the pass. For the first two days clear skies followed us, definitely not a common occurrence in this part of Kyrgyzstan. However, the third day dawned with a humid fog and a continuous gift of tiny raindrops. The path was difficult to navigate due to the lack of visibility. The stones in the path started to get bigger and bigger and pedaling became more of a chore in some sections. There were times when we were forced to get off and push our heavy bikes through the rubble.

Our local bikepacking group of friends has the well-known saying that “if we don’t push on a route, then it isn’t a proper route.” I was off the bike pushing and just looking at the ground when we suddenly bumped into a French cyclist who was coming from the opposite direction. He let us know that a little further up, two hundred horses were blocking the road to the highest point of Kegueti. Following the French cyclist, we also met as two shepherds wearing capes on horseback. They were definitely looking for something and we will never know what it was. Without a common language and solely relying on gestures, it’s really difficult to gain an understanding on occasions like this.

We continued on our way to the top of the pass and boom! A massive herd of Kyrgyz horses cluttered the track ahead. Between my skills acquired as a child with my grandparents’ horses and the romanticized attempt to be a shepherdess, I was able to move the horses to allow us to continue on our way. After pushing the bikes over a first snowfield, the two shepherds we had met further down caught up to us again. We finally crossed over the top of the pass altogether including the incredible herd. The scene was straight out of a movie: the atmosphere dense with a mystical fog, two hundred heads of horses, two shepherds on horseback with their dogs, and Diego and I pushing our bikes behind all of them. In no time we lost sight of them evaporating on the last slopes of the valley once they crossed the pass.

While the horses climbed the last slope through the snow, we took an alternative path in parallel where there was a less marked trail. Removing the panniers from each bike and pushing them one by one up through a short snowy hill was our most exciting task. After going up and down the same ridge several times, we smiled with satisfaction when we realized that we managed to reach 3,780 meters (12,402′).

We knew the last part of the pass had to be done around noon because of the brittle terrain of the Southern face compared to the North. What we didn’t know was that it would feel like jumping from one world to another as if an imaginary line was drawn by nature. The views from the top were just incredible. The white of the snow stood in contrast to the reddish, grayish, brownish, and intense green colors of the earth. Standing there, we got a real understanding of why this tiny country is called “the Switzerland of Central Asia.”

The start of our descent on the southern face began. Most importantly, we first celebrated Diego’s first great mountain pass, which he’d endured like a true bikepacker. The Southern face of Kegeti is a narrow and relatively technical descent with a heavy bike. It only reveals glimpses of the best path to follow once you get halfway down. The fatigue and the rise in temperatures became increasingly noticeable as we lost altitude. Distracted by the frequent short breaks to snack on some nuts, we hardly realized that we’d left the less traveled trails behind. A wide gravel path welcomed us ahead. It was time to enjoy a well-deserved descent and continue appreciating the views of the south face with a thousand meters remaining below. This new perspective of the landscape left us speechless. We would descend to a crossroads that we will always remember, not only because of the landscape but because it was here that we first encountered a nomadic family next to their yurt.

Setting up our camp close by, we were able to enjoy our first shower in the river nearby as well as enjoy our time with the two young brothers of the nomadic family. We showed them our camping gear, some photos from our rural villages in Europe, and the route we were doing.

The journey to the city of Naryn was not easy and it would mark the end of Diego’s first bike touring experience outside Spain. Pedaling several mountain passes through incredibly long valleys that were once massive glaciers can be as exciting as it is exhausting. The most rewarding and beautiful thing was being surprised by the route itself. After Kegueti, which was the only pass Diego read about because it was his first big climb, our route was more or less unknown to us.

Karakol Pass left us speechless. In fact, we could not ride for more than a couple of minutes before needing to stop and take pictures. The yurts were full of nomadic families going about their daily chores. All the herds of sheep, cows, and horses around them gave us an idea of the Kyrgyz’s daily life. The way the small white dots dispersed on the huge green Kyrgyz slopes was just incredible. The horses galloped between yurts, the glaciers shone on the horizon and families greeted us from afar stretching out their arms. We ended up meeting two boys who, in one of those breaks that my right knee asked for, approached us with wide smiles and a bottle of fermented milk to offer us.

Time is everything for the nomadic people. Winter is extremely harsh in these lands. The brief summer break is used to mold and dry the cattle dung, which will later serve as fuel for heating and cooking during the winter. In the same way, the horses and mares, sheep, and cows feed on good pastures, offering better milk from which they obtain one of the most valued products by the Kyrgyz: kumis, a kind of mare’s kefir. They also make butter that we couldn’t stop eating every time we had the chance to spread it on good local bread.

The glaciers in the background approached and receded as we made our ascents and descents through the various passes of up to 3,800 meters. None was as exciting as the first or as amazing as the second. However, we connected through them we connected valleys, towns, and people until we together reached Naryn. The second part of the trip was about going solo, like in the old times.

Naryn- Karakol was my goal and that would mark the end point of a route through the Tian-Shan. As Kyrgyzstan is becoming a popular destination among cyclists, I was able to share the second stage with two other cyclists. Johnny, a guy from Berlin, and Martuki, another woman from the Basque. Arabel Pass was long and we experienced new encounters with nomads, frequent short storms, and stunning landscapes that were already dry because of the sun. Clothes were dried in different yurts along the way and we found ourselves sharing the road to the border with China with four guys from Israel.

Kyrgyzstan is undoubtedly a country that offers stunning landscapes and guaranteed adventure for those who seek it. In our case, it was not only a life experience itself but a route that creates a ‘before and after’ point in our journey together. We said goodbye to the glacier rivers that provided our afternoon showers, the delicious homemade butter, and the incredible views that were constant throughout our trip. But the adventure is never completely tapped, and there’s more to see here.