On their fourth trip to Kyrgyzstan, Belén Castello and Tristan Bogaard return for Tristan to ride the 2023 Silk Road Mountain Race. But with a few days on their hands before the start, they decide to blaze a new 250-mile route that circumnavigates the Ala-Too, from the capital of Bishkek. With hopeful hearts and full panniers, they start their ride by setting out over Kegeti Pass (12,401′). After surmounting the pass, tragedy strikes as Tristan falls ill. Things aren’t always sunsets and tailwinds on bike tours, so come take a journey through accepting defeat in the beautiful mountains and valleys of Kyrgyzstan.
Kyrgyzstan is a double-edged sword. The first time we visited back in 2018 we immediately fell prey to its charms. The palpable nature of the nomadic culture, as well as the vast landscapes, quickly captivated our senses. But nothing there is a given, the price to pay for such memorable experiences comes in the form of swiftly-changing weather, steep gradients, nutritional limitations, and sickness.
Tristan’s admission to participate in the 2023 edition of the Silk Road Mountain Race meant we would, for the fourth time, have a chance to return to Kyrgyzstan. The previous year we had scouted and developed a new bikepacking route in the far south, which we called Expedition Alay. Now having another reason to return to one of our favorite bikepacking destinations got us thinking about working on another route closer to the capital.
The Ala-Too (“snowy mountain”) range lies just south of Bishkek, and creates seemingly impenetrable wall of massifs that separates the city from more rural areas. With a week on our hands and not wanting to depend on local transport, we decided to design “The Bishkek Spectacular” a loop around these mountains, starting and finishing in the capital, that would complement the already existing cross-country bikepacking network.
Currently, there are only three clear ways to traverse the Ala-Too range by bike: Shamshy or Kegeti pass to the east, or the busy Too-Ashuu pass to the west. We started by studying satellite map layers of the range, in search of a vague opening, but time after time our curser got trapped by a dead-end glacier. Even though we desperately wanted to find a new way through the mountains, all uncharted options seemed like too risky of a gamble. ‘The Bishkek Spectacular would instead be a friendlier and more accessible tour for riders of all loads and levels who are not shy about covering some miles on tarmac.
Departure days are always hard for us. We wake up surrounded by the comforts of a soft bed, hot shower, and nutritious breakfast only to eschew it all for the sake of what your subconsciousness craves and calls “a sense of adventure.” The first day out is usually a transition period, where things are not yet too exciting and we set up camp knowing that the place we left behind that morning, and all of its conveniences, are still temptingly within reach. But the bait tends to dissipate by the next morning when we unzip our tent and see, in the far distance, the soft light illuminating the peaks we are headed towards.
The first leg of the road up to Kegeti Pass (3,800 m) is easygoing, curling its way through several quiet villages, until you reach the base of the climb. Here, little shed-like shops abound, selling all sorts of snacks and, given the close-to-heat-stroke temperatures we were cycling in, we took all opportunities to buy ice cream and cold sodas. Soon after the last town, a lingering climb of 47 km and 2,800 m navigates upstream following the Kegeti River through coniferous trees until reaching alpine meadows. The afternoons in Kyrgyzstan tend to bring storms and, on this day, we got hit by strong winds and hail, forcing us to seek shelter under one of the pine trees next to the road. Because it’s in the SRMR packing list, Tristan was carrying an emergency blanket for the first time so we pulled it over ourselves to stay dry and warm as we waited out the storm. What a genius item!
On the third morning, we woke up determined to make it over Kegeti Pass. The fallen rocks on the track made the ascent more treacherous but, as with any climb, the views got more and more spectacular as we went up, serving as a motivational painkiller for our sore legs. For hours we cruised alongside two shepherds who were herding a couple of dozen horses back to their village 100 km away.
– “Atkuda?” One yelled our way.
– “Spanja, Galandia.” We replied.
Our Russian vocabulary is almost non-existent, but we learned this one fast as every local seems to be extremely interested in knowing where you come from. We “chatted” our way up the pass and then went our separate ways close to the summit. As it turns out, horses are better at keeping up the pace at high altitudes.
At the summit, we were elated—We made it. We’d climbed Kegeti.
Theoretically, every climb brings a rewarding descent. This doesn’t necessarily apply in Kyrgyzstan, though, as in our experience you still have to walk your bike down for a few kilometers before you get to reap your hard-earned rewards. Kegeti was no different. A landslide had washed out the road some years ago and today the opening section of the descent is guarded by a mess of slate debris that wants to shift and slide under your tires. The views, though, provided quite the show with snow-capped peaks in the background, green velvet hillsides in the middle distance, and a graveyard of rock fragments cascading down to our feet. The puffy clouds created contrasting patches of light and shade, and once we were over the jagged chaos, it was all smooth rolling until the valley.
Karakol Valley encompasses the essence of Kyrgyzstan: a lush, green plain with glaciers in the background and scattered sheep, goats, cows, yaks, and horses grazing around the yurts. A feeling of ease set in as this pastoral views accompanied us to the next climb. Guess what we had for dinner that night? Buckwheat, fried onion, and potatoes. Our Kyrgyz special!
I beat my record for longest ride the next day, clocking 98 hard kilometers. It may not sound like much, but to me, when touring, it’s a lot! When touring, we mostly cycle off-road and average around 1,000 meters of climbing per day; we’re not out there for the stats but for the love of stopping and taking in the views. The ride to Susammyr was quite a breeze, perhaps the thought of a cold drink and ice cream had something to do with it. Upon arriving, we filled up our bottles, greeted some of the kids, and dove into the local shop to stock up on snacks and other food. On our way out, we stopped at a little restaurant serving basic dishes and we filled up our bellies. By this point, even the simplest of foods tasted like a heavenly meal, and fueling up was very necessary as the next day we’d be facing the next 3,800-meter pass, Too-Ashuu.
Fast forward to that evening when I woke up to a deep roaring sound, coming unfortunately from Tristan, who had to run out of the tent to throw up. “That’s it.” I thought. “It happened again.”
Travelers’ sickness, in the form of diarrhea and vomiting, are common when traveling in Kyrgyzstan. Chances are that you’ll be struck by either during your trip. If you are lucky, it’s just a few hours but these ailments can linger with you for days.
After six episodes of Tristan throwing up under the starry sky that night, we both were haggard and sleep deprived by first light. I found Tristan sitting on his chair under his sleeping bag looking drained and I couldn’t imagine a way for him to cycle up another crazy pass. I started looking for a way to keep going but if there’s something I’ve learned from past experiences you sometimes have to let go of your expectations, and that’s OK. Acting only on the events that we could control, which was getting Tristan to a comfortable and safe place to recover, made the most sense.
We shook our white flag and surrendered.
I guess that in some way, Kyrgyzstan won this time.
Riding there is not easy and finishing any trip won’t happen without the proper attitude and accepting that you are in for an adventure. Perhaps that’s exactly what keeps pulling us back to the remote corners of Kyrgyzstan: the challenge and its worthy rewards. To me, bikepacking is about finding the right balance between the physical and mental demands, and the beautiful experiences or jaw-dropping views that you get to sit back and enjoy.
“The Bishkek Spectacular” is one sweet loop that, without having to get far from the capital, will showcase many of the country’s treasures. This route has a bit of everything and will connect you to the land you are traveling through, bringing you closer to its culture and people. It’s close to being fully ridable with enough resupply points to not have to carry excessive weight, and will occasionally make you scream out loud from joy.
So if you are coming to Bishkek and only have a few days to ride, this might be the right fit for you. Do let us know if you succeed—we’d love to hear more about the part we missed.