I’ll be honest, the thought of a new bike is not something that really gets me terribly excited these days. The places it can take me and the people I will meet along the way? Definitely! But when a post pops up on this site or any of the other bike-related sites I visit that starts getting into new-fangled hub spacings or microscopic geometry tweaks and angles, my brain tends to glaze over and forcibly pushes my hand toward clicking on the next article. The things I look for when selecting a bike for my next big trip are based almost entirely on practicality and reliability. I just want a bike that I don’t have to think about.
After our ride through the Bartang Valley, we arrived at the mighty Panj, a 921-kilometer long river that forms a significant portion of the border between Tajikistan and Afghanistan. Our next stretch of riding would take us along the river on the Tajik side for roughly 285 kilometers as we gradually climb through the lower Wakhan valley back up into the high Pamir mountains.
The North Country Trail
Way back in the mid-80’s I was born about 30 minutes outside of Detroit, Michigan. The area I was in did not exactly lend itself to cycling becoming a hobby at the time, so I really never became interested in bikes and the outdoors until I moved to California and found the mountains as an adult. Fast forward to 2020 when my plans to ride through far-flung mountains in Asia all summer came grinding to a halt along with everyone else’s lives, I found myself back in Michigan for an unknown period of time.
2019. It feels like an entirely different timeline at this point. For months as the Coronavirus has shifted the focus of our lives, I sat on these articles covering the rest of my time in Asia, wondering if they felt relevant at a time like this. Or when the next time would be that I’d see a photo that reminds me of when kind-hearted villagers would invite a random weirdo like me into their homes with open arms and not find it as bitter as it is sweet.
Up to this point, the route-finding came easy in Kyrgyzstan. The North-Eastern zone of the country has seen its fair share of bikepackers floating along its gravel tracks to weed through the wealth of options available. As we made our way south from the small oasis city of Baetov, our direction was less clear. We knew we’d be heading for Northern Tajikistan, but had no real idea about how we’d end up there or what type of riding we’d be in for along the way.
Author’s Note: This article was originally written almost 4 years ago, but was shelved after thinking I had lost a majority of the photos to a failed drive. After I managed to find many of the lost photos on an old SD card, I figured it was still worth sharing the last trip that inspired me to quit my job and travel the world by bike…
At 7am the alarm went off (feel free to cue up the “waves” ringtone on your iPhone to set the mood). We were in our cushy-ish hotel in Naryn city after having a couple of days off to rest. This is ALWAYS when it is hardest to pry yourself from the grips of city comforts. Knowing that we had more than a week between towns of any significance on the horizon only added to the challenge of getting moving.
“You’re sleeping in a tent out there? Aren’t you worried about them?” a girl from Kyrgyzstan’s capital city who was enjoying a weekend trip to the local favorite Song-Kul lake asked us. I thought to myself wondering what she might be referring to. After a moment she realized our confusion and clarified… “The Wolves”.
We arrived in the Kyrgyz city of Karakol in what has become a familiar state after a stretch in the wilderness… tired, hungry, desperate for a shower, and in need of clean clothes. It’s true that civilization never feels better than when you’ve been away from it for a handful of days, and for us, the timing was perfect to reset and not think about the bike or riding for at least a moment.
Three years ago when I was tossing around the idea of a long-term bikepacking trip, I had two primary options on my mind. There was Peru and the Andes of South America, which I had a tiny bit of familiarity with given my short previous stint there, and then the wild card… Kyrgyzstan. A small former Soviet country dotted with lakes and covered in glaciated peaks as tall as 24,400 feet. With a rich nomadic history due to its place on the ancient Silk Road trading route that passed through from neighboring China, it makes for an ideal locale to load up your bike and get lost in the mountains. So even while I was still in Patagonia, I was scouring maps of Central Asia for the possibilities that awaited in the faraway lands of the Kyrgyz Republic.
When I started this trip through South America almost 3 years ago I had no idea what to expect. My bicycle “touring” experience could all be summed up in a tumultuous three week trip to Perú where I spent half of the time with my head hovering over a toilet while suffering from typhoid and a quick one week trip through Norway that resulted in an emergency room visit with frostbite on my toes that still affects me today. I was working on roughly a 5% success rate. Would I quit my “stable job” of almost ten years only to head off into the Andes all by myself and realize that this just wasn’t my thing? Come crawling back a few weeks later, asking for a do-over? I honestly had no idea and these were extremely realistic possibilities in my mind. All I knew was that I’d regret it if I didn’t try.
The Carretera Austral is without a doubt South America’s bicycle touring capital. No place on this continent sees a higher influx of Ortlieb-clad folks from around the world looking to enjoy Patagonia’s natural wonders. With good reason too. There’s a more advanced tourist infrastructure, bringing more luxuries from back home more frequently along the way (toilets and hot showers are cool). The challenge-to-scenery ratio along the Austral is also extremely generous, and the road surface suits just about any bike you can strap a few bags to. You don’t have to suffer too much to have a good time in nature here.
If you had told me 5 years ago that I’d be riding across a 7-foot deep river in Argentinian Patagonia on a horse with a bike hoisted on top, I would have probably said you’ve gone off the deep end, yet here we are.
While I’d already been into the area that is technically considered Patagonia a couple of times by this point, entering towns like Pucón in Chile, and San Martin de Los Andes in Argentina marked a noticeable shift from all of the regions I’d been in previously, which still felt largely unchanged by tourism. It was still quite early in the season for the hordes of travelers to have taken over these places, but the signs are there. Fancy chocolate shops. Overpriced hostels. Cafes on every street corner selling $8 artisanal muffins to a looping soundtrack of Adele and Sam Smith.
Howdy, you wonderful people. After pushing the limits of his ultralight bikepacking tent, Ryan and I think it’s time to move on to a more rebust platform. Right now, we’re looking at the Hyperlite or the Zpacks tents but wanted to reach out to you, the readers, to see what experiences you have had with tents? High winds, rain, and constant use are the deciding factors we’re concerned with. What thoughts do you have?
Winter is Coming to Lanín of Neuquén
Photos and words by Ryan Wilson
The signs are all there. Only a couple of weeks ago the autumn nights were just “a bit chilly”. The rainstorms came and went over a matter of hours. Now they linger on for days as the snow line along the mountain top creeps slowly down the hill. Campsites aren’t picked by the most scenic view to wake up to, the most practical surface, or the most secluded location. Now I’m looking for the spot with the best line-of-site to where the sun will creep over the horizon the next day. Put the tent right next to a road? OK. In direct sight of houses? Sure. A few days of stuffing a still iced-over tent into your bags with numb hands has a way of shifting your priorities.
Autumn Amongst the Araucarias
Photos and words by Ryan Wilson
After committing to spending another winter cruising around South America, I figured I might as well go all-in. With no focus on getting much further south where the weather would be turning toward ‘unpleasant for bike touring’ even sooner, I instead looked to embrace the short window of perfect Autumn riding that was dropped in front of me, and go over Chile’s mountainous Araucanía region with a fine-tooth comb.
This area is often overlooked by folks making a bee-line for Southern Patagonia, but it is a favorite amongst the local Chileans looking to escape the city during the summer, highlighted by a seemingly endless string of volcanoes, lakes, and forests filled with Araucaria trees. These tall and spiky evergreens, sometimes referred to as “monkey puzzle trees” give the region its name, and are often considered sacred to the natives of this area who are known as the Mapuche.
El Camino de Los Huasos: A Ride Through the Central Chilean Andes
Photos and words by Ryan Wilson
More than anything else, I’ve learned two things in my time in Northern Argentina and Chile. First and foremost, never trust a zipper. Little known fact: over 8.9 million zippers have been destroyed in Argentina’s desert in 2018 alone. OK, so maybe I made that up, but if I owned 8.9 million zippers that would definitely be true. The second lesson? Avoid shipping here at all costs, but if you must, you’d better have it planned out well in advance. Unfortunately, after damaging my derailleur and a number of other pieces of equipment in the harsh northern desert, planning and shipping in advance were not really on the table, so upon arriving in the sprawling urban center of Chile known as Santiago, my trip was in the notoriously slow hands of the Chilean customs offices and postal system.