I woke up to the sounds of a struggling motorcycle engine. When I set up my tent the previous night I’d pushed my bike up a tiny double-track offshoot road that steeply climbed to an isolated hilltop. I was perched above the primary road that already gets very little traffic and totally out of sight, but with the sound of that engine, I knew the motorcycle wasn’t simply cruising by on the road below, it was making its way up toward me.
Narrowing down my setup for Turkey was a bit tricky compared to some of my previous trips. In particular, because half of my gear that I was using in Central Asia was stranded in Nepal on lockdown, I’d have to try to piece together a rig using older equipment I had lying around as well as a handful of new additions to round it out.
To start, I picked up a Surly Bridge Club. I originally had intended only to have it as a do-it-all bike while I was home, but when I found out I was heading to Turkey, I was intrigued to see how an off-the-shelf $1150 bike with entry-level components would fare compared to higher-end setups like my 44 Bikes Marauder and Tumbleweed Prospector. I’ll post my full thoughts on the Bridge Club soon, but in the meantime, here is my full kit list along with six pieces of gear that stood out in the Taurus Mountains.
The world works in mysterious ways. Until 2020 hit hard and crashed my plans to return to Nepal (and beyond), I never really had Turkey too high on my radar. Off the top of my head, I could have probably listed at least ten or fifteen countries that I was clamoring to ride in before I’d mention the Mediterranean nation that hugs the border between Europe and Asia. Then a series of events kicked off that resulted in me booking a last-minute flight to the Turkish seaside city of Antalya.
(note: this story took place before the pandemic)
The Annapurna circuit has been around as an established trekking route for over 40 years, but parts have existed for trade between the Tibetan plateau and the Manang and Muktinath valleys for far longer. Today it’s one of the most famous places to hike in the world, and one of Nepal’s primary tourist draws. Over the last decade or so it has become famous for the herds of backpackers and yaks that often fill the trail during the peak seasons (spring and fall), and slowly the trail is being replaced by roads to make it easier to bring supplies to these tourist-filled villages.
Note: This story took place before the pandemic
The wheels hadn’t even touched the runway on our flight from Kyrgyzstan to Nepal and I already knew we were in for something completely different than the summer and fall we spent in the quiet and remote regions of Central Asia. As we began our descent, I could see the rolling hills that separate the lowlands from the high Himalayan mountains. This area, known as the “mid-hills”, was where we’d spend the bulk of our first couple of weeks in Nepal.
From the air, I watched an endless sea of zig-zagging roads, villages, and terraced hillsides that stretched as far as the eye could see. This tangled web of life came to a dramatic crescendo of tightly-packed buildings and chaos as Kathmandu finally came into view. These were certainly not going to be the untouched and sparsely populated valleys you might find while roaming the countryside in Kyrgyzstan, but change is a good thing. Being thrust into new and sometimes even uncomfortable situations is what makes bike touring so rewarding.
(Note: This story took place before the pandemic)
Following our ride along the Tajik/Afghan border, Chrissa and I paused for a few days in Tajikistan’s capital city of Dushanbe to soak up the local culture and stock up at the grand bazaar. Even in the biggest city in the country, the outgoing personality of the Tajik people comes through. Where in a typical city of this size the locals would mostly keep to themselves, here it was very common for people to stop and chat with us on the street, asking what brought us to their country and giving us tips about places to visit in the city.
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.