Following the Tien Shan Traverse – part 1

Last summer a small group of bikepackers put together a route that traversed a huge variety of Kyrgyzstan landscapes over 1000km from Lake IssyKul to Bishkek. We were planning to finish our 3 month ‘Stan bike oddesy by following this route they named The Tien Shan Traverse*.

Having just completed the first third we can say that the last 6 days biking have been some of the best ever, phenomenal even… the photos below do not even do it justice

From our homestay in Kyzyl Suu, it was 5km on the highway before turning up the road that would take us deep into the mountains. The cloud hung around the tops which was not good for mountain vistas but made for cooller temps for the start of our journey at only 1500m. Initially it was a landscape of 2 halves, ahead of us were forested, snow capped mountains and looking back it was desert ‘scapes with a distinctive orange band of sandstone.

We were biking up into our first pine forested valley for 2 months and were almost drooling at the tall healthy pines and lush green meadows alongside the clear bubbling main creek. We stuck to our ‘start early, finish early’ routine and camped in a beautiful meadow and were able to enjoy the first campfire of the trip that evening after the afternoon rain showers cleared.

We had clear skies next morning and a gorgeous ride up to where the river splits. Summer grazing of cows (predominantly) finished below the major fork and we saw the local milk truck picking up milk from the topmost camp before bouncing its way back down the rough track picking up milk as it went – the tank possibly filled with more butter than cream by the time it got 50km back down to the main road.

At the fork we crossed a side branch before the climbing started in earnest. Up past a beautiful aqua lake, above which the rocky steep track reduced us to ‘hike a biking’ for a few kms before reaching the larger silt ladened lake and a lunch spot where we were harrassed by horse flies.

Up steeply some more after lunch to a sweet campsite at 3500m, that was a very steep, rough km from the plateau – tomorrow’s objective. It had been a tough climb to there, possibly not helped by the 600ml of kefir yoghurt in my pannier and other goodies – we do have high cullinery standards even with 6 days food on board.

As we settled in, the afternoons thunderstorm set in with lightening flashes and some of the loudest thunder booms I’ve heard ricocheting off the cliffs above. It cleared by dinner time and we had an evening walk to take our unladened bikes to the plateau rim to make life easier in the morning. On return our campsite seemed naked without the bikes.

Next morning we carried our gear up to the top and packed our bikes for some riding, we were psyched to have the majority of the ascent behind us. Ahead of us was a gently uphill sloping large plateau ringed by glacier capped mountains and ridges.

It was not possible for vehicles to ascend our route but vehicles had come in from the plateau side so we rode a combination of vague tracks or followed our noses across the lumpy, bumpy grassy terrain. I struggle to describe with words how beautiful it was.

At times we had to push when it was too wet underfoot but none of it was a chore with the views in all directions. A couple of significant river crossings later and we found ourselves on a very wide, smooth, fast gold mining road for a few km’s before we turned off onto a well formed track that would take us to the highest point of our plateau journey and yet another winning campsite.

In the previous 3 days it was hard to believe we had only covered 85kms on paper but the effort involved and variety of landscapes seen made it feel like 300..