THE YURT LOCKER
Enduring six-hour climbs, ierce storms, glacial meltwater baths and yak-hair mattresses, Dan Milner seeks out Kyrgyzstan’s epic mountain trails
A pioneering MTB adventure across Kyrgyzstan with yurts, yaks and energy-sapping 4,000m climbs
The horse was tall and muscled. Its rider Aibek, not so much. He was maybe nine years old and his feet just touched the heavy stirrups that hung almost redundantly below him. At home, this would be like seating a nine-year-old behind the wheel of a Maserati, sliding its seat forward and hoping for the best. But here Aibek manoeuvred his horse with the skill and confidence of a rider three times his age – and right now I was glad he could. Aibek’s horse was our taxi across fast, glacial meltwaters and my fate lay in his hands. Perched behind him, my bike sandwiched awkwardly between us, we lurched over piles of loose gravel to reach the far riverbank. For Aibek, riding through this wilderness was just a regular day – or at least it would have been if he didn’t have a mountain biker clinging nervously to his back. We were the first he’d ever seen.
Safely deposited on the far bank, we were soon back on our bikes and following Aibek to the end of our day’s ride, a huddle of yurts pitched on golden grasslands overshadowed by glacial giants. Storm clouds darkened overhead as we kicked off dirty bike shoes to enter a dark yurt. The warmth was welcoming and we sat on thick, patterned carpets while our host, dressed in an intricately embroidered waistcoat, served us chai. A broad smile spanned her round face, before she left us to ponder where we were and what we were doing here. It dawned on us that, 3,500m up on the side of a mountain in Kyrgyzstan, we really had little idea of what was coming next. But then, that had been the story of the last five days. Kyrgyzstan was a place to expect the unexpected.
Aibek’s equine Uber service was just one of many unusual experiences that were shaping a pioneering eight-day ride through Kyrgyzstan’s south-western Alai Mountains. Nestled between China, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and the Borat-tainted Kazakhstan, this Central Asian country is already plied by adventurous bikepackers. They pound the Pamir Highway in search of masochistic enlightenment, but remain blinkered to Kyrgyzstan’s endless singletrack, which sits out of view among the surrounding peaks – their loss, because there’s plenty. In a country where the horse dominates everything from transport infrastructure to restaurant menus (‘rectum of a horse and abdominal fat’ anyone?), the Kyrgyz people’s thousand-year-old equine culture has left a legacy of tantalising ridable trails among the mountains that blanket the country.
Lure of the wild
It had been curiosity regarding what these horse trails had to offer that had sparked plans with H+I Adventure’s Euan Wilson a year earlier. Helped by suggestions from Kyrgyz trekking guide Dimitry Kaliyuk, who’d also be organising support for us, we’d sketched a route starting south of the town of Osh and finishing eight days and 140km later at the base of Lenin Peak – at 7,134m, Kyrgyzstan’s second-highest mountain and a lure to alpinists. Between these two points would lie a string of semi-nomadic yurt camps, wild unridden valleys, several 4,000m passes and nearly 5,000m of climbing – exactly the kind of ingredients to entice Red Bull riders René Wildhaber and Tom Oehler and videographer Douglas Tucker to join us.
But now, unrolling our sleeping bags among the musky odours of a yak-wool-shrouded yurt, the experiences were piling up so thick and layered that the initial, excited flurry of pre-trip emails seemed a lifetime ago – as did the rain-soaked start to our ride atop Kyzyl-Kasa pass just a few days earlier. From that first push on the pedals, accompanied by a drumroll of thunder, we dived into an unfamiliar world defined by a sensory overload of barking dogs, galloping horses, snorting yaks and always jagged, towering peaks. Plastered in mud, we pulled to a stop that evening among aging Ladas, their perseverance standing testament to either Russian resilience or the skills of Kyrgyz mechanics. Hanging our gear to dry on an electric cable that doubled as a washing line, we gulped down bowls of mysterious stew and peered up at a seemingly impenetrable wall of rock that dwarfed our yurt.
“Tomorrow we climb to 3,800m,” muttered our guide Dimitry in an almost apologetic tone, before adding
needlessly: “It’ll be hard.” We soon learned that Dimitry was given to understatements. The climb to the 3,854m Kumbel Pass took us nearly six hours. After just two, the gravel road we followed gave out to off-camber singletrack. We pedalled and pushed but were ultimately left kicking steps up a steep scree face.
Climbing above the height of the Alps’ highest cable car, we were ushered on not by the echoes of cowbells but by the cheers of four horsemen. Steering the seven horses that hauled our group gear across the most remote stages of our traverse, these energetic Kyrgyz riders threw us thumbs-ups in encouragement, before distracting us from our slog with stunning displays of horsemanship. At one point a rider vaulted onto the back of his horse in one seamless move. “He is local champion,” said Gena, an older horseman dressed head-to-foot in camo, pointing at Chingiz. Chingiz isn’t a champion in leapfrog, but the national sport of buzkashi, an anarchic version of no-rules polo played with a headless goat carcass as a ball.
Summiting that first high pass rewarded our breathless efforts with a 1,600 vertical metre descent down a trail that might have been built just for bikes. We dropped down into a steep-sided valley, its enormous multicoloured rock walls standing like enormous Dulux colour charts around us, before exiting fast and loose an hour later alongside a tumbling, crystal clear river. Kyrgyzstan’s trail rewards are there to be reaped if you’re willing to earn them it seems – a lesson that was driven home over the next few days by a succession of high passes followed by incredible descents.
By day three, when we summited the 3,287m KoshMoinok pass, acclimatisation was easing the climbs, but any chance of stopping to rest at its summit was dispatched by rumbles of thunder and flashes of lightning that lit up the peaks around us. We descended the best trail of the trip –a perfect, naturally-bermed path that slashed a line of black dirt through vivid green pastures – in a torrential downpour, and when we reached our simple guesthouse in Kyzyl Shoro village, we were spitting grit from broad smiles. We sluiced mud from our legs helped by a bucket-wielding, smiling toddler and washed our bikes in a nearby stream. Once dry and inside the guesthouse, as a spread of hot dishes was laid out before us on the thickly-carpeted floor, we learned that winter temperatures drop to -40ºC here. I glanced at the outhouse toilet through the house’s rattling, single-glazed windows and tried to imagine life in this remote corner of Kyrgyzstan in winter. I couldn’t .
We rode away from the guesthouse next morning in damp clothes left steaming in the warm sunshine, pedalling past the village mosque and into clouds of dust raised by passing trucks heading to a nearby coal mine. We had a 15km, 1,500m climb ahead but spirits were high, ignited by interactions with locals – a family gathered around an outdoor clay oven handed us fresh-baked flat bread, and we stopped for chai in a yurt of another. We also saw our first other foreign tourists – a small trekking group descending the trail we were climbing. Their bewildered expressions gave a nod to the 4,303m Sary Mogul pass that lay waiting for us. Six hours later we reached our camp spot – a small plateau nestled at 3,900m, just below the pass. Here, between vast, hanging glaciers
I took my first bath in four days. Dipping in the glacial river, it was perhaps the quickest bath I’ve ever taken.
We climbed the Sary Mogul pass at first light next morning. The highest in our trip, its narrow, loose and steep climb was also the most committing. But despite the difficulty getting there, when we squeezed onto its narrow summit ridge – a unique cluster of grubby mountain bikers, laughing horsemen and farting horses – we found we were sharing it with more trekkers, who mumbled in French and Hebrew under enormous backpacks, It seemed we’d joined a popular hiking trail.
Rolling off the tiny pass on a trail that was scarily offcamber but well trodden, we immersed ourselves in a new landscape of glacier-capped unnamed peaks. Crossing the pass began a new chapter for our journey, one that would replace the solitude of our initial days with yurts busy with climbers at the Lenin Peak camp. Pedalling out of the descent and jumping on the back of a pickup truck for a dusty, hour-long shuttle ride out of the valley to Sary Mogul town, we passed the yurts, horses and yaks that have shaped Kyrgyzstan’s 2,000-year history. These living ingredients of an ancient way of life sat next to dozens of old Soviet railway carriages, each now perched trackless on the dirt and upcycled into houses, with incongruous licks of smoke curling upwards from projecting chimneys.
Two days later we were standing on the top of our final pass, the 4,133m Travellers Pass, looking across a lumpy sea of ice dotted with islands of grey moraine. This was the end point of our 140km ride, and faced by an impenetrable wall of ice that rose impossibly to Lenin Peak’s summit, we accepted that this was the domain of sweaty, ice-axe-wielding climbers. We U-turned and steered our bikes back down the trail we’d climbed earlier. The descent was fast and playful, a dozen switchbacks leading to a buff ribbon of singletrack that wound its way lazily through rolling grassland. At last, for the first time in eight days of once-in-a-lifetime experiences, we knew what to expect.