The Route for SRMR No1.
This is a blog post that I’ve been meaning to write for a while now, to talk about how the route for SRMR No1. took shape, the work involved and the people that contributed to the final result. There were some fantastic people along the way who really helped us piece together a coherent route that we’re excited to share with riders for SRMR No1. There were also lots of dead ends and sections that will hopefully make it into a future edition but that were a little complicated to include the first year. The plan is to keep it fresh and update the route every year though, so it may be a good thing that we have some reserves already… There is huge untapped potential in Kyrgyzstan and we plan to share it with the bike packing community through new iterations of the race route every year, whether you choose to come out and race or not. I hope that this will help raise the profile of Kyrgyzstan as an incredible cycling destination.
But first, I think I’d better start from the beginning and explain a little more about how the main lines of SRMR No1 came about. Ever since I crossed Kyrgyzstan back in 2013, I knew that I wanted to return and take more time to get to know this mountainous Central Asian nation. It was only after racing the Transcontinental that it became clear to me that I wanted to organise an event along the same lines but in a different location. I came to realise that Kyrgyzstan could be the ideal setting for the event that I had in mind, somewhere wild and untouched. I started to research the possibility of an unsupported race in Kyrgyzstan. I came across ‘The Road from Karakol’, Kyle Dempster’s classic documentary on his bikepacking and mountaineering adventure in South eastern Kyrgyzstan. If you haven’t seen it then I’d recommend giving it a look, it really captures the scale of the adventures on offer in this country. I knew that these kinds of wild, remote landscapes could be the perfect backdrop for a serious adventure. It also gave me a real itch to head down to the wild border zone with China and explore these remote, sparsely inhabited lands.
As I started researching the race more seriously I came across a number of resources for cycling in Kyrgyzstan but there’s still not a whole lot when it comes to riding in the wilder, more remote areas of the country. Cycle tourists are relatively common on the main roads, but exploring old gravel and double track is definitely still quite new. It was around this time that I got in touch with Joe Cruz, the mastermind behind the the Tian Shan Traverse, a really cool route that was published on Bikepacking.com. We talked about the highlights of his route, particularly the sections that would be ideal for a potential race. The plan was for the race to pass through the same area of the country, it would most likely form the backbone of SRMR No.1. He was really helpful during the planning phase of my scouting trip to Kyrgyzstan. If you need inspiration for a future bikepacking trip be sure to check out his blog (https://joecruz.wordpress.com/) or instagram (https://www.instagram.com/joecruzpedaling/). The photography isn’t half bad either!
When I flew to Kyrgyzstan in June of last year to scout the route, I had a general idea of where I wanted the race to go but there were still a lot of unknowns. I met with locals to learn more about the vague lines on the paper map that I had brought with me. Nomad’s Land, a local tour agency that will be working with us on the race organisation were instrumental in my research. Is this pass ride-able? Is this track still used? What is the road like here? I began to understand that the reality on the ground could be quite different to what was marked on my rather outdated map. I wanted to link up Joe Cruz’s route with some sections of road further to the south and east in the border zone with China and loop back towards Bishkek.
I first rode to Karakol through the mountains south of lake Issyk-Kul via sections of the Tian Shan Traverse. I had few doubts that it would be great for the race but I still needed to personally ride it all myself and double check the GPS track. From Karakol, I rode down to Enilchek, a town lost in the mountains near China, that used to be a major goldmine but has now largely been abandoned. It’s an eerie place, one of the highlights of ‘the road from Karakol’ and the starting point for the wildest part of Kyle’s adventure. It also requires a border zone permit, limiting the number of people that make the effort to reach this lost town. I would attempt to retrace Kyle’s steps towards Kara Say via the Uch Kul river, a rather unpleasant river crossing on an old soviet military road that is no longer even used by the Kyrgyz army to patrol the border with China. I always knew that it would be risky trying to get across this river alone and it didn’t fail. I was unable to cross the river, turning back after having been knocked down by the water flow a of couple times. There are few things more unpleasant than being knocked off your feet with a bike over your head as you wade through chest deep water…
I won’t talk too much about the rest of the sections that I scouted from Kara Say and on to Köbörgüntü pass as they didn’t make it in to SRMR No.1 but may well feature in future editions. Let me just say that there were some complications involving unfriendly hunting reserves, missing bridges and 45° walls of loose rock and scree. SRMR No2. may feature a purpose built rope bridge and also technically pass through Chinese territory. Here I’d like to thank Christian Bock, an Austrian photographer crazy enough to spend his last few summers and even winters lost up in the high mountains with shepherds in this particularly remote part of Kyrgyzstan. The information that he provided is second to none, I think he may well know more about this particular part of the world than quite a few locals. Check out his blog here: www.christian-bock.net he has some incredible photos that he is currently working on putting together in a book. It should really be something when it’s complete.
I think I’ll finish this post off by talking about the mountains south of Bishkek and the search for a second route across them. Kegety pass is one of the great classics of adventurous bike touring in Kyrgyzstan, it’s an epic climb that can be reached within a few hours from Bishkek and can be ridden almost from one side to the other without walking. It was always going to be in the race, but finding another means of crossing these mountains that doesn’t involve a main road and tarmac though, is another question entirely. The old maps that I had showed a number of different options but when you talk to locals, you quickly realise that the vast forces of nature that operate in this country, quite rapidly make maps meaningless. Sections of road or bridges missing quickly make a route impassible. It was only when we returned to finish scouting the route last September that we came across another option: Shamshy pass. I had very little information on it other than that it was occasionally used as the route for a horse trek by tour agencies and that it most likely isn’t excessively bike friendly but should be passable. Armed with this information and a vague guess at where the actual route over the pass was to be found, Jeff Liu and I headed out and managed to make our way across. It’s a pretty amazing piece of riding (or walking) that I hope will be just on the right side of the challenging / soul destroying divide and be a highlight for the SRMR No1 riders that make it that far. We shall have to wait and see what riders think after they’ve made it to the finish line in Chong Kemin…