For us, Kyrgyzstan brings to mind remote dirt tracks, high mountains and generally that wonderful feeling of riding your bike in the middle of nowhere. It’s an adventurous place to ride.
So we were surprised when a journalist recently called to talk about a paved bike path that the Kyrgyz government is planning to build around Lake Issyk-Kul. They want to call it Bai Issyk-Kul - a word that means ‘rich Issyk-Kul’ in the local language but sounds like ‘bicycle’ to English speakers.
The article by James Kilner appeared on the Daily Telegraph website today. (Incidentally, James also publishes the handy Conway Bulletin with news about Central Asia).
From the sounds of it, this bike path would be quite the change from what we experienced in 2008: a slightly bumpy (although perfectly rideable) road along the relatively undeveloped southern shore of the lake.
Will this project fly, or will it be a flop? Will it attract the more gentle, less adventurous cyclists who currently cruise around the bike paths of Europe? At this point, it’s hard to say.
Much will depend on how well the path is built and maintained. Cyclists can be a finicky bunch. Nothing ruins our enthusiasm more quickly than a poorly thought out path. It’ll have to be easy to navigate and smooth to ride. Otherwise, we may all well prefer to be on the road which (at least in our experience) wasn’t that busy or unpleasant to ride in the first place.
We also wonder if the kind of people who decide to bike tour along the famous Danube River bike path would be willing to take that long flight and get a visa for what is essentially quite a short path?
If the Kyrgyz government is lucky, it could attract a whole new group of cyclists to Kyrgyzstan, and once they’d tried the bike path they might branch out to other routes through this beautiful country.
One thing is for sure: if any country in the region can do it, Kyrgyzstan can. They already have the most tourist-friendly policies of any of the ex-Soviet countries and a growing tourism network that organises experiences such as homestays and trekking trips.
Too often, as a society, we are quick to dismiss things as ‘impossible’ or ‘foolhardy’ – especially when they go against the conventional wisdom of what is ‘smart’ or ‘sensible’ to do.
Start planning a big bike expedition, and you can run up against this attitude quite a lot. So, when we got an email recently from Henry & Jamie, telling us about their recent bicycle tour across mountainous Kyrgyzstan in February – an adventure easily thrown into the ‘foolhardy’ category – we were intrigued.
“Hopefully the video captures what was at times nothing short of savage, thanks to the Medusa landscape (totally jaw-dropping but with the ability to take your life in an instant…only these beauties turn you to ice not stone), arctic conditions and vodka. I hope it also captures how two happy-go-lucky vagabikers armed with little more than scraggly ‘windbreaker’ beards, a plentiful supply of fetching pink socks, local good-luck hats and an albeit questionable sense of humour succeed in achieving what many deemed impossible.”
Watch. Enjoy. And be sure to read Henry & Jamie’s written impressions of the journey, below the video.
“When we set off from London nearly 16 months ago, we had not really planned on tackling the heavy snowfall, -35C temperatures, blizzards, altitude sickness and 9,000m+ of winding passes that a mid-winter excursion in Krygyzstan so attractively offers, but upon entering Central Asia it became starlingly clear that it was our unavoidable destiny to attempt this (dare I say it) ‘epic’ challenge. There was an understandable absence of support from the cycle touring community (we couldn’t find anyone who had done this before at this time of year, most riders are opting for the warmer southern route through UAE and India), and this helped to induce both dread, fear, but paralleled excitement as the mountains approached.”
“It must be said though that the unbelievably kind hospitality of the Kyrgyz people (who appeared to feel deep pity for us, taking us into their homes on 6 of the nights) and the mystical appearance of an ‘Into the Wild’ style Magic Bus near the top of the desolate third and final pass, made the crossing significantly more bearable. I guess we’ll never know who lives in that bus but if you happen to have found our flyer (we left one inside for you), located an internet connection, speak English, and are therefore possibly reading this…Thank You. Sorry for the dribble patch on the pillow.”
“Aside from being well prepared in terms of kit, having the right attitude when undertaking something like this is extremely important, whether you’re travelling solo or with others. As crazy as it sounds, Jamie and I always tried to laugh in the face of adversity (which reared its ugly head at nearly every corner), and so this made handling the ridiculous situations much easier.”
“What else have we learned from this rather testing adventure? The answer could be an exhaustive one: the importance of listening to warnings but taking them with a healthy pinch of salt; that snow makes a refreshing alternative to toilet paper; that urine acts as a cost effective alternative to de-icer; always packing a plentiful supply of fetching pink socks no matter what the challenge; that getting paralytically drunk on the second morning of a week long physical challenge may be ruddy good fun but not generally considered a good idea….and everything between. However, it could simply be summarised by the immortal words of Jamie King (Nike’s biggest alternative unofficial spokesperson) coined in his infamous Serbian TV Top Gear appearance: Just do it.”
Now, we’ve come up with 10 more dream bike tours – our own personal list of the top places we’d like to go next. Some we’ve been to in part, but we’d like to explore more. Others we’ve never seen but we’ve heard so many great reports that they’re on our short list.
Of course, reducing the world to just 10 bike tours could rightly be described as a great injustice to all the potential routes out there. Think of this as a little inspiration to get you dreaming, and share your ideas of the best places to cycle by leaving a comment.
1. North Sea Cycle Route
This 6,000km marked route traces the coastline of the North Sea. It goes through the UK, the Netherlands, Germany, Denmark, Sweden and Norway and it’s easy to do just a section if you don’t have time for the whole thing. Much of the route is on dedicated bike paths or small roads, making this a very tranquil bike tour. More info:North Sea Cycle
2. Pacific Coast, United States
The Pacific Coast Highway has always intrigued us. We’re talking spectacular ocean views, massive redwood trees, classic cities like San Francisco and plenty of facilities for cyclists as you cycle through the states of Washington, Oregon and California. Maps are available from the Adventure Cycling Association. More Info: ACA Pacific Coast route
3. Danube Cycle Path
We’ve already cycled the start of the Danube Bike Path; a perfectly paved trail running through Germany and Austria to the Hungarian capital of Budapest. This stretch is great for families, beginners or anyone who doesn’t want to spend much time figuring out logistics.
Now we want to finish the job. Apparently the path gets less refined as it goes along. We like the idea of that slow progression.
There are tons of guidebooks describing the route from the river’s source to where it empties into the Black Sea. Ride it on your own or pick from the many package tours. More Info: The Danube Bike path is part of EuroVelo6.
We were in Japan many years ago, and we’ve been dying to go back on our bicycles. We want to check out more temples, soak in the hot springs and gorge on sushi. Many people think Japan is expensive but to keep costs low, you can cook your own food and take advantage of the free campsites and local hospitality clubs. More Info:Japan Cycling and Journey of 1000 Li (We wrote this before the terrible 2011 earthquake in Japan. Hopefully the country will recover quickly and be ready to receive tourists again soon.)
5. The Silk Road & The Pamir Highway
A trip along the ancient Silk Road trade route and the Pamir Highway is a real adventure. First you’ll cross Turkey and Iran, heading for the Silk Road cities of Bukhara and Samarkand. Then you’ll head for the mountains, where you can still get a wonderful glimpse of nomadic life. Continue on down Tajikistan’s Pamir Highway and you have enough cycling to keep you busy for a good 4-6 months.
We’ve done the first part of this trip, but we missed out on southern Kyrgyzstan and the Pamir Highway. Now that would make a great summer tour one of these days! It’s a pain to get visas (and they’re not cheap) but the rewards are spectacular scenery and a real sense of exploration in this little-touristed region of the world. More Info: Our own pages on bike touring in Central Asia and Tim Barnes’ Totally Knackered tour
6. Carretera Austral, Chile
Pack a sturdy bike and your tent for this 1,000km mostly unpaved road. It passes through the region of Patagonia and encompasses some of Chile’s most stunning terrain, including mountains, lakes and glaciers. This is definitely a summer route. In the off-season it can be closed by snow and heavy rain. More Info: A journal of a bike tourist in the Carretera Austral and Patagonia.
7. Southeast Asia
International bike touring doesn’t get much easier than in Southeast Asia, and there’s a lot to explore. We’ve spent 6 months here, and still not seen it all. Next on our list? The east coast of Malaysia and a jaunt into Myanmar / Burma. We also want to return to the Cameron Highlands tea growing area in Malaysia (pictured), where the air is refreshingly cool, for some day rides and hikes, which we didn’t have time for on the last trip.
Throughout the region, costs are affordable (even for the most budget-minded bike tourists), traffic is generally relaxed, hotels are easy to find and the food is great. More Info: Our own pages on bike touring in Southeast Asia and the slightly old but still helpful Mr. Pumpy
Cheap flights and ferries from Europe make Morocco very accessible and it’s a great first taste of bike touring outside of the developed world. We’ve been to Morocco several times, and while the country is becoming increasingly touristy, it still offers plenty of opportunities to get off the beaten track.
Classic rides include the coastal route between Agadir and Essaouira and the trip from Marrakech, over the mountains and through the Draa Valley to the Sahara desert near Zagora. We’ve done all of these. Now we want to do a backroads tour of Morocco: no asphalt and lots of camping. More Info: Our own pages on bike touring in Morocco and the video (above) from our friends Blanche & Douwe. They’ve biked Morocco’s paths and tracks several times, so we’ll be picking their brains if we do this trip!
9. Great Divide Route
Few places do “pure nature” as well as North America and the Great Divide is at the top of our list of routes to cycle on the continent. This off-pavement mountain bike route traces the Continental Divide from Banff in Canada all the way south to the Mexican border. It takes about 3 months to complete. A mountain bike with front suspension forks is often recommended to help cope with the tough terrain. More Info: ACA’s page on the Great Divide cycling route
10. Karakoram Highway
A classic route between China and Pakistan, and one that may change significantly in the coming years (for the worse) as the road improves and becomes more accessible to heavy traffic. Go now, before it’s too late! More Info: Cycling The Karakoram Highway
You might not know Dutch, but nevertheless, take a look at the gorgeous cycling videos on Toko op Fietsvakantie, the site of our Wereldfietser friends Marijcke and Dennis.
They put a lot of time and effort into their videos and it really shows. There are tons of videos to choose from, to get you inspired for future trips, but we’ll highlight two here: one from last weekend’s winter camping trip (we shouldn’t be too hard to spot in the crowd) and one from Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan. Make sure to watch them in full screen to really appreciate the scenery.
The three big Central Asian drawcards are the mountains, the chance to see nomadic life up close and the historic Silk Road.
Kyrgyzstan probably offers the best combination of mountains and nomads. Its growing tourism industry has extended to include homestays in many towns and villages where you can sleep in a family’s house and eat delicious homemade food. (More about Kyrgyz homestays)
Groups like CBT and Shepherd’s Life can organise a night in a yurt or you may be able to arrange this yourself by just turning up at some of the more well known alpine sites like Svetov Dolina or Lake Song Kol. Kyrgyzstan also has the simplest and most visitor-friendly visa regulations so if you’re looking for a taste of Central Asia without too much red tape, it’s the country to concentrate on.
Uzbekistan is still the most visited country in the region, with tourists from all over the world keen to see the beautiful tiled mosques of Bukhara and Samarqand. The old city in Bukhara is particularly beautifully restored. Remote Khiva is another historic and popular destination and you can see silk weaving in the Fergana Valley.
The problem with Uzbekistan is the red tape. You are supposed to be registered in a hotel every night – a hassle for cyclists. Police checks of your papers are common. It’s impossible to extend your visa. (More on Uzbek regulations)
For a pure mountain experience, Tajikistan’s Pamir Highway can’t be missed. You do have to get a special permit to ride the Pamir Highway in addition to a Tajik visa and flying into the capital Dushanbe isn’t the cheapest option so getting set up for a Pamir Highway tour will require a little capital. Once you’re there, there’s little to spend your cash on and other cyclists have spoken highly of the hospitality of the locals in this corner of Central Asia. A nice recount of a trip along the Pamir Highway is The Totally Knackered Tour.
That leaves just Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan. Kazakhstan is little visited because it’s perceived as expensive. Most activities like trekking can be done cheaper in Kyrgyzstan, although day-to-day expenses while cycling are comparable. Kazakhstan is also associated with Borat, which may attract or dissuade you. There is some nice scenery to be found but little that measures up to its neighbours.
Turkmenistan tends to be a country people just pass through because of the severely restrictive visa situation. Things have tightening up lately and now 5-day transit visas are the norm – barely enough time to cycle the distance from the Iranian to the Uzbekistan border, let alone do any sightseeing. If you really want to explore Turkmenistan you’ll have to shell out for a tourist visa and guide. The people are very friendly and there are some classic sites like the ancient city Merv but you really have to want to see Turkmenistan to make a cycle tour possible here. Doing it independently, on a budget, isn’t an option.