Bikepacking in The Altai

Words and Photos by Jack Chevell


“Bikepacking is the best way to explore new places – the pace of travel, the things you notice about the environment you're travelling through, and the opportunity to interact with people you meet. Being self-sufficient means you are able to just head off into the wilderness and see what adventures come your way. You never know what encounters and experiences that day will bring.” – Marion Shoote

It’s not easy to find true adventure in a world where physical and digital highways pull us all to the same destinations and make truly unique experiences an endangered species. That’s why I headed out with the seasoned bikepacking couple Ed and Marion Shoote for a trip on gravel track and remote dirt roads through parts of Kazakhstan, China, Mongolia and Russia. We set out to escape the Instagram hotspots and get a bit lost in our experience. Adventure means accepting whatever surprises, twists and turns come along the way. We’d soon find plenty of those in the form of bears, raging rivers and the legendary hunting eagles of the steppe.

The Austrian Road

The journey began in Eastern Kazakhstan, on a road known as the Austrian Road. This rocky gravel track was built by Austro-Hungarian prisoners of war in 1915. They used picks and shovels to build the 2100m Burkhatskiy Pass, and cross the freezing glacial Kara Koba river five times. The road has fallen out of use since a tarmac highway was built around the mountains, but it’s still the best route through the stunning and remote Katon Karagay National Park to Lake Markakol.

The park is in a sensitive border region and special permits are required to pass through the checkpoint. Whilst one guard thumbed our passports and papers, we asked another about the condition of the bridges on the road. The response was not a positive one. ‘Most? Nyet’. The bridges were gone. He held a flat palm up to his chest to indicate the depth of the water. We had to make a decision, either we take a 400 kilometre detour on the new highway, or continue into the unknown and hope there was another way across the river. It was an easy choice to make, so we thanked the guards for their help and carried on along the road to find out what lay ahead.

“The unexpected challenges on a trip like this really test your perseverance. You have to accept it's part of the experience and just carry on riding”. – Ed Shoote

We approached the first bridge exhilarated by the prospect of a challenge, but crossing the river would be dangerous and time consuming. The water was deeper and faster flowing than we had anticipated. It was a mixture of disappointment and relief to find out that a construction crew had used felled trees and a crane to refurbish all the bridges just days earlier. The tracks of the crane were still fresh in the ground, and their camp had yet to be dismantled.

A Contrast

“In the desert the wind was crazy, I kept checking the GPS and wondering how can we be averaging just 9 kph.” - Ed Shoote

In order to enter China, our route took us south out of the mountains to a border post in a largely uninhabited desert region of the country. It was a sharp contrast from the lush Alpine scenery of Kazakhstan to the dunes of China just a few kilometres away. A large, brand-new highway took us most of the way across the hot, barren country. With no vegetation or shelter, the wind whipped sand into our faces, making progress frustrating and very slow.

"I've never ridden my bike all day in 40 degree heat before; for once, I was glad of a screaming headwind to take the edge off the heat. It's pretty intimidating to know you have 80 kilometres to go before your next chance of refilling your water bottles. The landscape was beautiful, but intimidating in its rawness: no streams, no vegetation, just sunburnt rock and gravel to the horizon.” -Marion Shoote

Crossing China was as much a battle against bureaucracy as it was against the elements. Towns were separated by large distances, but stopping in them meant facing passport checks and questions from the police who were often waiting for us. Their interest was mostly good natured and they seemed more curious than suspicious, but it was a reminder that we were crossing a very sensitive region and gave us the uneasy feeling of being surveilled.

On our final day in China we reached the road to the Mongolian border. As we made the turn off the highway, the sun dropped below rain clouds creating a rainbow in the golden evening light. It felt like a good omen ahead of the toughest riding we would face. That night, in a hut owned by a Kazakh farmer, we fell asleep listening to trucks thundering along the busy roads we were glad to be leaving behind.

Mongolia

The paved roads faded away just a few kilometres after crossing the Mongolian border. Most of the roads in the country are just tracks worn into the Earth’s surface and it would be a week before we saw asphalt again. Ahead lay 500km of sharp rocks, gravel, sand, mud and high altitude riding. In some sections, the hardpack gravel had become rippled by the acceleration and braking of vehicles. The frequency and severity of the bumps make them impossible to ride comfortably, and they can go on for kilometre after kilometre. All that can be done is to keep moving until you reach a smoother section.

“We had some tough days in Mongolia and I'd be head down, grinding along the bumpy, sandy road, but then I'd only have to look up to forget the struggle and for my mind to get lost in the endless horizons.” -Marion Shoote

It was a powerful and humbling sensation to be so far from the solace of humanity in this part of Mongolia. At times, the only eyes looking at you belonged to wildlife hidden away on the hillsides, and the evidence of bears and wolves we encountered throughout the region suggested not all that wildlife was friendly.

Our camps became more remote as we climbed toward the highest pass of the trip. Water was increasingly scarce, and we relied on any small amount of flowing water to drink and cook the provisions we were carrying. At night the wilderness is silent, so occasional stirrings outside and shadows stalking between the tent and the moonlight raised our heart rates and made for uneasy, fitful sleep.

“We were completely alone in a remote valley several days’ riding from the last town. As the sun set and the wind dropped, the incredible silence and peacefulness of the mountains descended. That night, our tiny tents sat perched below an enormous sky full of stars and the shining Milky Way. It's a profound experience to feel so small and alone in such an incredible expanse of empty wilderness.” -Marion Shoote

The highest pass of the trip came in Mongolia. The road which links the villages of Deluun and Bulgan climbed to 3080m, before plunging 1000m down a sinuous rocky descent into the valley below. The final 15% sections were made especially challenging by the high altitude and a bike heavily laden with food and water.

Kazakh Eagle Hunters

For the Kazakh people of western Mongolia, eagle hunting is an important cultural tradition with a 4,000-year history. They train their birds to hunt for fur and meat in the winter, and to compete in festivals and competitions throughout Central Asia. Finding the nomadic eagle hunters was a challenge as their summer homes are often in very remote areas. It took until our final days in the country, and a lot of asking around before we were rewarded.

Chased From the Mountains

After two weeks of hot sun, the first whispers of the brutal Mongolian winter arrived unexpectedly. A bitter northerly wind was flecked with snow, which was collecting on the summits around us. The temperature dropped rapidly as soon as the sun set, so we sought shelter from the freezing wind behind a yurt on our final night in Mongolia. The smell of chimney smoke blew into the tents and yak grunted and snuffled around us.

It was time to leave the mountains as the nomads themselves were beginning to do, loading trucks and horses with all their belongings and leading their livestock back to winter pastures. It was a fitting end to a journey through a country of staggering scale and breathtaking beauty.

“Meeting people in each country and experiencing a bit of their daily life made this trip really special, but it also made me think a lot about how much we have at home, and how much of it we are willing to share with strangers.” -Marion Shoote

Descending Into Russia

The Russian border was perched at the top of a 2500m pass, and was a desolate place in the bitter wind. We huddled as close to the guards’ heated huts as they would allow, and lingered in the customs building until the very last second. Thankfully, the Russian officials seemed uninterested in us, or our bikes and let us through without a search. After crossing our final frontier it was downhill all the way to the town of Aktash, where we would hitch a ride to the airport. As we descended, the true scale of the mountains we had passed through revealed itself. The snow capped peaks towering above us made for a spectacular final few days of riding.

As the Mongolian high steppe gave way to the more familiar, alpine feel of the Russian mountains, I soon began to miss the different world we had left behind just the other side of the border. It had all changed so quickly, and now there were buildings and roads and people and the special sense of wonder Mongolia offered at every moment was gone. However, it was a relief to find more familiar hot food. Our first stop over the border was at a cafe, where we stuffed ourselves with Russian cheese-filled pastries and sugary coffee.

Abandoning the well-trodden path for something different comes with many difficulties. The discomfort of another day on bone shaking surfaces, a lack of proper food and the long cold nights begin to feel like an onslaught after just a few days. Riding off road presents the additional mental challenge of keeping the bike upright, and being constantly alert for that big rock which could spell disaster.

After weeks on the bike however, each day starts to take on a routine. It feels natural to live outside, sit on the floor and get back on the bike day after day. Inside this contented bubble, the difficulties of life on the road become less important than finding the next camp, the next meal, the next river crossing. The desire to move on and find out what is over the hill overrides any discomfort, and as time passes, your body becomes more accustomed to the new normal.

“With each trip that we do, we learn to worry a little less about where we're going to sleep that night or what's going to happen that day, and just go with the ride and see what happens. You have to be able to let go and assume that it will all work out in the end”. -Marion Shoote

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  • Nathan Stares

    Great post, & photos. It brought back some great memories of my time in Kazakhstan & Kyrgyzstan just over a decade ago. I was on foot & did some running & trekking though, not on a bike but also stayed in a yurt for a while. Great experience.

  • edd

    Great photography to accompany your adventure. Think any KOM records you made will probably stand for quite some time. LOL.
    Enjoyable read,thank you.

  • Jože Starič

    Thank you to share your nice&hard experience with us. It is nice to see there are stil less discovered areas on our planet. I imagine it was both wonderful and hard moments on your journey. Hope you will share your next journey with us.

  • Žarko Vučković

    Thanks for shearing!! It must had been a great fun!!!

  • Vijay Malhotra

    Nice to see the unknown topography of this amazing earth , with no boundaries for you 🚴 riders , Quite Tempting & Inspirational with Amazing pictures . Hat’s Off to you guys

  • John Brophy

    Great pics – what did you use to mount the water bottles to the rear triangle? something off the shelf? Did they get in the way when riding?

  • Alexander Martin

    Super cool!!! We cycled the same route in April / May 2014, and it sounds like not much has changed, except for the bridges. We did it going in the opposite direction, from Gorno-Altaysk to Olgii to Bulgan to Burqin to Terekty to KatonKaragay to Ust Kamenogorsk – pros and cons to going clockwise around.