The route for the inaugural Silk Road Mountain Race was not easy. As with any new event, there were plenty of unknowns, often exacerbated by the fact that Kyrgyzstan is not a well travelled corner of the world. If you couple all this with particularly difficult weather conditions, we ended up with a seriously tough race. That being said, we also think the challenges involved contributed to the overall experience of those that took part, even for those that were not able to finish. For this reason, we decided not to make the second edition any different in terms of length or difficulty, but rather use it as an opportunity to explore new, less travelled roads. It will take you to more remote areas than in the previous year...
The second edition of the Silk Road Mountain Race will follow a 1670 kilometre route with roughly 26,000 meters of climbing. It will again take riders through the remote mountain landscapes of the Tian Shan mountains in eastern Kyrgyzstan. The overall shape of the route is quite similar to last year, with the same checkpoints: Song Kul, Kol Suu and Issyk-Kul.
The start will be in Bishkek but unlike the previous year, we will be, opting for a grand départ further south of the city. We will implement some traffic calming measures as riders briefly cross the main road on their way out of town.
We have moved the finish to Cholpon Ata, a beach resort town on the north shore of lake Issyk-Kul. Finishers will be able to relax and enjoy all the amenities a larger city has to offer. It should make for a great finish location.
Riders who are familiar with the 2018 route, will recognise that there are a lot of similarities. Long stretches remain unchanged. There are however, a few major updates that add around 500 kilometres of new tracks. The biggest change is from Checkpoint Two to Checkpoint Three, which is entirely new. The other new section this year is the final pass before heading down to the finish line in Cholpon Ata. It will provide one final challenge before riders can finally enjoy a well-deserved beer or two.
We hope that you are as excited as we are by the route for the second edition of the Silk Road Mountain Race! Scroll down for a more detailed outline of each section of the route. We’ve split it into seventeen distinct tracks and highlighted the major points of interest and difficulties of each. The following information should give you a better idea of what to expect in the second edition of the race but is still lacking more precise details that will help riders prepare for the race. We will be updating this information in the coming weeks and months so that it is complimentary with the Race Manual. We will release the Race Manual when we open registration for the race on the 1st of December.
Photography by Tom Hardie, Jdoohanphoto & Jeff Liu
Riders will gather for the start of the race at the flagpole near Orto-Say, on the way out of Bishkek. Unlike last year where we had a neutralised start and police escort, riders will be able to race at their own pace from the outset. The first 10 kilometres or so are very quiet dirt roads that will allow riders to spread out before briefly crossing the main road. The road is mostly tarmac with a little gravel and there is some climbing to get warmed up ahead of the bigger challenges that await them.
The biggest single ascent of the entire race in elevation gain. It’s long and tough and will quickly let riders know what they’re getting themselves into. Last year it had a real impact on the overall field of riders, with some deciding to make their way over the pass on the first day and others preferring to wait until morning. The weather on the first day can also have a big influence on riders’ decision to push on or stay put, with a thunderstorm battering riders on their way to the summit. It should definitely not be underestimated. Keep your pace steady and work your way up and over the pass at your own rhythm. The beginning of the descent is a narrow track on steep, loose rock and should be approached with caution. After a couple of kilometres the surface becomes much better and the descent is really quite enjoyable. Be careful not to damage anything on the large rocks that are strewn across the otherwise relatively good road surface.
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After the hardships of Kegety, riders will take a right into the Karakol valley. They will soon be making their way up another high pass, at a little over 3400 meters. They will be surrounded by beautiful alpine landscapes before finally reaching Kojomkul, the first resupply point of the race. The village is not much to look at but there are a handful of shops here with basic supplies.
Riders will then head through a narrow valley along the Kokemeren river on a mixed surface with its fair share of washboard gravel. If the timing is right, there are a number of guest houses in Kyzl-Oi which they can ask about at the CBT office in the village. There is also one small, rather limited shop in town. Riders will soon leave the valley behind and turn towards Chaek, the first decent sized town on the race route. They will be able to find supplies here or a little later on the way to Kyzart in the market town of Kuyruchuck.
The route up to Checkpoint 1 is in our opinion the most beautiful way to reach Song Kul lake from the north or west but it's also one of the most difficult. To reach the foot of the climb riders leave the main road and head through what riders dubbed the ‘longest village in Kyrgyzstan’. The climb itself is around 10 kilometres at an average gradient of 10%. The last few milometers get so steep though, that walking will be required. Once the summit of Tuz Ashuu is reached it’s not quite a cruise to the checkpoint though with a few short sharp hills along the north shore of the lake to keep things interesting. This section was underestimated by almost everyone last year. It will take longer than expected.
After leaving Checkpoint one behind, riders will be treated to a big gravel descent as they head down Moldo-Ashuu pass. At the foot of the climb they’ll have the option of having a rare coffee at the shop in Jangy-Talap. They’ll then cross the Naryn river and return briefly onto paved roads before reaching Baetov, the last town before an extended stint in the wilderness. There are shops here and even a hotel.
It may not look like much on the map but this section of the route is one of our favourites and features some of the most stunning views of the entire race. Be sure to look over your shoulder as you reach the summit of the climb shortly after Baetov. The rippling canyons and foothills are truly a sight to behold. After another descent riders will reach the smooth, Chinese built tarmac of the main road to China from Naryn.
The Chinese highway is 80 kilometers of smooth tarmac until you reach the border control point at Torugart. Riders will reach speeds they had almost forgotten were possible on the flat. Beyond Torugart though, the road becomes a rough mud track along the eerie no man's land with China. Be warned that this whole area can be extremely dry so think carefully about your water needs until you reach CP2. This is the one section where it might be worth thinking about bringing extra water from Baetov as the climb out of town and descent to the highway can also be very dry. Once you leave the wide valley where Chatyr Kul lake is located and turn off towards CP2, the landscape changes quickly and riders will again be treated to stunning alpine views until they reach checkpoint 2.
The old soviet road is only a short section of the overall route but it left a marking impression on riders in the first edition of the race. The 1.4 kilometre climb out of CP2 has an average gradient of almost 14%, gradually increasing on the way up, to reach 18% near the summit. It’s almost certainly a push from start to finish. Be careful of the remains of barbed wire fence that are sometimes strewn across the trail. In our opinion the reward is worth the effort though, with a fantastic section of single track on the way down towards the main road.
After crossing the Ak-Sai river, riders will travel north and then east instead of heading towards Naryn as they did last year. They ride further into the wilderness for what is the longest new section of route. They will then follow the Chinese border via a long forgotten road that is now only used by the few hunting camps and army bases that are the only marks of human civilisation out here. Expect stunning views of the Dankova massif to the south. This area is as spectacular as it is desolate and remote. This whole valley is very exposed with a distinct possibility of wind and difficult weather conditions. There is very little shelter. If you do need to seek refuge, the storm drains under the road can provide some protection from the elements.
After the wide expanses of the previous kilometres, the landscape changes dramatically as the route enters the Uzengugush valley. Expect narrow canyons and steep mountains all around. The short, sharp ascents that riders must tackle as they head further up the valley are steep and difficult and will likely require some pushing towards the top. The views, though, easily make up for the effort required to reach this remote part of the country. They will eventually reach a point where the road actually crosses the Uzengugush river several times, technically entering Chinese territory as they do so. As this thin sliver of China is entirely hemmed in by mountains, it’s not an area that is actively monitored by the Chinese border guards as there is nowhere to go. You will not need a Chinese visa to go here! Once riders make it to the point where the river flows into China, they leave it behind and head north, back towards Issyk-Kul and on to checkpoint 3.
Leaving the river and China behind them, riders will gradually climb up towards Kara-Say. This is the last military checkpoint before they leave the border zone. It’s a long, gentle climb through an increasingly empty and desolate land. Once the army base is behind them they will take on the first and only 4000 meter pass of the race: Suyek pass at 4028 meters. Another massive climb but with a pretty good road surface, they should be able to ride almost to the top before the gradient and altitude will likely force them to walk. After this pass it’s almost a straight descent to the shores of lake Issyk-Kul. Gone is the infamous marsh of the previous edition, replaced by the regularly maintained gravel of the Kumtor gold mine road. It is heavily used by trucks and other vehicles but as riders will be descending it should not be an issue in terms of safety as they’ll likely be riding faster than the traffic. In bad weather the road can get muddy but if not, the 60 kilometre, 5 % average descent will likely be one of the big rewards of the race. Once they reach the shore of Issyk-Kul lake, riders will soon be at the final checkpoint of the race. They will be able to get a hot meal and warm bed if needed. The exact location of the checkpoint still needs to be confirmed but it will be on the short stretch of road along the shore of the lake.
One of the biggest passes of the race, Tosor towers above lake Issyk-Kul. It’s not the single hardest pass of the race but it is definitely one that should not be underestimated. The likelihood of bad weather is increased by the proximity of Issyk-Kul lake to the north. Last year some riders were caught in particularly violent rain and snowstorms. Like many Kyrgyz passes it has a tendency to get progressively steeper and the top is barren and rocky with snow to be seen year round.
The Karakudzhur valley after Tosor is another section from last year’s route that was amongst many riders’ favourite. It’s lined on all sides by snow capped peaks and is a gradual descent towards Kochkor. Do not be fooled by the slight downwards incline though, the rough surface will slow progress and the washboard as the road approaches Kochkor took its toll on more than a few riders that made it this far. The large shop and restaurant at the intersection on the way to Kochkor will be an opportunity to replenish one’s strength before heading in to Kochkor. Here they'll be able to get a proper resupply and possibly some rest before tackling some of the toughest riding of the race.
The route from Kochkor to Shabdan includes what is still likely the hardest pass of the race: Shamsi. It's essentially a horse track over a 3800 meter pass that includes around 20 kilometres of hike a bike. That being said it is also one of our favourite sections and more than one rider from last year agreed with us. It's best tackled during the day for all but the most experienced and confident riders. The top of the descent is a steep scree slope that very few riders were able to ride. It soon becomes a little gentler, and if you have the mountain bike skills for it, it's a fantastic descent. There are four river crossings lower down on the north side that can be up to waist deep if it has rained recently. Please proceed with caution. The next major difficulty after Shamsi are a series of three climbs, that became known as the ‘bonus climbs’ as they were the last extra difficulties before the end of last year’s race. They may be smaller than Shamsi but the first of them is still a big climb. The surface is rough and if it is has rained everything turns to sticky mud leading to this climb being given the nickname ‘peanut butter hill’. The route then heads down through rolling hills for some really enjoyable descending before briefly crossing the main road to Issyk-Kul. Please be cautious as you cross the highway as traffic is often fast. The final stretch of this section takes riders into the village of Shabdan, just across the river from last year’s finish location. They will be able get some supplies here before the final leg of the race.
Chong Kemin is a picturesque valley that climbs gently towards the Kazakh border. Riders’ border zone permit will again be checked towards the end of this section before they tackle the final pass of the race. This whole section should be quite a smooth run, on dirt and gravel tracks up the valley.
Kok-Airyk pass is the final challenge of the race. It’s another 3800 meter pass, but with a road that is heavily damaged and hasn’t been passable by car for several years. Riders will need to pick their way over many sections where rockfall and landslides make riding impossible. We must also warn you that the same goes for quite a lot of the descent… It won’t be an easy finish to the race. That being said, the view down onto Issyk-Kul lake, where the mountains on the opposite shore are clearly visible on a clear day, really is something special. By the time riders make it down to the shore of the lake, they'll be only a short cruise on the main road from a well deserved beer or two at the finish line in Cholpon Ata!