A Lifetime Worth of Lessons: Bikepacking the Silk Road Mountain Race

Article by Stephen Shelesky

A Lifetime Worth of Lessons: Bikepacking the Silk Road Mountain Race

The Silk Road Mountain Race (SRMR), now in its fifth year, is an event cloaked in stories of difficulty and splendor alike. The annually evolving bike route winds through Kyrgyzstan’s Tian Shan mountains and beyond, bridging high-alpine and desert terrain — a stunningly beautiful route that will test your mind and body to the highest degree.  

In 2023, the route began in Karakol in the west and finished back on the shores of Issyk-Kul, in Cholpon Ata, a beachside resort town. Along the way, 1,166 miles and roughly 100,000 feet of elevation gain would be covered. Just finishing the route in the maximum allotted time is a feat itself.  

After landing in Kyrgyzstan, I immediately felt catapulted out of my comfort zone. Its capital city, Bishkek, felt generally hectic and I didn’t speak even a bit of Russian. But it was hard not to notice the mountains that surrounded the city, which were certainly the largest I had ever seen and, I knew, just a small sample of what I was about to experience.  

Prior to registering for the SRMR, I had never attempted anything even close to the challenge of this event and had actually only bikepacked a handful of times. But I was in search of a grand adventure, and SRMR ticked the right boxes. It offered stunning environments in a foreign place, where preparation, grit, and a bit of luck, would all make for a huge experience.  

While it’s a beautiful bike tour, it’s also a race, after all. Reaching the three staffed checkpoints by their cutoffs is required to successfully finish in time. 


Karakol to Enilchek (135 miles, 6,398’ elevation gain)  


Checkpoint 1 for this version of the race was in the partial ghost town of Enlicheck, a historic gold mining town on the Chinese border that was equal parts eerie and intriguing. Guarded by two enormous mountain passes, reaching the area was no easy feat, but in hindsight would prove to be one of the most beautiful sections of the entire route (with relatively easily rolling road surfaces, too). This was the first year the race organizers added this region of Kyrgyzstan to the route, and they really outdid themselves; it was nothing short of spectacular. 


The partial ghost town of Enlichek


The descent after climbing out of the Enlichek area


Enilchek to Kel Suu (391 miles, 17,536’ elevation gain)  


High-altitude was the name of the game for reaching Checkpoint 2, with much of this portion of the route being above 10,000 feet. It also included the first big challenge of the route, Jukuu Valley, and a massive hike-a-bike to the Arabel Plateau, a zone that would almost certainly have cold temperatures and severe weather.  


Hiking up the Jukuu Valley


Atop the Arabel Plateau (both images) 


Gear choice was important here, as sleeping at high elevation brings a variety of risk factors. I was grateful to have a 15-degree sleeping bag, and my Riff™ down sleeping bag performed oh so well. This bag felt like the perfect choice for a route with as much temperature variance as the SRMR. Having gear that kept me warm below freezing was imperative and Riff kept me comfortable on the coldest nights. (Plus, I got to utilize the Thermo Gills™ to regulate temperature on warmer nights!) 

The route in this section wound back and forth through some more classic sections of the SRMR and when I finally reached Kel Suu it became quickly apparent why the race had the reputation it did. The challenge ramped up, but so did the beauty: massive riverbeds at the foot of huge, glaciated peaks and, of course, a hike up the old soviet road to leave the checkpoint for the next.  

I also had a particularly beautiful campsite along the way and would spend another night in my Dragonfly™ Bikepack OSMO™ tent. During endeavors like this one, ease of set-up and breakdown is everything — you’re exhausted and often trying to get to sleep as quickly as possible. The Dragonfly makes it easy, and even features like the color-coordinated poles are appreciated when setting up in the dark. I got it down to a roughly 2-minute set-up. 


Camp at about 11,000’ after descending from the Arabel Plateau 


Kel Suu to Son Kul (382 miles, 35,761’ elevation gain)  

To get to Checkpoint 3 we had to enter the desert, and the most challenging portion of the race for me. Things got hot — like, 100 degrees hot — and I began to fall apart. I also got food poisoning. Needless to say, things unraveled a bit, which was also promised by the race organizers.  

This portion had the most elevation gain of the entire race and doing many of the climbs in the heat seriously increased the difficulty. But I find a lot of beauty in moments like this, especially when given the opportunity to dig deeper and overcome any given adversity. 

 Climbing the Old Soviet Road 


Looking back at a Yurt Camp near Kel Suu


I earned some well-deserved, longer-than-planned sleep during this portion, and also got to use my Dragonfly Bikepack OSMO without the rainfly for a few nights. The brief moments of stargazing before dozing off were a welcome bonus in the Kyrgz backcountry. 


A stunning descent in the desert 


Dragonfly OSMO in hot weather mode 


Son Kul to Cholpon Ata (260 miles, 27,329’ elevation gain)  

The final portion of the route had two of the hardest climbs of the entire race, Kegeti and Kok Ayrik Passes.  

First, Kegeti: a SRMR classic and for good reason. This year I hiked my bike through hail and rain to be rewarded with an absolutely spectacular descent that really made you want to scream your way down. 


A rider scales Kegeti 


The Kegeti descent 


The final pass, Kok-Ayrik, was about 9 miles long with over 4,000 feet of elevation gain and I couldn’t bike any of it. All hike-a-bike, all of it, and I had only left myself a Snickers bar and a half to power me through it. It was ultimately seven very hungry hours through rain, sleet, and snow to reach the old mystical gate that marked the top of the pass.  


Kok-Ayrik Pass (both images)


The challenge here is hard to describe, but I can’t think of a more appropriate finale for such an event. When the shores of Issyk-Kul came into view, my heart dropped, my mind flooded with emotion, and I began to realize what I had just done. My mind and heart were now full with memories of an unparalleled route and experience. 



The Silk Road Mountain Race proved to be exactly what I was looking for. 



Stephen Shelesky is an outdoor photographer who connects people, products, and places through vibrant, colorful imagery that reflects his mission to bring positivity and inspiration to others' lives. When not behind the lens, he can be found on his own adventures to remote corners of the world.