In July 2018, I set off alone by bike to explore the Pamir mountains in the Central Asian country of Tajikistan for a month. As you can imagine, a lot of planning was involved before I even bought my plane tickets. Bringing the right amount of the appropriate gear is, in my mind, a critical component to any successful mission. Traveling alone and without language skills only intensifies the need for proper planning and self-reliance. Having said that, it would be easy to pack everything you could possibly need into a bunch of giant panniers and start a long ride, but it’s not so easy to carry, push, and shove a grossly overloaded bike around the “Roof of the World.”
My objective on this trip was to see the people and the landscapes of the farthest reaches of the country and use my bike and packraft to traverse lesser used roads and trails to get to these places. Without any language skills, I wanted to bring some gifts to give to people I met along the way as a form of icebreaker. The kit described below was my best attempt at putting this all together while carrying the least amount of shit possible.
Because this was not designed to be a road or gravel grinder trip, I took a real mountain bike with a plush fork and three-inch “plus” tires. The Specialized Fuse was my bike of choice. This bike handles weight well and the plus tires give extra cushion to float over rough terrain, yet it’s no sluggish fat bike. I have the carbon version of this bike, but carbon is not really the way to go on a trip like this. The aluminum version is a better choice for durability and reparability in a rugged place like central Asia. But I had the carbon bike so it’s what I brought. I should add that I did end up riding hundreds of miles of roads and highways in Tajikistan and can honestly say that they are terrible. Every road-touring cyclist with midsized tires that I met along these roads looked at my large tires and squishy fork with envy. One guy in particular was so fed up with his skinny-tired bone shaker I swore he was about to abandon it right in front of me and start thumbing.
If there’s one thing that people with racks have trouble with, it’s breaking the bolts that connect the bottom of the rack to the bicycle. These tiny bolts carry all the weight of the rack and gear and I’ve seen these break more times than I can remember. Or worse, the bike itself will break at this high-stress point. I use an Old Man Mountain rack with a thru axle system the rack sits on. Basically, the stock thru axle is replaced with one that has a longer extension on both sides of the wheel which carries the weight of the rack and gear. The rack has “legs” that fit over these extensions and are held in place with a smaller bolt that does not carry the weight of the rack. This is by far the most bomber system that I’ve seen.
Let’s talk panniers. They have many pros, like simplicity of use, the ability to carry plenty of gear, and they come in many sizes, colors, and prices. The problem with panniers it that they are HEAVY, and because they can carry so much gear people tend to “fill them with their fears.” I wish that I could take credit for that quote but alas it was spoken by a fellow cyclist on the road in a discussion about why touring cyclists’ bikes are so heavy. Revelate Designs makes what they call the Nano Pannier, and this is what I use. Many touring cyclists are carrying front and rear panniers which weigh in at around seven pounds (empty). The Nanos tip the scales at a mere 16.4 ounces and they held the majority of my food supply for a week’s worth of travel.
A frame bag is the cornerstone of any bike packing set up. There are many good choices out there these days. All my heavy gear and daily use stuff goes in here. Things like water, lunch, snacks, camera batteries, and all bike tools, etc. A frame bag allows you to keep the center of gravity low while giving easy access to things you need during your time on the bike.
Handlebar bags/harness. I use these often but in order to save weight and keep it simple on this trip, I just used two cam style bungee cords to keep my rolled-up boat secure and safe on my bars.
The packrafting kit. Of all the gear choices that I made for this trip, the boat was the hardest to decide on. You might be wondering what possible use could a packraft could provide on a bike ride to the “Roof of the World.” This is a great question I was struggling with myself. These little watercraft have been essential tools for many of my past trips where water presents uncrossable barriers to forward progress. Weighing in at anywhere from two to ten pounds, these boats can carry you and your bike across bodies of water, and even better, down river canyons with no road or trail access. In the end, I decided to bring the boat. This kit consisted of a custom 3lbs 11oz Alpacka Raft with special lightweight Vectran fabric and thin floor that I made specifically for trips like this. The paddle is a Sawyer five-piece carbon and cedar unit. My safety gear was a super lightweight drysuit, and inflatable PFD. Total weight of this kit was around 7.5 lbs. and it provided the best day of adventure on the whole trip when I deployed the boat to paddle 17 miles down the otherwise impassable Istyk River canyon to shortcut into the Aksu valley at 13,000 feet.
Whenever possible I like to use items that have a dual duty. My sleep kit is a pretty good example of that. I was testing out a 27oz shelter from Hyperlight Mountain Gear. Which uses trekking poles to hold it upright. Of course, I wasn’t using poles on my bike ride, but my paddle took the place of the poles and worked great to pitch my tent every night. Tajikistan is a very windy place and I was happy to have this bomber respite from my least favorite weather phenomenon. My Nemo ¾ sleeping pad leaves my feet and lower legs hanging off on the ground but my empty pack provided just enough padding to keep them insulated and warm. Lastly, I took my ten-year-old down Western Mountaineering 32-degree bag. I knew that I’d see nightly temps under this rating but on those occasions, I would just go to bed with all my clothes on. Sleep kit 3lbs 7oz
Cooking and water is another place where you can shed weight and bulk quickly. Everyone thinks they need a water filter. I own one and never pack it. I typically use Aquamira to treat drinking water, and I boil dirty water from lakes or rivers for dinner and breakfast. For international trips like Tajikistan, I take the aptly named MSR Whisperlite International Stove. Runs on just about anything flammable and is super reliable.
I could go down a tech rabbit hole about the camera I brought right now, but that is a dark dark place the likes of no ISO can cut through, so I’ll just say that I brought my best body (Sony A7RIII) and one (gasp) lens to cover the basic necessary focal lengths. The new 24-105 F4 lens from Sony was the best weight to focal length lens that I could find. As a photographer, I understand the reality that whatever lenses I bring there will be opportunities that I will miss due to inadequate glass. That’s just how it goes, period. My girlfriend recently asked me if I feel naked when I don’t have a camera and my answer was yes, and free too. The camera is a burden that I will gladly carry just like the clothes on my body.
The number one item on my list, which also happened to be something that I could have easily not taken, was a modern Polaroid camera, called the Fujifilm Insta 90, with 80 pieces of film. Although not pictured here because it’s currently on loan, this little instant camera provided a way for me to give something back to all the amazingly gracious people (many of them children) that I met along the way.
We would do portraits and I would hand these little prints over to my new friends as a thank you for the meal or great company that they had provided to a stranger in a strange land. Two pounds, priceless.
As far as sun protection goes, sunglasses, a ball cap, sun block, and light sun blocking hoodie are must-haves! I waffled on bringing two pairs of glasses, because it seemed so redundant, but after losing my first pair of glasses (on day one) fleeing a dog attack I put on my spares and felt like a king. Bring two pairs. Probably an ounce in weight.
Random stuff: Three packs of Marlboro Reds for military dudes and those in need of a smoke. These gifts were invaluable on this journey through an ex constituent republic of the former USSR.
Last but not least is outside communications. I used the Inreach Mini, pairs to your phone and allows satellite texting and SOS in case of serious emergency and weighs only 3.5 ounces.
Photos: Steve Fassbinder