Bob Swanson Grant Winner Trip Update

Bob Swanson Grant Winner Trip Update

Six months ago mom and dad dropped me off at the airport in Washington DC. My bicycle was disassembled inside a big cardboard box, my backpack and duffle bag filled with camping gear, and I had a one-way ticket to Mongolia.

I conjured up the idea while on a warship in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. I’d spent nearly six years in the US Navy and knew I wanted to do something different after finishing my service obligation, so this is what I came up with. Ride my bicycle from Mongolia to Spain, camping everywhere I could, exploring cultures and places unfamiliar to most Americans. While planning/gear prepping for the trip I found myself on with a bikepacking-specific tent in my online shopping cart, but before I checked out I saw something that said “Now accepting applications for the 2023 Bob Swanson Memorial Grant”. I clicked on it, did some research, applied, and decided I’d wait to buy that tent. A few months later I got an email saying I was selected.

I spent the first two months of the trip crossing Mongolia- riding through the Altai mountains in the far west, the vast never-ending steppe in central Mongolia, and across the Gobi Desert to the south. Horses, yaks, and camels kept me company on the road, as did the warmhearted friendly Mongolian people.

(Altai Mountains, Mongolia)

Due to geopolitical sensitivities, it wasn’t in my best interest to ride through Russia or Xinjiang, China, so I flew from Mongolia to Kazakhstan. A short few days’ riding across the well paved roads of southern Kazakhstan’s flat steppe and the mind-blowing mountains of Kyrgyzstan came into view. I planned my trip to arrive here in time for the Silk Road Mountain Race, a 1880km unsupported bikepacking race through the mountains of Kyrgyzstan. It was two weeks of rugged, nonstop cycling (often through the night) in the some of the most spectacular landscapes on the planet.

(Flaming Cliffs, Gobi Desert, Mongolia)

After an entire week of rest to recover from the race (and to fix my bike) I crossed the world’s second highest elevation border crossing, at 13,000ft, and entered the Pamir mountains of Tajikistan. The road only went up from there, topping out at over 15,300ft, making for some very slow riding. As challenging as it was, stopping every few minutes to catch my breath just gave me more time to savor the epic mountains landscapes. From there I crossed Zorkhul Nature Reserve and descended into the Wakhan Corridor, riding 400 miles along the border with Afghanistan. Trees of orange and gold filled a landscape that I can only compare to the Himalayas in Nepal. The autumn harvest was in full swing, locals handed me perfectly ripe apples, pomegranates, and persimmons as I biked by, and I graciously chomped down on the first fresh produce I’d tased in months.

(Kok-Ayrik Pass, Kyrgyzstan)

After crossing one last mountain range in Tajikistan, the Fann mountains, I entered Uzbekistan. Ancient Silk Road cities and delicious local cuisine were a welcome change after four months of rugged cycling and surviving off a diet that consisted mostly of instant noodles and bread. With my batteries recharged I set out to cross the Kyzylkum desert, going nearly 3 days without speaking to another person. As winter approached, I cycled to the former shores of the Aral Sea, the site of one of the worst ecological disasters in human history, and being a former sailor, I paid my respects at the ship cemetery there. Several hundred miles more of desert roads through places with names like Karakalpakstan and Mangystau, and I reached the sacred underground mosque of Beket-Ata, where Muslim pilgrims welcomed me with a dinner of horse meat and camel milk, and in the morning a breakfast of camel meat and horse milk. A short stop at the “Monument Valley of Kazakhstan”, Bozzhira, and before I knew it I was on the shores of the Caspian Sea.

(Samarkand, Uzbekistan)

With Azerbaijan’s land border closed I couldn’t take a ferry across the Caspian Sea as I hoped, so I changed plans once more and took a flight to the United Arab Emirates. I’m currently on the Musandam peninsula, in Oman, a place known as the “Norway of the Middle East”. Grateful to Big Agnes for outfitting me with top-notch gear that’s kept me dry in the Mongolian rainstorms and warm in the mountains of Tajikistan. Beyond hooking me up ahead of time, while on the road they sent me a package in Kazakhstan after the valve on my sleeping pad failed, and then another package in Tajikistan when my tent poles broke. Life on a bicycle has been filled with countless highs and lows so far, but with about 8,000 miles more to reach Spain one thing is for certain- no matter what the road ahead brings I know Big Agnes has me covered.