A 600-mile ride across Kyrgyzstan The adventure of Lucas Winzenburg and the Leica MP

Born in 1985, Lucas Winzenburg is an American photographer based in Minneapolis, Minnesota. He is drawn to documenting wild places. He’s also the founder of Bunyan Velo, a collection of photographs, essays, and stories celebrating the simple pleasures of traveling by bicycle, now in its sixth issue. He shares his experience traveling through Kyrgyzstan, documenting life and a 600-mile ride on bicycle.

Please share the background for the Kyrgyzstan project. Why choose this location?

A few of my friends and I had all developed an interest in riding across Kyrgyzstan at one point or another. We’d gleaned bits and pieces of what it might be like from blog posts and YouTube videos. Finally, four of us decided we’d buy tickets for August of last year and we’d sort out the details later. One of my riding partners, Joe, mapped out our route from his apartment in Brooklyn. He stitched together a 600-mile string of horse trails and jeep tracks he’d found using satellite imagery and old Soviet maps.

We went to Kyrgyzstan with hopes of finding some great riding and an interesting culture set against the backdrop of the Tian-Shan Mountains. What we found surpassed our expectations in every way. Somehow, the landscapes were increasingly beautiful around every corner and over every pass. Our three-week ride took us through serene stretches of Kyrgyzstan. We rode through imposing, mountainous landscapes where the occasional yurt full of welcoming people dotted the landscape.

As an avid bicyclist, I assume you had tremendous interest in this project. What objectives did you set out to pursue?

Kyrgyzstan is a dream destination for the right kind of person. It offers countless miles of quiet roads that wind their way through incredible scenery. I try to remind people that you can find great places to ride right outside your front door, but c’mon, Kyrgyzstan?! We’ve been back for about six months now and I still find myself thinking about it every day.

My objectives were largely practical: don’t wreck the bike I was borrowing for the trip, keep up with the other guys, remember to shoot as many photos as I could, and don’t die. I mostly accomplished these goals. I try to make my photos about more than cycling, and Kyrgyzstan offered an infinite number of interesting subjects in its people, traditions, and panoramas.

Your site, Bunyan Velo, what is its purpose and mission?

Bunyan Velo is a publication I started four years ago with the goal of encouraging and inspiring readers to set out on pedal-powered trips of their own. For me, there’s no better way to experience the world than from the seat of a bicycle. My mission is to share that passion with readers. Each issue features 10-15 essays from writers and photographers who have spent time pedaling through places like Lesotho, Peru, and Iran. You won’t find gear reviews or race coverage in Bunyan Velo. It’s as much about travel and culture as it is about riding. Oh, and it’s free to read online!

Will you be showcasing the Kyrgyzstan images in a new issue of Bunyan Velo?

The seventh issue of Bunyan Velo will feature a story from Kyrgyzstan, but the images aren’t likely to be my own. I was traveling with three other photographers whose talents greatly exceed mine, so I’ll be publishing their work instead. That said, I’ll be sharing my photos though a couple of other projects soon. Kyrgyzstan is such a photogenic place, and one people don’t often think about here in the US, so I’m excited to be a part of sharing new stories about it.

Besides documenting cycling, what was the culture or life over there?

The camping and riding were amazing, of course, but some of my best memories from the trip are from moments spent with Kyrgyz people. We’d sit on the floor of a yurt, crowded together around a small table, drinking tea or fermented mare’s milk with a family. We’d share stories, despite not having a single word in common, feasting on bits of bread with butter and jam as if it was the best thing we’d ever eaten (and it was). They’d take turns riding our bikes while the whole family looked on, laughing. On one occasion one of us ended up ripping through a field on a horse.

Almost the whole the month we were in Kyrgyzstan was spent in remote areas, with five or six days between villages along our route, so I feel better equipped to comment on rural life, rather than on the culture in larger cities like the capital, Bishkek. The thing that struck me most about the people we met in the countryside was their generosity. The language barrier being what it was, it was easy to quickly get a sense of a person based on their actions.

For example, at one point we came upon a family having this amazing picnic in the mountains. They were sprawled out on beautiful, colorful blankets. They sat huddled around a massive spread of food and had multiple stoves heating various dishes. As we rode by they flagged us down and invited us to join them, which we did, being hungry and almost out of food.

We sat among several generations of this Kyrgyz family and they prepared plate after plate of food for us. One of the old ladies kept stuffing my pockets with chocolates. When a heavy rain started coming down they shuttled us into the back of their nearby van. They stood out in the rain and continued to bring us heaping piles of food. We protested and tried to switch places, but they insisted!

You used the Leica MP for this project? Was it an aesthetic decision or more experimental?

Yeah, I shot everything with my MP, 35mm Summicron ASPH, and Ilford HP5 Plus film. To me, this was the obvious combination, and I’m pleased with how this simple setup worked out. Space comes at a premium on trips like these, when you’re carrying all your gear and food. My one camera body and lens fit neatly in a small handlebar bag. The real challenge was figuring out where to stuff 40 rolls of film.

I chose the MP because it’s the camera I most enjoy using. That’s ultimately what matters to me. I don’t tend to look for the fastest, easiest way to arrive at a perfect image. I also appreciate not needing to worry about charging batteries or exposing sensitive electronics to the many forms of falling and rushing water we were bound to encounter along the way. An analog M camera is simple and reliable.

The 35mm Summicron came with as my one lens because I knew we’d be riding through vast landscapes and I wanted something wide enough to place the riders and people in the context of their environment. Ilford HP5 has become my favorite film stock in the past couple of years for its tones, versatility, and affordability when bulk rolled, so it was the natural choice for this trip.

Compared to your other Leica camera, the M2, how does it compare? How do you compare their performance? How would you compare the MP to your other Leica camera, the M2?

I tend to grab my M2 when I’m photographing landscapes or shooting portraits. You know, things that aren’t barreling down a mountain toward me. Having the built-in meter of the MP over the M2 is invaluable in situations like that, especially with changing light. I’m equally likely to have the M2 or MP in my backpack on a given day, but I work more quickly with the MP. I prefer the simple, unpaired frame lines in the M2, but the fast loading of the MP. Considering the lack of repair options in the backcountry, I feel better knowing that my MP was manufactured in the last decade or so.

Inarguably, your photography centers around the outdoors, sports, travel and landscape photography. You mention Iceland being an important part of this journey, can you share a bit about this experience?

I first became interested in photography at a young age. It was a passion of mine that led me to pursue a degree in the field when I first enrolled in college. It’s hard to recall exactly what happened, but after about a year and a half of taking courses I had a change of heart and walked away from photography. For several years after that I hardly took a single photo. It wasn’t until I spent a year living in Iceland in 2007-08 that I rekindled my love for photography. I sometimes spent weeks on end alone in the countryside and I used it as a way to document my experiences there.

Since then, I’ve largely approached photography as a way to offer an intimate view of my interactions with the environment. I travel as often as I can, and I’m most engaged with photography when I’m out on extended trips in the wilderness. I hope to share my experiences waking up in the dirt, walking or pedaling through a landscape, and coming to understand the places and people I encounter along the way.

Lastly, is there anything else you’d like to mention or share with our readers?

I’d like to say thanks for the opportunity to share some work here. I’d also love to invite anyone to get in touch with me through my portfolio or via Bunyan Velo. I’m always happy to be a resource in any way I can and to make connections with new people around the world.

To know more about Lucas Winzenberg, please visit his official website and follow him on Instagram

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5 comments

  • Your own pix are superb!
    I love riding my bike but never on such trips!
    Age a factor! Simple tools and HP+5 winners.
    The magazine “Bunyan Velo” outstanding!
    The varied viewpoints of true explorers makes an old pro stand in awe. Well done all.
    Heartfelt congratulations. jason.

  • Thank you for sharing your fascinating journey! You have a mastery of the Leica MP that is superb. Again thank You! If I may suggest, as NY is closer your bike buddies might want try trek in Adirondack Park and NYS Erie Canal trail ride.

  • Impressive, Lucca! I’d love to see all that you share down the road😀

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