World by Bike 23: Central Asia - Part 1
Four intimidating hours on the Chinese side of the border later, and I was riding across no-man's-land into Kazakhstan. There was a ferocious wind blowing across the empty Kazakh sands, but I was managing to hold a smile. Kazakhstan and Central Asia felt like the wildest, most remote part of the trip and I was excited to finally be there. I think I was partially glad to be out of watchful eye of the Chinese too.
Whilst crawling along the new highway from the grand, new, foreigner-specific Chinese border post, a car pulled up alongside me and a Russian backpacker wound down the window. He was a mid-fifties dude, with a full, greying travel beard. He'd been travelling overland and solo since Indonesia and pulled over to check I was alright. He told me to ask for help if ever I needed it, and that the Kazakh's were a friendly bunch. After the car sped off into the distance, and I missed my exit off the new, unmapped highway, I quickly encountered the Kazakh hospitality. I'd jumped the barrier at the edge of the highway and cut off-road to where the old, mapped road was supposed to be. On my way I cut through a small village, and whilst checking the map, a small, sun-wrinkled lady came over and gestured for me to come back to her Soviet-looking house for food. She gestured repeatedly, but as light was quickly fading and the wind hadn't let up, I pushed onto the a bigger town to spend the night.
I woke the next morning to a pancake, yoghurt, bread, jam, cheese and egg omelette. It felt a world away from the noodle breakfasts in China. Peculiarly, but comfortingly, it felt much more European and more closer to home. The morning, and most of the afternoon was spent in the town of Zharkent trying to muddle my way around a bazaar in search of a place to exchange currency and get a phone plan to gain internet access. An enthusiastic local gestured to me from one stall, and beckoned his friend as I approached. I used the opportunity to show use the Russian translation on my phone and ask if they knew where I could change money. Another of their friends came out of a darkened room behind the stall and asked how much money I was carrying. A little wary, I kept my wallet hidden and managed to find out that they were offering a competitive exchange rate (based on what I had previously googled), and that currency trading on street corners is fairly common in Kazakhstan. Swapping my yuan for tenghe, I asked if they knew where I could find a phone plan, and they showed me to a shop, translated for me, and even paid for some extra credit on my phone. There was an initial issue with accessing data, requiring me to go to another phone store to register as a foreign user, which caused delays as the store was just closing for lunch on my arrival. I took the opportunity to stumble through a Cyrillic alphabet menu, find food, and respond to the inquisitive school children who wanted to practice with me. I gathered that Russian is the predominant language in the cities and bigger towns, Kazakh prevails in villages, and that English is taught as a third language in schools.
The phone and currency change ordeal left me delayed that day, and with another gale-force headwind, we left town with the ambitious hope of making it to the city of Almaty the next day where'd I arranged to stay. I put my head down and ground out near 100km over the next five and half hours, at a painfully slow pace, and into ever-decreasing light. The mountain range behind me glowed in the warm sunset and was a encouraging reminder of where I was in the world, and reminder to look up from my handlebars - something that's harder than it sounds after several days of being battered by a 40kph headwind. I creeped into town that evening and found a £5 room, with a particularly grumpy hotel manager. She reluctantly let me bring the bike into the room, and was even more reluctant to wake before 7am the next morning to unlock the hotel door to let me on my way.
I was waking early the next morning to give myself as much time as possible to grind out the miles to Almaty for a much needed rest day. Another strong wind was forecast, and the terrible roads were likely to continue. I suppose that with 40 degree summers, and negative 20 winters the roads become very weathered without repeated investment. By all accounts, the new, empty, unmapped highway must have taken the investment of the last few years because the road I followed was awful. I was chased by two dogs for five miles, almost half an hour, as I left town and headed for a large canyon, which only made riding worse. It's a long time for you to keep your head on a swivel to keep an eye on the hungry dogs, especially when trying to watch for crevasse-sized potholes and the deep sand that lay just inches off the side of the road.
The first six hours of the day were absolutely disgusting. I was taking breaks every hour to give my ears a break from the rushing wind noise, and to try and appreciate the size of the landscape I was inching across. I'd discovered that the hard sand at the side of the road was smoother than the road, and that after the steep climb out of the canyon, the road would continue to climb slowly to 4000ft above sea level. Over those six hour I had only covered 60 miles. To get to Almaty I'd need to do around 150 miles, and so was mentally preparing myself for a 15-16 hour day. It's impossible not to be doing the maths in your head, working out when you're actually going to make it to your destination. I'd oddly managed to find the idea of a 15 hour challenge an appealing hurdle to overcome. I was curious to see whether I had it in me, and reframing the day from a chore to a challenge made it more enjoyable. However, I still needed to break the down, hour-by-hour. Then again, you can’t spend long at your hourly breaks, otherwise you end up losing a whole bunch of time without making forward progress.
After the initially tough six hours, I descended through a narrow gorge, still managing to be struck by gusts of wind despite what should have been sheltering mountains. The road from here gathered more trees along the roadside which blocked the wind a little. Soon after we re-joined the smooth new highway and speed began to increase, to nearer 12mph. On any other time on the trip, besides the last couple of weeks, moving at 12mph would have been relatively slow and frustrating, but today it felt like I was flying. As the hours ticked by, the wind started to reduce the closer we got to the mountains that clasp themselves around Almaty. My spirits were picked up at a petrol station where an inquisitive truck driver came over, pointed at me and said English. I said yes, and that I didn't speak Russian, but he just repeated 'Conor' back to me several times. Initially I was confused, but then realised that he was referring to UFC superstart Conor McGregor, and that McGregor's last fight had been against one of Kazakhstan's most famous athletes (the only one I've vaguely heard of), Khabib Nurmagomedov.
The final few hours slowly ticked by as clouds rolled in from the snowy mountains to the south and proceeded to drip on me as I made the climb into the city of Almaty, former capital of Kazakhstan. I'd arranged to stay with an Aussie expat who had recently moved out to there as an engineer who worked in mining. He was soon to bring his whole family out to Almaty from their old home in Melbourne, ready for a new adventure. Trent was a great guy, He told me how his desire to travel in his youth had brought him to London, and when he'd run out of money joined a mining company who'd offered paid-for travel as part of the job description. He'd followed the industry from London, to Scandinavia, before marrying a Canadian and moving to Vancouver, Peru, Ghana, back to Australia before coming out to Kazakhstan. I'm sure I'm missing places, but it sounded like a fun way to live. The expat life in Almaty is supposed to be excellent as the city is the probably the most developed economically and culturally in the region, and is a cheap place to live. The Russification of the area means that the city has quite the European feel, and seeing noticeably more ethnic Russian and Ukrainian folk can make the place feel a lot less foreign than many of the expat cities in the world that I've passed through on this trip. Plus it's got great skiing in the winter.
I enjoyed a rest day in Almaty meandering around bike shops, cleaning the bike and looking for parts. Unfortunately I couldn't find a new bottom bracket for the bike, a part I last replaced in Brisbane, but I was able to fit a new rear tyre in an effort to beef up puncture protection before the next rural stretch of road. I was even able to set up tubeless tyres by myself, which was a proud moment.
The next couple of days to Kyrgyzstan and Bishkek were taken fairly lightly, with a reduced mileage and multiple stops for photos and snacks. The road was pretty empty, and much better quality that it had been in the far east of the country, but I was still feeling China-fatigue, so took things easy. The road was so quiet however, there wasn't a town to sleep in the evening following Almaty. I had planned to pitch up my tent at the roadside, but decided to be a responsible wild-camper and ask a few of the local semi-permanent yurt dwellers if there anywhere to sleep. They gestured to enquire if I was travelling solo, and then showed me to a yurt. They move a large, wooden table and said I could pitch my tent inside. I was incredibly grateful as the clear skies had made for a very chilly evening.
I woke early the next morning with the sun peeking through the wooden slats in the yurt door. The sun rises early here as the country runs on the capital's time zone, which is significantly further west, so the day starts near 4.30/5am. The yurt-dweller, I didn't catch his name, peeked in at 6am to see if I was awake, and happily I was just packing away my tent. I crawled along the highway, aching, and without a morning caffeine hit until I got to a town, ninety minutes later. After successfully avoiding horse meat on the entire Cyrillic alphabet menu, I was back on the road, over a small climb to 4000ft, then down the river that forms the border with Kyrgyzstan.
The border crossing was straightforward, with no questions asked of me, and just a likeness check of my face against my passport photo. It was then into Kyrgyzstan - country number 18.
The capital of Bishkek felt much less developed than Almaty, but it was much easier to get around. I found a 50p phone plan for the week, and then headed to see a friend of one my Auntie's obscurely located work contacts. I'd actually been given some spare office keys of a contact in Almaty, and had to return them to their rightful owner in Bishkek in partial exchange for a place to stay.
I ended up taking a couple of days in Bishkek after some stomach issues plagued my first rest day. Despite the issues, however, I managed to make it to a church meeting at the International Church of Bishkek, and learn about some of the cultural challenges, and cultural changes going on in Kyrgyzstan in the post-Soviet era. It was great to hear the local stories and get a sense of the place, as well as lovely to get some much needed rest.
The next phase, over the highest mountains of the trip and into the hottest desert of the trip, and the most rural areas of the trip, is a daunting prospect. I've had it in my head as the biggest challenge and biggest obstacle of this entire adventure, and it feels strange to writing this on the eve of tackling that task. But this is what tackling the world is about, I suppose, sitting on the edge of what you know you can do, and seeing how far you can go. I've got to break it downm day-by-day, hour-by-hour, food-stop by food-stop, but I'm excited. I genuinely don't know what I'm going to find outside of the city. Bishkek has areas relatively westernised by the wake of the Soviet Union and the presence of coffee shops, bakeries, free wifi and an increasing number of expats and tourists. But not outside the city, things get pretty real out there. Let's see what's over the hill…