Our Unlimited Cycling Dream: Kazakhstan

Perhaps “My” instead of “Our”, after separating from Yuily I was cycling through Kazakhstan myself while she took a flight to Kyrgyzstan. What waited for me was a country with incredibly untouched scenery and hospitable people.

Dostyk to Glinovka

Wednesday, May 11, 2016 – 97 km

With this cheap tent I bought in Urumqi, I was lucky it didn’t rain. It did get quite cold, with this tent holding no heat at all, so I woke up a few times. It was brilliant sunshine when I got out, not a cloud to be seen, and the wind died down as well. I admired my camping spot once more.

What started as no wind became a tailwind soon which got stronger and stronger. This was awesome and I just blasted along the road. Which was a potholed mess. At best I could just slalom around, but later on it would become a gravel road with tarmac bumps eventually. I got told it gets better after the next town, about 100 km away.

Just around lunchtime I got a puncture, which combines the tasks. A couple of weeks back the tire got a nasty cut by glass which was quite big. I taped it up, but if a spiky rock would get in I would have the next puncture … which is exactly what happened now. I taped it up even more.

I reached an army checkpoint soon, but the soldier only had a friendly salute and handshake for me after inspecting my passport. After this was a turnoff which would lead me into the mountains, away from the Dzungarian Gate that I could still see, along with the Tianshan mountains that belong to China.

It was harsh climbing. I had a week off the bike before and was starting to feel it. The terrible road didn’t help – I took many breaks. Before reaching Glinovka, the next village, there was a deep canyon to cross. I wouldn’t make it before dark, so I pushed my bike up a hill and made camp. I had enough food and could restock the next morning in the village. Hope for no rain again!

Glinovka to Kabanbay

Thursday, May 12, 2016 – 76 km

No rain! I lay in to let the morning sun dry off the condensation on the tent, packed up and noticed that my toolkit is missing. I usually had it strapped to my seatpost. It must have bounced off on the bumpy road without me noticing! I went around to look for it, but it was gone. Most of the things inside I never needed except for the allen keys. I just had to hope that I don’t have to turn any screws until I find new ones.

I set off to tackle the canyon. It was brutal work, the road stopped pretending and was now just gravel. Parts were so steep that my front wheel skidded in the loose gravel and I had to push. I could see the village of Glinovka, but there were still hills in the way.

I was running low on water and tried to refill from streams – all of them were to dirty though. One day a water filter will come in handy. Reaching Glinovka, a tarmac surface greeted me and I used the local water pump, popped into a shop and re-energized with fanta and chocolate.

Now with the road being better, progress was more smooth. There were still many hills and two more canyons to cross. I was slowly getting sick of climbing. Slowly, I was back into civilization: From Dostyk to Glinovka, there was none except for the odd nomad yurt. Now villages became more frequent and, by evening, Kabanbay was densely populated enough that wild camping would be hard. I needed to charge things, anyway.

I asked a farmer for permission to camp and charge – bad spot as there was a hotel next door! I didn’t want to spend much and was perfectly fine with camping, I just needed to charge. I popped in to ask about camping in their yard.

Another guest could speak some English and greatly eased the communication. When I asked about camping instead of a room, he said he would pay for me. Any refusal on my side was just met with “No, it’s ok. Welcome to Kazakhstan.”

And so I settled into a comfortable room with Wi-Fi to chat to Yuily and my mom that night. Life was good.

Kabanbay to Sarkand

Friday, May 13, 2016 – 88 km

As usual when you have a nice bed and Wi-Fi, getting up is hard. I had no rush though, with 12 more days allowed to stay and 700 km left to the Kyrgyz border, there was nothing to feel bad about being lazy for a little bit. I left at 12.

Now that I was out of the mountains, it was quite hot. I was slowly entering the steppe, although the road would continue on the edge of it, the other side having the massive Tianshan mountains always visible.

I had a very filling lunch at a cafe for just about EUR2. I heard about Kazakhstan being comparatively expensive before, which turned out not true at all. A strong inflation hit the country a year ago, tripling the exchange rates, meaning everything is three times cheaper for me than it was a year ago. While I could gloat about it as a foreigner, I know this is very bad for the locals…

I pushed on among flat roads. There were no services for over 40 km until the outskirts of Sarkand, the first proper city. I stocked up in a shop. The owner was quite curious about me, and when I told him that I’m going to camp, he wanted to lead me to a hotel instead. Over our language barrier, I managed to explain that I don’t have much money and really prefer to camp anyway. He nodded. And then tried to push a wad of money in my hands! I backed off and managed to tell him I’m fine. The generosity of the people here is awesome, but a little too much at times…

Being close to a city now, it was tricky to find a spot. There was farming everywhere, but those farms were separated by strips of forest, of which I found one thick enough that my tent couldn’t be seen from the outside. Still, I could hear the tractors, farmers talking and there were bottles lying around my campsite, showing signs of past drinking sessions. At night then I heard a dog sniffing around my tent. In these situations I just tell myself: “This spot is good, no one can see me unless they go bushwhacking. It’s gonna be fine.” And went to sleep.

Sarkand to Kyzylagash

Saturday, May 14, 2016 – 100 km

And it was fine. I took my time getting up as usual (also for having the sun conveniently dry off the condensation) when I saw a car pulled up in sight of my tent. It seemed they either didn’t care at all or the camouflage color of the tent did its job.

I rolled into Sarkand, which was surprisingly small, to stock up again and disappointingly still didn’t find any allen keys. Oh well, I would have to wait until Tadlykorgan, the first proper city on my way. Luckily, I got a positive reply from a couchsurfing host in two days time. 154 km to go.

I decided to eat out for lunch again as those little cafes were cheap and delicious. During a good meal, one of the other guests who had been talking to me paid it for me. My protests were to no avail. All this generosity I’m receiving here is awesome, although it makes me feel a bit uncomfortable.

I bought a Fanta at another shop which seemed to hit the turbo boost. I might have been helped by a little tailwind, but the sugar rush kept me in the big chainring, blasting along at close to 30 km/h, smashing 60 km in the late afternoon and had me arrive in Kyzylagash, a large village/small town.

There was rain forecast for the night so finding a sheltered camp was essential. I tried to ask people if I could camp in their shed, which took three attempts (the first two being rejections, mentioning there is a hotel further up the road). The third one however took me into his house, filling me up with beer, showing me around town, treating me dinner and letting me crash on his couch. It was another display of great hospitality. My miniscule Russian and his miniscule English had us talking in Google translate most of the time.

Kyzylagash to Tadlykorgan

Sunday, May 15, 2016 – 54 km

After a nice breakfast and Google translate chat, I was off. Only just about 50 km to go, I was looking forward to a nice afternoon and possibly rest day the next day with my couchsurfing host, David. Those 50 km would not be easy though.

A fierce headwind was blowing, and after the road turned it was right in my face. Additionally the road went up and down over rolling hills. Each of those was hard, hard work as I had to pedal on the downhills due to the wind. After a while my back was hurting as I was crouched on the handlebar most of the time to minimize my wind resistance. Additionally, I noticed my front breaks being a wrong buy as they had metal in them and were now scratching on my rim, making them unusable. All this made the rest day not just a thought, but a definite decision.

Fortunately the wind died down after around 25 tough kilometers with frequent breaks. I dodged a few heavy rainclouds thanks to these breaks though and stayed dry all the way into the city.

David, a Polish-Canadian working as an English teacher, met me and his girlfriend cooked an awesome dinner for us. They were very eager to hear about my and Yuilys trip, hearing about China and what I’ve seen so far. David was looking forward to do a bike tour on his own sometime and was perfectly ok with me having a rest day. Looking forward to that, I went to sleep.

Rest Days in Taldykorgan

Monday, May 16 – Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Rest I did. I did have a few things to do, like getting new brake pads and allen keys, preferably a multitool. I also needed to go shopping. On my first day I managed exactly none of that.

It was raining most of the day and my timing was always bad enough that whenever I wanted to go out, it started again. I only managed to visit the nearby convenience store to get ingredients for a dinner I promised my hosts.

David was awfully nice. He wanted to show me the school, and even though the security didn’t let him, I still could see how modern and prosperous it is. There were 20 foreign teachers with him and as he said there was no tuition fee – everything paid for by the government. Granted, there are only a few of these kind of schools in the country and they have really steep entrance exams. But I find it extremely positive if a government takes education so seriously.

Later I cooked up my signature pasta for David, his girlfriend and another colleague.

I wanted to leave the next morning, but still had these errands to do. I found supermarkets, got supplies, but didn’t find a bike shop. Returning during Davids lunch break, he gave me the location of two. I mentioned I would head out soon unless it rains buckets again. After he returned to work, it started to rain buckets. Oh, well. It didn’t stop until 3 pm, by which I decided to stay another night. Luckily, David was totally fine with that.

I finally went out and got the brake pads and a multitool. KZT4500, about EUR12, not cheap, but reasonable and they would last me much longer than the Chinese shit. I agreed to leave the house when David goes to work the next morning at 8 am.

Taldykorgan to Shengeldy

Wednesday, May 18, 2016 – 158 km

Leaving relatively early for a change, and being well rested, I thought I could make some distance today. A warmshowers host in Almaty accepted me for the day after tomorrow. Almaty being 260 km away, it would be a challenge to do this in two days, but, challenge accepted!

I’ve been warned that the road out of Taldykorgan is bad, and as soon as I joined the main highway, it turned out to be true. But later, I spotted a newly finished highway, very smooth and cutting through the mountains. With a slight tailwind also helping, I put on some psytrance music to give myself even more of a turbo boost.

And it worked. Even though it went over rolling hills, I did 50 km by 11 am. A quick lunch powered me on, breaking 100 by 3 pm. But that wasn’t all.

I topped a 1000 m pass and was sent flying on a fast downhill into the steppe. It leveled out, but I didn’t get much slower. Changing into the big chainring, helped by tailwind, I blasted on to Shengeldy, a small village. It seemed rather poor and I couldn’t find a shop, so I went to camp after 158 glorious kilometers, a new record.

Who knows, if I had Fanta I might have made 200 km?

Shengeldy to Almaty

Thursday, May 19, 2016 – 105 km

The tent walls were soaking wet the next morning because of the usual condensation. Even though Almaty was still 105 km away, I knew my host wouldn’t finish work until 9:30 pm, so I had no rush, leisurely eating breakfast and waiting for sun to dry the tent.

I pushed the bike out of the woods and when I was almost on the road I annoyingly heard the rear tire fizz. Again, a small rock punctured the problem part. I changed it by the side of the road and replaced the tape inside the tire.

The road was excellent, bringing me into Kapshagay, a Kazakh resort town, in no time. I found a supermarket and happily stocked up, having lunch afterwards. On Google Maps, the road from here to Almaty was marked as an expressway, where I hoped I wouldn’t be stopped. In reality, the great road I had for yesterday and today so far turned into a construction site. So much for expressway.

It did eventually turn into a proper expressway later, but there was no control or sign that bicycles wouldn’t be allowed. These roads are actually excellent for cycling: Sure the traffic is fast, but there is a shoulder and it’s very smooth. Many minor roads are way more dangerous to cycle on!

I was still good on time so I took long breaks, also to avoid rush hour in Almaty. At one of these breaks, 25 km out, I noticed my rear tire getting flat. Not again! I really had to change that buggered tire soon, it kept puncturing at the same spot. Since this one was a slow puncture, I decided to pump it up again and inch my way to my hosts place like that.

I cycled as fast as I could to minimize the pumping and whenever there was a gas station or car garage I used their pump to give it maximum pressure. Somehow I made it and James, a British expat, welcomed me into his flat. He was expecting two Australian cyclists as well, who turned up later in the evening. It was good fun.

Rest day in Almaty

Friday, May 20, 2016

I had a good time talking to the other guests while James had to go off to work. When they went out to pick up an Uzbek visa, I set to the task of fixing my tire. I found that the puncture was completely unrelated to the hole in my outer tire, instead a vicious metal shard just next to the hole was the culprit. Additionally there was another hole! Together with the tube that got punctured yesterday morning, I had three holes to patch now. THE WORKS.

The rubber on the outer tire looked like it was wearing off and getting more porous, so it was time to switch. I put the front outer tire on the back and the back on the front. The front magically had no punctures so far for 5000 km! I hoped that magic would carry over to the rear…

That being done, I set out to see something of Almaty. It’s a nice and modern city with a beautiful mountain backdrop, but not many attractions. I enjoyed walking around on good sidewalks and neatly planted trees, but it was wearing off quickly. The traffic was just as bad as in Chinese cities, but, and that’s a huge but: The cars stop on pedestrian crossings!!!

I went to a supermarket and got ingredients to cook for everyone tonight. The Australians were offering to make a salad as a side dish, too. We had a fun dinner together and talked long into the evening.

Almaty to Wild Camp on A2

Saturday, May 21, 2016 – 50 km

I allowed myself three days to get to Bishkek, being 248 km away. Many people who cycle this stretch do it in two days, but I had no rush, having 4 days left on my visa and several weeks before Yuily flies in to Bishkek.

No surprise then that I took my time to get up and packed. I was almost ready by 1 pm when my mom called. That became 2 pm then and by 2:30 my host James returned from work. Eating sandwiches, and him wondering if I stay another night, I finally was out of the door by 4 pm, my latest start yet!

The mission was only to get out of Almaty and push the distance to Bishkek under 200 km. After some stressful cycling out of the city, I followed the main road – I prefer these as they tend to have multiple lanes and thus no oncoming overtakes.

As I was trodding along, a group of racing cyclists passed me. They were going fast, but not super fast (around 35 km/h), and I managed to keep up in their draft. The traffic made a big pass around us now, and compared to the narrow passes they did around me solo, this was a delight. The high speed also helped making kilometers.

They did a u-turn and I went on alone a little bit further. Just as the distance to Bishkek went below 200 km I found some woods to camp in.

Wild Camp A2 to Wild Camp on A2

Sunday, May 22, 2016 – 125 km

My cheap-ass tent has two doors. One mosquito shield and one rain door. I decided to leave away the rain one to see if it helps the condensation and it did!

It was supposed to rain the next day, so I was keen to make as many kilometers as I could. What you cycle today you don’t have to cycle tomorrow. Unfortunately my morning laziness had me pack the tent after 10 am without even realizing it was so late already.

I bought a liter of fanta at a store, hoping to ignite the rocket boost. Annoyingly I forgot my sunglasses at the shop and had to cycle a few km back to get them. I’m notorious for breaking or forgetting sunglasses, and with those I had a good run of 4 months already! Luckily, they were still there. If you give me a present, never ever give me expensive sunglasses!

The fanta did fuel me as I found myself with some time to have some roadside Shashlik. The road had a larger intersection afterwards, one of the roads leading to Bishkek. I took a detour to a nearby village to restock, only to find some shops on the A2 to Bishkek as well!

I had one hour of daylight left, trying to make the most of it, shortening the time I would have to cycle in the rain tomorrow. But it was important to have reception with internet as Yuily would book her flight tonight and I wanted to contact her.

Unfortunately, now I was in a river gorge. There were good campsites, but all of them had no reception. So, the only choice was to climb out of the gorge. By the time I did so it was almost 8 pm with the light fading. But, on the top there were some woods and I saw a mobile tower, so it was all good. I wouldn’t have shelter if it rained, though…

Wild Camp on A2 to Bishkek

Monday, May 23, 2016 – 75 km

It did rain. Not a lot, though, and magically my cheap-ass tent held me dry. I took the luxury of sleeping some more.

In a break of the rain I packed the tent and set off. I didn’t get very far though as my front tire instantly deflated through the hole in the outer tire. I replaced the tube and taped it up some more. I really needed to get a new one.

It was raining steadily and I didn’t have that far to go, so when a roadside restaurant came in sight I didn’t hesitate. After enjoying a noodle soup, surprisingly another cycle tourist came in. There are many of them in Central Asia I heard, but this is the first companion I’ve seen.

He was Kyrgyz, and spoke a bit of German and English. Together with my bits of Russian, we were able to string a decent conversation together. He just left Bishkek and was going on a loop to Almaty, Issyk-kul and back. We exchanged contact details and went on.

I arrived in the border town and spent my last KZT in a supermarket. On to the checkpoint, where I had the easiest crossing ever. Kazakh immigration gave me a quick stamp out with a curious look at my bicycle. Kyrgyz immigration had me park my bike outside, a man in a mirrored door took my passport and I got it back less than a minute later with an entry stamp. I cycled on, expecting a mandatory customs check, but I barely even noticed the customs area – just a man in uniform sitting on a table beside the road, waiting for someone to declare goods, which no one does, ever.

Why can’t all borders be this easy? Stamp out, stamp in, no questions, no visas, no money. As Kazakh and Kyrgyz citizens can already cross here with just an ID card, I wonder if these two countries would abolish border checks altogether soon, just like the Schengen area. Or, just like it was 25 years ago in the Soviet Union. Ha.

I rolled into the suburbs of Bishkek, which started just across the border. I wanted to get a SIM card, but then remembered that I have to withdraw money first. So I rolled further into town to find an ATM.

Unfortunately all the ATMs I found only took Visa, no MasterCard. I have both types, but pay a hefty withdrawal fee on the Visa card while the MasterCard I have allows free withdrawals worldwide. So I cycled around aimlessly for a while until I found one, which spew out some KGS.

I then proceeded to get a SIM card, which was onerous. The card had to be registered to my passport, and the ladies in the booth had trouble deciphering it, reminiscent of China. With my help and plenty of patience, we managed and I had the card.

I messaged my couchsurfing host, and even though he wasn’t home yet, told me to make myself comfortable in his yard, coming as fast as he could. Andrej, a local but ethnically Russian, soon welcomed me and we had a nice evening with his great cooking. He also likes cycling a lot and knows plenty of bike shops throughout the city, although he hasn’t done any touring yet. Maybe I could talk him into it.

Final thoughts on Kazakhstan:

I love this country. Due to its immense size I only cut through a small part of it (actually all in Almaty province), so my impressions might not be valid for the western part. But I heard tales of very hospitable and generous people here before and they were certainly true.

The landscape was something to behold. Much of the nature was untouched and my wild camping spots were the most beautiful yet. Even when I rolled through flat steppe, it was covered in poppy flowers and colorful grasses, looking fantastic. I heard Kyrgyzstan is even more beautiful from pretty much everyone, so there is something to look forward to.

I recommend this country a lot. It’s visa free for most Europeans and Americans for 15 days, so just go. Language barriers are there, but not as large as in China – start learning some Russian before you go!

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