Kazakhstan | Zarkhent - Charyn Canyon - Almaty - Korday | 21st September to 3rd October 2015 | 14,031km
After the best part of two months we left China and entered 'no man’s land' - a 7.2km jaunt in the rain, watched by many cctv cameras, finishing up right opposite Chinese immigration where we'd started. We reckon someone should make a Strava segment to spice things up. A big metal gate creaked open and a burly man in a fur lined jacket and sporting a line of gold teeth, proper stereotype reinforcement, said 'Welcome in Kazakhstan, this way'. We joined the queue of people carrying immense amounts of luggage, sacks of vegetables and car tyres. One guard was sipping an 11am beer in his cubical. The Manchester United card worked perfectly on the steely faced border control man, Alexander, who referred to us as James and Rosamund and reeled off his favourite players. With the relevant ‘in’ stamp we walked the bikes through thankfully without having to put anything through the scanners, which had their work cut out scanning car tyres anyway. A Korean chap was the only other ‘tourist’ passing through - he gave us a bag of white stuff we think was chewing gum at some point and some Korean coffee, top man! We rolled out and through a final set of gates into, well, nothing really. Korgas, on the Chinese side was enormous, but on the Kazakh side there was just a lumpy looking road which we had to double and triple check was in fact the main road. We set off into the mizzle, reflecting on what we might miss about China, which we’ll let you know if and when they occur. The cars being thrashed along the arrow straight roads were mostly the lovely Audis, VWs and Mercs from the era before designers got busy with spline curves. The real gems though are the extra boxy Ladas, which the police still drive. Now very wet, we made our traditional first day using new currency balls up and paid over the odds for a room in Zarkhent. The weather is noticeably colder now and it feels like we’ve begun a new phase of the trip, finally leaving the ‘East’ and entering winter in Central Asia. So, those of you who enjoyed reading about us moaning about being hot and sweaty should definitely follow the next 4 to 5 months of us complaining about being cold and wet.
In the sunshine, Kazakhstan was very likeable. The people are quite steel faced at first, but break out into big smiles and hand shakes as soon as you engage in conversation. Unusual to now see Coke Cola signs everywhere and all the western chocolate bars (all in XL sizes) in every shop. Much more open space and fewer fences, so wild camping is a sinch. We rode for 8 days in a row since our last rest day in Xinjiang, which is more than usual, and it shows by the astonishing amount of food we can put away. We do well to get the tent packed away before second breakfast and an hours riding before a brunch stop! Passing more cyclists now - Dan and Kiri, gave us directions for getting to Charyn Canyon and we duly took the suggested turn off, reasoning that the dirt road couldn't be much rougher than the ball bashing main road. The canyon was indeed spectacular, like a mini Grand Canyon (said by someone who had never been) and camping that night was dreamy. The way out was equally as cruelly corrugated but fantastically vast, exactly what we’d hoped for in Kazakhstan. A stiff headwind was consistently building up after midday and we can see why most people tend to go the other way across Asia, but we’re not about to start planning things properly now! After a significant road side potato filled doughnut gorge (are these peroskies?) we flagged down a van driven by an Uzbek chap delivering biscuits. We’d been told that the road soon hit a horrendous stretch of roadworks as a result of the new China - Europe highway construction and were deposited 100km or so later in Almaty.
The Apple city was once the Kazakh capital before things were shifted to Astana and was where we planned to apply for Tajik and Uzbek visas. The Tajik embassy was a breeze, welcomed in, shown where each officer present lived on a large map and then offered exactly the 45 day day dual entry visa we’d been told would be a tough ask. $80 each with GBAO permit. On closer inspection of the map, there were small images of the animals adventurous tourists might hope to spot in certain areas, so we decided to ignore the wolves and bears dotted close to our route! The Uzbek experience was the more traditional, drawn out, mass disorganisation process, but we did leave with the pinky promise from the only officer there that our application had been sent to Dushanbe for collection at a later date. For the rest of the stay we’d been advised to fatten up on bread, plove, shaslik and everything you can make with apples. Along with a French couple, Nat and Louis we were hosted by an Aussie adventure racer, Taz, who took us hiking and mountain biking up into the Tian Shan, which literally rise up out the back of the city. Ominously snowy given we’d be climbing much higher over the next few months. Taz’s Kazakh flat mate Askar taught us some Russian and brewed tea from herbs he picked up in the mountains. He did say that if we were to buy tea, that we should only buy it from a man at the bazaar, lady tea pickers were not to be trusted. Mysterious. Luke’s Brooks saddle has succumbed to the rigours of the tour and much more riding on it might hinder his already hindered change of having children. After making said complaint to Brooks they have agreed to send a new one out.
Leaving Almaty there were 240km to cover before the Kyrgyzstan border and the capital, Bishkek. In a town called Uzynagash Flora made the mistake of letting herself become attached to a stray kitten. Asians are often amazed at how gooey eyed Westerners go at the sight of a fluffy animal and there are so many of them you have to ignore them or it’s fatal. As the little, already named, kitten sat in Flo's lap and we were brainstorming a way to fit her into a bar bag, a chap wandered over and asked in very good english where we were from. We had a quick tour around the English school he worked at and a couple of hours later we rolled into his mothers home a little further up the road. 'It makes us uncomfortable when our guests don’t eat’, Aydin explained over dinner. Talking about sport, he mentioned that the Kazakhs were currently world champions at Kokpak, literally 'goat dragging’. Essentially rugby on horse back with a goat as a ball. ‘Is the goat dead’, Flo asked? 'Of course!' Aydin replied. 'They cut off the head and legs.' Of course. Games can last days, apparently. The goats aren’t the only unlucky ones though, in a country that eats plenty of horse meat too, the following morning we rode past a disembowelled one, the head and front legs left a little further on.
Bearing down on the border after camping by a wind farm we (Luke) found ourselves trying to shake a guy who’d latched onto our wheel, pepsi bottle and watermelons bouncing around in his front basket. Despite telling him we’d just eaten, he insisted that we came to his house for lunch. It was literally death by kindness as a fantastic spread was produced and, as we picked politely, he demonstrated how we should take large enthusiastic mouthfuls of everything. Tried Kazak halva for the first time, in large enthusiastic mouthfuls. Proudly shown around his house and garden, at the back of which was a big barbed wire fence, the border with Kyrgyzstan. As we rode the two minutes to the immigration building we were willing the Kazaks to do something that would make us actually want to leave just a little bit, but they didn’t and we were stamped out with another gold toothed grin.