On May 19th, the morning I was finally leaving the home from home that At House guesthouse had become, I woke up to my alarm at 6am feeling as if I hadn’t slept a wink. My last night had coincided with another long-term inhabitant’s departure, despite the unexpected extra month for preparation there were still plenty of last minute ‘things to do’ and when I had finally got to bed my mind was whirring away at full throttle. In the morning I tiptoed around loading the bike and quietly rolled out of the gate and onto the road – just as I had seen all the other guests who had passed through during my stay, but this time it was mine and Raven’s backsides making our way in to the morning traffic.
I headed to the bus station to negotiate a ride to Balykchy (as I had already cycled most of the 190km road to this former industrial town at the western tip of Issyk Kul (lake) and was now short of time on my Kazakhstan visa). It took a little over 2hrs, crammed into the back of a share taxi with Raven and as soon as I had reassembled her I headed to the supermarket for a late breakfast. I was pretty surprised to find a) a gleaming cycle park outside, and b) 4 bikes and their Malaysian cyclists also enjoying a second breakfast outside. Whilst I had opted for the southern route around the lake, they were taking the northern one, so after some photos we said our fair wells and went our own ways. Finally I was on my way to Mongolia.
Ominous looking rain clouds loomed at the valley mouths to my right as I pedaled and to my left the snowcapped mountains of the lake’s northern shores stretched far away over the water. I tried to ignore them and got my head down to get some kms checked off from the 1800km or so I needed to cover in the next 4 weeks to meet my visa deadline of June 17th. In the afternoon the road turned away from the lake and started to climb towards a pass and then roll up and down through villages and hand tended farmland. I had managed nearly 75km when the rain finally caught up with me, but not before a local had soaked me with muddy puddle water as he drove through one village. Honking at me furiously as he approached from behind, I moved over to the gravel at the side of the road, only for him to then put his foot down as he went through a huge puddle at the edge of the road, soaking me and Raven to the audible amusement of some other villagers nearby. I wasn’t so amused!
It made little difference though as 10 minutes later thunder, lightning and torrential rain erupted from the sky, turning the road into a spray filled waterpark and forcing me to seek shelter under a shop roof. The light was fading and I needed to get out of the villages to find somewhere to camp. After a 100km day and a soggy trudge across a field past some bemused looking horses I put my tent up in the gloom of late dusk and cooked some pasta in the light of the moon now shining through the clear skies. Welcome back to life on the road.
The next few days were not pleasant for my backside as it got reacquainted with long hours in the saddle and the first few kms after I remounted each morning and afternoon were a delicate time to say the least. I also developed a stinking cold which left my eyes and nose streaming each time I stopped and bunged me up during the nights in the tent. However, scenery around the lake and the views across to the mountains all around were bathed in warm sunshine during the day and illuminated by bright moonlight at night and offered a welcome distraction. The children in the villages also cheered me up with their enthusiastic waving whenever I passed. The little ones were especially adorable; on seeing me approaching they would totter to the roadside to put their hands up in a sort of ‘STOP’ motion and shout ‘hello’ in a slightly uniform but friendly salute. One group of boys were walking back from school as I ate an ice cream outside a shop. They all crossed the road to come and shake my hand and say ‘hello’. When I shook the hand of each one and said ‘hello’ back – they burst into fits of giggles.
Although all the roads were at least partly asphalt they varied in smoothness, making it more comfortable to seek out the gravel shoulder most of the time. I reached Karakol at the eastern end of the lake in 3 days and from there on the road gradually decreased in quality until Kazakhstan. There were long tree lined sections rolling up and down the foothills of the mountains which were often littered with dead crows . The air was filled a cacophony of noise from the other crows in the tall poplar trees mourning the dead below. A vicious circle seemed to be in action whereby crows swoop down to inspect those that had been hit by speeding cars and trucks, then they would be hit as they were trying to flee another oncoming vehicle and the murder of crows loop continued.
At one point I took a wrong turn and ending up having to weave along mud tracks between smallholdings in a village. I crossed a rushing stream coming straight down from the mountain and finally picked up the road I needed towards the border. The road then took me up a short but steep dirt track and into lush green grazing land with yurts dotted around the hillsides and beautiful late spring flowers blanketing the ground. A few days more on the dirt road and I was following a river through a lush green valley, with only a few packs of horses and flocks of sheep to be seen. At the turning for the border crossing I was met by a fierce headwind that made the bumpy dirt road even harder work.
The off road was giving me tingling and numb fingers in both my hands, so much so that I found myself struggling to fill in my migration card at the small border crossing between Karkara village Kyrgyzstan and Karkara village Kazakhstan. Apart from a random minibus full of men from Azerbaijan, I was the only one at the border and in less than half an hour I was back on the bike and battling the headwind on the Kazak side . Despite the return of the asphalt, the 20km to the town of Kegen seemed to take forever as my energy was sapped by the constant wind, driving rain showers and my streaming cold, so I was relieved to find a cheap hotel in town when I arrived.
I was surprised to find a German family also staying there, although they were less surprised to see me having passed me in a car on their way across the border earlier. The metal bed sagged so much it resembled a hammock but the warm dry room was a welcome break from my tent. My first day proper in Kazakhstan took me over the river out of town and along a road rolling up and down long hills towards a ridge-line in the distance. It then began to climb round narrower twists and bends as I crossed over the ridge. The winding downhill was a pleasure to ride and had me grinning from ear to ear. I caught glimpses of the plains on the other side of the slopes as I dropped down, and just before the road flattened out the German family passed me once again, waving and wishing me well.
As I reached the plain and took a road heading east I was happy to find the evil wind from yesterday now helping me along from behind. The road dropped down into a concealed canyon, and after the climb back up to the other side it flattened out across a huge open plain. Mountains edged the vast panorama and a huge blue, cloud studded sky met the yellow flowers of the land either side of the road. I cruised along for nearly 50km with the wind pushing me forward. I spotted a few camels and dromedaries in the distance and had to make a dangerous high speed swerve to avoid a snake making a last minute dash across the road, but other than that there was little else. By lunch time the weather was bright and warm, in complete contrast to the cold and rain of the previous day.
If Kazakhstan was going to be filled with days like this – then maybe it would not be such a struggle to make it to the Russian border I thought. By lunch I had made it to the town of Shonzy and found a café-come-salad bar to eat and take refuge from the sun which was by now casting heat shimmers across the roads. A little way out of town I spotted the unmistakable silhouettes of 2 cyclists coming the other way and met Stef and Nick. Having spent 2 years living and working in South Korea they had decided to cycle back to their home in Ireland. They had only been in Kazakhstan a few days, having recently crossed the border from China and had passed the 4 Malaysian guys I met heading the other way. They warned me there were dusty roadworks and annoying flies ahead, I gave them a summary of the road I had come along but as I rode off realised they would head in a different direction after Shonzy as they were heading to Almaty, so all my information would have been useless.
True to their word, a couple of hours before sunset the road was being dug up and the steady stream of traffic was being directed along a rocky, dusty side road and each time I stopped flies and mosquitoes would arrive in a few minutes. Some sections of new road were finished but being unused and I was able to use these for some respite, but by sunset I still couldn’t see anywhere to camp as the road was now built up on a bank above the buggy undergrowth. As the sky was melting into dusty reds and pinks I saw a tattered collection of buildings that looked like an old farm and saw a guy on horseback following some cows back to the buildings, so I pulled off to ask if I could camp nearby.
The young guy turned out to be called Bezkat and he was there working on his family farm with his very old grandfather for a few days. He seemed totally unfazed by my arrival, telling me I could sleep inside, getting me to help separate the cows into their pens for the night and bringing the calves to their mothers to feed. However, when he offered me his horse to ride around the yard he was a bit baffled that I didn’t know how to ride. His argument seemed to be – you can ride a bike here, but you don’t know how to ride a horse? To address this he got me up in the saddle, showed me the basics and then left me floundering round the yard for 10 minutes. Over dinner it also transpired that he spent most of his time in the city of Taldykorgan, further along my route, and gave me his address there to come and stay when I arrived. I didn’t get much sleep as his grandfather snored away and he watched TV on full volume for most of the night, but Bezkat’s unquestioning hospitality was still much appreciated.
I set off early the next morning into a sky already bright and blue with the ever strengthening sun. The first of many long hot days ahead on my way through Kazakhstan.
For more photos of my time in Kyrgyzstan see my Flickr gallery here