Kazakhstan is the largest landlocked country in the world and when you try and cross a third of it by bike it certainly feels like it. Three years previously I had spent about 2 weeks in the far west of the country riding on pre-asphalt construction roads and tracks from Aktau to the Uzbekistan border in vast open desert. My route this time took me from south to north in the east of the country for about 1200km to the city of Semey where I needed to catch a train to Russia on June 17th. From what I could tell in advance this would take me through some vast steppe and drier landscapes near Semey and to meet my visa deadline I needed to be averaging about 80km per day for the 3 and half weeks I had left (I am usually a slightly lazier cycle tourist than that).
As I left the more mountainous areas near the Kyrgyz and Chinese borders I climbed through some hills separated by ever greater plains and it seemed like each time I rounded the last corner of an ascent the landscape would change; from jagged rock faces, to rolling plains, to dry desert, to wooded hillsides. The few habitations I passed through also varied from dusty, sleepy places with single story white washed houses in fenced compounds, to railway station villages, to gloomy looking military garrisons and dilapidated former industrial centers with huge derelict factory buildings lining the winding railway line, to modern tree-lined towns.
After 10 straight days of riding I made it to my first target; the city of Taldykorgan, where a Warmshower host had offered me a place to stay for a precious and much needed rest day. One day off just seemed to have the effect of making me more tired when I set off again, but the chance to have a shower and wash some cloths was greatly appreciated. The city is on the main rail line from Almaty and the train tracks themselves were a constant feature throughout my time in Kazakhstan. Once out of the mountains they would stretch out for miles alongside the road but in spite of this my route seemed to never be flat or downhill, yet at the same time I gained no altitude either.
This constant feeling of going slightly uphill was just one of the challenges; both mental and physical, that Kazakhstan presented. The vast open areas offered no protection or respite from the elements, be it long hot days, or squally storms, winds, mini tornados, dust flurries or downpours that would break out on the horizon. I spent one afternoon sheltering under a small 1m high drainage bridge to escape one wall of dust and headwinds that came at me as heavy black clouds rolled across the plain. On other days I would be begging for a bus stop at a junction or railway settlement in order to have somewhere out of the sun to eat lunch and rest. On days when I found none, I would put up my tent with the sides open to provide some shade or to keep out incessant bugs.
For the most part the landscape at least offered good spots for wild camping each night and I would settle down in my tent to sunsets in big skies and open panoramas. One 300km section wasn’t so kind however, with mosquito ridden marshy or thick brush on either side of the raised roadway and instead I aimed for the remote petrol stations or cafes marked on the map to try and find somewhere to put my tent. After powering my way along a 50km straight to reach one such place before dark I arrived to find the buildings all boarded up and derelict. I was weighing up my very limited options when a dog came to bark at me and a man came out of a side door. I asked if I could put my tent on the overgrown patch of land behind the building and he told me there were too many snakes to sleep in a tent round here, adding that one snake in Kazakhstan was dangerous enough that if it bit you, the poison would kill you within an hour. He didn’t specify ‘where’ in Kazakhstan, but for anyone who knows about my phobia of snakes – you’ll know that this was the last thing I wanted to hear.
He invited me into the former petrol station office, which now served as his living quarters for tea and biscuits and explained that he was employed as a sort of caretaker for the nearby antennae towers. In his early 60’s and clearly not receiving many visitors on this godforsaken stretch of road, Beken was a consummate gentleman and host; deciding that for my safety I should sleep in the office and he would sleep in his car outside so that we were both safe from the snakes. I managed to convince him that he should be allowed to sleep in his own bed, and I would sleep in the car. During his time in the Soviet army Beken had worked in many of the places I had visited in Central Asia and could tell just by smell that the tomatoes that I offered to the table had not come from the lush grounds of the Ferghana Valley in Uzbekistan (where he claimed the sweetest tomatoes are grown). When I asked to use the toilet before settling down for a night in the back of the run down VW Golf, he directed me to a hut 100m or so away and gave me a stick. “For the snakes” he explained. As soon as he went back inside I took one look at that 100m stretch of overgrown path and have to admit I just squatted down by the side of the building.
After Beken had shared his meager breakfast with me in the morning he seemed sad that I was leaving, even though I had exhausted all of my Russian language capabilities the previous evening, and gave me a lovely fatherly hug goodbye. I encountered other locals in the roadside cafes and occasionally the towns and villages, but with such long open stretches of road to cover, the days and kms felt pretty lonely and I constantly hoped I would meet other travelers, or even better – cyclists at some point. I would try and distract myself during the long hours in the saddle with podcasts, audio Russian lessons and music. Nature tried to help out too with sporadic sightings of butterflies, beautifully patterned birds, an occasional tortoise, clusters of colourful flowers and some goats taking over an abandoned petrol station.
When I did finally meet some fellow travellers, I was surprised to find myself speaking Turkish to a guy called Ahmet who was on his way to Mongolia on his small motorbike. In a rare lunch break in the shelter of a bus stop 250km from Semey a white transit van pulled up with a Swedish couple also on their way to Mongolia. After talking to them about visas for the trips I thought it best to check one more time that I did not need one for Mongolia. I was fairly confident as I had gone to the Mongolian consulate in Istanbul in April to check, and he had assured me that my UK passport allowed me visa on arrival. Checking the map I was now only 3 days ride from Semey, which would give me 3 days to rest there and a chance to make some plans for the route ahead and I felt a sense of relief at almost having ’made it’ so I checked into a small roadside motel for the night. Checking the Mongolian visa requirements with the help of my TEP Wireless portable WiFi device blew that all out of the water.
Contrary to what the consulate had told me, as of January 2016 I needed a visa in advance to enter Mongolia. I was now pretty much exactly half way between the nearest Mongolian embassy/consulates: 1000km to Astana or 1000km to Almaty. I had exactly 5 days until my hard fought Russian transit visa started and 6 days until my Kazakhstan visa expired. There is no other way to phrase it- I was in the shit, and if the Mongolian consulate from Istanbul had been there, so would he have been.
I frantically scoured the internet for visa reports, issuing times, embassy opening hours, train, bus and flight schedules. If I couldn’t get a Mongolian visa in time there was no point heading to Russia as I only had 10 days there and I would need to get out of Kazakhstan pretty quick too to avoid an overstay on that visa. It was 3am in the morning and England had just made a mess of their opening game in EURO 2016 before I tried to get some sleep. There was nothing for it, I would have to try and hitchhike with Raven to Astana and hope I could get a visa there.
Over the previous weeks I had probably been offered a lift by a truck or someone once every few days, and just the day before the Swedish couple had asked if I needed a lift anywhere on their route. But as I stood by the side of the road in the early morning there was not a truck, van, pick-up or magic carpet in sight. After 2 hours of dust and increasing heat a bus finally pulled over which was going in the right direction. He tried to rip me off instantly, probably knowing, just as I did, that I couldn’t afford to be fussy. In all it took me 27 hours, 3 buses and 6 hours by the roadside to reach Astana and I made it to the consulate 15 minutes before it closed for the day. With hardly any sleep for 2 days and probably smelling as bad as I looked I waited for the consular in the small office.
He spoke no English, but was sympathetic to my best efforts in Russian and ushered me through a door into the main building of the consulate, before calling someone to come and help translate, giving me a form to fill in and then asking if I would be able to wait. When he came back 30 minutes later there was a Mongolian visa stuck into my passport, and as if I wasn’t close enough to kissing his feet already, he pointed out that he had given me 60 days instead of the usual 30 days so that I would not have to worry about getting an extension when I arrived. Somewhat dazed, I rolled Raven round the corner to find a meal for the first time in 24 hours, before finding my way to the house of another Warmshower host – who had miraculously accepted my extremely last minute request for a place to stay – and went straight to sleep on the sofa.
For more photos from my journey through Kazakhstan check out the gallery on my Flickr page here