In the same way that I had never intended to visit Almaty, Astana hadn’t been on my Kazakhstan itinerary either. Seeing as I had been forced to spend time in both cities for visa reasons I tried to give them some of my attention whilst I was in town. Both are new and modern cities and in stark contrast with the vast rural landscapes and towns I had passed through in between. Astana in particular was somewhat of a culture shock with heavy traffic, an eclectic but generally way over the top explosion of modern architecture, big cars and endless building projects. With little to distract me in the city I was able to finally benefit from a couple of days before I needed to make my way back to Semey in order to catch my train to Russia.
The restorative affects were short-lived, however, as I then had to take a 19hr over night bus, cycle across town to the train station, dismantle and pack Raven, an 11hr train to the Russian city of Barnaul (including a 3hr border crossing), rebuild Raven on the platform at 2am (as there were no trolleys or porters to take all my things to the other side of the station) and another 4hr train journey to the town of Biysk at the end of the line in southern Siberia. Bleary eyed and already feeling the heat of the Siberian summer sun at 8am in the morning, I rolled out of Biysk towards my next section of the journey – the Chuysky Trakt.
Just after the bridge over the river on the way out of town a large monument welcomes traffic on to this trunk road, which was partly constructed by prisoners of nearby Gulags and runs south to the Mongolian border. It is incredibly popular with motorbike tourers and increasingly so with Russian tourists as it is renowned for beautiful Altai scenery with forested hillsides, river gorges, snow-capped mountains and multi-colored rocky canyons. I had known nothing about the Chuysky Trakt, other than the access to Mongolia (one of only 4 international crossing points into the country) until meeting a cyclist in Bishkek who had ridden in the area the previous autumn. The first thing I noticed was the increased volume of traffic on the road compared to Kazakhstan, the second thing was the smooth asphalt surface. The latter was good news, as once again I had a visa deadline to meet.
It took me 2 days to reach the regional center of Gorno-Altaisk where I was unsure whether I needed to register my visa and get a permit for the border area I was heading to. After reading a couple of blog reports from previous travellers I decided to save time and take a chance by skipping both (possibly a foolish decision after my recent visa experiences). For a couple of nights I was plagued by mosquitoes again when I camped and sporadic rain and thunder storms had me rushing for bus stops or waiting in my tent in the morning. But as promised the road follows the Katun river through beautiful alpine and forest scenery. After 3 or 4 days the roadside villages, bridges and natural features became less and less touristy and the single storey wooden gingerbread Altai cottages lined the roads,whilst cows dotted the meadows and hillsides along the river banks.
The road scales two passes on its way through the mountains. At the top of the first, the 1720m Seminksy Pass I called in at a restaurant to ask for my water bottles to be refilled. The only other customer was a very drunk guy sitting in just a pair of jogging bottoms and missing his mouth repeatedly with a bowl of food. Whilst I was waiting at the bar he staggered over to me and mimed a boxing action and then told me “No” in Russian. I smiled and nodded in agreement that I didn’t fancy a fight either before he rolled his head and staggered barefoot out the door muttering something about a banya (a traditional Russian bath house).
The second pass, Chike-Tamam, finished with 5km of steep switchbacks which snake back and forth across the steep incline. I was all set to tackle this in the late afternoon and enjoy the downhill in the evening before finding another idyllic riverside camp. However, somewhat distracted by the increasingly breath taking scenery I took a wrong turn just before I reached it and cruised along with a tailwind for 10km before I realised my error. The rest of the day was spent back tracking uphill and into the wind. With little daylight and energy remaining I was forced to camp at the foot of the climb. It was raining in the morning and after packing up in the wet I stood in a cow pat before slipping on some rocks cycling back to the road and fell off Raven in to more mud. Somehow the rain then worked in my favor for the hour or so climbing as there was no chance to stop without getting cold so I forced the pedals round whilst I cursed at any injustice that entered my mind, ignoring the outside world with music in my headphones.
Nearing the top the skies started to clear giving rain soaked luscious green views of the valley and a curious number of vintage cars began passing me in the opposite direction. At the crest of the pass I met the British owners of an Austin Martin called Ethel and Maud the Mercedes, who explained all the vintage cars as they were taking part in the Peking-to-Paris Rally. There were over 100 vehicles taking part and I spent much of the descent waving at other participants as they came up the other side of the pass. I also met 2 Korean motorcyclists who had just come from Mongolia and were heading through Central Asia to the UK. Combined with the downhill and an ice cream in the next village my mood was much improved.
Aside from the almost daily bursts of rain and the touristy spots to the north of the route the Chuysky Trakt is a cycle tourist’s paradise. The road is endless smooth asphalt, letting you enjoy the views, there are cafes or picnic spots every 40 or 50km for the most part and there is no end of perfect wild camping spots, concealed from the road and close to the rivers. On nights when the rain stayed away I had full power illumination from a bright full moon and in the mornings the air was filled with the shrills of bird calls and the squeaking of gophers. As i looked out of my tent at the start of one day I could even see these little meerkat-like creatures standing tall on their back legs at the entrances to their mounds and burrows, chatting away to each other. I imagined them frantically discussing the appearance of an igloo shaped construction with a scruffy looking human peering out on their patch or turf.
I would have loved to have explored more of this area by getting off the main road and along some of the many tracks that lead up into the valleys, but my Russian transit visa expired on June 26th so I had to keep pushing towards the border. The last town on the Russian side is Kosh-Agach and it sits in the middle of a huge open plain at the end of a canyon. Before I left Russia I decided that I wanted to treat myself to the banya experience and on my penultimate night I looked for one of the many that had lined the road for the previous week. But it seemed like no such tourist facilities existed this far down the Chuysky-Trakt so I called into a village shop to ask. The woman behind the counter pointed to another customer and indicated she had a banya at her house and beckoned me to follow her home.
And so I came to spend the night at the traditional Altai cottage of Jelina. After lighting the wood burning stove in the outhouse-banya, she did the same in the small cottage and made a pot of tea which we shared with a bowl of biscuits and another test of my Russian skills. The threatening clouds of the afternoon gave way to driving rain outside, but after a couple of hours Jelina judged the banya to be ready and let me into the small, low-roofed wooden cabin. Inside was a barrel of cold water, a wooden bench, some long handled cups, and the stove which was heating another barrel of water. Having never experienced a banya before I kind of made it up as I went; stripping off and sitting in the steam filled pine cabin, with a small electric bulb offering illumination through the vapour clouds until I felt the sweat take over me. The heat, repeated soap washes and cool water rinses felt so good after all the cycling and after an hour of heavenly bathing I was ready for bed.
Squeaky clean and full of more tea from breakfast, I accompanied Jelina to work the next morning to post a letter – as she was half of the two-woman team working in the village post-office. It was Saturday, so she only had a half day to work, but I had a full day ahead of me to make it to Kosh-Agach in time to reach the Mongolian border the next day. The scenery along the road changed dramatically in this last 80km stretch with the snow capped mountains getting ever further away and the road following the river through a multi-colored rocky landscape that eventually opened out onto a broad plain with cloud burst downpours visible all around, but thankfully staying away from the road. Having climbed a small hill up on to the plain I was taking photos of the huge panorama when I got two big surprises in almost as many minutes.
The first came when I got mobile internet signal and learned the result of the EU referendum from 3 days earlier. The second came as I looked up from the various jibing, quizzical and bemused messages friends had sent me about Brexit, when I saw another cyclist coming up the hill. Frank was from Belgium, and equally surprised to hear the referendum result. As we were both heading to Kosh-Agach we set off towards the town again chatting about our trips, routes and Brexit ramifications powered by a strong tailwind and stopped at the first café for some food. I caught sight of the Russian news on the TV as we waited for our food and nearly half the programme seemed to be about the UK. I felt very far away watching the images of protest banners, UK and EU flags waving and smug and sheepish looking politicians being talked over by Russian reporters whom I could not understand.
Frank was planning to take a rest day the following day and I planned on staying in town and riding the last 50km to the border in the morning so we set off to look for a hotel after we had eaten. When the lady at the first place we tried asked how many nights we would be staying, I explained I only needed one night as I would go to Mongolia tomorrow, she said four words that a) I understood quite clearly in Russian and b) temporarily removed Brexit from my list of concerns: “Granitza ni robota zaftra” – The border doesn’t work tomorrow. 5:30pm on a Saturday is not the best time to find out that the border is closed on a Sunday when your Russian visa expires at midnight.
Frank may well have wished he had never stopped at the top of the hill as we then spent nearly 2 hours riding round town trying to confirm the opening times and days of the border, looking for the immigration police office, asking taxi drivers etc etc. Nothing was open, the streets were dead and everyone gave different answers, so in the end we gave up and checked into the only hotel which looked open. I spent Sunday contemplating the probable fine and hassle at the border for overstaying my transit visa, but also catching up on the football and all things Brexit meltdown. Having met precious few other foreigners on the road there were now 4 French guys in our hotel and a German motorcyclist on the road who were all equally shocked by the Leave vote and quick to make a joke about it.
Still unsure what the procedure would be for my visa overstay Frank and I packed up on Monday morning and rode the 50km to the end-of-the-line border village of Tashanta, arriving just after lunch. We passed the small queue of cars and trucks at the gate and waited at the front to be let into the compound with the next wave. After 10 minutes or so the gate opened and we were ushered forward and asked for our passports. The officer took mine first and went straight to the visa page, seeming to take an age to spot the date on it and then pointing at it to me. Knowing my explanation that the border was closed yesterday would do nothing I was told to wait to one side whilst Frank and the other vehicle occupants had their passports checked and were sent inside. There then followed a series of phone and radio calls, some shouting across the road and a scrabbling around for the correct form on the wall in the small booth.
“1000 rubles”, he told me, and I breathed a sigh of relief. That’s pretty easy I thought. “Where do I pay it?” I asked.
“Banka Kosh-Agach”, he replied, and my heart sunk.
After another load of radio calls and endless pleading on my part to pay it somewhere in Tashanta or at the border post, it was clear I would have to go back the 50km I had cycled that morning to pay the 1000 rubles. By now it was gone 2 o’clock and the officials were telling me the border would close again at 5. I pointed out that if I did not make it back in time today I would then have the same problem tomorrow, but they assured me the 1000 rubles would serve as an effective extension valid for 3 days. I explained all of this to Frank and told him to carry on, but he very kindly offered to wait with my bike in Tashanta whilst I hitched a ride to Kosh-Agach and back. I got a lift with the first Mongolian van that came through the border in which the driver and all the passengers were singing along to a tape player at full volume until the driver got tired and had to stop to splash some puddle water in his face to wake-up. Then the van wouldn’t start again and all the men had to get out and push, all whilst I smiled politely and checked the time nervously.
Two and a half hours later I was back at the border with my bank receipt, presenting it along with my passport to the same officer at the gate. This time he waved us both through to passport control. Frank and I were just busy calculating whether we would have time to cross the 22km of no-man’s-land to the Mongolian border before it closed when another Russian officer came and answered it for us. “Too late today, come back in the morning, but don’t leave Tashanta because you’re visa is not valid. You can camp by the road.” I felt terrible for Frank as we spent the night on some grass next to the border gate fences, barricaded inside our tents from the swarming mosquitoes outside.
At 9am the next morning we were standing at the Russian border gate for the third time, saying good morning to the officers I had dealt with yesterday. This time I actually made it inside the passport control office, before my passport was taken by somebody new and I waited nervously for 20 minutes. It came back with a big orange stamp on it and I was told to sign a piece of paper. As my exit stamp clanked down on the page I tried not to let the relieved smile show and finally the gates were opened for us to cycle in to no-man’s-land. 22km uphill later another soldier checked our passports again, opened another gate and we bumped off the Russian asphalt and onto a rocky dirt track down to the Mongolian border. Here, both our bike wheels and our lower legs were disinfected (as we were holding the bikes),before we were hurried into passport control, then forced to wait another hour for someone to come back from lunch to register our receipt for disinfection. Finally we were let through the gate and the guard waved us off saying, “Welcome to Mongolia.”
For more photos from my ride along the Chuysky Trakt check out the whole album on my Flickr page.