The road we bikepacked through Kazakhstan towards China was partly constructed by Arnold Schwarzenegger’s father – we had high hopes. However we had to get there first and that in itself proved to be an adventure, even after we had the 9 visas, 12 restricted zone permits, 9 flights etc we sorted out…
This trip was probably the most ambitious, bureaucratic, stressful and beautifully epic trip we’ve ever done. We rode between snowy mountains, crossed deserts, raced from bears, got sick, fed watermelon to cows and discovered something pretty life changing. We would start in Kazakhstan, cross China, Mongolia then finish in Russia, if all went to plan. I could probably write a book but you’ll just have to read these blogs for now.
We all rolled into Heathrow T4, bikes on trolleys excited to meet up. A quick chat and we’re all buzzing. It’s going to be Marion, Ed and Jack Chevell is joining us too.
I reluctantly pose for a picture with Mr Adventure at T4 he just keeps badgering me for a selfie, he’s a big fan of the WeLoveMountains blog….
Air Astana whisk us to, unsurprisingly Astana, where we watch through the window at the luggage trucks dropping and dragging bags along like some kind of sick torture. “Check out that bag it’s actually wedged under the back wheels” Jack pointed out. It didn’t bode well for our bikes. The flight to Oskemon was short, the plane shorter, the airport was just a small building and a pick up truck for bags. We had earlier discovered that the plane scheduled was too small for 3 bikes, but with some persuasion via email we had confirmation of them being booked on.
In the small arrivals room we waited, waited and then some more, the airport emptied. Our bikes were nowhere to be seen. We spoke to the staff who called up Astana Airport. The bike boxes had been entered then deleted from the system with no trace. This was bad, we discussed theories as to why? A lost and found description written and submitted we could do nothing but check into the nearest hotel and wait.
Now Oskemon is not the kind of place you want to nervously wait. The town made us nervous enough on its own. Rows of Soviet apartment blocks and few amenities. We went for beers. At the restaurant I noticed a large blond guy sitting, staring at us. It was unnerving. Finally he strode over. “Hello I am Sergei” he said, 6″5′ and a jawline that the bond villain Jaws would be proud of; there was no missing Sergei. We chatted for a while, made our excuses and slipped away. Almost clear of him, he ran towards us shouting. Myself and Jack fearfully stopped, he bizarrely asked us if there were any black people in England, then offered us hashish. Welcome to Oskemon, Kazakhstan folks.
If Sergei was unique then our hotel was one in a million. The entire places was painted in murals from classical periods in history. It was actually incredibly impressive, if tourists ever stayed here it would be quite an attraction. From China to Japan then Samarkand to the Romans every civilization was covered.
The next few days were stressful, the trip hinged on the bikes, we had to get to Russia to fly home, we had to have images too as the trip was to feature for Strava. To pass the time we toured the open air museum of culture, whcih was actually really interesting, the lady was so surprised to see us she shut the ticket office and spent a couple of hours guiding us around the 10 houses representing the cultural corners of the USSR, it was like someone drove around the USSR and picked up a house then dumped it here, maybe the did! Two days now wandering abd the bikes were still lost, we knew the local bus routes already, best watermelon stand etc. This was the helpful museum lady;
We went to watch the latest flight from Astana arrive and the staff told us to go away, “the bikes not coming”. We waited peering through the one way glass, “there’s 3 boxes on the truck, look” I shout, then as it came into better view we waited and boom there were 3 bike boxes!!! We jumped and danced!
Running through immigration the wrong way we grabbed the boxes and confused the guard and German Shepherd on passport duty. The bikes had still never entered the system but it seems the error was at Heathrow not Astana!
The bike boxes;
We now needed to catch taxis to make up for lost time, the riding schedule was going to be tight before the delay.
We blagged two taxis, one for the bikes and Jack, and one for Marion and myself. We were ready to head to the mountains and fingers crossed we both arrived at the same place. The problem with using two taxis is that one driver can’t be slower than the other, we literally raced our way east. At 100mph, around a corner into a herd of horses was a particular moment I’ll not forget in a hurry. We even got a ferry across a lake…
Having survived and made it to Katon Karagay in the foothills of the Altai mountains we unloaded bikes, built them up and rode into the fading light of East Kazakhstan. The village sign was pretty large with some suspect spanner usage.
The Austrian road through the mountains is an engineering marvel, built by Austrian prisoners of war including Arnold’s Grandfather in WW1 for the Russians.
We knew very little about it from our research other than it was very remote and also impassable due to collapsed bridges and as a result it was never used.
We rode on because Jack had seen a You Tube video of someone balancing on a partly collapse bridge and riding it in 2015 – for me that’s enough to ride 400km on. We showed our first restricted border zone permits at a checkpoint, the guards implied the river was so deep we’d need to swim. I implied that I was about a foot taller than him so I’d probably be OK but the others, we agreed, had no chance. With a wave, the barrier raised and with a smile we set off, we knew they expected to see us back tomorrow.
The climb was pretty much as one might expect 1800m of vertical on steep rough gravel would be.
We reached the top of the first huge climb with heat an altitude it was tough going, we sat down and met a man on a horse; one eye was fixed on us, the other checking his horse to the left. He offered us a ride on his horse, fearing it was a paid attraction we declined. A soviet style jeep turned up and 4 guys bundled out. Cheery and chatty with no mutual language we all discussed something, possibly along the same lines but who knows. Either way they were nice chaps.
They drove off, but only after rolling backwards and stalling their Soviet jeep a few times.
An hour later we saw civilisation in the form of a farm, I lent the bikes against their fence and promptly got stung by a bee on my index finger. Jack was invited in for tea and Marion was off somewhere riding a horse. There’s never a dull moment in Kazakhstan. We all convened in the farm kitchen for rancid butter on fresh bread. The jeep was now heading off and as it backfired away a baby goat went mental and bolted into the kitchen and smashed into Marion’s legs.
That would be the last and only farm or house on this road as we cycled on into the unknown. The ‘road’ became fainter and fainter. We knew there were 4 river crossings to come; with or without bridges. The river alongside was indeed chest deep and would be a swim to cross, this didn’t look promising.
The next stop would be Lake Makakol, we would get there thanks to a stroke of good fortune. After the bikes being lost it was refreshing to get lucky. As we rolled up to the first bridge the Kazakh military had just finished laying the last log of a repaired bridge. It was the last of four they had repaired. For the first time in a decade the Austrian road was repaired and we were literally the very first people to ride it.
The trip would turn out OK we thought. Well soon after saying this we reached a section of track by the river. A pile of animal dung stopped me in my tracks. Marion knowingly looks at me and says “It’s bear isn’t it?” I reply “yes, and it’s very fresh, steaming fresh.”
A second later a slightly concerned Jack arrives, “I just saw something huge bashing through the bushes over there, really big”, “I guess that’s our bear freaking out” and with that we rode off quite fast. We were far from help out here!
Makakol was a combination of mosquitoes buzzing in the air, barking dogs and wooden houses. The lake of the same name was beautiful though as we rolled in at sunset.
We stumbled across a guesthouse with a banya in the garden and we could relax for the first time in a while.
The winters here are cold and bleak so the wood insulates the houses and fires the banya saunas/washrooms in the gardens. The locals were very friendly, this guy lit the banya for us;
We rode onward headed for the Chinese border, we had to follow it south for a few days to reach a crossing. The locals continued to be very friendly here, we stopped for lunch on the roadside and a car stopped in a real hurry, it then rapidly reversed up to us. I think we all expected some bad news when the doors opened but these two got out and wanted a photo with us.
Occasionally the locals were a bit too friendly;
We weren’t quite prepared for the border itself, a pure geographic boundary, it was literally a line in the sand. The desert rose up into great dunes from the foot of the Chinese border fence. I hope this picture shows it clearly;
The hills and steppe of Kazakhstan ended under the watchful eyes of Chinese guard towers and CCTV so we took less photos. The riding into the sunset was pretty cool though.
It was here that we realised that we had a bit of an issue. With the delay we’d exceeded our allowance of days without registration in Kazakhstan. We had to try to find a police station to register. The one we found wasn’t having any of it though. It was an odd place and we felt it best not to argue, they said we needed to go to the border. The border was too far away still.
That evening the wind blew. It blew hard, the only shelter on the road along the border was an abandoned farm. It was an eerie place but inside the old walls the wind was calm. I’ll be honest I stood peering through the wall at the Chinese border watch towers in the distance and the flashing red and blue lights patrolling it was a bit uncomfortable, like fugitives stowed away.
I was getting ready for bed and Jack called me over “Er, I’ve found something and it’s not nice” he says. “OK, what is it?”, “I dunno see what you think”. Cautiously I followed him and we shone torches on a creature so alien I could see what he meant, “Is it a scorpion?” “nah, no tail, it’s something else”. It turned out to be a Camel Spider, almost 6 inches in total and brown/transparent body with pincher jaws strong enough to pierce through your leg. I’ve never seen a creature like it and I hope I wont again. This is from Google and similar size if not a bit smaller than ours we saw in the dark;
The next day we awoke to a perfect sunrise.
We pushed bikes back to the road and cycled a day closer to China. We visited a ghost town, bought bread from a shop filled with wasps and tried to battle the head wind.
The next night we stayed in a camp for government workers laying a gas pipeline, how we ended up there is a long story but it was an interesting experience as we shared communal dinner with them all!
Finally we were in reach of China and rolled to the border. A Kazakh guy in the queue spoke English and we chatted. As we left the registration question came up. “Why no registration?” The border guards asked. “We don’t need to” we hopefully replied and the guy in the queue translated. It took a while but we got away without a fine and into no mans land with China!
CCTV cameras were everywhere, side by side with infra red cameras and guard towers. It was intimidating. The Chinese border gate was closed. The guard saw us but did nothing. It was 40c and we were stuck. We squeezed into some shade and waited, and waited. Finally the gate opened. The guard came over and said 4 hours. What?? it opens in 4 hours? We waited more. Then seeing us suffer in the heat the gate opened and we left bikes by a large dog and walked into a small room. A young soldier sat with us. He spoke little English, but asked questions, he brought water for us. Then more questions, things about IPhones, tales about his family in Sichuan. We waited more. It was clear the full 4 hours were needed because the Chinese side operated on Beijing time! Strangely the kids English got very much better, we realized this was likely a soft interrogation and part one of crossing into the police state that is Xinjiang province.
The border opened and we were marched upstairs to a fancy room with sofas and a fridge. An older man in uniform walked in. He used his phone to auto-translate a surprisingly fluid conversation. The Chinese voice app worked much better than Google or any I’ve seen before or since.
Then 5 hours after leaving Kazakhstan we entered China. Tired we stayed in a hotel in the next town and ate good Chinese food to celebrate!
China was going to as much a mental challenge as physical it would seem…..
Quick Bike Setup List
Kinesis Tripster ATR Frame and Fork
SRAM Force Hydro 1×11
10:42 Casstte 40t front
Ritchey Venture Max flared drop bars
Praxis Alba cranks
Continental Travel contact in 700x42mm
Kinesis Cross Lite Wheels
Apidura bags, larger bar, saddle and full frame
Marions Bike Setup
Kinesis Tripster AT
Shimano XT drivetrain 2×11 speed
Flat Kinesis Strut Carbon bars cut down to 720mm (Flat for comfort and to fit Apidura bag easier)
Praxis Zayante Cranks
Continental Travel contact in 700x42mm
Kinesis Cross Lite Wheels
Apidura Packs large saddle and bar.
Condor Bivio frame yellow and fork
Sram Rival groupset
Thanks for the write up. Did you cross the Kazakhstan / China border close to Lake Aibi?
No, further north at Karatal to Jeminay, not an experience I am in a hurry to repeat!
Ah, yup. It seems all border crossings around there are rather convoluted affairs?!
Absolutely love seeing this, Andy! We did Gorno to Ulgii to Bulgan to Katon-Karagay to Novosibirsk in April 2014, along many of the same roads you did – circlingthegoldenmountains.com. Your photos make me want to go back!
Thanks, I actually remember your blog being about the only one we found from that area when we were researching it! I’d love to go back in winter too looked amazing. I am intrigued if the Austrian road bridges being fixed has made that section much busier since I went.