After cycle touring across the remote Kegen border crossing into Kazakhstan it hit me that I was in the most amazingly picturesque spot with 360° steppe then the Tian Shan mountains with evening light cast across them. Making it more stunning was the remarkable feeling knowing I had cycled here, all the way from quaint Suffolk in England!!
Yurts were white spots on the landscape, true nomads tending their herds while smoke billowed from their cosy looking wool clad homes. As usual I was keen to make progress but a glance in front showed a storm approaching and this location was somewhere I just had to spend the night enjoying the mountains at sunset and sun rise!
I spied the friendliest looking yurt with the least aggressive dogs and rode across the grass towards it. Three guys were mending a small animal enclosure and they greeted me, while not excessively hospitable they didn’t turn down my request for camping. This was a genuine working herders yurt where I was keen not to get in the way of their busy lives. It took a while to work out who lived here but a lady with a toddler and her husband who turned up later. A young guy invited me into the yurt but the small girl was scared of my beard and they seemed busy so I didn’t want to invade.
As I sat back relaxing and soaking up my stunning environment I saw firstly the sheep herded in by the lady walking on her own, then she walked off again with her kid on her shoulders, disappearing into the sunset it was very cinematic! She returned with another horse mounted guy who carried her kid with him. They were herding some cows that were more challenging than sheep to control as they darted off in all directions. The guy then rode off again to get more cows. The calves went into the newly mended fenced paddock, along with the sheep, the cows were left to graze trusted not to wander off nor to be attacked by wolves!
I ate super noodles then boiled tea with water from the slightly suspect river water. I utilised the luxury bathroom, a hole sheltered by a bit of plastic sheet.
The dogs randomly barked into the night, mostly at lone horsemen traversing the steppe babut I slept well and kept warm.
The couple were up early milking the cows, that was after pulling away the calves in a sea of whining. I wandered over with my camping pan and it was obligingly filled straight from the udders! The subsequent fresh milk porridge I cooked was super creamy and certainly the best breakfast of the trip.
The local milk tanker called by, a small truck which they opened and poured their full urns into. I then set off with the mountains on full view for first time.
The unbelievably straight gravel road to the first small village set the tone for the day, in turned slightly before Kegen appeared on the horizon under some amazing clouds.
I bought lots of food for the next day: porridge oats with pumpkin, salami, eggs , bread, halva, the usual pick and mix sweets, sweet corn, beans and pasta! Kegen was a busy little genuine market town bustling with market traders, but mostly cheese sellers.
The Straight road went on and on for as far as the eye could see, and yes inevitably it had a head wind so progress was depressingly slow. It really was pretty ridiculous how slowly the horizon changed.
I passed my first turn off in what felt like miles and miles, it was an exciting time of the day! Sadly it was just before a short climb to a low pass, the descent however was through a stunning mountain valley. Halfway down I swapped the tube with a slow puncture to avoid pinch flat as I cruised along at 40+kph. First junction for miles right is Chinese border left 195km to Almaty. This turn off was kind of a big deal because this was the furthest east I would ride on the trip!
I ate lunch by a lone soldiers grave, he died in 2005 aged 27, my isolation and the wild remote setting combined to make me feel quite emotional about the vulnerability of life and the unpredictable nature of my bike ride.
The day of lonely isolated riding continued further, I saw camels grazing in the distance, the first since Uzbekistan!
I bumped into a herd of donkeys in the middle of nowhere which was fun and broke up the unwavering Roman inspired road for miles, then a corner appeared like an oasis mirage on the horizon, then after that excitement it was straight again for 60km.
The sky was darken and rain threatened, I was offered a lift by two friendly men in a smart white SUV, but I was determined to ride into Almaty and also to camp for one final night, so I refused much to their bewilderment. Finally I cross the last of the enormous steppe as rain starts and it gets truly horrible, that warm comfy car seemed like a good idea now!
A small village with cafes and nothing else appeared where I bought a Somsa and jelly sweets to motivated me. From here I entered a steep gorge through the final mountains before the low fertile plains near Almaty. It was a stunning twisting route past vast rocky mountains and even better, it was all downhill. I pass two Jeeps full of friendly hunters all armed to the teeth with guns. They kind of put me off wild camping just yet. No idea what they are hunting with rifles, as I’ve seen no deer, maybe wolves, tourists?
The road downhill is cold and wet but fast so I make quick progress and I see a good camping spot in the small rolling foothills. I think I am alone here but them I spied a yurt over the hill, the dogs sense me and were barking loudly. I camped in the rain then cook dinner before going to sleep in a slightly damp tent, it wasn’t too bad though. I slept fine, but wondered again if is wolves they were hunting in the pounding overnight rain!
Just before sunrise the wind picked up a lot, and a big wet storm rolled in, it felt cold enough to be blizzarding and the tent struggled to cope, it was pitched almost directly into wind but sadly not quite enough, one side ripped up and suddenly there was a real danger of it blowing away entirely with me in my pyjama thermals inside. I try to pack up while weighting the tent and getting into my life saving waterproofs. I then mange to disassemble the tent from the inside with one hand reaching for rocks to anchor the inner tent, while I take down the fly sheet. It was looking vaguely under control as the wind got even stronger, I quickly pack everything AAU wherever I can reach: into the saddle bag or panniers all soaking wet, very little is still dry, just my tablet and money belt!
There is no shelter for cooking so I rode on an empty stomach and into the most ridiculous head wind, it physically blows me backwards when I stop. I struggled to keep on the road, pounding the pedals into the first town, Shelek. Here I discover a good shop and I buy more of my new favourite apricot fudge and milk for a hot drink and porridge. Its still windy and biblically wet, and I struggle on, getting lost before finding the main road again. Its just a ridiculous day to be riding a bike in Kazakhstan, in Scotland it would be a decent summers day! The biggest change is that it is a a lot colder too today, I can’t believe its not snowing as I slowly made progress. It is pointless depressing riding there’s nothing to see just the occasional village with the same snacks and fruit stands.
It’s either an awful day to end on or a great one, I decide on the latter because it vindicates my decision to end in Almaty and not wait to cross the Chinese mountains when it will be even colder. I had ski gloves, fleece and waterproofs and I was still chilly, its basically winter and I am not really prepared. I realise that the high passes into Urumchi would be slightly foolish on my own and with my current kit.
The transmission on my bike starts to skip from the 8500km of wear, the bar tape is unwinding so it all points towards a good time to end the trip!
I ride across town to the random location of Almaty backpackers, I get a dorm bed in my own 10 bed dorm then relax and sleep after hanging all my wet kit out to dry. The staff are not impressed by smell or volume of wet stuff.
When I tell them I have ridden from England they are much more tolerate and very impressed! They certainly warm to me from the unfriendly frosty reception I initially received, they even hassle me to write a piece for their website!
This was the bike relaxing in the hostel garden!
So with the hills turning white and me shivering while trying to find a bike box to fly with, it was a big anti climax to a trip that has been spectacular in exceeding my high expectations in every way. The bike was perfect and so much fun to ride, the people I have met surpassed my wildest expectations in the hospitality they have offered me along the way. The lack of a single ‘uncomfortable’ situation shows just what a friendly place this planet can be to a vulnerable cyclist winding his way east!
I hope reading this has inspired at least a few of you to get out there and bike, hike or paddle east or west, even north or south would be fun too!
I will update my kit reviews and I will be writing some retrospective pieces but this is me signing out on #cyclingeast 2014 after 24 installments!!