June 9th to 14th. 328km
We were all packed up and ready to leave China. We checked out of our hotel in Khorgas and cycled a couple of kilometres down the road to the checkpoint, stopping on the way to change all our remaining Chinese Yuan to Kazakh Tenge. The gate was closed, which was a bit strange, but there were other people hanging around waiting, so we just found a spot in the shade to sit and wait for them to open up. There was a lone guard behind the gate, so I motioned to him, pointing at my watch to get an idea of when we would be able to pass, but he just shook his head. After an hour or so of waiting, there was no movement, so we tried asking a few of the other people standing around when the border was going to open. ‘Mingtian’ was the reply. Tomorrow.
What? We knew the border was supposed to open at 10:30am and admittedly we’d arrived at around noon. Could it be that they only have a very short window when they let people through? We turned around to head back to the hotel we’d just left, only to remember we had no Chinese money. So after a trip to the Bank of China ATM, we sheepishly checked back in to the hotel for another night. We checked online and saw that we were in the middle of the three day ‘Dragon Boat Festival’ holiday. Our visas were still valid for another couple of days, but if the border was going to be closed until the 11th, when the festival ended, then we’d end up overstaying by a day. Not something that’s recommended. We had a small panic, and I went down to the local Public Security Bureau to plead ignorance and hope to come up with a solution that wouldn’t mean flying out of the country or facing a fine for overstaying our visas. Turned out we were worrying over nothing though, as the officer confirmed that the border was only closed for one day and would re-open tomorrow as normal.
Bang on 10:30 the next morning we were waiting in line, pushing our bikes into the scrum of people squeezing through the gate when it opened. Inside the building, our panniers all went through an X-ray machine even though no one was watching the screen, and our passports were stamped to exit China for a third and final time. The checkpoint on the Kazakh side was just a few hundred metres away in a straight line, but for some unknown reason all traffic has to follow a 7.5 kilometre loop through no man’s land. Luckily most cyclists are able to ride this stretch now, instead of taking a shuttle bus like the pedestrians, so we had about half an hour riding through ‘Nowhere-istan’, discussing whether these kilometres should be logged under China or Kazakhstan.
On the Kazakh side, the guards were cheerful and welcoming, greeting us with waves and handshakes (the handshakes for me, but not Clare). Our passports were inspected a number of times, but before too long we had our entry stamps, and the all important two stamps on our tourist entry forms. 15 days visa free, thank you very much. Once we were away from the border, we stopped in the shade under a tree for a tea break and to observe our new surroundings. Initially, it didn’t feel that different to China. The surroundings were the same, big snowcapped mountains in the distance, open plains around us. It felt more untouched than China. The buildings were very different, more European in style but quite run down, and there were mosques in most villages. The road was potholed and bumpy with less traffic. On the roads, the few vehicles travelled fast, sometimes scarily so. The cars were mostly old German Audis and VWs with a few classic Ladas and other unknown boxy Soviet machines. The writing was all Cyrillic, which looks familiar in a way, but is totally confusing as the letters sound completely different to how you’d expect. The people smiled and waved at us when we passed by, often asking where we’re from and where we’re going. It was exciting, the start of Central Asia and the ‘Stans.
Our first stop was in Zharkent, some 35km from the border. We found a hotel with the help of a Russian phrasebook and a passer-by. The first thing we noticed when we were shown a room was a pair of touring bikes in a hallway and the classic Ortlieb panniers in one of the rooms. (Actually, the very first thing was the artwork in the rooms, lots of paintings, largely featuring horses and naked women) The bikes belonged to Edward and Peter (Edouard et Pierre-Antoine, of Skema Bike Journey www.skemabikejourney.com) who are en route to China, having set off from Lille in France back in February. They’ve made really quick progress to get this far so quickly! They’re going to study at a business school Suzhou near Shanghai and decided that getting there by bicycle would be far more interesting than just flying. Edouard had broken a spoke on his rear wheel and was a bit stuck without a chain whip to remove his cassette. Luckily, we had our ‘Next Best Thing’ tool which uses the leverage of the chain and bike’s frame to remove the lockring. It’s a tool you hope not to have to use, but are very glad to have should the need arise! After we had some dinner and they did some bike maintenance, we had a couple of beers together in the hotel, chatting about our trips. They gave us a good heads up about the road ahead and the lack of towns and shade! Very useful to know as it turns out it’s even hotter than normal in Kazakhstan this year.
The following day, we’d aimed to get away early but after a late night and a good breakfast included with our hotel room, we weren’t on the road until 9. The road was straight and flat so we rode quickly through the morning. There was a long stretch of roadworks where they’re widening the road and have stripped the surface down to gravel. Luckily, one side of the road which was closed to traffic had been half-finished so we were able to ride for this whole section on new smooth concrete. Far better than bumping along over the dirt and gravel. By lunchtime, the sun was high in the sky and it was getting really hot. We stopped in for a cafe for cold drinks and some ‘plov’, a rice dish which is pretty standard fare, served everywhere, useful when we can’t read a menu. The afternoon was a lot slower with the temperature rising into the low 40s. We stopped frequently for breaks in the shade when we saw it, but still both felt quite shaky and dehydrated when we arrived in Shonzy. We’d been told by the Frenchies of a good hostel here, which we found easily and got a room for the night. That evening was the England – Russia Euro 2016 game. A group of Russians in the hostel had set up a flatscreen tv out in the courtyard and were planning to watch the game. It would’ve been fun to join them, but we were knackered and had an early night!
From Shonzy, we would follow the road through Sharyn Canyon and across a stretch of desert to the next town, about 70km away. It turned out to be a tough day. As soon as we left town, we were hit by a headwind, slowing our progress significantly. We reached the canyon after about 15km and the road dropped down to the bottom of the valley, giving us some protection from the wind. The surroundings were impressive, dry cliffs and big empty spaces all around. It gave us a morale boost after the tough start.
We crossed a bridge over the River Charyn in the tree covered canyon floor and started to climb out the far side. It started out mellow, the gradient gradually increasing up towards a final corner and very steep last push to get to the rim and back onto the plateau. Once we reached the plateau, the wind hit us again, stronger than before. The road ahead stretched out dead straight into the distance and we crawled along, barely breaking 10 km/h. We stopped regularly, sitting in the culverts beside the road to shelter from the wind. Clare had a tin of travel sweets that came out a few times as a little incentive every 10 kilometres or so. Luckily we’d stocked up on water before leaving Shonzy as it took a long time to cover the distance to the next town, Kokpek.
I say town, but it’s more a small collection of shops and a couple of restaurants. We pulled off the road, got a cold drink from a magazin then went to a restaurant for some much needed food. Our road had been joined by another which came in from the south. It got busier with big 4x4s and touring motorbikes who had been out in the mountains for the weekend and now were racing back towards Almaty. A group of bikers said hi to us and helped us with the menu when we were trying to order. We ended up with lagman noodles, manti dumplings and a plate of grilled lamb with onions. The food so far has been pretty good, but it’s heavy on the meat with not so much in the way of fresh veg. Halfway through our meal another group of guys came up to say hi and shake my hand, then gave us a couple of china bowls. Very sweet, but not the most practical thing to be carrying on our bikes on bumpy roads! We hung around for a couple of hours until about 6 o’clock before hitting the road again to look for a camp spot.
From Kokpek, the road went into a gorge which took us downhill for the next 10 kilometres. We were protected from the wind and coasted through the gorge, covering some good quick distance to finish a slow day. On the northern edge of the mountains we came out of the gorge and spotted a small valley to our right which looked like it’d make a good sheltered spot to camp. We rolled our bikes about fifty metres through the scrub into a hollow where we pitched our tent, well hidden from the road. It got dark fairly quickly and the mozzies were out, so we sat inside reading for a bit before we both starting dozing off.
An early night, but the wind picked up again through the night so we didn’t sleep too well. We were up early, packed up ready to go soon after sunrise, worried about the strong winds we could hear gusting around us. Luckily, once we were back on the road, the wind was blowing in the right direction! We flew along, even on the long uphill away from our camp spot. We were back on a long straight road, but as long as the wind was blowing, it was easy going for a change. It was a much better day, with more interesting views of some bigger mountains and a beautiful blue sky. We stopped for an early lunch, cooking some noodles in the shade under some trees, then had a little siesta, taking a break from the heat. With the help of the wind, we had covered about 80km by early afternoon getting us to the town of Baydibek, about 75km short of Almaty. We’d read on Will Bennett’s journal on crazyguyonabike of a garage in this town which has a couple of hotel rooms above it. We were moving in to more populated areas, so rather than camp again, we decided to look for the garage. Again with the help of a phrase book and a kind stranger, we found the place quickly and were soon relaxing in an air conditioned room.
Our last day into Almaty went pretty quickly. We were rolling by 7:30, counting down the kilometre markers to get in to the city. The road got busier and busier which always seems to make us ride faster. We had a quick drink break about halfway, then soon after we were in the outskirts of the city and the road was a clogged dual carriageway going past the international airport. It was another hot day and we were just keen to get through the traffic. Once we were off the main road and into the city itself, it was actually quite relaxed. The streets were tree lined and shady, and it was quite easy to navigate the grid system. The traffic was calm and there were a few well marked cycle paths. Big snow capped mountains tower over the city to the south.
First impressions were good. It didn’t feel like an Asian city, nor particularly European. I guess we don’t have a reference to compare it to, having never been in this part of the world before. The mix of people really stands out, from very East Asian looking faces to fair and very blonde Caucasians. Making our way to our hostel, we cycled past countless cafes and restaurants offering a full range of cuisines. I think we’ll eat well for the few days we’re staying! Once we got in, first job for me was to find a bike shop for a new rim. My cheap Chinese job had got me this far, but I don’t want to chance it going further onto the dirt roads of Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. We got to Extremal (recommended by another touring cyclist after my plea for local knowledge on Instagram) who had a something suitable and will hopefully do a decent job rebuilding the wheel. A quick wander around an international supermarket, an ice cream from one of the many street vendors, then we retired to the hostel. We ordered a pizza for delivery and spent the evening watching tv.
We’re going to spend a few days here as it seems like a nice city and we still have plenty of time left before we need to move on to Kyrgyzstan. Here’s our route from Khorgas to Almaty