June 19th to 22nd. 244km
We stuck around in Almaty for a few days. We had a sweet hostel and our ‘city mode’ of relaxing, watching tv and eating international food kicked in hard. The weather turned nasty too, so we put off getting back on the road by a couple of days, sheltering inside from the heavy rain and storms. We did see some of the city, mostly walking from the hostel to restaurants, but we enjoyed strolling along the tree lined streets and through the many parks, taking in the new surroundings. As we mentioned before, Almaty is a real mix of East and West, and a great place to people watch. The buildings are a mix of very ornate, classical architecture, and functional Soviet blocks. The subway was beautifully decorated and clean, but completely deserted. And there was cheap craft beer. It was nice to have the flexibility to spend a bit longer in such an interesting place.
We hit the road again on Sunday at around lunchtime, thinking the traffic would be light leaving the city. Not the case, and our first 15km were spent slowly grinding our way through big traffic jams on the main roads in the western suburbs. Once we were away from the urban area it got a bit quieter, but there were still lots of fast moving vehicles on the road. We had a late lunch break at a roadside restaurant, watching big dark clouds roll in from the mountains. By the time we set off again it looked like we were in for more rain. When the first drops started falling, we pulled over to get our waterproofs on, but in the time it took to open our roll bags, the downpour really started. We were soaked in seconds, and pushed our bikes off the road to shelter under a tree for a while until the rain eased. The next town, Uzinagash, was the last big settlement we’d be passing for a while, so we called it a day there. A strange, quite depressing place, with scowling people and boarded up buildings, but we found the only hotel in town and went inside to dry off.
The sky was blue and we had a slight tailwind the next day when we set off again. The big rain storms have definitely cooled things off a bit so the temperatures are a lot more comfortable than the brutal heat we had before arriving in Almaty. We were feeling good, riding out into the big open plains enjoying the scenery. We stop for cold drinks at a couple of magazins, usually there’s one or two in every village. Some are great, with well stocked shelves and full, cold fridges. Others aren’t so good, with little more than stale bread and old canned meat on offer.
In the early afternoon, for the first time in a long time, we met some other cyclists on the road. Not one, or two, but three touring cyclists! We saw Dimitri from Switzerland and JK from Korea chatting beside the road, so pulled over to join the gathering. DimitrI was heading East, planning to cover the remaining 100km to Almaty that day. JK was heading our way, so we rode on together. Later, we stopped in at a rest area for a drink and Patrick from Germany pulled up beside us. He’s also heading East, on a mission to Bangkok, putting in big days and covering the distance amazingly quickly. It’s always cool meeting other cyclists, and I imagine there’ll be many more from here on. We chatted for quite a while, then realised we ought to get back on the road to find somewhere to camp for the night.
Luckily, with not much around, camping is easy. We left the road when we saw a big row of trees and bushes, finding a sheltered spot in the long grass. We sat out for a while watching the light change and the shadows moving over the mountains as the sun went down. JK started his trip in Bangkok and had covered a lot of the same areas we have, at similar times, so we compared stories from the road. He left his grown up career in civil engineering a year ago and is on an open ended trip, roughly heading towards Europe and then Africa. Having someone else with us and a second tent makes us feel like a group, somehow more secure at night. Safety in numbers.
The rain starts up again in the early morning, ranging from a light drizzle to pissing it down for a few hours. We’re not on anyone’s property or disturbing anything, so we leave the tents up and hide away from the weather, waiting for a break to pack up and leave. At about 10:30 there’s a quick window so we stuff our wet tents back in their bags and load up the bikes. Of course, the rain starts up again once we’re cycling, so we do all of 5km then pull over at a magazin and coffee shop for a very early lunch. The afternoon is nicer and the skies clear. The three of us continue, after a slow start, making up some distance towards a short climb we need to tackle before reaching the Kyrgyz border.
There’s a big newly built junction, where the road continues west with signposts for unknown towns thousands of kilometers away. Kazakhstan is a big country. We turn South, taking the road through the hills towards Bishkek. We have a drink stop at a magazin, where a group of kids say hello, wave, and a young lad cheekily gives us the finger. Yep, I know, taking photos only encourages him, but it was pretty funny!
The climb is short and sharp, but fairly easy, only 5km. It’s the first uphill for a while, so it’s nice to know our legs can still just about handle it. Clare still leaves me way behind though, waiting at the top for a good five minutes (edit from Clare – it was 8 minutes) before I arrive. JK cruises up after me, but to be fair, he’s very heavily loaded, carrying a lot more stuff on his bike, so rides at quite a leisurely pace. Once we’re at the top, we are up on a plateau for a while, with views down into the valley and of some very big snow capped mountains in the distance.
A long mellow downhill takes us to Algha and a nice roadside restaurant where we stop for some shashlik kebabs for dinner. There’s a shady orchard next to the restaurant so after we’d eaten, we asked if we could pitch our tents there for the night. It looked perfect, nice and flat, secluded and with nearby toilets and water. But, it’s a definite no, they were very clear that they didn’t want us camping there! Oh well, back on the road, through the village and up onto a grassy hill where we have a beautiful view of the mountains and valley. A shepherd on his horse appears from nowhere to check us out and ask the usual questions, where we’re from, where we’re going. He doesn’t have a problem with us camping so we set up our tents, happy to have been turned away from the orchard. Another beautiful sunset, and our last night in Kazakhstan. JK gets out his Tibetan prayer wheel to ward off the rain. Which works for all of three hours and we’re woken by rain pounding our tent for most of the night.
It was a clearer morning though, so we could sit outside to have coffee and breakfast. Another shepherd stopped by on his motorbike just as we were leaving for a well timed photobomb. Then it was 25km to the border, downhill at first but then on to the flat and into a slight headwind. Korday is the border town, where we stopped at a magazin to spend the last of our small change on Kazak Cola and chocolate before we head to the checkpoint.
It was a bit of a scrum getting our bikes through the passport check. A loaded bike is tricky to manoeuvre at the best of times, so trying to get through a group of people all pushing forward is particularly difficult. The passport booths were in a very narrow building and we were stuck for quite a while waiting with people pushing past us. Luckily, an officer spotted us 3 with our bikes and took pity on us, so opened up another booth for us to go through. We were stamped out and followed a walkway over a river to the Kyrgyzstan side. We handed over our passports to a waiting guard who told us to leave our bikes outside the checkpoint building. Once we went back inside, he said ‘Welcome to Kyrgyzstan’ and handed our passports back, already stamped for 60 visa free days in the country. Quickest border crossing ever, and country number 10!
It’s another 25km into Bishkek itself, mostly through the suburbs on quite busy roads. Just as we were near the centre, the rain started again. The traffic was chaotic and we were in a constant battle with minibuses pulling over to pick up passengers, then pulling out to overtake us again. Not the most enjoyable morning on the bikes, but we arrived eventually and found an ATM to withdraw some Kyrgyz Som, another currency to get used to. We said goodbye to JK and he went off to find his hostel, I’m sure our paths will cross again!
We’ve rented a studio apartment here as we’ll be staying more than a week to arrange visas for Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and then Azerbaijan. A good number of cyclists pass through Bishkek so we’ll hopefully meet a few others while we’re here. Then we’ll be heading off into the mountains towards Osh and the Pamir Highway. Here’s our route from Almaty to Bishkek: