Food and Water

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Reluctant arrival (as with almost every city entry) very  quickly becomes joyous immersion. Karakol is my kind of town. It’s small, old worldly presentation but modern as well – probably reflective of its increasing emergence as a place to be. Tourism is growing and buildings are rising like mushrooms in the forest. 

While there are lots of new buildings going up – it is the old that grab our attention

It is easy to be here – Jalil and Aizada who run the hostel could not be more helpful. The recurring joy of a shower and clean clothes is never lost on me. It’s been a very dusty few days – I know the dust has found a way into every crevice. I stay in the shower longer than usual, scrub a little harder than usual – I am committed to keeping my white bath towel white. I wash hair and self thoroughly, twice. I fail. Despite my best efforts as I dry myself I see the white towel now has a new pattern of brown blotches as my dirt comes off on the towel.

Aizada
Jalil n Adrienne

There is plenty to do but we are only interested in being clean, having clean clothes and sorting out wifi and SIM cards. When that is all completed we feel our days work is done. 

Gingerbread houses – which they are starting to do up – having recognised Tourists are interested in the past.

But of course there is also time to wander into town, to get our bearings, see the signposts of Karakol’s soviet past – little white gingerbread houses with blue or green shutters – mostly in various stages of decay. And also another wooden Russian Orthodox Church – not as big as the last but equally spectacular.

And in the park hidden away are small sculptures- like ones we have seen used as burial stones – though it would seem odd if that’s what they are – here in the edges of a public park with no obvious markings.

I liked his hairdo

We have arrived just 11 days after the hostel has opened. There is a celebratory party planned – family on both sides, key people from the village – just a small party 40 of the closest – we are invited.

In our wandering we also manage to try Ashlan Fu – the local dish – a cold very tasty noodle soup. We order nervously then vacuum up the delicious soup that arrives. I add it to my growing list of tasty Kyrgyz food.

Ashlan Fu – salad, Piroshki Yum!

We also visit a felting workshop – though there is not much underway – here they make a lot of the felt for yurts. It’s an impressive outcome for the limited equipment.

The steam iron which seemed to be used to press two pieces of felt together – but we didn’t have any language so I remain ignorant.

There is much to be done at the hostel – we help, excited to be learning traditional Kyrgyz food. While I am doing the blog Adrienne and a team if women make bucketloads of chuchvara (small meat dumplings for soup) it takes hours and a huge team effort.

Three and bit generations on the production team – grandmother, mother, sister and New Zealand ring-in.
Aizada n me – she is a powerhouse – her focus on everyone’s else’s needs as well as her immense list of tasks is absolutely unbelievable.

Around midnight the shift changes. Almost everyone goes to bed except Aizada, Adrienne and me. We make what seems like hundreds of sweet bread rolls learning how to knot them, twist them, turn them inside out – excited we were learning some traditional methods. As we finish around 2am we ask Aizada if her mother had taught her how to make this bread – no she informed us proudly – she had learnt all this from the internet. We all laugh and we go to bed happy we have learnt something new but with no idea of the originating country. We also go to bed full of Kyrgyz paklava – yes like baklava only better 😁

Lots of different ways of making sweet knitted bread rolls
Paklava – mmmm

We are excited Anna and Pau are also on their way to Karakol and will also stay at Snow Leopard- they are also keen to do the Ala Kol walk – a 3 day walk up into the mountains and over a snowy pass. They arrive the night before the party. By the time the party arrives we are feeling a little caged in – a couple of days indoors and just wandering has us itching to be in the great outdoors. We have been invited to the party – but we still have time to head up to Jeti Orguz – to find an old Russian Sanitorium, amazing red hills and a beautiful river and waterfall.

I walked up a muddy slope to find the afternoon light
I was saved from a muddy slide down – instead being offered a ride down – squashed in the back with everyone else

Meanwhile Adrienne explores the sanitorium and the river…and we both tried the spring water – guaranteed to cure all ills. Not sure if it cured anything or not but it didn’t give us anything either so we were happy.

Cows seems to be reaping the health benefits of the sanitorium these days

We arrive back to the party in full swing – two sheep have be slaughtered and cooked. – it was a deliberate goal to miss that bit of the preparations!

It’s a feast of epic proportions
The village elder – who spoke congratulating Aizada and Jalil on their hostel
Aiana n me
Christopher Flynn – an old friend of Jalils – the most English Australian you could possibly find.
Elina – the youngest daughter.

It’s an honour to be at the party – we arrive mid way through not wanting to be in the way – but as soon as we do we are made to feel very welcome – given seats, passed food and even watched over as we drank the almost mandatory nip of vodka to celebrate (we usually manage to refuse but for once I was happy to partake).

A nip of vodka washed down by fruit compote

In addition to being present the other treat is chatting with Amelia – heading more about village life – though not surprisingly some of the gender issues are very familiar.

Amelia – a French woman studying village life

Shoe shopping wasn’t high on the list of Kyrgyz activities but neither was hiking over an icy pass with sandals. Shoe options were pretty limited and the weather was coming in. It was a very tough call but feeling a little underprepared- especially for bad weather we decided not to go and instead wished Anna and Pau well waving them off with just a tiny bit of FOMO. Then jumped on our bikes and headed west once again.

Anna and Pau heading off for Ala Kol

So we head off with no plans just a blue sky and soon enough an even bluer lake. The roads here are okay but definitely not smooth and even out of the mountains there’s gentle up and downs so the going is slower than other countries but the scenery rewards you for moving slowly.

Before long we see other cycle tourers stocking up on fuel – we recognise it well, fruit, jam, bread, biscuits, yoghurt, tea and this is just a mid morning snack. They have come from where we are heading though have mountain bikes and have gone off road much more. Still there is good intel to share, including a grassy campsite for the evening and water spot to top up our perpetually emptying water bottles. It’s stunning cycling though I could say that almost every day.

The water is just outside Hadjida’s place. She and her son are there him working on a car and Hadjida gardening. Before long my water is topped up and I am inside having chai and chatting. Hadjida is a teacher and keen to chat in English. I’m offered noodles which look a little bit like Ashlan fu so I say yes – ah well. Luckily I asked for only a small helping. There is no meat however it is clear it has been cooked in meat juices – the flavour is intense – I struggle through and make just enough of a dent to be polite.

Hadjida

The only trouble with chai (apart from the food) is the timing and having your touring partner whizz by while you are inside chatting. Not a problem for long – there is great signal along the lake. So we find not one but two campsites along the lake then converge in one to set up home for the night.

The campsite is dry, stony and dusty and it has the usual broken glass everywhere but it has one overwhelmingly redeeming feature, the lake. I can easily see an ocean before me – I can hardly see across it though if I squint my eyes I can just make out the snow covered peaks of the something range on the other side.

The only thing better than starting a day with a swim is ending the day with one as well. We had heard about Torso Yurt camp from a Swiss couple in Karakol- they couldn’t speak more highly – on the lake, lovely people, great food. We thought we’d give it a try. We thought we’d be there by lunch but after a late departure that didn’t quite work. The road is stunning – shadowing the edge of the lake curving around the hills and mountains.

We headed for small back roads – didn’t quite find the yurt camp but did find a gorgeous quiet lunch spot. Clear blue water one side, snowy peaks behind us.

Finding our way to the yurt camp wasn’t hard – we have maps.me a great app which tells us exactly where to go. It does not however tell us that the route it has planned for us is soft sand and will require much pushing and not much riding.

Finally we arrive – it is expensive by our standards, the greeting is not overly friendly though okay and the yurt has been set up for tourists- beds rather than quilted mats on the floor – (which are much more comfort than the beds!) it is however deliciously close to the beach. We had thought about staying two days but decide one will be quite enough. Before long we are in the water.

Not a traditional yurt set up.
The water is my happiest of happy places
It’s not cold and easy to just lay back and relax
It has crystal clear lake one way and snow capped peaks the other – just like our lunch spot only better

We head off in search or Bokonbaevo and a women’s felting cooperative – keen to both develop and expand skills. Ashlan fu arrives long before Bokonbaevo and a new plan evolves. The lake is so beautiful – especially immersion – we decide on one more night by the lake before heading in to a town.

You never know what to expect and sometimes you don’t even know what you are seeing. For kilometres I have been looking at the top of the mountain- trying to work out what was sitting atop. As we got closer it was clear it was a statue. It sat directly opposite some decaying amazing complex.

The figure on the hill
We still don’t know what this place was – if you find out let us know!

Along the road there are also apricot trees – I take my fill – though they probably need another week or two to be really enjoyed.

The beach arrives before the campsite – a Kyrgyz lakeside family holiday spot.

The family scenes are like every beach you have ever known, umbrellas, buckets and spades, floatation rings.

There are two significant differences- there are large gatherings of large women talking, laughing raucously and helping each other get changed behind sheets of cloth. Their joy and laughter is infectious. The other is the absence of the smell of sunscreen – the only obvious smell is cow pats from the cows grazing alongside us.

The afternoon wears on – the beach starts to empty and we head in search of a campsite. We know we have a small hill to start with so we are slow to leave. Soon enough we turn off the road is narrower, quieter and just a delight – it winds gently down and down. Then we arrive!

We are camping on a small Peninsula of the lake just near Bel Tam yurt camp. Spectacular doesn’t bring to describe it! The golden light of evening creates beautiful paintings across the landscape. We are also near Kol Fest – where a Kyrgyz festival was recently held – everything is still there, toilets, showers, hot water, power. We have struck gold.

It’s hard to leave every beautiful spot – especially those with water you can immerse yourself in – but we do and the ride into Bokonbaevo is short and sweet.

Here is a Chance to learn felting – at Altyn Oimok a UNESCO approved NGO. It’s expensive- I’m tempted but very unsure. We head off for lunch to give us both time o think. I think maybe I’ll just head to Song Kol and leave Adrienne to enjoy. Just as we return I change my mind – felting has been something I’m keen to learn for ages. Here is my chance – I do seize it.

Shyrdak- in two days we will have a small piece though it may not be quiet this lovely

A different world

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Time is what we have lots of and not enough of. Thirty days to ride across a country – to have side adventures, to mountains, to lakes, to canyons (to allow for bike repairs,) – perhaps it sounds like a lot but even on my most creative days in maths class – I would have known this wouldn’t add up.

We didnt really want to leave Kazakhstan but time was running out. Our trip with Igor meant a rethink of our plans. There was a solution – an out and back west to Bishkek in Kyrgystan – not overly appealing – a 6 hour bus trip each way – but a solution nevertheless. Of course with every challenge there is more than one solution. Adrienne flipped the plan – we could head east instead – get closer to the border – to give us the time we needed to ride across the border.

Shynar

The night before we left, we met Shynar – who had crossed paths a couple of years ago with Matt, my nephew/friend. Chatting deeply in your own language but learning about the country you are in, having the chance to ask all the questions that have been on your mind is indeed a treat. And in true Central Asia form – Shynar not only had dinner with us but appeared again at 7am the following morning to help us secure a lift to Kegen, the last major town in Kazakhstan before crossing the Kazakh/Kyrgyz border.

Packed and ready to go

Goodbyes we have many – though we are both keen not to let go. Farewelling Zuhkra and Aliyah from DA hostel was special – both very late night owls – had risen at 6am to farewell us. Zuhkra worked at DA, worked hard, with warmth and ease and great light in her spirit, Aliyah lived there – my body and limbs benefitted greatly from her magic hands the the energy she so willingly shared as she massaged away the tightness in my muscles.

Zuhkra, Aliyah and us

Plan A was of course to get a bus and put our bikes on the bus. Plan B was what we went with. We found the bus station (though it seemed more of a bus stop than station. Shynar found us. Then we found Aga and Aga – (not the coveted stoves) but instead two energetic Polish woman backpacking and heading in our general direction.With Shynar’s help and just an ockey/stretchy strap or two or six we secured the bikes on to a car and we were off. Much to Adrienne’s delight it was one of the most sedate trips in a car we have had since arriving in early May.

Tying the bikes on – with a tiny strand of rope and about 6 ockey/stretchy straps
Shynar, Aga (1) Adrienne, me and our driver

We’d been through Bayseit before, with Igor, he said it was a good place to stop and we did. Gathering supplies at the market – and then trying a local delicacy – clay! Three different types – Adrienne and Aga tried them out – with surprising enjoyment.

Fresh fruit, dried fruit and clay!
Aga enjoying some clay

Finally in Kegen we offloaded the bikes and said farewell. A cafe for lunch and we met a French film maker Alain Beaudouard – who now lives in Bali. He’s an ethnographer and documentary maker who has some very interesting films on YouTube. He’s on his way from France back to Bali – gathering information on people within Central Asia as he goes.

Alain Beaudouard
Roadworks just beginning in Kegen
Heading out of Kegen

Despite being close to the border we decide to stay in Kazakhstan just one more night – that and knowing the border crossing shuts in the next couple of hours and unsure of what roads and terrain lies before us. The road is rough, very rough. Construction of the new road is underway – in the next few years this will be a very different place. A border crossing that has only recently been open to tourists and is only open in summer will soon be a major thoroughfare.

We find a campsite – it meets both our needs – close to water and private, tucked away. Like many of the beautiful places we see it is marred by rubbish, plastic bottles, glass (though here at least mostly whole bottles rather than broken glass). Still with a minor clean up it looks good and we make camp – it has the benefit of a deep hole we can set up the stove out of the wind.

Final Kazakh campsite
The perfect protective pit for our stove

As we head off in the morning, local construction workers come to drain more water from the shrinking river, to use in the road construction – mostly just to keep the dust down. This is great – in theory – though as the gravel and dust is wet it becomes clay and sticks to our wheels as we head off. Thankfully they are only going one way so we ride on the other side of the road and stay out of the mud.

Pushing up to the old road – this one was still being built

It’s a quiet road, a broken down car sits lonely on the edge of a bend and looks like it has been there a while. We share some water with the driver/boy waiting in the vehicle then head off again. There are loose stones, sharp stones, potholes, bumps, ridges – its a very slow bumpy noisy trip, the road is uneven enough to cause one or more of our panniers to partly come off more than once.

No repair trucks out here

Before we know it we are at the border. Before we know it we are across the border and in Kyrgyzstan! The whole process takes 10 minutes. Stamps and smiles on both sides and we are done. Almost immediately it feels like we are in a different place, soft green rolling hills, rivers and creeks but still a very rough road.

Riding into Kyrgyzstan

We are heading for a campsite listed on iOverlander – a great app Adrienne discovered before we left then rediscovered when reminded by other travellers in Almaty. It sounds great. We are yet to change money – we dont really need any yet – though we do need water – soon, very soon. Next village we ask and are pointed into the village – we hope we are not being directed to a shop. No – its the village spring – at first we dont see it – there are horses all around it then as we approach they wander off. It’s our first Kyrgyz village.

Fresh water
Our first Kyrgyz village

Not long after that – I have the chance to overcome a small anxiety. A puncture in my back tyre. It’s a new bike, a new set up, a Rohloff hub and I’m not sure if there’s anything unusual about taking the wheel off. But the anxiety is wasted, it is very straightforward and goes very well with Adrienne’s assistance. Before long we are back on the road again. The road doesnt improve. It’s very slow but the scenery is spectacular.

Quicker and easier then expected
Tube out and fixed

Just before we arrive at our campsite, Adrienne has a brief but unpleasant interaction – it’s our first unpleasant experience – so a little unsettling. But once we are settled in, tucked away by the river, eating good food the calm returns. Like previous campsites there is rubbish about – but here at least it is almost all together in a big pit – largely hidden away.

Our campsite
Waking up to a view of the river

Next morning we wake, after our first night inKyrgyzstan – having been lulled to sleep by the sound of a fast flowing river, we are well rested and can easily imagine staying here longer than one night. Enter – the local overly friendly shepherd. Friendliness is alway welcome – saying we have strong legs because we ride bikes is fine, a gentle squeeze of the thigh as we get on the horse is not. Nor is the almost headlock or body squeeze for our farewell photos. We are invited to stay as long as we like. We decide we have already done that! We head off straight after breakfast.

Just a little too friendly
But I did like his horse

The road is still very rough. There are more cars today – the roughness of the road doesnt seem to change their speed or driving. When we can see and are not covered in a cloud of dust it is not unusual to look up to see a car seemingly heading straight for you – the road is there to share and it is immaterial that the right hand side of the road is for traffic heading in the same direction as you. The roads are mostly one lane each way – though it it not unusual to have two car going one way, one car and a bike going the other. Those moments – the road does seem a little narrow.

The view as we left the campsite
Parked in a field of flowers
Green hills blue skies happy hearts

The ride today is full of joy, despite the dust and narrowness of the road. There are uphills and downhills and curves and continually emerging stunning landscapes. We stop for lunch in a park, we still dont have money and we still dont need it. Our picnic is interrupted. Jalil, a hostel owner in Karakol was driving by and noticed our bikes so has come down into the park to give us is card!

There is so much soft green grass it’s easy to find soMewhere for lunch

Not long after lunch we ride into Tyup – our first major town in Kyrgyzstan. It is a small town but it feels modern, not the buildings but instead the hairstyles of the women (short) and the clothes and just their demeanour. We get money and immediately decide to spend some. Food weighs a lot and our panniers have been getting lighter – I am keen not to fill them too much given we are only a day away from Karakol. I encourage Adrienne to only get essential provisions – a decision I will later regret!

As we leave Tyup the sky is getting dark and we can see a storm is brewing, before long we are riding in a full thunderstorm, lightening, thunder and burning rain – rain that is so cold and hard it burns your bare limbs. Just before I am totally drenched through (I left my good rain jacket at home – I thought I wouldn’t need it) we stop in a bus shelter and take cover while the storm rages.

Two walls and a roof almost feels cosy
Making do 🙂 and making dinner

We decide to make dinner then at least we will only have to set up tents and climb in when we arrive. We change in the (extremely limited) privacy of the bus shelter) and start cooking. The rain and thunder does nothing to quell our excitement at the site of cycle tourist. He comes over to say hello, Mustafa from Turkey, a mountaineer and more recently cycle tourist also heading to Karakol. Surprisingly he says no to the offer of hot food but does take directions to our planned campsite – best view ever apparently – and so we say farewell and will perhaps see him later.

Mustafa – the first siting

Once the rain has stopped we head off – and soon are winding our way through small back lanes and then see Mustafa waving to us from the cliff top ahead. As we roll in the snow capped mountains surrounding the lights of Karakol greet us, as does the blue expanse of Issyk Kol – a beautiful lake below us. We are all very happy to see each other – despite the brief meeting earlier we have the shared camaraderie of cycle touring – a special and unique family that creates an almost instant bond.

The evening light above Issyk Kol

Omarsh – a local 10 year old is on hand as we arrive he enthusiastically and very helpfully assist with the tents being set up. He is an absolute delight.

Omarsh – our very helpful and able assistant.

Mustafa offers to brew up a hot drink – an offer only surpassed by the biscuits that came out with the drink – by now it is quite cool and I am really wishing we had more provisions. In a short space of time the biscuits are vacuumed up as is our remaining food – other than what we have for breakfast. We are not far from Karakol so will be able to replenish supplies early tomorrow.

We stand around hot drink in hand looking out at the amazing view
Photo by Omarsh

I wake early – very pleased with myself that I have woken before the rain… Nothing worse than packing up a wet tent, or trying to pack in the rain…. or is there? I am packed – everything is dry, the sky is black. I could ride into Karakol – but it will be a wild storm, so best not too. I am beginning to see the flaw in my over zealous plan.

Morning light before the storm

Thankfully Adrienne is awake and takes pity on me – and packs up enough to make room for me. I have on my cycling gear – so nothing overly warm. I spend the next two hours huddled – at times curled in a ball staying warm as the wind howled, rain poured, thunder crashed and lightening flashed a new awakening across the sky and me.

Just a little chilly

After about two hours we started to hear the dogs barking then the roosters crowing, then the cows and sheep. Slowly the rain stopped, we packed up ready to roll down the hill and into Karakol before it struck again. But instead the sun came out and showed us where we were in all its beauty. It wasnt somewhere we really wanted to leave in a hurry – it was quite quite beautiful.

After the storm
Horses above and below

Mustafa emerged we chatted, we drank tea then we went for a wander. Adrienne ahead – as a New Zealander she was clearly more comfortable on the went muddy ground. Before long she was closer to the ground than she planned sliding her way down the muddy clay slope. Though it did mean she actually made it to the lake – I never got there.

Mudslide
The sheep are back in the morning
Emerging after the morning storm
Mustafa and us

We left a little regretfully and headed off repeating our ride of the night before back though the little lanes and out on to the road.

The back lanes 🙂

It was busy and up and down and then as we were stopped on the outskirts of Karakol a van stopped near us. It was Jalil again – telling us about his hostel – this time we asked questions – yes it has washing machine, kitchen, wifi – we were in! As we were stopped we also saw some girls riding – which has been a rare thing in Central Asia.

Girl cyclists

Of course by the time we rolled into town it was well after lunchtime – supplies had all but run out and I was hungry, very hungry. We found cafe – we had a feast – the food was clearly very different in a very welcome way!

Demolished very quickly

After demolishing that feast we went to Jalils hostel, Snow leopard Hostel – where somehow we made room for chai and a fantastically tasty afternoon tea spread.

So now its time get clean, rest and relax and plan the next stage of the adventure.

Over fifty and counting…

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Almaty is the half way point – not necessarily in term of kilometres but definitely days. 50 days in – it has both flown by and at the same time seems a thousand adventures ago that we left our homes.

Almaty sits at the base of the mountains

Riding in to Almaty. Signal was very limited. Limited signal means limited information so arriving into Almaty I had only been able to look up one hostel. I had just enough charge to help me find the place. Apple hostel Almaty. Top end of town near the mountains – seemed like a good location and on a hot day with lots of traffic 87km was enough by early afternoon- so on arrival I booked just for a night.

Within an hour it was clear I had made a mistake. The room had 8 beds – no windows, no air and two women sleeping at 2 in the afternoon. That should have been a clue. The bins were overflowing, the bathroom dank and mouldy the kitchen a pile of dishes and unappealing smells. So I ventured out and at least found a great vego dinner.

Govindas! Nicely followed by gulab jamin

Once my phone was charged I could explore other options. I was keen only one of us should endure this place so suggested Adrienne head to a better place Wanderlust. She did but it was full. She did however find some more cycle tourers, Jordan and Pete from Lancashire and together they found a fabulous clean quiet hostel DA hostel Almaty. 

DA hostel Almaty

Being on the road and going where the wind takes us I thought I was done with rules but I can’t tell you how delighted I was to arrive the next day at DA hostel and read the rules. 1. Quiet after 11pm (there had been chatting music playing and lights on in my room at Apple until 3am!) 2. Clean up after yourself in the kitchen – the kitchen here is immaculate. 3. Keep bathroom clean – and people did – no drains full of hair and sinks covered in tissue and who knows what. Yes clearly it’s true I like a rule or two! I left Apple hostel not long after a major fight broke out just out the front – all in all one night was just one night too long!

DA is a welcome rest haven – lots of others travelers some on bike – Tomek, Jordan, Pete then others on vans. There is great camaraderie. The first night at Apple I had ventured out and found Govindas – and delighted in a fabulous Indian veggie treat. Excited I convinced others to join me the next night. We raced there to be met with Nyet Nyet Nyet as we systematically went through various items on the menu. In the end we had a small sample and had to be satisfied with that.

Tomek – who is heading off to the Pamir highway
Jordan and Pete – heading to India – through after nearly a year on the road they are opting just to backpack in India. Bikes are going in boxes.

The slow wander home through busy streets with various musicians busking and people of all ages out and about was a greater joy than the small meal. Thankfully Green Bazaar (the huge market) has filled our packs with more dried fruit and nuts than we’ve had for ages so plenty to feast on later.

Next morning we have the option of a bike ride – with the local biking mob – Adrienne has used her networking skills connecting the Shymkent bike mob to find a similar group here – so Jordan and Pete can off load some of their unwanted bike gear before heading to India. The morning comes and we wave them farewell – as they ride into the mountains – we decide to bus it later in the day or tomorrow.

Jordan and Pete ready to head off on borrowed bikes (theirs are now packed) with Villy and his son

Cleaning selves, clothes and bikes can take a while and having the motivation to do the bike even longer, especially after one and two are done. 

So once most jobs were done (Peri really deserves more attention then she has been getting) we head to the streets – the grand Mosque, the Holy Ascension Cathedral (a huge wooden Russian Orthodox Church) with the promise of a late afternoon scrub and massage at Arasan baths.

Grand Mosque
Holy Ascension Cathedral
Holy AC
Inside Holy Ascension

Everywhere is different and the challenge is not to compare things with what has preceded it but it’s hard. It is the setting of the city with snow capped mountains at the end of the streets that captures you – more so than some of the unusual architecture. 

I can’t wait to soak and steam and scrub out the ingrained dirt of the last 50 days. (Thats right we are now half way through!).

Arasan baths – no photos inside which is a shame as it was quite beautiful.

Wow. I elected for a coffee scrub. Sounds good doesn’t it, getting clean to the pleasant aroma of coffee. An hour later I no longer like the smell of coffee. I’m not sure I have any skin left. Still I will no longer be afraid of drying myself on a white towel. Every speck of Uzbek and Kazak dust and grime is now swimming around the floor and drains of the Arasan bath house.

The massage was equally brutal and funny. I felt like I was in a skit a Russian bathhouse where I was being pummeled to death by a big strong middle aged Russian woman in bloomers, though she was only slightly built and about 20!) Lying on my stomach head in the hole in the massage table as she worked up and down my head also went up and down with either my crown or chin banging on the top or bottom of the head hole as she went. Despite the discomfort it was hard not to laugh.

I leave very very very clean and bruised.

The mountains beckon again and after much waiting in the wrong place, jumping on a bus going the wrong way we finally head to Shymbulac- a skiing resort just near Almaty.

A few days in the city and we have forgotten everything we know. It is hot when we leave the city – I have my coolest outfit on as does Adrienne. It’s a LOT cooler when we get out the fourth gondola – 3200m above Almaty! But it’s spectacular too – so for the next hour or so we wander in awe, find somewhere out of the wind for lunch, persevere a little longer then have to descend before we freeze.

The alpine Lowe’s are a stunning carpet of purples yellow and white.
Perhaps not quite the outfit for 3200m.
Not a bad lunch spot

We descend excited – we have decided to make time to see some sites around Almaty – this will mean changing our plans – and doing a side trip so we can get a new 30 day visa free period for Kazakhstan to give us enough time to cycle out over the mountains to Kyrgystan as we planned. That decision made we feel free.

Building around the final gondola station

We have also organised Igor – to take Adrienne,me, Anna and Pau ( our Spanish friends from the hostel) on a four day three night adventure to the wilderness highlights of Almaty. 

(Altyn Emel national park – with Aktau Mountains and the Singing Dune), Kolsai lakes ( with a 16km hike), Charyn Gorge and Kaindy Lake.)

Igor – our tour guide and driver

Igor is a delightful funny Russian who continually makes jokes about vodka though doesn’t touch a drop. We all pile into the car – a Lada of course and head off. It’s hot and Igor seems to feel it more than any of us. He is sweating profusely and panting and his hands have a slight tremble. We take turns in the front. Independently we each make a plan of what to do if Igor collapses at the wheel.

Checking out where to next
Cooling Igor off – whether he likes it or not

Aktau Mountains (white mountains are stunning) white and yellow and red – changing as the sun emerges from behind the clouds. We could just keep wandering but the sun is very hot and the mountains don’t provide any shade.

Aktau mountains are a spectacle of colour and light

It’s a long day – when we get to our accommodation it’s late afternoon- we have squeezed in Kakutau mountains as well.

Kakutau provides a welcome siesta spot for Adrienne

The singing dune is only 40mins away so after an hours rest we head off again. The view is spectacular- the sound as you come down a deep bass hum. The sound comes from the moving sand. (Scooting along on your bottom and you get an even louder sound!).

A long day in the car seemed so much harder than a day in the saddle. And we have three days ahead of us still. Anna and Pau are great travelling companions and we are fortunate their English is so impressive and we are not reliant on our almost non existent Spanish.

Pau, Anna and Adrienne
The awesome foursome

It’s hot at Charyn canyon – and yes it’s amazing and second only to the Grand Canyon in size but what is more amazing is we meet our first group of female cycle tourers! Three Swisse women who have just ridden up from Karakol. They’ve been cycling for 4 months and seem very happy and relaxed – and not at all phased by the mountains (which we are slightly starting to feel (Kyrgystan is much more mountainous than we are used to).

We are expecting a yurt but when offered the choice of a yurt or a cool bedroom we surprise ourselves with the bedroom. The food is amazing – great vegetarian food – and a great family hosting us. Tomorrow night we’ll be yurting- and after our 16 km hike taking in the Kolsay lakes we will be happy to sleep anywhere.

Sixteen kilometres through lush forest and meadows – slowly climbing from Lake 1 to Lake 2. We have our passports with us. WE are so close to the Chinese border there are often border police on the track. They have closed Lake 3 to stop people sneaking over the border unnoticed.

Kolsay – Lake 1

It’s hot when we leave – but Igor has insisted we take rain gear and warm clothes. It does rain – and cool down not quite enough to jump in the icy waters – if we had our bathers with us – then I’ve no doubt we would have gone in.

Either side of the path is a beautiful wild garde
Kolsay Lake 2

When we get back the home stay a tour group has arrived. They are everything we hope we aren’t – loud, insensitive, lots of drinking. When we asked where they had come from – what city, they couldn’t remember – “oh you know, you’re in a different place every night”……… Needless to say we are very happy to be outside and in the yurt.

Cosy in our yurt

Like many overnight trips – we bond quickly with Anna and Pau and it feels like we are old friends – the generations between us evaporate and we are just four travelers. Kaindy Lake is our final destination – a lake formed after an earthquake in 1911. Here you earn each view – Igor has hired us a 4 wheel drive van to drive us in to the gorge. The road has deep potholes and the van lurches from one side to the other – at times we pull of the narrow road on the mountain side to make room for oncoming traffic – it is hard to stay completely relaxed.

This is just a gentle lean …With heat and diesel fumes it isn’t pleasant

Once we arrive, horses and young riders greet us eager for business – but instead we choose the steep gravel zigzag and make our way to the edge of the lake – bumping into our German friends from Almaty on the way.

Pau and Anna at Lake Kaindy

Kaindy is picture postcard material and everyone is there to capture the perfect shot.

Resting near Lake Kaindy
Kaindy lake

The road home is a joy. Horses and sheep and cows slow the journey for a while.

Almost before we know our tour is over – Though of course there are the obligatory chai stops.

Soon we are back at the hostel, clean and rested and ready for the next leg!

Bordering on…

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There are so many ways to end that sentence but suffice to say we have been travelling along the Kazak Kyrgyz border on the Kazak side since leaving Aksu Zhabagly. 

Aksu Zhabagly is so beautiful it held us captive one day longer than planned – we head off exploring Aksu Gorge and the surrounding mountains and flowers. The water is glacial blue and so are my toes after sitting with my feet in the water after a long hike down. The hike down was slow – it promised to be much quicker if we weren’t careful where we stood  -lots of loose gravel and steep gradient had us slipping a sliding just enough to not want more. After that, walking up was a a piece of cake. 

The view from the top
It’s a long way down
Glacial blue
A rare shot of us together
Walking up was so much easier

The flowers are stunning – even a rogue tulip or two that hadn’t realised their season was over and orchids and much more. We start walking back having asked our guide to pick us up on the way out. Over an hour later we started wondering if they had understood our request or were waiting for us. A little more walking and wondering then after about half an hour they drive up all happy – we suspect after a nice nap.

The blue sky darkened in the late afternoon and thunderstorms promised. The wind picked up and by late evening it seemed our tents would be picked up too. It was a howler. No rain just wild whipping winds. The rain kept promising.

The clouds roll in

The wind’s gift was an early waking, so tent and all else packed up before the rain finally arrived. It came and went and then we went.

The lovely Natalia – Ruslan’s mother – who ran a tight ship

Expectations can make or break a day. I knew we’d have at least 10 kms downhill and based on the arrival day, probably a steady incline after that. Climbing on our well laden but now well packed and well worn in bikes as we rolled out of Aksu Zhabagly our smiles grew with the passing kms – heading back through the village then onto the next one and we were offered chai by the railway man but we were already on a roll.

Oops – I think that’s my itching to keep going face 😬

By the time we hit the expressway every cell was in our bodies was singing with delight. Black and white butterflies fluttered to and fro across our path almost escorting is along. The impending hills ahead couldn’t diminish our spirit. 

The impending hills never came. It was a smooth steady decline that just went on and on and on. (The hills that did come were eaten up by the downhills before them, that and the gift of a tailwind! A strong tailwind!

An along the way more joy. A local shepherd totally covered (they all are I imagine as protection from the weather) stopped and offers me the chance to change saddles. I thought he was going to try the bike but he wasn’t keen.

Such a beautiful beast
He dropped his mask for the photo and to kiss my hand as I left
Waiting for a shepherd… still waiting

A little later it happened again and by now the day has cooled down considerably, we were about to break for lunch but we had visitors. Soon enough we were both up and in different saddles – that did seem very comfortable- though so are ours for short periods!

The steady decline got a little steeper – a sign warning motorists of a 5000m sharp decline. Downhills, tailwinds, great road surface, mostly straight – it’s hard to describe the joy – especially when we were expecting uphills. only issue the tailwind was now a cross wind.

It’s very rarely you need to worry about speed limits on your bike. But this day we did. Speed limit was 60kph. I hit the speed limit – it was fabulous and just a bit terrifying at the same time. (By now the tailwind was a strong cross wind). Adrienne broke the limit but nothing else.

Flying down

Early evening and Taraz arrived at the same time. 110km almost all downhill – what a completely unexpected delight of a day. We find a hostel and decide to stay two nights to see the regional museum and perhaps a few sights. By the end of the evening Adrienne has the next day sorted. 

Nurbek an 18 yo robotics worker who was staying in the hostel (as he was working in Taraz but his home is in Almaty) had offered to show us the sights (which he was also yet to see).

It’s morning and we are ready, we don’t have a time so don’t want to keep Nurbek waiting- by 11am Nurbek surfaces – he’s had a late night. At noon we head to Aisha Bibi mausoleum and then the regional museum.

He is an absolute gift – so warm, quick and easy to be around. He also shares some of his story with us – a grandmother he’d never met but was searching for- she had been shunned after one of her children drowned and it seems she was blamed. It is tempting to stay and help in the search but instead we just spend the day and evening with him and then bid him farewell. While he continues his search Adrienne offers to be a New Zealand babushka. He wakes late and sends us a message he came out on the road looking for us. We may see him again in Almaty.

The old and the new
See how many different tile styles
Burial headstones in the museum
Images of the sand mines of which there are many

The road out of Taraz is easy and before long we passing through the city gate.

Taraz has been good to us. The days ahead are full of expressway with limited options to escape the cars and trucks whizzing by at the speed of light. Being on the expressway however does give us the chance to see other cycle tourists. Sergei is a Russian cycle tourist – he has two YouTube channels, and cycled over 15000km in the last three months!

It seems we will be stuck on the expressway ford quite sometime. However soon enough an opportunity presents itself. A sign -7km to an 8-10th century enigma.

We check the map and there’s a way through so we head out – wondering yet again what lies ahead. 

A UNESCO archeological site but it’s locked and no one seems to be about. I try blowing my bike horn – there is little else to use it for. No-one comes. It’s hot and there’s no shade.

We decide to stay and have lunch and with a tarp tied across both bikes -and us crouched together underneath and so make ourselves a little lunch shelter. It is surprisingly cool and comfortable. Then we each walk around the perimeter seeing what we can given we’re here anyway.

We are about to go – just a quick toilet stop before we go. Based on my report Adrienne opts to avoid the toilet and just find a tree. She says if anyone is around this will bring them out. Top button undone and the door opens – we are asked if we want to see the place. (We arrived at 1pm. (Nothing much happens in Kazakhstan between 1-2pm). We are only learning this now.

The site is fabulous- such huge stones and most of the foundations of the houses, watch tower, water system are still in place. The backdrop of snow covered mountains completes the picture.

After our tour we knock on the door no answer – eventually Tilibek comes to the door. He is very happy to see us (it was his minor very happy son who had initially let us in). He shows us around – and instructs is to take pictures of everything as he points it out- including him his wife and son.

Tilibek, wife and son – as requested 😎

We leave, water replenished and head off on a small sandy road parallel with the mountains. It is the paradise of cycle touring. A small road, hard sand and baked clay winding through grassy fields into a small town.

Tourers bliss

Then we are in to back roads through villages. I am joined for quite a while by a local. He rides alongside me but doesn’t say much. But he does offer chai, a number of times and I finally say yes.

We head into the village just off the back road. His wife is put to work as are the children getting chai and accompanying treats. For once the children and wife (Guljan) join us.

Guljan and the newest addition to the family

They are as hungry as we are and just as excited about chai and bread and biscuits as the flies are. Many plates in Central Asia are shared plates people all eating from the same plate. Eating with others food habits can be challenging- I’m trying to relax and go with the flow – some days this is harder than others. Every piece of bread has been touched at least once by at least one child (and thirty flies) as they were choosing which piece to eat.

It’s a challenging chai stop at a number of levels – though mostly because there are many awkward silences. This is the least curious household we have ever been to. Still they ensure we are well fed and have plenty of chai before we head on our way

The whole family including visiting city cousins

It’s now late late afternoon and we are looking for a campsite. There is nothing obvious. There is a farm on the left (we ride on the right – unlike traffic at home). We go in and I ask the fellow wheeling his bike along the track my now well practiced Russian phrase Mozhno postavit palatku? Which is a very crude but effective way of asking if we can camp somewhere.

He nods and then goes to speak with a group of workmen. They offer us their accommodation hut. An old shipping container with bunks that smells like they work sleep and drink – no washing involved – it will be vacant so we can use it. Despite the generous offer, we decline. Instead wandering into the field to find a patch to set up our tents. As we are wandering through we realise there are large thistles (potential puncture makers).

So we cautiously head back to the track and a young farmer (Medet) smiles says hello and invites us in.

Medet churning the butter

He sees we are hot and tired so offers us Kumys- the fermented mares milk. The flavour has changed as we move east – it now has a smoky flavour – so says Adrienne who seems to be acquiring a taste for it. She thoughtfully takes one for the team and drinks mine as well.

Adrienne looking very tall with Medet’s neighbour

He has little and no English and my 6 words of Russian don’t get us very far. Still it is easy and delightful. He is renovating and adding to an old house – getting it ready for his new bride in September. He shows us around the house and then the farm.

Making mud bricks for the extension
The extension is fabulously rendered
Adrienne has a practice herding the turkeys

His younger brother and father arrive and they are also easy to be with – though don’t have his boundless enthusiasm and delight. .

Our bed for the night – no need for any tents

He cooks us dinner – fried eggs and salad it is perfect after our late afternoon chai stop – feasting on bread and biscuits. We go to set up our tent but instead he lays mats and carpets on the old charpoy and we crash tired and happy.

Before we leave in the morning he prepares hot milk from his cows and more chai. It is a big farm by Kazak standards – he has horses, cows, donkeys, turkeys and lots of vegetables growing, We are conscious not to delay him so after breakfast we head off – though not before watching him and his uncle get the horses ready to go out for the day wandering through the fields and surrounding lands.

There are lots of baby animals of all types
He loves it that we love his animals
Farewell breakfast

We are back in the road. The bikes are running smoothly. Any unusual sound causes us to listen intently – check if anything is loose, anything is rubbing. I hear a tink tink sound with each revolution. It stops if I stop pedalling – so it’s nothing in the wheel. It starts again. Finally I work it out. It’s the end of my shoelace tapping on the pedal crank with each revolution. Double know. Problem solved. Then there is a new sound but it’s not coming from the bikes – a swoosh swoosh but no one is about and I can’t see anything. Finally something glints in the sun. The road is higher than the fields either side – people are working with scythes trimming the grass – for feed.

All sights and sounds are new and we delight in them all. It’s hot riding – we run our heads and hats under water before we leave but it doesn’t take long before the cycle is repeated. They are dry then dripping wet with sweat.

By lunchtime we are keen for shade – the best we can do is the set up the tarp under a large road sign and hope the sun doesn’t move to quickly. Before long we are joined by another cycle tourist Steve James from Devon. He has just retired and has set himself a quest 4 continents average of 100+miles a day and about 3 months. He is riding to raise funds for charity. Good on him but glad we can just take our time and not have that time pressure and instead be free to grab opportunities as they arise.

Steve James – banker on a bike!

It’s getting late the camp options limited…we take a small side road. At first glancé it does look much – rubbish, broken glass, sharp prickles. With limited options we persevered. 500m further down the sandy track it was a different place. Snow capped mountains on one side And golden fields glistening in the sunset.

Golden fields of light
The next morning

Riding along the expressway it is a great road surface and as it’s new – perhaps flatter than other roads in the area. It is also without towns, shops, roadside stalls. Luckily we have the views to break up the monotony. And of course we have the Kazaks – who are whizzing past us – honking hello. Then in my mirror I see a car sidling up next to me – I’ve just got going again after a drinks stop so don’t really want to stop. He is passing something out the window it looks like an orange 🍊. He says something and gives me the thumbs up – the organs thing – which turns out to be a very sweet small melon – is passed to me like a relay baton then they are off.

There is no shade again so we have lunch under tarp – hoeing in to that sweet sweet melon.

As we are riding along we can see camp spots on the right are limited- we are riding in the nowhere zone – on the map it looks like we are neither here nor there. There are sentry boxes – protecting Kyrgystan- and the only trees that seem to be anywhere.

The sentry box guarding the only trees in sight and a border fence out of our reach!

It’s another hot dry day – we have the chance to camp alongside a river if we can just push on. Hours in the saddle on a road surface that doesn’t change – means you don’t change position much either – and so you’re likely to get saddle sore. And it just starts towards the end of the end (of the day 😊).

A storm is rolling in – we opt for one tent – which means we will have somewhere safe and dry about the same time we will have dinner ready and both hopefully before the storm arrives. Almost! Dinner is done in stages – early and slightly undercooked for the impatient one – no guessing who that would be and then later when the storm had abated and I was almost asleep stage 2 dinner happened. It was wild wild wind and some rain but mostly yet again it was the whipping wind – I’m not sure if the tent would’ve stayed in one place without the weight of two bodies. Once again – (when the wind and rain stop) we can appreciate the beauty of our camp spot.

A glimmer of light after the storm

Thurs it’s another hot day. No trees in site. When they do appear with the promise of shade – it feels like the Kyrgyz are tormenting us – they have commandeered all the trees. They are all inside the border fence.

It’s hot and uphill and there’s a headwind. It’s a slow day. Trucks are my new shade. Whenever I see a truck stopped I stop too and relish in the meagre shade it has created.

The truck drivers continue to be very supportive of our journey. Each day we hear the horns or them yelling a’ kuda? Where are you from? So we yell back in reply to which they respond with a big smile and either a thumbs up or a fist in the air – both gestures are very positive.

Then Maxzat ups the anti- providing not only shade, but also endless cups of tea, and the best honey I have ever tasted! He is waiting till the traffic in Almaty dies down. We are with him 1-2hours. We leave at 6pm touched by his generosity. (I almost have to drag Adrienne away). He offers to drive us into Almaty – but we decline.

That honey – hmmmm

Within an hour we have another fabulous campsite – sort of. We have gone down a sandy track then beaches off to another track. Yet before too long we have a few visitors. We check they are happy to have us there. Yes yes. Both tents are set up either side of the second sandy track. Hopefully far enough back to avoid any further traffic.

I am woken by headlights a few times in the night. Rolling to my right as far as I can just in case they go closer to the tent than is comfortable. It is of course all worry for nothing. There is plenty of room and they are well accustomed to sharing the road with whatever presents itself.

Haven woken early after a restless night I set off leaving Adrienne to be enjoy the campsite and ease into the day. We meet down the road a couple of hours later. We are still about 180kms away from Almaty so a good solid 2 days away.

After we catch up we review plans. I’m feeling like a long ride – so we ensure we each have enough provisions to get us through to Almaty if we end up in different places at the end of the day.

It’s still hot and there are no little shops selling water nor any taps so we are careful with the water we have. Careful to drink enough but not to much. Then Oliver arrives – a motorcycle tourer and self appointed patron saint of bicycle tourers. He tops up all my empty water bottles and I feel set for the night.

Oliver Kilroy the Swisse Irishmen – self appointed patron saint of cycle tourers

There are roadworks everywhere – though mostly it doesn’t effect the road – just creates dust – that fine get into everything dust. Dust you can taste. It’s the new updated modern Silk Road. Chinese money Kazak debt. But what it does mean is it’s hard to get off the road and find a campsite as all side roads lead to working sand quarries.

Eventually early evening I see some fields and head in hoping to find a flat patch of ground. I find somewhere and decide to wait till it’s dark to set up camp. So instead I eat. Eventually tractors come buy and I use my Russian to check it’s okay to camp. Yes yes.

Just me and fields – is that possible?

Adrienne is also looking for a campsite but there isn’t anywhere and the traffic is heavy so lots for a hotel for the night.

I am fed, clean – relatively and ready for bed. After a while I hear a horse dog and person. It is too much to expect to be alone. So I get up – dressed and go out. It is the farm security- he is friendly- almost a little too friendly. He asks if I would like him to stay the night. No thanks. We chat then I say I need to go to sleep. He says thank you and happily goes on his way. I do t see or hear him again. Next morning I am up early and on the road by 6.30 so is Adrienne.

The qhiet morning light

It’s a lovely cool morning and the traffic has not yet started. Riding along we once again have snow capped mountains on our right.

The best view for the dead

It’s beautiful country – green hills folding into themselves – the light and dark of the folds creating all sorts of patterns. Then the snow capped peaks sitting majestically behind them. It feels like a great honour to be riding through just a beautiful landscape.

The last 30kms intoAlmaty are less majestic. More traffic and people than we’ve seen since we landed in Tashkent. Roadworks, dust, people, dust, roadworks, people, roadworks dust. It isn’t pleasant. It’s the scariest riding since starting – I walk, a lot.

After an early start, by lunchtime I am in Almaty. By early afternoon so is Adrienne. She has been kidnapped by a helpful Kazak family. She had opted for the smaller back roads and they were concerned she may not find her way into Almaty so they just popped her and bike in car and dropped her in Almaty – whether she liked it or not!

So now we are here. To rest, clean, see the sights.

Big modern city edged by snow capped mountains – this will do just fine

So until next time …

Of mice and men…

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And off to the mountains we went …the traffic was busy, there was lots of billowing black smoke from the friendly truck drivers as they passed and lots of swirling dust from the regular roadworks on the way out of town but the edge of city was in our sights.

We could almost start to smell the air freshening. Then it happened. The gear cable went. So the best laid plans of mice and men and indeed us were going nowhere. We pulled over and then into a garage to assess the situation. It was right in the middle of roadworks so the swirling dust was in overdrive.

After our own investigation and a chat with trusted NZ bike mechanic we realised we wouldn’t be going any further today. So we started to disassemble the gear lever and got out the tools – all amidst swirling dust. It was the fine dust, like the red bull dust of the north of West Australia – it gets in everywhere. As you wipe your face you can feel the fine grit down the side of your nose and on your cheeks, sunglasses are a must but not for the sun.

As we are thinking of what to do, the sky starts to change- this is something we are becoming used to – heavy afternoon thunderstorms. It’s far from ideal conditions to dismantle a bike – so we decide to hitch back – at least one bike.

True to central Asian form – it doesn’t take long – we flag down trucks or vans – one stops – assesses our situation but gestures he has no room. The next truck stops. With charades we explain the situation – I’m getting much better at this. Kazim opens his truck – it’s empty – but not for long. Soon it is loaded with two bikes eight panniers, two handlebar bags and two large plastic bags with tents and seats. We jump in the cab with him. It starts raining.

All loaded up and ready to go
With Kazim who safely delivered us back to Shymkent

So it is back to the city hostel – feeling just a little lost regarding our next move. The hostel tells us about a bike shop that may be able to help, so we head off – a little hope restored. The bike shop is not a workshop just a retail shop – we feel a little like we are being ignored. We should know better by now. A phone call is being made – I am passed the phone – it is Shavkat, he is not far away – his workshop is closed but he will wait and meet us.

Shavkat (in red) Assel (in white) – and other Shyment bikers group members
Assel and other members of the SBC

Shavkat and Assel meet us and take us to meet with their Shymkent bikers group – it includes Alfir a bike mechanic. Once a week they meet in the park and offer to fix peoples bikes for free. We are on foot – our bikes back at the hostel. We talk about the problem – with some translation from Shavkat, and images from google. They have never seen a Rohloff hub before – but Alfir is keen to learn. We plan to meet at his workshop tomorrow at noon. The upside is we have time for a proper coffee!

First real coffee for a month

We have printed instructions, and the photos on the iPhone and we all sat together working through things step by step, ticking things off as we went. Alfir is a technician – with Shabkat’s translation and a review of the associated image – he goes to work. Many hours pass. We are down to the last four steps (of about 25. By now we are all feeling better

With iPhone and printed instructions at the ready
Alfir starting to feel confident
The emotional stages of cable transplant

It was pretty clear that Alfir was keen to finish things off without the hoardes around him – so with our growing confidence in him, we left him to it and sat and chatted and ate and drank with Shavkat.

Alfir, Shavrat and us after a successful cable transplants 😁

It was late afternoon when we finished. It all went well. Back to the hostel to cook, eat and get ready for our DeJaVu departure. Then Assel messages, she was going for a ride later – at 9.30 with others from the club. Did we want to join them? I wanted to get ready for departure so I declined but party girl Adrienne was a keen yes.

With Assel outside the hostel

After not long I got a message that they were having a cuppa close by and I should join them. So tea, chocolate and many renditions of Kazak top of pops ensued.

Some of the Shymkent cycle crew
A rousing rendition of Kazak music

Take two – departure – the Thorne wasn’t quite ready to go. Peri however was itching. So another trip to see Alfir, more fiddling and twiddling and we head off. Thorne is less than perfect, the gears are working but not as well as they should. Redoing kms you’ve already done is always hard especially when your bike is not in tip-top shape.

The perfect chai stop

The trip is slow – the Thorne has a slow leak – a possible result of the late night adventure whizzing around the streets of Shymkent (but it was worth it). So a chai stop out of the dust is what both Thorne and Adrienne need and of course fate prevails and that is exactly what is offered up.

The kilometres slowly roll along and soon I am rewarded with a glimpse of the snow capped mountains we are heading towards.

Mountain glimpses
Back to an expressway – the views make it bearable
Roadside afternoon delight

Late afternoon we meet up again – (Peri and I now have the itch out of system) -after a few kilometres of expressway it is good to head back to the quieter country roads. Sasatobe is only 10km away so we head there.

Sastobe campsite – early evening

This wins the prize in a not very hard fought competition for best camping site so far. We have visitors but not many and they dont stay too long, we have soft grass to set the tents up on, we have a the sound of running water, the water is crystal clear and a frog chorus to send us to sleep. Who could ask for more?

What a difference a day makes! It’s a beautiful morning – we take our time and it is already warm when we leave. With ample clean water about we afford ourselves the luxury of wet heads and hats and clean faces before we ride off to face the day.

The roads are good, the incline is slow and steady and so are we. A bit further along -I am waiting by the side of the road, though I am never alone for too long. Peri always sparks the interest of someone close by.

Peri heads off for a short ride with her new found friend

Before long we hear women calling out. They are working the other side of the road and have seen us stop, chat and more importantly take photos. We don’t know many Kazak worlds yet but we share one word in common, selfie!

We wander over, chat, shake firm strong hands and yes take photos.

Before long we are on the road again. It’s beautiful. There are snow capped mountains to the right and rolling green hills to the left.

To the right
And the left 🙂

It’s hot though and even slow and steady on an incline seems to raise the temperature quiet a bit. So we are in the look out for a lunch stop – a cool place of rest.

Veggie noodles! (With just the odd bone!) to restore, revive and replenish!
Not long after us a carload of women arrived
When the dancing started she was shy but with encouragement joined in.
And the dancing begins…
There was much dancing and frivolity and leaving was not an option

We ate, we danced, we rested. Then we headed off in search of Zhabagly. The town on the edge of the mountains and the gateway to Aksu Zhabagly national park the oldest national park in Kazakhstan and the only one not to allow cattle grazing. It also happens to be one of the most prolific tulip growing areas in the world. Who knew tulips originated in Central Asia! (We are just a month or so late – instead we see a plethora of other flowers).

Approaching Zhabagly

The optical illusion of going downhill is compelling – however our legs beg to differ. The very gentle incline continues. We arrive late afternoon into Zhabagly. We’ve tried calling ahead – three different options where we can set up our tent – but all to no avail. Not sure why be bothered. Of course a car stops, chats and directs us to where we want to go.

A night in the village, long hot shower and chatting with others travellers and we are ready to head for the hills. First off though we have booked in for a tour with the ranger (you cant just go into the national park yourselves).The guide Majolay doesnt speak English, we dont speak Russian. Despite being visually stunning – it may not be very informative.

Enter Theo … The Dutch Entomologist!
Majolay – our Ranger
Orchid
Lots of blues, purples and pinks and the ubiquitous whites and yellows
The of over 20 varieties of onion weed
The chance to cool off and explore the other side was not to be missed …

Late afternoon we returned to village to gather our belongings and head back up the mountains for a couple of days R&R. A flat tyre meant a car ride for one bike and all our luggage. After the steady and gentle incline of the last few days the steep ascent was exceptionally difficult even with an unloaded bike. Although late afternoon it was still incredibly hot. The road being narrow only room for one vehicle at a time – I was delighted every time a car passed – it gave me license to get off and walk for a while!

The final camping spot made the ride worthwhile – Tourbaza Ruslan
Time to relax and make friends with the locals

We spend the late afternoon and evening chatting with other travellers, Andrea and Magdalena, young dentists from Germany who have been travelling and running some voluntary clinics in areas of need. More chatting with an international group here on a Botanical tour! It’s another easy pleasant evening.

Magdalena, Andrea and Ruslan (who runs the placew we are staying in.)

Today we appoint as a rest day – just a flat tyre to fix – the rest of the day – catch up on emails, the blog and gaze at the snow capped peaks around us keeping a careful watch for ibex, bear, wolf – all of whom we saw or saw evidence of on our walk. (Happily the bear and wolf left only evidence).

Flat tyre -repaired and replaced.

The joy of not packing up is overwhelming so we decide to stay put for another day. We have soft green grass underfoot (and tent), amazing view and clean air, access to hot showers, toilets and a kitchen. It’s not a hard decision to stay another day! Soon enough we’ll be on the road to Almaty.

Meanwhile plenty of mountain gazing to do …

Heartfelt or not …

The generosity and warmth of the people of this region has been overwhelming – mostly that has been good, but something not good has happened, we have come to expect it!

In the midst of being really appreciative, of not believing just how lucky we are, of continually being amazed at the breadth and depth of hospitality, we have made the mistake of thinking it would happen everywhere …. and being horrified when it didnt.

It’s hard to know why the usual hospitality wasnt forthcoming- perhaps it was because we chose not to stay in the house and instead camp outside but at Altyn Oimo – we felt like the paying clients we were rather than wrapped in the bosom of the family as we have so often felt. Still we were there to learn felting and felting we did.

Boiling the polyn

Ala Kiyiz (Ala Keez) is a method of making felt. A recognisable plant (polyn/ermn – that we don’t know the English name of) is boiled in water – and eventually poured on the prepared wool – acting as a repellent against moths and mould extending the life of the final felt.

Laying on the patterns – the third layer

There are many stages – two base layers of wool – with the fibre of the second layer running across the first layer. The final layer then has a pattern – mostly using traditional plant and animal motifs. I try to get in to the creative spirit but at first it feels a bit like putting in insulation! Pulling bits of wool and filling in small gaps to make everything even. Once the third layer is in – the boiling water with said repellent is then poured over the wool layer. It’s a family affair, mother, father and son are all involved in teaching us.

The sheep horn motif.
Filling in the gaps.
A very big sushi mat
Pouring it on as it is rolled

Then the sushi mat appears – but it is much much bigger than usual! The wool mats are tightly rolled, then wrapped then more boiled water (and repellent) poured over then tied up then stomped on.

Mould and moth protection
Three seconds of 30 minutes

The stomping goes on for quite a while – we think this part really needs music but all we can come up with is an Army call – One Two Three Four Stomp it now and Stomp it more, Five Six Seven Eight, Stomp it Hard and Use your Weight. This goes on for fifteen to thirty minutes until we are sick of it and they are sick of our “music”.

The final wash

Then it’s washing, compressing, washing, compressing and eventually the finished felts are hung up to dry. Despite my initial hesitation I have enjoyed the process and learnt much.

The final pressing
Ala Kiyiz – hung out to dry

Then Stage two of the learning process begins. Shyrdak (sheerduck) – joining pieces of felt that is then used in lining and decorating the yurts. The designs are again primarily plant and animal based. Zhangyl who runs the NGO Altyn Oimo draws on a motif then cuts out the same design on two pieces of felt, our pieces with be a mirror image of each other, blue on white and white on blue.

Each quarter folded to print the chalk on the next quarter
Cutting out the designs
Blue on white and white on blue

At first my frustration levels are high – this doesnt feel creative, this feels hard and repetitive, I seem to have forgotten that repetition can be a clear road to mastery. It takes some time before I remember that and even then it is only after Zhangyl (Jungil) has got me past the very initial hurdles. Adrienne, weaver, knitter, spinner is travelling along nicely and helps me identify and learn some of the finer components of success.

Making smooth progress

Well before Day one is finished I actually feel like i am getting this. Having managed to work out how to join two thick pieces of felt and cover the join with two separate threads of wool without it looking like my Grade 3 sewing assignment – I start Day 2 perhaps just a little too confident. It seems my greatest challenge is threading the needle – as I spend so much time unpicking I am constantly having to rethread the needle.

Even the back looks okay 😁

Two bits of felt and two threads was hard enough I am struggling seriously with two bits of felt and three threads. I do persevere but eventually Zhangyl realises without her intervention I may not get to the final stage – so she completes the border. It is challenging and even Adrienne requires some assistance with the border. I sew late into the night committed to finishing the piece before we leave tomorrow. Despite myself I get it done and go to bed feeling very pleased with myself.

Bedtime now

The next morning it seems the whole family is happy with our work. We do show and tell and requisite photos then head off winding our way slowly back to the lake.

The finished products – student and teacher
The whole family proud!
More samples of Zhangyl’s work
Zhangyl again 🙂 – she has won UNESCO awards for her work training young Kyrgyz women in the art of Shyrdak
Zhangyl- master of shyrdak

Bokonbeavo is another old town with gingerbread houses and set at the foot of snow capped mountains. Like many of its counterparts around the country and structural remnants of its Soviet past are never far away.

A Soviet memorial from WWII

The setting of Bokonbaevo is stunning – right at the foot of the mountains. Though with the roads we are riding and the land we are seeing, it’s hard to not take the view from the lounge room window for granted.

The view from the Lounge
The library at Bokonbaevo

It’s a slow hot climb out of Bokonbaevo where Altyn Oimo is located but the lure of Issyk Kol helps us up the hills. The view once we get to the top also makes it worthwhile.

There are always little cemeteries often in a state of decay along the roadside

In the middle of nowhere there is a cafe – we are not overly tired or overly starving but we stop anyway and get out of the heat. It’s a tasty and leisurely stop and we feel re-energised when we head off again – up a small hill again. Finally we have wound our way back to the shores of Issyk Kol and the glistening waters beckoning us in.

It’s a family beach – so we change discretely (though it’s hard removing sweaty bike shorts with no fuss). We notice people are fairly modest or at least trying to be.

So refreshing
Modesty of sorts

Once we have cooled off we head off again – keen to camp somewhere close to Issyk Kol just one more time. As I stop at the yurt shaped bus stop – the turn off to our preferred wild camping spot (there’s an app iOverlander that tells us where we ca camp for free) there is a group of men erecting a yurt.

The bus stop

They have just started. They can see we are interested and responding to our interest start handing us poles and ropes so we can assist them. I am both surprised and delighted that they so willingly involve us.

Putting the roof poles in
Soon all the poles are in and tied

We havent seen the very beginning but they are not far into it when we arrive. Well before we get to the end – they explain this is their day camp – they have a Schwarma stall next door – they ask if we would like to stay in it for the night. Why not – the structure is complete the felt goes on then later the carpet floor arrives.

Then the felt goes on around the walls
And then in the roof
Soon enough our yurt is ready

The women of the family are working in the food stall while the yurt is being erected. One is a relatively recent mother with baby number 5 in her arms who is having problems breastfeeding. She quickly latches on to the opportunity of having a very experienced midwife on tap.

Breastfeeding tips on tap 🙂
Problem solved! Local hero Adrienne 😊

With no need for a shared spoken language – Adrienne draws on her years of experience and soon has addressed a long standing issue. Samara is very appreciative. She and her sister imagine a different life riding bikes around the country.

Another life ….

As the sun goes down – everyone leaves and we clamber in to our yurt. We sleep well and deep in a cosy dark yurt – there is no waking at 5am as the sun comes up, we dont feel the heat, we sleep later than usual and it is an absolute delight!Still we are well on the road before anyone surfaces – the people of Central Asia do not seem to be early risers!

Our very own yurt
Bikes and us securely tucked away for the night 🙂

There’s a headwind, there is a continual steady incline there are no towns, no shops no water. After about 6 kms there are a few farm houses – we refill our water knowing this is the last stop before we hit Kochkor some 50+ kms down the road.

Droopy dromedary

There are camels – just by the side of the road. Even they look affected heat and suffering from the lack of water. Neither of their two humps can stand up by itself. Their wilting humps is a great reflection of how I am feeling.

Even staring at snow capped mountains doesnt cool us off
The view at the top is always worth it

Kilometres keep rolling away and eventually I roll into Kochkor. Just as I am demolishing the interim snack of biscuits and fruit and coffee before very late lunch arrives, Adrienne joins me. I have stopped at the first cafe I have seen. There are lots of tourists – I should know by now this is rarely a sign that there is good food available and certainly not good local food.

Still it is food and it gives us time to find somewhere to stay Good Hostel – the name is promising. And it is. Very good. A really delightful family, Erbol is 13 and speaks great English and keeps everything running smoothly. Despite our best efforts and those of maps.me we cant find the place – and after riding around in circles he come to find us. Good hostel is great, its clean, friendly, plenty of space for the bikes, great food. We love it.

Erbol and little brother Elda (in Adrienne’s camping chair)

We arrive and settle in. Its been a long, hot day. Adrienne has been grappling with homesickness. It’s a long time to be away from family and just lately the long time has felt too long. So we think a final little side trip together, a final hurrah together will be a great way to finish off this extraordinary shared adventure.

Tash Rabat – and the cool mountain air

So we organise a car trip to Tash Rabat – a caravanserais in the Central South east. Bolot our driver is a civil lawyer though spends much of the summer driving tourists about as the pays is much better. He is has great English, knowledge lots and is warm generous and very accommodating of our requests to stop and take photos and just have a break.

Bolot n us

Everyone says the scenery in Kyrgyzstan is spectacular but of course until you are here you don’t really know what they mean. Yes there are snow capped mountains, green expansive valleys, ragged mountains, enormous folds of earth that seem to have been formed earlier than time itself and it is all jumbled together with no order but no chaos either. Breathtaking doesn’t do it justice and we are just seeing a small corner of it.

The walls of Naryn
The road in to Tash Rabat
The afternoon light as we drove in
Dinner preparations are underway though the power keeps dropping out – adding to the challenges

We stop at Tash Rabat early evening – there are mountain sheep wandering the walls of Tash Rabat. It is set in valley of yurt camps – green hills and rocky outcrops punctuating the skyline. We are now above 3500m and the temperature has definitely dropped.

It’s a warm cosy yurt tonight

Tonight we sleep in a yurt with the stove burning. I remember to send of our GPS spot message just before i go to sleep. There are two messages to send. When I get up later to send the second message the SPOT is nowhere to be found. With Adrienne homesick and heading home early, the loss of the SPOT feels even more challenging. Sleep is fitful and i wake early. Still no SPOT. Finally after much asking around and searching it reappears – and calm once again returns.

I ran up the hill to meet Adrienne SPOT in hand😁

In addition to the sheep there are goats aplenty – one little goat has lost its mother. I am more than willing to step in – at least in a short term capacity. It’s a cold morning but the warmth of it curled in my lap melts my heart as it drifts off to sleep. I am reluctant to get up for breakfast and disturb it. Though I know we have fabulous fresh bread that Adrienne has helped make.

Me n my goat
Fresh bread in the way

The morning light is just beautiful – it would be easy to spend days and days here absorbing it all in every shade of the day.

The local family live here there the 5-6 month tourist season then return to the village.
The patriarch n us
There are three major yurt camps in this valley
Tash Rabat at first light

Though we wander early it is not until after breakfast that Tash Rabat is opened and we can see what lies beneath- it is mind boggling- it looks small but once inside the tunnels and rooms seem to spread out in every direction.

Inside
The structure means there are shafts of light everywhere
There are no lights on – just light coming in from above

Today after breakfast is a horse trek – a new adventure for us both – though I have ridden before it is long ago and my memories are not that positive.

Still despite our nervousness (I have covered mine well) we saddle up – keen to see an alpine lake in an areas our bikes just couldn’t get to. And off we trot….

The next adventure begins!

The last drop

It wasn’t exactly hard leaving Uzbekistan but at the same time we were in no rush (except of course for an expiring visa). So we left late morning and took advantage of a roadside stall offering kartoshka camca (similar to potato samosa). Of course just because it was advertised it didn’t mean they had any. But soon enough they did – making some especially for us and while they were baking, we were given all sorts of treats – so much so we hardly had room for the camca (somsa).

Then as we go to pay we are told no it’s a gift

In Nukus we met Christian, he’s Canadian though has been living and working in Central Asia for over a decade. He told us that there is false hospitality here – people offer chai or say you don’t need to pay but actually want something else. So you must try at least three times – we reflect on all the gifts – but are pretty confident they were indeed genuine. Though with that knowledge we try, very hard to pay, at least three times – no, no, hand on heart and head bowed, no. So we offer thanks and great appreciation and get on our way – eking out the last drops of Uzbekistan warmth and hospitality.

Fresh fruit is always a treat – small apples plentiful and apricots just coming in to season

We cross the border mid afternoon- after reading other travellers tales about delays and bureaucracy we were delighted with a smooth transition from Stan 1 to Stan 2. As always we have helpful guards and other people. I had to provide some accommodation registration documents but only enough to show we had been collecting them – so it wasn’t rigorous and by the time Adrienne went through they didn’t ask for any papers. It may not be as easy for everyone – as we approached the border, we passed trucks backed up for at least 2 kilometres – so perhaps a much slower border crossing for them.

By 4pm we were in Kazakhstan- money changed – and on our way. We of course didn’t get far up the road before we were offered chai. Keen to get just a few kilometres away from the traffic and busyness of the border we decided to politely but firmly and successfully decline the offer.

The curiosity doesnt stop at the border…and further down the road one of their wives is waiting to greet us!

A thunderstorm stopped us in our tracks – though we managed to find a chai stop. So within minutes we were out of the rain, and drinking fermented mares milk, as you do – or if you want our advice DONT. I’m sure it’s an acquired taste – and though I drank the bowl offered it didn’t help in me acquiring the taste.

Fermented mares milk – hmmmm

The joy was though – being entertained by four delightful sisters – who had a great time sifting through our Aus and NZ photos.

Long days are a blessing when you’re looking for a campsite. At least Kazakhstan has wide open spaces. We pulled off the road – thinking we’d found a good spot only to be followed by a car. We thought they were checking on us but no, there was a spring and they’d come to fill their water. We checked in and they said it was a good place to camp.

It was late when we set up the tents – so despite having a fabulous new stove and oodles of food to cook we opted for muesli and then took to our tents to wash of the hot sticky (despite the rain) day.

Enjoying the quiet evening light
‘Night Peri

There was no other visitors. It was peaceful and quiet and the stars were out. Morning brought our first visitor. Nurmalka, a shepherd. He was very happy to see us and chat – though he had to keep running off to check on the sheep. Then his friend arrived whose land we had camped on – he too seemed happy to see us. It was a lovely slow entry to Day 2 in Kazakhstan.

Nurmulka the freiedly shepherd – smiling in photos here seems not to be the done thing

The day was very hot and so after not long an amazing memorial appeared and warranted further exploration. More turquoise blue but not tiled just paint. Better still a large covered area – shaded and with a breeze blowing through – a great place for a picnic.

It was hard getting going again – it seemed even hotter so when a row of big shady trees appeared within the hour – we decided to lay and laze till it cooled off.

Nothing to do but find some shade…then the sky went black
Very hot and loving time in the shade

Just over an hour later and we were back on the road and caught in another thunderstorm. It was welcome after the heat – but once I was drenched the novelty of being cool started to wear off.

We persevered – there was nothing else to to – no shelter- so we rode on and on and eventually the rain eased. As we went through small towns the curiosity and genuine respect was obvious. We had truck drivers, women, men and children all wave and give is the thumbs up or fist in the air with big smiles. Sometimes when we were stopped people would walk over 500m or so just to come and shake our hands!

Keen to shake our hands…

At least the big hill climbs in the afternoon were in the cool and wet. Rolling down the other side was a treat, speed hit 50kph or more on the last hill, we had a great surface no sharp turns and so we happily rolled and rolled all the way into Rabat.

A shop stop proved a bonus – offering us a dry place to put up our tent. And no surprise we were also gifted some dry cheese balls (a delicacy we are trying to develop a taste for (more on that later, and some chocolates and dates.)

Our dry place while the tropical thunderstorm, howling wind, lightening, thunder and rain raged.
Our wonderful host – she was at home alone coz her husband was off having a kidney transplant (kidney diease a major issue here)
The very well stocked shop

Joy joy joy – we (well Adrienne actually) cooked dinner on our new stove, no smell of paint thinner, no black smoke, no blackened pots just clean gas and a quick easy really delicious meal. (Thanks Akbar – the effort was really worth it.)

Wandering after dinner I’m invited in across the road for chai. I explain I’ve already eaten but still get offered bread – and butter from the cow and much food. I manage a little though am really full from dinner.

Our neighbour across the road
The wide open spaces and rolling hills of Kazakhstan

As I get up to go I am given a bag full of bread and kazak dougnuts, a bag full or dried cheese balls and then as we are walking out apples from the tree. The doughnuts are great, not too oily, much lighter than bread and not sweet or salty. The cheese balls – well am still trying to develop a taste for them.

We were gifted some from our host and now have another bag – at least 1.5kg of dried cheese balls. .

Carrying an extra 1.5 kg of something you are not sure you will eat is challenging – but so is leaving behind something you have been gifted, especially when its a local delicacy and gifted from people who dont have much. So we pack it up, grateful and hopeful (that we’ll find other traveller to share it with!).

Leaving Rabat is smooth and easy – the road surface is fabulous – in fact the best we have ridden on – and we are riding a slight downward gradient, there is silence as our bike roll along, its blissful. What fabulous roads they have in Kazakhstan!

Leaving Rabat

Within 5 mins of leaving town there are roadworks – so much for a smooth ride.

We have the option to ride a little further and risk the road being blocked and having to ride back up the hill on the gravel or to turnaround now and ride the long way. After the wonderful night shelter and glorious morning we are up for the risk.

Even the roadworks here are better than many roads we have ridden on
Its a good decision we make it through the roadworks onto a very quiet back road then a short ride on the expressway and into Shymkent

We arrive into Shymkent just before another bout of rain – we dont have much information but end up at a park just near the city hostel. Shymkent is modern and cosmopolitan – more so than anywhere we went in Uzbekistan. It’s the third largest city in Kazakhstan. We re not sure if we’ll stay very long – but once we check in we decide on two nights. Hot showers, good wifi and an interesting city to wander helps make our decision.

Shymkens summer park
The back streets of Shymkent
Sand castle or stone castles they all bring joy

We sit in mall after an early dinner waiting for the lights to come on. It’s not long before someone comes along to practice their English and we get to find out more about the country and its politics.

The lights are beautiful

So yes there are elections – but the result is predetermined. Yes there are some places in Kazakhstan that are more progressive than others – Shymkent being one of the those places. Here for the first time we have seen many girls out riding bikes, and even 2 young women kitted up in full cycling gear (road cycling not touring).

So we have SIM cards, good wifi and a chance to see and speak with family – technology is so fantastic these days and of course a chance to update the blog. In case you’re wondering – no I’m not carrying a laptop or iPad – just a phone and lightweight folding keyboard -which I can thoroughly recommend.

Uzbekistan ay have started it – but Kazakhstan is continuing on in fine style -already impressing us with warmth and generosity. Feeling dry, happy and tired.

The joy of wide open spaces, rolling green hills and the promise of clear mountain streams is not missed on us. One more sleep then we are off into the mountains – no doubt the climbs will be challenging and slow and absolutely worth it!