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.
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 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!
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
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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!
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.
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).
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.