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