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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!).
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
It’s a long day – when we get to our accommodation it’s late afternoon- we have squeezed in Kakutau mountains as well.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Kaindy is picture postcard material and everyone is there to capture the perfect shot.
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!