We weren’t intending to spend too long in Almaty as we need to get a move on if we’re going to get to China before the winter…..but you know, sometimes you just have to step back and re-evaluate your priorities. It didn’t take us long to decide that the chance to go trekking in the snow-capped mountains that form a dramatic backdrop to the city was just too enticing, and then having been shown photos of the stunning route, it didn’t take much persuading to talk us into hiring bikes and doing a mountain bike race across the Asy Plateau. So instead of spending 2-3 days we’ve been here for nearly a fortnight.
A mix of socialising, trekking, shopping, visa investigating and kit maintaining has made it a productive and very enjoyable break from the road.
Our Aussie host, Tas, has been working most days but we’ve had a great time hanging out with his friends Margulan and Rosa (Mongolian taekwondo champions ), Wesley (an American Indian airline pilot), Charles (a Kenyan mountaineer who sadly was leaving Kazakhstan the day after we met him), Askar (Kazakh aircrew) and Yannick (French-Canadian pilot).
Conversation has spanned continents and included such diverse topics as education, aviation, meditation, tribal circumcision, weddings, scarification, religion, the proper use of an ice-screw, the relative merits of travelling to school by horse or bactrian camel, how to disarm a would-be wallet-thief in central London (with the greatest of ease if you happen to rank 8th in the world at taekwondo) and the Maze Prison breakout of September ’83.
We’ve picnicked on shashlik on the banks of a rushing mountain river, eaten sheep’s stomach (chewy but surprisingly tasty….or perhaps that was just Rosa’s culinary wizardry rather than any inherent tastiness of the item itself) and helped to make ‘manty’ (delicious steamed parcels of beef) and done our best in return with a chicken casserole with dauphinoise potatoes, a tuna-pasta bake and a big cottage pie.
Once we realised we’d be here for a few days we thought we may as well try our luck applying for our Chinese visas at the consulate here (which, if successful, would mean we wouldn’t need to spend a week in Bishkek and thus would not be as far behind schedule). We’d found no successful recent reports of non-residents getting Chinese visas in Almaty, but a couple of cyclists had success in Astana a couple of months ago so we thought it would do no harm to try.
The Chinese consulate is only a short walk from Tas’s so on the Monday morning we toddled down the hill and joined the small group of people milling around untidily outside the gate. There was a confusing dual-queue system that we could make no sense of, so we just hung around until the guard at the gate noticed us and directed us to the correct queue. After a great deal of waiting in a fairly short but slow-moving queue we made our way into the compound where a member of the public who was waiting for a visa herself had been enlisted to translate for us. We were told we would need a letter of invitation and told to go away and go to a travel agency. Now, on the Friday when we first arrived, we’d gone to a number of travel agencies, none of whom felt able to help us, so Keith decided he wasn’t going to leave without getting more information about which agency we should go to. So even though the official who’d been speaking to us had dismissed us, we stood around and asked anyone who looked like they might work there (it wasn’t easy to tell) which agency we needed to go to for our letter of invitation. I was a bit discomfited by this approach, but Keith’s persistence paid off and we were eventually shown into a building and a room with a row of windows where we could speak to a visa official directly. The person we spoke to shouted for one of the other visa applicants we’d seen milling around and it transpired he ran a travel agency and would be happy to help us obtain a letter of invitation and our visas. This process was going to take 11 days and would mean we wouldn’t be getting the visa until 13 September, which was a little later than we would have liked (this was before we’d decided to do the mountain bike race and were still planning on leaving Almaty within just a few days), so we were just discussing with each other what we should do and the visa official misinterpreted this as a concern that our Kazakh visa would run out before we received our Chinese visa. That wasn’t actually the case (our Kazakh visas are valid until 17 September) but it gave the official cause to inspect our Kazakh visas more closely, at which point she announced that we wouldn’t be able to have Chinese visas after all as there wasn’t enough time left on our Kazakh ones. So that was that; the end of our visa application attempt in Almaty. And we don’t even know how much longer our Kazakh visas would have to be to be acceptable for a Chinese visa application.
Shopping-wise, Almaty has several bike shops, varying from the basic to the really rather good, so the Pino’s had a new chain (at the back), the creaking cranks and bottom bracket have been lubed and tightened, the hydraulic brakes have had a top-up of oil and Keith bought himself some new pedals, so our rig should be sounding and feeling much healthier as we head into the mountains of Kyrgyzstan.
We’ve also patched a number of holes in our sleeping mats, which had developed the annoying habit of going completely flat overnight, and patched a few holes in waterproof pannier covers. The zip broke on one of Keith’s cycling tops on the day we arrived in Almaty, so we found a seamstress who put a new one in for him, and I’ve binned my old Inov8 trainers and replaced them with some lovely Raichle Storm LS hiking shoes (a purchase made all the more sweet by the fact they were in the ‘lucky dip’ sale for less than £25). They’re good to cycle in and also very nice to hike in…which proved useful when our host Tas was finally free from work and took us up into the mountains just a short bus ride from his apartment.
He’d initially hoped to take us over 4000m so that Keith could show him how to use ice screws and ropes properly, but to be honest we’d been a bit worried about this as:
• we have no decent boots, crampons or axes,
• Tas has only got one ice screw (albeit a very nice Black Diamond one),
• neither of us have any hiking fitness as we’ve done nothing but cycle for months, and
• neither of us are acclimatized to 4000m.
Luckily (for us at least), Tas crashed his mountain bike two evenings before our climb and hurt his shoulder and hand, so ropework was out of the question and he had to downgrade the day to a ‘granny walk’ up Kumbel Peak to 3200m….which turned out to be just perfect for us.
Stunning views, a non-technical but physically demanding ascent – particularly demanding when we were above 3000m – and a magical-mystery-tour descent as Tas picked an unfamiliar route down to avoid the worst of the fallen trees from a massive storm last year, and which took us down steep boulder-strewn slopes, and then disintegrated into an animal track that at times wove through dense undergrowth and had us scrambling over and under fallen trees, leaving us with a pleasingly childish feeling of adventure. Keith was disappointed not to have been able to share his ice-knowledge, so we’ll just have to come back one day with our proper snow kit and really make the most of the mountains.
Our other notable shopping trip was on behalf of Tas, whose saddle had parted company with his seat post during a bike ride with Keith on the first day of our stay with him. Tas was then working for a few days so, as we were going to be out shopping anyway we said we’d replace the bolt that had sheared. We were fairly sure that we’d have better success at a car market than a bike shop, and sure enough all the bike shops we went to would have been happy to sell us a new seat post, but couldn’t replace the broken bolt. So off we went to the outskirts of Almaty to the bustling avto rynok (car market). I guarded the Pino and Keith went into the thronging market in search of a bolt. He found a little shop full of spare bits and pieces that were mostly displayed strewn across the floor of the unit. The owner rummaged around and found a bolt that looked like it would fit perfectly. Keith was trying it out but the seat clamp had a rather fiddly set-up and in the process he managed to drop the toggle that the bolt needed to screw into – a part that was far more specific to the seat-clamp and would be MUCH harder to find a replacement for than the bolt. It had fallen into one of two boxes of oddments that Keith then had to rummage through item by item until he thankfully found the toggle….but by then he’d managed to mislay the bolt and had to start the hunt for that all over again.
At last, about an hour and a half after he’d left me, he emerged triumphantly from the market with the saddle bolted securely to the seat post, and Tas was able to use his best bike for the race at the weekend.
The bike race was brilliant. On Saturday lunchtime, Tas, Margulan, Keith and myself rolled down the hill to the bike shop where we met Yannick and some of the other competitors. We also met three cycle-tourists from London who had just arrived in Almaty from Bishkek and had come to the shop to look for some bike boxes to pack their bikes into to fly to Delhi the next day. It’s always nice to chat to other tourists and was reassuring to hear that the road for our intended route from Bishkek to Osh is in good condition. You can read about Nye, Tom and Nick’s adventures (and donate to the charity they support) on their website www.cyclingtothailand.com.
However, lovely though it was to chat, there was a race to go to. The shop had arranged for three 4WD Mitsubishi Delica minibuses to take us out to the start. Each could take eight bikes on the roof, and just about squeeze seven passengers and all our camping and race kit inside. It was about a three hour drive out to the start and we stopped en route for some shashlik (tasty!).
We set up camp at the foot of the mountains on a stony area beside a rushing river. The pass we’d be heading up in the morning loomed intimidatingly so we ignored it and bent to the task of erecting tents on the stony ground that refused to accept a tent-peg to a depth of more than 2cm, and cooking dinner in the increasing wind.
The wind battered us all night and I don’t think anyone slept particularly well with the tents rustling noisily, and our minds all too aware that the guylines were mostly held down by boulders rather than tent pegs. We awoke in the morning in erect tents though so we’d clearly been making a fuss over nothing.
Other competitors had arrived throughout the evening or in the morning and there were about 40 of us on the start line. The route was tough, starting almost immediately with a long climb (1000m vertical ascent) on a rocky, gravelly, sandy trail. Margulan was the least experienced rider and quickly had trouble with the chain on his hire-bike falling off, so I decided to keep him company and offer what tips I could on gear selection and bike-fettling. We caught Yannick part way up the first hill as he’d stopped to help a fellow competitor with a puncture, but he was soon climbing steadily away from us again, and Keith and Tas were long gone up the hill ahead of us.
The climb was really tough, and took far longer than we expected. We ran out of water long before the feed station and had to ask for more at one of the support cars, but the scenery was just amazing. I really regretted not having a camera with me….but the potential for breaking it in a mishap had been too great so we’d left it at the camp. Luckily Yannick took some good videos on his helmetcam which he’s let us use.
Margulan and I were a lot slower than the other riders on the tricky, technical course and were swept up the by broom wagon, which was disappointing as we’d liked to have ridden it all, but given the disparity between our speed and that of the other riders it was clearly the only decision the organisers could have made if they were to get everyone home at a reasonable time. At around 85km long and with over 2000m of vertical ascent it was not a course for the less experienced.
So we enjoyed the rest of the route from the comfort of a 4WD car and shouted encouragement as we passed Yannick out on the plateau.
The Asy plateau was stunning. Bordered by sharp hills and covered in herds of sheep, cattle and horses, and lots of real-life yurts – the traditional round tent dwelling of central Asia’s nomadic people. A lot of the horses had young foals with them and some were still heavily pregnant despite us being well into September now with the harsh winter not too far off. I was surprised but Margulan said that even foals born in October can survive the winter here, but after late October their chances are not so good.
The final descent was 11km long (1100m vertical drop) and although going down in the 4WD was slow, bits of the route looked quite good fun and Margulan and I were a bit disappointed not to be riding it, but when we met Keith and Tas at the finish we changed our minds as they said it had been really rocky and very tough going. Keith’s hands are really painful today from the constant jarring.
Yannick is a cross-country motorbiker rather than a cyclist, and far and away the best technical rider of our little group, so he’d been really looking forward to that final descent as a reward for having slogged his way over the previous 60+km of hills and endless plateau, but sod’s law had it that just as he arrived at the top he caught his rear tyre on a sharp rock and slashed it open. He patched the tube and also put a patch on the inside of the tyre to stop the tube bulging through, but it meant he really couldn’t enjoy the descent with the same gay abandon he’d been looking forward to. Keith and Tas finished with no mechanicals or other problems and acquitted themselves well. Keith in particular had a good ride and came in 8th overall in a time of 5hrs 41mins (the winner’s time was 5hrs 6mins) which was good enough for 3rd veteran. Now all we need to do is work out how to get the nice framed certificate home.
We’ve actually got quite a little stash of maps, leaflets, books and excess clothing that we’d intended to post home this week, but when we went to the post office they wanted over 8000 Tenge (about £35) and said we’d have to split our parcel into two: one for books and one for clothing. That was far too much money so we headed to DHL, but to our horror they wanted 21000 Tenge (around £95!!) Askar, one of Tas’s airline friends who flies to London from time to time, has kindly agreed to drop it into a post office in the UK for us.
Our plan now is to try to drag ourselves away from Almaty today (11 September) and pedal towards Bishkek, Kyrgzystan.