Category Archives: Kazakhstan

Almaty to Bishkek 11-21 September 2012

We are not alone!

Our illusions of being rather special and unique have been well and truly shattered. Bishkek is a fairly reliable place for getting visas to all sorts of other places, and is also at a bit of a pinch-point between mountain ranges and less easily traveled places like Afghanistan, and so it seems every other cyclist and backpacker filters through here at some point in their central Asian travels. So, here we are, along with about 20 other travellers, all waiting for various visas, in a guesthouse with a garage packed full of bikes (no other Pinos though). It’s lovely in many respects, but also a little deflating.

We left Almaty at rush hour (which is pretty much like any other hour of the day in that car-crowded city) and made our way in fits and starts through the choking smog, avoiding as best we could the more erratic and impatient of the many erratic and impatient drivers who have made Almaty the city where we’ve had the most near-misses in over 18,000km of cycling (2011 & 2012 trips). Eventually though, we cleared the city with only one car having nudged into our trailer, and headed west on a reasonably civilised main road. We only managed 30km before dusk fell, and camped up in a field next to an old land-fill site. Not ideal, but not as bad as we’d feared.

The next morning we had barely got going when we saw a touring bike parked up at a cafe and so we excitedly stopped to say hello. Juergen (near the end of his 5 week Central Asian holiday) was enjoying a pot of chai and a large plate of plov (rice with meat) so we ordered the same and joined him. 20 minutes later another loaded bike rolled into view and in came Charlie (in the middle of his 4 year cycling odyssey). Since we were all heading in the same direction we decided it would be pleasant to share the journey, and so our merry band of adventurers was formed.

It felt strange riding in a convoy, and was a bit of a blow to our egos to discover that solo bikes receive just as many toots and waves of encouragement as we do (we’d so enjoyed feeling special). But it was really nice to have company and fresh conversation at our wild camp that night. We camped out on the steppe with sun-dappled mountains behind us and in the morning entertained the first guests in our gigantic tent as Juergen and Charlie joined us to avoid the rain that suddenly blew in partway through breakfast.

The next day we met four other cyclists heading in the opposite direction and swapped travel tales and visa tips with them. They were on their way to stay with our Almay host, Tas. It’s a small world round here.

The climb between Almaty and Bishkek

We had a bit of a climb to get over the line of hills that separate Almaty and Bishkek, and Juergen and Charlie soon pulled away from us. We caught up with them on the descent though (although we suspect they’d sat up and coasted a little) and all rolled up to the Kazakh-Kyrgyz border together. First through was Juergen, who was travelling without a Kazakh visa and relying on a reciprocity agreement between the countries to allow him to travel for 5 days in Kazakhstan on his Kyrgyz visa. He’d printed out a piece of paper with the relevant rules written out in Russian and this had previously got him from Kyrgyzstan into Kazakhstan, and he was hoping would see him pass smoothly back in the other direction. To our astonishment and relief he passed through with no problems.

Next up was Charlie, who hadn’t realised he needed to register his visa whilst staying in Kazakhstan. Once he’d been made aware of his mistake (long after the five day registration deadline was up) he’d gone to a provincial police station in a last-gasp attempt to register, but, for reasons we can only guess at, they hadn’t actually stamped his migration card. To no-one’s surprise the border guards were most displeased by this infringement and Charlie was led off, slouching for our benefit like a naughty school-boy, to be interrogated in some hidden room. Keith and I, with documents and stamps all in order, passed through with no problems, but didn’t know what to do about Charlie’s bike, which was lying forlornly on its side amidst the ebbing and flowing tide of people trying to push their passports to the front of the queue. We waited for half an hour or so, until one of the guards started to get rather brusque with us at which point we reluctantly left Charlie and his bike to their fate and moved through to the Kyrgyz side of the process where we had to go into a little room to get a stamp and then show our passports and the stamp to a guard who refused to let us walk through and insisted we mount up and ride so he could see the Pino in action. At this point Charlie caught up with us, having worn down his interrogators with his pleasant insistence that he had no money with which to pay a fine and a complete lack of concern at the threat of being held overnight.

Kyrgyz flag

Juergen was waiting for us in Kyrgyzstan and the four of us rode into Bishkek together. The other two had been told of a good hostel in Bishkek so we followed them straight to the Sakura Guesthouse and booked in, then Keith and I hot-footed it to the BaiMa visa agency recommended by Mary and Peter who we’d met on the road the day before to apply for our Chinese visas.  Annoyingly, it was 5.45pm, their office closed at 6 and their English speaker wasn’t in the office, so they told us to come back the following morning, which was a Friday.

We returned bright and early on the Friday morning, anxious to get the process started as we knew that the Chinese embassy only processed visa applications on Wednesday and Friday mornings. The English speaker still hadn’t arrived so we sat and waited, and then Keith realised that of the four passport-size photos he possessed, no two were alike and indeed only one showed him with a beard and long hair, so we shot off to get some new photos taken. When we returned the English speaker was in and took our passports and photos, but said it would be too late to take them to the embassy that morning – she could only hand them in the following Wednesday and then it would take a week to get the visa. This was very bad news for our schedule so Keith pleaded and cajoled and she eventually said if we paid $20 extra each we could have a fast-track service which would mean the visas would be ready five days sooner on the Friday. She then phoned the embassy and said it was still OK to get the application in today if she hurried and so we could have our visas the following Friday without paying the $20 supplement….all she needed from us was $150 each, in US dollars. Aaaargh. Luckily, ATMs in Bishkek dispense cash in either Kyrgyz Som or US dollars, so we took out the required amount and flew back down the hill to the agency….but sadly the delay meant it was too late to get the application in that morning and we ended up having to pay the $20 supplement for a fast-track after all. Still, that was one job done and we could now relax and enjoy our week in Bishkek.

Statue of Manas, Ala-Too Square, Bishkek

We toyed with the idea of going trekking for a few days, but have decided to save our knees for the arduous ascents that lie ahead of us and so have spent a lot of our time lounging in the pleasant little courtyard at Sakura Guesthouse, chatting to other travellers and sharing maps, travel plans and bike maintenance tips. The only downside to this otherwise lovely little hostel is its proximity to a mosque, which means the tranquility of the little courtyard is shattered at regular intervals by the amplified calling of the imam…particularly irksome for us infidels at 5.30am.

Bishkek’s a nice city to spend time in. Compact enough to walk round easily and without too much traffic, it’s got plenty of cheap cafes and bars, decent enough shops, lots of parks and a few museums and theatres.

We expanded our cultural horizons one evening with a trip to the Philharmonia to hear some traditional Kyrgyz music. The programme ranged from a sublimely talented solo performance on the komuz (a small 3-stringed lute-like instrument with a sound not dissimilar to a muffled banjo) to some traditional singing which was something of an acquired taste and sounded to our ears like very nasal shouting rather than singing. It was clearly a crowd-pleaser for the rest of the audience though so we clapped along with the best of them. In front of us were two elderly ladies who were having the time of their lives, clapping enthusiastically and completely out of time with the music and the rest of the audience. The performance was being filmed and when the cameraman panned round to show the audience he had the temerity to pass over these ladies, so one of them grabbed him by the sleeve and dragged him back to take their picture properly. I suspect we will be seen giggling helplessly in the background at that point.

Keith has bought a rather nice felt hat to keep his head warm on the high mountain passes, I’ve bought some extravagant down booties to keep my tootsies warm and we managed to find a map of Xinjiang province (northwest China) that helpfully has both English and Chinese place names marked on it. For anyone else travelling this way, the map was from a travel agency called Novi Nomad.

We should be receiving our Chinese visas on Friday 21 September and will then be setting off through the mountains to cross the Irkeshtam pass into China. In our initial route-planning we anticipated reaching the pass on the 4th of October, but we’ve just discovered (from some other cyclists here in the guesthouse and confirmed on the interweb) that the frontier is closed for a Chinese holiday from 30 September to 7 October, so we now have a good excuse to take things easy on the climbs with a view to crossing into China on the 8th.

Vino with a Pino!
Kazakhstan

One of the parks in Bishkek

Pink drink and tasty (cheap) food in a Bishkek cafe

 

Bread at Bishkek bazaar

 

Buying spices at the bazaar in Bishkek

Almaty 31 August – 11 September 2012

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.

If you peer through the smog you’ll see snow-topped mountains

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).

L-R: Aruzhan, Rosa, Nurzhan, Tamar, Keith & Nurdaulet at an outdoor classical concert

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.

L-R: Keith, Wes, Aruzhan, Nurzhan, Margulan, Nurdaulet feasting on shashlik

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.

Rosa making manty

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.

Thankfully the gradient relaxed as we approached the top of Kumbel Peak

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.

Just sit and look, and look, and look. Beautiful.

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.

Keith alarming Tas with his head for heights after Tas bet he couldn’t stand on the top (there’s a significant sheer drop just next to his left foot). Almaty is just visible down in the valley.

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.

Meeting the other competitors and some cycle tourists outside Extremal bike shop. Photo courtesy of Yannick (centre)

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.

Camping before the race. Photo courtesy of Yannick.

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.

L-R Margulan, Keith, Tas and Yannick.  Pre-race communal application of butt-cream.

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.

L-R: Yannick, Tas, Margulan, Keith and Tamar post-race.

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.

Race winners

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.

A free festival of arts in Almaty where we were interviewed by a local reporter.

A cornucopia of dried fruit in Green Market

Zenkov Cathedral in Panfilov Park, apparently made entirely of wood, even the nails.

Eco-friendly outdoor lighting