Up and over the mountains – Kazakhstan

The Adventure

After having travelled for a while, we have sometimes started to wonder about what true adventures actually are. It seems that the word is being used far too often, and whenever I hear it now, it has an echo of a well-worn cliché and also I am to blame for it.

I suppose we have been quite safe and lucky in our journey and been sort of sheltered in a way, whether it’s because we have been playing safe or whether it’s because travelling is not actually as dangerous and adventurous in the times of GPS and modern technology as some may think, I do not know for certain (but I think it’s a bit of both). However, even after a good few months, if people ask me “what is our biggest adventure?” or “what has been the most adventurous time/event in our adventure?” I say “Kazakhstan!” and so does Dainis and Ivars and it has probably also been The One Adventure.

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…So we planned a little detour on our way from Almaty to Kazakh/Chinese border. The plan was to cycle through the Ile-Alatau National Park. Situated in the mountains south of Almaty between Gorge Turgen in the east and Chemlogan River in the west it is famous for the stunningly beautiful scenery and wildlife. As with most of our plans (it could hardly be called a plan since we didn’t plan almost anything), something was about to go wrong.

We left Almaty at somewhat of a record worthy time – 4 p.m., almost later than usual but we were not in a great hurry (or so we thought at the time) and had planned to cover only a little over 60 km and camp somewhere before a town called Turgen from where we would turn to some quieter roads and enter the Ile-Alatau National Park.

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The first stop

The first signs that we’re about to have a rough ride up in the mountains started to appear on the second day after leaving Almaty. We spent our last tenge (KZT) in a nearby shop, since we knew there will be no stores for a while and we would not really need money, and turned away from the bigger villages and roads with traffic. After a little while we were greeted by some men at the gate of the national park. Turned out there was an entrance fee we did not know about before (even though it was not expensive) we had just spent almost all the cash buying some waffles and raisins for our morning porridge! The boys put to work their Russian skills (not so rusty anymore after having spent some time in Kazakhstan) while I counted the change we had left and came to a conclusion we had enough money for two tickets. Speaking Russian, also our pleading eyes, our heavy breathing from the last little uphill, the fact we had cycled probably helped, and after a while we were through the gate, having left our last money with the park rangers.

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The nature was so green and lush, that even Dainis’ bright green shirt almost worked as camouflage

Talking our way through going up

We started pedalling the national park, enjoying the slight uphill sections that were becoming quite steep every now and again, knowing that a nice downhill awaits on the other side. The road was of excellent quality, there was very little cars and the surrounding scenery somehow started to feel more fresh (even though it was very hot at the time) and wild (even though later we realised that our first steps in Ile-Alatau National Park were really quite civilised).

We had reached a tiny place on a map called Batan when the road suddenly turned quite rocky – the paved section ended and we had to continue on rough gravel. Our second stop and barrier in front of our road was more serious to overcome, when only after a couple hundred meters our ascent was stopped by a barrier manned by a single park ranger. At first he was reluctant to let us through stating that only locals or people working in the mountains are allowed to drive up there. He even had an official-looking order from somebody in charge to prove his point, nevertheless we were not giving up easily. After a short friendly chat with him, we managed to persuade the ranger to let us through and disregarding his warnings about wolfs and bears, we immediately started off, not giving the ranger an opportunity to change his mind. After these two encounters with the park officials and rangers I was ready to forgive and forget the BossMans greediness on the train, and the Kazakh officials were not in my black book any more.

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That stubbornness paying off

It was a long, steep, rocky and hot road, which we managed to conquer only because of our stubbornness and unwillingness to turn back. The temperature was well over 30°C by midday even though we were getting quite high up in the mountains. We all got quite a nasty sunburn, particularly the guys, whose heads and ears seemed to be the freshest target from the sun after their brave makeover in Almaty. A much appreciated relief was the Turgen and Asy River higher up. There is nothing like a refreshing (freezing) plunge in a mountain stream to recharge your batteries.

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“Let me just try out my balancing skills here for a minute”

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or not

This was a hot and challenging Paradise. We were cycling past wild running horses and green fields with snowy mountaintops peeping up every now and again from behind some rolling hills, like playing hide and seek with us. We were getting sweaty even whilst standing in the centre of herd of confused cows.

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We were all pushing our bikes up some more challenging parts of the road that were too rocky and simply just too steep (reaching some 20% ascents) to conquer by pedalling all the way with our loaded bikes. Here it was not just about endurability, but sheer strength and I was falling behind on the steeper climbs and felt silly for being a girl, but the guys never said a word, just waited for a couple of minutes for me every now and again.

Sun sun sun, here we come

Sun sun sun, here we come

Some 4x4s passed us along the way, creating clouds of sand, but they were so rare that I felt the road was left just for ourselves. We were happy, it was still and quiet. It was only one day we’d spent in the National Park by then and only a few hours of true pedalling/pushing, but quite possibly the most intense riding we had done thus far, we were exhausted and I suppose felt a bit more accomplished (well, or just less green and more dusty) in our riding skills by the time we were at the top – we had managed to reach the Asy Plateau and thought the hardest part was behind us. (Looking back at it now, it seems silly.)

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“hiding” by the rocks

We decided to camp by a small stream we had been crossing a few times and sleep under the stars for the second night in the row – too lazy to put up a tent and happy about the prospect of each having some privacy in the open, rather than being cramped in a small portable sauna; this turned out to be mistake No.1.

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The Asy Plateau trickeries

During the night, it slowly started to rain, but it seemed that the rain was not going to hold for long and thus we decided just to sleep on, ignoring the occasional lightning, without speaking out loud we unanimously decided that there is no reason to put up a tent – mistake Nr.2.

After the rain had not stopped for quite a while, Dainis was the first one to give in the rain and soon Ivars and I came to our senses and decided to put up the tent – not a mistake. We quickly ran for cover into the tent, getting some of our more valuable stuff under the protection when it was already raining quite heavy and left most of our stuff outside as it was already soaked. Unfortunately the fun was not over yet. It started to get colder by the minute when the morning was approaching and we could not even fall asleep wrapped up in jumpers, jackets and 2 pairs of socks. A little while later even though it was still getting colder and colder, it seemed that the rain had stopped splashing the roof of our tent, and right enough, it had stopped raining, but it had also started to snow. We thought that the snow could not possibly last too long so we decided to wait it out under the poor cover of our tent (meanwhile our sleeping bags, mattresses and half of our stuff was getting covered by snow) – mistake Nr.3.

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Ivars’ view his bike

After couple more hours spent in the tent, we had to get out on the road – we were afraid that the snowstorm is going to get even stronger. It was truly a miserable morning, but we managed to somehow pack all of our wet, snowed in, stuff in our dry bags and put the panniers back on the bikes and find the muddy, snow covered tracks we called road. Turned out we did not manage to find quite everything and Ivars ended up losing his uttermost favourite companions –his reliable, comfortable, durable, beautiful sandals (they are still being brought up in the occasional conversation) – mistake Nr.4.

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The Yurts are white I suppose to best blend in with the surroundings in the case of a snowstorm..

The day has only begun and so has the Plateau

One of my biggest concerns about cycling in this mischievous Paradise was my Unicorn’s carbon fork. It is bad enough of me to put it under much pressure since I have my pannier racks attached to it, but now we were also bouncing on some rough tracks, when I was supposed to only ride on smoothly paved roads.

So whilst I was trying to cycle quite carefully on the muddy and rocky tracks, I was also chanting in my head a little: “Carbon, carbon ta-dum,  don’t break, ta-dum, carbon fork don’t break!” or something in those lines (this still happens now, on some nastier sections we are pedalling). Turned out I should not have worried about that at all, carbon could have been steel, my Unicorn was carrying me just fine, but during my cautious cycling in the unexpected almost Winter Wonderland in the middle of summer, I had fallen a little behind again, so it came to be, that the guys did not know the moment I was subject to another one of Asy Plateau trickeries.

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I do not want to blame my bike, for it has been my reliable companion for long, but I guess it has a mind of its own. We had not been prepared for winter in mid-June (luckily enough we had not parted with our winter jackets and shoes at least), my Unicorn showed its disapproval of the mud by deciding to get rid of the back derailleur. Suddenly, the bolt holding it to the frame snapped in two and it was no longer usable. I could not do much at that moment since it was still snowing and all our fixing tools were with Dainis ahead of me. After tangling the chain and derailleur out from the spokes of the wheel (surprisingly none of them were bent or broken during the process) I taped them quickly to the frame and started pushing. Fortunately, Ivars had stopped after the next small rolling hill to snap some pictures of running horses that were enjoying the unexpected freshness of the snow, so he noticed me moving far too slow to be acceptable for any rider and figured something was wrong. Upon meeting we agreed that he should try and catch Dainis before he gets too far trying to run away from the snow.

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Never has a door looked more welcoming in my eyes

From 30 to 1 – moving on

Luckily Dainis had been invited for some tea with the local herdsmen only some kilometre later so we met up again and after some unsuccessful attempts to fix the problem properly, with frostbitten fingers, we came to a temporary solution – Unicorn will have to do with 1 gear instead of 30 for a while – mountains or not. By the time we all had warmed up a little more after having a bowl of tea (or two) it was late afternoon (since we had left our tent only by noon) luckily, it had also stopped snowing.

What happens inside a Yurt

What happens inside a Yurt

The horse herdsmen told us we should turn back, since the road ahead will get only rougher, but we were too stubborn to do so, though it became clear that we have to get off the plateau as soon as it was practically possible. Even after such a miserable start, neither of us was willing to turn back and get off the mountain via the same road, so we decided to follow the river hoping that there is going to be a road taking us down. As we later discovered, getting down was as, or even more difficult as getting up and shortcuts really are not always the fastest, nor the easiest.

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The anti-record

By the end of the “most miserable day” we had covered only some 20 km, as the road was wet and muddy everywhere we went. In addition, our bicycles were completely covered with mud and the bicycle wheels were not spinning as well as we would like, getting stuck and demanding cleaning every kilometre or so.

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The golden hour, the drying hour

We decided to call it a day as early as 6.30 PM – as we were quite exhausted and most of our camping stuff needed to be dried out and the bicycles properly cleaned. It was too cold and the time was too short to expect that the sleeping bags will dry out, but as we did not have any choice we just had to stick with what we had.

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a solitary Rider of Rohan

Truth be told, it was not all that bad – the sunset was breath-taking, the scenery around us was like something from the Middle-Earth and Kazakh horse-riding herdsmen looked as impressive as Tolkien’s Riders of Rohan.

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The night was a bit chilly to say the least – we woke up to find our water bottles frozen solid, our tent covered with a layer of frost both from inside and out, Ivars’ sandals still missing and our food supply still containing only semolina and three packages of instant noodles. We had all the reasons to lose our faith in ourselves and life in general (it seemed we had quite failed and our adventure had become a travesty) but we decided on a quite different approach – get ourselves together and find a way out of this beautiful mess.

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 In order to get back to civilisation, all we had to do was follow the river all the way down. The only problem was – it was easier said than done as the only usable road had a mind of its own and, unlike the river, it did not choose the path of less resistance. The first part of the distance was easy enough as we were still cycling on the same Asy plateau. The scenery was stunning and the road was not as bad as the previous day and in places where it looked too muddy, we could simply cycle on the vast meadows.

I even started to think: “Maybe it won’t be that hard after all? Who cares I only have one gear? Surely this is only slightly more challenging!?” The second part made me think again – as it was a bit more challenging. After crossing the river, we were forced to leave Asy Plateau and head into the mountains. The road was very challenging with steep climbs and steep drops, crazy rocks and deep mud pits. I felt reluctant to draw too much attention to myself, I know it was difficult for everybody, so I was really just very happy that Dainis and Ivars were as patient with me as some sort of mythical saints and I believe myself to be really quite lucky to have such teammates (I do not know a more appropriate word for it).

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pushing sometimes really just means pushing

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Ivars is trying to win over the mountain

 Truth be told the road almost got the better of us, after we had pushed our bikes on top of a very steep hill only to discover that the only way how we would be able to continue on the same path, was if we decided to exchange our bikes for Kazakh mountain stallions.

Road, you there?

Dainis reaches the top first with one question in his mind: “Road, you still there?”

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So we went back to the crossroads and tried “short-cut No.2” hoping it would look more promising. It seemed that the short cuts were laughing at me, with continuous ups and downs, I believe I was pushing my bike more than half of the distance that day, thus it became an activity best described as hiking, with a bicycle. Believe it or not, but we were saved by a hot cup of instant noodles. We were ready to continue. Dainis and Ivars – part cycling, part pushing bikes and “bike-hiking”, and I – mostly bike-hiking and cycling a bit.

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Hey guys!! I’m coming!!

What goes up, must come down

The third part was maybe not that hard (at least in the beginning), but probably the most dangerous of all. After reaching another maximum altitude, we were finally descending. The path we took was definitely the road less travelled by, or to put it differently – the road travelled by cattle and a solitary tractor, which later turned into something that looked very much just like the remains of a landslide/rockslide, but eventually became a sort of a road again.

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At a very slow pace we managed to find a way down with our bikes intact (maybe the only reason why we managed to do it was these two cheap cigarettes we bummed from a Kazakh horse-riding hunter).

When we reached the first small village, it was already pitch black and, for our disappointment, there was nothing there, it was not even past 9 p.m. but hardly any of the houses even had lights on, so we settled for another night in the middle of nowhere with our beloved semolina porridge as nourishment. This basically concluded the story about our adventures on and around the Asy Plateau in Kazakhstan and I believe all of us remember it as an extremely tremendous place we would wish to revisit with some more appropriate gear. I still think of it as a quiet, hidden gem of Kazakhstan, and I am 100% sure it is not the only one.

the sun is going down the horizon line and so are we

together with the setting sun we left our newfound Middle-Earth in Kazakhstan

Where to fix a bicycle?

The next morning we reached the closest town called Shelek, we had thus concluded our detour which on a map looked like a silly zig-zag U-turn, here we had a small hope to find a bicycle shop or someone who could fix my derailleur. We soon gave up on the idea, since there was no bike shop in town and not one of the people we spoke to had any knowledge of a decent place nearby.  I was left with two options – to return to Almaty or just to proceed to the Kazakhstan’s border control point with China. By this time we only had a few days left in our Kazakh visa, so I decided to go further. How hard could it be? So the question of where to fix the bicycle was put off till China a few hundred km away.

Cycling with one gear really is not that difficult, yet one might be a little slower than the teammates on flat surface and a lot slower in steeper uphills (pushing required). It was quite a windy travel for the next few days till the border, but we welcomed the breezes, for they gave us a bit of refreshment. We camped just after the Kokpek Gorge, where we got only after refusing gandza from some hospitable Kazakhs but getting some traditional hats instead. There we had a well-deserved feast after the never-ending amounts of semolina porridge we had had for the past two days in a row (breakfast/lunch/dinner) before sleeping under the stars. We figured that no one is that lucky to have a snowstorm fall on them for a second time just because they decide not to put up a tent.

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While Dainis and I responsibly cooked our dinner and made some coffee, Ivars sneaked away and took some pictures of the surroundings (and a lot of selfies, but for those you have to ask from him in private)

A little sunburn never hurt anyone

We woke up feeling refreshed and happy to see green grass around us, not a layer of snow, everything was as it should be in a hot summer – Ivars was groaning that his ears are sunburnt, thus his sleeping was not too great (for he ALMOST ALWAYS sleeps on at least one of his ears); Dainis had ulcers on his bare head; and skin was peeling off my forehead, making it look like I was preparing for a spa with a mud facemask – we were happy nonetheless.

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After some more minor technical difficulties with Unicorn on the road, we were by the famous Charyn Canyon where we planned to have a picnic at a place that looked very much like an oasis by a river, but ended up messing around with my bicycle and getting rid of my front mudguard.


Ivars going down The Big Road of the Charyn Canyon

A “welcoming” farewell from Kazakhstan

That afternoon we stopped by a town called Shonzhy to buy some food for camping, instead of going around it, what a huge mistake that turned out to be. I would suggest you keep as far as possible to avoid unnecessary dealing with some Kazakhstan officials. All was well until we had already left the town itself, when we were suddenly stopped by a simple white sedan doing a U-turn out of which 2 semi-official looking men stepped out. We were asked to hand over our passports which we were not given back and return to the town. We did not know what was happening at all, but the infamous stories of the trickeries and corruption of the police in Kazakhstan was at the back of all of our heads.

We were still some 100 km from the Kazakh/Chinese border but it seemed that we had gotten in unexpected trouble with some customs officers. According to them, we needed to have a special permit to be in the area, since we were not on transit. To which we replied, that we are indeed rushing to the border with China, just it happens to be that we travel by bike not a car or a truck. It was useless. We even tried to call to the embassy of Kazakhstan in Latvia (which was luckily open due to the time difference) but it was even more useless than inquiring after the matter @ Caravanistan.com and hoping someone would answer soon enough, before we have to sign some official looking papers.

We were not allowed to go in their offices together, nor use any technology, and we did not really understand what is going on till almost the very last moment. After looking at the paperwork and checking its legitimacy (done by our in-house lawyer Dainis), one by one we reluctantly signed some papers agreeing to pay the fine of some 50 EUR each in 30 days time (we had no intention of doing it, but this could complicate our return to Kazakhstan another time, whenever that would be). We were just quite angry and annoyed but happy to be let go, it was just getting dark and we had to find a campsite soon. After all this time and meeting other travellers going through the area (bicycle or not), we have not met anyone who has been asked to show any permit or pay a fine later, but I still would avoid that little town, just in case it is not your lucky day like it was not ours, it seems.

Sometimes shade is a scarce commodity, sometimes a small tree is enough

Sometimes shade is a scarce commodity, sometimes a small tree is enough

We spent one more day in Kazakhstan and experienced a bit of the super-windy, notorious steppe with a lot of dust and sand blowing in all directions apart from the desired one – from the back. The heat was holding on, being really quite unpleasant and the shade being scarce we started to realise that our days in Asia could very much look like the past couple ones: wake up before the sunrise and cycle a few hours; then find a shade and hide from the UV rays and the heat for half of the day and cycle a bit in the late afternoon/early evening. But it was all something to think about a little later, right now we were on the border of Kazakhstan and China and after some Kazakhstan customs officials asked me: “What’s wrong with your nose?” and I replied “Sun!”, we had rolled into China, a country where everything happens slightly differently and where, hopefully, I could find a new, friendly derailleur for my Unicorn, but all that after having lunch with Patrick, a fellow cyclist we just met on the road.

Ivars writing his memoirs on our last night in Kazahstan

Ivars writing his memoirs on our last night in Kazahstan

Dainis is reading memoirs

Dainis is reading memoirs before falling asleep

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