Km 5528 – Oskemen, Kazakhstan
WEATHER & GENERAL STUFF
Kazakhstan is our fourth and last “stan”-country we visit. The inhabitants of Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan all belong to the Turk people, which means that their language is more or less connected to the Turkish language. But all Central Asian countries are ex USSRcountries as well and therefore a lot of people learn Russian as a first foreign language (or even mother tongue). Besides of the geographical position “the stans” share as well the continental climate with winters up to -40 degrees Celsius and summers up to +40 degrees Celsius. Moreover in all these countries the majority of the people are Sunnite Muslims (in contrast to the Shiite Muslims in Iran). The weather in Almaty was hot, around 35 degrees Celsius. But in the mountains and in the North the temperatures have been more pleasant (15 to 25 degrees Celsius).
BORDER – ALMATY
- On the border everything goes well. Although a curious officer looks in all our bags, we still cross the border in only 30 minutes. Welcome to Kazakhstan.
- It is the first country (since Turkey) where hitchhiking seems a bit more difficult. After cycling for 40km – the heat is back – we get some rest in the shadow. Nuci and Azamat wave us to their truck, because they want to give us a huge melon. But instead I ask them, if they could take us for some kilometers. So our bikes rest on a pile of melons. The drivers are in a good mood, open-minded and just shortly before Almaty we get off the truck.
- In the ex-capital Almaty we meet our hosts Andrej and Lena. Andrej is graphic designer (with a degree in chemistry) and wants to finish some extra work over the weekend. One of the reasons is a debt of a couple of thousand Euros they have to pay back. They borrowed the money to study in Czech Republik. The dream didn’t come true, because their visas were denied. The money (part of the study fees, etc) was gone. So we spend more time with Lena, who is like Jana a psychologist. We really enjoy the good humor of the two, a beer, a movie – so uncomplicated, so nice.
ALMATY – ESIK PLATEAU – SHARYN CANYON
- With Tas, our second host in Almaty, we take the bus to Esik, to cycle to a Plateau (2500m). Tas is sportive and rides a light mountain bike with a backpack. But we have our fully loaded street bikes with us and are a lot slower than the crazy Australian, who really wants to reach the Plateau the same day. This plan seems unlikely to come true, especially after I get a spontaneous invitation for some rafting. At the end of the asphalt road Jana manages to hitch a car and she takes all of our luggage to the top. This was good (1500m of climbing) and bad simultaneously, as my chain brakes after a short time. We have a short look at the damage and Tas sais “This will be a loooong night“ – I will push the bike up, while he cycles to get tools and spare parts. But I am lucky and with two rides I find myself at the top of the plateau, where Jana already pitched the tent. On my arrival it starts to rain cats and dogs and as Tas came into the tent half a hour later, he is completely wet.
- Tas even made a video about the part of the Esik Plateau that we cycled together, here is the link: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=X6Vbzffhn3s&feature=youtu.be
- We need three and a half days for nearly 150km (Tas usually cycles it in two days, but he had to go back to work). We have to push a lot and the road is really difficult – on the same time we are fascinated by the wild loneliness of the mountains. We cook on the fire and sit under the twinkling stars – so in the end it was worth the effort.
- At the end of the trek, in the small village Kökpek, we meet Hugh and Pauline, a British cycle couple. They advice us to cycle to the Shrayn Canyon. After a really short night (it was impossible to anchor the tent and the strong wind pushes against our tent very loudly) we cycle out of the beautiful canyon just to run into Michaela and Johannes, an Austrian couple travelling in a Jeep. They make us a huge present: A decent map of Mongolia! Just perfect, because it is impossible to buy here.
- After repairing a loosened casette (gravel road) we treat ourselves with a nice and modern hotel (internet, hot shower, great bed).
SHELEK – TALDYCHORGAN
- The distances in Kazakhstan, the ninth biggest country on earth, are enormous and we really want to get into the North now (1200km). So we put our thumbs on the street once again . We wait a little bit until a historical truck stops. Dshingis looks out of the window and directly accepts to take us. He opens a double door at the end of the vehicle and we look at a small, sunny room with a big bed, an oven and two cooking plates. It is like a huge, transformed VW-van. Jana sits with Dshingis and Marlin in the front and I am happy to relax on the bed in the back. Suddenly, we stop and I see Dshingis walking into a nearby store. A couple of minutes later, the back door opens and the good soul climbs in, holding two bottles of beer in his hand. We talk, since Dshingis speaks English, and I learn that the engineer, together with his colleague, check the big gas pipe lines going from Kazakhstan to China. The redesigned truck serves them as accommodation during these business trips. The 33-year old Kazakh has three sons and would like to have a daughter as well, but his Russian wife thinks three kids are enough.
- On the bigger street towards the North we don’t have to wait long until Alexej stops with a small truck. He not only takes us 230km to Taldychorgan, but also invites us to his home. Again one of these wonderful travelling days. We arrive in the dark and Larissa, the wife of our experienced driver, cooks tasty Tortellini for us. Alexej goes shopping to be able to serve his guests juice and vodka. We drink four small shots and for each round one person has to say a tost in his mother tongue. Both of them are so warm and generous and even if we do not speak a common language, we are able to communicate and laugh together. When Alexej shows me that he heated up the sauna (which is at the same time the bathroom) I get really excited. The smooth vodka calmed down my throat and some time in the sauna will be good for my little cold. Pure relaxation after a long day! After a warm farewell the next morning we cycle away, waving in deep thankfulness.
TALDYCHORGAN – USHARAL
- We cycle out of the town to find the right traffic going North. We wait for two hours on the street, but then Mohammed Ali and Bachet take us.
- Again it is dark and a couple of hundred kilometre are lying behind us, when we unload the bikes from the truck. In the darkness we go to the house in front of us, where we can see a warm light shining through a window. When we enter the courtyard Serik approaches us. If we could pitch our tent here? With an unbelievable straightforwardness Serik brings us into a comfortable room and says: “You can sleep here, here are cooking plates and tea, the toilet is in the courtyard.” As if every week some long distance cyclists come along and are hosted by this good soul. Later he comes in to ask a little bit about our travels, but he soon says good night and leaves us alone.
USHARAL – ZHANGYSTOBE
- Again we wait at the side of the street. A small truck stops, it is full, but the co-driver happily gives us some apples. A little desperate we wave at every bigger vehicle. Even when we see a truck with a gas tank (= no loading space). It doesn’t stop as expected. But shortly after passing us the truck goes into reverse. Andrej gets off and shouts some words in English, German and Russian: no problem, dawai dawai (= let’s go). Quite fast we find a place for the bikes: on the top of the gas tank. Sounds a little risky, but in the end it is one of the best spots for the bikes ever. Our driver is outgoing and sociable. Maybe it is because of his family structure. His father is Russian, his mother German. The parents of his wife are international as well (mother Polish, father Ukrainian). “What are our kids then?” he asks himself and shrugs his shoulders.
- Andrej is a wonderful present and we are happy to ride a long distance with him. In a “Kafesi” we meet Vitali, Andrejs colleague. I get into the truck of Vitali to not have trouble with the police. For good reasons, they are condemned by all of our drivers. Some drivers tell us, that the police is not a police, but a Mafia, which stands at the side of the street, collecting money. In Soviet-times this would not have been possible, many of them say. An interesting line of thought: corruption as a consequence of a free market. Not the government has the power but the capital!
- After a tea with Vitali we drive a long time through the steppes. The thoughts sweep away, I listen to the music and the only thing which interrupts this ruminent time is the bad road with uncountable potholes.
- The big surprise of the evening: Andrej lets us sleep in his driver’s cabin. He himself will move to Vitali’s cabin for that night. We roll out our sleeping bags and are happy about our generous truck driver.
- In Oskemen we meet our host Alexej. He is brilliant and congenial and especially happy that we are staying longer than expected to wait for a parcel from Europe (jacket for Jana suitable for Mongolia). So we can have a cycling tour into the “Altai Alps” with him and his friends.