Kazakhstan: an unplanned surprise. Extreme weather, endless roads and extraordinary people

Kazakhstan is the largest country in Central Asia! You can hardly imagine that in terms of surface area, the Netherlands occupies only 1.5% (!) of Kazakhstan’s territory, but has almost the same number of inhabitants. This makes it one of the least densely populated countries in the world. If you look at our route through Kazakhstan on the map, these few hundred kilometers do not represent much. Still, most people live in this small part of Kazakhstan and you can drive through the rest of the country for hours without encountering civilization. Are we prepared for this country we wondered? The cold? The distances? The endlessly wide roads? And the strong winds? Maybe not. We had never planned to bike here and you never actually hear anyone talk about Kazakhstan, but with China remaining closed we see it as an opportunity to go. We’re going to experience it…

As can be read in the previous blog, we leave Kyrgyzstan in late October via the most challenging border crossing yet. The icy wind pierces our faces with needles, we ride with all our thickest clothes on and Audrey has 4 coats (fleece, windbreaker, down jacket, rain jacket) and 3 pairs of gloves on top of each other. How heavily loaded?😅 We are no longer surprised that this border crossing closes after October 31, due to the impassable road in winter, so we are just in time! 4 seasons in a day is an understatement, let’s say 4 seasons in an hour….

We spend the first night in a very hot Soviet hotel in Kegen. Something we had read about Kazakhstan is that the houses will be too hot rather than too cold. This may have to do with the cold, but also with the absurdly low energy prices…. but more on that later.

The next morning we literally drive over some mountains with our heads in the clouds. We can only just see each other, but for the rest we are looking at a white wall. When we ride out of the mountains after a while, too, we have to be careful not to cycle into the cliff because of the dense fog. After a while Eloy can’t feel his hands, “they’ve almost frozen off!” he shouts. We stop at the only thing we come across, a bus shelter. There he warms his hands and we quickly work up a sandwich, because otherwise we will cool off too much again. We haven’t come across a house, hut or cafe today, so we have to make do with this. But to be honest, we are yearning for a “hot chocolate with whipped cream in front of the stove. We are amazed by the empty landscape, sometimes surprised by a roadside carcass or a pile of bones, but we also see live animals, such as herds of camels, horses and sheep.

Just after the pit stop to warm up Eloy’s hands, Audrey gets her 4th flat tire on this trip. Frankly, it’s not a punishment to patch a tire at this spot, as we look out on a giant canyon, where we also planned to camp. We put the bike on the shoulder and find the hole with half a water bottle of water and a collapsible tub. After half an hour we are rolling again. A little further on there is a small parking lot where people can dress up to have their picture taken with a giant eagle on their arm. The eagle is the national symbol of Kazakhstan and is also found on the national flag. The birds are trained and used to hunt wild animals such as foxes, rabbits and marmots.

A family comes up to us with the familiar questions: ‘Where are you from? Where is the flag of Kazakhstan? How long are you on the road?‘ After some photos, we are given another bottle of Coke. Earlier today, a passerby handed us a bottle of ice tea from the car window. They are welcome variations on water, coffee and tea. A little further on we turn into a road and suddenly we are looking into the canyon with all its beautiful autumn colors!

We find a road downhill and start looking for a suitable camping spot. We come across some cows and then find a spot. We pitch the tent, cook pasta and by 6:30 p.m. we are in our sleeping bags, as it is already dark and cold. There is no coverage, so the phones go off and we read a bit. When the alarm clock rings at 6:30, we hear tapping on the tent…. Bleh, it’s raining! We turn over for a while. When it rains harder a little later, we get dressed, have breakfast and, quite appropriately, play a game of ‘Rain worms’. Just before noon it stops and we pack everything (wet), but not much later it starts again. Further on, however, there turns out to be a surprise: a tiny coffee shop in the middle of nowhere. We don’t let this opportunity pass us by and we stop to let the tent dry under a shelter and go inside to drink something warm. Inside it is warm, but there is a horrible smell of gas. Not much later we see what the reason is. The electricity is out and the man is heating his hut on the gas stove! The burners are blazing. Behind the counter, someone is sleeping, but we are already happy with the warmth and a fried dough ball filled with potatoes.

When the rain has stopped we quickly move on. On the way we again encounter many animals, but we also see in the distance very dark clouds coming our way again. We rush up a mountain and once at the top we have to pose for a photo with the local tourists, after which we quickly race down. After 35 km of cycling, we come to a hamlet with a dozen or so buildings. Traffic is stopped for a while because a film crew is filming there. We see people setting off smoke bombs next to a burned-out car. We are also addressed by a Kazakh woman, who is very interested in the bikes. Later we will find that we will run into her several more times in Kazakhstan!

In the hamlet we ask around for a place to sleep and, with the help of local tourists, for a fee we are allowed to stay with a family who has their outhouse vacant. The building is a mess, there is no running water, no heating and the stairs have only an iron frame so we have to watch where we stand. Using a jug of lukewarm water, we wash ourselves, much needed after 2 days of sweating. Fortunately, a restaurant across the street offers warmth and we enjoy a meal there. But not long after, a group sits down behind us and every bite and sip is smacked and slurped as if they haven’t eaten anything for months. It’s a normal way of eating in these countries, but Eloy (really, really) can’t stand it…. Despite the cold outside, we fancy an ice cream, so we get it in a small store down the road.

Rain is predicted for the next two days, but we know by now that more often than not the forecasts are wrong. There is no accommodation on the route we take, so we stock up on food and drinks to camp in the wild. The first day we decide to take shelter from the rain and pitch the tent by a stream, sheltered among the bushes. The wind is already starting to blow hard and the first raindrops are falling from the sky. We fry some eggs and sausages while lying half inside the tent, otherwise the gas burner will blow out. We play some games and read a bit, while hoping the tent will stay upright and the rain will not be too bad.

We are lucky, the day begins dry. We dry the tent and leave, where we end up we don’t know yet. On the way we see a group of camels watching us from the top of a small hill. The scenery is beautiful and completely different from the lonely straight roads we had before. Toward the end of the afternoon, ominous dark clouds form in the distance. Not good news. As the first drops begin to fall, we stop at the entrance to a shed of an apple farm. The only thing we have encountered for miles. The workers invite us into their converted cargo container, where they quickly light the home-built wood stove. The huge wind makes a whistling sound through the windows.

When it looks like the storm will not stop and it slowly begins to get dark we hesitate about what to do. We decide to cycle to the next village in the hope of finding a shelter. We are given another kilo of apples (our first introduction to the apples of Kazakhstan…). When we reach the crossroads to the village, all we see is a small sign, no houses to be seen yet. We cycle some more and, despite being fully wrapped in rain gear, feel the rain slowly seep into our clothes. We can tolerate some rain, but no clothing can withstand this downpour. Suddenly we find ourselves between a huge herd of sheep, blocking the road. We try to maneuver between them, and a car comes up behind us through the flock. After we pass the herd, we grab a now-wet cell phone from a jacket pocket and try to look at the map. Eloy then says, “That man in the car gestured something, but I didn’t understand.” The car has since moved on, but returns not much later. The man introduces himself, Marat is his name. In sign language he asks where we are going and where we are sleeping. We gesture back that we don’t know yet. He points that we should follow him. Not much later we are in front of his house and our wet things are immediately carried inside by him and his wife, Aibarsha. The first thing she says to Audrey is, “Welcome, we love guests! English not good.”

It is comfortably warm in the house and Aibarsha has a bed made up in no time in the large dining room. Once at the table, we learn that Marat is the mayor of 3 villages and things get cosy. We meet a warm family of 3 daughters, a son, a niece and nephew and the grandparents. We look at pictures of each other’s lives and Aibarsha prepares a delicious supper. Of course, there must be a Kazakh toast, which means liquor and giving a speech.

When we want to leave again the next morning, the grandmother gives us a bag with a kilo of apples (we still had some from yesterday…), but refusing is not an option. Then the mother of the family asks if we don’t want to stay another day to rest. “We really like it if you stay another day.” Emboldened by the offer, after all they all go to work, we accept the offer, wash our clothes and enjoy a quiet day. In the evening, Aibarsha makes “beshbarmak” (means 5 fingers, referring to the nomads who ate the dish with their fingers), which is the traditional dish of Kazakhstan. It consists of meat (horse, sheep or cow) and is served on dough pieces, along with onions and carrot.

When Eloy sees a huge bone of fat being placed on his plate (see photo) for dinner, he swallows for a moment and looks at Audrey questioningly. Marat says the following via Google Translate: “This gift is given to the honored guests. A gift for the two of you is a gift for honored guests“. We eat with our hands and try to pick off the meat as best we can. The shots of real Kazakh cognac and speeches cannot be missed either. Aibarsha gives Audrey another traditional scarf, earrings and tea for Audrey’s mother, furthermore we are also given a giant box of chocolates. We don’t know what to do or say anymore and can only be very grateful for this unexpected experience.

The next day we really say goodbye to the family and cycle towards Esik. Here we look for a place to stay and it turns out we are sleeping in a real love hotel. The pink and red lights in the evening and the sound of the neighbors says it all, but not everywhere is plenty of choice so we just go with it ;). We decide to leave the bags at the hotel for a day and bike to Issyk Lake, a mountain lake at 1700m. The views on the way up are beautiful, it is very steep and we don’t think we could have done this with packs. Once at the top, there are many vans and cars and at the lake we meet a special mix of people. A group walks with easels, a bus with Indians and we see a judo club shooting movies. Cycling back, we are down in no time! We still want to cook our lunch on a pan, but Audrey turns out to have put the lighters in another bag. Further on, the park ranger lends us his lighter and we can still make hot noodles with cold fingers.

We are on our way to Almaty, the former capital of Kazakhstan, but stop for another day in Talgar. In Talgar we see a fine café, where we have some coffee and soup to warm up. Behind us are 2 young men who are curious and ask what we are doing here. When we tell them about the trip, we hardly finish talking. They want to know about everything and also dream about traveling in the future. Later, when Eloy wants to pay the bill, the 2 guys turn out to have paid our bill a while ago. Fortunately, we had exchanged contact information and were able to thank them later!

And then the next day we reach Almaty or Alma-Ata. Alma-Ata means ‘Father of Apples’. The city was an important place on the Silk Road in the past and is still Kazakhstan’s largest city today with a population of 1.8 million. On the way to Almaty, we were handed about 10 kilos of apples from all kinds of people along the route. Fruit is important here and is eaten daily by many. Through DNA research it has been confirmed that all apples in the world can be traced back to a small sour apple in the mountains of Kazakhstan. And besides apples, tulips also have their origins in this vast country (oh dear, bye bye Dutch pride…). Wild tulips, like wild apples, grow among the mountains here. Over the Silk Road via Persia, Turkey and Antwerp, the tulips and apples came to the Netherlands.

In Almaty, we met Daniil through the local cycling club. Someone from the cycling club had seen on Instagram that we were on our way to Almaty and not much later Daniil sent us a message asking if we were still looking for a place to sleep. Daniil is from Russia and only recently moved into a small apartment in Almaty with another Russian. He left his homeland because of the war with Ukraine. His wife, a doctor by training, and 1-year-old daughter are still in Russia though, but he had to leave the country quickly because of known reasons. He is an avid cyclist and has traveled part of the route to Almaty by bicycle and the rest by train. A special bond develops, we have the same age and interests.

Again, it is striking that the Russians we meet are positive every time. Despite the setbacks, the uncertain future, they are determined to build a better future in an environment that is better for them. Eloy helps Daniil with his LinkedIn profile and English resume, Audrey cooks regularly and cleans the apartment. Daniil teaches us his outdoor and knotting techniques, helps us find bike boxes and we talk for hours about all kinds of topics. We stay with him for about 2 weeks in total and he insists that we sleep in his bed and he sleeps next to the bed on the floor on a mat, the bikes are on the other side of the bed. Many encounters we will not soon forget, but some leave an extra special impression and that was certainly the case with Daniil.

In Almaty, we also meet several members of Velomaniakz, a Kazakh cycling club with diverse members. They invite us to meet at a cafe, and apparently they also rounded up a journalist, so a few days later we get a Russian article forwarded to us from a Kazakh news site. Eloy’s name is spelled differently 3 times in the article, but it’s funny. Furthermore, we ride with the club on a tour of Almaty, they give us Kazakh cognac and chocolate and one of the cyclists invites us to his home to eat beshbarmak. There is singing, traditional instruments are played and Audrey goes home with a Kazakh hat. Here, rather unexpectedly, we encountered the fermented horse milk (see blog Kyrgyzstan) again, but this time we politely thanked for it.

The woman we met earlier in a small hamlet far from Almaty also turns out to be in the cycling club and we suddenly see her again! She would like to take us on an evening hike to Medeu and Shymbulak. The latter is a ski village at 2200m altitude. Some of the club joins and while it is almost freezing, Eloy and 2 other diehards take a dip in a hot spring we encounter along the way. Almaty is up against the mountains, so buses regularly go up to the mountains from the center.

The following day we go ice skating at the famous Medeu ice rink. It is the highest open-air skating rink in the world and the view of the mountains while skating laps is extraordinary! The skating rink was opened in 1951 and was one of the fastest rinks in the world due to favorable wind and ice conditions, many USSR athletes trained here. Mountain water is used to maintain the ice. Olga, a member of the cycling club joined us and we met a fit 90-year-old who is still at the skating rink every day, really every day! For us, the weather took some getting used to, but fortunately we didn’t break anything :).

From the skating rink we take the ski elevator to the highest mountain pass, Talgar Pass at 3200m altitude. And that means frozen hands within seconds, as it is -15°C at the summit, but beautiful views of the city of Almaty and the mountains.

It is extraordinary for a city to be so close to the mountains, and the inhabitants take full advantage of this. Olga takes us on a hike to Furmanov Peak (3029m), a well-known mountain near Almaty. We put on all the clothes we have, including rain pants. The last stretch is steep and slippery because of the snow, but then we have to start the descent. That’s on the butt sliding and sledding down. Olga in front and suddenly she stops because she has a big rip in her pants at the level of her seat, which is completely filled with snow. Audrey tries to pick it out and we almost can’t stop laughing, then we roll on down again.

Almaty is a city with a remarkable history and a mishmash of cultures, buildings and architecture. It was the capital until 1997, and it is still Kazakhstan’s largest city. There are striking buildings, gigantic parks, statues and the occasional stray tank, reminders of the Soviet past. You can find a statue of the Beatles on a mountaintop, huge mosques and the second largest wooden building in the world, the Russian Orthodox Zenkov Cathedral. And what is even more impressive is that no screws and nails were used in this cathedral! 70% of the population is Muslim and a quarter Christian (Russian Orthodox).

One of the last days we will be looking for a bike box. Because China and Myanmar both remain closed and Russia is currently not an option, we have to take a plane to get to Southeast Asia. We get the bike boxes for free at a local bike store, but the bikes here are a little smaller, so we have to cut and paste to fabricate a larger one. It takes a day to disassemble the bikes, pack stuff and craft boxes. And then the end result looks like this:

We get a little nervous when the flight attendant behind the counter asks where our return tickets are, but since we’re cycling through Southeast Asia, that means we don’t have a return ticket. It clearly confuses her and us, but after a few minutes it’s okay. In 3 hours we are suddenly on another continent. Kazakhstan was cold, but powerful! What a beautiful country and how special it was to experience Central Asian hospitality every time. We are looking forward to a new country with already beautiful rice fields to admire from the air! We go from freezing temperatures to 35 degrees, welcome to Thailand!

Love, Audrey and Eloy

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