After nearly a week in Almaty it was time to hit the road again, although we were slightly reluctant having had the good fortune to meet such a generous host as Abe, who let us crash in his apartment for our extended stay. This is really one of the great delights of our trip, meeting such wonderful people as we go. Abe not only restored our bodies with a place to rest for a few days but also had plenty of stories of his own to share from his experience bicycling from Korea to Kazakhstan and years of backpacking. We wished him all the best for his tour of Central Asia this summer and set off to tackle Almaty traffic for the last time.
Drivers here are exceptionally impatient. We had one going mad behind us, honking his horn and gesturing wildly, to try and get around us despite the fact that a fire truck was going through the intersection with sirens on full blast. Where we’re from this means all traffic stops until the fire truck is safely on its way but not in Almaty apparently. It was a long drive out, made even longer by the fact that we got lost and ended up putting ourselves a day out of our way. This didn’t put us in a great mood, our nerves already worn a little thin by the intense heat.
The silver lining in the cloud was the shepherd we met that evening as we were cooking supper in a field. He trotted up on his horse to say hello with a smile that just told you he was a good person. We’ve gotten pretty good at judging character during our trip and a person’s smile, or lack of it, can tell you a lot about their nature. “There’s water back there,” he motioned, pointing far down the pasture. Sure enough, just behind the trees was a pipe with sparkling clean and cold spring water pouring from it. What a pleasure that was, washing the sweat and dirt out of our hair and clothes after the end of a long day.
A good night’s sleep puts most things right and we set off in the morning with our spirits refreshed. The heat rose quickly once again and we sought relief by erecting our tarp on a football goal post within sight of Lake Qapshaghay, about 60km north of Almaty. We didn’t set off again until after 3pm and even then the heat was still oppresive. We had planned to go past some petroglyphs in the area but they were a good 25km out of our way, cycling into a headwind over a dry, dusty and desolate steppe landscape. We made a start in the right direction but backed out after just a few kilometers, returning instead to the main road and the River Ily, which feeds the lake on its course from China.
Here we were surprised to find a range of holiday resorts and mansions on the banks of the water. Freedom Beach was the first one we came to, although its name was somewhat diminished by the barbed wire fence around it. We found it hard to imagine why you’d want to go to a luxury retreat where the rooms overlook a highway, although the shady parasols did look inviting.
By early evening it was still warm so we didn’t think twice about heading for the lake for a swim. We were lucky to get to the water at all since much of the land was fenced off and what wasn’t tended to be littered with garbage but we did find a little niche just big enough to relax in for a few hours before scurrying back up the hillside and behind some trees to camp.
On our third day, we surpassed 25,000km cycled so far on our trip. It’s amazing to us when we think about it. Two years ago we hardly got on our bikes for more than the short, flat trip to work. How have we managed to keep getting out of our tent to do vast distances day after day for the past 20 months? We don’t really know the answer ourselves but there must be something in the beautiful world unfolding around us and the people we meet that keeps our spirits high and our enthusiasm keen. It’s quite something to prop up your home in places like the green pastures we’ve found recently, facing mountains that rise in the distance towards the Chinese border.
The last stretch towards Taldykorgan was perhaps the most challenging of our ride from Almaty. Only a cloudy day helped make things easier by keeping the heat down but ahead of us was hill after hill. Up we climbed, only to roll back down and then start pedalling back up again. The roller coaster road continued for all but the last 20km into Taldykorgan.
We were beat by the time we arrived in the city and set about finding a hotel. The first place we checked out was slightly dubious It was attached to a dancing bar, which had plenty of pictures of busty women outside, and all rooms came with a whirlpool bath and four-poster bed. Although the jacuzzi definitely appealed, the prices were way out of our range so we carried on. In the town, a police officer pointed us to a restaurant that didn’t look like a hotel at all and indeed the women at the bar looked confused when we asked for a place to sleep but it was a happy coincidence that as we were leaving we passed someone else on their way out. Would we like to rent an apartment? Well, at first we didn’t know quite what we were being offered with our poor Russian but it was only 4,000 Tenge a night which was as cheap as we could have expected a room for so we went along to take a look. It turned out to be a whole place to ourselves, very clean and right in the centre of town. Bargain. We might just stay two nights, it’s so cozy and has everything we need.