The bumpy road to Karakol
Where to start on a journey that’s taken us across some of Kazakhstan’s more remote and beautiful places over the past eight days and through the back door into Kyrgyzstan, where we sit now on the edge of one of the world’s largest alpine lakes. How about with the sound of two hundred hoofs thundering on the ground around us as a troop of at least fifty horses, their glossy coats gleaming in the afternoon sunshine, raced past us in a high mountain pasture?
Or maybe we should begin with thunder of another kind; thunder and lightening that chased us over bumpy dirt roads into Kyrgyzstan where we dashed for shelter under the eaves of a farmhouse. As the rain poured down from the heavens, over the edge of the roof and into our shoes, we found a local teenager standing next to us, eyeing us up with surprise and a smile. Apparently they don’t get many tourists in his tiny village.
Then there was the lady who insisted we come in for tea when we arrived in her shop to buy some food. “Chai, chai,” she said, beckoning us over with a wave. Out came two cups of tea accompanied by bread, sausage, cookies and candies on the small and rickety table in her crowded kitchen, which served doubly as her bedroom.
We were ushered in for tea as well in the farming town of Zhalanash. Our early morning arrival meant the shops weren’t yet open. As we waited, a man with dancing eyes smiled and pulled us into his home where a second breakfast of homemade pastries, bread and butter magically appeared before us.
These beautiful experiences made a nice change from a part of the world that, to be honest, was starting to leave us feeling slightly annoyed. We’re fast coming up for two years on our bikes and so far we’ve never met so many sour-faced people as in Kazakhstan, our waves and smiles from the saddle gathering only blank stares in reply. Shopkeepers tended to be particularly icy and we took to buying our food in the market from the first stall owner who smiled at us. Even people who approached us, shepherds who trotted up on their horses and cars that pulled up alongside as we rode, often barely managed to mutter a reply to our greeting.
Getting off the beaten track seemed the key to finding a better side of Kazakhstan and we weren’t wrong in our assumption. From the time we left Taldykorgan, the roads were so quiet we had them almost to ourselves; exactly what we needed after being literally pushed forward by an SUV in downtown Taldykorgan. The man behind the wheel wanted to wait for the green light beyond the stop line and the pedestrian crosswalk and decided the best way to do this was to push his bumper up against our panniers before stepping on the gas.
Our stress melted away as we left the city and slogged over a seemingly endless series of steep hills to find camping by fresh mountain streams nearly every night, set against snowy peaks and green pastures. We still wouldn’t call the Kazakh people outgoing but the smiles certainly seemed to flow more freely as we pedalled into increasingly remote areas. The change of tone put us in such a good mood that we didn’t even care when Andrew’s back rack broke. Zip ties are holding it together until we can find a welder.
Maybe it was our choice of route that kept the farmers grinning. We entered Kazakhstan on the best roads we’d seen for some time but our last days in the country took us into very rural areas where the smooth asphalt quickly turned to bone-rattling dirt and stone-covered tracks. Bump, bump, bump went the panniers, the bikes and our bodies. Sometimes the roads were so bad we gave up riding and pushed, both downhill and uphill. We rejoiced when we reached the main road into Kyrgyzstan and found it was paved but shortly after we crossed the remote checkpoint our little slice of heaven ended. Bump, bump, bump we went again, all the way into Karakol, some 100km down the road.
That last stretch was one of our hardest rides yet. We fought winds in every direction, thunder and lightening, pouring rain, hail and roads that sometimes deteriorated into a steep, slippery mud track. We had no food left to speak of, aside from a few cookies and a bottle of soy sauce, and no gas to cook food on anyway. We were also devoid of any Kyrgyz money that would have allowed us to stop at a store or cafe.
When we finally reached the last few kilometers into Karakol on real asphalt we found hordes of hyperactive teenagers, fresh from their high school graduation, in our path and they all wanted to shake our panniers as we passed. We played leapfrog with a tractor, whose young driver liked to ride alongside us and honk the horn constantly. Dusk was falling as we approached the city, found our hotel, revelled in a lukewarm shower and borrowed some money from a fellow traveller so we could buy supper. We were exhausted. A few days of rest in Karakol is definitely on the cards and then we’ve a whole new country to explore.