Almaty to Kyrgyzstan, the long way: A Bike Touring Route
Taldykorgan is the jumping off point for several days of riding through remote territory with only lofty mountains, stunning canyons and the occasional village or small town to keep you company.
The ride is beautiful but difficult by times, especially the last stretch where roads often disappear, leaving only rocky tracks in their place. You will need to be self-supported for this tour and occasionally you will need to carry enough food for multiple days with you. After passing through Koktal, Shonzhy and a series of high pastures you end by crossing into Kyrgyzstan and down to Karakol on the edge of the alpine lake Issyk-Kul.
Because you are cycling fairly close to the Chinese border, you may be stopped and asked for your passport and a few questions about your trip. You don’t need a permit to be on these roads but don’t be surprised if police approach. We were asked twice for our documents, once just outside Taldykorgan and again in Shonzhy.
Duration: 12 days
Terrain: Challenging. Many long stretches of steep, rolling hills and canyons. Roads predominantly dirt and sometimes with large stones for the last 200km.
Accomodation: Mostly wild camping. Hotels in Taldykorgan and Karakol. Pensions in Qapshagay.
Highlights: Hanging out with shepherds and troops of horses in the high pastures of Kazakhstan. Bathing in pristine mountain streams and admiring high mountains.
Lowlights: Tough road conditions and being weighed down by plenty of extra food and water. Steady traffic until you reach Taldykorgan.
Tips: Take extra fuel for your stove from Taldykorgan onwards. Gas stations are rare but in a pinch try asking a farmer to sell you some. Pick up useful 1:200 000 and 1:500 000 hiking and topographical maps at Firma Geo in Almaty: Satpaev Akademik, 30 «B», Near the corner with Manasa Street, not far from Russian embassy. Telephone 3272 453435
Section 1 – Almaty to Qapshaghay (60km)
Navigating your way out of Almaty, like so many cities in Central Asia, isn’t easy. Road signs seem to be an unknown development. Ask the way to avoid getting lost as we did. A wrong turn can easily put you a day out of your way. There are two roads leaving the city for the north: the main A350 and another smaller road that runs almost parallel with its bigger cousin, heading for Zhetigen. In our experience, quite a few trucks use the more minor road and we actually preferred the principle route with its wide shoulders. The terrain is flat all the way to Qapshaghay, where you can have lunch on the shores of the lake, although there’s little shade and not much opportunity for camping either between the holiday homes being built here.
Section 2 – Qapshaghay to Saryozek (110km)
Leaving Qapshaghay, you could detour to see the Tamgaly-Tas petroglyphs. These are located about 25km up the road that runs along the south side of the Ile river to the village of Qazaqstan. Aside from a small village at the start of the road, there is nothing during this distance so go prepared to bike there and back over a dry land, possibly with a headwind. We did not make the trip but locals told us a small track led from the main road to the petroglyphs.
Carrying on from Qapshaghay on the main route, the road descends steeply into the canyon where the Ile river drains out of the lake, taking you past a fancy new beach resort and cottages of the Kazakh upper class. Once up the other side of the canyon, a succession of small roads lead down to the lake and on this less crowded shore it’s possible to take a tranquil dip in the lake. Sandals are good for the rocky lake bed and to protect your feet from broken glass. Wild camping isn’t advisable near the lake because of the litter and number of holiday cottages but it’s easy to retreat back towards the main road after a swim and find a place in the trees.
From the town of Shenggeldi onward you’ll find cafes once every 15 kilometers or so including one at the provincial border, another around kilometer mark 135 and a busy rest stop with two cafes, toilets and a running cold water tap at kilometer mark 142, just four kilometers before the peak. Once over the top there’s a small descent and then a reasonably flat stretch.
We didn’t see any stores between Qapshaghay and Saryozek, although we might have found one if we’d ventured off the main road and into Shenggeldi. There was a small kiosk selling drinks and chocolate bars on the road in Shenggeldi and in Saryozek we found a bank machine and several magazins.
Section 3 – Saryozek to Taldykorgan (80km)
Your first taste of serious hills starts from Saryozek with very few services en route as you navigate your way up and down through undulating farmland. The cycling overall is quite difficult but you can cool your heels in the Qaratal River running through Aynabulaq and at occasional cafes: around 20km and 50km out of Saryozek and in the village of Qyzyltogan. The first stores reappear just before Balpyq Bi and in Balpyq Bi itself is a bustling bazaar and several well stocked shops.
In Taldykorgan, it’s difficult to find a cheap hotel. We were directed to a number of expensive options before someone offered to rent us an apartment for a night for 4,000 Tenge – a bargain! The town itself has all the ammenities you’d expect from a provincial capital including a laundromat on the main street and plenty of internet cafes where we got online for 100 Tenge an hour, the cheapest rate anywhere in Kazakhstan. The large bazaar is located a few streets to the side of the town centre. Ask for the bazaar and anyone should be able to direct you.
Section 4 – Taldykorgan to Koktal (300km)
From Taldykorgan, head out of town towards Qarabulaq (Карабулак) and Abay (Абай). This is initially the same direction for Tekeli but don’t take the turnoff for Tekeli once you’re out of Taldykorgan. In Qarabulaq, you may have to ask directions to find the road to Abay, which isn’t marked and heads out towards the back of the town. The terrain is flat until Abay and then the hard work starts with a series of very steep ascents and descents. On the upside, there’s no shortage of rivers for much of the route and every little village has water taps so you should stay cool and refreshed.
There are shops and cafes all the way up to and including Abay, then again in Zhalgyzagat and nearly every other village along the way but you will only find the barest essentials here.
Following your tough start, the terrain flattens out after Korkcy, giving you a welcome break until you turn left on to the larger A353 near Altyn Emel. Here the climb starts again but it’s short, just a few kilometers to the top and the start of the protected national park area. At kilometer mark 55 you’ll find a store and, across the road, a water pipe and outhouse toilets. You can wash up here but the water has a few particles floating in it and probably isn’t suitable for drinking. The peak comes just before kilometer mark 58 and then it’s downhill all the way for a good 15 kilometers. We saw a roadside shashlyk stall around kilometer mark 65.
The route quickly goes from green mountains to a flat desert landscape and there is nothing until Qongyroleng (Коныролен), where you’ll find a shop, gas station and cafe. Just a few kilometers out of the town, look for a small stream with some trees to your right. This is an easy place to pull off the road and camp, hidden behind the greenery and with fresh water on tap. Just a short distance further on and the road goes downhill again for much of the way to Koktal.
In Koktal, go straight past the marked turnoffs for Shonzhy and a string of shops on your left. You’ll reach a water pump on a corner with a cafe diagonally opposite. Turn right here and after a couple blocks more you’ll see another group of shops, produce sellers and a gas station.
Section 5 – Koktal to Shonzhy (80km)
This is perhaps the most boring section of the route. There’s very little in this flat and hot landscape. Even trees can be hard to come by and if the wind gets up it can easily stop you in your tracks. Water is not easily found between these two towns and the Ile is very muddy so filtering water from the river is not an option.
Because of the empty terrain, it can be hard to find a place to wild camp. We stayed at a warden’s station, on the left just after we crossed over the Ile. You could ask for water here. The warden was willing to let us camp in his yard but wasn’t overly friendly. Be wary of his nasty guard dog. A little past the warden’s station an irrigation canal appears on the right with a few trees along it. Tracks lead over the canal and by following one of these pistes you might find some cover for a quiet night of camping.
We didn’t see any obvious magazins in Tashkaracy (Ташкарасу) but there were a couple cafes. Better choices abound in Shonzhy (Чунджа). The bazaar in Shonzhy is a few hundred meters to the right of the main intersection and here you can find plenty of cheap eats. We paid 600 Tenge for lunch for two including beers.
Section 6 – Shonzhy to Karkara (190km)
After the drab scenery from Koktal, things pick up noticably after Shonzhy. The slightly bumpy road looks deceivingly flat but actually climbs very slightly through open grasslands where you’ll see many shepherds grazing their flocks. Soon the road descends into a beautiful canyon carved by the Temirlik river. Although our maps showed no villages in the canyon, there are quite a few farmers tending the land and we were concerned about finding anywhere quiet to camp until we came to the bridge over the river.
As you stand on the bridge, if you look to your left you’ll see a sandy trail leading away from the road. There is no car access to this trail but you can roll your bike between the guardrails, down the hill and onto the riverbank. From there, you can get a few hundred meters off the road to camp. Shepherds may pass by with their troops near sunset but we found them very friendly.
Climbing out of the canyon, take the right turn to Akcay, where you’ll find three magazins on the edge of town. It’s a further 15km on to the Sharyn canyon and then a climb of a few more kilometers out of your second canyon of the day to the turnoff to Zhalangash (Жаланапш), 45km further on. You can follow the main road to Zhalangash but another option is to watch for a well used track about 17km from where you turned after the Sharyn canyon. You can see Zhalangash in the distance and the track is amazingly smooth, compared with the road which degrades into a stony surface before you reach the town. There are two small magazins in Zhalangash, your last point to pick up things before the tough 40km stretch ahead.
Turn left out of Zhalangash and head for the villages of Kency (Кенсу) and Taldi (Талды) on a road that starts out paved but soon turns into dirt. Keep going straight until you see two cemetaries on your left. Bear left here and the track will take you down into the first of several steep descents to valleys and farmhouses built around mountain streams. The road is never in particuarly good shape for this remote stretch but going down into the valleys was especially difficult and you may need to walk your bike.
We lost our way a little bit after Kency, where new road construction seems to have slightly altered the path of the road. In fact you have a choice of two roads at Kency and we took the left bearing one but either would do. If you get lost, just look for the power lines as the left bearing dirt track follows those closely for some distance out of Kency. The dirt track eventually turns stony and the last few kilometers before Taldi are very difficult. Once down the hill, you’re rewarded with smooth paving nearly all the way to Karkara.
After you cross the river Karkara, you can either continue on the main road to Kegen and then south to Karkara village (good if you need gas or other amenities) or you can take a track that cuts a corner by leading along the Karkara river to the village in about half the distance. We found this track very passable, even after a few hours of rain.
There is a small magazin in Karkara village but it’s in someone’s home so you’ll have to ask for directions. When we were there the woman running the magazin had a good selection of pasta, tinned vegetables, fresh cabbage, potatoes, onions and plenty of sweets. It’s worth buying what you need here as the following section is perhaps best done in two days and there are no stores until you’re nearly to Karakol.
Section 7 – Karkara to Karakol (115km)
The final leap into Kyrgyzstan! The main road starts out paved from Karkara but we found it soon deteriorated into a jumble of stones, mud, destroyed asphalt and other obstacles. Until you’re within sight of the border, the poor road is a hassle. Sometimes a farming track runs alongside, allowing you a brief respite from the bumps.
Crossing the border is straight forward and the Kyrgyz border guards were happy to give us some water from their supplies. The paving continues for a few kilometers inside Kyrgyzstan and then returns to a dirt road but one that’s in okay shape. About 25km from the border, a warden’s hut appears with a barrier across the road. They will ask you for 100 Som per person for an eco-tax and will accept Tenge if you have no Kyrgyz money but they do not give change so have a small bill on hand for this.
You now have the choice of continuing straight on the main road to Karakol via Tup or turning left over the bridge and up a steep track that cuts about 30km out of the journey to Karakol. This shorter route is said to be the more beautiful of the two, with many yurts in the high pastures, but the short climb to the col is gruelling with a loaded touring bike. Once over the top the road condition improves immensely and you can glide down into the valley, past yurts set up for the summer, where a paved road awaits to take you into Karakol for a well deserved rest in a hotel!