Duration: 10-12 days
Terrain: Many rolling hills with some flat stretches inbetween and one decent climb to a 1,200 meter pass after Korday.
Accomodation: As much wild camping as you like but equally there are hotels in Shymkent, Taraz and Almaty and in some out-of-the-way places. It would be hard to do this route without a tent.
Highlights: Green springtime pastures full of grazing horses, cows and sheep. Mountain vistas the entire way. Passing through Kyrgyzstan without a visa!
Lowlights: Fierce dogs, particularly around roadside stands selling honey. Chaos at the Uzbekistan-Kazakhstan border crossing.
Tips: A water filter comes in handy to take advantage of clear mountain streams. Gaps between towns can be long so you may need to travel a long distance before you see a place to buy water.
Section 1 – Tashkent to the border (25km)
Leaving Tashkent for the border is easy. Go north up Amir Timur Street and past the huge TV tower. Continue on the main road, mostly straight but at one roundabout a few kilometers from the centre we did fork slightly to the right. At the last roundabout, a large police check marks the road you want to take. Rolling hills begin almost immediately after the police check and continue all the way to the border. Spend your remaining Uzbek soms at the plethora of small shops and cafes along this road. The area is heavily populated so forget about wild camping between Tashkent and the border.
The first sign you’re at the border is a traffic jam of buses, offloading passengers who must walk across. Pass the buses and go to the gates, where the Uzbek authorities will likely direct you to the peaceful vehicle processing area. Here you fill out one form in duplicate, the same form you completed when entering the country.
Do not declare that you are taking out more currency than when you entered. The Uzbek authorities have the right to confiscate the difference unless you have proof from the bank that you withdrew the money, rather than selling something in Uzbekistan. Once your forms are filled out, it should only take a few minutes to get the required stamps and you can roll over to the Kazakh side where the fun really begins.
The Kazakhs refused to treat us as a car without paying a bribe so we had to literally fight it out with the hordes of pedestrians trying to cross. You have to queue up at a window to get a stamp and a white registration card and at each window Kazakhs are pushing and shoving their way to the front. When we were there, window number one appeared to be reserved for foreigners and this is a much quieter option if it’s open so look for a window with hardly anyone at it and try there first! Otherwise use your elbows. Make sure you get your registration card. Sometimes the officials forget to give it to you. You can be fined if you don’t have it when leaving Kazakhstan.
You must present this card at an immigration office to register within 5 days of entering Kazakhstan. In theory, new rules mean this registration should be already complete when you get your visa or at the border but unless there is a large round stamp on your visa or card, you probably still have to do it yourself. We describe how to do this in Shymkent in the next section.
Once you have your passport and card, pass through the customs area. This seems to be a formality as no one was the least bit interested in checking our bags and there was no declaration of any kind to make. Once through customs, you’re out the other side and into Kazakhstan. Set your watches ahead by an hour, this part of Kazakhstan is at +6 GMT, with no change for daylight savings.
Section 2 – Kazakh border to Shymkent (100km)
The first Kazakh village nudges up directly against the border and here you’ll find plenty of places to change money at a decent rate and quite a few people begging for money. The chaotic atmosphere dies down after just a couple kilometers and on the outskirts of the village there is a tranquil cafe. As soon as you climb the first hill you’re rewarded with views of snow-capped mountains that continue all the way to Shymkent. Wild camping opportunities here are plentiful.
The first half of the journey to Shymkent has a reasonable number of roadside cafes and shops but things thin out after Qazygurt and for the last 40km or so into Shymkent there’s nothing at all. On a hot day, this stretch of continuous small climbs with little shade can be tiring so make sure your water bottles are full. All the villages and towns are set off to the side of the main drag so if you need something more substantial than what the roadside stalls can supply you’ll have to make a detour.
Approaching Shymkent, continue straight on the main road you’ll come right into the town centre. Whatever you do in Shymkent, do not leave without being registered. It’s easy and free here, if a little time consuming. To find the immigration office, walk up Momysh-uly Avenue from the main Republic Avenue until you come to Abal Park. On the opposite corner from the park you’ll see a large blue-grey building and beside it another building. Many police cars should be parked outside. There’s a blue metal gate. Walk through the gate, into a courtyard and up to the first floor where you should find immigration. In theory they open at 10am. Present your passport and the address, name and phone number of the person or hotel you’re staying with. It helps if this is written in Cyrillic. The registration is free but can take all day. We were told to come back at 5pm to collect our passports.
Section 3 – Shymkent to Taraz (190km)
Leaving Shymkent, it’s best to ask directions for the road to Taraz and Almaty. There are no road signs and it’s not obvious where to go from the centre. Once on the main road, the traffic is fairly heavy for the first stretch and it can be difficult to find a good place to stop and camp until you pass Aqsu.
Once out of Aqsu, things calm down considerably and the opportunities for wild camping increase as well. If you prefer a hotel, there is one in Turar Rysqulov and a fellow cyclist stayed there for about 4,000 Tenge. Before you get there, however, you’ll have to climb a col about 40km out of Shymkent.
Further along the route, we recommend taking advantage of the fresh spring water pouring from a tap in Bauyrzhan Momyshuly. Look for the pipe on your left, set slightly off the main road between a couple shops, near the exit of the town. A few kilometers out of Bauyrzhan Momyshuly, a large lake appears on your right. We spent a peaceful night camping here.
The main road takes you right into the centre of Taraz. In the main square, fast internet access can be had within the Kazakh Telecom building for precisely 152 Tenge an hour. The bazaar is another couple kilometers along the main road and you’ll find the food being sold near the back.
Section 4 – Taraz to Merke (170km)
Follow the main road straight out of Taraz, passing the bazaar if you need to stock up. Shortly after the bazaar you reach a T-junction. Turn left and then continue straight until you hit another T-junction, where you turn right and go over the bridge. This is the main road.
About 20km out from Taraz city centre are two motels on either side of a gas station and cafes dotted throughout the route. There are some rolling hills at the start but it soon flattens out, although the mountains remain by your side the whole time.
After you cross over the railway tracks but before you reach Qulan, keep your eyes open for a water pipe on the left. It’s near the road leading to the village of Qumaryq. This is a nice place to wash your hair and have lunch. Qulan has most of the basic amenities you’ll need, although the bazaar shuts down in the late afternoon so don’t expect much choice if you arrive around 4pm or later. In any case, it’s not far to Merke, a town which seems to have a bit more life to it and certainly a bigger, better stocked bazaar. There is no internet cafe in Merke.
A sign at the entrance to Merke directs you to the left for Almaty but you can equally carry on through the town and past the bazaar for a few kilometers where a sign marking a turn to Shu will also take you to the Almaty road.
Section 5 – Merke to Korday (165km)
Follow the road to Shu until you reach a roundabout, where you turn right to go towards Almaty. Watch out for the evil dogs roaming around the honey stands here. They are just waiting for a juicy cyclist leg to bite into.
The road cuts through flat farmland until Aspara, the only reasonably sized village you’ll pass through until Blagoveshohenka, at the next crossroads. Here you can find a few cafes and shops in a cluster by the side of the road and a little further on a good flow of water coming from a big pipe in front of the village itself.
After Aspara, the flat farmland is once again replaced by rolling hills. You won’t see any sign of life until you’re actually in Kyrgyzstan, aside from perhaps a few soldiers patrolling the border area and a sole house in what is marked as the village of Uchastok Papanina on our map. You’ll know you’ve entered Kyrgyzstan first by the cement barriers blocking off tracks leading towards the south, then by a sign welcoming you to the village of Stepnoe and finally by the border post just off to the side of the road. If you’re just transiting, there are no police checks from either the Kyrgyz or Kazakh officials and it’s no problem to pass through this tiny strip of Kyrgyzstan without a visa.
Once out of Kyrgyzstan, the quiet ride continues until you reach the crossroads at Blagoveshohenka, where you turn right for Almaty. There are plenty of cafes and shops here but watch prices carefully. We found our lunch here surprisingly expensive. The best wild camping comes before the crossroads . After you turn for Almaty there is much more cultivated farmland and accordingly more people around.
Water can be hard to come by on this entire stretch until you reach Korday. Fill up where you can. We ended up filtering water from a river.
When you reach the intersection with the M33, you’ll want to turn right to go into Korday. It’s just over 2km to the heart of the town and the bazaar. Turning left at the main junction in town will take you to Kazakh Telecom and a few hundred meters up from Kazakh Telecom on the same side of the street is an internet cafe. It’s a bit hard to spot, in a pink gated house, set back from the main road a bit. They charge 5 Tenge a minute for a mediocre connection speed.
Section 6 – Korday to Almaty (200km)
There’s very little in the way of services between Korday and Almaty so make sure you’re well stocked. You can make good time on this section more than almost anywhere else in your journey because of the excellent road condition: smooth asphalt with a paved shoulder.
About 10km out of Korday, a string of cafes have sinks outside, from which you can draw water. From there it’s a good hike up to the col, which is another 30km or so further on. There’s nothing until you come down the other side of the col to the junction leading to Otar and Ulken Sulutor. There you’ll find a police post and some kiosks and 1km further on a cluster of cafes serving the usual dishes like laghman.
After that there’s a desolate stretch of more or less flat highway until the hills pick up again as you enter the village of Targan. In Targan there are some roadside kiosks and shops but no cafes and then nothing again until you approach the town of Uzynaghash. As the hills return near Targan, the wild camping possibilities get better and better and continue to be good until nearly all the way into Almaty. Only 5km before Almaty would we truly say there was nowhere to pitch a tent although obviously the best spots are further removed from the city. About 10km outside of Uzynaghash we saw some very nice potential camping spots.
You enter Almaty on Ryskulov Avenue but to get to the main Tole Bi Street you’ll want to go one block to the right. Anyone should be able to direct you to Tole Bi Street, which will take you straight downtown.