Sunday, 29 May 2016

Kazakhstan - A Breath of Fresh Air

It felt great to get back in the saddle after our time off in Urumqi, although my body wasn't quite as excited as my mind was, if truth be told.  The 500km or so from Urumqi to Jinghe were fairly uneventful but then the mountains reappeared on our left, and all was right in the world.  The highlight of that stretch was without doubt Sayram lake, despite the fairly brutal climb up to it at 2100m. Making brekkie the morning before we arrived at the lake we were sitting in our camp chairs in shorts and t-shirts. Three hours later we were piling back on the layers and hoping that the ominous looking clouds that had rolled in weren't going to dump on us, and they'd roll back out again as quickly as they'd rolled in.  Still later in the day, while we were tucking into a nice big bowl of noodles in a little shed of a place that appeared on the roadside just as we'd run out of water, it started to sleet. The variation of temperature in just one day was hard to believe, and in hindsight, even harder to remember if it really happened that way.  From shorts and t-shirts to thermals and waterproofs in a matter of hours.  We waited the sleet and hail out and made a dash for it when it stopped. The people in the restaurant told us we were mad to be considering camping at the lake saying that it would be very cold and the forecast was bad but, we were determined.  We'd camped in the cold before and were pretty sure our gear was up to it so we thanked them and headed off anyway.  Ten minutes down the road the sleet started again but the lake had just come into view and we knew we'd made the right decision. The view was immense.  The lake is huge and surrounded on all sides by massive mountains.  The tallest peaks of which were snow-capped and the lower slopes were covered in grass so green it looked like someone had painted it, as well as a dense smattering of buttercups.  The moody grey sky, the almost turquoise-coloured water, the green grass, the yellow buttercups and the brilliantly white snow, made for some view.  Each time we camp we think we've hit campspot nirvana and this time was no different. We cycled around the lake to the side closest to the direction we'd be going the next day.  It was all action.  Nomads, their yurts, horses and camels were everywhere.  It seemed to be moving time.  We think lots of families were on the move for the summer months, coming from lower down where they'd spent the winter, to set up camp by the lake.

The mountains on our climb up to Sayram lake

Lunch, sheltering from the hail and sleet outside.

Our first view of the lake. A hint of Dalkey Island to it I thought?!

This gigantic yak called the lake home and was just freely roaming about the place.

The view from our camp spot. Not bad, I think you'll agree! 

Leaving the lake the next day on what was our last day's cycling in China.

After a cold night, there was ice on the tent again in the morning, and a quick dip in the lake for Nick (basically just to prove he's a hardy eejit!) we packed up and hit the road. 70km of the 90km to Horgos (the Chinese-Kazak border town) was downhill through spectacular valleys and we flew along, delighted with ourselves.  The road, called the G30, is a motorway and it has signs up at the slipways onto it that say no bikes allowed.  We'd been on the G30 for more than 1000km and had had no trouble but it was still always in my mind that we shouldn't be on it.  This day however, we passed a farmer on horseback herding his cows up the otherside of the motorway.  If a herd of cows is allowed, or at least tolerated, two cyclists were hardly going to cause much drama!

The valley we cycled down through after Sayram lake on the way to Horgos

Lunch time. We asked for 8 dumplings. The guy said no, that wouldn't be enough, how about 60! We said yes and gladly gobbled them all down!!

These boys in Horgos were delighted to chat to us and chaperoned us from the town to the border, delighted to be of help to us helpless eejits!

Arriving into Horgos, it was hard to believe that we'd done it, cycled the whole way across China. 4812km over 84 days, 30 of which were days off the bike.  Not too bad! We were both pretty ready to be heading to a new country after so long.  Not that China hadn't been great, just that it had been so long, slowly inching our way across the map.

Like I mentioned on a Facebook post earlier, leaving China and entering Kazakhstan felt like we fell down some sort of worm hole and came out on the far side in a totally different, unrecognisable place.  After a bit of negotiating, we were given permission to cycle the 7.5km of no man's land between the two border posts (usually you have to take a bus), and once at the Kazak side we were welcomed whole-heartedly.  There were no baggage scanners, trusting the Chinese side not to let anything slip through, and the sniffer dog they had on hand to check baggage was fast asleep in the corner, also choosing to trust the Chinese scanners!

Cycling the 7.5km of no man's land between China and Kazakhstan

Immediately on crossing, everything was different which seems a ridiculous thing to say given that a border is such a man made construction but it's true.  Even the landscape was different and, had it not been for the towering mountains to both our left and right it really would've been unrecognisable. In China, every little bit of land, if not built on, is tilled and farmed and the fields are separated with rows of birch trees.  The roads are straight, and have been built through towns and villages, giving traffic a right of way and totally ignoring the natural landscape, ploughing though anything that stands in their way.  The roads are also sealed off from the surrounding areas by fences.  Well maintained fences at that, so that the only way off the road is via the slip-ways every 20-50km.  China's infrastructure, as well as the land, has all been planned and developed in a way that gives priority to big business and the economy as a whole, at the expense of small villages. I suppose it isn't the second biggest economy in the world by accident! Kazakhstan, by comparison is as untouched as possible.  The countryside is natural.  There are no fences on either side of the roads. There aren't any birch trees in sight, and instead there are lots of tall, wild grasses and the odd squat, shrub-like tree. The roads weave slightly, going around corners and up and down hills instead of just going straight.  But it wasn't just the country side that was immediately different.  The people were different.  Faces have a much greater European/ Slavic look to them.  The food was instantly different too. We ate in a tiny cafe on the border and there wasn't a noodle in sight, never mind a pair of chopsticks, yet here we were only a hop, skip and a jump from China.  In recent years the border has opened up for locals and visa-free travel is allowed now for Kazaks and Chinese in an effort to encourage trade between the two nations but until then it must have been virtually sealed or else how could two sides of the same town be so utterly different?!

I don't think either of us realised quite how busy and hectic China had been.  It's a country that is completely non-stop. It never sleeps.  The roads are never quiet.  If there's one constant, it's the trucks and their continual hauling of all sorts of everything from one end of the country to the next.  Although the roads were smooth and the drivers, for the most part, very aware of cyclists, giving us lots of room, there was a constant feeling of 'we must press on', a constant need to cover the kilometres, to just 'get there'. That feeling lifted immediately when we got into Kazakhstan and suddenly we found ourselves cruising, stopping to take in the scenery, breathe in the calm and cherish every second of it all. There was no rush, no need to get on.  Quite the opposite in fact. We are going slower.  The distance from entry border to exit border is under 600km and we'd thought we'd do it in six days and wait until Bishkek to take a couple of days off.  Instead, we cycled 30km on from the border to Zharkent where we immediately decided to take a day off and soak up our new surroundings.  So far we are on our 8th day here, and we'll probably take three more days to cycle the 200 or so kilometres to the Kyrgyz border.

Lunch immediately across the border.

The land is allowed to be in it's natural state and any animals (horses and cows mainly) roam about freely and all look so healthy and happy.  Why wouldn't they be in a place like this?!

This jeep was driven by an Italian couple who were on a three month road trip.  We'd stopped for a break when they passed and they stopped to check we were ok :)

5000km! We stopped here for lunch.  It looked to be as good as anywhere to have a picnic!

We took four days to cycle from Zharkent to Almaty, where we are now.  The first night we cycled as far as Shonzhy. Just before the village we met an English girl Nic, going in the opposite direction and heading for Russia and Mongolia.  She's been on the road on and off for 3 and a half years and it was lovely to chat to an English'd been a while.  We also passed a retired Italian couple traveling overland in their jeep through Russian, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan.  They didn't have much English but they looked as happy out on their trip as we are on ours.  Just before we met them, I cycled over a snake on the road.  The yelp I let out was something else.  Nick turned around to see me cycling with my legs held up and out over my handlebars and a panicked look on my face, the snake reared up thrashing about wildly behind me! My god, I got some fright.  I thought it was a piece of rubber and was already on top of the damn thing before I realised my mistake.  I've been taking any rubber on the road since much more seriously, I can tell you!  Anyway, in Shonzhy, we stopped at a little stall for some grub where the man working there, an Uyghur, when hearing we were from Ireland and had come from China, equated the Uyghur peoples relationship to China with the Irish peoples relationship to England.  The belief that we in the west have a superior education and world knowledge is really such a sham and it's embarrassing to realise that although you know that, you are surprised by someone in a small town, in a land you know nothing about, making such a spot-on comparison.  Especially since, given our supposed superiority, most Irish people could barely place Kazakhstan on a map, let alone know anything about its people.  And here was this man, a 'lowly' street food vendor, making such an informed comparison.

We stayed that night in a local guest house.  A room with four beds, of which we were the only occupants, so we wheeled our bikes in too.  The woman who lived there and ran the place, asked if we minded if she, and her little baby, went in to our room to watch TV.  Of course not, we motioned.  When we came back to the room after a wander around the town, there she was, propped up on one of the beds, breast-feeding the little boy, with the TV blaring a Russian dubbed melodrama.  She looked pretty comfy and we didn't mind so we didn't disturb her when it was time for sleep.  We fell asleep to the TV and when I woke later to go to the toilet, she was still there and the TV was still on!

We were slow to get going the next day because I woke up to a flat back tyre. There was a tiny hole in the tube but neither of us could see what had caused it, the tyre looked fine, so we patched it and got on the road.  We planned on camping that day and had stopped to get some dinner just as the light was beginning to fade.  We finished eating and were going to cycle a couple of kilometres until we found a nice little spot to pitch the tent, but my tyre was flat again.  Clearly there was something in the tyre that I just hadn't noticed.  Very annoying.  We decided to just pump it up, find a camp spot, bed down and deal with it the next day.  When the sun came up the next day, the mosquitos came out in force so we scrambled to pack up camp, pumped my tyre again and dashed to the nearest town, 10km away, where we settled into the shade of a bus stop to fix this stupid puncture once and for all.  After about 30 minutes of super close inspection of the tyre, I found a hair-like ribbon of metal about half a centimetre long that had been doing the damage. It must've been stuck in there for over 1000km but my god was it satisfying to find it and yank it out.  With my tyre fixed we rolled on and  because lunch time coincided with some ominous looking clouds, we pulled into the little town of Teskensu for something to eat.  On entering the only cafe in sight, the wildest, wackiest and most wonderful day of the trip so far started....but that deserves a whole post of it's own.

In the meantime you can see more photos from Kazakhstan in our Facebook album:

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