KAZAKHSTAN #1 - DISCOVERING CENTRAL ASIA
My first day in Central Asia starts with beautiful blue skies and a lie-in. After the extreme mental and physical pressures of the last month’s blitz through China, I feel it is well deserved. Although I am keen for a day off I have decided to keep going until I reach Karakol in Kyrgyzstan where I can check in to a hostel for a few days and have a proper rest. It is a mere 250km through Kazakhstan to the Kyrgz border, and then just another 100km through the mountains to Karakol and a bed.
Setting off, I am immediately struck by how dramatic the change is from China. Travelling at bicycle speed means that changes tend to come so gradually that everything seems quite normal. But going from China to Kazakhstan is a major shift, a transition from one culture into another that is quite different. The first thing I notice is the road quality has dropped hugely. In China the roads were almost always fantastic, whereas the road in Kazakhstan is rough and cracked, with plenty of potholes. For all that though it is perfectly good for cycling on and I find myself enjoying the added element of pothole dodging to my ride.
Signposts are now in Cyrillic and although I speak only a few words of Russian it is far more comprehensible to me than Chinese or Arabic. It is wonderful to be able to actually identify shops by their signs rather than having to peer awkwardly inside to do so. The scenery is beautiful, with a row of snow capped mountains in the distance to my right and green forestry to my left. Everyone is incredibly friendly, with many smiles and waves. Stopping at a small shop I am delighted to find that I can buy pasta again, something I struggled to find in China. My daily instant noodle regimen is over at last! Even better, I can actually drink the water here! Throughout Central Asia I can fill up at village pumps without any worries about purifying or boiling it first. After riding through China and Southeast Asia this really feels like the height of luxury.
I stop at a roadside bakery and stock up on bread. For most of my time in China bread was impossible to find, and the few times I bought some it turned out to be dry and disgusting. As I got closer to Kazakhstan I was able to find naan bread pretty easily, but it was still very dry and unless it was fresh out of the oven it was still fairly unpalatable. This bread though is mind blowing. It may just be the best bread I have ever eaten. Still warm and absolutely delicious. I load up my panniers to bursting, then force in a few more when the smiling baker gives me a few extra for free. Later, I stop at a road-side apple stall but before I can get any money out I am given a handful of red apples by a cluster of cheerful women who wave away my wallet and pat my arms suggestively. The last month has made me skinny and it seems I am to be fattened up. I have already fallen in love with Kazakhstan.
My prior knowledge of Kazakhstan is limited to Borat and a rough idea of it as a former soviet state with vast oil reserves. It’s soviet history is apparent almost immediately; even aside from the Russian signs and the fact that everyone speaks Russian, Kazakhstan just feels soviet. The biggest example of this are the little Lada cars which are everywhere I look. They are the same soviet era cars which I grew up seeing in old James Bond films, usually driven by Russian henchmen in those brilliantly Russian furry hats. Ladas are great - they have a wonderful charm to them and I know that I will be seeing a lot of them for the next couple of months on my way through to Europe.
Free at last from the stress of a visa countdown clock, I take my time and have plenty of breaks to relax and smell the roses. I am riding on an incredible high and cannot stop smiling. I feel I have never been happier to be anywhere in my entire life. I realise now that this is the reason people take on difficult challenges that they are not sure they can complete. The thrill of success; some combination of euphoria, triumph and relief which make up one of the greatest feelings in the world. Being here now makes it all worth it and the pain and angst of yesterday is already long forgotten, replaced by a joy that can only be described as glory.
By the end of the first day I have left the forest and the mountains behind and am riding through the desert once again. The wind is still against me but I am in no rush so I don’t really care. I meet a French couple riding recumbent touring bicycles so we decide to camp together. It is amazing to be able to talk to people again after so long. I ride slowly through the desert for a couple more days, fighting the growing wind by day and having another tent pole snap during a vicious gale at night. I ride over another mountain pass and cycle through another enormous thunderstorm. I am loving being in Kazakhstan.
I have selected a remote border crossing to Kyrgyzstan and am a little concerned when the road turns to rough gravel. There are no signposts and the only man I can find to ask is a farmer who has no idea what I am talking about. I am just wondering if I have taken a wrong turn when my rear gear cable snaps, leaving me stuck in top gear and without a spare cable to replace it. Crossing my fingers that I am going the right way, I keep going, standing up hard on the pedals in order to get over the hills in such a high gear. I feel very glad that the cable hadn’t snapped before the mountain pass I’d crossed in the morning. Silver linings I suppose.
It is with relief that I finally catch sight of a few buildings in the middle of a broad plain ahead of me. I haven’t seen a single car or person for the last hour so I am a little concerned that the border might be closed, but thankfully it is still operating. It is the most remote border I have ever crossed at and the guards seem pleasantly surprised to see me. My bags are briefly searched and a guard writes me a list of his favourite restaurants in Karakol. Even with all the guns and guard dogs it is a very relaxed border crossing.
I have my passport stamped and am cheerfully waved on. The mountains lie ahead of me on all sides. Kyrgyzstan at last.