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A collection of tales from the road #30 - Kazakhstan

This is the largest landlocked country and the ninth largest on the planet. Each time I visited, I was able to explore a new region as it was just a short journey from our home in Tashkent, Uzbekistan. It's not as central Asian as Uzbekistan, more Russian in feel, but it's size means that it is quite diverse.

My experiences ranged from the grey and dank Tashkent-Shymkent highway, the ski resort of Shymbulak near the glitzy city of Almaty, and the desert-scapes of Charyn Canyon near China.

If one can look passed the nuclear test sites and the clouds of smog in some parts, its really quite nice. When the locals are not on the vodka, my experiences with people were calm and pleasant. When they are on the vodka, they either want to be your best friend, or to punch your lights out. Another huge generalisation, but I am just sharing my observations.

I love this chapters photo, coined as Matt vs. Donkey vs. Machine by my only road-cycling friend for a year or so. No one understands why a foreigner would ride a bike here, unless they are poor or crazy. To be fair, judging by the way I was treated on the roads, you'd have to be crazy. No surprise then that the state sponsored Astana Pro Team would often come south into Uzbekistan for the relatively sedate road conditions in Uzbekistan. This would make no sense to anyone who has cycled in Uzbekistan, but it is true.

By far my favourite day of cycling in Kazakhstan was in the far southeast of the country at the summer-only Karkara mountain border with Kyrgyzstan near Kegen. We had woken early that morning in our tent surrounded by a field of wild horses. We tootled down to the checkpoint with them as they wandered for a drink in the ponds and puddles which had gathered either side of the raised gravel road. The border was little more than a few huts and a barrier across the track, but thanks to our forward planning, we had no problem with permissions and paperwork and were soon on our way.

There were a few 4x4's around and the odd Lada, but little traffic crossed this way, as the road was terrible. Things were changing in Kazakhstan though, as we spent a few hours finding our way through serious construction sites. I would say they were just road works, but there was little evidence of the road at this point. We met some young French cyclists, who were as laissez faire a pair as I ever did meet, with little gear and unsuitable bikes, they were eager to hear our stories of Kyrgyzstan and us theirs of Kazakhstan. They told us we were definitely going in the right direction, because a few hours away was a wonderful descent of over 1500 vertical metres to the desert plateau, scarred with many canyons.

It quickly heated up as we zipped down a relatively smooth road, and before we knew much about it, we were baking in 40 Celsius heat. The final seven kilometres were a real test as we could see the village we hoped to stay in, shimmering like the typical oasis scene from many movies. Except that this scene had dilapidated bus shelters, soviet warehouses and one tree in town. When we finally touched our feet down on the squidgy road beneath, we were not optimistic about our chances of sleeping anywhere. However, a storekeeper showed us around the back to a crumbling prison-cell with a gutter for running water full of sheep shite. Perfect. By the morning it had crumbled some more, as a 6.4 magnitude earthquake hit the region, making for a unique wake-up call. We had routed this way mainly to see the Charyn Canyon. This was actually a diversion of a few days from the route east towards China, but from what I had seen from my favourite travel documentary 'The Long-way Round', it would be worth the effort. It certainly was, but we had learned that cycling through and out of it towards China was no longer possible, even with an unloaded bike, so we reluctantly hitched the 35kms to the turn-off from the road.

We hung around at the next junction, scorching and squinting in the dry desert, hoping for a lift for the last 10kms off-road to the entrance of the canyon. It only took a few vehicles to pass before we were picked up. A lovely European family on an unusual break from their jobs in the capital was excited to hear our stories, but they couldn't hide the looks on their faces of utter disbelief and fear that we were crazy to be bike touring around here. The route back was not quite as smooth as we had spent a good while gawking at the massive slit in the earth and lost track of time. We asked the only official looking person how to get back and he pretty much just gave us a litre of water (the only water we had), wished us luck and gestured that we started walking. We eventually made it back to the road, and just as we were starting to struggle to swallow, a big old soviet car came rolling around the bend. Bottle in hand and gold teeth beaming, we had no option, so just smiled back at our willing driver. We sang songs all the way back to our luxury cell, received chocolate bars from concerned truckers, and spent the evening sitting on some steps with a polish couple who had no idea why they or we were there.

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