Steppe-ing through Kazakhstan

Steppe-ing through Kazakhstan

After our gravel and washboard excursions in Kyrgyzstan, as amazing as they might have been, we were dreaming and looking forward to the tarmac roads of Kazhakistan.
However, contrary to expectations, the tarmac, took some time to come.

We thought as soon as we crossed the border the road would automatically improve and change to smooth perfect tarmac, Kazhakstan being the richest of all the stans (allegedly with a higher GDP than all the other stans put together). But this wasn’t really so. We still had to tackle a good stretch of gravel before rolling smoothly on the much missed tarmac.

Our content with the surface (and also the apparently friendlier people) did not last long though. Shortly after the road improved, the wind instantly changed. To our faces! Strong! The strongest head wind we had in our entire trip! If before it was the gravel, now it was the wind preventing us from moving forward. Buff… We had to admit defeat and camped not long after lunch, in a ditch in the soil, apparently used to keep horses and cows.

Woken up the next day by the shepards around with their horses, we managed at last to roll smoothly into the Charyn Canyon, which was in fact the only point of interest we had marked in the whole of Kazhakstan (besides Almaty, for logistic reasons). As we started what would be a 22km detour we hoped it would worth it. It was!!

A landscape completely different from what we had encountered before. A canyon gorge like landscape, similar to the Grand Canyon, although perhaps at a smaller scale. We realised we had no water with us and we were looking for a swim for some days now, so we decided to go down to the river below.

However, when we looked down at the only crazy steep, loose rocky path that we could use to go down into the gorge, a long debate ensued. Would we 1. be able to brake on the way down to the gorge without loosing grip of the bicycle and 2. if we made it down, would we be able  to push the bikes back up the next day . As we debated looking at the path and the elevation data on our phones, we had the realisation that perhaps we were not excited to risk adventures anymore and it was a sign we should go back home.

Needless to say we had to prove that idea wrong and one by one we took the plunge and headed down the path gripping our brakes as hard as we could. As we reached the bottom safely and contemplated the gorge from within we were most happy with our decision! Happy both for the beauty of the ravine itself and especially because it meant we were not getting boring and were not going back home just yet!

We headed to the river and found a place to put the tent and gave our bodies the necessary swim (wash) we had been craving (needing). And in fact, the next day the climb back up to the top was not as bad as we had feared at all. We slowly pushed one bike at a time back to the top, only making a few resting stops along the way… The training back from Arabiel Pass in Kyrgyzstan kicked in!

Back to the road where we had taken the detour the previous day, we headed towards Almaty, looking forward for all the food we would be able to have! And we don’t even mean fancy food. Just the normal fruit and veg we hadn’t been able to find now for ages…

On the way, a great surprise! Andreas, Michelle and of course Selma were going the opposite way out of Almaty, and we managed to arrange to meet them for the night, for a delicious shared dinner and of course, Brandy Dog, the boardgame they carry with them in their van and that we also had become addicted.

After a fun night in their company, we parted ways, now convinced that only in Europe we might see each other again. We were only a few kms from the city and once we entered were suprised by its almost European appearance.

We arranged to stay at Matt’s warmshowers place. An epic warmshowers in Almaty, who had for 4 years cycled himself all around the globe, and where we came to find, Mari and Eva had also stayed! Matt’s appartment was the perfect place for a few days rest. Huge, comfortable, full of other travellers and also boardgames, and most importantly, a very well equipped kitchen! We had planned to stay four nights but ended up staying six…

As we finally left Almaty, we hoped to be ready for the next big stretch of the trip, China! We had 6 days to reach the border (induced by an advance purchased Chinese train ticket) which we hoped would be enough. A bit like before reaching Khorog back in Tajakistan it felt like we were cycling just to reach the border, the road and the landscape were not so enticing.

This changed however in the last days, when the landscape suddenly changed (for the better), over and over. Better yet, one day, Sarah suddenly shouts behind me, “it’s Selma!”. And there she was, Michelle and Andreas waving at us inside, going down in the opposite side of the road. We had met once again after all!! We had unfortunately unawares camped a mere 12km away from eachother, otherwise we could have shared another night together. We had a coffee together nonetheless, and hugged farewell, now, quite sure, we would have to visit each other once all of us were back in Europe – they were heading to Russia and us China.

We were getting closer and closer to the border and perhaps for the first time in our trip, we actually under-, instead of over-estimated, our cycling abilities, and were close to the border a day before. This meant we could have a tent day hidden in a forest. Perfect for resting and preparing for the potentially annoying border transition.

When we left Portugal last year and early on in our trip, people would ask us where we were going. It felt utterly bizarre to say China. It was just so far away, both in time and distance, that we started to adjust our reply to something closer like Greece. More recently, long after we reached that milestone, we started again to say China but then the opposite began to happen and saying we started in Portugal felt as surreal.

And now, China was just over there. Just 2 hours cycle away…!

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