Well, the boring connecty parts of this trip have turned out to be… pretty boring and connecty. This is a short post covering a little more than half of the distance from Bishkek to my entry to China at Tacheng. This stretch is about 1100km long, and has proved to be unexpectedly hilly and pretty hot. And thus, in comparison to the previous 1100km+ of riding, it was kind of monotonous. The scenery isn’t great (except for later after Taldykorgon), just endless steppe with tall mountains looming in the distance. The one fortunate thing about this stretch were the amount of services and (until Taldykorgan) the condition of the road. Kazakhstan is much wealthier than Kyrgyzstan, and this means that the average road condition is better, and the average town has more to offer. It’s probably the most developed area I’ve been in since Azerbaijan. Oil will do that to a country.
In Bishkek, I caught a screening of the new Han Solo movie in an old Soviet theater. The English, un-dubbed version I saw amounted to basically a private showing, with just three of us in the audience. To be honest, I didn’t really enjoy the movie, despite having looked forward to it for awhile now. It just struck me as a whole lot of ‘meh’. I also found a good bike shop, the first one since Baku, and some replacement rotors for my squeaky brakes. Also, a large tub of electrolyte powder, which has been going to good use on these hot steppe days. I ate a lot, watched a lot of Netflix and basketball, and just chilled out. There are probably a lot of cultural enrichment things to do in Bishkek, but I couldn’t work up the courage to leave my bed.
After two restful days in Bishkek, I headed for the Kazakh border just north of the city. I was sort of apprehensive of this crossing, because my entry stamp to Kyrgyzstan was so light in my passport it was basically unreadable. Alas, I worried too much, and was let out of the country quickly and efficiently, and entered Kazakhstan. As has become custom at all Central Asian borders, I was met outside customs by the standard crowd of eager taxi drivers. It’s almost a routine at this point that one will work up the courage to point to his larger-than-average taxi and halfheartedly offer me a ride. I laugh, say ‘nyet taxi’, and then they all laugh.
Over the border with Kazakhstan, I had a pass to get over at 1200m, and then managed to catch a monstrous tailwind. I slipped into my tent feeling tremendously accomplished, having crossed a border, found a new SIM card, done a grocery run, and cycled 135km over a pass. Almaty in two days seemed to be in the cards, and it was. However, it was sort of a depressing stretch to cycle. The name of this road should really be the Road of Death. Not for humans, but for birds. It was absolute carnage. Hundreds of birds lay dead along the side of the road, victims of what I can only imagine is a combination of crazy Kazakh drivers and unpredictable gusts of wind.
In Almaty, I treated myself to an AirBnB apartment for $20/night. I took another rest day, a reward for a job well done from Bishkek to Almaty. I also, I guess, needed time to process the sheer amount of death and carnage I had borne witness to on the road to town. The apartment was glorious. I had a kitchen to myself for a day, with a fridge, fast wi-fi and a full queen bed. I made quick work of the new season of Arrested Development. (As with Solo, I found it underwhelming) I ate ice cream by the liter, and prepared myself to continue my mad dash across the steppe. I scouted out my stops, checked out the Chinese border crossing, and again blatantly ignored the presumably very pleasant city, full of Kazakh charm, that lay beyond the confines of my bed. Almaty is very wealthy, and the trips I made outside my room were really only to visit the Kazakh Costco which was around the corner. The selection was overwhelming. So many choices of ice cream to choose from.
Bishkek and Almaty were a welcome reprieve from cycling, even if I only ended up spending a total of three days off the bike. They were exactly what I needed, at exactly the time I needed it. I rode into Bishkek at about 40% stamina and left Almaty at about 85%. Perfect. I launched into the steppe, ready to kick ass and put in some distance. 850km to the border, about 1700km to Mongolia. A blog I had read talked about doing this stretch at 60km/day. I took that unhealthily, put the pedal to the medal, and started ripping through 100km day after day. Boring and connecty.
Out of Almaty, there’s a super nice four lane divided highway with a reasonable shoulder. The traffic is also light once out of the city, so I was able to finally start to up my average distance per day. I had a light headwind most days with a reasonable amount of rolling hills, so I didn’t do any crazy century stuff, but I was for the most part off the road and in my tent at a reasonable hour for an afternoon nap, some dinner, and a good night’s sleep. I had one hammock night which turned into a hammock nightmare when the wind and rain picked up and I had to hold the sort of flimsy rainfly of the hammock in place for a few hours. The next day was very rainy and pretty miserable. But even on the worst days, a good day is only a day or two away. The next day was sunny, with many samsa stands, plentiful water, a good road, and thus few things to worry about except for my rapidly intensifying steppe tanlines.
The scenery and surroundings have gotten more and more Russian as I have moved north from Almaty. To the far north of me is Siberia, after all. Ethnic Russians have become more plentiful, and my maps on my phone have less and less information about each town I pass through. Wikipedia has almost nothing. I’m sort of flying blind, which is hard to do in these days with so many mapping resources available to you. Between Gaia GPS, Google Maps, and Maps.me, I’m usually pretty covered. I can see hotels, supermarkets, etc. Out here, these ‘big three’ don’t have much info, and it’s kind of nice to have to figure out my own way. I’ve finally found the limits of Google Maps out here in Eastern Kazakhstan.
Taldykorgon, the largest city out here for awhile, contained all the hallmarks of Soviet life. Weird, colorful playgrounds, statues and busts of leaders and oversize avenues and streets. Taldykorgon was also sort of a dividing line between a place foreigners might go one that foreigners do not. Add in the fact that I’m an American, on a bicycle, and speak no Russian. Some people have clearly been concerned for my safety. Consider a Russian that doesn’t speak English cycling through rural Kansas, and you’ll have a better sense of what this region is like. It’s just a very traditional Kazakh area. Wealthier than the rest of Central Asia, but still pretty isolated because of the geography. Kazakhstan is a vast country.
This is all to say that after Taldykorgon, I started to get approached a lot more and faced a lot more curious people. Everyone is incredibly friendly and of course I’ve never felt in danger, although I am up against the ever-present language barrier. I should have learned more Russian before I came here. They don’t have the English skills to ask me what I’m doing there, and I don’t have the Russian skills to say “because Xinjiang sucks this year.”
The road also disintegrates after Taldykorgon. That nice separated highway gave way to a poorly-sealed two lane road through the steppe. It’s hard to describe the state of this road except to say that it’s old and poorly repaired. The potholes have been fixed, badly. There are a lot of places where the road bed for whatever reason has collapsed and the road just dips over and over. Trucks have worn long ruts akin to a wagon trail, but in asphalt. It’s hard to maintain a constant speed, and for long stretches I’ve actually come to prefer cycling on the gravel shoulder. This is safer, too, because there are Kazakh drivers veering around the road trying to avoid the potholes and other road issues. I maintained my ~100km/days through here, but it became much tougher to do.
Let’s see, what else do I remember from these last few days in the Steppe? There have been an astounding number of military vehicles passing me on the road each day, and some helicopters above. Convoys of 4-5 trucks of soldiers, trucks with tanks on the back, etc. It is the Chinese border, after all. The Tian Shen mountains in the distance are gorgeous. Each night I’ve camped in or next to a large field of Cannabis. Not hemp. Cannabis. It literally grows like a weed here. There’s and old legend here that the old way of harvesting Cannabis was to run naked through the fields and then scrape the hash off your skin with a knife. It’s probably just a legend, but it does give an accurate description of how much weed grows here.
Steppe sunsets are just about the most gorgeous of all the sunsets I’ve had on this trip, and the stars afterwards are intense. Laying in my hammock after a long day with a slight breeze watching the sun set over the horizon has been something special. 13km before Usharhal, there is a delicious natural spring. Usharhal is a large-ish city to stock up at. Other than that, Sarkand is another restock option between Taldykorgon and Urushal. I’ve never carried more than 3L of water, and cafes are plentiful. I’m sure I’ve forgotten something about this section. If you’re coming through, feel free to reach out for information. Usharhal has a nice little hotel, but the wifi only works in the lobby.
The steppe riding grew on me after a few days. It’s nice when a ‘large climb’ is only about 250m rather than 1000m as it was in Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan. I also hit a milestone coming into Usharhal. 5750km total for this trip, which is the combined length of my trips in Patagonia and Southeast Asia. Some days I think the riding stretches out endlessly in front of me and question my ability to make it through. Other times, I lie comfortably in my hammock and lament that I’m ‘so close’ to the end. I’m way ahead of schedule, and it’s possible that I could finish close to a month earlier than I anticipated. Next stop, China!