Exactly 5 months to the day after taking off from Almaty Airport for our winter sun in India, the wheels of our plane touched down on the same stretch of runway. We had experienced a rollercoaster of emotions in the previous 5 months and were now beyond excited to be returning to a region and culture that we love and of course, the return to our bikes. Five months was obviously sufficient time for us to forget how uncomfortable our bikes are, or how stressful it can be when equipment breaks, or how picking a route can more often than not end in a ‘heated debate’…. However, we had not forgotten how our bikes provide us with the means to explore where many others can’t reach, how they attract help and generosity in the most bizarre circumstances and how fond we were of our riotous camels which had already carried us so far.
After the Delhi heat, the bright spring days in Almaty were a welcome relief, even when it started snowing on us the day after our return. The cleanliness and order of the city’s streets was also like a soothing tonic after the maddening chaos of India’s roads. There were no selfie requests, Lottie wasn’t getting leared at, we didn’t have to check our room for rats or ask repeatedly for clean sheets, the subway system was modern with beautifully decorated stations and every time we looked south, the snow covered tops of the Alatau mountains looked right back at us, glistening in the April sun. We were so glad to be back and felt so at home that immediately the idea of looking for jobs here and settling down was hatched. However, that meant CVs, job hunting and perhaps someday, going to work, which seemed a little bit like too much hard work for us. So instead we focused on enjoying our time in the city and getting our bikes, paperwork and gear in order for the journey to come.
Top priority was getting our bikes ready. Lottie’s dad had kindly brought us out a suitcase full of spare parts and replacement equipment which we quickly began installing on our bikes. With some helpful oversight from Ruslan, Roman and Aleks at Motoshop Freeriders, (where we had also stored our bikes over the winter), bearings, oil seals, cables, brake pads, screens, luggage racks, indicators, mirrors and electronics were either fixed or replaced. Battle scarred and still carrying some injuries, the bikes were as ready to go as they could be. Next job; visas.
With China out of the equation, and hungry for adventure, our focus turned to Mongolia. Unfortunately to get there meant crossing a small part of Russia, who had previously denied us a visa. The Russian application required us to have the Mongolian visa first which was thankfully quick and easy. The Russian visa however took a week to process and a good bit of money which left us biting our nails until they were no more. Thankfully there was no Mr Dennis this time to ruin our day and instead a large friendly Russian man who handed us passports with a big smile on his face. On seeing our shiny new Russian visas, only our smiles were bigger that day.
A final few days of preparation and life admin in Pitstop Econom Hostel, which was filled with various lovable crazies, saw us packed and ready to set off on another season of exploration and adventure on our bikes. However, on loading up the bikes we noticed that either Lottie had grown over the winter or her bike’s rear suspension was in need of some TLC. Typical first day teething problems were soon resolved by Rasim and Ilyas who operated their small repair shop out of a communal lock up. They worked with us until after midnight to fix her suspension and electrical problems. The Almaty mechanics are second to none and we are eternally grateful for their help.
The long and very straight roads of Kazakhstan stretched out in front of us for thousands of kilometres. The usual pre-departure nerves were quickly replaced by an overwhelming sense of excitement, gratitude and good fortune to be on our bikes again, doing our own thing and doing what makes us happiest. For the first time in our adventure though we were headed west after Ryan had coerced Lottie and some of our friends from last year to drive in the wrong direction for 1500km, through endless steppe and desert, to watch a rocket blast off from the Baikonur cosmodrome. Thankfully, south Kazakhstan was dotted with plenty of ancient sites and interesting culture for us to investigate and give our hot bikes and sore bums a deserved rest every now and again.
Our favourite and most impressive stop was the old city of Turkestan whose Yasaui Mausoleum is an unfinished gem of Timurid architecture. The bright blue fluted domes, enchanting Islamic script and intricately tiled facades transported us back to Uzbekistan and the colossal mosques, medrasses and mausolei of Tamerlane’s crowning glory, Samarkhand.
The old silk road city of Turkestan has long since been ruined and buried under the desert sands leaving only the huge mausoleum looming over the surrounding ugly, soviet era buildings. Excavations of the old city are currently underway so we took time to burrow around the narrow alleys and cramped houses which were again tremendously atmospheric.
Back on the road, we continued west towards Sauran where we met up with our Dutch friends Loes and Harm (@sixwheelseast). They had first spotted us back in Georgia, we shared beers in Tajikistan, partied in Kyrgyzstan and were now camping together beside the melting walls of Sauran fortress.
In a world so large with so many people, it’s amazing how we end up congregating together and sticking with the same familiar folks. Still we weren’t complaining, Loes and Harm are the most prepared and organised overlanders we have met and travel just as slowly as we do. Its also helpful that their landcruiser has a beer fridge. Unfortunately though we ended up abandoning them the next day after we developed oil problems with our bikes. We retreated to the safety of our gostinitsa in Turkestan and organised a train for the remaining 500km to Baikonur.
On reaching Baikonur, we hitched a ride in a lorry 50km into the desert where Harm met us and drove us a further 10km towards the launch pad. Unless we paid the extortionate $1500 fee each to join a launch tour, we couldn’t have been any closer to the launch site. Our friends Max and Harry from our Almaty hostel had also hitched the whole way which made six of us camped out in the absolute middle of nowhere, keeping everything crossed that we would see a Proton rocket blast off into space.
At 4.06am our prayers were answered as the main thrusters burst into life with a bright yellow flash. Slowly the rocket arched across the black night sky occasionally disappearing behind an almost invisible cloud. Still being 30km from the launch, the rocket was eerily silent in its steady march across the sky. It was only when the rocket had almost disappeared from sight, 90 seconds after we had seen its engines ignite, did we hear and even feel the deep thunderous roar of the rockets blast-off.
It was a truly memorable and probably once in a lifetime opportunity that was made all the more special by the bizarre circumstances and efforts made by everyone to somehow make it to this wonderfully remote and inhospitable location.
Going west felt wrong so we were glad to return to our bikes, via three very generous hitches (one of which we didn’t even have a thumb out for) and return to riding with the sun on our backs. Our return journey east to Almaty took us to the outstandingly beautiful Sairam Ugam national park where we celebrated Loes’ 30th birthday.
In a perfect display of the amazing Kazakh hospitality that we had come to love more than anywhere else, we returned to our tents from a 20km trek to a feast of shashliq laid on by generous a picnicking local family. Lottie had been jokingly wishing for this to occur for the final few hungry kms of our trek, so for it to actually happen was simply amazing. Another mystery visitor had even left us a box of chocolates by the tents simply because they recognised guests in their country. What a wonderful display of Kazakh hospitality and what a challenge to us in the West to show even half the level of generosity and compassion to foreign strangers.
We continued south east towards the mountainous border with Kyrgyzstan, crossing the beautiful Aksu canyon and dodging kids trying to stone us. Unfortunately children throwing stones at motorcyclists is a game which we had become all too familiar with in central Asia. We like to make a point of teaching these scallywags that it is not a pleasant game for us and could lead to some nasty injuries. It is also our chance for some payback chasing after the little blighters with our screaming bikes. On this occasion we chased them right into the parade square of their school where the headmaster apologised and the English teacher he summoned to translate, forgot what she was there for and interviewed us on our experience of the Kazakh mountains!
A quick visit to Kyrgyzstan to renew our visa, and another visit to our mechanics in Almaty saw us ready to continue east and north towards the Altai mountains and the Russian border. Late April was a glorious time to explore the Almaty region of Kazakhstan. It’s mountain peaks were still topped with snow, spring flowers bloomed on the roadside, we could freely pick handfuls of mushrooms for our dinner and everything was just so much greener than our visit last year to Kazakhstan.
It was also now getting hot in the south so the stunning Bartogai and Kaindy lakes which we camped by also offered some of our best wild swimming opportunities to date.
These were particularly welcome to wash off all the sweat and dirt which clung to us after a number of amazing albeit largely unsuccessful off road attempts. The Almaty region is criss-crossed by hundreds of adventurous tracks but even with our lightweight enduro bikes we struggled, fell over and were often defeated. Thankfully not much more damage than dented pride and a resolve to improve before we make it to Mongolia. At the end of the day, if you’re not flying, you’re not trying.
It was at Kaindy Lake where we met Jade and Jon, who would become our second support crew in as many weeks. Travelling from France in a banged up Hilux, they had thought it wise to cross the Pamir mountains in winter and were also enroute to Mongolia. What we soon became aware of though was that despite their scintillating company, travelling with them is cursed! Ryan was the unfortunate soul to suffer their curse as he and his bike got horribly tangled in some discarded fence wire that brought him skidding to a halt. Trusty Honda build quality, so fortunately no harm done but it was a lot of effort to free his bike from the tangled mess. Jade and Jon’s good company (and copious supply of Kazakh cognac) helped us forget about the melee as we huddled around a camp fire all night under a night sky ablaze with stars deep in the Charyn Canyon.
Charyn Canyon is not to be missed should you ever venture out to this bit of the world. It may not challenge the Grand Canyon on scale but at 90km long and up to 300m deep it is by no means just a mere scratch either. The fact that one can drive down into it and enjoy some of its many idyllic campsites all for free makes it all the more appealing for those of an adventurous inclination. We spent a couple of days relaxing and exploring its various arms and multi-coloured cliffs. Quite simply it was breathtaking.
From here our road turned north dropping into the old Chinese mosque of Zharkent and winding around the northern spurs of the mighty Tien Shan mountain range. At Taldykorgan we left the minor roads for the main road in the hope of making good progress as there was plenty we wanted to see and do in the north. What we were not prepared for was a paved road that resembled a crater filled battlefield! The road was utter balls and despite this being a main trunk road to China and Russia, our average speed was pitifully slow. This was only compounded by the weather deteriorating into a miserable, grey, wet, freezing state making our journey north some of the most unpleasant riding to date. That road is a disgrace and should be avoided at all cost!
Eventually we made it to the northern region of the Kazakh Altai. Unfortunately we were too early in the season to tackle any of the remote border roads and high mountain passes, so we had to ‘settle’ for a mini adventure in the lush green low lands. The Altai area is today famed for its beauty, archaeological sites and abundance of wildlife. Huge marral (similar to red deer) are farmed and their antlers harvested each year for the blood inside which is renowned for its medicinal properties. The fresh blood is typically drunk as a tonic but is also made into various ointments and creams.
The Altai is also rich in minerals so when the Soviets occupied Kazakhstan, they built many mines here, worked by people relocated from across the Soviet Union. Today some of the residents of this mountainous region can still trace their roots back to the Ukraine, Poland and Germany but many have resettled back in Europe after the collapse of the USSR. Most of the mines seem to have collapsed also and the communities they supported along with them. We stumbled across an all but abandoned mining town, whose eerie, deserted and crumbling buildings were in stark contrast to their stunning surroundings and we found it hard to imagine a large community of people once living and working there.
But Russia was calling and with just a few days to go before we had to cross the border, we sadly left the hills and headed to Semey. The troublesome duo Jade and john had caught us up, and we met them just outside the city for another long night of cognac and delicious dog food pasta. Those two are a wonderfully bad influence on us.
Semey is unfortunately most famous as the location for the Soviets primary nuclear testing facility, Semipalintsk and the residents of the area were to suffer its consequences. Many suffered from radiation poisoning, and even today high occurrence of cancer and radiation illness are attributed to the facility even though it has been closed for over 20 years. However, Semey has a lot more to it than nuclear destruction; it was also the location of choice for many of the USSR’s exiled artists, political activists and writers, most notably Dostoevsky. As a result the town has a number of museums, and memorials to keep an interested visitor occupied.
Semey is also home to our first ever couchsurfing hosts. With a day to kill before our Russian visa became valid, we thought it an ideal opportunity to find out more about this country and its people that we had come to love so much. Alyona and Symbat were fantastic hosts who were only to happy to answer our questions and discuss the complexities of their culture in as much depth as we dared. We feasted on Beshbarmak (horse meat served on flat square noodles) and visited the musical fountain, an oddity of all central Asian countries, all whilst finding out more about Kazakhstans one and only ever President, Nazarbaev. Alyona and Symbat provided us one final example of fine Kazakh hospitality helping us to leave this amazing country eager to return.
Before embarking on this adventure its probably fair to say that Kazakhstan did not fill us with excitement and was little more than a through-route to its more interesting and exotic central Asian neighbours. The only prior knowledge that we had of it came from ‘Borat’, the outrageous creation of Sacha Baron Cohen. Having now travelled in all but Afghanistan and Turkmenistan, we can take great pleasure in admitting how wrong our expectations were, although Borat was right; its very nice! Previously we loved Turkey for its amazing people; friendly, generous and hospitable. We also loved Tajikistan for riding opportunities and amazing quality of adventure; endless dirt roads, huge mountain scenery and wonderful camping. Kazakhstan has surprised us by being a mix of both and somehow a whole lot more. It is a country with so much to offer those interested in history, nature, culture, food, modern cities or back country adventure. It has a bit of everything and the only things detracting from the experience of travelling here are its corrupt police and the massive distances between places of interest. Thankfully though, there are extremely kind people to help overcome the police problem (one kind stranger secretly paid a bribe that we were refusing to pay) and sights/attractions of such beauty that the saddle sore is more than worth it, especially when we have a 4×4 support crew carrying cognac to help soothe the sores at the end of the day.
Kazakhstan is the closest we have come to finding somewhere to get stuck in and we have loved the opportunity to travel with other overlanders where last year we didn’t even once. Perhaps on our next visit to this wonderful country, we just might not find our way out again. What a pity that would be….