Our legs are shaking, our fingers are numb and we are only 500 meters away from the hostel where we stayed in Bishkek. A really nice place by the way, nice and comfortable, where the communal heating was on all day. So making the step from 23 degrees inside to minus 10 outside after three weeks was a huge step. Especially after nature decided to give us a wake-up call and deliver a pack of 15 cm snow the day before departure. Nevertheless we were looking forward to get back into the cycling rhythm and enjoy some time in nature. Our trip to Almaty would turn out to be a 36 hour taste of winter cycling.
After 1500 meters from our hostel we decided it was too cold. So the easy gloves were packed away, out came our mittens which made a difference straight away. At least now we were comfortable enough to get out of the city. It was around 25 kilometers to the border of Kazakhstan and that was our main goal for today, just get on the road, find our rhythm and enjoy the cycling and being outside. The snow from the day before had made the roads very icy and slippery. We were searching for the patches where there was still snow or some sand which was spread. Now and then we would both slide around a little bit, but we stayed on our bikes and were happy for that. We made it to the outskirts of the city where the traffic was less crazy. In the city there are a lot of marshrutkas, small minibuses that are the main transportation for the people. We had made use of them a few times to get to the other side of the city. Practical, but they are jam-packed, drive like crazy, cut off corners and you never know if they are going to stay where they are or pull out straight in front of you. In the snow even more tricky because we were not as agile with the danger of slipping.
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Out of the city we decided it may be time to make a winter switch. The feet were becoming numb and the hands were okay but on the edge. It was still minus 8 at this point. So set-up change! Out came our DIY pogies and the boots. We put the pogies on the handlebar and the boots were nice and warm on our feet straightaway. The difficulty with cycling in these temperatures is really keeping everything in balance. It is not good if the extremities are really cold, but also not good if the core of the body is very warm. Also when cycling the conditions change constantly from going uphill, with the tendency to sweat, to going downhill, with the tendency to cool down very fast. It is important not to be sweaty because then the body can cool down very fast, which we don’t want.
Cycling to the border was slow but okay. The border guards were nice and polite, stamped us out, stamped us in and we were on our way again. At the Kazakh border we had some shoving around with a few Kazakh men. It is sometimes still hard to relate to the culture here. People expect if they push you out of the way that they are helped first. And they stand very very close to you. The border guard asked: ‘photo?’ and the man thought it was for him, but it was for Susanne. So this time it didn’t work for him. The whole border area was very icy so we were curious how the road would be on the Kazakhstan side. We were a little bit sad that we hadn’t seen more of Kyrgyzstan than we had. The season we arrived was really not the best season…
In Kazakhstan we found a small restaurant for lunch. Some very tasty plov for Susanne and Laghman for Martin. We drank some chai, enjoyed being nice and warm and before we knew it it was 16:00. Time to get a move on because the sun sets really early at the moment. So we did another hour and a half of cycling and ended the day with a whopping 36 kilometers on the meter. Nothing bad, good to get started.
Since we had gotten back on the bikes after lunch we could feel the temperature drop quite rapidly. We had found a field next to the road covered with snow to set up camp. First thing first: making ourselves comfortable and warm. We were already wearing a lot of warm clothes but now it was time for the super down jacket for Susanne and the normal down jacket for Martin. We set up the tent. Got the cooking gear ready and as Martin was starting to cook Susanne was cutting the vegetables and then blowing up the mattresses in the tent. We could feel it was cold. Martin checked on the GPS and it was already minus 15. By the time dinner was ready, which we were eating in the tent, the temperature was minus 18 and as soon as we were snug in our sleeping bags it was minus 22. Luckily it didn’t drop a lot more than that during the night with a minimum of minus 23 but this was a very harsh way of getting back into the cycling feeling again. It was tough for our bodies and for the mind. “Is this really what we are going to do the next three or four months?” Susanne thought.
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The next morning there was no point in getting up before the sun, it was just too cold. So we woke up around 8, had a look at the temperature which was minus 18 and turned around in the sleeping bags. By 9:15 it was minus 12 and slowly we were getting activated. But everything was slow and it took us a really long time to get everything sorted and packed. There are definitely different things to deal with in the cold. Martin had noticed that Susanne’s drinking bottle had broken the night before, although water had been poured out there was still to much pressure in the bottle due to freezing and it burst. Also in the night our breathing had vaporised and got stuck on the inside of the tent. The whole inside of the tent was filled with ice! The top of our sleeping bags were moist with condens of our breathing. Martin got dressed but with every movement he made snow was falling down from the tent. This meant the tent and our sleeping bags would not be completely dry which could cause problems for the following night. We slept with three liters of water in the tent but all our water on the bikes was frozen and with temperatures still far below zero there was not a lot of chance to have that defrosted. Getting up in the morning while it this cold is a challenge and we need to be persistent to get up and going. We know this is all a part of winter cycling touring, we are getting used to it and have to adapt new habits in these circumstances.
Martin made breakfast although our petrol was going fast. Partly due to bad petrol and partly because we boiled snow which takes a long time to boil. We had breakfast in the tent and finally we packed everything, put it on our bikes and plodded back to the road. The road was in the same condition as yesterday: icy and slippery. By now it was almost 12 and we knew we had a pass to climb today. At about 13:00 we passed a cafe where we had a samsa and a coke. The women were interrogating Susanne why we were cycling with this weather: ‘Kholodnyy, kholodnyy’. Which means cold in Russian. They also felt that we should be drinking tea and not coke. Susanne explained that we were in need for some sugar because of the pass to come. We cycled off the slippery parking lot after Martin had checked the pressure in our tiers. After another few kilometers we stopped. This is where the pass would actually start. We had just passed another small restaurant but we wanted to push on, otherwise we would not get to the top today.
We were getting ready to get back onto the bikes. Just one last winegum and suddenly Susanne felt something in her mouth. Oh no… Not tooth problems again. ‘I wasn’t even chewing’ was her first remark. She held out her hand with the winegum and with her crown on it. Martin said: ‘Okay, we need to get to Almaty’. So winter cycling is over for now 🙁 Luckily it was a tooth of which the root already had been treated so there was no pain involved but we really needed to find a dentist and ask how to deal with this.
After waiting for quite a while we hitchhiked with a truck for the first 160 kilometers. He had just come from Tajikistan where he had delivered goods that he had picked up in China. The truck with trailer was empty, so enough space for us. When he dropped us off, we found a small van straight away. The bikes and Martin got put in the back and Susanne in the front with a question: kuchai? (which means food) We said no, because we did’t really know what he meant and wanted to get to Almaty. After 5 minutes they stopped the car on the side of the road. Got Martin out of the back and they went to eat in a small restaurant while we were stuck there waiting in the cabin of the van 🙂 After 15 minutes they came back and we proceeded on our way to Almaty.
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We didn’t know where we would be dropped and we were meeting Brian, our Couchsurfing host who we called from the van, in the center of the city. The van dropped us 8 km on the outskirts, so we had to cycle the last part through Almaty, a city with 2 million inhabitants, in the dark, while the roads were still icy. Tricky stuff! We made it to Brian’s apartment and were happy he was very welcoming and speaks English as he is American. He could also point us to a dentist for the following day so very helpful! The dentist was very helpful and although it at first looked like the tooth could be built up it had to be pulled out eventually.
It was a rough first real acquaintance with the cold weather. It really made us realise what we are getting ourselves into. At the same time it is very rewarding and beautiful with a pristine white world. We will keep you updated about our winter experiences.