Almaty, the second city and previous capital of Kazakhstan, felt like Europe to us. Expensive Burger King, household appliances, large super markets, food courts and even proper dental care. It was nice to be in a place where we could enjoy some luxuries, although we were missing the off the beaten track feel of the places we had previously been. Luckily at some places we could retrieve the central Asian feeling, such as at the bazar where everything was packed in plastic bags again. We have approached the end of the road in Central Asia: the final chapter.
From the moment we left Almaty however, the central Asian feeling was back. The day before it had snowed a bucketload of snow (lucky us) so we were back slipping and sliding around again. Luckily this time we had our studded tires on Mojo and Isaba which gave us a much more stable footing on the road. We were in no time stress and really just wanted to enjoy the last week in Kazakhstan. We were back in rural Kazakhstan and were enjoying winter cycling with nice views.
The first day, part of slipping through snow, was uneventful until we started looking for a place to sleep. We asked around in a small village if we could sleep inside somewhere. Eventually when asking a small baker baking bread in a tandoor oven one of his customers invited us home, but it was in 6 kilometers and the sun was setting. Also the instructions were not so clear. But we decided to give it a go 🙂 We got lucky and the guy decided to drive behind us until we found the right turnoff to the village. He lived in a country house with an outside drop toilet with his wife and two children. Two other daughters had left the house and at least one of them lived nearby. We sat down and enjoyed tea, bread, biscuits, chocolates and then even pancakes! We also got to see Russian dubbed German army television shows before sleeping in the living room. The family was Uyghur and were very welcoming. In the morning the man of the family had already left to his job in Almaty. We got to eat more pancakes and were back on the road again. After 10 km the woman of the family was waiting next to the road with colleagues for some final photos and to send us on our way 🙂
We cycled to Shilik where we enjoyed the night in a Guestenica. It was nice for us to escape the cold again a little bit. When falling asleep we had some background noises of two people having ‘fun’ and during the night we were awoken by a drunken man walking down the hallway calling out ‘dewizcka’, which means woman in Russian. Apparently he was in search of women and even tried to get into our room. Mojo and Isaba were locked up in the hallway so we were a little bit worried about them but it was all okay.
From here on the road started to become more interesting again. There was still snow and traffic, but also some hills and we were climbing upwards through Kokpek gorge. We had a nicely timed truck stop where we could eat some Laghman before reaching the small village of Kokpek. We hoped we could stay in one of the restaurants because the guesthouse was closed but no luck this time. Eventually we asked the last house of the village and we could sleep in their ‘machina’. The truck had a stove which we could fire up with cow dung. It was so hot we almost couldn’t fall asleep! And then it became too cold and we were shivering in our sleeping bags. It was minus 24 outside and the truck without the fire felt like a fridge. Next morning was hard to start and it was minus 18 outside. But we made it and were on our bicycles on our way to Charyn Canyon.
We reached the Canyon over a nice downhill gravel road with beautiful views around lunchtime and started exploring the place. We were advised to sleep down at the river and were also in need of water. So we decided to cycle down the steep road, knowing that the start of the next day would be tough! The road was pretty and the views of the canyon very nice. We camped and enjoyed an early arrival. Next day it was up and up for the first hour. Helping each other we made it out on the road again and were on our way to Zharkent. Still a few days to go, but now we wanted to get to the bordertown. In the mean time we camped and got warned for wolves in the area so we would be better of making a fire and that’s what we did. It also helped against the cold which was an added bonus 🙂
Zharkent was unexpectedly pleasant for being a bordertown. Okay, it is still 35 km from the border but previous experiences with these kind a places have been a bit grim. We managed to find a nice Guestenica this time even with a shower! So we were happy people 🙂 we found a restaurant that would become our regular where they even had pancakes, at least most of the time. The bazar was a lot of fun. We needed to stock up again because we were not sure when and where in China we would be able to find food. We walked around the bazar multiple times. It is always hard to get our bearings the first time at a bazar, but here the organizing was done quite well with different colored stalls in different sections. People always ask where we are from and on day two people were already stating ‘Gallandia’. Apparently word goes around and people had been talking about us 🙂 it was a fun experience! Zharkent also has two interesting religious buildings a Russian Orthodox Church and a mosque. Zharkent Mosque is a magnificent building of the 19th century, its architecture combines motifs of Central Asian and Chinese architecture. The exterior of the building architecture used items such as “floating roof” with curved ends up the ramp gallery around the building with cylindrical columns. After the earthquake which happened in 1910, the mosque was badly damaged, and then in 1975-1978 restored.
After a few nights we felt it was time to leave Central Asia behind and cycle to China. We were a little bit nervous about this as Central Asia had become our comfort zone and we were able to manage small conversations with our limited Russian and local languages. But there was another surprise in store for us. After cycling the final 35 km to the border it was closed. ‘Sakrid’, the border official said. We thought they were joking or wanted money. But nothing we could say helped to open the border. We were sent back to a Guestenica 1 km back where it was icy cold and they had no running water. We could try again tomorrow. The story got confirmed by the truck drivers that were waiting but it was definitely an anti climax…
Finally we had crossed the first border post and were on our way to customs. It was a 3 km ride over a very icy and slippery road. There were some dogs, Susanne braked and she was on the road with the bike… Not the most practical exit of a country but only her knee was bruised and it was time to enter China. Very very excited what the new stage of our trip will bring!
See below for our route from Almaty to Zharkent: