September 5, 2013 by Rob Gardiner
After a couple of weeks lazing around Bishkek and chatting to fellow travellers, the acquisition of my Indian visa meant that I could finally begin cycling again. With two weeks until my flight to India, I set off on a scenic, and very circuitous, route towards Almaty; heading east, following the southern shore of Lake Issyk-Kul.
After the hustle and bustle of life in Bishkek, returning to my isolated, nomadic lifestyle was refreshing. The countryside in that part of Kyrgyzstan is well suited to wild camping and, being in no rush to get to Kazakhstan, I leisurely made my way eastwards.
Of course the Kyrgyz drivers tried their best to prematurely end this relaxed lifestyle with their frequent attempts to kill me. However, this was nothing compared to the unpleasantness that followed when one car overtook me. Speeding along at well over 60 mph, a sheep’s carcass was bouncing along behind. This might have been slightly comical, were it not for the smell of faeces, blood, and burnt mutton that was left hanging in the air. Furthermore, the slimy green and red trail, which was smeared along the road for the next few kilometres, did little to reduce the unpleasantness.
To escape civilisation even more, I took to the foothills of the Tian Shan, and again traded asphalt for gravel. My decision was quickly vindicated as I passed through fertile green pastures, overlooked by snow-capped peaks, with only nomadic herders for company.
However, there was one thing that threatened to spoil this idyllic diversion. This was that, to misquote a popular TV show, winter was coming. I first became aware of this when I awoke one morning, freezing cold, to find a thin layer of ice covering the inside of my tent. I may have been at 2500 metres, but just a month before, I had been camping 1500 metres higher with no such problems.
Slowly, I progressed eastwards and swung north towards the Kazakh border. With stays over 5 days requiring police registration in Kazakhstan, I was happy to go slowly and leave my entry into Kazakhstan until the last moment. Therefore, as I grew nearer to the border, well ahead of schedule, my days became more and more relaxed. Suddenly, more time was spent reading in grassy pastures, chatting with herders in Russian or cooking food for myself, and very little time was spent actually cycling.
Of course, this blissful life was slightly spoiled by the knowledge that I could be about to be in the centre of a Bubonic Plague outbreak. (Thanks, Andrew!) Fortunately, the case seems to have been isolated and I have seen or heard nothing more about it since.
In fact, it was something far more mundane that forced me to re-think my plans. Flush from my success at having entered Kazakhstan without being quarantined, I set of towards the border town of Kegen. It was only then, a few metres into the country, that I noticed that one of my pannier racks had developed an unhealthy wobble. And it turned out that this wobble was very unhealthy indeed. A bolt had sheared and only a tiny stub was visible, poking out of my forks.
In the ensuing attempts to remove it, I made the situation far worse. Firstly, I rounded of the remains of the bolt, so that it was impossible to grip with pliers. Then, I managed to snap of another bolt, on the opposite side of the hole. Finally, to really round things off, Kegen’s sole mechanic attempted to weld a nut to the bolt and only succeeded in completely destroying what was left of it.
Therefore, with my flight leaving in just over four days, I decided that getting a taxi to Almaty had become unavoidable. Thus, I began to search for a car that might be willing to drive from the tiny town of Kegen to Almaty – a distance of over 250 kilometres – and could fit my bike inside. It seemed like a tall order, but I hadn’t counted on Timur and Dinar.
Timur and Dinar definitely weren’t taxi drivers, in the western sense. In fact, I’m not sure you could even call Dinar a driver. Anyhow, they quickly struck up conversation when I turned up in Kegen’s centre and soon they suggested that they drive me to Almaty. The price was only 3000 tenge (£12), but it was a taxi ride that I will never forget. Twelve hours after we had agreed on this price, we finally arrived in Almaty. It is hard to describe everything that happened in these twelve hours, but here are some of the highlights:
- Driving around Kegen for the first few hours whilst being told that every major historical figure was actually Kazakh.
- Being told to write a book about Kazakh history. (I told them I would suggest the topic to Andrew if he ever does a Phd!)
- Timur explaining, in Russian, (They spoke no English) that American foreign policy is dictated by the Masonic Lodge.
- Explaining, and defending, Borat’s existence.
- Discussing the lack of democracy in Kazakhstan.
- Smashing the rear bumper on a rut, in the dark, and repairing it with wire from a farmer’s fence.
- Eating four meals with various different family members.
- Eating parts of a sheep that I didn’t know existed. (Including being passed a section of windpipe that had been torn in to pieces right in front of me.)
- Eating Kurut (pungent dried yoghurt balls) after having watched Andrew and Josh both retch when they tried them.
- Watching a Turkish soap opera, in silence, with Dinar’s mum, for 15 minutes. (She cried a little, too)
- Translating James Blunt into Russian for them. (“You’re beautiful and I don’t know why” = “Ты красывая и я не знаю почему”)
Eventually, I arrived in Almaty and, with a mixture of sadness and relief, had to say goodbye to Timur and Dinar. After a very brief night’s sleep, having not found a hostel until 4.30am, I set off to try and find a skilled mechanic. Fortunately, some other cyclists, who were also staying at the hostel, saved me a lot of searching. Incredibly, they had found a shop run by the mechanic for the Kazakh National Cycling Team.
Therefore, a few hours later I watched as the mechanic, a close friend of Alexander Vinokourov (London 2012 Gold medallist), carefully teased out the bolts from my forks. With my bike restored to full health, my attention now turns to my next destination: India.