Charlie's blog: Kazakhstan is huge, it's the 9th biggest country in the world which is pretty much the size of the whole of Europe! The whole journey is 3,016km and we have a 30 day visa to get from Aktau to Taraz.
We had a day in Aktau with the other cyclists from the Caspian Sea ferry, the highlight being trying to order food at a restaurant with absolutely no idea of what we were going to get! But it did introduce us to plov which has been my main meal everyday for the past 3 weeks!
The next day we set out into the steppe for a 6 day cycle to Beyneu via Shetpe. Cycling in Kazakhatan is completely different to what weve cycled so far and so we needed to adjust our food and water supplies to include at least 5 litres of water a day and enough noodles to last a week, as well as fruit, snacks and chocolate (obvs). After fitting all this food and water on our bikes all the extra space I'd made by sending lots of stuff home back in Greece was well and truely gone. Luckily we dodnt need to carry lunch food as there were tea houses called chianas all along the route. They are mostly used by lorry drivers who have been a really nice bunch and have come to our aid with water on many occasions. We quickly picked up the common questions we would be asked (where are you from, did you cycle all the way here, where are you going, are you two sisters?) so we could have conversations with a mixture of our limited Kazakh and a lot of miming. One driver drew us a rough map with the distances between each town. He was going the opposite way to us but a couple of days later he caught us up on his return trip and stopped to say hi again!
Another by product of stopping at chianas is that it gives everyone there the opportunity to ask for a photo. The Kazakh have no qualms about asking for a picture (using the globally recognised mime for picture). Pretty much every day we get out photo taken at least once. Sometimes if it is a family or van full of people they all want a photo and we end up standing and smiling with 4 or 5 people! Other times we get waved down as we are cycling along to have a quick photo but my absolute favourite is when cars slow down to drive next to us while the passenger hangs out the window to take a selfie with us as we are cycling along!
The Kazakh steppe is very flat as you might have suspected but actually there are little hills and craters and a couple of rocky plateaus which varies the landscape. But it's really all about the evenings, camping on the steppe you get the best sunsets and stary skies. It is really stunning and pictures just don't do it justice but it makes for the best views for brushing my teeth!
My other favourite thing about cycling the steppe is the amount of camels everywhere, just hanging out or crossing the road. They really seem to have a good look at you as you cycle past. Despite our best efforts cycling through the steppe was a learning curve and twice on the way to Beyneu we ended up running low on water with no chiana in sight. So we stopped at house to see if they would fill up our bottles. Both times the family gave us water and invited us in for some chai and food. It was such a lovely experience as both times the whole family was there, from grandparents to kids and babies. Everyone would be sat round a low table covered with food. The ladies wear brightly coloured dresses and white scarves over their heads and again using our poor Kazakh and the trusty Google Translate we spoke about our trip and we're introduced to the family.
The kids were the best, they all wanted to try on our helmets an have a go with our cameras, which turned out really well as they took some of the best pictures of the trip!
We successfully made it to Beyneu and had a decision to make. Kazakhstan is already an enormous country but it is made even bigger by the fact that there is no road that goes from East to West, oh no, instead you have to make a 1000km detour up north via Aktobe... google map it and you'll see what I mean!
So we decided to take a sleeper train from Beyneu to Aktobe and then continue cycling from there. The train was a lot of fun, it was an open carriage with fold down bunk beds. It left at 10pm so we went straight to sleep and then spent the next day reading, napping and chatting to the other passengers, particularly one cute little girl called Ira who was in the bunk beds next to ours with her family. When the train stopped at stations we could hop out and buy food from the ladies selling on the platforms.
We arrived in Aktobe the next day to find that it was really quite cold! We were pretty much in Russia but I hadn't considered the climate change, but it was an opportunity to finally use some of our cold weather clothes that we've been cycling around with for the past 4 months so that felt pretty good.
The next stage, Aktobe to Aralsk, was another long stretch through the steppe, 611im which we predicted to do in 7 days (we actually did it in 6, go us!). The first few days were full of headwind and rubbish road that was still in the process of being tarmaced bt we were still making around 90km a day, not much else to do but cycle when you are in the middle of nowhere! Podcasts and audiobooks have become an essential part of my day, at the moment I listen to the adventure zone (thanks James!), tough girl, coffee break spanish and this american life a d would highly recommend them all!
We mwt some friendly people along the way including two men on their way home from a fishing tril, they showed us the barrel of fish they'd caught and gave us a melon, another couple stopped to give us a bag of sweeta and a bottle of carbonated camels milk (apparently a big thing in Kazakhstan but eww it ia disgusting!) and a group of lorry drivers who filled up our water bottles and shared a melon with us when we were running low before arriving in Aralsk. I really cant stress what a lovely bunch the Kazakh people are :)
We had a day off in Aralsk to shower, chill ans see the abandoned barbour before setting off towards Kyzylorda the next big city on our route and where we are now.
The main attraction on this stretch was that we would pass Baykonyr, where the Spaceport is. This is where they launch all the rockets from including Yuri Gagarin, first man in space! I knew the actual launch site would be out of view, you wouldn't want a space lainch pad right next to a town! But we thought the town would be interesting at least. Unfortunately it was a big disappointment as it turns out you need a Russian visa to go into the town (trust us, we tried). So we left after having a lovely pastry and piece of cake without seeing any of Baykonyr.
The infamous cross wind was back making cycling very difficult again but we are still doing roughly around 100km a day, and we'll have to keep it up if we want to be at the Kyrgyzstan boarder before the 19th. We've heard the fine for overstaying your visa is pretty hefty so we'll keep pushing on towards Taraz :)
Kazakhstan and Serbia have been the two biggest surprises so far as both were unexpectedly delightful. As we had never planned to come to K-stan I hadn't done any research other than a hurried google maps search and a quick nosey on Caravanistan. We have a 30 day visa with about 8 days left and 630km to reach the border which should leave us time for some shopping in shymkent...priorities right.
The first 3 weeks have been a wonderful mix of friendly and remote, beautiful and empty, challenging and easy.
Kazakhstan is HUGE. Great swathes of the country known as the steppe and vast uninhabited plains which range from desert dunes to arid flats to grasslands and we cycled through them all. We left Aqtau and our Caspian Sea friends and plunged headlong into the journey towards Beyneu 450km away. We had arranged to he hosted by a guy from warmshowers in Shetpe but hadn't had time to get his address. As we cycled into the town not know where to go ot how to find the right house and man on the pavement held out hia phone as I cycled past and shouted "ENGLISH". Well that must be a call for me. So feeling slightly like I was getting a call from M i tooo the phone and lo and behold it was our host! We were found and I hope all future communication is just as mysterious! Staying with Baijan and his family was great and we set off the next day fully carb loaded and readytl to tackle the desert.
I really enjoyed the cycling in this section, there was only one road so no navigation required and the flat desert-like landscape came alive with movement and colour as we sank into our new surroundings. Even the ridiculous 5 days of headwinds was managable and in my mind counts as resistance training for the upcoming mountains.
The distances in K-stan are huge (I may have mentioned that already but honestly, its massive) so before setting off we loaded up with 7 days worth of food and snacks and 7ltrs of water each. I had found a really useful blog ftom a guy who listed the distances to each chaihana (teashop) I've updated the info and will list it below for anyone wanting to do the same journey. This didn't stop us from hitting the 100km basin stretch with low water though and we had to stop in a village to ask for water. Everyone here is very friendly and we were often stopped by cars who jumped out to give us a bottle of water or a slice of watermelon - because everyone travels with a spare watermelon on their car, for emergencies you know. The houses are all similar in style, concrete, whitewashed square bungalows with corrugated iron roofs painted rust red or navy blue but inside theres an unexpected explosion of warmth and colour. The walls are lined with hanging carpets and tapestries in rich reds, yellow ochres and greens and the floor in a soft carpet with flowery cushions along a long low table where food was laid out. The first house we were invited into looked like they were having a party and we sat down on the floor to eat at the low table which was covered in allsorts of food! It reminded me of the foodfight scene from Hook when Robin Williams imagines table full of colourful delicious food. The women all had a good giggle at us, I love their flowers dresses and white bandanas.
The ride to Beyneu was cool as it felt like proper adventure, carrying our supplies, wildcamping on the steppe and facing scorching heat. And the camels, no adventure is complete without camels who watch us as we go by as if they are librarians with glasses as the end of their noses.
At Beyneu we got the train to Aktobe because, huge, 30 day visa, plus trains are cool. We got a sleeper train and 24 hours later were 1000km away. There was a slightly hairy moment when i was on the train with all the bags and Charlie was off the train with both the bikes and the train began to move! I've honestly no idea what I would have done if it had properly set off! Luckily it lurched to a stop and we quickly got everything om board to the amusement/annoyance of the train attendant lady with the poker face.
From Aktobe we set off south towards Taraz and the border crossing. With each day the temperature got warmer and after a few rainy days we were back to glorious sunshine and smooth roads! Yesterday the landscape changed once again from golden grasslands which rippled in the breeze to wet marshy fields.
The police are more present on this stretch and take great pleasure in pulling us over, checking our passports, listening to my mp3 player and asking about our husbands. We had a day in Aralsk, an old port town on the Aral Sea which was once the worlds 4th largest lake. The industry has been abandoned by the very waters it was created to serve as the sea has shrunk dramatically and left the rusting iron shells looming over a dry basin rather than teeming waters.
Things that stand out in Kazakhstan:
Gold grills are popular, why? Not a clue. Men, women, children all love the gold teeth look.
Tea is drunk from small bowls and is the closest to english breakfast we've found so far.
Headwinds and crosswinds are permenant. Embrace them.
Queuing is done by asking who is the last in the queue then remembering the order.
I like cycling here, I'd like to come back and do some hiking in the mountains, apparently there are snow leapords in the south....but that'll have to wait, first we need to get to Kyrgyzstan, one thing at a time lou!