The next place on your “to visit” list needs to be Central Asia.
We bottled cycling through Afghanistan and Pakistan, were too wimpy to go over the Himalayas into China, and so flew to Kazakhstan from Delhi touching down in Almaty last week.
At its height, a sixth of the world’s land was part of the Soviet Union.
When the Soviet Union was dissolved in 1991, 15 new states were formed which included many of the Central Asian nations.
This is what the geography of the area looks like if like us you don’t have a clue about this part of the world:
Walking off the plane was a shock. After being used to (and complaining about…) very hot temperatures in India, it went from 45 degrees, to 4.5 degrees in the space of a three hour flight.
After building the bikes at the airport, we set off pedalling into the city, to find the house of Warm Showers (cycling network) host James, who we’d stay with that night.
As we wheeled 20km across town, the heavens opened with a mixture of driving rain and sleet.
James lived in an area full of towering Soviet style apartment blocks. They looked cold, wet, uninviting – and all identical.
We tried to find building 37, by this time it was dark and tipping with rain. There seemed to be no markings anywhere.
Sodden and wet through, we eventually located it, and were welcomed in by James, who turned out to be a nice lad from Reading. His flat was much warmer inside than it looked from outside, and we soon got ourselves sorted.
We got this photo to illustrate the numbering system on the tenement blocks – could you spot the 37…?
James has been teaching English in Almaty for 18 months:
“I love it here. The people are so friendly.”
“It’s run by a dictator, the guy in charge (called Nursultan Nazarbayev) has been in charge since 1991 when they got their independence. I guess he’s probably not done a bad job as Kazakhstan is actually a really developed country, probably the most out of any of the post soviet nations.”
According to this, Kazakhstan is 28th of 193 countries in the world in terms of development, and ahead of France and Belgium in terms of government efficiency.
“I think people in the UK have a misunderstanding about Kazakhstan and think it’s really backward – probably driven by Borat.”
Watching the opening sequence of Borat, it’s funny to imagine what the reactions of the Kazakh people must have been watching it. The video can be seen below if you’ve not seen it - even if you have it's worth a watch again.
The clip was actually filmed in Romania, and the people in the clip - Borat included – look nothing like the ethnic Kazakhs. He speaks Hebrew, and pretty much everything he says about Kazakhstan is made up.
Imagine a Chinese person doing a spoof film about being a Welsh journalist, but filming it in a village in the Mediterranean and instead of speaking Welsh, talking French.
Welsh people would be baffled, but then imagine what they'd think if subsequently many people in the world then thought Welsh people looked Chinese/Mediterranean, and spoke French. It's pretty much what happened with Borat.
Pretty much everything in Borat about Kazakhstan is made up, although this establishment looks like it could be straight out the movie – it’s anyone’s guess as to what goes on in the Fart Bingo Club…
The first day cycle out of Almaty didn’t get very far.
We’d done 19km before the torrential rain, and build up of water on the road stopped us. The nearest open place we could find was a Burger King, so we dragged ourselves in like soggy drowned rats – absolutely frozen.
We were so wet we were numb.
Five minutes after sitting down “Jingle Bell Rock” came on... soon we started to laugh….the next song was “Sleigh Bells Ring”… and before long we were in fits of uncontrollable hysterics at the ridiculousness of it all – sat in Burger King in the pissing rain in the middle of Kazakhstan, listening to Christmas carols in May.
The next few days were beautiful and we cracked on with a big two days of cycling to the next city Bishkek in Kyrgyzstan.
It was great to get moving again, and once out of town we got to appreciate some of the real Kazakhstan.
Kazakhstan is the world’s 9th largest country, but only has a population a quarter that of the UK.
The population density is 6 people per square kilometre, vs the UK 268, or Bangladesh which is 1,128.
As a result much of the country is vast open plain of grassland, known as steppe. It’s incredible scenery, stretching on for what seems like forever in every direction.
The main mode of transport around the grass is the horse – as people of the steppe have been using for thousands of years.
The only comparable scenery we’ve gone through on our trip is in Texas and Arizona in South West America – but instead of fences, ranches and “no trespassing or I’ll shoot you” signs, there is just grass stretching from the roadside in every direction.
The land isn’t farmed or inhabited – it’s just free wild land.
We spent one night camping in the steppe. As the weather was closing in, we dived off the road and just rode into the middle of nowhere before setting up our tent, and cracking on the next day.
The people we met were nice.
A lady outside a shop approached us and we had a full 10 minute conversation. She spoke Russian… and us English, but she obviously enjoyed it as she gifted us a small box of sweets before driving off.
A policeman flagged us down, and after some charades, led us into the police station. With no explanation, he sat us down and fed us a full lunch with Kazakh biscuits, soup and tea before waving us on our way out of Kazakhstan, and into the next country - Kyrgyzstan.
Bishkek is the capital of Kyrgyzstan (Kir–gis–tan), and where we stopped at the lovely Boorsok Hostel to plan the next leg – a hilly 650km ride to Osh.
Kyrgyzstan, officially known as the Kyrgyz Republic, is slightly less developed than Kazakhstan, and a man called Almazbek Atambayev has been the President since 2011.
25% of the country is mountainous, and it’s one of the only remaining places on earth you can find snow leopards.
Many of the population live simple lives and still herd their sheep and cattle around with horses as the nomadic tribes people did back in the day.
The route to Osh would take us over some significant mountain ranges and into some high altitudes. We were concerned about the cold, and although we’d roughly checked the weather conditions in advance of the trip we hadn’t had time to go into too much detail about this region.
The highest point we’d cross is called the Too Ashuu pass, and is 3,200m above sea level, 2.4x the height of Ben Nevis.
Up that high the weather can change quickly.
We checked to see what it was doing in the next few days: Highs of 35, lows of 7.
“ah easy – no problem. We’ve camped at way worse than 7 degrees”
“hold on…. That’s in farenheight”
It was actually highs of 2, lows of -14.
The only thing for it was to get up and over in the “warmer” middle of the day, then sleep at the lower altitude before the second climb the next day.
Plan was to cycle to a base camp at the foot of the hill, get up early the following day, smash it up, then get back down again before it got too cold.
As we were snooping around for somewhere to camp, a man came up to us. Via google translate, Ewan asked if he knew of anywhere nearby we could set up a tent.
He shook his head vigorously, and wrapped his arms round his body in a shivering motion, implying that it was too cold for a tent. He then pointed into his house and motioned us to follow.
We followed him in, and he proceed to show us his spare room where we could sleep for the night, introduced us to his wife, son, sheep, horses and chickens.
His name was Alik and his wife Kalia. They were delighted to host us and smiled as they fed us full of soup, bread, jam and tea. We couldn’t communicate other than through google translate (which is an incredible app).
Someone said only 7% of communication is verbal, and I guess in situations like that you can appreciate what they mean. Even although you can’t speak, you can still get the measure if someone is warm, welcoming, friendly and happy to spend time with you.
These guys were – here they were when we left.
They didn’t want anything in return, and sent Ewan this text on whatsapp after we sent him the above picture:
"Thank you Ewan for your this picture! I wish I hope for you great achievements, non stop in this! Good luck Ewan You are welcome!"
It’s probably getting repetitive reading these posts about how people are continually inviting us into their homes – sorry if this is the case.
Wherever we are in the world it never fails to amaze how welcoming and helpful people are, and how open and trusting they are.
It’s one thing when you can speak each other’s language, but it seems even more incredible when you can’t even speak to the person you are inviting in.
Imagine going for dinner with your friends and telling them how you invited a Kyrgyzstani couple who you'd picked up off the street into your house. They don’t speak a word of English yet you fed them, put them up and waved them goodbye the next day.
They’d probably think you’d gone mad.
Obviously there are exceptions and nothing is black and white, but it seems a shame that our culture is automatically suspicious, and theirs automatically trusting.
We were up early the next morning, had breakfast, fed the sheep and were off!
The climb to Too Ashuu was a lung buster.
The trees soon gave way to grassy slopes, which in turn faded out to rocks.
Up and up, higher and higher, colder and colder.
It was getting serious when we passed the snow line and through tunnels with icicles hanging down.
The final ascent was a series of hairpin twists and turns up to the summit. The wind was blowing off the mountain, across the snow and right into our faces - it was slow going.
Doing that sort of exercise at that altitude you feel breathless much quicker – but with deep breathing and plenty of stops – we made it to the summit.
It was a great feeling, a trip high point. Emotionally and literally.
There was a short tunnel that we weren’t allowed to ride through, so threw our bikes in the back of a truck and hopped off the other side.
The views were incredible, an entire mountain range stretching for miles, perfect blue skies and not a breath of wind.
We span down to 2,100m altitude, and decided to stay in a hotel, as the temperature was dropping rapidly. It could have been a silly decision to camp.
The next day was another climb to 3,100m. We were joined by fellow cyclist Alex from London who stayed at our hotel.
Whenever you meet another cyclist it’s always interesting to compare kit, how much weight you’re carrying, how far you go in a day etc.
Alex was only two days into an 8 week trip so was fresh compared to us 7 month veterans. Fair to say he had a few items of kit that wouldn’t have made it past our strict weight carrying policy.
Whilst making breakfast at the hotel:
“Guys – hope you don’t mind, but whilst you’re cooking breakfast would you mind if I headed out to paint a quick watercolour?”
“Haha crack on mate!”
We had a great time with Alex the next couple of days, riding up the next big climb to 3,100m.
Winding through snowy peaks, the roads were dead quiet aside from the occasional truck. Felt surreal to be cycling when we should have been skiing.
We made it to the summit and had a celebratory lunch of cooked up noodles.
The next bit was every cyclists dream. A 60km descent, dropping 2,500m on smooth roads with wide bends and stunning views at every turn. We bumped into another couple from Wales and Canada who we rode down with.
We started off in the snow, passed through the forest, a thunder and lightning storm, and out again into the heat and beautiful sunshine. After pretty much two days of climbing, we were down in about an hour and half.
The scenery just kept getting better, as we pedalled past Toktogul Lake, and south to Osh through a valley that looked like something from Jurassic Park. It was hard to take a bad photo.
Whilst Alex cracked on ahead of us, we spent one night sheltering from the rain in the tent, and another night we were invited into another house by Artur (below) who refused to let us camp outside.
We spent a classic night playing with the kids who after first being shy, were soon running around and shrieking with joy trying on our bike hats.
We ended the night doing shots of vodka (us and Artur, not the kids) as you do when you have guests round.
Vodka here is about 80 Som for a 70cl, the same price as a bunch of bananas – about £0.90. It’s actually harder to find fruit and veg in some of the rural areas than it is vodka.
Many shops have nice inviting signs on the window like this one below, but when you go inside it’s only vodka, cigarettes, bread and crisps.
The only thing we’ve struggled with a little here is the food. It’s so meat heavy and fatty. They put lumps of lard in much of the cooking and soups. I guess in the winter it gets so cold they need the insulation.
It’s rare to see fat people, but it’s quite heavy food to cycle on. Ewan tried the Kazakh delicacy “horse meat pasta” one day, and couldn’t finish it.
Which is saying something when Ewan couldn’t finish a meal.
It was quite emotional spinning through the ancient gates of Osh, and ending a mini leg that’s probably been the most beautiful of anywhere we’ve been in the world, both the scenery and the people.
Our lovely host Venera in Bishkek was telling us about her clientele in her hostel.
“Last season I had around 1,000 guests through the door, most of them were French, German or Dutch”
“I think of 1,000 I only had about 6 British people. For some reason British people don’t want to come here – or they don’t know about it”
Of all the countries we’ve visited in the world so far, this is the one you should add to your travel list.
You don’t need a visa to get in, the people are as friendly as anywhere, it’s one of the most beautiful places in the world - and the cost of a night’s accommodation in Bishkek was £6.
We have tried to capture as much of the last week to share with you all - you can view the full albums here for Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. We have also put together a short video that might go some way to illustrate just what an incredible place Kyrgyzstan is for cycling. Turn the sound up full!
To cap it all off (excuse the pun), on our final descent into Osh a car of men pulled up to us when we were stopped at a petrol station. They asked for a photo which we obliged, and they then gifted us two traditional Kyrgyz hats which we've been wearing around town with pride!
Get off the beaten track and come to Kyrgyzstan.
It’s as impossible to forget as it is to spell.