Almaty - Kegen ... 29/05 - 05/06
When we decide to leave Almaty, we still have a lot to do. Albane et Benoît have to do some final adjustment on their Bikes, we have to get some food and finally do some internet. The problem with internet is that it always ends up lasting 3 times what you originally expected. When we finally leave, Albane is sick, it looks like the laghman (kind of thick noodle soup with veggies) was a bit too heavy. But she is brave enough to want to go on. We feel a bit stiff after so many days, and we should be much more enthusiastic at the idea of cycling again. But fortunately, Albane and Benoît are there, full of energy and desire to cycle across the globe, as always when you start a journey! The outskirts of Almaty are not very nice, loads of big villages and traffic. Less than in Europe of course but they do tend to drive like Fangio in their decomposing Ladas. Actually that is not very true, there are a lot of brand new SUVs and Mercedes. To be honest we have never seen so many Mercedes and Audis as in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. There are all from the 90´s but still, 90% of the cars are Mercedes 200 or Audis 100! In the evening Ben sees a brand new Mercedes van and decides to ask the owner where we can camp, hoping he will invite us to stay in his garden. After a few verbal exchanges during which Ben does his best acting to show we are harmless little French tourists wanting a safe place for the night, the owner says we can stay in his garden but only if we leave at 06:00 am. No problem will be gone! We pitch our lovely tent and discover Albane and Benoît's one. They are a bit similar actually but theirs is a bit lighter, a bit like the rest of their luggage. They have at least 20kg less than we have (and that is without all the weight Ben has put up with all the meat he ate in Australia and New Zealand). They don't have much electronics as we have and have smaller equipments like the filter and the Thermarests. Who cares, we like our comfort and we have to live with it.
Early wake up at 05:00 am, it is a bit hard but not bad since it can be quite hot during the day. We stop for lunch in a little cafe on the side of the road. It is so nice for us to rediscover this atmosphere so familiar to the "Stans": small villages with their big houses and their lovely garden along the road. White walls, light blue windows, dogs, and cows. And the usual 'chachlik' or 'samsa' sign indicating the cafes. Ahhh it's good to be back! It is so warm that we decide to play Scrabble, it's much nicer to play with 4 players. Ben wins by far with three Scrabbles (who said the heat melts your brain!). Benoît swears he will have his revenge! Looking at the heat we will have plenty of other opportunities to play. As we leave, the wind starts to pick up and we see big black clouds coming from the mountains. An hour later we barely have time to find a shelter in a small shop and the rain starts pouring. As the storm fades, we ask the boy at the counter where we could pitch our palatka (tent in Russian) in a safe place. 'Here in the garden' he answers straight away. It's the first time somebody answers positively so quickly, usually it takes a while for people to realise we are not a threat and to welcome us except, of course, when they are the ones inviting us in the first place, which occurred quite often in Uzbekistan. We pitch the tents in the garden when his sisters appear and kindly offer us some hot water. While Albane and Benoît are washing themselves under the rain (yep we don't get it either), we prepare the noodle soups. We wait for a few minutes shivering under the rain for the noodle to be ready when the mother finally comes around. Gula (short for Gulnara) immediately offers us to come inside. Straight away the orders are given to the girls and bread and tea soon appears on the table. Ah it is so nice to be taken care of by a mother and be seating in a warm and dry place. Before going to bed Gula insists that we stay for breakfast; Great! The breakfast is amazing; Gula puts us on a topchan, a wooden platform with nice cushions, in her lovely garden. 'Relax, enjoy the flowers and have breakfast!'. You can't refuse such an offer really! We wolf down the homemade jam, bread and smetana (cream). We even have omelette with tomatoes and cucumbers. What a treat! Gula and her family are Ouigours, a Muslim Chinese minority (there are, according to Gula, 20 millions of them in China). They have been leaving in Kazakhstan for several generations. Gula has 3 daughters and a son: Elmira, Nigara, Adelina and Islam. She also has an adopted daughter, her niece, whose parents and other children died in a car crash. A year after the crash Gula was pregnant with Adelina, she calls it an act of god. It explains the difference in age between Adelina and her sisters (5 vs. 17). Adelina is quite confident and performs beautifully a traditional dance for us in a superb dress. She chatters with us in Russian until her mother explains that we don't get it. Gula decides to make lunch for us and we can't refuse :o) Albane and Sylvie will learn how to make laghman: Gula brings a huge piece of dough that she cuts into slices. All the girls now start rolling and stretching the dough several times in order to get some sorts of spaghettis. In the mean time Islam puts some music and Ben and Benoit start taking pictures, it's a real party! The 4 oldest children are studying in Almaty and only come back during the weekend, we are lucky they are there. The laghman prepared by the girls is delicious and somehow taste different from the one we had in Almaty (Sylvie, Albane did you wash your hands properly!). We have to leave Gula and her family with great regrets but we need to keep going as we have to get to the border by the 6th and we want to do short distances to start with, in order to warm up our muscles, tendons and bones. As when we leave our parents, Gula gives us a huge pot of jam and 2 huge breads. On the road we fell for some strawberries. A little old man sells them at the back of his car. He tries to cheat us a little on the weight but we are careful. After a while he starts asking questions about the trip and when he sees our speedometer and realises that we have cycled 10.000 km all the way from France, he changes completely and drags Sylvie back to the car where he fills up a huge bag with strawberries, we even have to stop him! He explains that he wants us to come back to France and tell people that Kazakh are very generous people :o) Funnily enough we will see him on the road at least 2 or 3 times the following few days, every time he will wave and horn gently at us. A few km further, a woman to whom we had bought some water, invites us for tea. I guess we won't get far today :o) We meet with a big Turkish family (all very much fans of the singer Tarkhan). They have been leaving in Kazakhstan for several generations. We are delighted to meet Turkish people again we have so many good souvenirs! The women bring salads, jam, bread and tea... We show our pictures, we talk, we eat. The sun is starting to be quite low on the horizon and we are hoping they will offer us to stay. But strangely, the same woman who insisted on having us for tea, now wants us to leave but not before having given us a huge pot of blackcurrant jam! Poor Benoit he has to carry 2 pots now :o). The sun goes down quickly and the night is already dark when we stop in the next village. Some shepherds refuse that we camp in their field probably worried about their huge dogs biting us. A small restaurant also refuses after talking to the police they say they can not have foreigners stay on their property. Not our luckiest day I guess. This time the situation is a bit more critical, it's pitch dark, Kazakh drive like mad and the road is full of potholes. For some unknown reasons t is little village lost in the middle of nowhere has an expensive hotel (40 Euros) which is also an Indian ayurvedic centre. Fortunately, Benny, the Indian ayurvedic doctor, speaks perfect English and is a real gentleman; he talks to the owner of the restaurant next doors who agrees to let us sleep in his huge tent where he usually seats his customers. Of course we have to pay a small fee but at least we are in a safe place and the security guard from the hotel agrees to lookout for us. The next day Benny gives us a tour of the centre, a beautiful and huge log house made by an Estonian. We ask Benny the question we have been asking ourselves since yesterday: Why an ayurvedic centre here? Actually a rich woman who lives in Almaty but originally comes from this village got very interested in ayurvedic treatments during her trips to India and decided to create one in Kazakhstan. We dream when we see the rooms and the modern bathrooms; the only toilets we know are holes in the ground with a wooden shack around it. Benny also gives Sylvie special oil for her ankles which are still sore. Then he asks: 'Have you tried chachliks yet?'. While Kola (the guard), or Nikolaï, Sarkozy as he likes to joke about, keeps a eye on the bikes, Benny offers us some nice chachliks and tchai. We leave Benny and Kola (who took the time to tell us exactly where to find water until we reach Charyn canyon), touched by so much kindness. I guess that if we are able to find a solution at 09:00 pm in the dark, we can always find a solution. We leave the village and finally enter the famous and desert Kazakh steppe, a huge plains of dry grass. Without any trees and therefore shadows, the sun burns and we are literally cooking. Luckily enough there are three small cafes in the middle of the hill we are climbing, a nice and refreshing spot for us to stop for lunch. We spend a good 3 hours there eating pirmeny (small raviolis in a broth), salads, chornie tchai (black tea) and kleb (bread) ... and playing Scrabble. This time it's Sylvie who wins! Around 04:00 pm when the heat is less we cycle again to the top of the hill. When we reach the top a storm is coming. This time we won't get caught, it's time to find a shelter. As we are taking pictures of a shepherd on his horse gathering his cows and sheep, a man approaches Ben and points at a small restaurant. We hesitate a little, the house seems to fall apart and the people look a bit rough. But we remember that often in the mountains people can look a bit rougher and dirtier since they lack water. Appearances can be deceptive and we don't regret having stop there: we are extremely well welcomed by the couple who owns the restaurant. Seeing how bad the weather is turning (even loaded with 40 kg the bikes look like they are going to be blown away) they even offer us a room inside their house, which is very lucky as we are not sure the tents would have hold against such a fierce wind. We learnt after that the storm went through Almaty breaking windows and trees. The next day the couple show us where to get water but soon realise that the water comes from a field where cows and sheep are staying. We could filter and add some Micropur but we decide to buy 5L bottles just in case. It is always a dilemma: clean and safe water but plastic pollution or less safe water and no pollution? There is no waste collection here, garbage is thrown in the street where it piles up and then gets burnt. We know that wherever we dispose of our garbage we have the sad certainty that it will end up on a pile and with luck get burnt. The only thing we can do is make sure we collect them and dispose of them in the next village in order not to damage nature.
We get to the junction for Sharin canyon around 13:00 pm. A team of road workers has just finished their lunch. They straight away come and shake the boys hand and give a nice nod to the girls. They are all impressed when we show our 10.000 km. It's not a huge number for 13 months and a lot of cyclists do much more but for us and for them it still is impressive. Every time it likes a nice pat in the back. We have lunch in the sun in the middle of the steppe: light green grass, mountains undulating in the back and horses galloping in the middle... The Kazakh steppe as we have always imagined it! 10 km of dirt road (our real first one), the ground is reddish and rugged; we vibrate in resonance with the track. We finally get to the entrance where you have to pay 300 Tenge (~ 1.5 Euros) to have the privilege to enter the canyon. We calculate that it is probably barely enough to pay the 4 guards here at the top as well as the poor lonely one at the bottom. They are very nice and even remember Amanda and Olivier who came here 7 months ago on their recumbents... The view over the canyon is beautiful; the rock is red, yellow and ochre a bit like the Grand Canyon in the States. The first few meter to go down to the canyon are acrobatic, we slalom between the rocks and skid on the gravels... We have to push the bikes and prevent the 60 kg (bike and panniers) to go down too fast, we can already feel the pain of going back up. At least we finally exercise our arms. The wind picks up and doesn't help as it gains speed funnelled by the canyon. We would like to stop to take pictures but the weather is getting worse and we fear a similar storm to the previous day. At the bottom the canyon widens and we can finally see the river. We meet the guard who seems to be living here in a yurt most of the year with his dog. Poor guy, we pity him. As the weather is very bad he recommends we put up the tents in the open wooden shelter and protect them by laying down the tables and benches around. It looks like he's done that before :o) In the evening we invite him for diner. He welcomed us with tea and biscuits; it's our turn to show him our hospitality. Unfortunately he had the bad idea of drinking or smoking before coming and is getting a bit too friendly, especially with the girls. But the bodyguards are there :o). The next day we spend most of the day fishing; the guard gave us his fishing rod and told us where to fish. We are not very lucky to start with, whereas some other fishermen seem to catch a lot of fishes. But after a while Ben and Benoît get the feel for it and manage to catch 3 small trouts. The other fishermen are quite impressed since they are at least twice the size of theirs. In the mean time Albane and Sylvie are drawing and reading. We meet a group of French ornithologist and a group of tourist... our little guard is not so lonely after all.
After eating our trouts grilled on the wood, we start going up the canyon. We won't go very far today, we just want to sleep at the top of the canyon. For the last hundred meters, we take off the panniers. Albane and Benoît keep theirs, they have less weight and upright bicycles are easier to push. We take advantage of Benoit's energy, he carries four panniers and 5L water bottle in one go! An engine roars behind us... it's the Jeep with the guards that's going up too. We are really impressed that cars can go down (and up) this steep path. And not only Jeeps but also minibuses! We pitch the tents at the top and an hour later, the minibus stops and gives us 6L of water. Cool... so tonight, it's soup and red lentils!
The next day, we meet our first mountains. We cross a first chain of mountains and get a view over Sharin river. What? We have to go down the canyon a second time? No way! We overtake Albane and Benoit going downhill... ha, we too can go fast! A short uphill of 4 km after and we see a village far away, perfect for lunch. The steppe is so flat that we underestimate the distances. The village is actually 8 km away, we are starving when we get there. Bad luck for Sylvie, they serve only chachliks, meat skewers. After a few pieces of meat she gives it all to Ben. But he also finds it hard. It is either sheep or goat but the taste is very strong. A bit further, we arrive at a junction: straight on, it's China. On the left, it's Khirghistan. Actually, we could shorten our trip and go straight to Urumqi! We are still thinking when Ben shouts: 'Cyclist, cyclist!'. Unbelievable! A young Scottish guy brakes just in front of us. He arrives from China. He is spending his three months of summer holidays cycling in China before entering university... so he must be between 18 and 20... hats off to him! We are quite excited, he is the first cyclist we meet on this part of the trip. We then start a 13km uphill. It's hard after all these months... Luckily knees and ankles hold on, we stop a lot to drink and stretch. Albane and Benoit stop at a spring to freshen up and a 4x4 stops by. It is a French couple from Nantes! They crossed Europe and Asia following the same route as we did and now they are driving north towards Irkoutsk and Yakoutsk where they hope to meet the Evens, a people from the north of Russia. They are retired, at last some people who don't say: 'Do it while you are young!'. We would like to chat longer but the sun is getting down and we don't know how long is the slope. These two encounters give us some energy to finish the climb. And we need it: a few 12% slopes, an endless slope along the mountain and Sylvie's energy is declining, 3 pieces of meat are not enough. Luckily we still have plenty of dried fruits bought in Almaty bazaar. At the pass, some women sit in the wind, warmly wrapped up in coats and scarves. They sell the koumis, the fermented mare milk. We put on our fleece and gloves and start the 10 km-downhill. Far away, Kegen, the Promised Land (they say there is a hotel!) and in the background, snowcapped mountains. Once again, Ben says: 'It's the most beautiful scenery we have ever seen!'. Yes, even compared to the famous New Zealand... There is only one hotel in town but no one seems to know about it. It is almost dark when we finally find it. And there, we have to guess that we have to knock at the house behind the metallic fence. Big disappointment, there are no showers! We have to go to the banya (sauna) in town, 20 min by foot from here. A 8pm, after 20 km of uphill... well, it will wait until tomorrow! The toilets are in the garden. There is only a sink in the entrance where we can brush our teeth. Luckily the rooms are clean and we sleep like logs.