Cycling Kazakhstan! The land of yurts and Borat!

Kazakhstan wasn’t a country we had originally planned to cycle thorough.

With the unpredictable closures of the borders from Kyrgyzstan to China, we decided to play it safe and decided cycling Kazakhstan would be the best option. It’s a country I didn’t know much about. A country I didn’t really give a second thought to, and a country, I admittedly didn’t have high expectations for. All I knew about Kazakhstan, was that it was once apart of the USSR (like most of Central Asia), it was also very flat and empty and some regions were still radioactive from Russian nuclear testing. Other than that, all I knew Kazakhstan to be famous for was “Borat”. I was excited to be cycling Kazakhstan!

No, we didn’t meet Borat.

Admittedly I was too scared to even mention ‘Borat’ to any locals – and honestly, it was a shit movie anyway. To my delight, we did see plenty of yurts. Unfortunately, we didn’t get to stay in yurt while in cycling Kazakhstan, so I still have that dream to fulfil.

Cycling Kazakhstan
Making friends with stray dogs!

Kazakhstan was a country where I thought things would be easy.

Flat, for easy cycling. Empty, for easy camping. And, well, we left the shit roads behind in Uzbekistan, didn’t we? I wasn’t entirely wrong about that. True, Kazakhstan is largely flat, except for the route we took! It’s also very empty, but also very freezing cold – despite being told October was a good month for hiking. The roads – the roads were terrible! Despite all that, cycling Kazakhstan exceeded my expectations, and is a country I would definitely consider returning to.

The cycle from Bishkek to Almaty, for the most part was quite enjoyable. Relatively good roads, with a stunning backdrop of the snow capped mountains in Kyrgyzstan. The people were also surprisingly friendly, and we had several people stop to give us bread and fruit.

Kazakhstan did however provide us with 2 new challenges.

Frozen tents and bicycles, and shorter days! We experienced the coldest nights of the trip so far, waking up to a frosty tent and frozen bikes. It was not only hard getting out of the sleeping bag in the morning. We also had the challenge of defrosting all our gear. This meant some days we weren’t able to start cycling until 10am, or even later. The morning is generally when we do the most mileage, but with the reduced cycle hours we were struggling to smash out even 30-40km before lunch.

We weren’t really geared up for the cold weather, and spent a fair few nights shivering away in the tent with an emergency blanket draped over us. I guess we never really thought we would make it as far as Kazakhstan, so didn’t even consider that we could end up cycling in such cold weather.

The other challenge was the progressively shorter days. Before we were cycling from 6am until sometime as late as 9pm, now we could only cycle between 9am and 5pm (and that was on a good day).

Cycling Kazakhstan
Camping and waking up to being surrounded by a herd of cows

By the time we made it to Almaty we were very excited for a hot shower and a warm bed to sleep in.

I really liked Almaty, probably my favorite major city in Central Asia. It was very western and modern yet still with a post-soviet feel and lots of history. They even had cycle lanes in the city! It was exactly what we needed. We fulfilled Michael’s desire and went to a lunch buffet (twice in a row). I couldn’t really argue for only $9, including a drink – total bargain! Other than that we explored the city, by foot.

From Almaty we had another 400km of cycling Kazakhstan to reach the Chinese border. I thought it was going to be a piece of cake – so of course, that meant it wasn’t.

Head winds, continuous inclines, crap roads with a gravel hard shoulder (at the best of times) and some real bad drivers. Of course this is also around about the time when my body started falling to pieces – constant aches and pains all over. Our gear was also falling to pieces. Daily we had a new problem or breakage. Note to self: don’t buy the cheapest stuff off Ebay for future travels.

Missing being invisible.

On top of this, I was sick of people staring, grabbing my stuff, taking photos, whether you want them to or not. I constantly felt like an animal in a zoo, and though many people were just curious and meant well, the last thing you want when you’re exhausted and haven’t had a good nights sleep all week, is people poking and staring. This is something we constantly put up with since leaving Turkey, and it’s not something we had much more patience with. It’s like it doesn’t occur to some people that we can see them. That we are people as well, and we don’t like to be poked and prodded constantly. There is such a thing as space and there is such thing as respect, and unfortunately a lot of people don’t seem to understand this.

Honestly, all I could think about was home. I was finding it extremely hard to stay motivated and just wanted the whole trip done and dusty. However, I had signed up to do this for an amazing cause. 2.5 billion people have no access to safe or hygienic sanitation and they have no choice in the matter. They risk abuse and illness daily. I reminded myself that I wasn’t cycling for me, I was cycling for them. So, I pushed on. If they don’t have a choice, then neither did I. My suffering was still only temporary and nothing compared to the risks they endured, each and every day. It also would have been such a shame, and regret if we gave up so close to reaching our goal.

Cycling Kazakhstan
Camping in the desret

The scenery was quite various, though the road remained poo.

We cycled through towns, gullies, deserts, mountains, canyons, forests and more towns before finally arriving at the border crossing. Every night we were cycling Kazakhstan, we wild camped. Finally I felt like I had somewhat overcome my fear of wild camping. It only took 6 months to get there. The best wild camping night was in the desert, about 500m off the main road. It looked like we were camping on the moon, with a strange mist that covered the land. Grey colours dominated everywhere, except for the star-filled sky and desolate environment just added to the eerie out-of-space feel.

Eventually we made it to the Chinese border. Bikes, bags and boyfriend. We all crossed the border intact. It took a few days for it to sink in, but we had made it! We cycled all the way from the French Alps to China!

2 Replies to “Cycling Kazakhstan! The land of yurts and Borat!”

  1. Continuing amazing but scary story at times for a Dad to read. Well done but so relieved now that you have completed this daring mission.

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