23 July – 7 August 2016
This section covers the 1,070k from Bishkek to Almaty going east of Issyk Kul Lake and a bit north into the Kazakhstan mountains before returning south to Almaty. I was very happy to do it in 8½ days despite the very bad roads half of the way. My trip total is now 47,500k.
Itinerary and weather
I rode east out of Bishkek had been promised my Kazakhstan visa Friday evening, but I didn’t get it until 11 Saturday morning, so it was a late start. I headed east to huge Issyk Kul Lake where I took the southern road to Karakol and then north and east to the Kazakh border. The highway to the lake was mostly boring but along the lake, there were many beautiful views against the backdrop of the mountains. However, it was difficult to enjoy with the bad road taking all my focus c.f. below. I had to stop to appreciate it, but my breaks were few and short as it was much too hot. 35-38C in the shade (of which there was little) and much more in the sun with little wind to cool me down.
At the border, leaving Kyrgyzstan was quick but it took some time to enter Kazakhstan. 30 minutes to get a stamp despite only two people in front of me in the line. And then 15-20 minutes of nonchalant luggage check - fine they want to check but then do it thoroughly. From the border, I rode north through Karkara valley, over a lush mountain range and then a long downhill to another big valley. Further N/NE to Shonzhy and later Koktal where I turned west though more valleys and over another lush mountain range. When I reached Saryozek, I took the new highway the last 200k south to Almaty – a pleasure to ride but again quite boring.
I had hoped doing a small loop north meant “real” mountains and though they were 1,500-2,000 metres high, it felt more like highland. The weather didn’t help either as entering Kazakhstan meant a big change. From hot and dry days in Kyrgyzstan, it was mostly overcast and rainy (hours every day) – the cooler weather was pleasant for camping and biking but less so for views. Heading north, I had a strong side/tailwind and as I went west and south it became a headwind. It became apparent that the prevalent wind is somewhere between south and west, which (if it continues) means a headwind all the way to Europe.
In Almaty, I spent 3 days getting my Iranian and Uzbek visa - two very different experiences. At the Iranian embassy no people and a smotth process while the Uzbek was chaotic and busy - hundreds of people trying to get in and not moving an inch, it reminded me of a Vietnam movie of the last days at the Amerian embassy in Saigon with people pushing, shouting and crying to get in. Two times, I had to use my "foreigner priviledge" - much against my will but otherwise I might still have been at the gate. Getting the visas was much faster than I had anticipated, so I could have left already Thursday, but since the Uzbek visa is date specific and my entry is 15 August, I decided to stay in Almaty another 4 days as there are no interesting detours on the way to Tashkent. Besides talking to many interesting travellers, I spent the time fixing the bike (e.g. changing bottom bracket, brakes and wheel) and preparing my Turkmenistan visa application for Tashkent. Allegedly there is only a 20% chance if success but Tashkent should be one of the better places so I'll give it a chance. The alternative is biking extra 1,500k up to the Caspian Sea where i can get a ferry to Azerbaijan, but then I also have the challenge of entering Iran from the wrong side. Time will tell.
Road, drivers and bike
The first 180k heading east from Bishkek was a pleasure on the new highway with 4 lanes and a small shoulder, so there was ample room for the drivers to go around which most did. Many people were speeding but frequent traffic police kept the worst sinners at bay. I took the southern road around the lake and immediately the road became horrible – washing board, potholed, bumpy, rough and patched beyond recognition. I constantly had to zigzag across the road the find the least horrible surface and still my speed seldom exceeded 4-6 k/h. When the road was better, I often rode long stretches against the traffic and like the last leg to Bishkek, it entailed less honking than riding in the right side. Whenever possible, I avoid gravel but here it was often better riding the washing board gravel in the side of the road than the actual road. The southern shore is not very populated and the road therefore less busy but despite the road conditions people still drove fast. No wonder many vehicles break down – they drive as if the vehicles were stolen which many probably are; maybe not by the current Kyrgyz owners but previously from Europe. At the SE corner of the lake, there was a road NE towards the Kazakh border but it was on small roads, so I skipped it not knowing if it implied long stretches of hilly, bad gravel road. Instead, I went 30k north on the still terrible highway, before I turned east on a great main road – 250k of nightmare riding was finally over (at least for a while). The bad road and equally bad drivers had made me go into a “bubble” focusing on the road and getting the stretch done, so it was nice to get out of the bubble and be human again – to be Michael again.
When riding the southern shore, I had jokingly thought that nobody could make even a gravel road this bad, but I had of course not taken the Kyrgyz road builders into consideration. The last 35k to the Kazakh border was amongst the worst I have ever biked – gravel with loose sand and stones, washing board, potholed, bumpy with countless big stones (15-25 cm) and rolling hills where I had to walk many stretches not getting traction uphill and not being able to break downhill. And just to make it perfect, I was showered in sand, dust and stones by every vehicle racing by. Still no empathy or at least a bit of sympathy for a bicyclist struggling on this horrible road. I will not repeat my observations/perception of the Kyrgyz drivers but just refer to my description in the last section. And considering myself lucky to leave Kyrgyzstan alive and uninjured – it is really not a safe place to bike.
From the border, it was another 10k of gravel to the nearest town though without washing board and big stones, so much better than on the Kyrgyz side. 1k down the road the sky got black and soon I had an hour of rain – fortunately the road became wet sand instead of muddy which would have prevented any progress. The Kazakh roads were far from perfect but often decent enough to bike about 20 k/h or more. The bad exception being the first 30k out of Shonzhy, which could compete with any Kyrgyz road. And the good exception being the 200k from Saryozek to Almaty on the new highway. At first the Kazakh drivers seemed to be more civilised – timing their overtaking, going way around and braking when little room to pass. Soon however, they also honked and squeezed though far from as bad as Kyrgyzstan.
I had heard the southern road around the lake was bad, so I used my Australian wonder wheel the whole way. Incredibly, I had no broken spokes or flats and only one broken screw despite the more than 300k of terrible roads. Had I used the other wheel, my guess is 3-5 broken spokes per day on the worst stretches and 1-2 on the (just) bad stretches. I’m really happy, I got my mother to bring the Australian wheel to Myanmar – without it, I would likely have given up the trip by now.
Camping, water and health
A few stretches were through open valleys or narrow gorges but in general camping was fairly easy in this mostly remote region. I got water in small towns and villages along the way and only once got water from a stream. My butt got some serious beatings on the bad roads but otherwise no new health issues. From the last leg, a few finger joints are still sore and stiff especially when I wake up in the morning – maybe from holding the handlebar tight on the bad roads?