I rode out of Tashkent on wide Soviet built boulevards passing the city’s TV Tower as I went; bearing due north for the Kazakh Uzbek border at Jipek Joli about thirty kilometres away.
Reaching the border I was expecting a repeat of the waiting and frustration I’d experienced when entering Uzbekistan from Kazakhstan in the west. I couldn’t have been more wrong, passing through Uzbek customs and border control was made easy by guards who seemed to like foreigners; they took me to the front of the queue for customs checks then again to the front of the queue for border checks. The only sore point was when one of the guards said that we were ‘enemies’ as I supported Arsenal and he Chelsea, I don’t think he had his gun at the time so I got away with a nervous chuckle.
The Kazakh side was similarly easy as I was again taken to the front of the queue for border control and then the customs check consisted of me being asked if I had any drugs. Luckily my word of honour was sufficient and they didn’t bother scanning my bags.
Riding into Kazakhstan I was struck, much as I had been entering Turkey, by the vastness of the country. It is hard to explain but as I cycled on I could feel how large the country was before me. Perhaps it was the rolling hills spilling off into the distance and the large wide roads or perhaps I was just imagining it as I know how large Kazakhstan is. It was good once again to have some geography to look at – Uzbekistan had been a touch devoid of this – the part I went through was very flat and the weather had been cloudy for the most part obscuring any hills there may have been in the distance.
The area between Tashkent and the next large city: Shymkent was pretty rural and there were not many accommodation options – the only town of any size didn’t have any accommodation. A cafe owner agreed to let me sleep there but was a little confused when it turned out I didn’t just want a nap but to stay the night…so I rode on.
As night fell and no options presented themselves I saw a farm with a small patch of grass that was not covered by snow so thought I would ask to camp there. When I asked as has been the case many times the very kind people invited me to stay in their home.
The family was quite large – with three generations living there: there was the grandparents and their son and his wife and then the wife of the second son who was away working as a driver. Then there were five children aged from one to seven: all five of them were girls.
As was usual I assume in winter, though the farmhouse was large, everyone was clustered in one heated room. Heated by a big oven with various pots boiling on it. The dinner they gave me was tasty and generous, I initially thought that what they served me was for sharing with everyone! There was about six eggs, fried horse sausage, bread, jams, noodles and even some fish. I struggled to eat it all but was clearly expected to.
Meanwhile the three smaller children were all over the place; two were little more than babies and were getting under their mother’s feet all the time.
When it was time to sleep they took me to separate part of the building; clearly the ‘best room’ as it was nicely decorated and looked little used. They offered me a divan to sleep on but had already made a bed up on the floor which I was more than happy with as it looked very cosy.
Popping outside in the middle of the night I was treated to a beautiful night sky, I saw shooting stars and the moon turn red as it set.
The next day as I rode for Shymkent I saw my first proper mountains in a long time.
Thankfully I didn’t have to climb any.
Riding into Shymkent, Kazakhstan’s third largest city, I was surprised by how much more vibrant and busy it seemed than Uzbekistan. There seemed to be far more shops, cafes and people in general.
The first thing I did upon arriving was try and get some credit for my Kazakh sim as I needed to call the person from Couchsurfing who had agreed to host me. Walking into a shop I was greeted with a hello by the girl behind the counter. So I asked her if she spoke English. Normally when someone says ‘hello’ to me in this region it is suggestive of how foreign I look rather than an indicator of any facility with English on their part. So I was left speechless when the girl said ‘of course’. I wanted to say ‘what do you mean of course??? Do you know how many kilometres it has been since anyone in a shop spoke English!’ Instead of saying that I just gaped at her then got her to help me top up my phone.
With phone credit I was able to contact Aliya from Couchsurfing who was incredibly helpful during my time in Shymkent; making sure I had somewhere to stay both nights I was there. The first night she also took me out to dinner with her twin sisters, and a couple of friends of their’s. One of the friends was a guy called Usien and he seemed rather keen that I stay in Kazakhstan and marry a Kazakh girl.
The next day I had to get myself registered with the Kazakh migration police. Aliya asked one of her younger sisters: Aisulu, to help me with this. Even with a Kazakh person helping me this took three separate visits and it wasn’t until 20:00 in the evening that I finally got the registration I needed!
While I was waiting Aisulu showed me some of the city, including the Mig statue:
Shymkent while seeming to be a fun and vibrant place is a bit low on sights.
Later in the day when I was left to my own devices a group of girls approached me to practice their English. They were very enthusiastic and a couple of them spoke English very well. They seemed very surprised to see a foreigner and asked me to come and have a look around the college where they were studying. I managed to fit it in to my busy schedule.
That night I slept in one of the stranger places I have done on this tour: in the office of a hair salon.
The weather since I had reached Shymkent had markedly improved in the day; with bright sunshine and almost warm temperatures. Suddenly I could see incredible mountain ranges in the middle distance:
It makes riding a lot more pleasant when there are things to look at!
That night I reached the town of Turar Ryskulov where I found a cheap hotel to stay in. Cheap but unpleasantly seedy with a particularly unpleasant set of clientele and smells.
I headed out as early as possible the next day as I was expecting a tough ride. The road out of Shymkent hadn’t been great and I didn’t see any reason for it not to continue in the same vein. As usual I was wrong and about 15kms into my day’s ride the road suddenly became perfect. Beautiful smooth tarmac coupled with a slight downward gradient and even a tailwind! I felt like I was flying along. The only problem was that every so often the highway would become icy and I’d have to slow down. Luckily I only came off once and even more luckily that ice didn’t last and soon I was able to ride unhindered. There were beautiful views:
Coming out of the foothills I’d been riding in into the depression that housed Taraz I was struck by how much warmer it was. There was far less snow and even plants growing.
I was also struck by having to make a descent. I’d barely gotten above 30kph on my bike since leaving Georgia two months ago so I was a bit shocked to come over the top of what I thought was a small hill in Kazakhstan only to find myself accelerating off the top of a small mountain down a very steep long road. You can see the road in the middle of the picture above. I almost hit 80kph which is exhilarating and totally terrifying at the same time on an unpredictable central Asian road.
Not far out of Taraz I popped in briefly to look at the Aysha Bibi mausoleum, apparently the burial site of Kazakhstan’s answer to Romeo and Juliet:
In Taraz I’d arranged to stay with another Couchsurfing host: Bilal. Bilal was incredibly generous with his time and made me feel really welcome. He took me to his grandmother’s to sample some traditional cooking made by his mother:
Hospitality was clearly very important to this family and as has been the case so many times on this trip their kindness made me feel very humble.
The next morning Bilal and his wife took me to see the Russian Orthodox church in town and this was very interesting as there was a service on when we arrived. One priest was blessing members of the congregation in turn while another was leading another section in song. It was surprisingly busy given that Kazakhstan is Muslim country but apparently it was the first day of the Orthodox new year.
It was interesting staying with Kazakh people with such good English and Bilal was very curious about my trip and the UK and equally I was interested in Bilal’s work in the Kazakh oilfields, where he would work one month on and one month off.
And to my right a wall of mountains that was constantly there for the whole 110kms I rode that day.
The range always looked as if it was tailing off and ending; it wasn’t though it was just the curvature of the Earth making it look like the range was ending. It was literally mountain from horizon to horizon.
Until the sun set.