It is always exiting to come to a new country. Many things are new or change: The people, products in the shops, infrastructure... First thing I learn in Kazakhstan is that when there is nothing on the map, it means there is really nothing, nothing at all! Incredible the space they have here. Kazakhstan is the ninth biggest country and only 15 mio. live here.
The number of people with a russian origin has risen quite a bit. Very strange: I arrive in Almaty a town in the middle of asia close to the chinese border and yet it looks like I am in eastern europe! Kazakhstan is the most economically advanced of the 'stans, mainly thanks to the oil. Easy to recognize in Almaty with shiny 4WD's and limousines dominating the streets and prices almost at european levels too.
The town is pleasantly green and situated just south of a nice mountain range. This is where I head off at first.
To the Almatinskoe lake south of town I want to go. I seem to have made the right choice: it is a demanding track climbing higher and higher passing the lake, and observatory and finally the Zhusalykezen pass at 3336m. It is sunday and there are actually some other mountain bikers out that have the same goal. Together we cycle for a while: they with their carbon machines and me with my tank... Atop I enjoy a great view into the glacier covered mountains. There is a scientific research institute here. Quite a bizarre place here: old rundown houses, a humming transformator in a hut, plenty of rusty antennas and other soviet rost and somewhere a lone worker repairing a bulldozer.
Sooner or later I have to start north into the steppe. But I rather like to stay here in the mountains and so postpone the depart.
Finally I am leaving. The distances my map is presenting me are quite remarkable. The temperatures also soon reach very high ranges. I adjust my water supplies that I carry with me. At first I head east towards the chinese border. A river has carved a nice canyon out of the red rock creating some interesting, colorful formations. I cycle all the way down where I can camp next to the water in the pleasant shade.
And then there is this climb... 800m to go up. Ok I will do that in the morning then I can go up to the pass in the afternoon, I think when I study the map the day before.
When I reach the top late next afternoon I must look years older. I am totally exhausted. At the foot of the climb my thermometer shows 40°C in the shade. It is one of the worst climbs I have ever done. The heat is brutal. I empty liters of water and seem to sweat it just as I drink it.
Unfortunately a problem I know all to well: At temperatures like that I can simply not eat enough to have plenty of energy and so cycle constantly with empty batteries. 2 days I need to recover after that.
So far I really like it here in Kazakhstan. It is not the country with the very spectacular sights, no question. People are a little bit shy at first but very friendly. As a tourist you are still an attraction in Kazakhstan! I am impressed how well and mixed kazakhs and russians (although they are very different) live here together.
Now it is getting really flat. Shortly after I leave Taldyqorghan there is a little hill and then the road drops into this giant plain. Quite an impressive view: flat like a pancake in all directions all the way to the horizon. As always when it is flat, one is close by too: the wind! It is not a question whether it is blowing or not but only how strong and more important: in what direction.
I have just passed one of this little villages. As always I have filled up on water and supplies. But only few km after the village the asphalt ends atop a little height.
Uups that was unexpected. There was no indication of that on the map. I have to stop and evaluate the situation. It is a 100km to the next village and I have about 15 liters of water with me. In front of me I can see a rough track across the barren flat disappearing on the horizon (left picture). Or should a better take take another, longer route? No, I will try it. For two day I cycle at walking speed on the endless washboard. But then I cannot find the trail anymore.
For two hours I push the bike through the soft sand in search of the road. I can't find it and finally give up even if it is only 20km to the next village according to my GPS. I had just passed a deserted train station where I now go back to. There are even some people there. As always I first have to explain what I am doing here. And where am I heading? I tell that I have just lost the trail and now want to go back. They point to a little path: follow it and you will arrive at the village in 20km! They could not know that sandy trails are not very good for cycling but soon I can see the first houses on the horizon. I go directly to the main attraction of these little villages: the fridge at the little shop on the street corner!
It is still very hot for cycling, usually just below 40°C in the shade. I got used to that already (as good as that is possible at all) and with the wind it is bearable.
More problems I have with the fact, that these temperatures last from early morning at 7:00 until the evening at 20:00. I can impossibly put up the tent before 18:00. It is way too hot. But I cannot cycle for 12 hours and there are days where I cannot find shade all day long...
The dimensions here are very unique. You all know these pictures where the lonely street goes all the way to the horizon. That always looks so endless. Endless? Under good conditions such a view covers at most the next 30km. But I cycle here hundreds of kilometers across such plains. Pictures simply fail to show this giant width.
According to my map I should come to a lake today. I am looking forward to something different. But then it starts: there are these big mosquitos here that have just been waiting for a sweating cyclist. I get chased by hordes! It must be a very funny sight how I try to prevent the worst with my arms resulting in some dangerously uncontrolled cycling.
This big emptiness has unfortunately inspired others to some very bad ideas: during the cold war the area around Semey was the testing ground for more than 400 nuclear bombs. No worries, I stay well away from that place.
With every additional degree of longitude that I get north, temperatures are getting lower. The landscape is getting greener and there are even some hills to recognize on the horizon.
After 1200km across the steppe I reach Semey in the north east of Kazakhstan.