Kazakhstan – Part 1

Kazakhstan embraced us with open arms. After a complicated border crossing on the Chinese side (apparently my last name caused much confusion due to the German ä and the Chinese fear of losing face hindered them from asking me directly about this letter), we were greeted with a large smile by a tall, blue-eyed Kazakh border guard. He even knew some German words he had learned from one of his favorite bands – Rammstein. We just had to fill in our names on a small piece of paper, got our stamps and cycled off after a short chat with the guards.

And with this border crossing, we entered another world. Striking was the change in landscape. In the direct vicinity of the border, a lush grassland spread to both sides and the typical three syllable sound of quails calling from the vegetation could be heard all around us.

The border town, Bakhty was tiny, but we found a small shop and restaurant. With big and lusting eyes we spotted the bread and cheese. We were then drawn to the kitchen by a strong but delicious smell, where three women were preparing manty, a central Asian tortellini filled with mutton. There was no hotel in this tiny village, but we were eager to pitch our tent anyway, something that wasn't always easy the last couple of months.

Outside the village we spotted some ruins, the only structure in the steppe, and joyfully set up the tent well protected from wind and sun. In the distance cumulonimbus clouds formed and occasionally a few rain drops fell from these thunderstorm clouds.

The colors of the setting sun were breathtaking and the silence of the steppe was only shortly interrupted by the call of a night-jar, leaving his daytime hiding place.

The reason we crossed into Kazakhstan at the Tacheng – Bakhty crossing, was to visit the large Alakol lake, a state nature reserve. I hoped to spot some new bird species and take a few nice pictures, such as from this European Roller.

In the town of Makanchi, in the north of Alakol lake, we planned our next days. In summer this lake is a popular tourist destination for Kazakhs and Russians, especially the town of Alakol. Not the kind of place we envisioned for bird watching, so we looked for an alternative. On google maps and maps.me we saw an alternative route directly heading south of Makanchi and through the marshlands around the lake. However, the satellite view was blurred and we were not sure if there really was a continuous road to the other side. From our unwelcoming guesthouse it was a 40km drive to the lake. Should we risk it? I convinced Sera and we set off on an unpaved, washboard road.

Tough cycling with slow progress. And unfortunately without a through-road to the other side. We did spot demoiselle cranes, and dozens of black kites flew over our heads. Never have I seen such a big population of black kites as in this area!

That night we spent in a shepherds trailer wagon, feeling like in the movie “Into the Wild”.

The next day we did have to cycle back the same horrible 40km of unpaved road, but we did see our first camels! What special looking creatures.

Despite its reputation as a popular tourist attraction, we then decided to check out the town of Alakol and experience central Asian “mass tourism”. We expected large hotel complexes with all inclusive packages for tourists. What we found was a cute little town with small family run hotels. The atmosphere was very familiar and relaxed. Initially we wanted to stay two nights, but in the end we stayed for four, making friends with the owners, some guests and a lovely girl from a small shop. Well rested but with heavy hearts, we finally continued on the fourth day. The people here met us with so much kindness and the family-like atmosphere was something we greatly cherished.

We were 750km away from Almaty, a distance we thought we could cover in a bit more than a week. But we made our calculation without realizing how terrible the road conditions are, particularly to the north of Taldiqorgan, and how strong the winds can blow in the steppe.

Furthermore, it was not only very dry, but extremely hot these days with temperatures easily reaching 40º Celsius. Some days we only covered 50 or 60 kilometers, taking very long breaks beside rivers during the heat of the day. Often we encountered shepherds or other travellers who also sought refuge along the cooler streams, refreshing themselves in the cold water or resting with their animals in the shades of bridges. Fun encounters, even though they spoke little to no English and we basically spoke no Kazakh or Russian.

Kazakhstan is the ninth biggest country of the world, but only has a population of approx. 17 million people. Towns are sparsely scattered across the landscape and the wide open space of the steppe gives a feeling of freedom.

Setting up the tent is easy, and even though we do try to hide when camping, finding appropriate spots is no problem. The best spots are along rivers, with fresh water to wash, cook and drink. On those days where we cannot settle beside streams, we fill up our 10 and 5 liter water bags, an amount that easily allows us to shower, cook, do the dishes and filter water for the next day. Having a water filter facilitates safely drinking from streams or fountains and we were very happy to have it. To our dismay however, the Katadyn filter cartridge had cracked a while back. With glue holding the filter together we managed to still use it, but it was only a question of time when this filter would be unusable. But would we be able to buy another filter in Almaty?

A week after leaving Alakol, we finally arrived in Taldiqorgan, a middle sized city with typical soviet style buildings and streets. The last nights we always camped and it was nice to be able to take shelter from the heat in an air-conditioned room. As in Alakol, we ended up staying longer than initially planned. Finding the best travelling rhythm and taking enough rests is not always easy but after 6 months of travelling we realized that one more rest day can really make all the difference, for both the physical recovery and the mental motivation. As our hotel put it: Pleace do not worry :)