Dates: August 6, 2018 – August 12, 2018
Location: Almaty, Kazakhstan
Activities: City touring, Hiking, Gearing up for bikepacking
Photos by Brittany
We left Vancouver on August 6th and after 42 hours and three flights we landed in Almaty, Kazakhstan, the jumping off point for our bikepacking trip. It turns out the bikes hadn’t even made it on our first flight out of Vancouver despite arriving at the airport almost 4 hours ahead of takeoff. The last time I’d seen mine was when I was unpacking the box after a swab test flashed an “INDICATOR: TNT” warning on the agent’s computer at YVR. Curiously, instead of treating this seriously, the agent lamented his decision to search the box at all after initially claiming it was unnecessary. Since it was probably just remnants of naphtha on my fuel bottle, we got to repack pretty quickly and send the bikes onto the special oversized conveyer into the bowels of the airport to be regurgitated 24 hours behind schedule.
In a sense, not having bikes was a relief because we had failed to arrange any kind of transport from the airport into the city anyway. With just our carry-on luggage, it was a breeze to get a taxi to our hostel and fall into bed.
The first day, we were up bright and early from the jet lag and walked into downtown which ended up being 7 km away. The night is cooler than day but mostly because the daytime highs our first two days were 37 C. Sleeping was a sweaty affair and walking doubly so. Nevertheless, we navigated our way to the pedestrian streets in the middle of town and ate at a canteen where we could sample some different local (i.e. high meat content) meals.
The city was as different from our expectations as possible. Neither of us felt the least bit insecure or unsafe and the traffic is not nearly as hectic as China. While cars may slip just ahead or behind you when at a pedestrian crosswalk, they will most definitely not hit you. The city seems to be undergoing massive beautification projects as we saw numerous work crews laying kilometers of interlocking brick sidewalks. This was in addition to street cleaning vehicles and dozens of uniformed workers sweeping and cleaning sidewalks and parks everywhere we went.
After lunch we went to the Green Bazaar which has everything you need from fruit and beef tongues to plumbing supplies, provided you can navigate your way through the labyrinth. It also has toilets which I suggest you bypass on your tour if you can help it but, alas, I could not. Here we bought some apples that looked very nice and later learned that historically the name of Almaty has essentially been “Father of Apples” and “Apple Mountain” and that this area is the birthplace of the edible apple. After the bazaar, we found our way to the local chocolate factory as much by smell as by sight before heading back up to the opera house to finish off our walking tour.
To return home, we chose to try the metro priced at an outrageously cheap $0.20 per trip. Clearly styled after the metro in Moscow, the line was only completed in 2011 after 23 years in construction. The stations have chandeliers and other aesthetic touches but hardly the ridership to justify it.
In the evening we arranged with the hostel owner’s brother a return trip to the airport to retrieve our bicycles that had indeed shown up on the same flight a day later. Everything looked intact when we picked up the bikes which was a huge relief for me. We strapped them to the roof of the car and got them back to the hostel safe and sound.
Day two we took the city bus up to Medeu which is a big outdoor skating rink in the local mountains about 20 km from the city and 800 meters higher. This is also the jumping off point for the largest ski resort in Central Asia: Шымбұлақ.
We had come up here to see if we could escape some of the summer heat but even if it was ten degrees cooler than the city, hiking in the high 20’s is still pretty exhausting. We followed the trails up to Furmanov Peak which had a healthy 1400 meter elevation gain in 7 km and tops out at about 3050 meters. While not nearly the highest peak in the vicinity, it is high enough to get expansive views of the city and the steppe beyond to the north and to peek at the much taller and glaciated Tian Shan mountains to the south.
Our third day, the last before we start biking, was spent getting our maps together, rebuilding our bikes (no problems at all) and buying food to last us through our first off-road tour from Almaty to Karakol in Kyrgyzstan by way of the Turgen gorge. We would also tour Charyn canyon where temperatures promise to push into the 40’s. On our last evening we went for a test bike ride to First President’s Park which is impressive from the outside but we weren’t allowed in on our bikes. It’s a bustling area and the huge entrance gate is lit up at dusk. We watched lightning get closer from the west until we decided to leave. That’s when the wind picked up, hurling dust into our eyes, and rain started pelting us. After a minute we were soaked through but it was welcome relief from the heat.