Man Overboard: Bikepacking Southeast Kazakhstan
Dates: August 12, 2018 – August 18, 2018
Location: Almaty, Kazakhstan to Karakol, Kyrgyzstan
Distance: ~420 km
Activities: Cycle touring/bikepacking
Photos by Brittany
Downloadable GPS tracks and interactive maps for each day are at the bottom of the post.
We were held in Almaty by a mighty rain storm until the early afternoon on the first day of our cycling trip. The rain eventually relented by 1:00 but the clouds never left so we had to dodge puddles and ride through at least one flooded road all the way to Turgen Gorge – the gateway to our first foray into the mountains.
It wasn’t pleasant cycling out of the city while battling traffic but with each passing town it seemed the traffic lessened. In Eciк we planned to get our last supplies to cover us for 3 days without resupply including fuel for our stove. We use an MSR Whisperlite but notably not the International version but planned to burn gasoline anyway. This isn’t compatible according to the manufacturer but friends assured me it would work. At the first gas station we tried to fill up, the pump would not dispense less than 1 litre at a time and I only have a 650 mL bottle. An inauspicious start to an experiment I should have tried at home. Nonetheless, we had more success at another station and after a week of cooking breakfasts and dinner, my only complaint is the smell of gasoline permeates the bag I carry the stove in.
Our departure from the main road and into the park area (nominal entry fee, something like 440 Tenge) also delineated the “getting there” mindset and the “being there” mindset. We made camp on the side of the road as it got dark, looking forward to the real business the following day.
Day two we climbed over the course of several hours up and out of Turgen Gorge to the Assy Plateau. Along the way we had stopped for a short 1.3 km hike to a waterfall and crossed the boundary to unpaved road for the first time. Many other people on the road (all travelling by car) took interest in us but conversation was difficult owing to a complete lack of overlap in language skills. One interaction left us with another loaf of bread, some eggs, and two tomatoes after our protestations were ignored. This was a theme as we were given plums, apricots, cookies, sweets, and more bread and vegetables in the ensuing days. On one occasion, an old man in an Audi 100 (the most prevalent car by far) barely had time to stop before he was pulling out beer and plums to give to us. He only eased off after another car needed through on the narrow one-lane track but not before we were further laden with a pair of cucumbers.
Once on the plateau, the landscape opens up for a few dozen kilometers. We were now in a high elevation summer pasture surrounded by grazing animals of all types and seasonal inhabitants in their yurts. Many people travel by car in this area (there are SUV tours, for example) but the people who live here mostly use horses or motor bikes to keep their animals in check. That night the temperature dropped below zero as frost grew on our bags and our washcloth froze solid.
On day three we enjoyed a gentle descent down the plateau and crossed many cold, clear streams. Some undulating terrain took us to the big descent to Bartoghai Lake. This was not nearly as fun as anticipated as my recently added rack and panniers banged around, threatening to throw me off balance or break completely. Once at lake level we assumed we could swim and cook dinner but instead of the pristine lake we pictured, we got mud. The reservoir is huge but it’s fed by a silty brown river and the sediment never seems to settle. Just getting to the shore was a challenge as we sunk up to our ankles in the thick, tenacious mud. In order to drink, we dug a hole in the saturated sand near the lake and let it fill with water that seeped out of the grains. By waiting long enough and ladling gently enough, we were able to obtain mostly clear water to treat with chlorine.
The fourth day our goal was the pinnacles of Charyn Canyon; reminiscent of Nevada and Arizona. The return to the highway and the desert heat and the introduction of a brutal headwind took a lot out of me so that by the time we reached the canyon I took a nap in the shade. When I awoke, Brittany had gone to take pictures along the canyon’s edge, which includes narrow ridge trails to overlooks. In my vanity, I asked her to photograph me while I biked down one of these steep trails above the cliffs. As I dropped in, I felt something wiggle and I looked over my right shoulder to see one of my panniers tumble once, come to a halt for an agonizing instant, then tumble again out of sight over the cliff. My stomach dropped with it as this bag, which had survived a 1000 meter descent the day before, started its freefall with our laptop and a stash of cash inside.
I panicked and raced up the canyon to reach the jeep road that takes you to the bottom of the cliffs. I jumped off my bike at the bottom of the gulley and started scrambling, looking for a shred of black amidst the red sedimentary rocks. I came up empty-handed and descended the gulley back to the road expecting to find Brittany but I had lost her in my panic. I started cycling back out of the canyon when I saw Brittany walking with a pained expression up the access stairs built for pedestrians. I assumed the worst. She was no longer wearing her helmet, her bike was nowhere to be seen, and she wasn’t answering my yells. I ditched my bike, the pannier having been forgotten, and ran up the stairs. I arrived at the top to find that “Brittany” was now a Russian lady. She had the same green shirt, same black shorts, same colour hair in the same braid but also had about 20 extra pounds. Relieved it wasn’t Brittany, but still pulsing with adrenaline and still alone, I descended into the canyon for a second time asking everyone I met if they had seen a girl on a green bike. After a few minutes I found her (calm, cool, and collected) further down the canyon with the pannier in hand with only a tiny tear hinting at what it had been through. My rush to find the bag only prolonged the endeavour and added the stress of losing each other.
I was shaken up and we spent the rest of the day in and out of the river at the bottom of the canyon where the temperature regularly exceeds 40 C. We camped in the bottom and were glad when the sun went down and temperatures dropped to manageable levels.
Our last two days to Karakol were spent mostly on asphalt but we were able to take two notable shortcuts on unpaved roads. Once south of the mountains, the moisture and trees returned and our last two nights were actually spent in intermittent thundershowers but never during the day.
We are comfortably holed up in the Evergreen guest house enjoying showers, a bed, and as much food as we can stand. We both lost a noticeable amount of weight and the hardest biking is yet to come. We will spend a few days gaining that fat back, cleaning up our bikes, and gearing up for the five-day stint ahead where no resupply points are expected. We will also reach the highest elevation of the trip – about 3600 m.