Camels, Canyons and Vodka
Day two in Kazakhstan and another beautiful sunny one. Today I rode through the Charyn National Park an 80km canyon about 200km east of Almaty.
With the weather being as hot as it was I was well stocked up with water as I knew there would be no opportunity to buy any until I hit Kokpek some 70km away. I’d only been on the road a few kilometres when I approached a roundabout and to my surprise saw three camels making their way around it, they didn’t seem that interested in me.
The road was mostly flat with a couple of inclines and declines and the state of it was much the same as yesterday. The views to the south where I could see the gigantic ‘Tien shen’ mountain range were spectacular and I settled into to a steady pace in order to appreciate the wonderful scenery around me.
With this being only my second day in Kazakhstan everything is obviously new to me and thus I’m observing and constantly making mental notes of all the new things I see. One thing that is clear from being on the road here is that locals, and again in particular men love their cars. It seems the most popular models are 90s and early 2000 versions of Audi’s and Mercedes. I’d read beforehand that people drive quickly in Kazakhstan, that’s not to say that they necessarily drive dangerously but if you put any young man behind the wheel of a car and give him enough open road then of course he’s going to let loose to a certain extent.
Perhaps one of the slightly more disconcerting things I have seen are the number of roadside graves and one can only assume that these are in actual fact the spots of some terrible road accident.
Whereas riding in China I had a pretty decent hard shoulder all to myself here the hard shoulder consists of rubble and is not the place you want the bike to be venturing if at all possible. I suppose it’s just another thing to think about and to make sure I exercise the correct amount of caution when pedaling.
After 75km of riding I arrived in Kokpek which turned out to be the tiniest of places consisting of a few restaurants and trailers which had been converted into shops. It was here that I once again picked up some Pirozski (пирожок) the potato filled bread that I’d eaten the previous day, it’s really good stuff and most importantly cheap too!
I sat in the shade and watched some local guys trying to change the tire of their Mercedes which had picked up a puncture and it dawned on me that it’s been a while since I had to go through this arduous process.
One of the guys came over and started to mess around with the bike, it was when he mounted it and tried to take it for a spin around the car park that I grabbed hold of the handlebars and told him in the nicest way possible that I’d rather he didn’t. I remember the first time I rode the bike fully loaded and it’s totally different to riding it just alone, it’s very easy to feel unbalanced on it and the last thing I want is for someone to a) come crashing off it and b) damage the bike in the process.
Immediately after Kokpek you enter the Charyn Canyon which takes you on a very nice roll through the deep red jagged mountains.
I decided to rest in Shelek for the night which would set me up nicely to reach Almaty tomorrow. About 10km outside of Shelek a couple of guys pulled up in the Russian equivalent to a VW camper van and rolled down the window; the driver first offered me a lift to which I declined, secondly I was offered a bottle of water and then coke to which I again politely declined before the passenger, an older man pulled out a bottle of Vodka and offered me a quick swig! I also had to pass on this…….welcome to Kazakhstan.
For the second night running I had trouble locating a hotel in Shelek but it seems the universal body language of placing ones hands on the side of your head, tilting it slightly and closing your eyes does the trick. I eventually pulled up outside a building where a woman mimed the action perfectly and having ridden around for a good 20 minutes I’d at last found a place to stay.
All the people I’ve met so far have, as I’ve previously mentioned been extremely friendly but I’m having trouble working the charm on hoteliers of Kazakhstan. This hotel in question seemed to be run by two middle aged ladies. Having established I needed a room, the calculator was brought out and the price typed it. It wasn’t overly expensive but more so than the first night. I tried to negotiate by counter typing my price in but they weren’t having any of it. It seems that the days of bargaining have been left behind in China. The room was simple enough but the lack of a shower was disappointing but I’ve become rather skilled in the art of ‘basin bathing’
One good thing about the two places I’ve stayed so far is that most buildings here in the countryside only have the 2 floors and both times I’ve been on the bottom one so unlike China where I’d often find myself lugging the bike up four flights of stairs it’s just a case of rolling it through the doorway here.
Security or perhaps one might call it nosiness was never going to be a problem here as every time I came out of my room the woman down the hall would peer her neck around the door frame to see what was going on.
Disappointingly I’ve forgotten to purchase a plug power converter in China and as a result I’m without the use of recharging electrical devices at the moment not that either hotels have had Internet access mind.
I walked around Shelek for a while and immediately noticed my ability to blend in; without the bike I’m just another person here. This obviously falls down massively when it comes time to talk when I’m blatantly exposed as an outsider.
Tomorrow I head to Almaty a ride of about 130km. It will be my first time using the relatively new concept of couch surfing and I’ve agreed to stay with a woman and her daughter who’ve kindly offered me a place to stay. I’m a little unsure as to how it all works but I’m sure they are also feeling the same. I’m confident it’s all going to work out fine.