KAZAKHSTAN, 8th January 2018
Getting back to Mori by bicycle has been Chris’s goal for a long, long time now (ever since he had to take a lift with a relatively-attractive-yet-ever-so-moody Mongolian woman for one measly kilometre), and we’re going to try our best to keep you right up to date with our progress on this, the final stretch to Mori. Right now we are sitting in a guesthouse bedroom in Shelek, Kazakhstan, three days out from Almaty and already completely exhausted. This is the story of those three days, told by Chris:
6th January 2018: Day One – 39 kilometres.
I woke up and I was so excited to finally be on our way. The long break in Bishkek and Almaty had almost made me forget what we were doing. Many times on our ride through the Pamirs getting to China, cycling into Mori, had been on my mind, a daydream that I hoped I could turn into a reality. Today, at last, Dea and I were going to start on the last section of cycling, the final step to creating that reality. I picked up my phone and checked the weather. A big -19C stared back at me. Okay, so nobody said this was going to be easy.
We spent a final morning making preparations, which mostly meant packing up the big mess I’d made in our guesthouse room, and prepared to leave at about midday. Fortunately the temperature had risen quite a bit during the morning, and it didn’t feel too cold, maybe only single digit minuses! We pushed out of the gate and rolled down the hill of the quiet street that our guesthouse was located on. It wasn’t a quiet street for long, with our winter tyres making a tremendous din as the metal studs connected with the solid tarmac. But in places the tarmac was coated with sheets of ice, and we were glad of our tyres, and even more glad to feel the studs grip the ice as firmly as they did. Before we were even at the end of the first street we knew they had been a good investment.
The quiet streets led us to a more main road that we would have to follow east for a while. The highway was too busy to cycle in, and the shoulder was coated in ice and snow that in places had solidified into deep ruts. Again our winter tyres saved us, gripping the wintery surface in a way our regular tyres simply wouldn’t have. It gave us such a feeling of confidence to have these quality Nokian tyres, made for Finnish winters, on our bikes.
After a while we turned off on a much smaller road that we could follow a long way east. It was not clear of snow and ice, but we were not worried. In fact we were pleased, because there was not much traffic, and what there was had to move slowly. We weren’t long on this road before a van stopped and two men came over to us. They wanted to take a photo. They were so friendly, and simply curious about what the hell we were doing. It was one of many little incidents we had with people, who waved or said hello in a way they might not have done in summer. It seemed like simply cycling in winter was breaking down barriers and warming people to us.
We cycled until sundown, and it had been such a great first day, with a great ending, riding on an empty road with a red sun low in the sky behind us. White fields were everywhere, and we made camp in one of them, cooked some baked beans, and settled in for the night.
Distance cycled: 39 kilometres. Distance to Mori: 1461 kilometres.
7th January 2018: Day Two – 62 kilometres.
I woke up a few times in the night feeling cold, with Dea snoring beside me. I had three sleeping bags and I was wearing a t-shirt, two hoodies, a down jacket and two regular jackets, but I hadn’t used my bin liner technique, so it was my own fault I was cold really. We had no way to measure the temperature, but I’d guess it was approaching minus twenty overnight. It was great to hear Dea say, therefore, that she had not felt cold, although she said she had not slept so well (I was surprised to hear this, what with all the snoring). Despite our troubles, we made the effort to get up at first light. There was a great view of mountains ahead of us on the horizon with an orange sky behind them, a beautiful morning. We breakfasted on frozen bread sandwiches and cake, then resumed cycling on our lovely quiet road, the crunch of our tyres on ice the only sound.
Again the few people we saw were nice to us. One even stopped his jeep and handed us apples to eat. The man had a grey moustache and kind eyes, and he looked even more prepared for winter than us, with a fur hat, thick coat, and huge fur boots. His name was Alexander, and after hearing what we were doing, he reached into his car and pulled out some thick mittens, giving them to Dea as a present. It was a nice moment, so wonderful to feel that the people of Kazakhstan are on our side here.
On we went. Now there was no traffic at all, and we found out why that was when we came to a dead end. A bridge over a river had collapsed and there was no way through. We stopped to inspect our options. I was not keen to retreat, and the river was frozen so I went down to see if it was possible to cross. Dea watched on nervously, fearful that I might fall through the ice and be swept away. “It seems pretty solid” I said, as I stepped out onto the frozen water. Then suddenly I heard a crack and felt myself falling into the freezing cold water. Soon I was completely submerged, fighting for my life, and not really, none of that happened. The ice held and I walked across, but there were two more streams to cross further on and Dea wasn’t keen on it, so we made another plan. There was a small road leading north to the main highway, where we could find another bridge. We did this, then cycled back south on another small road, before finding ourselves looking back at the broken bridge from the other side. In all we’d cycled ten kilometres, to travel ten metres, but it was the right choice.
In the evening we had to make a slight detour through a village to find something to drink. We were carrying plenty, but with daytime temperatures well below zero it would freeze faster than we could drink it. We had not yet figured out a way to stop our drinks from freezing, and were already essentially carrying several blocks of ice with us. But the village was worth a slight detour, for there were lots of people about. Kids were sledding down hills, men stood around trying to fix a frozen Lada, a mother pulled her child along on a sled, some older kids were playing ice hockey with curved wooden sticks and a rock for a puck. Life didn’t stop here in winter. As we stood at the shop Dea said “I’m so glad we can see Kazakhstan in winter,”and I felt just the same. It was wonderful. We camped on a ledge overlooking the steppe below us, mountains behind, everything painted in white, both enjoying this experience so much.
Distance cycled: 101 kilometres. Distance to Mori: 1399 kilometres.
8th January 2018: Day Three – 45 kilometres.
I spent the night sharing my sleeping bags with several blocks of ice, a loaf of bread, and a jar of peanut butter. It was not such a cold night as the night before, so I didn’t mind sharing too much, but I was disappointed in the morning to find that not very much of the ice had returned to water. I was very thirsty, and getting enough fluids into us before they froze solid was proving difficult.
The morning was again beautiful, but the going was made more tough by a few hills and a frustrating headwind. To make things worse Dea was having a bit of pain in her knee. I was so relieved that the pain in my knees I’d experienced on the ride to Almaty had not returned, but Dea having trouble was just as bad. So when we reached the village of Taukaraturyk we decided to leave our quieter road and head down to the highway where the going would be flatter. We also bought more water in the village, which we have begun to carry with us in our clothes, in the hope that our body warmth will keep it from freezing quite so fast. Dea has a big inside pocket on her jacket for example, a jacket which I’m sure you’ll agree is very fetching (and makes her very visible too!)
We were both feeling very tired by the time we started back into the headwind on the main highway. The town of Shelek was ahead of us, and it didn’t take long for us to agree that looking for a hotel there for the night was a pretty good idea. Dea could rest her knee, I could rest my everything, the ten blocks of ice we’d accumulated could thaw out, and we could write about everything, which is what we’re doing right now.
Finding a hotel in town wasn’t the easiest thing to do. We asked a woman where we might find one, and she confidently pointed us across town, but once there we were pointed right back again, eventually finding the hotel about twenty metres away from where that first woman had stood. After all our exertions, the warmth and comfort of the room has been very much appreciated, and despite only wanting to lie down, we have managed to find the energy to write, which I’m still doing right now. The search for wifi to upload everything somehow led us to being invited to eat fried eggs and drink coffee with the owner and his daughter. The very kind man did also then find us a little wifi router, which has allowed us to upload this very post. Which leaves me with very little else to tell you, because you’re all up-to-date now, except to say that we will soon be falling asleep, so that we can get up and ride onwards tomorrow morning.
Distance cycled: 146 kilometres. Distance to Mori: 1354 kilometres.