Scot Whitlock was looking for somewhere different and dangerous for his next adventure. But in Kazakhstan he found an exciting, interesting and vibrant country, which offers cyclists a unique and unforgettable experience.
Worryingly, as the conversation ended, we were both in agreement. If there was chance (however remote) that we might get killed, we were definitely interested!
Pedalling back rapidly to a damp spring evening in 2015, and my first encounter with Kevin Shannon. We were both on the guest speakers list for the inaugural Cycle Touring Festival. It’s one of those events were everybody gels, and the gathering is small enough to allow flowing chit-chat about everything that evokes passion about exploring on two wheels and, more importantly, there is great cake!
After several guest spots for us both, we had bonded. By the end of the weekend we had decided to do something adventurous, different and dangerous. But where and why? It was easy to conform to the usual candidates, like Vietnam or Cuba, but we wanted to do something unusual, unknown and possibly treacherous. We stumbled into Kazakhstan’s unassuming clutches at the World Travel Market in London.
To be frank,our only prior knowledge of the central Asian country was from the dubious film Borat.
Obviously, we both knew the film didn’t reflect the real Kazakhstan, but what did we know? Relatively little. We knew it was big, covering an area of more than 2.7 million km2 and it’s the ninth largest country in the world with the distinction of being the largest landlocked country. But that was the sum of our knowledge, which didn’t really concern us as it was imperative we stuck to the ethos of the project: ‘Pedal the unknown’. We had convinced ourselves that knowledge and research were not essential; but would this be something we would come to regret?
The country is desperate to encourage and promote itself as a great travel destination, especially to the UK and US markets. It has reinvented itself with ambitious projects to bring it to the attention of the rest of the world, starting with the Astana Expo 2017.
The country offers so much to the intrepid or not so adventurous cyclist. The roads are well maintained and the landscape is flat, with only the odd gradual incline. The opportunity to cycle unhindered along gravel trails is not to be missed and enables you to completely immerse yourself in the diverse nature of this unique environment. Today's Kazakhstan has a modern culture, flourishing in the post-Soviet era. The traditional Kazakh lifestyle has blended with influences from Western societies, as well as those of its close neighbours, especially Russia and China, to offer an exciting, interesting and vibrant place to visit.
The highlight is undoubtedly the Steppe, with dusty wide, open spaces bolstered occasionally by the odd lonely tree. It is the dynamic backdrop of absolutely nothing, apart from the spasmodic lorry hauling a mass of onions or tyres. The whole experience holds this esoteric influence over everything: your emotions, thoughts, sanity, humour, and it’s incredibly photogenic. Whatever you choose to do, make sure you spend some quality time among the serenity of these famous grasslands.
Essential to the whole experience is choosing to wild camp. You will feel liberated, foraging for wood, paddling in cooling waters and cooking super noodles on a roaring open fire.
The absence of light pollution, especially on the solace of the Steppe, bestows a tapestry of astronomic fervour in the incredibly clear sky. The opportunity to watch the lights dance whilein repose on the grasslands is unforgettable.
Travel in winter is virtually impossible as the temperature drops to an unmanageable freezing. In contrast, expect summer temperatures of 30 degrees-plus. The best time to travel is the autumn, when temperatures fall but it is still comfortably 20 degrees, which is ideal as it allows you to spend more time in the saddle. It is essential to give yourself enough time to make the journey without undue hurry, leaving time each day to visit places of interest. Ideally, you should be able to manage 70–80km, allowing for several rest stops and a substantial lunch break. The traditionalists can’t see beyond a lightweight tourer for its robust performance but the mountain bike is an increasingly popular choice, especially as its geometry can easily manage the mix of tarmac and unpredictable dusty, gravel tracks.
No amount of cycling in the UK can prepare anyone for the demands that you will face, especially on the Steppe. It’s not the condition of the roads that is a shock, but the endless stretch of roadway with minimal protection from the elements, especially the relentless head and side winds. Regular visits to the gym, running and obviously spending time in the saddle will help.
The obvious route is between Astana (the new capital) and Almaty (the capital until 1997). The distance is approximately 1600km on a mix of tarmac and gravel/dust roads and is relatively direct. It is achievable within three weeks, even factoring in any mishaps or ails, and dissects the central part of the country, including the grasslands of the Steppe, negotiating Lake Balkash and the big cities of Balkash and Karaganda before arriving in the hypnotic Astana. However, don’t discount the delights of other regions; the west and south west are dominated by the Caspian Sea and the east is influenced by the Altai Mountains.
Disregard word of mouth or relying on the good intentions of locals when it comes to distances and invest in a good-quality GPS unit with mapping for Kazakhstan. Ensure you check that your route has adequate food/water breaks by contacting the Kazakhstan Embassy or surfing the internet and scrutinise what other people have done. Source from UK travel bookshops detailed maps of each province you wish to travel within, ideally at 1:20,000, as these should show the smaller villages.
The heat, especially in the south, is going to test your resolve, more so if you are acclimatised to cooler weather. The ability of your body to stand exposure to high temperatures will limit the time you will want to spend in the saddle. On the route between Astana and Almaty it is recommended to pedal north to south as you will be constantly battling a purposeful headwind in the opposite direction. You will quickly have to accept your windy fate if you opt to begin your journey in the old capital, and urgency will be relegated to an after-thought.
The lack of clothing (due to minimal space) will provide an uncomfortable annoyance, as you will quickly become overwhelmed by dust and fumes, so try to wash your clothing regularly.
On your return, you will be filthy and utterly exhausted, yet satisfied at accomplishing something so memorable, and happy to wear the grease marks and pungent aromas as some form of badge of achievement.
Also, you have to recognise that the longer your project is, the fitter you have to be, so several practice outings are definitely recommended.
The opportunity to stock up on food and water are seldom, with the distance between cafés or petrol stations up to 100km. If you do encounter food, take it, regardless of the conditions.
Ramshackle cafés/restaurants dot the Steppe. Once inside you are confronted by hard benches, colourful plastic tablecloths draping rickety tables. The décor is usually overwhelmed by local wildlife, stuffed birds watching intently over the diners. The most popular dishes are Laghman (a dish of noodles floating invitingly in a basic broth of meat and vegetables) or horse meat.
It’s recommended to steer clear of the water and only consume bottled alternatives, which are extremely cheap. It’s essential you pack a simple first aid kit including, as a minimum: plasters in a variety of different sizes and shapes, alcohol-free cleansing wipes, painkillers, antihistamine tablets and iodine, but this is dependent on the amount of space you have available. Imodium is a must, as is Dioralyte, and at least one packet of baby wipes. Most towns have well-stocked pharmacies and prices are on a par with the UK.
The type of equipment you bring is dependent on your plans, length of trip and whether you will be self-sustainable or opt to stay in hotels or hostels. If you choose to travel light and wild camp, then your equipment will need to be limited, sacrificing any home comforts.
We have all threatened it; it can’t be that difficult, can it? Personally, touring with or without canvas and stowing a tent or a mass of clothing and a multitude of outdoors gear can seem like an impossible task. However, it really isn’t that onerous and can be achieved rather easily, if some prior careful planning is applied and the correct equipment is utilised. When assessing what equipment and clothing to pack, it’s logically all about space, weight and the capacity of your bike and the expected length of your journey. You will have limited space travelling by bike, and only the essentials should be taken, like comfortable clothing (dependent on the climate), inner tubes, pumps, lights, tent and sleeping bag if you are intending to wild camp, GPS, maps and a personal locater beacon, in case you need emergency help while in the wilderness.
The choice of bike is usually the one area that provokes heated debate. Unless you have support you'll be carrying everything you need on or behind your bike. A rack and panniers, or frame bags are the usual options but trailers are also growing in popularity, and affordable. As for the bike itself, gears need to be quite low, to help with any inclines and to cope with the variety of terrain. Purchasing a set of good-quality tyres (Kevlar are perfect) is recommended to offset the weight from the panniers/bags and be robust enough to prevent punctures.
Basic Russian or Kazakh comes in handy, especially when trying to orientate the cities and towns in the south, where every road sign is a jumble of letters. The further north you go the more familiar the signs become.
You can purchase a local SIM when you arrive, which is especially useful for cyclists using online mapping for navigation and translation.
A separate GPS unit attached to the handlebars is an indispensable piece of kit; however, ensure you have the appropriate Kazakhstan datasets uploaded to the device before departure.