Crossing our last central Asian land border we were once again surprised by how much changes over such a short distance. As Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan are such close neighbours and were both part of the former Soviet Union we expected them to have more in common.
The style of architecture is different. Gone are the Uzbek courtyard houses, replaced by smaller square buildings that reminded us of some of the houses in the Ukraine. Most people wear western clothes whereas in Uzbekistan many people wear traditional dress. Everyone speaks Russian, with Kazakh, the official language, only spoken by 60-70% of the population. Russian is much less widely spoken in Uzbekistan.
And the landscape had changed. It was gently uphill to the border about 15 miles north of Tashkent and the road was built up with houses all the way. We crossed the border and were immediately in open countryside. To our right rose the snow-covered Tian Shan mountain range and to our left the vast empty rolling Khazakh steppe – a wilderness of grassland extending beyond the horizon without a single house, fence or tree. It was strangely bleak and beautiful and simply overwhelming in its scale. The Feather Grass taller than a person, a fabulous mix of yellows, oranges and browns, rolled like a sea in the constant wind. From time to time we passed herders with sheep, goats or cattle, and sometimes groups of horses grazing. We thought the horses were wild but later found out that they too were being farmed. As well as their ability to range the steppe and herd other livestock, their meat is considered a delicacy.
The other big change was the weather. As we continued to climb it got colder. We still had some days of sunshine but the temperature stayed below freezing until after 10am most mornings and didn’t get much above 8° all day.
One morning we cycled about 40 miles to a town we hoped would have somewhere to stay. It didn’t and by that time it was raining and the temperature was dropping fast. We tried to flag down a taxi, but obviously didn’t have the knack. After about half an hour (by which time we were very cold and wet) the woman in the cafe where we had eaten borsht, came and helped. Perhaps it was her size, or maybe the bright orange jumpsuit and the velveteen leopard-skin scarf – or perhaps it is all in the wrist action, but a car stopped immediately. We piled in and drove to the next large town where found a nice warm ex-Soviet gastinitsa with idealistic concrete murals on each landing. This seemed like the right moment to try the Kazakh cognac we had heard of. Sweet, cheap and very warming.
The next day we woke up to a landscape covered in snow. Very picturesque, but impossible for us to ride through. Once again we had to take a taxi to the next town. We carried on like this, alternating a few days riding with short taxi rides all the way to Almaty. It was very frustrating being here so late in the year. We weren’t equipped for cold weather camping so we could only look at the snow-covered mountains. It was now too cold and too dangerous to venture into them. And we had already heard tales of people disappearing up there and not being found until the spring thaw. We wondered how the last straggling eastbound cyclists we had met in Tashkent were now faring up on the Pamir Mountain highway and if they had managed to keep ahead of the snow.
So after almost 5,000 miles of cycling we made it to Almaty, our final destination. I am not sure we really believed we would get there, and there were times in the 40° heat of eastern Turkey when we weren’t sure we wanted to.
Almaty is almost like a western European city. Almost. It has department stores and coffee shops and pedestrianised streets. But it still has quite a few Soviet monuments and old Soviet buildings where the hammer and sickle have not been removed. More recently the president’s wife has built a park with a grand sprawling gateway, built of white marble pillars, which would not look out of place in Ashgabat. The streets are full of four-wheel drives and stretched Humvee limos are popular for ferrying freezing brides to have their photos taken in front of the monuments.
A golden statue of Lenin, which once had a prominent place in the city centre has been relocated to a park on the outskirts. His outstretched arm which presumably pointed the way to a brighter future now points the way to a smart restaurant. ‘English pubs’ are popular in Almaty and are filled with disconsolate ex-pats lamenting the lack of English bitter. We visited the Old Shakespeare Pub with some local friends but apart from the name it was hard to work out what made it English. Although it did have an extensive curry menu – perhaps that was it. And there are many western style supermarkets where luxury imported foods and European wines compete with bottles of Kalashnikov vodka.
Bribes are a way of life in Kazakhstan. They are used as a way of getting what you want, getting a better service and getting out of trouble if you are stopped by the police. Our Almaty friends work for an international company and one of them told us that on a cultural awareness course in the UK he was surprised to learn that under no circumstances should he try to bribe a British policeman. When he heard that if he was arrested for being drunk he would be likely to spend a night in the cells, he thought that sounded like quite good deal. He could spend his hotel expenses allowance on alcohol and then roll up at the nearest police station for the night.
We stayed in a hotel opposite the main bazaar – another reminder that we were not in a European city. As the snow continued to fall and as the streets froze we watched the women on the outdoor bread stall across the road dancing to keep their feet warm. We bought fur-lined boots from the market and had to wear all our clothes when we went out.
We spent much of our time in Almaty trying to work out how to get back to Europe with the bikes. We had planned to get the train, but then we learned that we would probably have to pay heavy bribes to even get onto the platform and would then have to put the bikes onto one of the bunks and share the other one. The train from, Astana to Kiev takes three days so this did not seem like a good plan. We reluctantly decided to fly to Amsterdam.
We are now back in northern Europe. The suddenness of it was a bit of a shock after our slow move across cultures over the past seven months but we re-aclimatised by going straight into Burger King and ordering a cheeseburger. There was something very reassuring about ordering food we recognised, with money we understood in a language we could speak.
And now, we are getting a lot of pleasure from small things such as being able to drink the tap water.