My brief stop in Almaty was a little less brief than intended and was somewhat less restful than envisaged. “But there’s a BBQ tomorrow” or “its my Birthday Bash,” seeing as I’ve known the birthday girl for all of fie minutes I feel duly obligated to stay, or else what kind of a five minute friend would I be? The hostel is at bursting point and so to is the small garden which has turned into a small festival camping ground full of all the cheap skates who are on a budget like yours truly.
People are instantly friends sharing the common cause of travelling, many of which choose the bicycle as heir means of transport and one nutter has even walked all the way from Switzerland with the end goal of his pilgrimage being India, he doesn’t appear to own shoes either or shampoo; I think any alternative to public transport to be a wise decision after my misery in a cramped car for fifteen hours. Travelling as a student I often found myself crammed into the back of a bus with my knees around my ears as the floor was home to a crate of chickens, live, or some other leg room consuming tradable goods. But once back on the road things are tiresome to say the least, I’m literally falling asleep behind the handle bars after having to much fun.
After cramming a good months worth of fun into one long weekend I set my sights north towards Mother Russia resolved to reach the border within the week. This will require motivation, determination, resolve and any other inspirational word you can think of that you might see on the wall of your local jobs centre. As I pull into camp that afternoon I nearly bump into a peloton of cyclists, I say nearly as they had just finished cycling and are now settling down to some chow. Behind them is a van embellished with a map of the world and ‘TDA Cycling`. For those of you not in the know this is a company that does large scale cycle tours for the paying customer; its cycling on a budget, a big one. Before I know it I’m sat in the peloton on a folding camp chair, a plate of lentil soup spilling into my crotch and seeing as its Canada day a can of Belgium beer is pressed to my lips; did I mention will power?
There are about ten cyclists and a support crew complete with a mobile kitchen. It is a fantastic set up, each morning they get breakfast (we had pancakes), then a lunch stop, followed by afternoon soup, then dinner. I caught them on a good day, they don’t usually have sun downers. Oh, how the other half live. It was great of them to take me in for the evening and extend the invite to breakfast, it would have been really awkward if I had to sit on the floor and eat my cold meagre dinner of a tin of baked beans and loaf of bread whilst they ate chili con carne (not out of a tin) whilst sipping a good Malbec.
For as long as I can remember when every I have seem a map of the world, which was a lot as I studied geography, I would always take a glance at Mongolia, thinking “one day.” I’ve been wanting to travel there for years, to see the steppe, ride the Mongol ponies and be in the depths of one of the worlds great grassland wildernesses. Kazakhstan boasts the steppe too, on these great grasslands man first honed his equestrian skills when he domesticated the wild horse (excuse the pronoun ladies). I hope to God that Mongolia is not just a mirror image of this otherwise I am in for two weeks of mundane flatlands extending as far as the eye can see. If it is going to be like this perhaps I should cut my losses and fly straight to China and leave Mongolia to my imaginings.
Did you know Charles Dickens was a cycle tourer? He must have been for his famous opening lines from A Tale of Two Cities, “It was he best of times, it was the worst of times,” it sums up cycle touring so very concisely. When the going is good it leaves you in awe of this little speck of rock in the universe that we call home; the best of times. But on endless stretches like these through northern Kazakhstan it feels like you are on a long and uncomfortable train journey, you have run out of batteries so music is down, you cant reach you book as it is in your luggage at the rear and there are two many people to pass and to boot it is swelteringly hot and humid. The worst of times.
It’s like WAR, moments of adrenaline fuelled excitement followed by long stretches of boredom. Or at least that’s what I am told war is like, the closest I came to violence in the navy was when a spot of ship roll caused me to spill some scolding coffee (freshly ground of course, we aren’t savages) and burned, well redden, the back of my hand. This trip to be fair has primarily been not exciting or adrenalin fuelled though it has had its moments, but it is exceptional none the less. From the recent climbing’s of the Pamirs, nearly being balled over by a juvenile Gorilla in Uganda or simply cycling along the coast of the South African Cape in the looming shadow of Table Mountain it’s safe to say that its ad its moments.
Even the desert of Uzbekistan was a challenge so boredom never took hold despite there being no one or nothing to look at. On this current train journey like stretch I can safely say that it is in the minority, dare I say it this might be the first time I have truly been bored on the bike and I suspect the wind has a significant part to play. Each morning as I have emerged from my tent the grass has been bowing down to me, the ears nearly touching the soil, an ominous sign as only the wind takes such a hold of the grass. At times I am reduced to a crawl averaging less than four miles per hour, just as in a train the country side seems to pass by inordinately slowly but unlike on a locomotive it is in fact barely moving.