When I started secondary school I think I had about two stickers left to complete my Smash Hits sticker album. My problem was that I kept getting Terence Trent D’Arby and there was no way anyone was going to swap him for Tiffany and the other teenie-bopper I was missing. But whatever, clearly my relationship with music was clearly in a fug. Then a few weeks into term a new friend slipped me a bootleg copy of Guns N’ Roses’ Appetite for Destruction. I was blown away. I may never be able to fully articulate what Chinaland was all about and the way it made me feel but entering Kazakhstan reminded me of the day I put that poorly recorded cassette in the ghetto-blaster and cranked it up to 10.
Kazakhstan borders China but it couldn’t be further from Huxley’s Brave New World. It was like entering the Wild West – but it’s not the West of course, nor East, nor East-meets-West. You could say Central Asia or ex-Soviet but when we arrived we had no terms of reference for those labels. For now it was just music to our cultural ears, a refreshing plunge pool, our rollicking welcome to the Stans.
Kazakhs ooze a confidence and self-assured spirit that is contagious. Young boys, instead of running away or staring at us from behind a tree, would confidently stroll up and shake hands with us. Shepherds on horseback would gallop over from their herds, give a smile and hello, ask where we were going, nod with approval and then head back into the plains. The men were bold but it didn’t really feel alpha dominated; the women seemed perfectly capable of matching their male counter-parts.
We cycled straight through Zharkent, the first city we were planning to stay at, without even realising we had passed it. We had become so used to cities of towering housing blocks and neon. It was a lovely change to be in a chilled out dusty town, amused by the drivers that acted like they had just committed a bank heist when they had actually just picked up a loaf of bread. The ethnic diversity of Kazakhs, Russians and Uyghur people was exciting too. It was curious to see some people with blond hair again but we were still unable to completely blend into the background. Kat blames it on my beard.
On our first day off a student in his early 20s offered to help us out with anything we needed. While we turned down his kind offer to stay at his house, we asked if he could help us get a Sim card for our phone. We met him from work an hour later and he took us to the local phone shop. For the first time in months we experienced some real flirting. The girl behind the desk played the game as expertly as our student friend. Not the ‘cutesy, Hello Kitty, I’ll put a picture of you on my I-phone with a heart around it’ flirting we had become accustomed to in China but smoldering eyes, husky tones and long sweeps of dark Kazakh hair. A mundane debate over the cheapest Sim card was used mercilessly to exercise fledgling passions. We got a really good deal on our Sim card and perhaps our new friend got a little closer to a date.
Outside of the big city of Almaty money seemed to have no hold. Why get a new car when you can floor an old Lada through the desert? In fact, why even get a car when you can flag down any passing car and get a lift? And why get a lift when your trip can be made on a donkey? Yes, it was unnerving to be overtaken by scrap heaps that would often be thrown onto three wheels by the pot holes but you couldn’t help but feel alive. There was suddenly so much untouched open space and like the groups of wild horses kicking up dust across the plains, exercising their freedom, we felt energized as we pedalled into the sunset.
Do I have Kazakh blood?
Within a few days I felt completely at home in a country that I had known nothing about. For instance, the national snack of choice in Kazakhstan is called a samsa – it the closest thing to a pasty a West country boy has tasted this side of Devon!
We felt free to camp, do what we liked and enjoy the space. I was so gushing about our discovery of Kazakhstan that after a phone call home my mum even asked if I had just landed a job with the Kazakh tourism board.
Early one morning we were woken by loud gun shots. I rolled over and let out a comforting sigh ‘Ahh, Kazahkstan’. For some reason I just felt a sense of belonging.
Oh, and the cycling…
As we headed towards the city of Almaty, the roads were a mixed bag but without the need to rush we could take our time over the pot holes and enjoy the views.
The cheap crappy tyres we bought in China were playing up, giving us punctures nice and regularly but sometimes these enforced pauses in the cycling have silver linings. They gave Kat the chance to try and snap her new wildlife of choice, the marmot and I was happy fixing punctures while taking in the views.
Because there was so much space our massive tent came into its own. Cue a series of tent pics… Fun times.
Kazakhstan is geographically the ninth largest country in the world and while we only saw a small sliver of it, we felt a real connection to the land.
I tried out a cycling version of Borat’s Mankini look but couldn’t quite pull it off. However, I realise I am now a few steps closer to looking like my hero from the Outback – Jim from Coober Pedy!
Almaty is a flashy city fuelled by the millions of dollars flooding in from Kazakhstan’s oil exports. Our peasants’ budget meant our few days there were spent more as observers rather than as participants in the glitzy lifestyle of the mega-rich but it was still good fun. We got to see some of the old sights and marvel at the sweet-smelling fashion parade as they walked past us on every street. I also got my fill of kebabs (well, I am not sure you can ever quite get your fill of kebabs). We managed to get Hooch fixed up by the mechanic for Kazakhstan’s national cycle team too (a very, very successful team by the way) so fingers crossed that’s an end to our broken spokes.
On the 8th of September, with every intention of shortly returning to Kazakhstan, we had made it to the border with Kyrgyzstan. This was going to be the first country since Malaysia that would welcome us in without having to pay for a visa. That gave us a warm feeling and as our first taste of the Stans was so good, we were hungry to try more.