I spent a few days hanging out in Almaty. Adam and Tom were there of course, and so was Karl – this was now the eighth time we’d met across four countries! On Sunday I had to get a bus to Bishkek in order to get a Mongolian visa: the consulate in Almaty was closed at the time.
I’d been on the bus for about two hours when we stopped at a petrol station about a hundred kilometres. I happened to look at my passport and realised… That wasn’t my passport! I had somehow ended up with Tom’s passport.
I got off the bus and went back to Almaty so Tom and I could swap passports. They’d presumably been mixed up when we checked into the hostel. Since I was back in the city we all went out for lunch before I returned to the bus station. On the second trip out of the city the bus passed a quite remarkable car. The guy had cut a hole in the roof and had a container of water there providing him with a constant shower. That’s one of way of avoiding the heat!
This time the bus journey went much more smoothly. We all got off the bus to go through immigration proceedings for Kyrgyzstan. Rather than getting back on the bus a friendly guy I’d been chatting to offered to have his driver (who he’d met at the border) drive me straight to the hostel. That was much appreciated!
I lodged my visa application at the Mongolian embassy the next morning, then had to wait three days for processing. I hung around in the hostel, not getting up to much of anything. On Thursday I returned to the embassy and received my passport, complete with visa!
I returned to the hostel, packed up, and got the bus to Almaty. The others had by now all caught their flights so I was back all on my lonesome again.
On Friday it was time for the next visa application: Russia. I was applying for a ten day transit visa to get me from Kazakhstan to Mongolia. Russia has a reputation for being somewhat more difficult to get visas for so I arrived at the hostel with lots of documents. One by one I handed over all the documents I was asked for, until the consular employee asked for my bike’s registration document! After a moment he realised bicycles don’t have registration documents and all was OK.
I’d looked up the prices for EU citizens beforehand: about £30/60 for 7/3 day processing respectively. I’d decided I was willing to pay the £30 premium, but was then asked for double the amount! Apparently UK citizens have to pay twice what other Europeans do. £60 extra was too much to save 4 days so I opted to stay in Almaty for another week.
After a week of lazing about I returned to the consulate. I was not overly confident of receiving a visa: compared to other people with train tickets or car documents, my statement that I planned on riding a bicycle seemed like quite weak evidence for an application. On the way there I was mulling over an alternative route through China if my visa was declined.
These worries turned out to be unfounded, though. I received my passport back with a visa for the full ten days I’d asked for. The race was now on. I had a total of 18 days (8 to get to Russia, 10 within Russia) to cover a little over 2300 km. That meant averaging about 130km a day. That wouldn’t usually be a problem for me but after a month or so of illness, a month or so of cycling shorter days, then two weeks off the bike, I wasn’t exactly in the best condition.
There were only a few hours left of daylight but I figured it would be a good idea to get started. It took some time to get out of Almaty’s urban sprawl, with lots of traffic and lots of traffic lights. Finally I made it out onto a dual carriageway and rode for an hour or so before stopping to camp. The sky was dark so I sought shelter in case of rain, and ended up sleeping in an abandoned Soviet-style apartment building.
I slept quite well. It was my first night on a new sleeping bag I’d picked up in Almaty. It was an unusual structure, with a relatively thin eggshell-patterned section to sleep on and a large pillow section included. It wouldn’t provide much warmth but it should do until I get to China where there’ll be more options.
I packed up and started riding early. A headwind slowed me down somewhat, as did the rolling hills that began after a couple hours riding. When I stopped for lunch, I sat down in the shade of some bushes – the heat was quite oppressive. My bike was out of view when suddenly I heard the sound of rushing air. My tyre was flat; an old patch had failed.
I had several more punctures that day. At one point, as I sat next to the road pumping up the tyre, a van stopped and the driver gestured that I should throw the bike in the back and take a lift. He couldn’t understand my refusal: why would someone choose to ride a bicycle when they had an alternative?
I continued on a while longer until the sun began to set and I sought out a campsite. There was a storm drain and I set up camp on the concrete next to it.
The next morning began with a descent down towards the town of Taldykorgan. The scenery changed from barren steppe to green farmlands.
I stocked up on food in Taldykorgan; it was the only large town I would see for the next few days. As a result of the upcoming sparse population, the road deteriorated shortly after leaving the town.
The next few days passed without any great excitement. The roads were generally quite bad which, combined with my worn out cycle shorts, made the ride somewhat uncomfortable. There was usually a headwind too! It was simply a case of listening to lots of podcasts and trying to ride long enough days to stay on schedule for my Russian visa.
The relative remoteness and lack of tourists on this road meant that drivers were often surprised and usually friendly. Cars often stopped to say hello, ask for photos, or to give me food and water. The people I met in villages were kind too; after buying a couple of things from a shop, the shopkeeper insisted I take some free chocolate.
After a few days I reached what I knew would be the last section of bad roads. As luck would have it, this was a downhill stretch with a good tailwind. I’d covered 100km by 12 o clock, with less than four hours of riding time. I decided to try and reach the city of Semey, which would put me at a distance of 260km for the day. I put my head down and cycled harder than I usually would, making good time on the smooth flat roads. I bought a big packet of sweets and ate these while riding, the sugar enabling me to ride for over five hours without stopping for a food break! After I finally did stop to eat, I had just 50km to go. Due to the arrival of a wonderful strong tailwind this ended up being both the fastest and easiest part of the day.
I reached Semey with at least an hour of daylight to spare and made my way to a hotel. I’d covered just shy of 260km, a couple hundred metres shorter than my previous best. The hotel I arrived at was cheap, but refused to allow me to store the bike anywhere. I would have to leave it in the hallway, unlocked and in full view of the street. I decided to go elsewhere.
The next hotel was out of my preferred price range, as I realised when the bellhop opened the door for me. As I walked away the bellhop and receptionist came running over to give me directions to a cheaper hotel – which was really kind of them. I made it to the Europa Hotel and checked in. At about £14 it was more than I’d usually pay, but rather than a conventional 10-12am checkout, I’d have the room for 24 hours. I decided to stay. Riding around looking for hotels had nudged my daily distance up to 260.1km, a new personal best!
After that long day I was now only about 100km from the border. I still had a day to wait until the Russian visa started, though, so I spent most of the day in Semey. I got a few things done, including patching my sleeping mat after using the bath to locate the leak. It had started leaking after only two nights… Hopefully it’ll be ok for a while with this patch.
I started cycling at around 4.30 and cycled for a couple hours before setting up camp behind some trees near the road. Next up: Russia!
August 23: 62km
August 24: 171km
August 25: 126km
August 26: 174km
August 27: 172km
August 28: 170km
August 29: 261km
August 30: 60km