Saturday, 16 August 2014

seven days

dinner (or tea - we can't agree)
....and finally we depart from Bishkek on yet another sunny day.  There's a sense of sadness saying goodbye to our cyling friends, waved off by Dino, Suzy, Damien and Hannah with Sam, Toby and Kate, but there's also the excitement of setting off into the unknown.  Er, sort of.  We've been to Almaty before and along this very same road.  My sole memory of the ride in a shared car is of seeing two nasty car wrecks.  Thankfully the road has a decent hard shoulder because the cars whizz by in the aggressive way that reminds me of England's A roads.  A painless border crossing - is it the quickest we've had since arriving in Georgia? - and on through parched fields of wheat or corn, sun blazing.  We camp in a fold of earth out of sight of the road.  A full moon rises, bulging above the horizon, just as the sun sets in the opposite direction.  It looks close enough to touch.

it needs a soundtrack
 The road to Almaty follows along the north side of  distant mountains.  The earth dips and rolls, the golden fields continue endlessly.  There are few settlements until we get close to the old capital.  Traffic picks up and we have to concentrate a bit, before getting into the city on our third day of cycling.  After a quick kebab we head straight to the main post office to collect two parcels sent by my mum and dad.  I am directed to a counter where a woman has a box of letters and packets.  She flicks through them and shakes her head, pointing me to another desk.  There I am asked by postwoman no. 2 for a tracking number.  I give her a made up one.  She disappears into the backroom where an older woman gets out of a chair, looks over her glasses at me, and then mooches about half-heartedly.  Postwoman no. 2 comes back smiling empty-handed and says no, sorry.  Hmmm.  I feel rather depressed knowing that some stupid bureacracy serviced by a bunch of jobs-worths has come between me and the parcel. Pah! It's as if the communists were still in power. I consider e-mailing the president Nazarbayev to complain, until I read that he was the first secretary of the CP in the Kazakhstan Soviet Socialist Republic.  Well, fancy that.

but what's under the cloth?

We are being hosted in Almaty by Brian, a bright, cheery American who meets us with camera in hand.  He's into his street photography when he's not teaching Air Astana crew English. His flat is a great old Soviet appartment bang in the city centre.  Regrettably we are here mid-week so he's off to work every day, but we catch up in the evenings.  Brian is contemplating cycling to Europe when he finishes teaching here and has lots of questions about cycle touring.  Bizarrely he has just hosted Chi from Shanghai, who is cycling with a friend around Central Asia.  We met Chi in Beijing in 2009 and have missed him by a matter of hours.  Small world. Many roads.  Brian is debating the Russia/Ukraine route versus Central Asia/Caucases.  Apart from a little ongoing difficulty in the first option there is also the knowledge that "from here to Moscow it's almost all forest". (Brian visited St. Petersburg taking advantage of his staff discount on flights and got the bird's eye view.)  Meanwhile we are touting Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan as two of the "must sees" for all cycle tourists.  But wouldn't it be hard? Brian reasonably asks, bearing in mind he's never done anything like this before.  The answer undoubtedly is yes, but the rewards are immense. What to do?

we're lovin' it
The next day I return triumphantly to the post office, with authentic tracking number in hand.  I will not take "nyet" for an answer.  Last night I looked up the parcel on the Royal Mail website - it simply told me "it's on the way".  A bit like asking someone the distance to the next town and being told "it's a long way". This lack of information drove me in desperation to look at the Kazakh Post website which is available in English.  There I was invited to track my parcel.  Hey ho, I gave it a go and got a result.  All in Russian.  Translated, it told me that the parcel arrived at 2pm that day and was in storage.  So here I am brimming with confidence, handing over my tracking number to postwoman no. 2 who smiles and backs into the dragon's lair.  The dragon herself brings me a form to complete before handing over the main parcel from home.  Victory!

Our visa for Russia began yesterday and we have news from Gabor who is ahead of us and probably taking the same route as us through the Altai into Mongolia.  He helpfully fills us in with useful information on his train ride north to Barnaul in Russia, ticket purchasing, train times, bike storage on the train, train facilities, lodgings in Barnaul, number of power sockets in the room.  (All of which turns out to be completely accurate except for the number of sockets in the room.)  We feel no inclination to cycle the 1400km northwards into Siberia, even if our Russian visa hadn't already started ticking.  There remains nothing further to do in Almaty except find some chain lube.  Off I trot.  On my way back I make one last visit to the post office.  Postwoman no.2 smiles and says 'no' when I ask about the untracked packet that should also have come.  One last bid with postwoman no. 1 turns up trumps - the packet is safe with her.  So far my mum and dad have scored 100% success with sent parcels.  The odds on failure must be shortening.

On our last night Brian takes Gayle as a guest to his local baths - rated the best in Central Asia.  I can't face more sweating after traipsing around the city.  At night we have slept with the windows wide open and still lie in a pool of sweat.  So catching the train next day to Siberia is something I've been looking forward to.  It's cold in Siberia, right? 
represents the average wait in minutes for the toilet
At the station we find the train, and the right carriage.  The carriage stewards check our tickets but look away when we start unloading the bikes.  The woman looks very unhappy when I board with one.  I take it down to the far end where the carriage doors are locked - as Gabor described, there is just enough space for two bikes without blocking the connecting door.  Gayle waits with the panniers on the platform and sees the other steward telling the woman that it's all okay.  When I have put the other bike on she waves a baggage manifest at us and asks something in Russian.  We play the dumb foreigners.  We are the dumb foreigners.  She relents.  We're on.  Sweat drips down me as the train pulls out of the station.  Phew.

The train ride would make great copy if it was full of dodgy characters and wheeling-dealing smugglers who spit seed husks in between slugging vodka and chain-smoking.  But it's dull.  Most of the passengers are Russian families on their way home from holidays.  Everyone is quiet, polite and helpful.  Apart from the charmless and overweight dear who pushes past me in the queue for the toilet when I've been waiting over twenty minutes already.  Even the carriage stewardess has melted and is now filling in our immigration forms for us.  After seven days in Kazakhstan we are about to enter Russia.

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