Sunday, April 24, 2011

KAZAKHSTAN - Out of steppe, and into a kok bar

KAZAKHSTAN (Korgas-Almaty-Korday)
April 14-21    6 days riding

Distance:  545kms  
Elevation gain:         m
Odometer: 1281kms

(more text and photos to come)

The Chinese/Kazakh border crossing was a mad frenzy of Kazakh shoppers returning with cheap Chinese electronics, bicycles and perfume. Chinese customs made me put my loaded bike into a bus for a 1.5 km ride to the Kazakh side ($8 per person - a cosy scam for customs, everyone grumbling but accepting the high fees).

Had a nice tailwind to Zharkent, where I tried out my new skills in the Cyrillic script. I found the bank (банк), a cafe (кафе) and some shops ('magazins'). Easy enough so far.

After passing through some small towns I left the green farmlands behind and entered the barren steppe. I was lucky to find some kind Uzbek workers who filled up my water bladder from their well.

Next day I fought a strong headwind across the steppe and camped out in the inhospitable sands. It reminded me of the Argentian pampa or the Nullabor plains of Australia. The wind eased off the following day and I passed through an interesting canyon and back into pastoral settlements.

I had run out of steppe, or was I just out of steppe with the pedals?
Now the highway turned into a nightmare ride - bumpy and potholed surface with heavy speeding traffic. I spent most of my time dodging obstacles - smashed vodka bottles, gaping holes and hapless cats and dogs. The latter were mostly roadkill. I counted up to 16 fresh corpses littering the roadside - in only 120kms! Definitely not a dog's life here in Kazakhstan.

But they do love their horses. Stretching back to their nomadic origins, warfare instincts and idle time out on the steppe, they have preserved this unusual tradition called kok bar. Now before you jump to any conclusions, this is not a brawling session at an all-male establishment. It's a much different event entirely. I'll let the pictures tell the story.....

The headless carcass of a sheep lies on the field just before kick -off (or pick -up).
Now the animal could be a sheep or goat, and its lower legs and innards are removed. It is soaked in water for 24 hours to harden and toughen the hide.

One of the chapandazon (cowboys) hauls the heavy sheep (dead weight) onto his horse

And the wild sheep chase is on......

A rider with the sheep firmly betwen his legs bolts from the huddle to throw the woolly carcass into a hole at the end of the field. 

The rider in full flight, the beast dangling from the saddle.

After the game I was invited to a Kazakh feast of juicy mutton, nan and pilaf. In true Kazakh hospitality I was given a seat at the centre of the table and encouraged to gorge myself. The on-the-field warfare was now replaced by a food frenzy. A delicious meal with lots of laughter (at my expense, of course).

The women preparing the feast gave me a generous helping of food to take with me on the my journey. Kids escorted me out of the arena with cheering and laughter. I camped away from the busy road on the outskirts of the village in a field lined with poplar trees.

Another mad day on the Highway to Hell. As I neared Almaty, the traffic increased and the drivers became even crazier. I was physically and mentally exhausted by the time I made into the modern and slick city of Almaty just as it started to rain.

I had earlier met two Air Astana pilots at the Kazakh embassy in Bangkok (see visa story below). One of them, Angel invited me to stay at his apartment. A pilot called Angel - he must have wings!

It was a home away from home and I stayed 3 nights. Here we are in the apartment in Almaty - 3 pilots, a flight attendant and a cyclist.
L-R Jaime (Spain), Angel (Spain), Alina (Kazakhstan), Robin (Holland) & Pete.

I enjoyed the variety of beer here and indulged myself and others. Kazakhstan is quite expensive but the beer is reasonable. The one on the far left was my favourite - a nice dark brew.

I reluctantly left Almaty on a grey dismal morning. A long wet day in the saddle (130kms) but I dried out in the late afternoon sun. I camped in fields with a backdrop of the Alatau range.

The riding was very pleasant on the second day with views of Kyrgyz Altau range and the soft green crinkled landscape.

Next morning I encountered this old shepherd on a donkey, wearing his ak kalpak, the traditonal Kyrgyz/Kazakh felt hat.

It was a 2-day, 258km ride between Almaty and Bishkek crossing the border at Korday, 25 kms north of Bishkek. A short steep climb over a pass and then a beautiful coasting 40km downhill run to the border with an howling tailwind.

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