An idea is born
The contours of Pik Talgar mountain as symbol for AtyrauOutdoors riders in Almaty, May 2014
Right in front of the mind of a few of our AtyrauOutdoors riders it had been for a while: The desire to ride our bikes in proper Kazakh mountains. Like a real K2 rather than our local Atyrau version of it! It looked like there was no previous biking experience for the Almaty region with any of the expats residing in Atyrau. As such, what is to follow, is to be seen as a bit of a pathfinder experiment for us Atyrau cyclists. An early call went out end 2013 to the Atyrau Outdoors cycling community to gauge interest for such an adventure. Sure, many showed interest and many questions returned. A date was picked towards end May 2014 and after a bit of juggling about 6 riders really committed to an adventure. Aarnoud, Brendan, Casper, Jeff, Nic and Paolo, 6 folk, five nationalities: 2 Dutch, 1 American, 1 Filipino, 1 Italian and 1 Brit. In the meantime the search for a company to guide us and location to ride started. Kantengri is an outdoor adventure/expedition company setup in Almaty. We found the owner, Kazbek Valiyev, helpful in our initial enquiries, and he offered a good programme. Kazbek is the first Kazakh national who successfully climbed mount Everest. While their normal expedition programmes for mountainbiking last for 2 weeks or for 4 weeks, and can only be done during the right season between June and September, he was willing to adopt and created a new and special short strenuous programme for us to ride in the Ile-Alatau National Park south-east of Almaty:
Preparations and our packing list
So what does a trip like this require? Not as straightforward as we had thought to answer this, certainly as most of us had no mountain-biking experience, let alone in very remote places in Kazakhstan where short wave radio and satellite phones are king.
The weekend – Day 0, Thursday 29 May
Arrival at Almaty Airport
And so, while the road to the airport in Atyrau is being upgraded in preparation of VVIP‘s visiting Atyrau later this summer, we find ourselves bumping along on a dirt track next to the tarmac road to the airport. A wrong passport, and a bike box that is perceived too heavy spice up our checkin. Two moles in our gang of six have been so good as to not share the info that a business class ticket is nearly as cheap/expensive as an economy one, and laugh at the other 4 that travel cattle class. It is a smooth flight and all 5 bike boxes are regained in good order. Paolo is on a stealth mission and to avoid being dragged down by his somewhat ancient Atyrau bike he is on a rental. Our driver, the camp-boss for the next days, promptly greets us and loads our baggage into a very luxurious bus with trailer that fits the bike boxes. We are driven to the somewhat Soviet style looking Otrar hotel, which lies downtown, opposite the park. Despite of, or because of the hour of the night Jeff is desperate to score some alcohol. Unfortunately (or luckily, you make the call) the hotel-bar is closed, so we all have an excuse to go to bed…
We rise and shine at Otrar hotel after a very short night sleep. Breakfast in the hotel is served in a room the shape of a giant Yurt. are handed out just so that, no matter what happens next, we have a remembrance attribute to the forthcoming adventure.
Support Jeep for the coming days
Then we meet Kazbek Valiyev the owner of Kantengri. He brings two seriously big jeeps that await with drivers and two brothers serving as bike guides, to drive us to the start of our ride.
Ile-Alatau National ParkEntry to Ile-Alatau National Park
We drive out of Almaty on the modern “Silk Road” until the turn-off at Turgen. From there we drive down to Batan, the starting point in the Ile-Alatau national Park. Yet again an even more serious truck awaits us, this time a , some type of Russian army truck. It has brought our bikes early in the morning as it drives at rather slow speeds on the highways and carries all camping gear, food and drinks. So as company for this trip we have with us: , one of whom has been a professional bikers in the national XC team, the other one rode with Alexandre Vinokourov in his youth), the , the , a lady Tatar cook, a camp boss and a spare set of hands. A the six of us and it makes for a real expedition. Kantengri are obviously professionally organized, and have thought through initial logistics very well. We unpack our bikes and assemble them under emerging patches of sunshine, that meet us against the odds of predicted rain.
This is how our guide during the early morning suggests we ride when explaining what the course of the day would look like. It means: it’s going to be freaking vertical and be prepared to walk..
“We will be going ‘generally’ up today”
A little debate follows on whether to do a warm-up ride (15kms) to some close by waterfalls, eventually deciding against it as the ride for the day and the effects of a very short night and jetlag seem daunting enough with what lies ahead!
Inaugural group photo at start
After some inaugural group photo’s where we naively smile with innocence we start to ride. And riding it is to be: straight from meter 1 on the bike 1 vertical kilometre upwards against around 12 in distance! Hammerfest coming on for all of us! Yes, there is walking involved, as we each have to tune into the mountains and find our own bearable cycling rhythm, which simply is not always there.
Young cowboy tending after his herd
The scenery is stunning, while riding on steep tracks along a fast flowing rock-carved river, or with at each side of the track beautiful meadows. We come accross some , some horsemen, well a nine or so year old boy, tending his herd of cows.
After the first vertical km Paolo’s handlebars (which he forgot to tighten) completely fall off and luckily Brendon comes to the rescue.
On the way to Assy observatory
At the top of our ascent stands the Assy observatory in use against a stunning sky with impressive snow-covered mountains. Exhausted, we have lunch nearby in a meadow and can not be bothered to ride the additional kilometre further upwards to the observatory. Ham, chees, tomatoes and boiled eggs refuel us. The afternoon brings us “generally down” as the weather slowly turns for worse. We ride along a river for a while and just as our path forces us to cross it, Paolo does us the honours of riding in front and managing a very crowdpleasing crash right in the middle of the water in slow-motion with clipped-in shoes (watch video footage of this coming later!). None the less he continues soaking wet and cold.
A later is wisely done barefoot by everyone. The last half hour we have a technical downhill along very windy tracks and we try to sprint to our camp-site to beat the very obvious weather signals of heavy rain. As we run for it Aarnoud does a proper endo. Lucky for him the bike is ok, although his knee and some softer body parts are somewhat dented. At the end of the downhill section, almost in sight of camp, we abandon Brendan while he is repairing a flat tyre and rush to the camp area to avoid the worst of the weather.
Camp-site day 1
6 hours in the saddle and 51 km further at an average that does not reach 10 km/hour (ahum) we think we are in dear need of alcohol. The day has felt much heavier than our yearly Centurion event in Atyrau and this shows in the calorie output of our Garmins….
The big yellow tunnel shaped dinner tent awaits us where we have a lovely cooked meal of soup and lamb plov. In the meantime hail and ferocious winds hammer down on our camp literally pushing the tents down while water leaks through left and right. Yes we thought we would drink lots, but exhaustion takes over and we head to bed even before dark, only to find ourselves lying awake until around 02:00 AM listening to the thunderous sounds of wind and hail while the storm passes.
View from Camp-site day 1
A long day appears ahead of us with around 50 or so km’s to ride. So we get up early at around 06:30 on a very chilly morning of +3 C so that we can be ready to start riding at 08:00. Why so early? Well, we have a cunning plan to arrive at the next campsite before mid afternoon, so we can have some leisure time.
Paolo in the clouds
After the first few climbs in very fresh yet dry weather, Aarnoud unfortunately has to give up for the day, as his knee hurts too much from yesterday’s endo. And then, just before lunch, Nic cramps up badly while we are riding upstream for a few km’s along a river in phenomenal scenery. He has to go for the car option too. Lunch is at a very open area close to some scattered farms. It is very cold.
Cold lunch spot day 2
After lunch the car with passengers splits from the riders to do a large detour. The riders will cut through a small gorge in the mountains along some cow tracks.
For 7 km’s the 4 riders and 2 guides walk and ride. However as we split from the car with Nic and Aarnoud, we see the car in the far distance turn the wrong way, direction Kyrgyzstan… They get a free 4WD tour through and pass through snow at an altitude of 3000 meters. The unfortunate thing however was when the 4WD ran out of diesel, luckily a truck came to the rescue (coincidence??). After sharing some diesel they made it safe to the camp somewhere after 22:00 !
“Take another picture, I’ll suck it in this time!”
Following cow trails through a gorge
After the gorge there are a couple of super fast technical mega descents over loose rocky gravel paths with some sneaky steps and drop-offs in it. Serious speeds of close to 60 km/h! Then along a huge valley that appears to be “run” by a mega farm. More super descents follow and before we know it we arrive at a main gravel road. To our great and positive surprise we hear that camp is only 400 meters away! Yeeha!
Camp-site day 2
We find the camp-site beautifully positioned along a gentle, very cold river, on a meadow, below this main gravel road.
Super relaxed afternoon day 2
A super relaxed afternoon follows accompanied by nice sunshine and a few big beers, before a camp-fire for the BBQ is started. We are as of yet not too bothered by the absence of the other car with Aarnoud and Nic. However, as the afternoon starts to turn into evening, there is still no sign of them, Ivan takes his GAZ66 to go on a search mission. In the meantime we enjoy a fabulously marinated and BBQ-ed duck shaslikhs, marinated chicken and some Macallan Whiskey.
The lost Jeep makes it to camp!
Just as darkness sets in and as we are considering to roll into our tents, we are met by two pair of car lights dancing in the night as they grow bigger and move towards us. The truck and support Jeep found each other and Nic and Aarnoud are offered some seriously big glasses of Vodka, serving as an apology and make-up for their unforeseen and less appreciated afternoon and evening. Driver, guides and camp personel sit down to evaluate how this happened over a bottle of Vodka as well, that is shared over a few glasses is one go.
All 6 of us plan to ride again as we are told the ride will be short-ish with only 30 km’s or so. Now don’t be fooled by that number, that is still more than 5 hours in the saddle, grinding away through soft underground that sucks our big fat tyres right into it, and of course the mountain business is still around. None the less we leave a bit later, around 09:00, from our camp-site. And again it’s all this climbing business again. The terrain before lunch is fairly hard-packed with some very steep slopes!
“I think I just sharted?!”
Meditation moment for Jeff at lunch day 3
We have another packed lunch in a blossoming meadow shielded away from the wind. There is plenty of sun and we easily manage to dose off a little while it lasts! After lunch the as we climb into tundra and the underground becomes very soft, soft grass, almost with a muddy feel to it. A little weird really, even though the hills seem less steep our riding pace is still grindingly slow. It makes for a very heavy but still ride-able afternoon.
Arrival at camp-site under construction day 3
Then very early at around 14:30 we reach our camp-site, which is still under construction as we arrive. It is setup on an inclined hill, with a small deserted coral nearby and a fresh water spring nearby from which we tap our shower water. Upon arrival, Casper -who by now has some issues with his softer parts and therefore no longer sits on the saddle- nearly misses camp as he whizzed past camp at 60 km/h during the last sweet descent towards camp only just in time catching a glimpse of the big yellow dinner tent from the corner of his eye. The temperature cools down as clouds move in around tea time (beer-o-clock arrives early). We have a very nice hot soup in traditional Tartar style, as our cook is Tartar, followed by another all-you-can-eat shashlik BBQ.
As we insist on a , Jeff releases some stress on dead pine trees to get some wood and fells two entire trees. As the temperature drops even further and nearly reaches 0 C, our friendly locals decide to supplement the fire with easily accessible posts from the deserted coral. By now Whiskey and Vodka are doing their work and strong oneliners float about in our discussions!
“Knocking that tree down really made me tired”
Then as the evening sets in, despite this huge overcast hanging above us, and despite feeling immersed in the clouds, We witness the sun managing to cast its rays on some
in the distance – A jaw-dropping sunset!
Snow storm greets us in the morning on day 4
By now it has become a major theme of the weekend: the temperature, or better the LOW temperature! We get up to -2C where at night it has been nearly -5C. tent layouts have been adjusted to ensure preserving as much warmth as we can?! It is 06:00 and we intend to break up camp quickly so that we can leave by 07:00, ride down the mountains and make it to our agreed pickup point, from where we are to be driven back to the airport. It is intended to be a short 25 km ride. But this is seriously cold temperatures and we are not geared up for it, literally: we have not brought winter riding gear (or for that matter non-riding gear) and are not properly up for it. We all put on as many layers as we have and still do not feel warm. This is too much for Brenden, skinny as he is, so before we start he opts out and gets in the support Jeep. As we leave camp on our bikes it starts snowing. Not just a little fluff, no this is real snow, coming in pretty much horizontal! 20 minutes of riding into this miserable weather we have frozen fingers and other body parts frozen too. As the start of the morning is a “we-ride-’generally’-down-morning”, we really need our fingers for braking. A very steep section where we will drop almost a kilometre very fast is coming up. As Aarnoud and Nic do not have the confidence in their frozen fingers to provide adequate responsiveness on this steep section, they opt out as well and get cosy in the support jeep.
“What happens in the tent, stays in the tent!”
Jeff, Casper and Paolo survived day 4
Three riders, Casper, Jeff and Paolo, left to start the big descent into the valley. Casper bombs down the very technical and steep section that sort of compares to the Spanish Sierra Nevada with loose large rocks and slippery loose gravel. After all the days of ploughing upward with Schwalbe Magic Mary 2.35” tyres finally the good times for the tyres emerge and they and rider are properly tested – what a treat! Jeff and Paolo take a closer look at the surface by going somewhat slower and or walking down. one of the guides takes a minor plunges when he misses a corner and skids into a wall. Only a dented ego as a result. Paolo also takes a spill but pops right back up. Unfortunately the estimated distance is not quite accurate and the ride still demands us to climb another two mountains in granny gear on a “tarmac” road where one has to look very carefully to actually find some tarmac. We end up doing just over 40 km’s and with legs cramping up we arrive shortly after 11:00 at our designated meeting point, where the us. Completely soaked and muddy -it did rain the better part of the morning- we take the apart and pack them up in our beautiful bike boxes without any cleaning. Yuk, what a horrid but unavoidable way to pack them. A change of clothes in the open with no option to shower we head off back to Almaty for a 3.5 hour drive over a pothole littered highway, feeling rather sticky. With plenty of time before out departure Almaty airport greets us, and over a good meal and a few beers there is plenty of time to start reviewing our trip.
- Aarnoud, Brendan, Casper, Jeff, Nic and Paolo