August 1st-3rd: The main road from Almaty, Kazakhstan to Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan
A hellish road leads us away from Almaty city, jostled as we are by ancient, peeling Russian buses pouring forth noxious fumes. But as the kilometres roll by, roadlife quietens down. On this intercity 'motorway', the friendly people we encounter bring life to the dull surroundings, proffering gifts of apricot jam, mineral water and biscuits, inspiring and energising us to ride on.
This slightly bleak backdrop soon evolves in scale, softening into expansive plains that span far into the distance. Golden in the late afternoon, wheat fields shimmer serenely in the breeze, and a child nimbly manoeuvres his horse over to peer avidly at my own steed. We stop for soup in a yurt, the Kazac version of a service station; at a police checkpoint, a juicy watermelon is sliced and offered round. 'Where do you stay tonight?' they inquire. Generally a little apprehensive in telling the authorities we camp, here in Kazakhstan everyone seems in touch with their nomadic blood. 'Palatka - tent,' I say to encouraging nods. It's the last light of the evening, and long bike shadows sweep across these tranquil plains. We camp close to the roadside, muffled by trees, backed by the soft hues of the Kazac steppe that I have waited so long to see.
A two day journey between the cities, the sun burns forcefully by the following morning. Gently but grandiosely, we rise and fall over rolling hills that spill into the distance. A 'lagman' in a remote cafe, just a metal carriage in a field of apples, pushes us on across melting tar towards the border. As a checkpoint looms ahead, we're commanded to attention by a stern looking Kazac. But there's nothing to worry about, and I sense a strange loss of power, as if an order has been issued to ease up on harassing foreigners. So instead we chat in our pidgin Russian, and the guards pick through the phrase book. The 'alcohol' chapter sets off a delighted series of neck flicking, the Kazac symbol for getting drunk. Dismissed, we slip through customs without so much as a stamp in our passport.
August 3rd: Arriving in Kyrgyzstan.
Have we arrived? It's a little confusing with so little sense of change; we check by buying an ice cream, paying in our newly acquired 'som'. At just twenty kilometres from Bishkek, a string of Russian homes and their elegant picket fences line the roadside. Children play in the yards, cool in the shade of trees drooping with fruit. Groups of rotund women gossip cheerfully, presiding over bottles of fresh blueberries and buckets of plums as they push babyless prams stacked with bread.
Such an abundance of colourful food, arranged in neat, enticing piles for passers-by, and we stop to sample a bowl of raspberries sprinkled with sugar. Everyone has something to sell; it would be good to think Capitalism is encouraging these entrepreneurial ways but sadly a collapsed economy is the more likely cause. Three large ladies sing traditional close harmony, beside three large piles of plump tomatoes: before we see them, their soft voices lend a mystical quality to this picture-perfect scene. A few Russian cyclists, leather panniers sprouting vegetables, cruise closer to inspect our own dusty steeds. It's a sublime afternoon, and the distant mountains are layered in snow. Smiles and waves as we ride by. So far, Kyrgyzstan and its people seem simply wonderful. Before long, we hit the city outskirts, yet this provincial feel remains. The sun sinks poignantly into a blood red cloud as we stop before Lenin, arms outstretched feverishly to the distant mountains. Times are changing. A group of breakdancers contort at his feet, makeshift skateboarders rattle across the square, and a soundtrack of Bryan Adams blasts from an outdoor speaker. More leaf-lined streets and Soviet architecture, squat yet statuesque, dotted with ambling couples and random sculptures, startling in their angular extremes.
Bishkek seems almost stark in comparison to Almaty, yet its hotels are all full. It's been a long day, so we settle for the concrete 'Cemetey' that offers us their deluxe $12 US, suite, complete with wood panelled sitting room and a surreal fridge full of insects.
The shower splutters fitfully. Time to sample luxury, Khyrgyz style....