Cycle Series: Kazakhstan
Chris Pountney
Chris Pountney • Jul 15

Cycle Series: Kazakhstan

by Chris Pountney

Chris embarked on his cycling journey 11 years ago, in May 2010. For the majority of the last decade, he travelled the world by bicycle and boat - traversing the world not once but twice. On his adventure, Chris visited about 90 countries, finally settling in Denmark. If you would like to read more about Chris' world travels the first book in his trilogy is 'No Wrong Turns: Cycling the World, Part One: Paris to Sydney. His next adventures and explorations are documented on his website

There are a number of people in the world who love to trumpet the joyous method of travel that is bicycle touring. They rave about how wonderful it all is, how much fun everyone is having, and how utterly brilliant travelling by bike is. Please, don't believe a word of it. The real truth of the matter is that bicycle touring is nothing more than lurching from mishap to disaster to near-death and back to mishap, interspersed with periods of riding a bicycle during which time you wonder what will go wrong next.

That's not to say that there are no days when everything goes well and nothing at all goes wrong because of course there are. As I have only been cycling touring for ten years, however, I have yet to experience such a day, although I've heard about them, and they sound very nice. Personally, I work by the principle that if the number of things that have gone wrong during a day can be counted on one hand then it should be considered a success.

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For reasons best known to itself, the road insisted on remaining in the foothills of the mountain chain to my right despite the fact that there was an extremely flat plain to the left.

To give you an example of what I am talking about I shall detail the events that took place over the course of one typical day cycling in Kazakhstan. The day had been spent cycling under a sun that was far too hot on a road that was far too hilly. For reasons best known to itself, the road insisted on remaining in the foothills of the mountain chain to my right despite the fact that there was an extremely flat plain to the left. I did all I could to explain the benefits that would accrue to both the road and myself if it would kindly move just 100 yards to the left, but it was adamant that it wanted to stay in the foothills and so it did. And the hills were made worse by the flies that swarmed around me as I cycled. I knew of only two ways to escape such flies, the first being to cycle very fast in order to outrun them and the second being to stop very suddenly. Unfortunately for me, it seemed that Kazakh flies were too quick and too agile for these cheap tricks. Fearing it was my smell that was attracting them I washed myself and my clothes as frequently as I could find water, but alas the soap I had bought from a little Kazakh shop smelled like crap and seemed only to make them crave me more.

Come late afternoon I had had quite enough of all this and was rather looking forward to setting up camp somewhere and making myself some eggs for supper, but a tight visa schedule meant I had to press on. The paved road that I was cycling on was surprisingly good but rather narrow, and as a rule, I moved over onto the shoulder whenever cars came in both directions to let them through. As I descended just over the brow of a hill a speeding motorist suddenly appeared from behind me and, as there was at that moment also a car approaching from the opposite direction, I moved instinctively over. Unfortunately for me, the gravel on the shoulder at that point was very loose and sandy and I was travelling too fast for it. The back of my bike fishtailed as I wrestled for control. For a moment I brought it back and it seemed like I might hold it but it wasn't enough. I felt the bike fall out from under me and I leapt away from it, my body coming crashing down and rolling on the gravel.

I should have liked to remain lying there as I landed for a while to catch my breath, but I feared how it may look to the next motorist that came along and so I picked myself up and dusted myself down. There appeared to be no serious damage and so I continued. No damage to me at least, I wasn't so sure about the eggs I'd bought for dinner, and I hadn't dared check. And on I went for a bit until I felt a rumble in my stomach. To be honest, I'd had a very poorly stomach for most of my time in Central Asia, and I made a familiar dash for the bushes, a place I called home for the next 20 minutes.

I got back on the bike. Less than 20 kilometres to go, surely nothing else could go wrong now. Then I noticed that my rear rack was loose. Fixing it was only a question of tightening a screw but to do it I had to take every single thing off the bike, turn it upside down, remove the rear wheel and rear derailleur, tighten the screw, and then put everything back together.

I did it and I cycled the stupid last few kilometres until finally, it was time to camp. Annoyingly I was now close to a village and the fields were cultivated, but I noticed a track leading towards the back of a field of sunflowers and I took it. There were a lot of puddles on the track and as it was almost dusk great clouds of mosquitoes appeared and began to attack me. Growing ever more frustrated I searched hopelessly for a spot to put the tent, deciding to take the muddy trail along the back edge of the field as I extended my search. Here I came to a stream of irrigation water that blocked my path. There was nowhere to camp further back so I needed to cross it, and I launched my heavy bicycle towards the water.

Now here I was stuck holding my stupid bike, straddling a stream and wondering just how the hell I was going to get out of this one.

The stream was much muddier than it looked. But I gave it a good push, and the front wheel made it most of the way across, coming to rest in the mud on the far bank, while the back wheel remained in the mud on the near. The upshot of this was that the bike was very much stuck and appeared to be ever so slowly sinking. It was another right pickle. Now here I was stuck holding my stupid bike, straddling a stream and wondering just how the hell I was going to get out of this one. I should have liked to have stopped and had a longer think about it, but the mosquitoes had descended, and I was losing a lot of blood. So I put my feet in the middle of the cold water, which was the only way I could get the leverage to lift the bike out. Even so, it was still an almighty effort, and it was with tremendous difficulty that I forced it up and out of the stream on the far side. In so doing it became impossible to balance the heavy bike and it began to fall towards me. Instinctively I jumped out of the way, noticing the mud in front of me and diving for it, deciding to sacrifice my trousers and land knees-first in the soft mud. But as this was my lucky day it turned out that this particular mud, that I had decided to dive knees-first for, was completely bone dry, baked to a hard, jagged finish by the sun. I believe they could hear my screams back in Almaty.

Battered and bruised I staggered along to an almost adequate camping spot, put up my tent, and made preparations for supper. The eggs, as you may expect, had not made it. I also found that the garlic powder I'd bought the day before was no longer in its jar and had instead decided to coat a large percentage of my worldly possessions with the glorious aroma of garlic. I settled for half a tin of baked beans, congratulated myself on not setting my tent on fire, and called it a night.

And this, ladies and gentlemen, is what bicycle touring is all about. If you like I could continue to tell you about the following day. I could go on to tell you about how my cycle computer decided it didn't want to work anymore, or how my gear cable came loose, or about the flies that got in my bread, or the truck that nearly ran me down, or the tree branch that smacked me in the eye. But I think you've heard enough. I think you've got the picture. The honest truth about bicycle touring, you have to agree, is that it is really, really, really, really shit.

But the funny thing about it is that somehow, and this is the bit I don't get, I'm really not sure how this works at all, but, one way or another, it's still the best bloody thing in the whole entire world.

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