And here we are, back in Kazakhstan that we had left a month ago. We go to pick up our bikes that we had left at a friend’s house. We missed our bikes… So we decide to pedal two days before taking the train to Astana and finally trying to get our Chinese or Russian visas. In the south of the country, the weather is still mild, there is not too much snow, for two days, it will be fine.
Kazakhstan is as flat as Kyrgyzstan is mountainous. The landscape could be very monotonous, but as we cycle along the Kyrgyz border, we can still enjoy for two days the beautiful view on the mountains.
This family stopped by us and got out of their car to give us this huge bag of food !
Regulating the body temperature by minus six degrees when pedaling is a real challenge. Do not put too many layers, not to sweat, but still enough not to be cold.
When we cross a city, something quite rare in the Kazakh steppes, we stop to drink a hot tea and warm up a little. But we don’t stop too long, restaurants are rarely heated and it’s finally better when you pedal!
After two months of abstinence and despite these difficult conditions, we are happy to pedal again! We are more and more eager to reach more welcoming climates to really get back on the saddle!
On January 8, Asel’s dad wakes her up at dawn. It is today that foreigners arrive, everyone must be on the bridge! Asel, thirty-three, is a teacher at Kulan’s college and lives with her parents and son in the family home. Asel’s mom is already working at preparing a feast, in case we arrive in the morning. The Kazakhs fear nothing except that their guests lack food. We simply told our host that we will arrive by bike at the end of the afternoon at her house. At four o’clock, she worries that we didn’t arrive yet and calls the police to find out if a patrol would not have seen us. Affirmative, a car saw us the day before, a hundred kilometers from here. At five o’clock Asel sends her neighbor to rake the village by car. At that moment, we just arrived and see this gentleman who makes us great gestures to follow him. As our moms told us not to follow strangers, we hesitate a little … then we fit the wheel. Wonderful idea.
As a general rule, we are always extremely well received and we have rarely felt uncomfortable with our guests. And sometimes, there are those moments of grace, where you instantly feel at home. At Asel, we are part of the family. Her mom takes us in her arms as if we missed her, her dad is excited and asks us a lot of questions, Asel puts us at ease right away. As in most small towns, there is no bathroom and toilet in the house. We are used to it, the toilet is the cabin at the end of the garden. The shower is once a week. Some have a “banya” in the garden. This is the case of our guests, and today is exactly Sunday, so bath day, we fall to spades! The banya is a Russian bath, so a sauna, with large basins of cold water that spills on the head to wash.
Asel’s mum gives us a cooking lesson
These two days in Kulan are intense, as everywhere in Kazakhstan, the arrival of foreigners, especially in a remote village, is an event. Everyone wants to see “the foreigners from Asel”. We go to friends of our host and she shows us her school. Among other things, we are entitled to a good quarter of an hour of photo shoot with about twenty students who want to have their portraits by our side. We refuse some marriage proposals. We also manage to avoid the canteen where the teachers, scared by our fine jigs, want to apply the Kazakh tradition that obliges to offer food to any foreigner, and in a quantity inversely proportional to its weight. Finally we harvest mostly tons of smiles and “welcome”!
Group picture in the shop, with the bags of food they gave us
Then comes the moment of departure, which is also the moment of great negotiation. During our stay in Kulan, we collected loads of sacks of food. In the street, at Asel’s friends’ house, people keep giving us bags filled with rolls, cakes, fruits … To this is added the two huge bags that the family of Asel absolutely wants us to take for our twenty-three hours of train. Asel even wants to study the quality of our coats, in case they are not hot enough for Astana! Finally, not being able to resolve to let us cycle, at seven p.m., the twelve kilometers that separate us from the station, the whole family is packed in a taxi, the bikes on the roof and bye bye Kulan!
Our wagon driver looks grumpy, and even with our beautiful bikes loaded like mules, we can not give him a smile. Thanks to the help of our friends, we still manage to get on the train, with the bikes fixed above our berths.
We are in third class. Restricted space so. The wagon is mainly occupied by families with small children. Except two travelers, completely drunk typing cardboard on our bunks. They leave us nicely their berths in exchange, ie the top berths, much less comfortable. We try to grumble a little, but finally quickly low profile: they are only half of the bottle of vodka, and do not seem to want to stop there, we will try to stay on good terms.
Thanks to our abundant food, we feed the entire wagon. Elsa goes down the hall, a bag full of cabbage fritters in her hands and offers to everyone. After two passages cleverly spaced of a few hours, our bags of food are empty! Our two berth neighbors have remained wise and apart from the heat of cooking an egg, we arrive safely in Astana, in a breeze to decorate an ox.
We have an appointment at Kanat, a few kilometers from the station. After two hundred meters, we quickly go to the evidence, it is impossible to pedal in this snowstorm. The traffic is dense, the snow accumulates in the fenders, the braking is random, in short, we take the bus.