Kazakhstan 2: The varied east

After leaving Almaty we drive north and pass Kaptschagai Lake. We stock up on food and beer and Miriam is supposed to monitor our luggage. Of course, it wouldn’t be Miriam, if she does that like a normal person. She rather is waiting by lying on her motorcycle, like Terence Hill in the movie Nobody (that’s a brilliant italian western comedy from the 70s by the way). Out of sheer nonchalance, she tips over in the middle of the parking lot and has to be rescued by taxi drivers that rushed to safe her – what a surprise. Well – this is a different way to get contact to the locals. When we come out of the shop, a bunch of taxi drivers is already standing around the “child” (Miriam) and making selfies. We talk to the taxi drivers for a while, take photos and chat about our motorcycles. In the end they offer us a talisman for a safe trip.

Afterwards we drive to the north shore of the lake and find a nice place right on the beach. Andreas and Tobi try to fish for a while, but unfortunately the success from the beach is limited. So finally we prefer to devote ourselves to beer.

On the way to the Altyn Emel National Park the next morning, it starts to rain terribly. Luckily the sun comes out again just before a beautiful pass, that leads down to the park entrance. Miriam is quite drenched because she was too lazy to put on her rain gear. With her trembling blue lips, she is therefore pleased of the increasing warmth in particular.

At the park entrance it is really hot and dry again. A ticket and a vehicle authorization are required to enter. Everything is almost as well organised as in the USA, except that the road becomes really bad for motorcyclists as soon as you drive into the park. Depending on the destination, it is over 40 km (25 mi) one way of terrible corrugations, that alternate with deep gravel and sand hollows. So we have to ride significantly slower than all four-wheeled vehicles, what obviously makes the corrugated parts even worse.

Completely shaken up we arrive at Lava Rock after ages, where a few Russians are repairing their flat tire. The lava formations are nice, but the way to get there was the real attraction. A few kilometers back, we find our campsite in a nice green area in the middle of the desert. There is also a warm spring (which was not really warm) for showering, which more or less consists of a large pipe, where the water splashes onto the sand from a height of about 3 meters. Actually a very nice campsite, but like almost every place in Kazakhstan very popular with mosquitoes.

After breakfast the next morning we rattle the approximately 100 km (62 mi) to the real highlight of the park, the Singing Sand Dunes. The dunes suddenly appear out of nowhere in the middle of the barren desert area. The sand is extremely hot and we struggle to ascend the top of the first large dune without burning our feet. Some tourists drag skis and snowboards up the dune, but the run doesn’t look very fun. The actual name comes from an airplane-like noise, which arises when you slide down the dune and displace as much sand as possible. The sound is really impressive and at the same time the entire sand swings around you. Unfortunately, when you arrive at the bottom, you realize too late that your ass is burned. The sand is seriously hot and another climb up is not an option anymore. So we rather limp back to the vehicles. Despite heat blisters it’s a great experience though.

60 kilometers later, we reach the park entrance again and make our way towards the Chinese border. It is almost a miracle that our motorcycles haven’t fallen apart and we haven’t got a concussion after these two days. The camper of Andreas and Andrea is completely dusted to the last corner (even the drawers), the folding bed can no longer be operated, the radiator grille has fallen off and both windscreen-pillars are broken. After 6 months in Siberia, Mongolia and Kazakhstan it was too much for the old Fiat Ducato.

Shortly before the Chinese border, we turn south-west towards Chundzha, where our two Swiss got a recommendation to have their camper welded. We stay again next to a river where we have enough opportunity to feed the Kazakh mosquitoes.
The following day we look for the workshop in Chundzha and when we finally find it, it is more than quaint. Spare parts and tools are everywhere in the courtyard next to the actual house. A repair pit was dug out, on which a few boards were simply placed, depending on the track width of the vehicles. We are asked to come into the apartment and are offered a lot of food, although it was Ramadan. The mechanics started working on the camper instantly. Unfortunately, the windscreen pillars are pretty scruffy on the inside and supposedly can’t be welded really quickly. Therefore everything is beautifully covered and polished again with a glass fiber spatula. The whole thing is done with the utmost care, although it was already obvious, that it won’t last very long.

Two hours later the repair is done and the cost is really nothing to speak of. We take a few farewell photos and drive to some nearby hot springs afterwards. Some kilometers later you can already see the filler at the repair points slowly saying goodbye. That was great craftsmanship …

As we arrive at the springs, a terrible thunderstorm comes up. We are a bit dissappointed, since the hot springs are all resorts and most of them only offer pricy full-time deals with overnight stays. When we finally find a resort that allows us to bathe for an hour, it starts to pour and we are happy to not have to ride our bikes at that time. The bathroom itself is not particularly inviting. There are more or less two pools in a corroded iron barn, in which renovation and dredging is still ongoing. However, the water is nice and warm. So we sit in the hot water for about an hour and hope that the barn will not be blown away by the storm. When we finally leave the building clean and warmed up, the rain has stopped. That makes it much more comfortable to look for a wild camp spot nearby.

The next day we set off for Charyn National Park. The Charyn Canyon can only be reached by ~20 km of off-road tracks. The condition of this route is much better than in the national park before though. The canyon itself is reminiscent of the great canyons in Utah USA. There is a beautiful hike, that ends after a few kilometers at a dead end, where a raging river blocks the rest of the canyon. At this point you are not allowed to go any further and allegedly a couple of kayakers drowned a few days ago, since they had underestimated the current. We head back to the parking lot, where we set up our night camp and end the day with beer. We also put our Hilleberg tent safely under a shelter, that it doesn’t get wet.

After breakfast the next morning we drive back towards the mountains to visit Kolsay National Park. This park has three beautiful lakes. To reach the first lake, you have to drive many kilometers off-road again. The last few kilometers make it really difficult for the Swiss camper, but we all finally get there after a few hours of shaking. There are trouts in the lake and we try to catch our dinner again unsuccessfully for a few hours. We have bought permits to use two fishing rods, but since Tobi and Andreas have used a third one, an official comes to the campsite later and demands money for the third rod. He said, that he will bring a recipe later, put the money in his pocket and was never seen again…

The next day we hike to the second lake what extends over a total of 20 km. After leaving the first lake, the terrain becomes increasingly steep. The forest has probably never been forested. Countless plant species grow wildly together, while a rushing brook shoots through the forest with insane roar. In addition to the stream, there are many places, where water comes directly out of the forest floor. It is clear, ice cold and perfectly suitable to drink without any filtering. After almost three hours we reach the second lake. A soldier appears out of nowhere and wants to see our permit. Of course we haven’t brought it along. Nobody can assume, that you will be asked for a permit in the middle of the wilderness. After a bit of back and forth the controller finally realises, that he has to come to terms with the fact, that we cannot show a permit.

It is not possible anymore to walk to the third lake. They told us, that it is too close to the border with Kyrgyzstan and it is a restricted drinking water reservoir, too. After a short snack – dear Andrea smeared us delicious breads – we make our way back. At the campsite it has become already quite cold as soon as the sun has left. Due to this temperature drop and the increasing amount of mosquitos, we decide to cook inside the camper van. It is already dark, when someone knocks on the door frantically. A girl from Hong Kong stands in front of it and asks to set up her tent close to us, because there are supposed to be wolves nearby. Since it would be quite unpleasant, if she were eaten, we also help her to set up her tent – which she had probably never done before.

Nobody got eaten that night and we continue to Kyrgyzstan after breakfast the next day. Our Swiss friends take along the girl from Hong Kong for a few kilometers to drop her off at a reasonable road towards Almaty. She is hitchhiking and it would have been a real mess to catch a lift in the National Park. Shortly before the border we reach Kegen and fill up our motorcycles again. When I want to pay, I have to wonder for a moment that I supposedly have filled 12.5 liters of fuel – funny because my tank only holds about 12.5 liters and there was still some petrol left. However, I have no desire to discuss with the gas station attendant and so I just pay the few pennies more. Strangely, everything was fine again with Miriam’s fuel gauge. Shortly after Kemer the good asphalt road becomes a gravel road construction site again.
The last few kilometers towards the border we hop on a bad gravel road through green pasture. It looks like Scotland and in a distance we can already guess a small house in the middle of the meadow – the border with Kyrgyzstan.

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