Currently in Chiang Mai, Thailand (06/12/2013) - 31200km cycled

20 Aug 2013

Cycling in Kazakhstan

Posted by Will

Cycling across the steppe isn’t monotonous, as some people say. The landscape may not change much, the road may not bend round corners or over hills to offer new views, but the body will work with or against you, silent or complaining, the bike will whir on or jar to a halt and the road will range from snooker-smooth to the realm of the pneumatic drill and Catapillar digger.


Before all that, I managed to register my Kazakh visa in one of the most Orwellian offices I have ever visited. White walls, a tannoy system, uniformed men behind glass windows armed with stamps and short-tempers, subdued citizens clutching boring pieces of paper bowing begrudgingly to an authority outside their control. In contrast, on the same morning I also took a trip to the Mongolian embassy where warm round faces greeted me. I parted with $58 and 10 minutes later had a brand new visa stamped in my passport. My most hassle-free visa so far.

Having enjoyed the hospitality of a student centre in the centre of Kazakhstan’s largest city, Almaty, and the conversation of my smiling Spanish host, Pedro, I set off for 1080km across the Kazakh steppe, a journey I was promised would be brown and uninspiring.


Brown featured heavily, and I can’t say I was inspired by the land, but I found a new focus. The physical side of cycling weighed more heavily in my mind as I started to push myself to reach distances I’d previously thought were beyond me. Small blue signs by the side of the road notched every kilometer so each day I’d pit myself against them, my adversaries, challenging myself to beat them. I succeeded if I beat the day before, failed if I had to call it quits before I reached my target. I’d trick my body into thinking the end of the day would come at the target, only to push myself on a further 10-15km. Valid excuses before, now the road surface, wind direction and heat (at times over 40C) couldn’t be blamed for a poor day’s riding.

Masochistic eh? What do you think? I get great pleasure out of collapsing into the dirt at the end of the day knowing I’ve put in a hefty distance, even if my legs are hurting. A low distance makes for an empty evening atmosphere in the tent.

Cycling like this comes at a cost. I seldom stopped to hang around in villages like usual and so invitations for meals and places to stay were fewer. I can’t imagine the extent of Kazakh generosity is to blame; it’s famous in these parts. No, I didn’t make myself available to be tapped up. One time, I was beckoned up to the third floor of a Soviet apartment block in a dusty desert town called Ayagoz and fed a lunch of cheese, chai, jam and chocolate. The jam went down particularly well, smothered on hunks of flaky brown bread, as the taste of fruit where plants don’t grow is all the sweeter. Kids guarded my bike downstairs in the courtyard as I signed the motion of cycling across Europe and Asia to their father.


My finest moments in Kazakhstan were undoubtedly those spent at night alone in the endless, sandy steppe. I’d think of stopping as soon the sun made it’s move to set, pedal down the nearest sandy track a kilometer away from the road, dump the bike in the dunes and with the wheels still spinning get to work pulling up roots of the nearest scrub bushes. Ten minutes later and enough roots collected, it’s time to start the fire. As the wider world grew darker my camp glowed lighter with a pot of water on the fire to make what is becoming my signature pasta dish. A tin of tuna, a loosely chopped onion or two, a scoop of black pepper and if I’m lucky a sliced tomato and there it is: a meal to satisfy even the most masochistic of cyclists.

Watch the embers in the dark and scrape the pot clean. Glimpse a lonely car’s headlights dissolve into the night. Catch the first feeling of cold on the hairs on the back of your neck and know it’s time for bed. At times, Kazakhstan offers camping at its best.


A rather reflective post I’ll admit, but that’s how I’ve felt for a while now. Perhaps it’s why I’ve found it so difficult to write up to now, perhaps not. Perhaps it’s because I’m not proud that presently I’m cycling for distance to be put up on the scoreboard. But I am proud I’ve made it this far. Perhaps that doesn’t make sense. At the moment, a lot of perhaps.

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6 Comments already on “Cycling in Kazakhstan”
  1. 8:31 ampermalink
    20 Aug 2013


    So no bears as predicted? Disappointing… Good to hear all is still going well though, am currently planning 6 months travelling which starts next July so you better still be going strong because I’m hoping to come and find you somewhere! xx

  2. 8:43 ampermalink
    20 Aug 2013


    Dear William,
    A fascinating insight, as always, to a part of the world I know nothing about.
    I guess with such a vast and rather featureless landscape surrounding you, you are bound to be reflective but watch you don’t push yourself too hard because you want to get it “done”. The gaps between the blue markers on your map are huge!
    You have every right to feel extremely proud of your achievements. We, back at home, are in constant awe and admiration.
    Much love,
    Fran xx

  3. 4:12 pmpermalink
    20 Aug 2013


    get a move on kid x

  4. 7:30 pmpermalink
    22 Aug 2013

    Molly, Tene and Clara

    Great post Will! Keep riding! With love from a very hot Gran Canaria

  5. 10:04 ampermalink
    24 Aug 2013


    Sounds like you’re on yer way home boyo! What more could there possibly be???

  6. 9:33 ampermalink
    05 Sep 2013

    Caroline and Neil

    Hi Will,

    This is our first posting. Not that we’re computer illiterate or anything but we’ve only just figured out what a “blog” is, let alone how to comment on one! Only joking of course (?!?).

    We’ve periodically caught up on your blog as you’ve made your away across the world and we are just in absolute awe of what you’re doing which is way beyond a “once in a lifetime” experience”. It’s more of a “once in many lifetimes” experience” and we take all of our hats off to you.

    Look forward to reading more of “the further adventures of Will”.

    With our love and very best wishes.

    Caroline and Neil