We have taken a route through Kazakhstan suggested by Leon, which we christened “the Leon Loop”. We understand that he and a French fellow are proceeding along the same route a few days behind us. Although we are generally headed west, this portion of the route took us eastward so as to enter Kyrgyzstan near the east end of Lake Yssyk Kul.
2009/ / : Shelek km
In Almaty we woke to the sounds of rain, and stayed in bed for a while. Eventually we assembled ourselves and left Almaty as the sky cleared and with the help of the GPS. The roads were busy and we had a hard time getting our bodies to enjoy moving again. Like on the grasslands further north that we saw as we rode west to Almaty, horses are everywhere, and we stopped to watch a group of mares and foals.
Thunder rolled over us and torrential rain began. We soon dove for a bus shelter, which we ended up sharing with some local drunks – not unusual, as vodka consumption is a large part of adult male life in these parts. It didn’t look like ideal weather for camping, and we’d learned that the next gastinitska was another km away. As the rain eased a little, we moved on.
It was dusk and we were soaked to the bone when we arrived in Shelek. We opted for the more expensive room that had its own ducha – shower – that sprayed into a tiny chair-like bathtub, and spread our sodden things around to dry. In hindsight, perhaps this is why we noticed we were each short a key piece of warm clothing a few days later. We need to check rooms better as we depart. After four and a half months, this is the first time we’ve lost anything important – perhaps a sign that we’re getting a bit road-weary.
2009/ / 6: Aksay (Аксай) km
The next day’s ride took us through two spectacular passes. Horses are everywhere; they are simply part of the fabric of this place. Watching some of them move from a distance, one might think they were horribly lame; their gait looks very odd. Upon closer inspection you realize that many are hobbled, forelegs tied together with about cm or more of rope allowing only restricted movement. This is because there are no fences here. But they aren’t all hobbled – far from it. It seems to me that there are whole groups that are hobbled, and others that are not. The groups that have complete freedom of movement always seem to have a natural order, with a dominant stallion in charge. We stop often to watch the fascinating interactions. I understand that none of the males are gelded (castrated) in Central Asia, and so we are watching something much closer to natural herd behaviour, such as when a young upstart (male) from one group tries to join another group, but the dominant stallion of the new group won’t allow it.
With no gastinitskas in sight, we were planning to camp. We stopped in tiny Aksay, however, to eat at the cafe and buy a few things for the next day in the tiny magazin. As we packed to leave in the near dark, we were approached by yet another friendly drunk, who was finally guided (carried) away by his friend. As far as we can see, the women run all the businesses in the villages with great efficiency, while the men consume vodka. The large kerchiefed cafe lady watched the drunk with disgust, and made it clear that she didn’t approve of the status quo. I mimed my shared disapproval, and said “Vodka nyet” referring to our two relatively health conscious selves. This prompted her to offer us two saggy beds in a tiny room behind the cafe, which we were happy to use rather than set up camp in the dark and in threatening weather. We paid a nominal fee, and two large and amiable dogs kept watch outside. We’ve brandished our dog sticks often lately, but these two had clearly realized that once the cafe lady had shown us into the room, we were to be protected rather than pursued.