I have always had a soft spot for touring- and adventure cyclists. No wonder, since I have spent most of my exploring life on a push-bike. But, I also think, it is by far the most demanding way to travel. Much harder than the over publicised adventures of climbing, skiing to the poles and such Expeditions, mainly due to the fact that you on a bicycle come across other cultures, continuously confront a variety of people and diseases, poverty and social realities and you travel during long times. Years compared to 6-12 weeks skiing or climbing. It is a genre of exploration which receives far too little appreciation in the adventure media of today, who prefers self obesseded adventures to the poles or climbing Everest. Which is fine, but it gets to much attention compared to the more profound way of cycling. I have given you a chance to meet two of great touring cyclists so far, Alistair Humphreys and Helen Lloyd. And they have a lot of very interesting things to say about most things, just because they have spent so much time trying to figure things out, mind wise and with the heart and their eyes. Next one coming up is a fellow Swede, Stellan Johansson, who has written about Kazakhstan, a country most of us know very little about!
My travels on a push bike in Kazakhstan by Stellan Johansson
I still remember the feeling I had when I crossed the border to Kazakhstan for the first time. It was back in the summer of 2002. I was filled with curiosity to see the country many Russians had tried to scare me about. They said, in Kazakhstan, there would be no roads but still there would be bandits along the roads and they would rob me of everything. I was worried and even scared when I saw the border station south of Kurgan, where I would cross from Russia into Kazakhstan. I had not had time to be worried about Kazakhstan, but what I had on my mind was more about how the police at the Russian border would react if they discovered that my Russian visa had expired 32 days earlier.
It went smoothly with customs, but with passport control, there was a problem. The first thing they noticed was that I had no entry stamp for Russia, where it should show the border station and date when I crossed into Russia.
I told them why. I had crossed the border from Belarus and had not received a stamp in the passport. It was true, but they asked about the exit stamp from Belarus, which also was missing. I did not have a chance to explain because the man had already discovered that my Russian visa expired for more than a month! There was not much to do but wait and see what would happen.
After eight hours at the border, the police had decided that I had broke the law and had to be fined. I was fined 100 rubles and they told me that I had to go to Moscow. In Moscow, I should contact the Swedish embassy and get help to get a new Russian visa so that I could leave the country. There was not much more to do at the border than to return to Kurgan, 150 km north. From Kurgan, it’s 2000 km to Moscow I had some luck at the border and got lift back to Kurgan by a truckdriver.
Twenty-four hours after I left the border post, I was on the outskirts of Petropolsok in northern Kazakhstan. I had been told earlier in the day that there were trains between Kurgan and Omsk in Russia that crossed into Kazakh territory and also that the trains stop in Kazakhstan. One of the places trains would stop at is in a small village on the outskirts of Petropolosk and there would be no border post. It felt like it was made for me and I made it into Kazakhstan.
I didn’t take many steps before I got stopped by police and I was really scared, but luck was on my side. The police were not border police and didn’t know much about passports and visas. He pointed out that I missed an entry stamp in my Kazakh visa. He also told me that I should give him $ 100, as a fine, to be able to continue but I said no. Forty-five minutes later he agreed with me and left me alone so that I could continue. I was happy. It felt very good to be inside the border and looking for a pitch to put my tent.
I was very pleasantly surprised by Kazakhstan, very nice people and the police were not as terrible as everyone had said in Russia. Of course, it happened many times that I got stopped, but with a little smile and laughter, it often ended with the police offering me tea or food.
The reason I cycled to Kazakhstan for the first time was mostly a coincidence. Kazakhstan, to me, was mostly an area that lies between Sweden and Hong Kong. An area I just had to pass through on the way to China. I had no or low expectations and knew very little about the country when I cycled south from Petropavlovsk. I knew that there is a large, deserted steppe in front of me and that was what attracted me most, after having cycled through Russian agricultural area. I had biked through the outback of Australia two years earlier and I knew how it would feel to just pedal on through deserted areas. I liked that kind of biking very much and wanted to return to it again after Australia.
Kazakhstan has a lot of steppe, but that’s not all. There were many things unlike anything else I had seen, even in Australia. There are beautiful wastelands of the Sahara and the Middle East that provides the same kick, but these areas are much drier.
In Kazakhstan, there are still plants which gives life to the area.
I did my first cycling through Central Asia 2002-2003 and liked most of the days. I just loved to ride on desolate gravel roads between cities. I do not know how many times I have been angry at my own stubbornness, making me take the worst road, just about every time.
Why do I always pick the worst roads? After riding few days of bad gravel roads or bypassing roadwork for days, it felt good every time I came to an asphalt road. There is also something I always ask if someone stops. How far is it to the asphalt? The first kilometer always feels best; it feels as if you are in paradise. Paradise does not attract me, and it doesn’t take long time before I want to get back to gravel.
My second long ride was in 2002-2003. I did it to test the limits of what I can do. How high altitude can I tolerate? Can I stand high and low temperatures? Could I ride on? I also tested how far I could go during a day or a night, and so on. I had the opportunity to test it in Kazakhstan, and perhaps because of it I like the country much.
I left Kazakhstan during the summer of 2003, to ride on to the Tian Shan and Tibet. It was not until the spring of 2008 I made it back in the country. I crossed the border from Turkmenistan to Kazakhstan.
The road between Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan are hardly worthy to be called roads. Many don’t even appear on maps. I had spent time, some years previously, studying maps of Central Asia and wondered why there was no road between Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan. I also asked when I was in the area in 2003 about roads linking the different countries and the answer was that there was no road between Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan. Later I found a map which there was a stretch of road. I was stuck and felt that I just have to ride there. The border area is beyond the cities. Guide books mention the borderlands the last outposts of civilization and describes it as the area that is not even worth thinking about to visit. It is perhaps precisely what attracts my mind but I can’t put words to it. Inhospitable, desolate, salty soil? I’m there.
I was around in Central Asia during 2008 -2010 and was looking for new challenges and new untouched roads.
Although I chose the smaller roads, the more inhospitable areas and those areas which seemed to be at least the population it was nothing like the first trip. The feeling of doing something extreme was gone and also the challenge to test the limits.
Making the first winter tour by bicycle was a wonderful challenge I experienced during my first ride in Kazakhstan. Doing the same thing a few years later, doesn’t capture the feeling. It does not matter whether you choose a tougher route or a cold season. The exhilaration of the first ride will never come back. In order to get the kick, it has to be new and and extreme.
I have left Kazakhstan again and it felt sad to do it. But at the same time, it felt like I have seen what I wanted. There are not really any more new places to visit and I have been around most of the country. I have visit the cities I wanted to see and seen the steppe during different times of the year. I have got the feeling of the hard cold winter in Kazakhstan and also the hot dry summers. I think I have to wait to return to the country again, but I know I’ll return. It’s great country, worth visiting many times.
Born 1977 and lived in Skåne in southern Sweden.
Studied biology with specializing in botany at the universities of Umeå, Lund and Stockholm.
Did his thesis in plant systems on a group of plants from Southern Africa in Stockholm, completing his work in 2002.
Biked about 80,000 km in 39 countries over the past 10 years.
Made his first bike ride, in 2000, from Melbourne – Perth in Australia
2002-2003 Cycled Sweden – Hong Kong and the route went through East Europé, Central Asia, Tibet and China.
2004-2005 planned to do a bike ride from North Cape in Norway to Cape Town in South Africa. He had to stop biking in Ethiopa after being hurt by kids throwing stones. He left the country with fractures in the skull bone.
2005-2006 He did a new route in Africa; this time in West Africa. He cycled around most time in the Sahara. In autumn 2005, he took a break from the cycling and paddled 800 km in a wooden canoe along the river Niger in Mali.
2006 Made a short bike trip in autumn in northern Morocco and Spain
2007-2010 Planned to ride his bike along the silk route from Cairo in Egypt to Beijing in China. He changed the plan at the border to China and decided to ride back to Sweden instead.
Read more about his adventures at here!
© Copyright 2013 Explorer Mikael Strandberg | Photos and texts Copyright Explorer Mikael Strandberg