East Kazakhstan: Invisible Cities, Beautiful Bukhtarma and Kazakh hospitality

In the age of Google maps and the life documenting, all pervasive and instant social media it is strange to think that at one time a whole city could be made conceptually invisible but this was previously the case for Ust-Kamenogorst. 

During the time of the USSR U-K was not to be found on any maps and information relating to it was highly restricted as a result of its mineral and munitions industries.  Its hard to comprehend the emotional and social impact of this secrecy on the families living and working in this city and the people telling me about this situation and its now thankful resolution are Misha and Ira, 2 medical students born at the time of the collapse of the USSR and who have only known the time of the Russian Federation and a very different way of life.

I had met them on the train from Barnaul to, well originally I was going to be Rubtsovsk and then planning to ride to the Russian/Kazak border at Aul … but somehow in the course of the initial part of the journey with them, and conversations with the less fierce than usual carriage attendants, the plan had changed and I was being informed of new plans with increasing regularity as they all discussed my entry into Kazakhstan and route from there.  As is often the case for me the original plan I had formulated was utterly overridden by the enthusiasm of other people wanting to get involved in my adventures and wanting to impart their love and knowledge of their countryside, making my route more interesting and more memorable as a result.

The highly evolved and final plan for the night border crossing involved Misha and I leaving the train at , getting a taxi across the much smaller and hopefully quicker border crossing at Mikhaylovka, reboarding the train at Semonika and finally disembarking at Misha and Ira’s hometown of U-K.  Tilly and panniers would remain on the train throughout cared for by Ira and the attendants, who had also arranged for the points supervisor at … to call for a taxi in advance.  As usual things do not go quite as planned.  For a long time it looks as if there is not going to be a taxi and I’m sweating with stress next to the calm Misha who constantly indicates for me to relax.  A taxi is finally booked at great expense and we dash for the borders, hoping to catch up with the departed train and my beloved Tilly. 

The border crossings are quick with only minor palpitations when the Russian border officer excuses himself and departs to see his superior, my passport in hand.  My breath is held … but not for too long, as he returns, handing it back with a serious faced ‘das vidania’ … and its back in the taxi for the Kazakh border which is over in a flash and we race for Semonika, finger crossed that the train is still in the station.  It is … we can see it on the other side of the tracks, so waving to the taxi driver, Misha and I dodge across in front of the next slow arriving train and its long tail of carriages, making it onto our now dark train with a whole 3 minutes to spare.  The lights are all off and most people are in their bunks but we see the anxious faces of Ira and the carriage attendants dissolve into relief as we leap up the steep carriage steps!

I spend a lovely couple of days in U-K with Misha, Ira, Misha’s Grandfather and visiting Ira’s family for her mother’s birthday celebrations and the 1st May holiday.  There is lots of home cooked food and homemade jam to enjoy and of course lots of tea!  Ira is very excited that I will be going to Bukhtarma and seeing the green and mountainous side of Kazakhstan, so different from the desert images of sand and camels that she knows are more prominent in my mind.  I had hoped to be able to exchange my Mongolian Tugrik in Kazakhstan but in U-K this hope is very quickly extinguished and I am again in the situation of managing with what little money is left from Russia following the unfortunately pricey taxi ride. 

On the morning that I prepare to leave Misha and Ira there is snow falling outside and the temperature has dropped considerably.  My trusty, Uzbekistan-hostel salvaged, hiking boots had been given a tearful send off in Barnaul after repair finally seemed impossible and they were starting to smell as if they were already decomposing on my feet.  This had left me with Keen sandals and Sealskinz socks for protection agains the elements, both of which had seemed fine in principal (Kazakhstan is hot desert, right?!!) but now appeared less practical in reality and I cursed myself for being too hasty in letting the boots go. 

I cycle out of the small city, up and down hillsides made white by the vagaries of the Kazakhstan weather.  After a night camping in the unexpected snow the next morning is hot.  Strangely enough I am still wishing for for my sturdy boots, this time as a result of nearly stepping on a couple of sunbathing snakes!  The road to Bukhtarma twists and turns over high hills. Small serpentines visible through trees, snapshots of spring growth and sky, blue and green jewelled, like the coils of this mornings snake.  I happily wind my way up and down until the narrow views give way to wide open vistas and the road, no less challenging, just becomes longer.

Eventually I reach Bukhtarma Reservoir and I’m stunned by the surroundings.  It has a particular type of beauty, one which I have missed without even realising.  Seeing that much water stretched out in front of me, more than I have seen in a long time, I take a deep breath.  Its almost sunset, the shadows are lengthening and the colours are deepening.  Another breath.  The hills surrounding the reservoir are reflected in the water and there are areas of beautiful timber constructed houses in small coves, probably summer houses. There are also a couple of industrial cranes which remind me of Bristol times, in spite of the oh so different setting.  Im busy taking photos and marvelling at the views so when its time to look for a pitch for the tent I get lazy and set up not far from a lane, over looking the water. 

Part way through cooking dinner I hear a car go past on the lane a little way away … and then reverse back.  Car doors open and slam and I hear snatches of a conversation with “palatka” (tent) in it.  So i get up to ‘welcome’ whoever is visiting and as I round the side of the tent there is a woman with her 9 year old daughter, and husband gallantly bring up the rear, coming up the hill.  Startled she takes a couple of steps back and I have to reassure her that I am harmless.  The usual tirade of questions culminating in ‘alone? not afraid?’ ensues and her fears about the tent and its occupants are assuaged.  This interaction is the most in depth I have for the next 4 days whilst riding around the deserted north east of Bukhtarma.

Its hard to describe the surprise I felt on cycling in this area of Kazakhstan.  The landscape reminded me of cycling in the South West of Ireland, with its rolling green hills and open spaces.  For me its a complete surprise to see high tech agricultural machinery.  The green of the hills and rich brown of the ploughed earth provide wonderfully homely sight and smell combinations and I feel and taste the damp soil in the air and on my tongue as I cycle.  The next few days of solitude are total bliss and I revel in the sensory nature of cycling in this amazing place.  Sunrises and sunsets, multi hued, captivate me all the more for knowing I am the sole witness.  Herds of wild horses roam the areas around the reservoir and cresting a ridge for another incredible view is often accompanied by the small stampede of a herd dashing in the opposite direction from the stealth combination of Tilly and Rae, camera in hand and bells set to ‘silent’.

Eventually I reach areas of proper road with cars and then the next area of habitation.  Its not long before a car cruises alongside asking the usual questions before speeding off.  What might seem more unusual is the fact that the car occupant then waited at the bottom of his farm track for the next hour for me to roll past, so he could invite me up for chai and a barbecue with his class mates who were having a reunion during the Victory in Russia holiday (9th May)!  I said ‘might’ seem unusual!! To be honest this wont seem at all unusual if you have spent any length of time in and of the Stans/Central Asian counties.  The hospitality is incredible.  I have been given food, money, water, shelter, friendship, encouragement and a lot of attention and curiosity besides. I have sometimes found the level of attentiveness to be overwhelming, a little stifling and  sadly fearful of an individual life (liking my space and independence as I do!!) but I am also in awe of the community vibe that emanates from people and their joy when invitations for tea or food are accepted.

After spending a lovely couple of hours with these friendly, funny, caring group of class mates and the amazing Ana, managing them all (including her very drunk husband) with grace and smiles I’m not sure I could muster, I head off towards the south part of Bukhtarma and what I hope will be a ferry to take me across the water and onto the main road to Almaty.  For the first time in days the weather is no longer scorching hot but is humid and threatening storms.  On this side of the reservoir there are numerous constructed ‘beaches’ complete with sand which make a great place to hide from the wind and rain when it hits, which it does the moment I take the tent out of its bag.  Its a mad scramble to get everything inside an upright tent in the face of the ensuing gales but I’m more practised at this again now and its done within 5 minutes!

The storm lasts well into the next afternoon and I give myself the excuse of ‘not putting the tent away wet’ to be able to eat, sleep and listen to Cabin Pressure (Radio 4 comedy, highly recommended) on my ‘phone!  On packing up and setting off again I continue to see rolling hills but they eventually give way to ‘stone forests’ which remind me of Bastai on the border of Germany and Czech Republic. The chorus of a 100 unknown birds in the morning and then throughout the day is only made more incredible by the occasional glimpses I have of the brightly coloured creatures. The sights and smells of spring blossoms on the heathland in the humid afternoon are amazing. My plan is to cycle to a ferry crossing which will take me back across the reservoir in the morning but as I reach the ferry landing the sight of the sunset and the boats is too much for me to miss out on and I dash onto the next on as it docks marvelling at the shapes and colours that I see.  I love boats and bikes and I count this evening’s adventure as the start of my sunset to sunset birthday … and its another epic one!!

On reaching the other side of the water the difference in terrain is incredible … and the sandflies and the mosquitoes explode in unhappy evidence, considering me to be the most warm, damp and tasty all-you-can-eat buffet around.  Over the next 10 days much more open Steppe stretches out ahead of me, the amount of worked, flat agricultural land is initially staggering but gives way to ‘unmanaged’ vast heaths with occasional herds of sheep, cows or goats grazing.  From here on the road stretches out in long segments to Almaty, my destination city in Kazakhstan.  I pass through small villages intermittently and am usually offered food and water on the days that I see people.  There is an incident of having to sneak back through a village in order to follow the route I wanted after being helpfully and caringly warned off that particular road due to its river crossing.  In reality there were 2 river crossings and yes they were deep but after a days procrastination, assessing the situation and camping in the field by the river, I stripped off to do an initial practise crossing and then got all kit and myself across both rivers and a stinky ditch with minimal fuss. 

The headwinds on the Steppe are debilitating and exhausting,   I have been buffeted about on the bike by fast moving trucks and have had to carry at least 6 litres of water (some of it river/cooking water) to offset the heat which has been hitting the mid 40s.  The heat is intense and I have worried about having no water at times but things have all worked out … sometimes incredibly well.  Like the time I got invited to stay on the floor in a caravan cafe, or the time I am given 5 ice creams by a couple with a mobile freezer van or being given water, or food or a Kazakhstan flag by passing car drivers!  I think people here see a cycle tourer and are shocked that she is female and alone.  Their next feeling is to be curious and involved in the evidently unhinged nature of the adventure.  I believe there is a specific sense of adventurous/crazy that renders me harmless and therefore available for social interactions with women and children in ways which might not have been possible under different circumstances.

Near Ayagoz, by lucky chance, I meet a couple of Swiss motorcycle tourers who are heading for Mongolia and who are keen to exchange my useless Mongolian Turgkrik for Kazakh Tengir …. WOOHOO! I celebrate by eating a massive breakfast and staying near a shop for the early part of the morning, hydrating and snacking contentedly!!  From Ayagoz I follow the ‘main road’ to Almaty, sometimes dirt track, sometimes hardcore and sometimes, increasing in frequency as i get closer to the city, the oh so joyous and silky smooth asphalt.  I am also able to see the mountains of the … National Park, mountains which are located in China whose border is only 50km away.  Its amazing to think I left China in March, have cycled nearly 3500km and am back looking in on China again!

The road to Almaty undulates up and down across the vast Steppe areas and I push forward, aiming for 100km a day but achieving varied results between 65km and 150km! The Steppe is mentally tough and there are numerous occasions of physical discomfort which add to it.  However I have learnt that all things pass and that by moving forwards up mountains or just putting one pedal down after the other there is change.  After a ride of nearly 1500km I reach Almaty and the hostel I make home for a recuperative 5 days.  I’m happy to be able to spend time eating, chatting (initiially I couldn’t shut up or slow down) and writing this blog! Its a different sort of enjoyment and I relish these times off the bike but as always have excitement for the next instalment.


  • Train from Barnaul to Tretyakovo
  • Taxi crossing Russian/Kazakh borders at Mikhaylovka on to Shemonaikha
  • Train from Shemonaikha to Ust-Kamenogorst
  • Cycle ‘roads’ – P25 & A350

Info, ‘tips’ and miscellany

  • Stunning route around Bukhtarma Reservoir, 35% (manageable when dry) dirt track
  • Route across edge of Tarbagatay Mountains – 35% (manageable when dry) dirt track
  • Headwinds from the West-North-West in May – challenging/strong 
  • Temperatures in May ranged from the low minus’ (low enough for snow) to plus 40℃. 
  • Solo cyclist – carrying minimum 6litres water daily, there is not always a stream or river opportunity for filtering.
  • Steppe areas have very limited facilities and shade!

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