How to Plan a Cycling Trip Across Central Asia and the Caucasus Part II

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Bicycles, chips, watermelon, dirty roadside stores, and ice cream: what it’s all about.

This is an updated guide, essentially, for those who are curious or looking for information on doing a similar trip. I find it so helpful with any project to know what the plan was, what changes were made, and the end result. I’ve highlighted the big changes and here is also Part I for comparison’s sake.

Route

This was my original route. Over 3000k of cycling. Days not written in on this list mean I took the day off.

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  • June 2 Almaty to nowhere – 115k
  • June 3 Bishkek – 115k
  • June 4 Merke – 119k
  • June 5 Akyrtobe – 90k
  • June 6 Taraz – 66k
  • June 7 Tyrar Ryskulov – 103k
  • June 8 Shimkent – 73k
  • June 9 Tashkent 137k
  • June 12 Chimgan –
  • June 15 Tashkent –
  • June 16 Gulistan – 114k
  • June 17 Jizzakh – 127k
  • June 18 Samarkand – 110k
  • June 20 Kattaburgan – 78k
  • June 21 Navoy – 98k
  • June 22 Bukhara – 122k
  • June 24 Solakaural – 86k
  • June 25 Turkmenabat – 70k
  • June 30 Baku (via trains and cargo ship, since transit visas don’t allow for cyclists to cycle all the way across Turkmenistan)
  • June 30-3 Lagodekhi – 428k
  • July 3 Signaghi – 47k
  • July 5 Tbilisi – 87k
  • July 7-9 Kars 303k
  • July 10 Goreme (via overnight bus from Kars)
  • July 12-14 Ankara – 303k
  • July 15-18 Istanbul – 454k

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Cappadocia

This is the route I ended up taking, mileage per day, and reasons for changes. Just shy of 2000k total.

  • June 2 Almaty to nowhere – 130k
  • June 3 Bishkek – 101k
  • June 4 Nowhere – 110k
  • June 5 Jambyl – 132k
  • June 6 Zhabagly – 141k

IMG_9813Svetlana’s

I don’t burn easily, especially if I’m careful with sunscreen. But I got an insane heat rash the first five days. There was no shade except for the marshutka (small bus) stops. And sometimes I was so desperate, I used the tiny amount of shade I could find by leaning on a dumpster. When I slept at night, my body was like an oven, radiating heat. By the time I arrived at Zhabagly, I was exhausted to a point of delusion in which I felt like some sort of beautiful amazing alien. Endorphin highs combined with mild heat stroke is a weird trip. Needless to say, it was time to take a few days off. It was during this time I also realised I wasn’t going to receive my Azerbaijan visa in time to apply for my Turkmenistan transit visa and I made the decision that I would fly from Tashkent to Baku and skip Turkmenistan altogether.

  • June 9 Shimkent – 95k
  • June 10 Tashkent – 103k
  • June 13 Baht – 93k
  • June 14 Jizzakh – 115k
  • June 15 Samarkand – 101k

Almost everyone I know who’s been to Uzbekistan has gotten food poisoning, myself included. I just thank my lucky stars it occurred when I had a hotel room to myself in Samarkand. So I stayed three extra days and took the train with my bike to Bukhara, instead of cycling the 300k.

  • June 20 train to Bukhara – 15k (managed to cycle to the train station)
  • June 23 train to Tashkent
  • June 25 flight to Baku

See Zhabagly paragraph for why I flew.

  • June 27 Qobustan – 90k
  • June 28 Gebele – 129k
  • June 29 Sheki – 86k
  • June 30 Lagodekhi – 116k
  • July 1 Signaghi 47k
  • July 3 Tbilisi – 103k
  • July 5 Gori – 83k
  • July 6 Nowhere – 70k
  • July 7 hitched to Kutaisi

I met a Russian cyclist, at this point, and he didn’t feel comfortable cycling in the rain. I would’ve gone on cycling, had we not met but perhaps it was for the best as Georgia is full of hairpin curves and doing them on dry pavement would’ve been difficult enough.

  • July 8 cycled to a church, back to Kutaisi then on our way a bit before hitching to Batumi – 65k
  • July 11 Hopa – 31k

Meant to take a bus from Batumi straight to Cappadocia but was totally abandoned at the border by the driver.

  • July 13 cycling around Cappadocia – 25k
  • July 15 Istanbul via bus

Visas

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The photograph was their idea, I swear

Getting my Uzbek visa in Almaty, Kazakhstan was straightforward and only took a few hours.

In retrospect, I would’ve applied for my Azerbaijan visa myself. That’s what another cyclist I met did and he said it went off without a hitch and he received it within 3 weeks. Whereas, I applied for it through the Visa Machine who did an absolute cock up of a job and it took 10 weeks and meant I wasn’t able to go through Turkmenistan. Because to get a transit visa to Turkmenistan, you must have the visas for the countries you’re going to before and after, before you apply. By the time I realised this was a no-go, I was so exhausted from food poisoning and heat rash that I was really relieved to be skipping three days of travel by train and one day by sketchy cargo boat. The plane ticket from Tashkent to Baku also didn’t cost me that much more than travel in Turkmenistan and it meant that my schedule was more flexible, especially since the cargo ship from Turkmenistan to Azerbaijan leaves when it pleases and I would’ve had to wait anywhere from a few hours to a week to catch it.

I totally effed up in Turkey and thought my visa was good for 180 days but it was only good for 90, which I didn’t realise until I was at the border. And it was a gong show of going through the border to Turkey to an ATM to get cash out, then back to Georgia to pay for the visa, then back through to Turkey. Waiting for an hour and a half to see if my bus was coming out and then accepting that it had abandoned me there and cycling to the nearest town to catch the next bus. Lesson learned: apply in advance or have enough cash in hand for this one.

Places I Stayed

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Everyone’s favourite photograph

  • June 1 Almaty – Couchsurfing
  • June 2 Middle of nowhere – Camped
  • June 3 Bishkek – AirBnB through my friend Zbig (so no link, sorry!)
  • June 4 Middle of nowhere – Camped
  • June 5 Jambyl – Big pink building with a store, restaurant, and a hotel that wasn’t even ready yet. It probably did not have a name but I managed to get a room. There was another hotel (mentioned on this blog) about 15k further.
  • June 6 Zhabagly – Couchsurfing with this woman. She didn’t officially accept my request online so you can’t see that I stayed with her on my profile but she posts a link on her own website so I don’t feel weird about putting it here too. I can’t recommend going to Zhabagly and staying with Svetlana enough! One of the best times I had on the trip.
  • June 9 Shimkent – CouchSurfing
  • June 10 Tashkent – Topchan Hostel
  • June 13 Baht – Camped
  • June 14 Jizzakh –  It was a real pain in the ass to get a hotel in this town. The first one was ridiculously expensive. The second didn’t have a license for foreigners (this is a thing in UZ, but only an issue in small towns). And luckily a local helped me find a third one that wasn’t too much money, with a license. The name may be buried somewhere in my notes – I’ll update this if I find it!
  • June 15 Samarkand – B&B Bahodir. Breakfast was good, especially the kasha (porridge) but I would go elsewhere for dinner (they were just okay). Really lovely courtyard to hang out in during the days when it’s hot!
  • June 20 Bukhara – Rustam and Zukhra. The dinners here were good, though strangely the breakfasts were awful and always included some sort of plain cooked pasta and a hotdog. I think you could find somewhere nicer to stay for not much more money. A friend recommended the Amelia Hotel.

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  • June 23 Tashkent – Topchan Hostel
  • June 25 Baku – Couchsurfing
  • June 27 Qobustan – Invitation to stay with a local
  • June 28 Gebele – Local somehow found me a free hotel room
  • June 29 Sheki – Sheki Caravanserai

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  • June 30 Lagodekhi – Kiwi Guest House. One of the best dinners I had and the owner will get you a litre of home made wine for something like $2.
  • July 1 Signaghi – Nana’s Guest House. Nana and the owner of Kiwi are friends. Totally loved both of these places!
  • July 3 Tbilisi – Warmshowers
  • July 5 Gori – Nitsa Guest House
  • July 6 Middle of nowhere – my Russian cyclist pal managed to procure an invitation to stay with a local.

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  • July 7 Kutaisi – random hotel I won’t even bother naming because though I love Georgia, this town was a shit hole.
  • July 8 Batumi – tent on the beach. Would not recommend since we were woken up by a police officer telling us to get a move on around 7am.
  • July 9-11 CouchSurfing in Batumi
  • July 11 Overnight bus
  • July 12-15 Avanos, Cappadocia – Warm Showers
  • July 15 Istanbul – Stayed with a friend

About CouchSurfing and Warm Showers, if you’d find it helpful to know whom I specifically stayed with (because that kind of thing is very helpful!), you can check out my references on CS (none for Shimkent, wasn’t super crazy about my host there) and profile on Warm Showers. Also, can I just say that Warm Showers is the worst name ever? I first learned about it from a fellow cyclist I met in Uzbekistan and probably wouldn’t have used it if it hadn’t been vouched for by someone in real life. Warm Showers is CouchSurfing, specifically for cyclists, and very helpful because then your hosts will know such things as where the nearest/best bike shops are in the city, they’ll know that laundry is extra paramount, and they’ll be understanding that you will only have an estimation and not an exact time of arrival.

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I really gave this wild camping thing my best go but honestly, I couldn’t get comfortable with it. I could do it if I was out for a hike in the middle of a mountain or the woods. But trying to find a spot to pitch a tent off the side of the road is fucking scary and tiring and I felt like I never slept any time I did it. That being said, I’m really glad I did it, if only because I feel like much less of a baby. Currently, I’m house sitting a very large house and in the past, I would’ve been freaked out to be in such a large space on my own at night.

As for being invited into people’s homes, other cyclists constantly talked up that when they simply asked locals about where to stay, they were immediately invited to spend the night. But this only happened to me once! I don’t know if it was because I was a young woman alone or what but locals always tried to direct me to the nearest hotel and seemed really concerned about my safety to the point that they didn’t even like the idea of me sleeping in a tent at night. I will say that the one time I was invited to spend the night, nothing bad happened and I was never fearful of my physical safety but it was super awkward and sad and like some sort of dystopian Eat Pray Love as written by Alice Munro or Miranda July.

A tip for staying in hotels. Use booking.com only to find hotels. The site charges a few bucks extra that you can avoid by contacting the owner directly.

Bike Repairs and Dealing With Mansplainers

I gotta give it to men in Central Asia that they always want to help a lady out. To the point that they will insist on helping even when it’s unnecessary or they don’t know what they’re doing, which is almost always the case with a bike repair because cycling isn’t very popular in Central Asia. A man who insisted on pumping my tire for me broke off the valve, rendering the tube useless, when I had no more left. Another insisted on putting my wheel back on for me and screwed it on so tight that my dainty lady wrists couldn’t get it off again and I had to ask another man to unscrew it for me (the horrific irony!). My back wheel was essentially ruined by the countless dudes WHO ACTUALLY WORKED AT BIKE SHOPS taking the cassette apart and putting it back together incorrectly (and I didn’t have the tools to do it myself). And much more.

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Namaste, get out of my way!

Halfway through the trip, any time a man offered to help, and an offer for help was rarely verbal, it was almost always an extension of their hands all over my bike, I firmly told them no and moved my bike away. It’s not worth a show of politeness to have something broken on your mode of transportation when you’re in the middle of nowhere. If you need help, you can ask for it and people will always be there and happy to give you a hand. But closely watch any work that’s done. Often, in bike shops, I was banished to wait outside or in the car and had to walk through their protests to supervise staff. And check over the work that’s done before leaving. I made the mistake of not doing this after a repair in Tbilisi and spent the next few days cycling with a misaligned rear wheel.

Kudos to good intentions and there were lots of times where I accepted help and men really did get me out of a pickle. But dudes, when a lady says she knows what she’s doing, it’s best to leave her be.

Luggage/Gear

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What I planned to bring in normal text. What I actually brought in bold. And what I would bring if I were to do it again in italics.

  • Extra chain
  • Spokes/Fiber Fix
  • Gear and brake cables
  • 3 tubes I would bring even more next time. They didn’t sell my size anywhere in Uzbekistan.
  • Travel pump I bought a better pump halfway through the trip. It was dumb to skimp on this at first.
  • Bungee cords
  • Distance tracker
  • Casette Remover Lockring
  • Multi-tool including chain breaker and spoke wrench
  • Patch kit I would bring like 3 next time, though.
  • Zip ties
  • Electrical tape
  • Pedal wrench It would’ve been silly to cart this around the whole way had I not ended up flying from UZ to AZ, because I could’ve just bought one in Istanbul once I arrived.
  • Water filter
  • Tent
  • Sleeping bag
  • Stove
  • Bowls that could be used as pots/mug/spoon/fork
  • Water bottles/water bladder Never used it once since I always had to buy bottled water.
  • Swiss Army Knife Even though I lost it on my second day.
  • Balloons To blow up and pop to scare away wolves – which some other cyclists rightfully teased me about and I never ended up using.
  • iPhone
  • Camping mat
  • Solar charger
  • Baby wipes 
  • Sunscreen (one for face, four for body) I only ended up using two bottles.
  • Eye cream
  • Kobo
  • Razor
  • A dress and a skirt
  • Bathing suit
  • 1 bra
  • Underwear
  • 2 tank tops Only brought one.
  • Elephant/fisherman’s pants
  • Shorts Wish I’d brought two pairs of regular shorts instead of just one.
  • 2 pairs of bike shorts Got rid of both because they were both old pairs and my Brooks seat was good enough that the padding wasn’t necessary.
  • Cotton scarf that doubles as a towel
  • Big warm scarf that doubles as a pillow
  • Thick socks – If my feet are cold, I can’t sleep but it was NEVER cold.
  • Lush shampoo bar It totally disintegrated in the heat. A bar of soap would’ve sufficed.
  • Clarisonic and face wash. I rightly realised this was as dumb an idea as it sounded. But this is the girl who carted a hair dryer up the biggest climb across Canada.
  • Makeup (eyebrow pencil, mascara, blush, concealer– This whole trip really changed my attitude towards makeup but that’s a story for another time.
  • 20 chapsticks (jk, kind of)
  • Travel pouch I never once worried about theft and I almost ruined my passport with back sweat.
  • Decoy phone and wallet 
  • Bug Spray
  • Ibuprofen, bandaids, antiseptic, cough drops, vitamin C, immodium (maybe the most important thing of all?)

On the second day, I abandoned a bowl, a large scarf, and a pair of cycling shorts. And I would’ve felt absolutely ridiculous if I’d brought my Clarisonic with me. If I had to do it over again, I wouldn’t have bothered bringing a stove. Even when I camped, I only used it to make coffee and oatmeal in the morning, which was nice but not essential. I also wouldn’t have bothered bringing a tent or a sleeping bag, since the only time I truly seemed in the middle of nowhere with no alternative was the first night. It was nice to know the option was there if I got stuck but I’m not sure it was worth all that extra weight. At least I got some killer quads out of it, even if they are now being crushed under the weight of many Tim Tams.

Though I could’ve done the trip without so many items I brought, who was to know at the time!

I must say that the Fiber-Fix spoke was a bit of a pain to use but was a much better alternative to bringing along cassette removal tools (I’m glad I made sure I had the cassette removal lock ring).

Food/Water

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I was always fine with carrying only 2 days worth of food at one time. I most often ate bread, cheese, tomatoes, and cucumbers. Every time I stopped I made sure I had at least 4 litres of water before taking off. I drank an average of 8 litres a day, which sometimes wasn’t even enough. Some days I really had to be proactive about purchasing water whenever I saw a store. But it was easy to anticipate when stores would be scarce. I never had to use my water filter and I only had to veer off course once in Azerbaijan to restock on water (that was a rough afternoon).

Sometimes people would pull over to offer me cold water, which was so lovely. I always felt if I became desperate I could wave someone down for water, though it never came to this.

Top Useful Things

Bungee cords. My bike and I had to travel in so many cars and these were so helpful for packing it properly in the trunk. And of course, I used them every day for packing everything on my rat trap. Also helpful for when I had to cart my bike box around airports.

Camping mat. Essential for essential mid-afternoon naps. Good for any rest break, which 90% of the time took place on the ground.

Cotton scarf. So multifunctional! It’s a pillow/shade from sun/shield from dust/source of warmth/towel/cover for religious sites/etc.

Trains and Planes and Buses

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Surprisingly taking my bike on buses in Turkey was the biggest headache. Maybe because I don’t speak any Turkish and I at least spoke basic Russian. Trains were no issue and the plane was fine too. Uzbekistan Airways only charged me an excess baggage fee based on the weight so I paid $37 USD.

Safety

Even I was surprised that I was never fearful of my safety during the trip. There were lots of times I was scared, such as camping alone. But I never actually thought I would come to any physical harm. Central Asia and the Caucasus are very safe and though there were a shit ton of awkward dude moments, that’s as far as it went.

‘Tudes

The biggest shock on this trip were the attitudes of other travellers and cyclists I encountered. While many were as open-minded and encouraging as I had expected, I found a lot of people were stuck in basing everything on their own experience and any time I did something different from them, they came across as admonishing. I couldn’t have done this trip five years earlier or when I was younger because I think I would’ve been too unsure of myself. If you do this kind of trip, be open to others and flexible in your ideas while also remaining confident that you know what’s best for yourself.

If I Were to Do It Over 

I would have:

  • taken less items, as shown in the above list.
  • not bothered trying to camp at all. And with a few exceptions, from now on, when I travel by bicycle, especially if I’m alone, I’m not going to camp or even bring the gear. It’s so much extra weight and effort when you’re already really pushing yourself. I wasn’t even that keen on the camp/bike thing when I travelled with my then boyfriend from Vancouver to San Francisco. But I’d be up for it if I did something like cycle from Melbourne to Canberra with pals.
  • stood up for myself even more with pushy dudes.
  • learned how to say “I’m full” or “I’m not hungry” in Russian. As it was, I’m very glad I had a basic handle on the knowledge. It helped me feel much more in control – a totally stark contrast to arriving in rural Turkey and only knowing a handful of words.

 

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Thank you for all the kind words and encouragement! There are a lot of doubters out there, especially when it comes to a woman taking a journey alone, and it meant a whole lot. There’s much more I have to say about my trip and I will at some point! Look for my book Eat Cry Diarrhea in stores some time next year.

How to Plan a Cycling Trip Across Central Asia and the Caucasus

I am moving to Australia! But first, I’m leaving KZ by cycling from Almaty to Istanbul.

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Naramata

I’ve done two cycling trips before, one from Vancouver to San Francisco and one from Vancouver to Naramata. Along the Pacific Coast, all you need is a decent bike and “the purple book“. And cycling to Naramata simply required choosing between the #3 and the #5 highways. Voila!

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Extensive gear shifter bruising on the way to S.F.

As a North American, if something went awry on a cycling trip within the States or Canada (nothing ever did), I knew help was easily there if I needed it. This trip is very different and required planning of epic proportions (a word that I do not use lightly). The librarian in me kind of loved it even though such details as camping alone, researching strategies for scaring away wolves, having to take a cargo ship, and buying a water filter for the first time in my life completely terrify me.

But it will also be awesome and worth the first few sleepless nights.

Here are the fruits of my labours (other than the actual trip itself). And of course, I’ll update once the journey is complete!

Route

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I so wanted to go through Iran but they changed the visa requirements in the last year or two so that Canadians can only enter the country if they have a guided tour for the entire time. My rough route, minus the many small stops on the way:

  • Almaty, Kazakhstan
  • Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan
  • Shimkent, Kazakhstan
  • Tashkent, Uzbekistan
  • Samarkand, Uzbekistan
  • Bukhara, Uzbekistan
  • Train/bus from Turkmenabat to Ashgabat, then to Turkmenbashi (it’s really difficult to get anything but a transit visa for Turkmenistan, and that doesn’t give enough time to cycle across the country)
  • Take a cargo ship from Turkmenbashi to Baku
  • Baku, Azerbaijan
  • Sighnagi, Georgia
  • Tbilisi, Georgia
  • Train/bus from Kars to Kayseri, Turkey
  • Ankara, Turkey
  • Istanbul, Turkey

In general, these sites have been so helpful for route planning and more:

Silk Road
A lot of people have asked if I’m cycling the Silk Road but the Silk Road was never one road so the name is annoyingly misleading. It was a network of roads that fluctuated throughout seasons/political happenings/etc. So yes, I am kind of cycling some of the Silk Roads.

What I’m Most Excited to See
Before moving here, my knowledge of this area was very poor and it was overwhelming to research areas outside of Kazakhstan. Though I haven’t travelled in any of these regions yet (save for Turkey), living in KZ has given me a much better gauge on the surrounding area.

Uzbekistan and Georgia are the countries I’m most looking forward to. Uzbekistan has gorgeous, ancient buildings – Google image search Samarkand, Bukhara, or Khiva. And I can’t wait to eat my way through the country’s plov. And dude, Uzbek pottery.

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Georgia (as represented by a restaurant in Astana)

Georgia looks to have beautiful scenery and more importantly, it is KHACHAPURI AND WINE COUNTRY. Georgian food is getting super trendy now and I can totally understand why. It’s been my favourite fare to go out for while living in Astana.

I’m also very excited to go to Cappadocia in Turkey and see all of the hot air balloons and penis rocks.

Maps
I ordered the Reise Know-How general Central Asia, Georgia/AZ, and Turkey maps, which I read were the best in the business. And this Uzbekistan road map. I’ve also downloaded lots of maps from the maps.me app.

Phone
I’m going to continue using my Kazakh phone since roaming is so cheap across Central Asia/Turkey. But I think this only really works if you have a Kazakh bank account with which to top up your Kazakh cell plan.

Tune-Ups

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The most important thing is to make sure you get a tune-up before leaving. If your bike is in tip-top shape, it’s likely the most you’ll have to deal with on the road is the occasional flat. And also, book mark this list of bicycle repair places in Central Asia. 

I didn’t get any bike work done or buy any major gear in Astana because the one real bike shop in Astana (Limpopo) doesn’t like to work on bikes that aren’t from their store and none of the staff are fluent in English (and my Russian isn’t good enough to communicate about mechanical details). I’ve read that there’s a bicycle shop in Almaty (Ekstremal/Extremal) with English-speakers so I’m going to get my tune-up there before leaving and replace my front tire (and maybe wheel) since I think it got bent on one of Astana’s treacherous curbs.

Bike Skills

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Very important! Test out all this repair stuff a week or two before leaving. It took me several tries and I had to ask for help before I could even get my travel pump to work. Better to have mistakes happen 
at home than on the road! These are the things I made sure to know before heading off:

  • Changing a flat/patching a tube
  • Replacing a broken spoke
  • Fixing a broken chain/installing a new one
  • Removing pedals
  • Replacing and adjusting gear/brake cables

Before this trip, I knew how to change/repair flats and some other very basic tasks. But as bike shops are few and far between, I needed to learn much more. This series of videos was SO helpful.

Take a bunch of photos of your bike before leaving. Sometimes I still get tripped up with seemingly simple things like putting my back tire back on my bike and having a photo saves me a lot of grief. This will be especially helpful if you have to pack/unpack your bike to take on a plane too.

Gear and brake cables are still beyond my skill set but I have spare ones at least and a basic idea of how to change them.

I also taught myself how to true a wheel (kind of). This means straightening a wheel by loosening and tightening spokes, which is the first thing you should try when your wheel has a wobble to it. If you can’t true it, it means the rim is probably a bit bent, which is the case with my front wheel. So I think I can true okay – but I doubted my skills to the point that I had to get a very nice physics professor to check and confirm my findings.  It’s not something I should need on the road once I have my wheel fixed/replaced but I’m glad to have the knowledge at least. And if you’re interested in trying it out at any point, this is a good hack.

How to Carry All Your Stuff

I’ve always gone by two panniers on the back, tent/sleeping bag/camping mat bungeed to the rat trap. Just be careful about weight distribution. The only time I got a flat tire from Vancouver – S.F. was right after grocery shopping, the weight on the back of the bike caused the back tube to collapse.

Cycling Gear

  • Extra chain
  • Spokes/Fiber Fix
  • Gear and brake cables
  • 3 tubes
  • Travel pump
  • Bungee cords
  • Distance tracker
  • Casette Remover
  • Multi-tool including chain breaker and spoke wrench
  • Patch kit
  • Zip ties
  • Electrical tape
  • Pedal wrench

All of these items were easy enough to get. For the most part I ordered items from MEC to my friend Megan’s house (thank you!), which she brought to me when we met up in Tokyo. And the few final things, my friend Dave brought to me in Istanbul from Vancouver.

Spokes were by far the most difficult item because they are a real pain to measure yourself (and then you might not even have the correct measurement). I was hoping my bike shop back home would know but they said they’d have to see the actual wheel again. So I ended up buying a Fiber Fix.

A word on cycle clothing: I am not a believer other than bike shorts, cycling gloves, a rain jacket, and a helmet. I used clip-ins for Vancouver to San Francisco but I found them to be a nuisance. Admittedly, I’m not the most graceful of cyclists, and I often fell over when stand-still at stoplights. But I also had a cartoonish vision of myself going up a large hill, getting stuck, and starting to reverse down the hill with my legs spinning. Anyways, I’ve never used them since.

For tops, I use the same tanktops I wear while running or a sports bra and a t-shirt and I just wear Converses and athletic socks on my feet.

Other Gear

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The most important gear is snacks. Sadly, Cliff bars cannot be bought here.

  • Water filter
  • Tent
  • Sleeping bag
  • Stove
  • Pot/mug/spoon/fork
  • Water bottles/water bladder (I like to be able to hold up to 4 litres total at once)
  • Swiss Army Knife
  • Balloons (to blow up and pop to scare away wolves)
  • iPhone
  • Camping mat
  • Solar charger

Apparently there will be parts of my trip where I will need a water filter (southern KZ). This one is the best on the market, I hear, and I also bought the silt stopper since I heard it was very worth it.

I’ll be camping, as much as possible, not just because of budget, but also because in southern Kazakhstan and Uzebkistan in particular, there will likely be no other option.

I found solar charger research to be overwhelming but went with the Waka-Waka mostly because a friend said other friends recommended it and they donate one to people in need for every one that’s sold.

Other Stuff to Bring (Clothing/Hygiene) 

This is all very subjective, but it’s what I’m bringing:

  • Baby wipes (shower substitute)!
  • Sunscreen (one for face, four for body)
  • Eye cream
  • Kobo
  • Razor
  • A dress and a skirt
  • Bathing suit
  • 1 bra
  • Underwear
  • 2 tank tops
  • Elephant pants
  • Shorts
  • Cotton scarf that doubles as a towel
  • Big warm scarf that doubles as a pillow
  • Thick socks (if my feet are cold, I can’t sleep)
  • Lush shampoo bar
  • Clarisonic and face wash (judge all you want!)
  • Makeup (see above – for my off days: eyebrow pencil, blush, concealer, mascara)
  • 20 chapsticks (jk, kind of)
  • Travel pouch
  • Small towel
  • Decoy phone and wallet
  • bug spray
  • Ibuprofen, bandaids, antiseptic, cough drops, vitamin C, immodium (maybe the most important thing of all?)

I know some of these things seem silly to bring but I want to feel like my normal self on my off days. And for me, that includes wearing a dress and some makeup.

Food

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I ate 6 of these. Bulking up.

Real talk: I don’t really know what I’m doing with food other than bringing 25 Mac Coffee packs. I’m bringing a stove, stuff like oatmeal and quinoa (a gift from an American friend). There’s no point bulking myself down with more than a few days’ worth of food at a time so I will just buy what I see on the way!

Safety
I am the most scared of camping alone because I’m a big baby and incredibly easy to startle. I hate getting up to pee in the middle of the night even when I’m on an official campground, sharing a tent with someone else. When cycling to San Francisco, my bf would always get annoyed with me for peeing too close to the tent. Each night is basically going to be the scene in Wild where Cheryl freaks out about a caterpillar in her sleeping bag. Except there will be no caterpillar.

Other than that, I’m not too scared about the trip, just slightly uneasy about so much isolation in unfamiliar territory. I’ve felt safer living in Astana than anywhere else and my hesitations have absolutely nothing to do with the populations I’m passing through.

The bike trip I did alone was very isolated but only for four days. And though there weren’t many towns, there were always lots of cars passing by, and it was still close to home. I’m being as cautiously optimistic as I can be and will simply use common sense.

If anyone asks, I’ll be meeting my husband soon. I’ve learned as much Russian as I can. I have a decoy cheap phone and a wallet with not much money in case I’m robbed, and my actual phone/wallet/passport will be kept in one of those silly-looking waist pocket straps.

And I’m picking up pepper spray from a hunting store in Almaty – though that is more in anticipation of wild dogs.

Visas
This website is very helpful!

If you’re Canadian, for the countries I’m passing through, you’ll need visas for: Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Azerbaijan, and Turkey. Apply for as many visas as possible from home!

Theoretically, you can apply at embassies while travelling for visas without an LOI but the processing time can take weeks, and you don’t want to get in a situation where your visa in one country is running out while you’re waiting for the visa for the next country.

Careful that sometimes there’s a domino effect – for example, you can’t get a transit visa to Turkmenistan before having the visas for the countries before and after.

I have a work visa for Kazakhstan and luckily my workplace didn’t feel the need to issue me an exit visa or that would’ve been all sorts of complicated.

For Turkey, you can just get the visa at the airport when you arrive. If you’re crossing overland, you can apply online. It’s easy peasy. And I’m covered already because the visa lasts 180 days and I just got one when I went to Istanbul last month.

For the Uzbek and Azerbaijan visas, you’ll have to hire an agency for help even though there is no particularly good agency. And you’ll have to hire for Kazakhstan too if you’re not already working here 😉

I used The Visa Machine and I found them stressful to communicate with. They generally don’t respond well to email, and often staved me off on the phone, and my paperwork was all issued WAY after the processing times listed on their site. Consequently, I’ve had to rework my schedule twice. They are helpful with giving out initial advice, though!

Here’s a bit more on visa quirks:

Generally: You do not need to arrive on the exact day that your visa begins (other than perhaps the Turkmenistan transit visa). Of course, if you arrive five days later in Azerbaijan than expected, you will only have 25 days in Azerbaijan instead of 30, but you will still be able to enter. However, you cannot arrive earlier than the date stated on your visa.

Apply for visas for as long a period as possible, especially if there’s not much cost difference.

LOI stands for Letter of Invitation and is a necessity for most visas. The LOI is the reason it is very tricky and in most cases, impossible, to get a visa on your own.

Azerbaijan: For this application, I needed a hotel booking. Azerbaijan is hella expensive but apparently no one actually checks if you stay at the hotel you booked. So you can book and cancel later, which I did via Expedia.

Turkmenistan: It’s easiest to get a 5-day transit visa. Initially, I was going to have The Visa Machine issue me a Letter of Invitation, and I could’ve gotten the visa at the border. But they didn’t process my paperwork on time so that meant I had to plan to apply for the Turkmenistan visa in Almaty and pick it up 10 business days later in Tashkent. But now it looks like the Visa Machine won’t get my Azerbaijan visa to me before I leave Almaty, in which case I’ll have to apply for the visa in Tashkent and pick it up a week later (fingers crossed!).

You’ll have to put a hotel down on your application, which is annoying because it’s difficult to find exact addresses of hotels in the country. I used one found in the Central Asia Lonely Planet guide.

Uzbekistan: You’ll need a letter from your employer, stating your employment, to get the Letter of Invitation. It can be very simple, just a couple of lines saying you work at this place.

Places to Stay
I plan on camping as much of the trip as possible. The most difficult part was planning out bigger city accommodation. For this, I signed up for CouchSurfing, which I’ve never done before. And I made sure to look into hostels/cheap hotels/AirBnB as a back up in case CouchSurfing falls through and also for days when I want to be on my own.

The issue with CouchSurfing and AirBnB is that my internet access will be very limited and my schedule is an estimation. So I’ve tried to find people on CouchSurfing who are okay with me saying I’m going to arrive between x and x day. And then of course the hostels and cheap hotels are on hand for backup.

Best Airlines for Bikes
You’re probably going to have to put your bike on a plane, at some point. Make sure you check fees before you book your ticket. Some airlines don’t charge extra as long as the bike fits within your checked baggage weight allowance (Qantas, Emirates, Qatar, Singapore), other will charge a flat fee (Air Canada, Lufthansa). Some people have tried making charts online but these may not be up to date, so check the airline’s site directly.

PRO-TIP Check which carrier is operating the flight. For example, you may buy a ticket on British Airways’ site, thinking you can use their generous baggage policy. But then realize that the flight is actually operated by Vueling Airlines, which doesn’t allow any free checked baggage for economy seats.

There are lots of good youtube videos about how to pack your bike for a plane ride (I just use cardboard boxes).

Friends
I couldn’t have done all this without so much help from my friends. Everything from getting my bike over here from Vancouver, to letting me order the items I need and bringing them to me, to schlepping my suitcases halfway across the globe, to just generally being very encouraging. I am overwhelmed by all the kindness.

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Agassiz. En route to Naramata.

xoxoxo

Also, if anyone would ever like to contact me about planning a similar trip and needing advice, please do!

How to Buy a Tent (and Used Things in General)

Tents are really expensive here. The cheapest one I could find was at Limpopo for 25,000 tenge ($165 CAD). And it’s bright orange, which doesn’t work for the purposes of stealth/wild camping. I’d be open to investing in a good tent but I’ll be ditching this one at the end of the summer.

Thus, I turned to Slando, the Russian equivalent of Craigslist. Searching can only be done in Russian, though they make it easy to find ads with picture categories. I did all the messaging with the seller of my tent in Russian, since my written skills are decent, and then asked my co-worker/friend, Madina, to phone for me once I decided to make a purchase. Though I’m making person to person progress, a phone call is beyond my expertise.

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Welcome to KZ! In Ust-Kamenogorsk

The tents in Astana were still expensive so I also checked listings for Ust-Kamenogorsk because I knew I’d be there the beginning of May. I found a tent (only 10,000 tenge!) and told the seller the dates I’d be in town and he said that was A-okay. He was actually busy working every day I was in Ust and so I gave the cash to Madina, who was staying longer so she could pick it up.

It turns out this guy didn’t just have one tent to sell – he runs a tent business on the side and he had temporarily run out. He proposed meeting with Madina to get the cash and then as soon as some tents came in, he’d put one on a bus to Astana. Then I’d meet with the bus driver at the station and give him 500 tenge for his troubles. I gave it all the go-ahead because, it’s Kazakhstan.

The seller let Madina know on Saturday that he’d put the tent on the bus and I left my house at 6am on Sunday morning to bike to the station to meet the bus driver, who was scheduled to arrive some time between 7-8am.

When I got to the bus station, I texted with the driver alright but when he phoned me, I told him, “Sorry, I don’t understand very much,” so he thought he had the wrong number. So when he phoned again I tried a different tactic of saying, “Sorry, I’m an American lady but I want the tent!” And then he understood and all was well.

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Now I have a tent.

And here are some photos from Ust-Kamenogorsk. It’s Madina’s hometown, super east in Kazakhstan, close to Russia and China. Lots of trees, mountains, and a nice river. I’ve heard mountain treks in that region are pretty amazing, though I think you have to go by tour which is a bit $.

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Our apartment fell through but then Madina phoned 3 other people to get a new one

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I love staying in Kazakh apartments for the crazy wallpaper

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Ust has a park with old airplanes, a series of progressively bigger Lenin statues, a laneway of houses – one from each ethnic group that lives in Ust (which was really cool), and other random things

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Madina used to work at the local library and it was totally amazing. They do a lot of work with the community. They’re the only public library in Kazakhstan with wifi and their shelves became open access three years ago (the library I work at was the first in KZ to have open shelves but we’re on a closed campus….).

All in all, a very nice city! More ethnically/culturally/landscape-y diverse than Astana. Because of the distance, I’d probably only recommend going there if you’re here long-term – it’s a good getaway for 3 or more days. If only everyone who went could also experience the best manti I’ve had in KZ, made by Madina’s mom (not pictured because I was too busy eating).

How to Take the Train

For anyone who really wants to get to know Kazakhstan, I recommend taking a train somewhere. It’s a full-on experience.

First off, this website has good information too (on all things Central Asian travel!).

IMG_6457A slow train

Schedules

I like to look at e.gov for a broad overview of the Almaty and Astana schedules. It’s in English but it’s not entirely fulsome. For example, I just got back from Ust-Kamenogorsk, which isn’t on the this site.

Look directly on the rail website for all schedules. However, you’ll need to use a Cyrillic keyboard. If you have a smartphone, it’s a good idea to add a Cyrillic keyboard and familiarize yourself with the letters when you’re in this area anyways.

Once you have Cyrillic keys sorted, just type in the names of the cities to see the options! Except, it’s Kazakhstan, so of course it’s not that simple, you dummy!

For example, when I bought my ticket from Astana to Almaty there were two options for Almaty. Why is there АЛМА АТА 1 and АЛМА АТА 2? When in doubt, check each one out by selecting an option and clicking on Поиск мест. In this case, I knew offhand to pick АЛМА АТА 2.

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Despite the language difference, the schedule is pretty straightforward.

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Speed and Price

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 A fast train

There are “slow” trains and there are “fast” trains. I’ve taken both and don’t have a preference in terms of the actual train itself. It really depends on time v. cost. For example, with the trains going from Astana to Almaty, you’re looking at 12 hours v. 20-something hours and 5000 tenge v. 13,000 (one-way). It’s really not that much more to fly to Almaty than take the fast train round-trip.

A lot of expats will train one way and fly the other when doing a trip within Kazakhstan.

Buying Tickets

Hang in there for a bit longer because buying the ticket is the hardest part. Buy as early as possible in the summer months since apparently trains often sell out.

On the rail site, I believe only Central Asian bank cards work. If you have one, then you probably also know someone who speaks Russian and you should ask them for help. Or if you know a bit of Russian/are feeling brave, use this guide I made.

Picking a Seat

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A non-passenger train

On the trains I’ve taken, there have been 3 classes: luxe/люкс (1st class), kupe/купе (2nd class), and platzkart/плацкартный (3rd class). Though it seems slower trains just have kupe and platzkart.

Kupe is generally comprised of a closed compartment for 4, with two bunk beds. Platzkart has 6 beds (3 bunks). On the two trains I’ve taken, I’ve been in kupe. Though I bought a train ticket to Almaty on the fast train for later this month in platzkart that looks to only have two beds. So, I’m confused but that’s okay.

On slow trains, it’s best to be on the lower bunk because there’s more room (especially for us tallies). On fast trains, it’s the opposite and best to pick the top bunk.

During the day, there are no bunks, and there are just seats. At night, you need to ask the conductor to put the beds down. I find the beds pretty comfortable! Much better than the 6-bed sleeping compartments I’ve been in on trains in Europe. The cabins on the slow trains are bigger and have more room. Space is tighter on the fast train so I think a kupe compartment would be a bit awkward with strangers.

What to Bring/On the Train

Kazakhstan is a big country, so prepare to be on the train for a long time, no matter where you’re going!

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Train bedding/towel

If it’s an overnight train, you’re given a set of bedding to use, including a pillow and a towel. Here’s a list of other things, compiled by my co-worker who gave me the same solid advice for my first train ride:

  • Passport
  • Wear something light since it’s blasted with heat in the winter and not air-conditioned in summer
  • Flip-flops or slip ons for walking around (bathroom floors get soaked because it’s impossible to wash your face without creating a total deluge)
  • A toiletry bag (it can be a hassle to get at your things after you make your bed, so bring a small bag to keep out with necessities)
  • Mug, spoon, fork, sharp knife
  • Books! Cards! Whatever keeps you busy. The fast trains have outlets if you want to watch movies on your laptop.
  • Food (anything that doesn’t need to stay cold or be cooked)
  • Water (if you’re on the slow train)
  • Water bottle (if you’re on the fast train)

There’s as much hot water as you could desire on the slow train and the train makes stops but they tend to be short and it’s more like a gas station run, in terms of food. There is both hot and cold water on the fast trains.

Bring food that’s good for sharing, whether you’re by yourself or with friends! Kazakhs are generally really forthcoming and happy to share.

There is also a restaurant car on the fast trains, which is absolutely terrible for food but good for beers. You might get shushed multiple times because your fellow passengers are likely not accustomed to inherently loud North American/British gals.

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 I opened this bottle of wine with a hairbrush since none of us brought a corkscrew

I’ve heard it’s not really okay to bring your own alcohol on the slow trains but as long as you’re low-key, it should be fine.

I haven’t had an issue but it’s a good idea to lock your compartment door before you go to sleep since a local friend told me that one time she woke up to a dude sitting on the end of her bed and not budging. Even though she was able to speak with him in Russian, of course, and tell him to go away.

How Early to Arrive

You’ll want to arrive at the train station at least 30 minutes beforehand. Look for your car number and seat and show your ticket and whatever form of ID you listed when buying the ticket (likely, your passport).

Bicycles

Apparently it’s not a big deal to bring a bike on Kazakh trains – I’ll report back once I’ve done so at the end of this month! I picked a platzkart with only one bunk (still not sure how I got a platzkart with only two beds) so I can lean my bike on the wall side. But I also noticed one car of the train had a bicycle sign on it, so perhaps some trains now have special storage rooms.

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The steppe goes on and on and, on and on (video here)

How to Run a Half-Marathon

The only officially organized race that I know of in the two major cities of Astana and Almaty, is the annual Almaty Marathon. Though I hear that Air Astana will be putting a race on in Astana this September.

I had thought about running the half-marathon portion of the Great Wall race, with a friend, but those plans fell through a while back. So when the Almaty race came up, I was already mentally prepared to sign up.

The idea of a race has always intimidated me. I don’t even like running with friends (it was the only time I felt cranky on my trip to Japan) so the idea of running in a crowd is hugely unappealing. But because of its smaller size, the Almaty race felt like the right one to sign up for. Plus, I love Almaty and it’s always fun to go there with friends.

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Some Uzbek plates I saw on this trip since y’all seem to love them so much 🙂

Preparation

I’ve been running (okay let’s be real, jogging) at least twice a week for the past two and a half years, except for the many times I injured myself and had to temporarily stop. People assume because I’m tall and slim that I’m a natural runner. But the sports doctor I saw about my recurring shin splints told me that my body isn’t really meant for running – the load of it being too much for my shins to bear.

I think a lot of that is bullshit in the sense that I can run decently but I just have to be mindful (and I’ll happily use the diagnosis as an excuse to never run a full marathon). After a lot of physio, the right shoes, and finally getting my groove, I started hitting my stride in Astana. Likely, because it’s the best cure I’ve found for all those frustratingly bureaucratic or lonely days.

Once I signed up for the race last fall, I began running four times a week and did pilates and soccer once or twice a week. I never ran more than three days in a row. I did one fast 3-5k run, an easy 5-8, some sort of interval training run between 5-8k, and a long run between 10-18 (I peaked at 18k). Many thanks to running/librarian friends, Shannon and Lindsay for helping me craft a casual training plan!

I do physio exercises before each run (15 minutes) and I’ve found these really help prevent injury. For longer runs, I sometimes tape my right shin and left ankle. I wouldn’t be surprised if I’m doing it incorrectly and it’s just a placebo effect that helps. Whatever works!

Soundtrack

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My friend, Megan, said that she runs without her phone and runs as long and as fast as she feels. Spirit runs! I could never do this.

I like running best to podcasts. In Vancouver, I would sometimes run to Songza playlists (1993 rap and Dreampop). But Songza isn’t available outside of North America and I have a very minimal music collection, so podcasts it is.

I find that music is too familiar or repetitive to fully take my mind off of running. Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History and Marc Maron’s WTF are generally engrossing enough to put me in the right headspace. It was especially fun to listen to the Hardcore History series on Ghengis Khan while running along the steppe.

Apps

My friend, and spirit runner (though he would never call it that), Sean, said his body tells him exactly how fast and far he needs to go. I roll my eyes in jealousy and continue to use apps to track how all over the place my pace is.

I’ve been using RunKeeper since I started running but I’ve recently switched over to Strava, simply because one of my best pals uses it. I dislike that Strava doesn’t let you program intervals but I felt that for race day it would be best, because it tells you the pace of your previous km and I thought that would be most helpful for keeping track.

Race Day Strategy

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My goal was to run in under two hours. I would’ve been so happy even at 1:59:59.

I planned to run the first 5k (5:50-5:55/km) at a slower pace, the next 12.5k at a slightly faster pace (5:40), and the last 3.6k as fast as possible. It meant I should hit 5k by 29:35 minutes in, 10k by 58, 15k by 86, and 17 by 94.

I’d never used energy gels before but I tried a couple on longer training runs and reserved two to use during the race (one before the start and one halfway through).

I have to pee all the time, so I planned to wake up super early and hydrate and stop an hour before the race. I also felt nervous about hydrating during the race since I normally don’t bring water on my runs but Shannon convinced me that I really need to hydrate during such a long run. So I decided to grab cups at a few water stations and sip as much down as I could without choking.

Race Day

I ate a whole bunch of spicy Korean food the night before, which was totally cool with my iron stomach but not so great for my fellow racing friends. Woke up early to hydrate, had half a banana and some pomegranate juice and took an energy gel 30 minutes before the race started.

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Fresh-squeezed Tashkent (yellow) pomegranates

There were four of us running the race. Jack and I didn’t want to show up that much earlier than the race start time but Sean told us that races are always so chaotic that you do need to show up early.

I really had to pee by the time we got to the race site but we couldn’t find toilets anywhere so I peed by a pile of rocks. I would’ve loved to have gone again right before the start of the race but there was no way that was happening with all the crowds.

The Race

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All I knew for sure was that I had shaved my legs

It. Was. So. Hot. During the race it peaked at 27 degrees. There was snow in Astana up until a couple of weeks ago. And I’m the type of person who runs in short shorts and a tank top when it’s 10 degrees out and still get overheated.

By 6k I totally abandoned my pacing plan and started run/walking. I really hated to walk because I never do on my day-to-day runs but I knew if I pushed myself too much, I would burn out way before the end and be fully walking. I stopped at almost all the water stations, if only to pour it over my head (I was totally soaked by the finish line). And I had no qualms about stopping to pee once I spotted some toilets without a big line.

I finished with a time of 2:17:40, 60/351 women who did the half. And I’m left feeling like it was a respectable first try (average time for ladies worldwide is 2:19), I’m really glad I did it, and I’d like to do another half next year. From the last 5k until I finished the race I was thinking, “Never again!” But now I’ve experienced the same symptoms as post-partum women and a layer of vaseline softens my memory of the race.

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I may not have met goal #1 but I did meet goal #2 to not poop my pants.

Things I Learned

  • Ideally, my first race would’ve been in the city I live and have already been running in.
  • I will never run a race again when it’s anticipated that the temperature will go well above 15 degrees.
  • Listening to a podcast on race day was totally the wrong choice for me. I’m so glad that I downloaded ABBA Gold at the last minute.
  • French-braided pigtails was a wise (ie. secure) hair choice.
  • Listening to my body in the moment was also a good choice.
  • Chocolate flavoured energy gels are kind of gross – I think I’d go with fruit next time.

I was pretty impressed with how well-organized this specific race was! The starting could definitely be better managed. And I would never bring a bag to pick up afterwards again (I think it took over 15 minutes to find it). But overall, pretty decent.

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Last flight for a while!

 

How to Go to the Doctor*

Aside from the worst hangovers of my life (my theory is lower quality alcohol + more limited access to drinking water), I have never been sick while living in Astana. My body loves a dry, cool climate. But I knew I’d have to go to a clinic at some point for a tick-borne encephalitis vaccine. This type of tick is not found in North America and so NA travel clinics generally don’t carry the vaccine, though you can have them special order it, with enough notice.

This vaccine is not a requirement for going to Kazakhstan but if you’re going to be traipsing about rural parts of Eastern Europe/Central Asia, as I am, then it’s a good idea.

Today was the day I went to the clinic. It was bright and clean and the staff was friendly.

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So clean!

The doctor told me not to be scared because it was just “a little pain from a big doctor.” He also told me I was beautiful and half muttered/half sang “so beautiful” to himself while preparing the needle.

He said no more on the topic after I had to define what a wart was for him and ask what to do about the one on the bottom of my foot.

But he did write the name of whatever medication I need in Russian to take to a pharmacist.

All of this was a good ratio of delight/horror until I was presented with a $150 bill. “Oh sorry, I made a mistake,” said the receptionist as she handed me an updated $200 bill.

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A $200 receipt

“I’m pretty sure our medical insurance is just for flu shots and having babies,” my expat co-worker sympathized.

*This post has no real practical value about going to the doctor here. Though if you do ever go to the SOS International Clinic, go to the entrance with the most doors with a view of the turnstiles, and enter the farmost left door, or else you’ll end up in the German Embassy.

How to Go to a Kazakh Wedding

To get invited to a Kazakh wedding, you should move here and become friends with a co-worker who’s fallen in love with a Kazakh woman.

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They are absolutely adorable and she looked amazing.

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I was disappointed that she didn’t wear a traditional fun hat (user uploaded Pinterest photo).

It’s okay, some fun hats came into play later.

Here is what you can expect if you go to a Kazakh wedding.

Opulence

“Kazakhs’ favourite colour is gold,” laughed Madina when we entered the venue. This was by far the fanciest wedding I have ever attended. Every surface was grand, shiny, and $$$.

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You will not feel out of place wearing red-carpet attire but it’s okay to wear standard fancy dress.

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I decided to match our apartment rental.

Punctuality

If you show up two hours late, you will be right on time.

Program

A hired emcee takes everyone through the evening. I mostly remember him often proclaiming, “SHABA-DOE!” which means “applause” in Kazakh.

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There are traditional dances.

And all the young men were asked to participate in games. One consisted of each man wearing a pair of baggy pants over top their regular clothes, and playing musical chairs with training potties, and before sitting down, each man had to pull down their baggy pants, as if to use the potty. For another game, each man had to wear an oversized velvet jumpsuit with balloons stuffed inside. They had to slow dance with women and then bump against each other to pop as many balloons as possible.

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This guy won the velvet jumpsuit/balloon game. He was sassy.

Gifts & Toasts

It is a truth universal that everyone loves money. I just put some money in a Chinese envelope that I picked up while in Malaysia.

There is no gift table because gifts are only presented once you’ve given a toast. The emcee calls up groups, based on how you know the bride or groom. For example, all of us who worked with the groom were a group. Then you each give a toast into the microphone, you all dance for a song (we got “Blue” by Eiffel 65) and then you go up to the couple’s table to hug them and present your gift.

I was totally horrified but it was actually okay.

Food

Endless alcohol! Too much food! We only had to scoop one spoonful out of a salad (and by salad, I mean meat with mayonnaise) and it was promptly replaced with a fresh bowl. At the end of the night, each guest received a handful of plastic bags to take home the leftovers.

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This was how much was left AFTER the ten people at our table had all they could eat.

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Procession of meat. Serious business.

How to Go to Almaty (and Avoid Arrest)

Almaty is the biggest city in Kazakhstan and was the capital up until 1997, when that title was bestowed on Astana. It’s an older city with lots character, cafes, parks, and mountains, and milder weather due to its location in the south. From Astana, you can take a 20-hour or 12-hour overnight train ride and easily spend a week exploring the city and surroundings. If you splurge on the 1.5 hour flight ($200-350 depending how far in advance you book), it makes for a good weekend trip.

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Uzbek pottery

I’ve been in Astana for about three months now and was feeling a bit antsy to get away but a trip to Almaty seemed a bit expensive, considering that I could only go for two days. But the steppe currently looks and feels like an apocalyptic arctic backdrop and so I went ahead and bought a ticket and booked a tour guide for Saturday to go into Alatau – Eliy National Park to see some greenery and land elevation.

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Our guide, Marat, picked Sophie and I up at 10am with a plan to hike up to Big Almaty Lake and hit Sunkar Falcon Farm on the way back. We rented an apartment and there were no coffee shops nearby so we asked to stop at a cafe on the way. He always drinks coffee at home and he also explained that cafes are constantly opening and shutting down and so this proved difficult. The first place didn’t have any coffee ready yet and the second place had coffee and to-go cups but no lids. Marat kindly waited to begin the drive until we had half-finished our cups since the hour-long way to the Park is very bumpy. It was the first of many times that he demonstrated his capacity for patience that day.

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Locals are allowed to drive right up to the Lake but foreigners must stop at a makeshift guarding point and hike up. I asked why but asking “why” in KZ is often the equivalent of asking a rhetorical question. I could tell the hike was a bit strenuous for Marat and I admired his tactic of stopping every so often to tell us some history or a story, while we all caught our breath. His favourite descriptor was “Stalin-style” and his stories ranged from telling us about the inspiration behind A Clockwork Orange, to why Kazakhs hate walking, to all of the people he knows who have been accidentally killed by guns (2). Somehow, this didn’t come off as dark, at the time.

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The lake was completely breathtaking, a perfect saturated blue. Formed from a glacier, it’s a protected source of drinking water. Visitors cannot walk along the edge of the lake, which accounts for its pristine condition. Foreigners and locals alike have to hike/drive above and walk down aways. Marat mentioned something about a big rock and stayed up top, letting Sophie and I on our own. I walked halfway down the muddy side and sat for a bit. Another tourist came up from the lakeside and seeing that she managed to make it up without slipping on the wet ground, I headed down. Sophie followed and we took some photos.

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Kind of worth it.

We were about to go back when a policeman with a huge gun approached us. He spoke no English but told us we had to follow him and said something about being arrested and made handcuff motions and talked about fines and generally looked very stern and unimpressed. I then realized Marat meant we weren’t supposed to go past the big rock by the lake because it’s an unmarked border. Uncertain of where we were heading, we were eventually passed off to a friendlier, gunless policeman. I motioned to make a phone call and explained the situation to Marat who said he’d come meet us by the lake.

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Marat and the friendly policeman

The friendly policeman also spoke absolutely no English but was very interested in speaking with Sophie and me. We chatted a bit but I mostly had to answer, “I don’t know” or “I don’t understand.” He then said, “you are very beautiful,” and I said, “thank you” and he laughed so hard that out of my limited Russian, I can clearly understand when someone is giving me a compliment. He also said Sophie was very beautiful and asked if we had husbands and then I began using a trick I picked up from a friend here – when Russian-speakers are getting too flirtatious, don’t let on that you know what they’re saying. So when he tried to to link arms and said we should fly to Canada together, I exclaimed, “I don’t know!” and traipsed quickly ahead.

Marat met us with the stern policeman and told us to keep smiling and all would be well. That was easy because I had been giggling the entire time. The other tourists took photos of us as we walked to headquarters, which was a small white shack similar to the kind you see in nature documentaries that feature photographers who stake out for years for the perfect snow leopard shot. It was a giant kitchen/garbage can. Marat talked our way out of arrests and fines and into simply writing statements. I was given a blank piece of paper and a pen. With no instructions, I began by writing the date in the top right corner. The policemen didn’t like that and so they turned the paper over and made me start again.

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Directly in front of me on the table, there was a container of dish detergent labelled, “BARF.” I clearly have poor common sense but even I knew it would be entirely inappropriate to laugh out loud. I have never bit my cheek so hard.

After our statements were signed we were on our way. Except Marat had forgotten his walking poles at the top of the lake so he ran up the long distance ahead to get them. I tried to offer to go instead since I felt terrible but he insisted we go ahead. By this time, I really had to pee and generally have no problem going outdoors (bicycle travelling makes you comfortable) but I didn’t want to risk another brush with the law.

A long time passed and Marat eventually caught up with us, breathless. He made us lunch in a sunny spot and we rested for a while. Sausage, cheese, Mr. Noodles: it was as if I’d placed advanced requests for the meal. The manager of the falcon farm notified him that the daily show time was changed last minute from 3:00 to 5:00, so we had a lot of time to kill. We told him we were okay not seeing the show but he wouldn’t hear of it.

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The falcon farm was terrifying and sad and beautiful and I felt conflicted the entire time.

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The birds are trained to hunt and sold. But who buys them?

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Marat walked around a bit, told me all he knew about the animals and then waited in the car while the show took place. We drove back and just before dropping us off he accidentally backed into a children’s playground.

As someone who works in a customer service position, I often wonder how other people feel when providing a service. There was no speculation in this instance.

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Picture of a jerk