So unlike what I said in my last post, I haven't trained it to South East Asia, yet. I'm taking a couple months out in Almaty, Kazakhstan, savouring the delights of rest. From rest.
After Volgograd I took another sleeper to Astrakhan, which sits about 100K west of the Kazakh border. The train rolled in early in the morning. I quickly grabbed my many things before the train departed, and peddled into town. The streets were quiet, with leaves blowing across the morning sun. Narrow roads and low facades guided my way, and I came to a spacious park populated with silver birches. An Orthodox Church towered behind, with it's white towers and golden domes climbing into the blue sky. Having not heard back from my Warmshowers contact I stopped a young guy and asked him if he knew of a cheap place to stay. 2 Hours later we're riding together along the motorway, back to his house where I'd been offered a bed for as long as I needed. Lousie and Yuroslav were a young couple, living in a flat with their black kitten and 5 year old son. I had a 5 day wait until my Kazakh visa validated, time spent eating tasty food, playing hide and seek, and helping Louise with her English. She was kind enough to knit me a pair of socks, and after much deliberation over colours and styles, they materialised as a set of very funky footwear. As a token of friendship we traded books (Frankenstein for a book about art (in Russian)), and she sent me on my way with a pair of boots, unable to understand how anyone could cycle in Crocs in winter. I almost declined, preferring the novelty of ugly and impracticable footwear. Thankfully I didn't.
Time to catch my next train to Baikonur, and after stuffing my bike in and out of a closet elevator, we said goodbye. Louise and Yuroslav, thanks again for your generosity! When you come to England, my house, or tent, or whatever it may be, is yours.
Next stop, Baiknour. I was keen to alight at this lonely town; a few miles north lies the oldest a biggest rocket launch site in the world. Built and operated by the Russians, it is where Yuri Gagarin was the first man to be launched into space, and where Sputnik, the first satellite, was also launched. As I made my way along the road the railway for delivering the rockets ran to my left, and I scrambled clips in my mind from Youtube videos, trying to imagine the excitement of seeing a rocket being towed and launched. It was pretty much flat and featureless. A few large concrete blocks rose out from the ground, and a hill off to the right was topped with large dishes facing skyward. A few sizable complex's lay nearby, where, I assume, mission control is located, and possibly the canteen.
I came to a halt at a security gate, and to my dismay was told sternly that tourists where not allowed. I don't suppose astronauts get around on bikes either. My refusal surprised me as I'd read that there was a small museum inside. Oh well. Was still cool to see it. I rode back to the main road, contemplating the extraordinary history of this extraordinary place.
Back on the road after 2 weeks, and it felt good. I was riding the main trade road between Europe and China, which had been financed and built in partnership by China and the EU. Lorries from Europe, China, Kazakhstan and Russia rushed past, pulling me along in their wake.
As to be expected the land was immense and vast. I looked around and apart from the road, a railway and the dishes of Baikonur Cosmodrome disappearing behind me, there was nothing but featureless, brown, windy steppe. The clouds blanketed the sky, and golden rays beaming down in the distance teased me with their unattainable warmth. Occasionally there was a gradual turn in the road, and the sensation of riding it provided an enjoyable alternative to the straights, only to be faced with another 10 mile straight disappearing ahead. It seemed my only friends were the passing trains. We got on well, with much waving and tooting.
I managed a day. A building pain, this time in my left knee, stopped play, so I setup camp on the muddy step and watched the sun fall away. I awoke to frozen water bottles and tried another 5 miles, but it was hopeless. 'There's no point in risking potential permanent damage to my knees' I told myself. A valid excuse for the cold and monotony, I hopped on board my next train, bound for Almaty. I'd missed the train for that day, so spent the night sleeping in the waiting room. A large clock made time pass slowly, and I lapsed in and out of sleep.
By now I had three injuries. Both knees and my shoulder, which had also gone that day. Maybe I should transfer to a wheelchair...... This couldn't be coincidence. As I thought about it I realised that my diet for the past 3 months had been pretty poor. A small amount of fruit and veg, little protein and far too many carbs. I self diagnosed myself as a sufferer of mild scurvy - I've yet to find an eye patch. Of course I have no Idea if this is true, but it seems to make sense. So I'm on cabbage, (contains much zinc - apparently good for ligament and tendon health) and apples consumption overload, and have vowed to myself to make a more committed effort in future.
I'm waiting at the station in the morning fog, looking down the rails, anticipating the arrival of my train. With the sound of a faint horn I can see a set of lights slowly approaching. The ground starts to rumble, and with the brakes screeching, the towering face of the monstrous diesel burbles past. I can feel each revolution of the engine reverberate in my chest, and with a shudder of the carriages it grinds to a stop. With two engines and 14 carriages it's a very long train, and both the front and back disappear into the fog. Each carriage has a small chimney at one end, billowing out smoke from the coal fires used to provide hot water and warmth. A tractor with a trailer of coal makes it way along the platform to each carriage, filling up the supply via two coal stained men.
Looking at my extensive ticket I had no idea which carriage or seat I'm destined for; it's hidden amongst many other numbers and paragraphs of Kazakh. An attractive and smartly dressed female attendant comes to my aid and escorts me to the right carriage. A brief glance of my passport to check I'm not a thief, and I climb up the small ladder and into the warmth. Pass the toilet - this is always locked at every station, something which inconveniently seem to forget, forcing me to firmly cross my legs and wait for the all clear. The corridor runs down the right side of the carriage, with the sleeping rooms to the left. Lost in translation, I unintentionally invested in a second class ticket as opposed to a third, so this time I'm guided to my birth by a red carpet. Compared to previous trains my compartment is luxurious; fancy silkish curtains, a mirror on the back door, reflecting a bearded nomad, reading light and 220 volt power supply for electronics. Very nice.
I'm joined by a affable couple and there 6 month old baby. We say hello, I make my bed and sit down by the window, eagerly awaiting the first smidgen of motion. Rain drops begin to splatter across the window, and I wiggle down into my seat, thankful I'm not outside. It's a strange thing, that so much excitement can be pinned on a seemingly mundane moment, but what is about to commence is nothing short of the tremendous phenomenon that is, train travel (If any commuters are reading this I appreciate our circumstances are somewhat different). That hundred's, perhaps even thousands of tones of steel, plastic, people and poo can run quietly, quickly and efficiently along two steel rails, that are no wider than a few inches, I find again, amazing. And this is all the more astounding from the comfort of my seat, where the passing untamed, muddy flats stand in complete contrast. Without a sound the carriage begins to crawl forward, slowly picking up speed. We pass ribbons of rusty rolling stock, signal boxes and locomotive sheds. Soon we're cruising along at a leisurely 40 miles an hour. The train has settled into it's rhythm of squeaks and clanks, with the steel wheels thudding over the rail joints. Once the last of the houses has passed, the town gives way to steppe. I spot a distant row of electrical pylons, following it bend over the horizon. For hours the land remains flat and featureless. It feels like we're running along a giant land treadmill, with each new mile indistinguishable from the last. Packs of wild horses graze in the expanse, and herds of thickly coated camels occasionally come into view.
Many apples, chais and toilet visits later I rolled into the southern city of Almaty. This is Kazakhstan's biggest city, and it was the capital until 1997. However, the Prime minister felt it's location was not central enough for it's purpose, and that it was too close to the border if ever the Chinese felt the need to expand. So he commissioned the construction of a new city; Astana. It's more or less slap bang in the middle of the country. Along with it strategic significance, Astana was also built to demonstrate possibility and exemplify prosperity, intended to inspire the people following Kazakhstan's independence from Russia in 1991.
Walking around Almaty, with it's many parks, grand buildings, theatres, posh shops, and constantly gridlocked roads, it's hard to shift the idea that this is not the capital, especial when I've been told that the new age Astana is relatively inert. But there we go. With my knee injury throbbing away I was going to spend some rest time her and soak it up.
Via WarmShowers I had arranged a few nights staying with Nick; A fellow bike tourer who has the best set of dreads I've ever seen. I had to wait 6 hours at the station for my bike to arrive on the freight train, kicking about considering the very small possibility that I may never see it again. Hours later, to my delight, it was being carefully passed down from the carriage, with a teaming mass of locals taking a keen interest. I rode away from their requests to play my guitar. 'BROKEN' I shouted in return. Out into the vast expanse of Almaty. It took me a good hour of limp legged cycling to reach my destination in the centre. Leaves blew across the boulevards, and not so far in the distance breaks in the cloud revealed bare mountain ridges and snowy peaks.
A few days later and Nick had a day off work, so we woke up early for a day of tramping in the snowy hills - or so I thought. After waiting by the side of the road for his friends to pick us up, and being splatted many times with muddy road sludge, we were on our way, climbing into the hills, in a car. Amazing. As the road got steeper the snow got thicker, and it wasn't long before the car refused to go any further. I stepped out into knee deep white fluff. We were at a ski station, and at a cost of only 5 pounds for both ski hire and lift pass, I couldn't refuse. My first time skiing, I spent the morning snow ploughing my way down from the 1st lift. This part came quite natural. What didn't was trying to get up after falling over. It's bloody awkward. I felt like a giraffe trying to stand on a frozen lake, perhaps with ice skates on. Once you've mustered enough strength to stand up, more often then not one ski goes one way, and the other, the other way! I was definitely token lift user entertainment, though sadly for them I persevered and eventually worked it out. By the end of the day my butt was numb, and my fingers frozen from nuggets of ice buried inside my gloves, but I was buzzing.
Following this fun I decided to stay in Almaty for the rest of my visa. This would give my knee plenty of time to heal, as long as I didn't further injure it in a sport renowned for knee injuries...... Luckily Nick's friends, Kisya and Almaz had a position going at their hostel, so I'm now working here in return for accommodation. My efforts to learn Russian have dissolved entirely, so communication with the guests is a bit a struggle, but we get by. Music's always playing and a cuppa's never far off.
The end of the week and we headed off to the same slope for a weekend of board games, and, board games! As much as I enjoyed skiing, I really wanted to give snowboarding a go, and this would seem the more logical choice for a kite surfer. As with all board sports the technique is very similar. I'd have to fight my instincts on the differences.
It was Saturday, and the slopes were far busier then the previous Monday. All types, abilities and styles were out in full confidence, ready to give it a bash. I was particularly fond of the owner; a friendly, eccentric man who was rocking a ski suit which you'd find in the back of a charity shop. This was antiquated snow sports. The surrounding huts, including ours, where knocked together with corrugated tin and chipboard, and the ski lift was simply a steel cable rotating around two cogs at each end. To hook up you'd place a plank of wood between your legs, making absolutely sure that all is where it needs to be - take a moment to discreetly adjust if needs be. A rope passed up between your legs, which had a hook on it. Placing the hook over the top of the cable, and bracing yourself for lift off, the hook would instantly grip, and you'd accelerate from 0 to 3 mph in nothing less than an instant. A few people struggled with this. Their seat would take off without them, they'd fall over at the beginning, and to the noticeable frustration of one particular individual, get half way up the slope and then simply fall over, only having to awkwardly walk down again and join the back of the queue. Still, it kept the waiters entertained! Asking Almas about it he said this mild torture device is what kept the crowds away. Bonza!
As I got to the top for the first time, board on feet, I looked down the slope and took a moment to think about what I needed to do. There are two ways to ride a snowboard. 'Regular' is with your left foot forward, and 'goofy' is with your right forward. I favoured regular. At this stage my priority was to control my speed, and to do this I needed to carve left and right across the slope. To do this you use both edges of the board - you carve on your heal side - this is the edge of the board which is closest to your heal. And your toe side - the edge that is closest to your toes. Here's a diagram to help explain.
In kitesurfing you are almost always riding on your healside. There is no need to ride toeside as you alternate between regular and goofy, if you like. Also weight distribution is more or less opposite. In kiting you weight is over your back foot. You achieve this by bending your back leg, which edges the board into the water, resisting the pull of the kite and providing forward motion. In snowboarding your weight is middle to front. When turning, this allows you to pivot on the front of the board, swivelling the back of the board to steer using the heal and toe edge. For this to happen your back legs needs to be straight, and this were I struggled. So coming round for my first toeside turn I bent my rear leg; the board slipped out in front of me and I fell into a puff of snow. With my thighs burning I just about managed to stand up again. My descent continued in this stop and go fashion, and when I eventually got to the bottom Phil remarked that I again looked like Father Christmas.
Transformation in progress....
After half an hour of watching people fall over and curse the lift - I did feel sorry for them. They'd come to learn to ski and couldn't even manage the lift! It was a ball cruncher though. As I ascended I repeatedly told myself to keep that back leg straight. Sure enough, by mid afternoon the run came. Using both heal and toeside turns I made my way down, and was buzzing from the thrill of nailing the basics of a new sport. That's the thing about kiting, snowboarding, skiing stc..... You spend time, energy and patience building up the fundamentals, until there is one left. Then BAM!! Once you've got that last one you can do it. It happens in a moment, and it's a hell of a hit. I obviously looked the part aswell - a group of onlookers shouted at me to give the nearby ramp a go. I lost my concentration and fell flat on my arse.
'Ok. 2nd station. Off piest run?' Said Almas. 'OK', I replied. The second lift was much steeper, longer and much more painful. As my hamstrings were being tenderised I turned around and took in the view. It was worth the risk of it all. We were above the cloud line. Like a blanket over the Earth, the clouds stretched off to the horizon, with the nearside hills and trees being the only visible land. Once this appreciation subsided, I realised just how high we were, and just how far I'd have to ride. We got to the top. I looked down the valley, which was covered in unridden white powder. 800 meters of off piste on my first day. This is stupid.......... But fortune sometimes favours the stupid, so I gave it a go. Almaz whizzed off ahead. I was cautious to begin with, slowly snaking my way down. But I wasn't going to learn this way, so I mustered some balls and gave it hell. It came nicely, and I picked up confidence with every successful turn. Soon I was breezing along at speed, carving up the powder as I went and leaving a trail of S's behind. The powder was soft and fast, and for the first time today I felt cool! I made it down with as much excitement as there was relief, and I only fell over about 10 times. What a buzz, and an ending bundle in the snow in celebration.
To finish it off we had a Russian Sauna. A small wooden shack heated up by a wood fire, we lazzed on the beds and felt the warm course back into our bones. As is customary with Russian Sauna's, Almaz gave me a sort of mild flogging with a bunch of branches. This brings the heat down from the top of the room, and flushes you with an intense hit of heat. Then it's outside, butt naked, and a bucket of almost frozen water over the head, and a big girly scream. Back inside and repeat again. A game of Settlers then back to the city. One of the best days of my life.
The plan now is to be here til new years, then either train it too southern china or cycle it.
Like always, we'll see!
As it's nearly Christmas I thought I'd share my latest children story.
I hope you enjoy it, thanks for reading, and tarrah for now xxx
The Tale of the Pleepos
Down in the land of Bishrub Heights,
All lay calm, quiet and white.
It was that time of year for joy and glee,
One night before, it was Christmas Eve.
And in the window of house number three,
There stood a big green Christmas tree.
Down the hall and through the door,
Sam was creeping across the floor.
Into the room with the big Christmas tree,
Where in the corner there he could see.
A large brown box, wrapped up with a bow.
Rectangular in shape, his name it showed.
He tip toed over for a sneaky peeky,
Making a little hole with his left pinky.
His finger felt something strange inside,
He quickly leapt back with a big surprise.
Out of the hole popped a small green thing,
It had eyes and ears and two small wings.
'Loleh, vel morf, a raf boomba doo',
It twisted it's ear and tied up it's shoe.
"I've travelled afar, many days in flight,
And hid in this box 'til the time is right.
I am the last of the Pleepos, from the planet of Thera,
A story I must tell you, so please, come nearer”.
So Sam stood up, and sat on a seat,
Pulled over a blanket and crossed his feet.
"Ti lal nageb", he pulled on his nose,
"It all began a long time ago.
On the planet of Thera, there lived the Pleepos,
For many reasons this planet they chose.
There were fish, horses and big Oka Trees,
Mountains and lakes and giant Mubble Bees.
A more beautiful place, there simply was none,
Where the birds sung away to the setting of the sun.
All they ever wanted, and all they could need,
They lived a happy life, in amongst the cool breeze.
Then one day a Pleepo called Derge said,
'This outdoor life is tiring, I'm going to live in bed'.
'But there you can't see, the giant Mubble Bees,
The lakes or mountains, or big Oka Trees'.
'Oh I'll find a way, no need to ask',
And he hurried away off, set on his task.
For weeks he would go, to one particular spot,
Digging a small hole, and taking away the rock.
Sparks flew from his shed, every day and night,
The Pleepo's circled round, hoping for a sight.
'Huzzar' came the cry, when his work was done,
Inviting the other Pleepos inside, in they did run.
And before them all, at the end of Derge's bed,
Hung a big black box on the wall of his shed.
'Snitelevio I'll call it', he said with much pride,
'How does it work, show us' came the cries from inside.
He picked up the meerot and pressed number 5,
And up flashed a picture of the world outside.
'You see my friends, there is no need to go,
Outside and freeze in the winter snow.
For all that you enjoy to hear and see,
Is shown up here of this thing called snitelevio'.
'Aaah' came the gasps, 'wow' came the cries,
This thing to behold, lit up their big eyes.
They ran off home, past the birds and Oka Trees,
Not slowing down to enjoy the cool breeze.
News of the snitelevio spread far and wide,
And soon one was wanted by all for inside.
I myself decided to leave it be,
Enjoying the Oka trees and the cooling breeze.
At his big brown desk, Derge proudly stood,
Writing down the orders, as quickly as he could.
Then off to the hole to dig for some goods,
Where he hacked away as hard as he could.
Houses filled up with snitelevios, all around planet Thare,
Not one Pleepo walked outside, not one, anywhere.
They all sat inside, glued to the big green glow,
The world outside their window, the snitelevio did show.
And It wasn't long before the birds and Mubble Bees,
Lived alongside trucks and big smoking factories.
But this wasn't shown on the snitelevio screens,
It was a way of keeping the Pleepos keen.
One thing for sure that they did not show,
Was the once small hole so they did not know.
It's size grew and grew, as they dug for more,
Clawing away towards planet Thare's core.
And you'd think that all this would end,
When all had a snitilevio placed in their den.
But on the snitelevios, the Pleepos saw,
'You need a better one, you need more more more'
At his big brown desk, Dergre proudly sat,
Taking down orders for exactly that.
The snitelevious got bigger, the old ones thrown away,
Somewhere far off, in a huge heap they lay.
A call from the hole, 'something strange I fear,
A flowing green slime at the bottom has appeared'
'We cannot stop' said Derge to his crew,
'Business is business, lets dig on through'.
They clawed and scooped up the gloopy slime,
Soon in every snitelevio this stuff you could find.
And not after long, all because of this,
The snitelvios began to shake, tremble and hiss.
Then off the wall they'd come, falling to the floor,
Gulping up the Pleepo's, everyone for sure.
They had dug so deep with their spade and claw,
That they had gone right into Thera's core.
100 miles deep and 200 miles wide,
Nothing was left but emptiness inside.
Never before had there been such a hole,
With the flowing green slime being Thera's soul.
But it was too late to do anything about,
The Pleepo's world was turned inside out.
Within the snitelevious, there were all stuck inside,
Looking at a world from which they couldn't hide.
No longer was there birds, fish and Mubble Bees,
Great big mountains and a cooling fresh breeze.
All there was for them to all see,
Was a great big hole, and not a single Oka Tree.
And since that time many years ago,
I have travelled afar to let you know.
That within this world, there is this trend,
It lead the Pleepo's to their end.
It makes you take more then you need,
This thing I speak of is known as greed.
But no need to be sad, it's not too late,
To turn it around, but we must not wait.
You see if we learn to control our greed,
We can live happily, amongst the Oka Trees.