The only thing worse than travelling without a bicycle, is travelling with a bicycle that cannot be ridden. This is what we were thinking as we tied down our bikes to the roof of a taxi and piled all our belongings inside. What had been an efficient way of carrying everything we needed to be self-sufficient for almost 7,000km had become heavy, cumbersome, awkward-shaped pieces of metal that we now had to lug with us wherever we went.
We were driven the 20km out to the train station with Nil, who was kindly accompanying us to see us safely onto the train. As we approached the station, we could see the train that was to take us on the journey to Almaty and a baggage carriage close by but unattached to the rest of the train. The taxi driver and Nil decided that it was best to speak to the men in this carriage about transporting our bicycles and so we pulled up next to it. A bored looking young man in tracksuit bottoms and socks with sandals looked down at us from the lofty heights of the carriage. A conversation ensued in Russian to which other men in the carriage came out and joined in. Nil seemed upset by something and we waited, helplessly ignorant of the language, until he was able to explain what was going on. The men wanted 20,000 Tenge to take our bikes in the carriage, in other words they wanted a back hander. After further discussion, they reduced this figure to 10,000, then 8,000, then “how much can you pay?” We weren’t willing to pay anything to these slovenly looking men in their carriage that wasn’t even attached to our train, let alone hand over our precious bikes, not knowing if we would ever see them again. We continued on a few hundred metres to the main train station building in search of someone official who could tell us what to do.
As we pulled up, there was a commotion as a number of porters dragging their rickety trolleys rushed up to our taxi, jostling to be the chosen ones. This descended into a verbal argument, followed by some punches that hit their mark before one pair of porters emerged victorious. We looked on in absolute amazement. Immediately they started to manhandle our bikes off the car roughly and grab at everything and anything, throwing it onto the trolley. By this point, we weren’t in the mood for this sort of behaviour and sternly told them to be more careful. Unfortunately, it seemed they had an inability to listen or do anything at less than full speed. They careered off towards the platform, bags falling in their wake, trying to force the bikes through a space they clearly wouldn’t fit. Steven was hot on their heels, yelling at them to stop and managed to save any serious damage other than a few scrapes to our Brooks saddles.
Once on the platform, we came face to face with the train guards. There was a guard for each carriage of the train. Each was dressed warmly in a long green coat and Russian style fur hat. Most were sporting the very fashionable gold teeth. We identified the guard for our carriage and inquired about where to put our bikes. Now, from everything we had read online, and been told at the ticket office, we had understood that it was no problem to bring bicycles on the train and we wouldn’t have to pay anything. From the guards that crowded curiously around us we learned that it was a “big problem”. In fact, I think most of them were probably indifferent but there was one particularly large, unpleasant looking guard who seemed to be in charge (whether officially or just because he was a bully I don’t know) and he took control of the conversation from their side. Immediately, he said, “how much can you pay?” as he aggressively invaded our personal space.
After much heated discussion and with the minutes ticking past until departure we were still no closer to getting the bikes safely on board and by now we didn’t trust anyone (except Nil!). In the end, Steven decided to purchase the other two berths in our four-berth kupe so that we could keep the bikes with us. It was more expensive than paying a bribe would have been but at least we knew they were safe and that we were in the right. Possibly, if we had held out long enough they might have relented but we weren’t prepared to wait another day for the next train if they didn’t.
Throughout the whole charade, Nil was an absolute hero; translating to us, speaking calmly to these large, intimidating men and not losing his cool once. Mature beyond his fifteen years.
This was the first occasion on this adventure that anyone has asked us to pay a bribe (although I’m sure it won’t be the last). Coming from the UK and NZ where this is not normal practice (at least for most regular people in everyday life), it certainly makes us feel very uncomfortable.
Eventually settled on the train, we could finally relax and enjoy the journey. This was not the fast, direct route to Almaty (I don’t think there is one), the train winds its way north east through desert and then steppe to the far north of the country before turning and heading south east almost to the border with Uzbekistan. Finally the route follows the mountainous border with Kyrgyzstan until reaching Almaty, only a few hundred kilometres from the Chinese border, 66 hours later. There are numerous stops along the way, many for more than 20 minutes where the train is stocked with water or the coal truck trundles along next to the train, men shovelling coal into the end of each carriage. It is possible to hop down onto the snowy platforms and purchase fruit, bread, hot food, snacks etc. from the many vendors that have set up shop there.
These vendors also come onto the train and pass up and down the corridors selling their wares. Young men with electronics, toys, phone chargers. Gold-toothed ladies selling manti (tasty dumplings filled with meat), bread, bananas, clothes, woollen socks and… most surprisingly, enormous whole smoked fish. As we had no idea what they were calling out as they passed our cabin, we would inevitably look up each time someone passed to see what they were selling, and they would assume that we were interested and stop in the doorway. I can’t tell you how many times we were offered and refused the smoked fish! At one point, a lady selling bananas stopped and dug deep into the huge bag she was dragging along behind her. I peered in to see what she was going to pull out. Another smoked fish! At this point we both lost it and giggling uncontrollably we waved her away. She of course was completely mystified. I just can’t understand why anyone would think that a very large and pungent fish would be an ideal snack on an overheated, unventilated, crowded train.
The best thing about trains in this part of the world is that at the end of each carriage is a boiler from which you can obtain endless supplies of hot water for making tea. The worst thing is that they all seemed to the heated to a temperature that could be described as “hotter than the sun”. This makes any movement inadvisable and explains why, during our two journeys, Steven managed to read three books and I am very close to finishing War and Peace.
On arrival in Almaty at 6am, we pushed our fully laden bikes, through the dark snowy streets. We headed in the direction we thought was towards the centre, searching in vain for a coffee shop with wifi where we could rest until the city was more awake. We eventually settled for tea and a sausage roll in a cheap diner before heading to a branch of Extremal (a shop recommended on the internet for bike repairs). The guy there just shook his head at us and sent us to a nearby shop. The same thing happened here but this time they then sent us to Elite Sports – where we found our saviour, Alexander.
He was able to tell us what had gone wrong (too much pedalling meant the parts had just become worn out), sell us new parts and fit them expertly for no extra cost. By 3pm our bikes were good as new and we were happy again. On looking at the odometer at the end of the day, we discovered that we had pushed our bikes more than 14km around the town. I am very much looking forward to being able to cycle again!
We decided to stay the night in Almaty and make a call about where to go from here. With the bikes fixed a lot quicker than we had expected we realised we had time to take the train back the way we had come and alight at Beyneu, a town on our original route. We would only be one day behind our planned schedule and have missed out around 400km of desert cycling.
So the next morning, it was back to the train station to purchase tickets for another mammoth train journey. As we were pushing our bikes gingerly down the ice covered pavements we bumped into Vladimir. Similar to lots of people we meet in Kazakhstan, he was very interested in what we were doing. But unusually (in Kazakhstan) he spoke very good English so we could have a proper conversation rather than us just saying “niet Ruski” repeatedly while a curious Kazakh fires multiple questions at us in Russian. As he was not working that day, Vladimir offered to come with us and help us buy the tickets. This was fantastic for us (given we couldn’t even pronounce the name of the place we were going) and it meant that we could confirm once again that we could take the bikes with us. To thank Vladimir for his help, we took him for lunch at Almaty’s finest doner kebab establishment and spent a great couple of hours chatting. Hopefully, when we pass through later in the year on our way to China, we will be able to take up his offer of staying with him and his family.
Much later that evening, we were preparing to board the train again. This time we were in 1st class, as these were the only tickets available that day, and had our own cabin. On approaching the two guards that were in charge of our carriage, we were initially told that no we could not take our bikes on board. After much pleading and showing of photos of the bikes on the train before, they eventually relented. There was no request to pay money, which we were very happy about.
Unfortunately our 1st class cabin was much smaller than our previous one, actually fitting the bikes inside was a bit of a challenge. Once they were inside there was no floor space left and we had to clamber onto our beds as best we could – and stay there!
The return journey passed peacefully apart from the fact that there seemed to be rather a lot of constantly drunk men on this train, including one of our guards who Steven witnessed downing a large shot of vodka at one point. He was fond of playing the latest Russian pop songs on repeat, unlocking our cabin in the middle of the night (by mistake I think!) and having a boogie by the water boiler. It certainly made the journey more entertaining!
After three nights aboard the train we were deposited, in the bright morning sunshine, on the platform in Beyneu. From here we would begin our crossing of the Kyzyl Kum desert, into Uzbekistan and towards Khiva; our first of the three ancient Khanates in this country that Russia and Great Britain sought so desperately to control as part of the Great Game.