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25.01.10 16:14 Age: 8 yrs

Kazakhstan minus 80 degrees

By: Roger and Megan

Returning to the Kazakh steppe to face its harsh winter

Crossing the border at Khorgas in Kazakhstan, we were glad at last to be rid of the political turmoil and police state that was Xinjiang. Now free from being watched, bugged, searched, chased, and deported, the only thing we had to deal with now was the weather. Being the middle of winter, and with us planning to head north towards Semey/Ust Kamenogorsk and cross into Russia by the Altay mountains, we knew this was going to be difficult. It was on our fourth day in Kazakhstan that we had our first glimpse of what the weather would hold for us, when all night snow, resulted in a thick coating of powder all over the landscape, and quikey. From here the weather took a turn for the worst.

 

As the day rolled on, the temperature continued to drop, and the rate of precipitation increased. From Korgas our plan was to head west to Sariozek then turn north towards Taldykorgan then onto Semey, our first obstacle was to be the 2 mountain passes on the way. By the time we departed Jarkent, our drive train had started to freeze up in the morning. The trusty Rohloff speedhubs and the Schlumpf reduction gear seemed to be operating OK still, but all the exposed parts, including the pedals, were very reluctant to move. Even when finally "freed" it still felt like we were towing an extra 50 kg, due to the increase in friction. Later that day we were told by a shepherd that the evening temperatures were around -30c, and that this was nothing compared to the - 40/45/50 temperatures we would encounter as we headed north - he seemed to think we should be happy that it wasn't so cold yet! In this region the shepherds live out with their animals all winter long, no cars, no roads, no electricity, just a horse for transport, and cow manure to keep them warm, very simple yet complete. It was late in the evening of the second night on the road, when the temperatures plummeted as the sun descended that we met this shepherd.

 

Our best attempts at riding that day (some 7 hours) had resulted in about 13/14km due to the conditions. The freezing temperatures, our locked up drive trains, and the snow on the ground, made our progress agonizingly slow. Attempting to setup camp in the snow field, we saw a small house in the distance and wondered over to investigate. it turned out to be a long half-hour slog through snow often up to mid-thigh depth (silly us had to decided to leave our snowshoes and backpacks at the quike, so were carrying a big 60L and 30L dry bag each (well pulling at this stage since we were so exhausted), to the house. Stopping every 50 paces or so for a breather (enforced breather more like, as we just fell over in the mid-thigh deep snow from surprise, and exhaustion), as feet and hands were rapidly becoming numb. As we neared the hut, the shepherd came out, and surprisingly (boy were we grateful at this stage, as we were frozen, and exhausted) and invited us in for dinner. Later that night another shepherd on the way out to his house (he lived some 15km further up in the mountains, but it seemed the snow was too deep, and it was too cold for him and his horse) stopped by to ask if he could stay the night - which he did.

 

Staying with the shepherd for a night, we were force-fed copious amounts of pumpkin manti, for dinner and breakfast, before heading off, again trudging off through the deep snow, on the long walk back to where we had left quikey in the snowfield. That night he warned us about the dangerous wolves that prowled the mountains at night, saying that a rifle was essential for our safety, this was again reiterated when the other shepherd arrived, about how dangerous and numerous these wolves were. These shepherds are spread few and far between with neighbors often 10's of kilometers apart, with just mountains and snow between them, and thus have to be both self-sufficient, and hospitable to any fellow horsemen when the bad weather hits. Heading off, we wondered what it would be like as we headed further north, as the snow grew in depth, and the temperatures plummeted, we were now planning for 10km days (on a good day that is).

 

During one of our tent bound nights (with the wind and snow converging on us with increasing ferocity), both our sleeping mats suddenly popped (within half and hour of each other). This was very strange for us, as we were sleeping on soft snow, and the mats had help up fine for the last 10 months, so for both to fail at nearly the same time was kind of ironic. The mats were now leaking out air at quite a fast rate, on top of this however, was that they were now bulging in the middle, and thus at their widest point bulged out by some 25cm making sleeping very uncomfortable. We dreaded that as the problem got worse, we joked that we would soon be sleeping on giant yoga balls - a joke note to be taken lightly as the bubbles steadily expanded.

 

Thus we now sleep quite coldly and uncomfortably (there seems to be endless holes in our sleeping mats from the baffles ripping out all the seems, making patching impossible since the whole mat was like wire mesh now), with the strategy of just filling our dry bags with clothes lying on them for added insulation from the freezing ground. In one of the small villages on the way, we were guested by the mayor of the town, who proceeded to tell us how dangerous the road ahead for us was. We were warned countless times about freezing wind and cold that awaited us as we climbed the mountain pass, as well as the danger of wolves. Between here and Taldykorgan there was one major pass and three smaller passes to climb, not so bad in summer, but in winter, they become very dangerous, with thick slippery ice, deep snow, and relentless winds, on top of the extremely cold temperatures.

 

Describing to us about how dangerous the wolves were, he made sure we had fireworks with us, as feeble attempt to scare them away, but begged us not to sleep outside at night, even if we were armed with rifles and pistols, since they would make no difference whatsoever. He tried to call ahead to one of his shepherd friends who lived by the road up ahead, to ask him to take us in the next night, but couldn't get through because the electricity was down (he only had a radio telegram). Departing from his village, we were again cautioned about the dangers of the wolves and mountain pass, and thus spent the next few nights with some local shepherds(who had some more stories to tell about the wolves in the area... the wolves didn't stop at sheep and had also been reported to take down camels (500kg+) and horses! Our distances were steadily decreasing, 20km per day, 15km per day, 12km per day, 7km per day, as the weather and terrain got worse, and we dreaded when we would reach 5km/per day as our regular winter distance.

 

Deep snow and strong winds making riding extremely difficult. Climbing up to the base of the first pass, we stayed with a family there in a small village (7 families there) because we knew for certain we couldn't make it over the pass that same day. The next morning we were greeted by a strong cold headwind, making it impossible for us to ride uphill on the ice, so we had to stay there the extra night and hope that the pass would still be open the following day. We didnt need much pestering to stay, given that they fed us copious amounts of shashlick and manti to try and fatten us up! While we were there we even met the shepherd we had stayed with 2 nights previously, he had ridden all the way up here on his horse to herd his animals back down. It seems that horses are the best mode of transport when it comes to these winter conditions!

 

The next day the wind died down enough for us to hit the road again. The family wanted us to stay on longer, given that the temperature forecast was for -40/-45c in the next 3 days, but we really needed to push on as we had a visa registration deadline closing in on us fast. Already we had struggled just getting to the base of the pass, it was very tough going, both pedaling and pushing quikey even though we were even on the steep bit yet. In this village the people here keep huge dogs 60-70kg and 80-90cm tall, as protection from the wolves. If such big dogs still had trouble with the wolves, we wondered how we would cope!

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