Southeast Splendour

Driving east from Almaty the road traces a line along the northern edge of the Zailiysky Alatau, a spur of the beautiful Tian Shan mountains, which form the border with Kyrgyzstan. This range rises to well over 4000m, but is largely still covered in snow at this time of year so didn’t provide us with the mountain biking playground we were hoping for. Instead we headed to the Kolsai Lakes region and found a quiet riverside camp spot for the night. We were surprised the next morning to find a dozen tents and a whole bunch of mountain bikers camped in the next glade on our way out! They had not been there the night before, but had left Almaty in the early hours and arrived at 6am. They seemed to be a semi-organised tour group, and we felt sad that we couldn’t accept their kind invitation to join them for the day. They did however give us some useful tips, and so after a brief visit to the lowest Kolsai Lake we rode the 10km up a 4wd track to Kaiyndy Lake, formed in the early 20th century by an earthquake and containing a hundred or so drowned spruces, their subsurface branches perfectly preserved by the cold glacial water.

Kaiyndy Lake

Next stop, and campsite for the night, was the 300m deep Charyn Canyon. The main attraction, the Valley of the Castles, contains a series of striking sandstone rock stacks and formations, which glowed red in the evening sun. Whilst debating where to camp for the night we came across a custom-built (actually home built) Iveco truck conversion sitting subtly in the corner of the car park. Volcker and Stephanie, and their 11 and 13 year old boys, are spending six months touring Central Asia from Munich, heading in the opposite direction to us. We got chatting, set up camp, drank some whisky, and exchanged stories and advice for the road ahead. Volcker is a BMW engineer, and we are not, so we’re not sure the exchange of useful information was entirely equal…

This corner of Kazakhstan is a little crazy. The landscape changes from steppe to canyon country, and from desert to mountains in the blink of an eye. It is the most lush and fertile part of the country that we have seen, and the drive to the border passed quickly. For once, so did the border crossing. The officials were friendly and jovial, with jokes about ammunition, narcotics, and not letting my wife leave the country (!). Vehicle checks were minimal, and we were on our way into Kyrgyzstan in 25 minutes, shortly after which it started raining.

With the rain continuing to fall, and the road surface akin to the craters of Kazakhstan, the game of pothole roulette was re-commenced. Giles consistently has the worst hand. Around 100km, some spine jarring thumps, and a little-too-close-for-comfort brush with the off-camber slippy road edge later, we navigated our way through a village of cows (not actually, but it was market day and we’re not sure who was in charge) and headed to a campsite on the edge of 170km long Issyk-Köl (“hot lake”), so called because it never freezes despite lying at 1600m (it is both very deep, and slightly salty). Some of our campsites on this trip have been taken from the iOverlander app (yes, there is even an app for overlanding!), and this was called “best view ever” owing to the Kazakh mountains now to the north, and the central Tian Shan to the south. The rain and clouds had other ideas, but it was still an atmospheric spot, punctuated by plenty of bird life, shepherds on horseback, and the occasional thump of a sub-woofer straining the windows and rear springs of a typically beaten up Lada.

Local fisherman in Issyk-Köl

Thanks to: the most jovial border guards to date.

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