Words by Tristan Kennedy | Photos by Dan Medhurst
We’re bouncing along the rutted road at 80 kilometres an hour when our driver decides to veer off suddenly. Photographer Dan Medhurst is snapping away at a herd of wild horses out the window and Kostya in the driver’s seat has taken it upon himself to help him nail a close-up.
With his lined face permanently framed by a red pirate’s bandana, Kostya looks like a cross between John Wayne and Captain Jack Sparrow. He’s usually quiet, with the calm, steady demeanour of an experienced outdoor guide. But he drives like Steve McQueen.
As we lurch violently off the track, the heavy body of Dan’s Canon 1DX slams into the bridge of his nose. It’s painful, but we’re all laughing as Kostya starts rounding up the herd, cowboy-style, and Dan shoots frame after incredible frame. “This is mental," Dan says. “Seriously, where the hell are we?"
“Seriously, where the hell are we?"
The literal answer is that we’re in Kazakhstan, about three hours east of the country’s largest city, Almaty. The real answer is that we’re in the middle of nowhere. At least that’s what it feels like. We’ve come here to explore the canyons and mountains of the country’s south east on bikes. We’ve been camping out in the wilderness for the past two days and we’ve not seen a soul.
This is perhaps unsurprising though. Kazakhstan is vast, but empty. It’s 2,000 miles from Safanovka in the west on the shores of the Caspian Sea to Almaty, which nestles among the Tien Shan mountains in the south-east less than 200 miles from the Chinese border. Yet only 17 million people live here - in a space the size of Western Europe.
This emptiness goes some way to explaining why few people in the UK would be able to point Kazakhstan out on a map, despite its vast size. In fact if they’ve heard of it at all, it’s because of Borat. Sacha Baron Cohen’s comically inept TV journalist supposedly hailed from here and before Dan and I fly out he’s practising his best “yekshemesh" voice. “I’ve got to be careful not to do that every five minutes when we get there," he says. “I guess they won’t take it too kindly."
Back In The USSR
When we actually arrive however, it’s nothing like the poor backwater shown in the Borat film - which was actually shot in Romania. In fact the gleaming glass and steel of the new airport building couldn’t be more different. We’re met after immigration by my brother, Rowan, who works as a British diplomat in Kazakhstan. He ushers us through the clamouring ranks of taxi drivers enthusiastically bidding for business with a well-practised “nyet spasibo" (no thank you).
He and I lived here for a period as kids and I’ve been back a handful of times since, but as he drives us into town he explains how much it’s changed. “There are way more cars on the roads these days," he says. He’s not joking - it’s not yet 6am and already the roads are rammed, with traffic shuffling along nose-to-tail at a snail’s pace. “You see way fewer of the old Russian Ladas or Volgas too - everyone has a Land Cruiser or a Hummer or something massive."
Under the dictatorial but stable regime of President-for-Life Nursultan Nazarbayev, Kazakhstan’s oil-fuelled economy has grown more or less steadily since 1991, when it gained independence from the Soviet Union. “And the first thing most Kazakhs do when they get rich is buy themselves a nice big car," according to Rowan.
At least that’s the way it was until recently. Since he moved back here 18 months ago Rowan says he’s noticed something interesting - a growing number of bikes among the cars clogging Almaty’s streets. “Cycling is increasingly becoming a ‘thing’ here," he explains.
“In Kazakhstan Alexander Vinokurov is something of a national hero - a local boy done good."
You never used to see bikes before, but these days “there are dudes in lycra riding the road up to Medeu [in the mountains above the city] every weekend. You even get young people like my mate Max riding fixies - like proper hipsters." As the country’s urban middle class becomes wealthier and more sophisticated, they’re increasingly turning their backs on the worst excesses of nouveau riche Russian taste, and buying bikes instead of cars. Or at least, bikes as well as cars.
Success at the elite level has also given cycling a big boost in Kazakhstan. The Astana pro team are funded by the government and named after the country’s capital. A string of well-publicised doping scandals might have tarnished their reputation in the west, but here in Kazakhstan their various wins are a huge source of national pride. Alexander Vinokurov, their talismanic lead rider (and now general manager), is something of a national hero - a local boy done good with several stage wins in the Tour de France and an Olympic gold medal to his name.
If cycling as a whole is slowly starting to catch on in Kazakhstan, then mountain biking is too - at least in the area around Almaty. Looking at the terrain, it’s amazing it hasn’t happened before. It couldn’t be more perfect.
We’d had our first glimpse of the mountains as we flew in, the row of jagged peaks giving texture to the horizon, their snow-capped peaks catching the rays of the rising sun as the plane dropped. But it’s not until you start driving up into them that you realise just how big - and how beautiful - they actually are. The Tien Shan are serious mountains. The highest peak in the range, Khan Tengri, is a shade over 7,000 metres, or about one-and-a-half times as high as Mont Blanc. Even the highest peak around Almaty, the 4,979 metre Mount Talgar, puts anything in the Alps to shame.
There is the bare bones of the infrastructure needed for mountain biking too - skiing has been popular pastime amongst Almaty’s richer citizens for a few years and there are a handful of resorts boasting small but modern lift systems around the city. It’s all still fairly new though.
Bike Parks & Big Slams
In the carpark at Shymbulak, the biggest of the local ski resorts, we’re met by local rippers Saken Kagarov and Alexandr Zubenko. Despite the fact that they’ve only been riding bikes for four and six years respectively, these two are the country’s best downhill riders. They laugh when I ask how it was when they started out. “There were no proper shops or anything," chuckles Alex. “Everyone was on hard-tails, like really crappy bikes." “Yeah we started off just doing cross-country stuff, there were no proper trails," adds Saken.
“There were maybe people doing mountain biking about two or three years before we started, but not many," Saken says. But if it started out from nothing, the Almaty mountain bike scene has come a long way in a few short years.
Saken and Alex explain how they took inspiration from clips they saw online and started digging their own trails in the foothills outside of town. As their skills slowly grew, so did the mountain biking scene. Today, they estimate there are about 150 people in Almaty who own proper full suspension bikes, and there’s a bike shop that stocks the latest Giant models - as well as sponsoring Saken. But arguably their biggest achievement - and the one we’re here to see today - is the Shymbulak bike park.
As we walk up to the bottom of the gondola, wheeling our bikes past bemused looking hikers, Saken explains how it came about. “You get a lot of people coming up here in the summer just to look at the view and stuff. But we suggested that it was perfect for downhill.
“Everything was here, all it needed was the trail. So we persuaded the administration that something needed to be done."
That ‘something’ turns out to be a well-crafted trail that snakes down from the middle lift station at 2,845 to the base of the resort 600 vertical metres below. It’s fast and steep, with berms, jumps and even a few sections of north shore. It’s not Whistler Bike Park by any means, but it is a hell of a lot of fun. Especially if you can ride it as well as Saken and Alexandr.
The pair of them take off at breakneck speed, throwing their bikes round the corners with the practised expertise of people who ride these lines every day, leaving myself, Rowan and Dan for dust. When we eventually reel them in and persuade them to repeat various sections for Dan’s camera, it becomes obvious just how talented they are on two wheels.
“He overshoots a jump, misses the next corner and flies off the track at full tilt"
Saken hikes the largest jump on the course, a sizeable road gap, several times and hits it with clinical precision, putting his bike down in almost exactly the same spot every time. Alex is a bit looser - he rides right on the edge of control and occasionally teters over it. As we’re shooting one particular section he overshoots a jump, misses the next corner and flies off the track at full tilt, disappearing off the edge of a 15-foot high rocky cliff.
“Fuck, fuck, fuck," I shout, running towards the accident. Saken drops his bike and says something that I can only assume means the same in Russian. Yet by the time we get there, Alex is already back on his feet, laughing as he examines the damage to his helmet.
Apparently spectacular crashes are something of a trademark for the young Kazakhstani. Impressively, both he and Saken and he have raced in the World Championships, and Saken has even qualified for World Cups. “The first time Alex went to the Downhill World Championships was in Leogang in 2012," says Saken. “His brakes failed near the end and he had a massive crash."
Alex laughs. “Yeah, I was wearing these white jeans at the time too. Pink Bike has an amazing photo of it."
He ended up crossing the line nearly three minutes off the pace, but the fact that a Kazakh rider was there at all was a big achievement. As Pink Bike put it: “Kazakhstan [is] not a country known for producing DH MTB racers. [So] damn - the fact he raced here at all was pretty cool."
Against All Odds
Elite racers from the UK have armies of mechanics, spare bikes and physios on tap. These guys have to do everything off their own back. “Sports only get money from the government here if they're Olympic sports. There's no money for downhill at the moment," explains Alex.
“To get to Val di Sole this year I had to ride 800 kilometres in the boot of a car!" says Saken. “It was very small but it was the only way to get there."
“I had to ride 800 kilometres to Val di Sole in the boot of a car!"
Given the odds stacked against them - not just in terms of funding, but in terms of sheer distance from any other mountain bike scene - it’s incredible that these guys can ride at all, let alone compete at World Cup level. As we shake hands and head back down to the city, I can’t help but be amazed by their dedication, their skills and the level of sophistication of the scene they’ve helped create.
Then again, Almaty is a sophisticated city. On our first night we have a run-in with two aggressive policemen trying to intimidate us as foreigners into paying a bribe. Thankfully Rowan speaks fluent Russian and has dealt with bent cops before. He soon sends them packing. But if that experience is an all-too-typical Soviet hangover from the old Kazakhstan, our second night is nothing of the sort.
On the outskirts of the city centre round the side of an unremarkable office block, is a disused tobacco factory where a warehouse rave is in full swing. “What the hell?" says Dan, as we walk up. “This is one of my favourite tunes. It’s a brand new Fourtet track. How are they playing this in Kazakhstan?"
“We have a run-in with two aggressive policemen trying to intimidate us into paying a bribe"
If it all sounds a bit Berlin, that’s because it is. We learn later that the DJ has been flown in from the German capital, but it’s more than that - the crowd is young, well-dressed and hipster as hell. If you told me at three in the morning when I’m several vodkas down that this was Shoreditch, Brooklyn or Kreuzberg, I’d probably believe you.
Fast forward three days and we couldn’t be anywhere more different. We’re sat inside a yurt 2,500 metres above sea level sipping hot tea poured from a battered floral-print pot. Like the crowd on Saturday night our hosts are locals, but these guys almost certainly haven’t heard of Fourtet. They may not even have heard of Berlin.
Dan met Bolatzhan and his wife Gulnaz the previous evening, snapping photos as the sun went down. The yurt where they bring their sheep to graze every summer is just a few hundred feet from where we’ve set up camp with Kostya, and they’ve been kind enough to invite us in for breakfast. At least we think that’s what they’ve said - like most people outside of the cities these guys’ first language is Kazakh, and their Russian is almost as limited as mine.
Despite this, we manage a pretty good conversation - we ask about their kids (there are three running around, aged 1, 2 and 4), their sheep (1,000 of whom are coralled outside) and their kittens (a whole litter lives in the corner by the stove). The gun propped in the other corner apparently is “to shoot wolves," according to Bolatzhan. “There are about 600 or 700 up on this plateau," he explains. And of course, wolves like the taste of mutton.
As Gulnaz pours out more tea I make the mistake of grabbing one of the white, dumpling-like biscuits off the table and taking a bite. It’s rock solid and tastes impossibly bitter - like yoghurt that’s been left in the sun too long. I’m glad when attention shifts back to Dan’s camera, and I can quietly slip the remainder into my pocket, disguising my grimace as a smile.
Rowan explains why we’re shooting pictures and Gulnaz nods. “Occasionally we get tourists coming by here," she says, “but they never stop and say hi. It’s nice you guys came in." She means it too - despite not having much, their hospitality is incredible. “Are we sure you don’t want another cup of tea?" she asks as we leave. And as I walk out the door she presses a bag of the white biscuits into my hand. “Spasibo bolshoi," I say. They may be disgusting, but it’s a genuinely heartfelt “thank you".
“The gun propped in the corner is ‘to shoot wolves.’"
As we jump on our bikes and pedal off to start shooting photos for the day. Bolatzhan jumps on his horse and disappears off after his sheep. It’s crazy, but it’s the kind of contrast we’ve become used to.
Whisky & Horsemeat
We’ve spent the past few days exploring the incredibly dramatic countryside around Almaty, riding down canyons that look like Arizona - or the surface of Mars. Kostya’s encyclopaedic knowledge the area, combined with his ability to drive his four-wheel-drive Mad Max-mobile up any incline, have taken us to places most tourists never get to see.
Days are spent gawping at the landscape open-mouthed as we ride, and occasionally dismounting to stand perilously close to sheer drops as Dan takes the more dramatic shots. At one point Rowan and I are standing the end of one rock promontory, clutching our bikes tighter than normal as we inch closer to the edge. A golden eagle - Kazakhstan’s national bird - is circling overhead.
“Yeah cool. A bit closer… a bit closer," shouts Dan, his directions all but whipped away by the whistling steppe winds. I would tell him where to get off, but he’s in an even sketchier position himself. He’s just scrambled down a cliff face to a small ledge, a hundred foot drop yawning cavernously beneath him. At this point it occurs to me that the nearest hospital is at least three hours away.
“Kostya looks like a cross between John Wayne and Captain Jack Sparrow, but he drives like Steve McQueen."
But if it occasionally feels sketchy, we quickly forget about all that as we get lost in the incredible natural beauty of the surroundings. We shoot through the sunset most days, piling back into Kostya’s support wagon whenever we’ve exhausted a particular section of trail and moving on to the next.
Evenings are spent sitting round a campfire, sipping whisky and eating whatever tasty concoction Kostya has cooked up. One particularly tasty meal involves pasta, chillis, fresh tomatoes... and tinned horse meat. The animals, which were famously first domesticated in this part of the world are not only a form of transport in Kazakhstan, but also a staple food. “It’s amazingly tasty," says Rowan as Dan and I eye it slightly suspiciously. “But it’ll make you fart like a pensioner."
He’s not wrong, and I’m glad there are still a few hours - and a few shots of whisky - left before the three of us have to cram into our small tent. Kostya is no doubt even more glad that he’ll be sleeping in the van.
At one stage I wake up in the middle of the night, fumbling for my glasses and pulling my boots on to stumble outside for a piss. Apart from the gurgling of the stream beside our campsite the silence is absolute, almost unnervingly so.
But if I start to feel any worry it disappears just as quickly as I glance up mid-flow and see the stars - the full extent of the milky way stretching right to left across the sky above my head, broader and wider and brighter than I’ve ever seen it before.
Given this, it perhaps shouldn’t be a surprise that we come across an observatory the following day, at the far end of the high alpine plateau. But after our breakfast with Bolatzhan’s family, we’ve seen nothing but horses and the occasional yurt all day.
The sight of the Assy-Turgen Observatory’s shining domes and 50-foot high main telescope tower is still strangely incongruous. It looks for all the world like a Bond villain’s lair, flanked by an incredible backdrop of snow capped peaks.
In reality it’s one of those incredible feats of state-funded engineering that the Soviet Union specialised in - so remote and so unlikely that only a space-obsessed superpower could ever have made it happen.
“It’s so remote and so unlikely that only a space-obsessed superpower could ever have made it happen."
Almost more impressively it’s still operational… just. The Soviet Union apparently collapsed before the main telescope was installed, but a secondary ‘scope has been working since 1981. And although the buildings look and feel run-down, when Dan ducks under the barbed wire to snap a few photos guard dogs bark and an officious-looking man emerges to chase him out. This is still government property, we’re told.
The route down from the observatory provides us with one last opportunity for photos - and arguably the best riding of the whole trip. Dan opts to stay with the van to get a wide angle, and he and Kostya set off gingerly down the dirt track that winds its way down the mountain. Rowan and I on the other hand take a more direct route down, heading straight down the ridgeline, fast.
Like almost everywhere we’ve ridden in the past few days, these aren’t trails as such. They’re animal tracks cut into the hillside by generations or sheep, horses and the mounted herdsmen who tend to them. But they couldn’t be more perfect for riding bikes down and by the time we get to the bottom and rejoin the others on the road, we’re whooping with joy.
“Shit, we need to tell Saken and Alex to get up here," I say to Rowan. “With just a tiny bit of effort you could totally build a bike park." It might be ridiculously remote, but if the mountain bike scene continues to grow, I can definitely imagine riders making the journey up to ride here from Almaty. And who knows, maybe that would eventually encourage others like us from further afield?
We set off down the rutted road with smiles on our faces, dodging horses and sheep as we go. There are a good few miles yet before we hit tarmac, but when civilisation comes it’s all surprisingly abrupt. One minute we’re in the middle of nowhere, with Kostya casually siphoning some fuel off a passing truck, and just half an hour later we’re passing a petrol station.
“We haven’t showered for three days and I suddenly become painfully aware of how dirty I am."
We haven’t showered for three days and as I walk in to use their toilet, I suddenly become painfully aware of how dusty my face is, and how sweaty and dirty I am. An hour or so further down the road and bam, we’re back in the thick of Almaty traffic.
As we head out to a nice restaurant later that evening, meeting Saken, Alex and Rowan’s urbane, English-speaking friends from the weekend, the contrast with where we’ve been couldn’t be more stark.
But then again, neither could the contrast with what you’d expect from Kazakhstan and what we’ve experienced. It’s only been a week, but we’ve seen remote wilderness (of the kind that rarely exists these days) alongside impressive sophistication. Through all of it, we’ve had incredible mountain biking. The only thing Kazakhstan hasn’t given us in fact, is what we might have expected.
“I don’t think I said ‘yekshemesh’ once," Dan says, as we board our flight home. “There was so much other stuff going on I didn’t even think about it."
Do It Yourself:
We flew Transaero from London Heathrow via Moscow, but the Russian carrier has recently filed for bankruptcy.
Air Astana (airastana.com), Kazakhstan's national airline operates modern Boeings and has an excellent safety record. They fly from London Heathrow to Almaty via Astana from £373 return.
Kazakhstan abolished the need for visas for passport holders from 19 countries in July 2015, including the UK, USA and Australia.
Shymbulak Bike Park:
Lift tickets to Shymbulak Bike Park(shymbulak.com), just outside Almaty, cost 8,000 Kazakh Tenge (£17) per day.
Konstantin "Kostya" Kossov organised our three-day bike tour for US$300 (£198) per person. Email him at email@example.com for info.
Alexander Gabchenko also runs bike tours of varying lengths. See gabchenko.kz for details.