Charyn Canyon (Valley of Castles)
Next morning I armed myself with a nutritious bag of kebabs and set off on the ride to Charyn Canyon, 200km (3 hours) east of Almaty on a good road. The last 10km were down a rough track and it was a good test for my now rock-solid panniers.
A mini Grand Canyon, the Charyn Canyon is 154km (96 miles) of dramatic 300m (1,000 ft) cliffs of volcanic rock and red banded sediment beds carved out by the Charyn River over 12 million years.
I rode along the top of the canyon first and took a few snaps of the impressive rock formations below. It was really windy and at I kept my distance from the unguarded edge, considering my previous record with cliffs and high dives.
While parked up admiring the view, a familiar face walked up from behind me and said ‘Hi Chris!’ It was Andrey from Silk off Road Tours; he had a tour on and was showing a Dutch guy around the sights. He showed me the steep, loose rubble track that led down to the bottom of the canyon, and I took a look. It was pretty steep – going down wouldn’t be a problem, but it looked pretty slippery coming back up. It reminded me of the loose, rocky track I burnt my first clutch out in East Timor.
However, I wasn’t about to wimp out now, especially with a crowd, so I let my tyres down to 20 psi and stood on the back brake as I slid down into the canyon several hundred meters below.
It was worth it – the track at the bottom was amazing – awesome even. I was alone and riding through a prehistoric canyon, red sandstone cliffs towering above me either side.
At one point the track led to a hole in the rock just large enough for a car (or motorcycle) to pass through.
Several miles into the canyon the track finished at a river and a small tourist camp. I cooled off for a while and then made my way back to the entrance, slightly worried about the steep ride back up (worried for my clutch, that is!)
I took a run up to build some speed, and all was going well until three quarters of the way up the back wheel spun in some loose gravel and I lost momentum. I put my feet down to steady the bike as she ground to a halt. This wasn’t good because it happened to be a particularly steep bit! There was nothing I could do to stop the bike sliding backwards except fight to try and keep it upright. Eventually we stopped sliding backwards and there I sat for a while, contemplating our predicament. Foolishly, I should have contemplated a bit longer, because instead of unloading the bike to make it lighter, I started the bike and tried to get a grip on the loose surface. All that achieved was lots of rear wheel spinning and eventually I’d managed to dig a hole for myself in the loose rubble – in more ways than one. Then I smelt the all too familiar smell of a burning clutch and cursed myself for being so stupid.
Then I did what I should have done first off – got off the bike, unloaded all the heavy luggage and pushed her out of the hole as I walked alongside, revving her up carefully in first gear (it was too steep for second gear). Luckily, it worked, and I managed to jump back on and snake my way back to the top at full speed, amongst lots of slipping and sliding. But it was obvious my clutch was in serious trouble.
Conveniently a Land Cruiser then turned up with 5 strong lads inside, and they kindly helped me carry all my luggage back up to the top, saving me lots of sweaty work in the baking heat.
Returning to my bike I inspected the clutch. It was almost gone. I adjusted it to the maximum cable length, and it bit. I thought I might just get away with it, if I was careful, although I knew I was on borrowed time.
From Charyn Canyon I rode another couple of hours to reach the first of the 3 Kolsai Lakes – imaginatively named Kolsai No.1. I bet you can’t guess what the other 2 are called?
On the way I passed through the small town of Saty where the entrance to the Kolsai National Park is.
As I rode over the crest of the hill into Saty, it was one of those ‘Wow!’ moments – the view of the village next to the river flowing through the broad, fertile valley was amazing.
Unfortunately, Saty is a small, farty village with a brand new fuel station with no fuel. This was a real bugger because I had ridden past a fuel station 30 minutes earlier thinking I would hang on until Saty to fill up (as there was a fuel station showing on my map). This taught me a lesson not to rely on fuel stations in Kazakhstan having fuel.
I paid the National Park entrance fee to an old lady who took 10 minutes to work out the price on a calculator, and then rode up the gravel track to the first lake. By now it was late afternoon and the sun had disappeared behind clouds. The road leading down to the lake was barred with a ‘no entry’ sign, but as nobody was there, and the barrier was open, I rode down anyway.
The lake is pretty nestled 1,700m up in the alpine mountains. To get to the second two lakes required a day’s hike, but I didn’t feel like leaving my luggage in an un-manned tent for a whole day. I also wanted to crack on towards Kyrgyzstan.
First, I needed to find somewhere to camp for the night. As the lake was in a steep sided valley, there was nowhere flat enough to camp next to it, so I rode back down towards the park entrance and found a nice spot by a stream.
Starving, and too impatient to wait to cook something, I ate the last of my kebab stash I had wrapped away in my pannier. In the morning, I learned the hard way not to eat one day old kebabs. Luckily I must have had a premonition because I’d only just bought a pack of Imodium 2 days earlier in Almaty.
Kaindy Lake – Sunken Forest
In the morning I was glad to see the sun was out, so I ride back up to Kolsai Lake No.1 to take a better photo. This time the barrier blocking the path down to the lake was manned, so I had to bribe the guy a couple of quid to let me ride down.
With no fuel in Saty I had no choice but to ride 30 minutes back over 2 mountain passes to the small village I’d seen a fuel station at earlier, before riding all the way back again to take the long track down to Kaindy Lake.
On the way to the fuel station I was getting close to running out, so I switched off the engine on every downhill section to coast down and save fuel. Fortunately, I made it just in time.
The track was full of potholes and sharp stones, but the Heidenau tyres were loving it. On the way back I took a little detour across a mountain for some great alpine views.
I wanted to see Kaindy Lake because it contained the remains of a sunken forest. In 1911, an earthquake triggered a large landslide which formed a natural dam on the slopes of the Kungey Alatau mountain range, flooding the spruce trees that were previously growing on the valley slopes.
The only problem for me was the track to Lake Kaindy was a bit a nightmare with a rapidly fading clutch. The guide book I had said the track was very bad, and it was. It was steep – very steep in places – and loaded with loose gravel, large rocks, mud and river crossings. With a well clutch it would have been fun, but it turned out to be anything but.
After an age I reached a closed barrier & gatehouse blocking the road. The trouble was, no-one was in the gatehouse, or the house nearby. I waited around for a bit, hoping someone would show, but as I’d not seen anyone for the past hour, I thought it was a safe bet no-one was around. Fortunately I was on a motorbike and managed to squeeze through the pedestrian gap by the side of the barrier and continue on my merry way.
After a small stream crossing, the track lowered onto a dry river bed full of undulating, thick gravel. When I went the wrong way and had to turn around in the stuff, my clutch finally gave way again and the bike wouldn’t move. Great – stuck in the middle of nowhere down a dead-end (closed) track with not another soul seen in the past hour.
Luckily, the little trick I’d employed in this situation in Indonesia worked again, and got me out of trouble. Basically, I removed the inner adjusting nut on the clutch cable to give me a couple more millimeters cable length, and this was just enough to allow the remaining clutch friction discs to grip again (for a little while).
Having gone this far I was determined to see the lake, and so I rode on, hoping the road would be kind to the last of my clutch.
Turned out it wasn’t, and another minor disaster struck; my bike overheated. I could smell and hear the water boiling in the reservoir, although strangely the temperature gauge wasn’t showing a problem. I pulled over again to inspect the scene.
I couldn’t see anything obviously wrong – the fan still worked and the hoses & radiator weren’t leaking – but this was the second time it had happened, so something must be up.
With much of the coolant having boiled over, I had no choice but to top it up with drinking water again and carry on, trying to take it easy as I’d done in the Altai Mountains.
Despite these minor incidents trying to sway me from my path, I stuck to my guns and eventually made it to the lake’s car park, after riding though a muddy lake that had decided to cover the lower part of the track, and up another very steep hill.
From the car park, another pedestrian track led down a very steep path to the lake. I parked up, put on my tank bag (by attaching rucksack straps) and started the long hike down.
Then the eerie sunken forest appeared out of the mist…. Well, it wasn’t misty, but it would have done, had it have been.
Like wrecked masts from long lost ships, the dead trees poked through the water’s surface casting ghostly reflections across the water. I wanted to go for a swim and film the trees underwater, but I was disappointed to discover I’d left my GoPro attached to my helmet in the car park.
The sky had rapidly clouded over and I could hear a distant storm approaching. When it started to rain I made haste back up the steep path to the car park because I remembered I’d left my motorcycle boots upright, and I hate riding in wet boots (I had put on my hiking flip flops).
Back at the bike I suddenly released it was 3pm – how did it get so late? I’d heard the Kyrgyzstan border closed at 5pm, and so it would be very tight to make it. Actually, it soon became apparent it would be impossible to make it, as the road turned from bad to worse to nothing (mainly because I went to wrong way again).
Once I’d found the correct track, the road then decided to twist down various very steep mountain ranges, in what must surely be Kazakhstan’s answer to the Pamir Highway. It was a beautiful ride.
Despite being very steep and rocky in places, my clutch adjustment held and the Heidenau tyres did a great job gripping the loose gravel. I thought the steep slopes and slow speeds in low gears would cause the bike to overheat again, and I was surprised when it didn’t. The air was noticeably cooler up in the mountains, and so I guess that had something to do with it.
I would fully recommend taking this remote back-route (from Saty to Zhalanash to Kegen), as the scenery was really spectacular – some of the best I’ve seen in Central Asia so far.
At Kegen, I rejoined the main, surfaced road and sped quickly along the long straight stretch to Kumtekey near the border.
It was now past 6pm so I found a nice, quiet spot to camp by a river ready for an early morning border crossing – I was going to Kyrgyzstan!