Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Charyn Canyon

Kyrgyzstan was calling but rather than just ride from Almaty to Bishkek and take the quick way out, we opted to go further east and have a look at Charyn Canyon. From there we would go south into Kyrgyzstan and ride around Lake Issyk-kul before heading back towards Bishkek. We left Almaty with mixed feelings. To be honest we would have liked to stay another day or two but the DHL stuff ups and the Russian and Azerbaijan Embassies had costed us too much time. The trip through China has to be done with a guide, which meant a fixed date on visas etc. No matter how you look at it, visas are just a royal pain in the backside...

The road out of Almaty wasn't a major road to another big town. We had not heard any reports about bad roads or bad traffic, so all seemed good. It was of course a bouncy bit of tarmac and quite busy too.. To be honest we'd had it with Kazakhstan's bad roads by then and agree with the Russian truck drivers who had openly questioned why we would want to go to Kazakhstan as the roads here are shit. We found ourselves standing on the pegs again, even though the Triumph's suspension was now good. Yet the road wasn't the main problem; the southern Kazakhstan Police was. We have never seen so many checkpoints anywhere. Literally less than a kilometre apart at times. A couple of days ago we wrote that riding through the Kazakh desert felt like riding in an oven, here because of al the radar guns pointed at our heads it felt like riding in a microwave...

Meanwhile the traffic around us became very nervous because of them. The police does their utmost best to be invisible and the fines they issue are very high. So people slam on the brakes for no apparent reason other than they think they might have seen another police man with a radar gun. Speed limit signs are sometimes hard to see and there is a bewildering array of different speed signs too. To us the speedlimits don't make any sense and have no relationship to the actual situation. It seems their only goal is to be as confusing as possible. Some of the signs are positioned in such a way that they can hardly be seen. So, when the driver in front of you thinks he sees a policeman he takes the safe option and slows down to 40 km/hr... even on a highway, creating a dangerous situation. You can't blame the drivers though, having seen first hand the authoritarian and nasty demeanour of the Kazakhstan Police, it's high time someone turns them down a peg or two.

You might think that Police presence is good, and it can be, but the only thing they do in Kazakhstan is point radar guns at you. They don't do anything else. A good example of their attitude problem we saw in Almaty, where a young woman was stranded in the middle of a busy 3 lane motorway in her car. She was in front of the car looking terrified as the traffic narrowly missed her and the car. She had nowhere to go, could not bring herself to safety because of the the traffic and was in a really dangerous situation. A police car drove by and didn't even stop to divert the traffic... the policeman was on his mobile phone while driving and further on stopped to issue a fine... With all their checkpoints and radar terror they create, the best thing they can do with the Kazakhstan Police is give them all a pick and shovel to fix the roads... end rant.

As we got closer to Charyn Canyon, the landscape changed to hills and mountains, a welcome relief from the endless dry plains. The road to the Charyn Canyon national park is a badly corrugated dirt track, entry fee is 1400 Tenge (7 Euro for two). The military guys at the boom gate said we could camp there too and directed us to an according to them beautiful lake for that purpose. They charged us another 200 Tenge for camping. We had a look around first and then went for the road into the canyon which would lead us to the camping spot... only to find another closed boom gate. We couldn't find any other access and thus checked what was behind the gate, which turned out to be steep goat track with loose rocks etc. Mike said he would never get back up this again in the morning. So we went back to the military guys at the entrance who informed us that the only access to the camping area was indeed past the boom gate and that they would open it for another 2000 Tenge each (10 Euro) adding 'you won't be able to get there with a motorbike'... Quite frankly Charyn Canyon was a disappointment. It's a tiny and poor copy of Canyonlands in the USA. No doubt there is more to see if you start hiking, but that applies to Canyonlands too. We left, bounced over the corrugations again and continued south. To be honest I found the landscape on either side of the road more interesting than Charyn Canyon itself. 

Shortly after we took a track to the left and found a beautiful place to camp for free, with magical views and much easier access (apart from finding my self sliding down the hill in something I hadn't seen before: a bull dust hole covered in fine gravel. We pitched the tents, talked bikes and quickly came to the positives of the day: my Bonnie's suspension is much better since the new shocks and more preload on the front springs. So far the 20 mm lift at the rear has done wonders. I feared at first that sand riding had suffered now that the rear had lifted and the fork angle had steepened up somewhat, until I walked back to where I almost flew over the handlebars and found it so soft I could hardly stand on it... The next morning, just after we had left, we found a much better view of Charyn Canyon... straight from the main road. So, if you want to see Charyn Canyon, just stay on the road :-) Plenty of camping spots along the canyon too...