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Frozen Ambitions

Frozen Ambitions

Eckhart Tolle
“If your destination, or the steps you are going to take in the future, take up so much of your attention that they become more important to you than the step you are taking now, then you completely miss the journey’s inner purpose, which has nothing to do with where you are going.”

Day 135 – 6,959 miles

Pre-Departure Musings

Written in Astana before setting off:

With the bureaucratic nonsense sorted, a whole new set of emotions surfaced. The reality of what I was about to undertake began to dawn. Excitement, yes, of course, but mixed with more than a shade of trepidation. I knew people who had cycled through winter in different places. I did not know anyone that had cycled across Northern Kazakhstan and China alone in the middle of winter. Some of the most uninhabited and harsh environments in the world awaited.

I feel like I am about to venture into something potentially hazardous lacking much but proud optimism.

I am treating the next few months as an isolated expedition. However long I remain on this trip, the impending conditions will likely be some of the toughest I face. Knowing what is ahead actually heightens one’s nervous anticipation. Perhaps because I have experienced extreme cold and isolation before means I know how unpleasant it can be.

Alone in those conditions in such a deserted landscape could make it unworkable. If that is the case, then so be it. Everything seems impossible until you give it a try and push beyond perceived limitations. I think this is possible despite what people have indicated to me thus far. It might make for a pretty unique Christmas and New Year’s Eve but it will be an experience I certainly won’t forget.

Beast in the East

In the month that followed, the most distance I managed in a single day was that first one out of Astana. Despite my now sedentary legs being unprepared, there was a ludicrous tailwind that propelled me forward. Frankly, I was grateful I wasn’t going in the opposite direction. With bizarrely temperate conditions, I whizzed along and, crucially for me, gave distance between myself and the safety net of Astana. I needed that day; I needed to make progress. I cycled until dusk. I found a ditch, scrambled around trying to secure my tent in the gale, cooked my noodles, dozed off and Day One was complete.

I don’t quite know what happened overnight, I think I was too tired to care that much, but I woke with my body shivering and the tent being harassed by a snowstorm. Alas, this is more what I expected. That afternoon the temperatures dropped to about -18°C and would remain below that for weeks. Now it began for real.

It was 1,500km from Astana to the Chinese border crossing. I had three checkpoints en route: Pavlodar (450km), Semey (800km) and Ayagoz (1,150km). Leaving Astana was Day 113 on this trip and in that time I have paid for accommodation on only one night. Unless I have someone to stay with, I will camp. I had the family of a girl I met in Astana (thank you Inara) in Semey, but the others would require the cheapest room I could find. I knew I would have to break my rule to maintain some sort of health and sanity.

I had whimsical ambitions of cycling 100km/day for this stint. “Maybe I’ll reach the border in two weeks if I’m feeling good” was the line. Like almost all of my Kazak cycling ambitions, this was simply never feasible.

Routine

Things are very different cycling in winter.

This was not a winter like I had experienced before, this was extreme cold. I have been fortunate to go to places like Everest, Alaska and Antarctica; all bitterly cold and experience atrocious weather, but this was unique again. The average temperature of the South Pole in December is -27°C with 24 hours sunlight. The average nighttime temperatures I faced in Northern Kazakhstan was around -20°C (coldest being -30°C) and about eight hours of sunlight per day.

I would just like to add that I am not trying to compare this to a polar expedition. The stuff that those solo polar explorers do, like my good friend Ben Saunders, is bloody extreme. Unsupported ventures in that part of the world…that is seriously tough and they don’t have cafés and a bed every week to look forward to.

16 hours/day to “rest” sounds almost relaxing. On the flip side, however, eight hours of sunlight to dismantle a tent, pack a bike, cycle as far as possible, find a camping spot, erect a tent and cook a meal is rather less so.

As a general rule, I would try to get moving around sunrise, eat some snacks, have a small glass of water from my flask, brush my teeth and load the bike.

Dorothy was heavy and slow. My studded tyres were an absolute necessity seeing as I was often pedalling on an ice rink but do rather increase friction with the road. With an extra rack, extra warm clothing, a second sleeping bag, a second sleeping mat, spare gas, spare gloves, extra socks, extra hat and my wolf alarm, I was lumbering around much more than I was used to.

I would cycle, as usual, for about 1-1.5 hours before a quick stop for a few snacks, usually a rock hard Snickers or biscuits and a small glass of water, before moving again. I have often avoided cafés in my bid my save money but, like with accommodation, breaking this habit would become essential. Every time I saw a café, usually every couple of days, I would stop for tea, pilaf, soup, bread and ask them to refill my thermos flasks with hot water.

All café stops tended to turn into quite an amusing palaver as people were totally bemused by a) seeing a tourist in this part of Kazakhstan in winter and b) especially seeing a non-Russian speaking cyclist. As per, Google Translate usually came to the rescue, but a few particularly intriguing culinary delights often came my way – a cold jellified meaty thing was a lowlight I have to admit. I have since learnt it is the calf muscle of a cow that is then frozen and left to jellify: really not that appealing!

As it got to around 4pm, I would start to eye up potential camping spots. This in itself is a routine I have become pretty accustomed to, so feel safe in the knowledge that I can always find somewhere discrete to remain during darkness.

There is a genuine concern, shared to me by almost every Kazak person I’ve spoken to, about the presence of wolves. Thankfully, and I mean that wholeheartedly, despite the story that a courageous fist fight would have brought me, I never had the displeasure of using my wolf alarm or knife in anger. The former did, however, provide an effective deterrent for stray barking dogs which is useful to know.

Then it was the simple task of getting warm food into me (noodles, obviously) and resting for the next 16 hours until the routine began again.

It sounds so simple; dare I say even rather pleasant.

Sisu on the Steppe

The reality, however, was somewhat different. The reality is that every single day was a total struggle. Every hour of every day made me wonder what I was doing in Northern Kazakhstan in winter. Every mile was that bit closer to being in warmer climates. It was one day less to endure. The irony is I love exercise and being outside in winter, but this was relentless.

I don’t mean to sound negative on that part because there were some positive and wonderful moments that will remain with me. On a simplistic level, however, it was about survivability. For me, December 2018 was sisu month. It was the simple and solitary determination to proceed through adversity. That is a large part of what sisu is.

I know that when warmer temperatures come my way, I will be pleased with getting through this stint. That reflective pride should ensure I continue the trip knowing I have suffered enough hardship so I can enjoy and embrace where I am. That’s the hope anyway.

The Actual Routine

I have lost a bit of weight in the past month.

Food and water are two of the biggest issues here. It is hard to predict when and where I will next be able to source either, so a lot is just saving what I have and hoping; it is remarkable what the human body can adapt to. I know what you’re thinking, surely I can always boil snow for water?

Yes, this is usually a perfectly feasible option. Two issues:

  1. My gas supply is limited and I don’t know when I can re-stock.
  2. The Kazak gas bottles with me have an operating temperature of -20 -> +35°. A lot of nights have been colder than that so it barely ignites the stove enough to boil water, let alone melt snow.

I have two large thermos flasks which have proved to be essential. Room temperature tap water turned to ice in one of my plastic bottles within half an hour. I filled my flasks up at cafés and gamble I can survive with 1.5 ltrs until the next one.

There are always unexpected problems.

This is the norm for cycle touring but everything is just that much harder when it’s so cold. Gaffe tape and cable ties are the go-to solutions for most things that need fixing on a bike. In that temperature, the gaffe tape lost most of its adhesive qualities and the cable ties snapped every time so both became unworkable. Creative botched solutions were required on more than one occasion.

A puncture, thankfully I only had one, was one of the biggest time-sapping processes. The glue had frozen, obviously, so the patches didn’t stick and touching the metal on the bike was hardly a pleasant process either. As a general rule, touching any metal was to be avoided if at all possible, and certainly not with bare hands. Another general rule, any bare skin should also be avoided as that required quite a bit of arm wheeling and clapping to regain dexterity. The puncture solution, in case you’re wondering, ending up involving a windshield, a stove and a very cautious ride to the next café where I finally managed to fix it properly.

The roads were pretty crap most of the time. Sometimes sheet ice, sometimes blocks of frozen dirt with lethal ridges in between and sometimes potholed tarmac. What I loved when crossing the Steppe in the Autumn was that, despite the monotonous surroundings, or perhaps because of them, I could actually zone out. I could listen to music, listen to audiobooks or just have a good think. On these roads, it was impossible to relax.

Oh, and my headphones didn’t work either. I would try and pre-plan my music selection throughout the day and then keep my phone warm but couldn’t find a solution. Too close to the body and the condensation made the headphones unhappy (the phone itself was pretty resilient actually). Too far away from the body and the headphones either wouldn’t reach my ears or simply got too cold. Alas, no musical distractions while riding which was very tiresome! Music for me is very important so this is a considerable botheration.

Finding somewhere to wild camp is a process I usually quite enjoy actually, it’s just a little bit of childish adventure – “I can see you but you can’t see me” type of thing. When there is thickish snow either side of the road and a heavy bike, even that process becomes troublesome. Because the bike was too heavy to carry, and I didn’t want to clog the chain with snow (it would become an ice block overnight), I either had to make several journeys back and forth with different bags, or walk the path to the campsite to compress the snow before wheeling the bike in. Neither were particularly subtle, but thankfully, most passing drivers were in total denial that anyone was about to camp, so merrily drove on.

Needless to say, with the ever-present wind on the Steppe, things did not always go to plan. I had a few broken tent poles in winds that were both erratic in their movement and fierce in their power. One particular tent battle will remain in the memory.

While merrily collapsing the thing, I lost concentration, and my hold on the tent, momentarily. Within an instant, the tent was picked up by a gust and rolling its way along the Steppe. Like tumbleweed in a breeze, it just hopped its way into the distance while a panic-stricken Brit was sprinting after it. Totally farcical scenes and I sort of wish I hadn’t left my phone by the bike because a video of this instant would have been gold dust. Alas, the tent somehow managed to find a lone, and particularly prickly tree, to tangle itself to. I, hugely relieved, took a firm grasp of it and, irked but relieved, took the rather more torn bit of fabric back to the bike. I dread to think what would have happened without that tree; I think my friends in Astana would have seen it before I ever did.

You might start to see where the time disappears and why daily mileage is so reduced.

Personal Sustainment

Clothing and body temperature management are a constant issue. In fact, above everything else, they are the issue. Get it wrong and you’re in a world of hurt, let alone a pretty dangerous situation as well.

As much as I jest, this part of Kazakhstan is pretty remote. Doing a trip to a place like this solo does, I think, require a certain degree of experience because the consequences are more than just discomfort.

On the bike and too many layers make you sweat thus making the clothes freeze as soon as you stop. Too few layers and the impact is obvious. Off the bike and it’s hard to have too many layers. The key part was to quickly strip off as soon as my campsite was located, change out of sweaty clothes and put on dry ones. This is something I learned most clearly during cross-country and biathlon ski racing. As one’s sweat level increases, despite wearing only lycra, post-race clothing changes were as essential then as they have become on this trip.

16 hours of darkness without moving in one’s tent is pretty bleak.

It’s actually pitiful how ineffectual I think I became sometimes. The most mundane of tasks (adding another pair of socks, having a pee, having a sip of water, responding to a message) required far more mental energy than anything else. I just wanted to lie there and fast forward until morning.

I would go to bed with two pairs of socks, little down booties (one of my favourite bits of kit ever from the Seven Summits days), two sets of thermal bottoms, two thermal tops, a down jacket, three buffs, a fleece neck warmer, a fur hat, a big down jacket, gloves and two sleeping bags. I spent most nights, especially in the first few weeks, shivering and rubbing my feet together to generate pitiful amounts of heat. Even writing this now in a warm hostel, I can’t feel the ends of my toes.

One’s breath obviously creates a large amount of condensation as well. On the bike, this is what creates the ice beards, something I usually sought to avoid by covering my face with goggles and face masks. Off the bike, this is what dampens sleeping bags, subsequently reducing their thermal capability, fills the roof on the inside of the tent with frost, and successfully saps morale. It also seemed to cause a leak in my air mattress which meant I would inflate it and manage about 90 minutes of rest before rolling over to blow it up again. That was my nighttime routine.

The mornings were probably the biggest psychological hurdle to overcome. I wish I could say that at sunrise every day I was up, stuffing my sleeping bags and raring to go.

I wish I was that guy.

It would be so much easier if I could have motivated myself every morning at sunrise to just unzip the sleeping bag and start the process. But alas, I had an internal dialogue that would go on for ages, hours sometimes, before I eventually rolled over and made progress.

Progress it was though. Slowly but surely, day by day, I covered the necessary miles to get to the Kazakhstan/China border. Sometimes harshness and brutality lead to fulfilment and joy. My mind is often my biggest weakness and the psychology of choosing to put oneself through such hardship is something I constantly weigh up.

Why?

The answer to that is not one for now but something my mind often wonders about.

Silver Linings

The sunset selfie is one of my favourites from this period.

I put it up on Instagram and said, “Even the most fleeting moment of beauty is enough to detach ourselves from temporary discomfort.” The moment brought tears to my eyes. It was one of the first time in months of being on the Steppe that the winds dropped. It was -22°C but I felt peaceful and wholly present in the moment. Obviously, the tears began to freeze, but the moment lasts and sometimes that is all that’s needed to continue. I just wanted to keep on pedalling.

There have been snow storms and gales aplenty this past month. Nevertheless, the few hours on the few days when the weather gods allowed it, those passing moments of joyfulness are enough to provide clarity and blissful transience away from the other reality.

As well as that, once again, the people of Kazakhstan have come to the fore and showed what a kind and hospitable nation it is. It is a nation still forming its own character after the Soviet Union collapse but from west to east and north to south, there has been one constant form of identity, that of kindness. You can describe countries, or people, by many words but kindness is something that outweighs most in terms of impact on a traveller.

I have been offered a lot of lifts (painfully denied despite the good moral dilemma it brings) and been given money by a passing car to buy food at the next café (he actually got annoyed when I tried to return the gift). I have been given food, water, accommodation, welcome parties and some lethally strong cognac thanks to some Kazak road workers who came to my rescue in a rather unpleasant storm. I was given homes to stay in by friends of friends and friends of friends of friends. The list of people who have made this trip realistic, and enjoyable, is ever-expanding and continually gratifying.

The morning of my day into Semey again was both memorable and hazy. I got chatting to a few truck drivers at a café, and one of them, Kola, took it upon himself to show me some Kazak hospitality. About seven shots of vodka later (I definitely don’t have the alcohol tolerance of my University days), I was mounting my bike again and weaving my way the following 30km to the city. In the words of William Thacker from Notting Hill, “Surreal, but nice.”

That evening I was invited into the home of the cousin of the person I was staying with to celebrate his niece’s first birthday. For people to let me into their family home and join such private occasions is truly humbling. Beautiful food, speeches galore and, once again, the vodka flowed freely. Unsurprisingly, it was a long and much-appreciated sleep.

Very fittingly, my final evening in Astana was spent with about ten Kazak truck drivers in a small guesthouse getting suitably merry on vodka. It was oddly representative of the previous ten weeks.

Looking Ahead

I am sad to leave this country. When I entered it from the Caspian Sea I knew so little about what lay ahead. The odd name of a city, natural resources, the cycling team, a couple of sportsmen and a few other bits and bobs were all my ignorant mind knew about the country.

I have been pleasantly surprised to say the very least. The scenery, in its own inimitable way, has been wonderful. The food has been suitably diverse, unpredictable and enjoyable. The contrast of getting to Astana and my time there was a lovely break. The winter has been wild and unforgiving but memorable.

Above all of those though, my abiding takeaway from Kazakhstan is the people. I have tried unsuccessfully to learn but, quite frankly, speak little to no Russian. It would have been a bonus going through this country but, in all honesty, my ineptitude at the language has added such a level of innocence and vulnerability to the way I’ve travelled across here that it hasn’t mattered in the slightest.

I have been greeted with warmth and kindness from almost everyone I’ve come across. I took the long route across the country, I headed way north instead of lurking in the warmer and more populated south. I’m so glad I made that decision.

The past few months have been challenging and rewarding in equal measures.

I am truly fascinated by what lies ahead in China. I am trying to remain as impartial as possible until I have experienced it first hand. It’s going to be cold to begin with, that’s one thing I am sure about. Beyond that, I don’t have any real idea of what to expect.

Xinjiang awaits…

Kazakhstan Cycling