Alison Jarman, Anaesthetist / Andrew Neal, Neurologist / Australia
In 2010, Alison Jarman and Andrew Neal cycled in Kazakhstan as part of a 6500km trek through South Korea, Mongolia, Central Asia Turkey and Cyprus. They were in the throws of this epic, two-wheeled adventure across Asia and Europe, when reality struck in a way many of us might recognise: interview time… Here, Ali & Andrew recall, in the most eloquent of ways, what it’s like to be in your own time-out bubble, when an all-important call awaits.
At 8.30 in the morning a haze danced above the highway ahead of us and the distant mountain range had faded to a washed-out blue. ‘Three bars,’ Andrew called out, and we plotted another point on our mobile phone reception map. ‘Hang on,’ I replied. ‘I might check my email again.’
Midway through our 10-month cycle trek – our grand adventure – the rude reality of future employment was starting to intrude upon our carefully crafted escape. Here on a remote highway in Kazakhstan we were trying to reconnect with the outside world with the aid of a smartphone, a dynamo hub to charge it and a local sim card. Spending a few days in cosmopolitan, expensive Almaty had been enough to convince us to get back on the road while we waited for someone in an office on the other side of the world to email out times for telephone interviews.
At the height of summer in 2010, we had crossed the Russian border into Kazakhstan. 1000km of arid steppe stood before us and the southern mountains of the country. Motorcycle tourists passing us in the opposite direction had spoken of tyre-melting heat and Jurassic-sized mosquitoes. We were convinced to get over our aversion to public transport and took the bus to Almaty. After 25 hours of bleached-dry grassland with barely a hillock in sight on a road with most of its surface pushed to the sides in ripples of tar, we felt vindicated. We extracted our bikes from their nook in the luggage compartment and launched into the centre of this rapidly evolving city.
With all the resources we could lay our hands on, we set to plotting a course that would both satisfy our cycling legs and allow us to return to gainful employment at the end of our journey. We had Google Earth, a topographical map in Russian, a schematic plot of SE Kazakhstan’s mobile reception and a helpful young Kazakh we hijacked in a local third wave café. Hopefully this would supply us with all the information we needed for a two-week jaunt into the now less unknown.
The south-eastern corner of this large, land-locked country contains as much geographical diversity as its western deserts contain sulphur-rich oil. Deep canyons meandering through semi-desert, snow-topped mountains and high grassy plateaus all lay within easy cycling distance of the capital. It looked great on paper. Pedal straight down the road to Charyn Canyon. Double back a few kilometres for supplies then turn off towards the Asy Plateau. Jump over a few contour lines, sail over the plateau, then coast down the valley on the other side. And somewhere on this path, at a time yet to be determined, take a call from Australia to secure a job for when I returned home. Although the ever expanding world of mobile telephony has swarmed into Central Asia, there are still some topographical features it has yet to surmount.
Leaving the city
We followed one of the main thoroughfares out of Almaty, cycling through town after indistinguishable town, all sandwiched on top of each other. Despite the convenience of roadside shaslik stalls, we were glad to move on to the more agricultural lands which would provide us with camping opportunities amongst the strips of vegetation between their fields. It also brought us back to the rural villages where foreigners were few and the famed hospitality to strangers was amply demonstrated in gifts of generous bags of fresh apricots. Luckily, these towns also provided mobile reception, and with it came the first email with a scheduled phone interview, some five days hence.
Riding on with some semblance of a plan, we passed regular market stalls stacked with fresh produce and enormous piles of Uzbek watermelons and eagerly anticipated restocking in the village beyond the approaching Kokpek Gorge. The heat bounced off the tarmac, cooking us on both sides as we rolled on through the gorge. Our pace was mysteriously slow and those luscious watermelons were feeling more and more distant. After a handful of painful kilometers Andrew pulled over to inspect what he was sure would be an ailing bicycle. No punctures. No mechanical issues. Only a prevailing look of befuddlement.
‘I can’t figure out why it seems such hard work when we’re going downhill,’ he exclaimed.
‘But we’re going uphill!’ I countered, only to be met with confident disagreement.
This back and forth entailed for several strange kilometers before our GPS altimeter stepped in to resolve the matter. 954m…956m…958m…960m…Steep triangular hills were flanking a winding road and the irregular horizon was only ever a few hundred metres away and clouded our sense of depth. It was an optical illusion that had Andrew fooled.
Emerging in the truck-stop town of Kokpek on the far side, we found that neither fresh fruit and vegetables nor mobile reception were to be had. This was the only town within reach of Charyn Canyon, our first destination, and where we would return to for supplies before setting out for the Asy Plateau. Supplied with pasta, tomato paste and sausage, we cooled ourselves in the shade and hoped that the steep hills we had just emerged from were blocking the signal.
Further along the road we reached the turn-off for the main road to China where we parted with most of our belching, motorized traveling companions. Here, on an expanse of scrubby grasslands between two spurs of the Tien Shan mountain range, was the best mobile reception to be had. A single tree and some crumbling buildings a little way off the road marked a likely camping spot, so we made a mental note and moved on into the sweaty day, stopping every few kilometers to check the strength of our reception.
Into the canyon
Around 13km along the washboarded road we found a pair of fellow cycle tourists, a Dutch couple who were also looking for the road down to the floor of the canyon. I made a test phone call exchange to my parents then we joined forces to find a vehicle track so steep that we all walked our bikes gingerly down the loose gravel, reigning in our trusty steeds before we could mount them again on the canyon floor. As the red sandstone plinths and turrets reached above us, our cantilever brakes (in need of adjusting) screeched rather tunelessly through the length of this natural concert hall. Known as Valley of the Castles (Dolina Zamkov), the 80km long canyon is a popular weekend destination for Almaty residents who picnic in droves by the tree-lined Charyn river.
And as we had coincidentally arrived on a weekend, we spent two days sharing the small patches of shade with coach tourists and rambling, extended families cutting cucumbers and searing chicken over beds of charcoal. By late afternoon the visitors began to filter out of the gorge until we were left alone with the long evening shadows and a silhouetted skyline by Gaudi on a Central Asian holiday. As it happened, the Dutch cyclists had left Almaty on a circuit similar to our own but travelling in the opposite direction. They spoke of the Asy plateau, our next destination, in hesitant terms. Yes, they would do it again, for the scenery outweighed the pain, but only just.
Taking the Asy (aka Tassy, Assy or Assey) Plateau route from Kokpek to Turgen had looked brilliant on the topographical map in the flat, air-conditioned café in Almaty. In fact, the closer we got to ‘the Asy’, the more enticing this route became. At some point, and it is hard to discern when exactly, it developed a life of its own. The Asy was not just a way to get back to Almaty, it was the way to return. It was the alternative to a flat, cycle back on a highway. It promised mountains and yurts. And, being a high plateau between two mountain ranges, it was unsurprisingly free of mobile reception. After our weekend in the canyon and a return to Kokpek for uninspiring supplies, we were looking down at where the highway gave birth to the road to The Asy. There was really no choice.
Over our evening meal of pasta, onions and tomato paste at the planned campsite, I rehearsed some likely questions and answers for the phone interview the following morning and tried to remind myself of why I wanted this job, or even what full time work entailed. Just a quick phone call, then on with the adventures. We slept, in what appeared to be the middle of nowhere, though in reality we were not far from a crossroads that once formed part of the Silk Road, and today links Kazakhstan with western China and Kyrgyzstan.
At a respectable 7.30 am, local time, I sat on a rocky hillock, coffee in hand and awaited the call. 8 am, nothing. The coffee was now finished and my mind was wandering. 8.30, still no call. At 9 o’clock an anxious call to the human resources department was placed, worried that the elaborate plan for a panel of interviewers to make a call on speakerphone to a Kazakh mobile number may somehow have gone awry. Just an answering service, but one with no answers.
If we rode on, it would be several days before the next patch of reception. If we stayed, we would have to make some careful calculations on the remaining duration of our tourist visa and the distance we could cover on the rough roads. Our now near-dependence on mobile communications and constant availability made both remaining and moving on uncomfortable propositions.
We decided to stay in this remote patch of gerbil holes and eroding mud-brick walls, to await a response from the other side of the world. In the world of junior medical posts, the interview rounds tend to take place only once a year and the more coveted the position, the less flexible the interviewers are likely to be. I was already limited in my options by those who were willing to offer an interview by phone rather than in person. On the positive side, though, an afternoon return trip to Kokpek found the shop to have been visited by the weekly supply truck and so we acquired some eggs, chocolate biscuits and a vegetable or two to supplement our staples.
A night of fitful sleep threw up countless possible scenarios and potential alternative careers. Full-time cycling journalist, perhaps? The disappointment swirled around, and one tangential thought kept arising: that a somewhat retrospectively realized life’s ambition to show up to a job interview unwashed and in one’s pyjamas may have been thwarted.
In the dusty morning light, I checked my email and found that I had an answer, and from that, a new plan. At the last minute, one of the interview panel had been called away to a medical emergency so the interviews had been rescheduled for the following week. We planned to ride on to the Asy, and complete the circuit back to Almaty in time for the next early morning phone call.
To the plateau
Grateful for some clarity, we pushed off on the initially asphalted road to Lake Bartogay with a bulging mental dossier on the path lying before us. Some of the hospitable Kazakhs from a town on the road out of Almaty had poured over our map like their masculinity depended on it and given us some important tips regarding road choices. They also left us with these comforting words: “There are big rocks. They are sharp. They will cut your tyres”.
Finally, after skirting the southern border of Lake Bartogay, a turquoise alpine lake at the foot of our first climb, we passed two Belgians on bikes. Grazed knees and big smiles greeted us. They spoke of gorgeous passes and stunning rivers. It is possible Belgians are overly optimistic folk who don’t have the heart to warn fellow travelers of their impending pain.
We ascended up a valley whose mountain walls gradually closed in around us until we were winding through a narrow gorge. Millenia ago a river would have poured down between the hills either side of us, carving out the contours lying before us. The ancestry of our path was unfortunately well evident in the large, coarse rocks of the dry river bed we were following. Several kilometers of pushing soon brought us to the summit and revealed fold upon green fold of stunning alpine meadows, but, alas, no plateau.
There is something unique about being so high. We were only a mere mountain range away from a major road, and yet felt out of reach. Altitude and rough roads had us isolated and wrapped in silence. The sort of quiet where you start hearing a buzzing, white noise and can identify a scurrying mountain fowl hundreds of metres away. Being high gives a boost of potential energy: the higher you go, the more downhill you’ll be rewarded with. With tall mountain peaks encasing our horizon these emotions were gliding in, until, out in the distance, we noticed a dirt path winding up and over a pass. Surely that’s not our route, we wished. Surely it was time for our plateau. Bravely turning on the GPS, we glanced at the preprogrammed path. It became evident that the hills were not done with us yet. As we rolled over another green fold the unexpected valley giving way to the unexpected second climb became brutally visible.
If pushing our bikes downhill over a dry river bed didn’t make it obvious enough. If the old troughs and tapped mountain springs dotting our path were a little ambiguous. Then, when two herders on horseback casually raced up and down our see-sawing path, it became painfully clear that we had chosen the wrong form of transport. Steel frames with no suspension do make for a sturdy ride, but we sensed that the four-legged variety was more suited to this environment. On the floor of the valley we made a brief rendezvous with the Asy river and filled our water vessels. Dramatic rocks sculpted by years of wind lined the valley, like prehistoric layer cakes. While the water snaked down through sheer rocky gorges, our road trended in the upwards direction.
Nothing is quite as disheartening as pushing up a ridiculously steep patch of road, rounding a bend and then being sent back down to the same altitude only to repeat the same routine over again. ‘Why send us up, if you’re just going to slide us down?’ we asked the bike gods. There was no reply, and the two herders on horseback passed us again after their break in the valley. Thankfully the pretty mountain views kept our spirits buoyant and carried us up the pass, before dropping us rather roughly into the awaiting Asy Plateau.
The plateau turned out to be around 20km of rolling dirt road laced over numerous crests and troughs with a slow climb over a further 500m in altitude. The Asy river emerged through the mountain cracks and we now followed its crisp waters. We unloaded the bags and waded knee deep to cross its path, before darting over many of its tributaries over the coming kilometers. This plateau was a metropolis of yurts, livestock and shiny SUVs. Over the spring the shepherds would have negotiated these same mountain passes to bring cattle, goats and horses up from their winter feeding grounds on the lower altitude steppe.
We mingled with shepherds and weekend visitors from Almaty, our grateful and sweaty smiles signaling the achievement of a summit, of sorts. Following the meandering route through grazing pastures, we averted generous offers of freshly picked mushrooms we had no hope of identifying. Approaching one of the final crests, we noticed two young men on horseback loitering near the roadside apparently awaiting our arrival. This time they wanted a ride-off. And for one last time, the horsemen of the Asy left us floundering in their dust.
As the plateau rolled to an end the mighty peaks of the Tien Shan had gathered a heavy dusting of snow. Kyrgyzstan was now mere kilometers away and the Turgen-Asy Observatory appeared on a nearby slope, a surreal apparition of high end technology in this largely rural environment. At this stage Andrew’s sarcastic suggestion to make a detour to the observatory was met with an appropriate groan from in front. The downhill was the sole item on our mental agenda. Following a cold night, we were eager to descent as far as possible today before darkness would bring the cycling to a halt.
The road flattened out over 50 metres before dropping haphazardly downwards. As Andrew perched at the beginning of our descent a Russian jeep pulled up alongside. With our rudimentary Russian and rather good charades we inferred that the driver hoped we had packed a good set of brakes. After several kilometers of constant steep descent, our fingers had similar hopes. Thankfully the 400m we dropped in altitude was enough for a slightly warmer night by the roaring Turgen river.
There is a level of fatigue beyond which heavy traffic, noisy neighbours or in our case gushing alpine rivers cannot penetrate your mind. It is a nifty defence mechanism the body develops to ward off anything threatening precious REM. We woke early from a night of such protection, eager to get back to Almaty that day. The morning saw us practicing more white-knuckle braking before the start of glorious asphalt and our smooth, speedy roll all the way to the floor of the Turgen valley. It was a descent we devoured as rapidly as the bag of fresh raspberries we bought from the roadside. Hello potential energy. Goodbye Asy.
And the following morning, back in a modest apartment on the outskirts of Almaty, our hosts slumbered in a nearby room as I sipped my coffee and waited for the call.
To read more of their adventure, and to see whether Ali bagged her job in the end, sneak a peak at her and Andrew’s charming blog.