The couple of days to lake were finally tests of our cycling rather than our prowess as bike mechanics. We were wrapped up in a thunder and sandstorm on the first evening. We arrived to our target dinner stop at the moment of impact, the grit in the wind flooded against the windows aswe holed up inside the truckers motel. At 20 quid a pop we couldn't afford a room for the night, but thankfully we were guided to a garden shed for shelter. The rattling of bats in the rafters only kept us awake for a few moments.
Rob had bought a GoPro in Almaty, and had started to Vlog in the Mikey T mold. Originally, I had put it that we were now trying to cater to all attention spans, but having seen his first cut I was a convert. The GoPro provides a rough immediacy that words on exhausted reflection can only reach for. Also I don't believe filming necessarily detracts from the moment, the act actually reminds oneself of the context and significance of the event and as such perhaps dramatises more. The act of filming helps binds the sporadic events of this trip together, perhaps giving them more meaning en mass.
Kazakh valleys south of Alagol Lake Reserve was as serene and majestic as any terrain on the trip so far, we stopped for an idyllic and well deserved instant noodles down by a river bend, and were awoken by kids splashing nearby. The roads then devolved as the way became steeper, downhill became harder than uphill as a loose bike with heavy panniers on thinning brake pads is quiet some beast to control.
We had the builder's hut by the lake in mind, and thus knew we would push through the night, the final 50km on worsening roads, I was listening to the culmination of my audio-book A Tale For The Time Being, Kamikaze pilot last notes on nature of life death and time. It was stirring and jarring stuff, that allowed entire and balanced engrossment in the act of cycling and comprehending these existential thoughts. Thoughts that start to echo into your own conscious on a trip like this at night on awful roads.
We had bought some Cognac to ingratiate ourselves with the builders - our tentmates - on arrival, however this did little good - they woke us up at 5am for morning prayers before heading to work. I hadn't remembered meeting a devoutly practicing Muslim for a long time now, the Stan approach to religion has come across as far more pragmatic. Kazakh Butlins would be a fair description of the lake resort, highly prescriptive meal times caught us out, as our metabolism was functioning at twice the revs of the kitchens.
A half chance to seize the night with a couple of beers quickly ballooned into two bottles of cognac and a drunken promise from jetski instructor Kosta for a free try out the next morning. Thanks Kosta, it was great for 15 minutes but we'll stick to two wheels and our trusty legs. He lived quite the life, a man blessed with exceptional looks, swanning around the lake all day riding jetskis, and presumably more riding again in the night.
Our hangover emerged after the jetskiing and was amplified by an accidental off-road cycle over the lake-shore. The technical difficulty soared when a storm rapidly swept over and left us drenched, our wheels clamped in mud. The family let us use their hose to clean the bikes, my stand broke in this process and the man of the house spent 2 hours and a dozen different elaborate plans to fix it, with perfectly ill-suited tools and old Soviet era parts. With my soviet screw finally affixing the thing together, I felt like the land and its history was ingraining itself in my bike in a more permanent than the dirt we pick up. An artifact of the landscape. It was 1.5 hours longer than we wanted to spend in a place, but the man had invested so much tme and dedication to the task of fixing the damn thing, that I felt it would have been really cruel to cycle off before he could have his moment of satisfaction. This put us back to 5pm or so, only having done 30km, and things were to get worse.
The black anger of the Sky God Tengri broke 20 minutes after passing through the militarised pre-border checkpoint and leaving all other signs of habitation. A dark storm shadow was sweeping across the land behind us, it's frontier was so sharp with the sun on the grass, that it looked like a rolling mythical pestilence. More an act of god than any weather I've seen before. The thunder did not gently rumble in the distance, it shook the very sky above us, you could feel the booms crinkle up your spine. The sheet rain came down. Then the sky bloomed bright with lightning. Flashes to both sides, as Rob and I veered off the road, hopped off the bikes, and threw ourselves down the slope. A steel bike (or even a marginally less conductive titanium one) is no place to be in a flat desolate landscape in a storm such as this.
We lay on the floor unsure of the physics of it all or what we could do to minimise the chances of the obvious. I knew it wasn't the time for my golfing joke ('even God can't hit a 1-iron'). I shouted an absurdly modern sentence to Rob given the situation: 'you grab the tent, I'll google this'. This confirmed that staying dry, and away from the tent poles was the least bad option here. We had differing tactics when inside the canvas fortress, Rob started praying, I pressed play on Nomad - Alan Partridge's most recent audio-book. A couple of hours later and we had survived, so clearly both tactics had done the trick.
The continued threat of the weather and our now heightened sense of lightning paranoia meant we were hunting for true shelter that evening. The only man-made structure to be found in a good 50km was a concrete bridge spanning a potent river. We side sipped down the gravel bank and set up at the base of one of the pillars. We had the bikes upright with the tent spread over them trying to provide some shelter from the wind and horizontal rain, Rob first under the contraption and then me in streamline. We both agreed this was likely the most hardcore hobo sleeping situation either of us had faced sober. This had felt like an extraordinarily intense day.