Heading west on the M39 out of Almaty, the snow-capped peaks of the towering Zailyisky Alatau range were quickly out of sight, replaced with gently rolling cultivated fields covered with brown stubble. Between the fields and the highway is a continuous tract of trees about a dozen meters wide – on evenings when I mistimed the sunset this made a convenient, but not exactly quiet, camping area.

Near Taraz the Kyrgyz Alatau mountain range appeared in the south.


At a rest stop I met a local schoolteacher, whose family also runs a roadside stand selling fruits and drinks.


He spoke English very well, and we had a long conversation about him and his family, my trip and the local area.  I was grateful for a discussion beyond buying food or fuel, and he was happy to practice English, which is one of the subjects he teaches.

In Taraz I stopped for snacks and met these brothers.


At 21 and 19 years old, they own a bread delivery van, serving stores all over Taraz. They had lots of questions about America: Actors, geography, guns, politics. They seemed surprised to learn that I wasn’t carrying a gun with me.

At the outskirts of sprawling Shymkent, I stayed north to make miles toward Turkestan. I passed some time with these fellows at the SinOil gas station.


They put some graffiti on the bike but the party broke up when the boss made them get back to work.

A few miles from Turkistan I stopped at a shady spot for a snack of kielbasa and cheese. Two fellows walking by pointed down the road and said, “Chaikhana, chaikhana” and motioned for me to join them. I politely declined, pointing at my meal in hand. Not three minutes later, a shared taxi stopped and four men piled out. They too invited me: “Chaikhana, chaikhana!” So join them I did. Only a few dozen meters down the road was a house set some distance back from the highway, with a shady veranda and a burbling spring alongside. Inside the 4 taxi guys and I sat on benches at a low table; the first two men were already seated, and I gave them a smile and a shrug.


We tucked in to a hearty meal of stout noodles with mutton, potatoes and carrots, served with green tea, salad and flatbread. During the meal I was schooled (by the mustachioed fellow, above) on some of the customs of the Kazakh dining table: Flatbread is always placed crust side down; forks and spoons are placed concave side facing down; one person tears up the bread for everyone; there is always time for more chai; and the guest doesn’t pay. At the close of the meal, everyone shows thanks by cupping their hands and making a motion as if washing the face. I left the chaikhana seriously stuffed with food and humbled by their kindness and hospitality.

Turkistan is home to the impressive mausoleum of Kozha Akhmed Yasaui, the first great Turkic holy man. The mausoleum’s construction began in the 1390s by orders of Timur (a.k.a. Tamerlane), but Timur died before its completion, and today it stands in an unfinished state, with the wooden scaffolding poles protruding from the upper reaches of the main arch.


As this is the most important pilgrimage site in Kazakhstan, photography inside was forbidden, but the soaring dome, intricate tile work and architectural details were very impressive. All signs and information is in Kazakh and Russian, but I was lucky enough to get a tour from an English-speaking guide.

Backtracking toward Shymkent I again misjudged the sunset, and lacking any tree cover, set up camp beneath crackling high-tension power lines. My wake-up call was rain and gusting winds, and after packing my wet camping gear proceeded to dump the bike when I hit damp dirt road. The rain continued all the way to Shymkent, and by sheer chance I quickly found my hotel…located inside of a shopping mall. The jovial bellhop proudly displayed a thumbs-up and said, “You get veep parking!” And he wasn’t kidding. I walked the bike through the front doors and past the fancy jewelry & clothing shops, internet center, guitar store and reception desk, very aware of the lack of traction between the polished floors and my wet boots & tires. He directed me to an unused retail space, where the bike rested and dripped.


The hotel room was clean and spacious, but since it was originally intended as retail space, it lacked plumbing (shared shower, sink and toilet in a separate room) and was “ergonomically challenged” with few power outlets and oddly-placed light switches. It did however have sufficient rigging points for stringing a clothesline to dry my drenched camping gear. I stayed for two nights until my Uzbekistan visa became valid, then headed southwest to Abay and the border crossing. (The border post near Shymkent is closed for remodeling.)