So this was Kazakhstan, a country bigger than Western Europe. Or as one of the Azeri crewmen on the ship laughed, “Kazakhstan is not a country! Its like Canada, lots empty land next to Russia. No people.” Canada apparently bearing a similar relationship to that other great power, the USA. I recalled when planning the trip looking with fascination at that huge unpopulated desert on the map, no roads marked and straight lines for borders. Hah, there was no way I’d be cycling across there! There was a dauntingly large area from Aktau on the Caspian coast to Beyneu the first town 540 kilometres distant, then through the Uzbekistan desert to the oasis cities on the Silk Road such as Bukhara and Samarkand a further thousand kilometres. A long distance cyclist, writing on his journey for the Daily Telegraph in the UK wrote, “maybe someone had cycled this way before, but if so, he or she had never written about it. Lacking the courage to blaze a trail, I loaded my bicycle on to a train.” Another report I’d come across from a Tom Bruce did nothing to dispel my impression. “In 2011 I cycled around the world, every inch of the way. The hardest part of the trip was the desert crossing from Aktau to Beyneu in Kazakhstan, a forgotten part of the world.” I’d find an alternative route. But here I was, about to cycle across that big space on the map. At least on getting to Uzbekistan there was the promise of sealed roads.
After disembarking from the cargo ship and clearing immigration it was mid afternoon before we cycled from the port the half hour into the centre of town. So isolated it is closer to Baku across the Caspian than any Kazakh city, Aktau was originally planned as a camp for oil workers and is now a city of 200,000 and growing due to oil, gas and uranium exports. With the help of a kind hotel owner who told us to follow him in his 4×4, we got to the out-of-the-way immigration police where foreigners had to register. This apparently is usually done by your hotel, but as we weren’t the usual type of visitor staying in hotels… After this drawn out procedure eventually we were legal and free to go. We decided to make a start. Loading up with water and a few last minute supplies we headed off on the journey. Each of us were carrying about 6 one and a half litre bottles of water plus a few litres in reserve. At a kilogram per litre, that added quite a bit of extra weight to the already heavily loaded bikes but I was surprised, and impressed, to find the Surly was still quite stable to handle, if a little more sluggish.
This was it then. Ahead was about 1,500 kilometres of the Karakum desert before the Silk Road oasis city of Bukhara. It would start off following a road up the coast before cutting in to the town of Shetpe, where the asphalt finished. From there trucks travelling to Beyneu bringing their loads to and from Aktau and the rest of Kazakhstan follow a route across the desert plateau. Staggered along the route anything upto sixty kilometres apart, are small tea houses, or chaihana, to serve the needs of the long distance trucks and the 4×4’s that traversed the big, empty space. We didn’t expect them to have much in the way of stores to sell, but were depending on them having water and hopefully food. In other words, while the discomfort and challenge was high, the risk was not. If there was a problem with water or say injury out there in the desert, at some stage a vehicle should pass.
The first night was spent in the ruins of a derelict house a few hours outside Aktau – that was when we learned of Fred’s requirements for the night’s stop. He didn’t have a tent, instead in his wisdom believing a hammock was the way to go. Light, comfortable to sleep in, and keeps you off the ground. You just needed the odd tree or post to suspend it… Fred had got to be the first man who brought a hammock to the desert! He had managed to hang his hammock from a wall to a post inside and actually had the last laugh when we arose in the morning. Will was packing his tent when he jumped aside with a yelp pointing to a luminous green scorpion scurrying away from where his tent had been. Hmmm. I’d chosen to sleep on my mat out in the open. I wouldn’t be too comfortable doing that again with the idea I may be hosting an inquisitive scorpion or snake looking for comfort. We were in fact to come across a few snakes.
The next five days to Beyneu, 540 kilometres away, were challenging – at times gruelling and exhausting – but occasionally exhilarating and when we got to Beyneu, deeply satisfying. After Shetpe the road was rubble, broken hard pack, gravel, sand and – the most energy sapping – soft sand. Normal cycling, we’re used to an average speed of between 18 and 24 kph – as time passes so does the distance and a few hours will result in maybe 30 or 40 kilometres. But this was a different set of rules and progress could be reduced to maybe seven kilometres an hour. In the heat. And the chaihana remains hours of steady slog ahead.
I was in thrall to this landscape, the bare, barren Steppe colour bleached out, at times weirdly shaped into something from another planet. There was a stark beauty to the rocky outcrops, a ridge in the distance, and the odd climb out of the depression – at times we were cycling nearly a 100 metres below sea level – added some variation from the default flat, featureless desert. The terrain was so vast. And camping in the desert at night the flaming sunsets so dramatic, the stars brilliant and the silence so deep. With this distance to cycle in the July heat however, it felt like a challenge to be endured, suffered through and overcome. There was little distraction in this desert wilderness. We were spending long days in the saddle in an attempt to cover distance, it was a matter of putting in the hours and the kilometres would take care of themselves.
And what did the mind occupy itself with, when there is a seemingly unchanging monotonous landscape hour after hour? That can be difficult, whatever about the physical discomforts. Will had his iPod constantly on, and I began to treat myself to a few hours a day of an audiobook which was a great way to distract me. Because there is no doubt, listening to an iPod is a distraction and does take you away from the immediate experience of where you are. But that was ok with me. The distraction could be a relief from the lack of visual stimulation, but also from the mind entertaining itself with negative scenarios which could come calling, unbidden. I reckon we all three had our little individual difficulties playing on our minds through that desert at times – even Jesus apparently had his demons visit during his desert experience! I had read it is not an uncommon experience in the desert. It was great to have the company of Will and Fred. Just the shared experience crossing the desert and human interaction with another all help. Hats off to cyclists who had done this alone. And without an iPod!
And what also occupied the mind a lot of the time was focusing on the channels to follow on your bike. Particularly if things were going well and you go a bit of momentum going. Usually it would be on the very edge of the road where there was less corrugation or hardened torn up surface. Or the road may have split into different strands as trucks looked for a better surface. There was always the temptation of ‘that track over there looks less rutted’, but invariably it was a case of faraway hills are green (however out of place the saying here!). My practice was to stick with the track I was on and only go straying when it became unbearably bumpy. Invariably the other options would turn out to be as frustrating. Or stop you in your tracks with stretches of very fine powder sand which couldn’t be cycled. And when a vehicle, particularly an eighteen wheeler, came rumbling along, there was no escaping the dust you had to eat. Regularly a truck driver, not travelling much faster than our bikes, would offer us water. Sometimes even a cold drink from his fridge – elixir!
It was possible to fly along at a decent speed if you got a good run but the risk you courted was the front wheel getting caught by the soft sand trap on the edge waiting to grab it. And so an hour of full on concentration could pass and you’d be that much closer to the next chaihana stop, what became a little oasis. We would have it worked out how many more kilometres, then a speck of a possible structure would be seen in the distance and maybe reached an hour later. It seemed to work out that we arrived at a chaihana sometime in the afternoon heat, falling into the dark interior with overwhelming relief. The bikes parked in any shade around the building. I’d read of a common risk of tubes bursting in the heat if left standing exposed to the direct sun. It was an image always present somewhere in the back of the mind – the break, sitting in the shade and relative coolness out of the hot sun, glugging down a cold bottle of water, or if I was lucky, a litre and half bottle of iced tea. Fred was the two litre Coke man, Will a litre carton of peach juice.
And then lounging on the carpet – sitting cross legged wasn’t a comfortable position for me – with a cushion supporting the one arm, a hot bowl of lagman, the mutton broth with noodles greedily devoured, or sometimes there might be plov, rice and mutton. Occasionally we’d have company, a Russian truck driver or group from a 4×4. Invariably they’d be intoxicated! Particularly at night or early in the morning. We could see that a) it seemed alcohol was seriously abused in Kazakhstan, and b) constant beer drinking was a common sustenance for long distance truck drivers, mainly through the night. The Kazakhs, taking their name from a Turkic word meaning free rider, adventurer or outlaw, are the descendants of the the most powerful conqueror in human history, Genghis Khan. It’s sad to see the hold alcohol seems to have on the culture, out west anyway.
Coming out of the shade of the chaihana into the baking heat of the afternoon – I didn’t have a thermometer but it must have been around 40 degs – it felt an impossible task getting on the bikes to cycle. But actually, it was ok. The very movement through the air had the effect of cooling you slightly. It was bearable.
An asphalt road was being built near to the existing tracks and a few times we’d haul the bikes through the soft sand up onto the graded firm surface for a few kilometres. It may not have bought us much time with al the stopping and pulling the bikes around sand barriers, but it was great for the spirit, to get off the rocky, rubbly, sandy tracks and sail along the smooth new surface for a stretch! Then thirty kilometres before reaching Beyneu, the tarmac started again. I felt like doing a John Paul and kissing it.
That was the most difficult stretch of the route done, it was a day’s cycle to the Uzbek border and supposedly asphalt from there. A few times I’d come across a reference to the part we’d just done as the “worst road in the world”. It’s not, there are some shockers in Africa I’d travelled on the motorbike – Benguela to Lobito in Angola, or Marsabit to Moyale in Kenya – but this was pretty bad. The main factors that had to be dealt with were the hot sun, no shade, the condition of the road, the huge distances – one long day had us cycling 100 kilometres with just one chaihana stop – and the lack of visual stimulation making it difficult for the mind to stay present. But what a feeling of satisfaction reaching Beyneu. I’m glad I did it.