The desert for the first time!

In total I spent just 9 short days in Kazakhstan which seems an incredible injustice to such a huge, landlocked country that is one of the most sparsely populated in the world. But it merits a blog post all of its own because the minute corner I crossed during this time was the desert. My first ever encounter with a desert and in so many ways it can only be described as epic; on a physical, geographical and psychological level. For the previous month or so as this section of the ride loomed closer I had been referring to it as “The” desert, an un-known quantity that I could only imagine and vaguely speculate about based on things I had seen on the TV (from Michael Palin to Carry-on films and everything in-between!) and some snippets of previous cyclists’ blogs. After the surprisingly smooth crossing of the Caspian Sea we set about finding a cheap hotel in Aktau. We nicknamed the one we found the ‘Aktau Ritz’ as it came complete with mosquitoes in the ceiling, cockroaches, no bed slats, huge modern-art style damp patches across the ceiling, missing locks and even handles on the doors and for 24hrs –not even the brown water was running from the taps. (A Belgian couple returning from a ride through India and central Asia assured us it was the worst hotel of the whole trip –I had personally stayed in equally grotty places but never had to pay for them as they were in fact kind offers of hospitality from incredibly poor people I had met en route.) After a morning spent experiencing Kazak officialdom (4hrs waiting for a migration stamp at a police office as the 1 human in the world (it seemed) with the actual stamp was somewhere else in a meeting!) and buying supplies for the desert (water, water and condensed milk in a squeeze packet –amazing stuff!) we headed to the beach for the evening. After a very refreshing swim in the surprisingly clean, cold and un-salty Caspian Sea we had an excellent, if slightly surreal dinner of fish and chips in a beachside bar, before walking back to the city along the water line as the sun set over the ex-Soviet style apartment block skyline.

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Next day the 3 of us rolled, a little unsteadily, out of town in the cool of the early morning light on our 500km ride to Beyneu –the nearest town to the Uzbekistan border. I say unsteadily as we were each now carrying the extra weight of 10 litres of water. Just on the outskirts of industrial Aktau we saw our first camels, just wandering along the side of the road –needless to say I played it very cool by shouting “Camels” and pointing excitedly until one ran across the road, cutting me up and nearly causing my first desert fall. 30km or so later the camel novelty still hadn’t worn off and coupled with me still getting used to the extra weight of the water (especially in the front panniers which plays havoc with the steering) I did come off Carra. A split second of loss of concentration and my front wheel wandered into the gravel at the roadside and in trying to turn out of it Carra lurched over and dumped me on the asphalt. Somehow I looped my feet out of the pedal hooks and softened the landing with a commando style roll into the road. Had there been any traffic coming this could have been pretty messy. Claire was following me and didn’t have enough time to avoid my stricken bike and so she then crashed into Carra. But we all survived and pushed on along the increasingly barren road. The further we went the less sign of life there was and the longer the gaps got between any kinds of habitation. Our first night camping was spent in sight of some electric pylons, a few oil pumps and a herd of wild horses.

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The road we were following barely existed on the digital maps we had and we were very grateful for and reliant on information posted on a previous cyclist blog. It detailed the distance between towns and more importantly tea-houses or chaihanas where we would be able to rest and restock on food and water. The 217km point was the one that caught our interest the most “Asphalt stops –the fun starts here”. We were unsure what was ‘there’ instead of asphalt but we knew there was about 250km of it. Just before this point there was the relatively large town of Shepte and on the other side of it a stunning section of road, not just still with tarmac on it, but in parts, pristine newly laid road that we were invited to cruise along by the road workers. It crossed a plain with beautiful rock formations reaching out either side and then climbed to a plateau which disappeared beyond the horizon. With very little warning we reached the other side of the plateau and were looking out over another enormous plain. Apart from a tiny train line with a freight train on it so far away it looked like a toy set, there was just a huge expanse of nothingness as far as the eye could see. Zooming along the smooth tarmac down the hill onto this expanse of empty land was a feeling nothing short of epic, a lone truck crawling up the hill in the opposite direction waving thumbs up was the only other human contact around. And as if perfectly scripted, at the end of this breath-taking free-wheel: the asphalt ended.

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For the most part the end of a sealed road surface was not as bad as I had first imagined. Almost all of this section of road has been put out to tender for a proper surface to be laid and there is a base layer of hard-core in the centre that varies from well packed rocks and gravel to boulder moguls. But at the side there tended to be smoother gravel tracks that I could whip along on as long as I kept clear of the sand traps that built up in places. Many of the trucks had chosen to make their own tracks to the side of the main route and sometimes we could see dust plumes from these alternative routes several kms away either side of the road. The cycling was definitely harder going though and after a few days the bumps started to take their toll on my ass and my wrists. But there were 2 worse demons waiting for me that had a far greater bearing on things than the state of the road. The first was the wind. As the land heated up during the day it would increase in force, collecting the copious amounts of dust any passing trucks would kick out and coating us head to toe. A couple of times I looked up to see mini-tornados of dust spiralling away in erratic dances. If the wind was behind us the dust was no problem as it was far out-weighed by the extra momentum a tail wind provided, unfortunately we weren’t that lucky with the wind direction and struggled into fierce head and side winds for several days.

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The second demon was a bout of diahorrea –not ideal at any time on a bike but least of all in the desert when there is literally nowhere ‘to go’ and you are desperately trying to keep your fluid levels up. It woke me up in the night with stabbing cramps in my guts but fortunately things eased off after about 24hrs. Just leaving me feeling completely sapped of energy –not helped by the fact I have to do the ‘snake stomp’ any time I leave the road. (For those of you who don’t know I have an irrational fear of snakes, so heading into the desert scrubland makes me pretty nervous. To try and minimise the chances of me and slithery things meeting ı would always stamp as ı walked as apparently the vibrations scare them off. Needless to say lots of toilet trips = lots of stamping!). In between all these physical challenges the desert is still an awe-inspiring environment. The sheer vastness and emptiness of it has a very reflective impact on your mind, somehow offering a huge amount of space for thought as you pedal endlessly across the land. I experienced a similar thing when I was walking and it is fascinating and sometimes a little haunting, to find your mind visiting memories, moments, encounters and ponderings that you had no idea were still stored in the vaults. As my body dealt with the work I had set it, my mind made far reaching plans for the future, missed people deeply and somewhere along the line found a remarkable sense of wonder at where I was and what I was doing. chaihanas we had listed on our km markers promised a shaded break from the saddle, something to drink other than warm water and often some basic food. Here and at many points along the way the cycle tourists became the tourist attractions. The trucks and cars that passed us would often stop to basically ask “what the hell are you doing!?” often people wanted to take our photos or would film us on their phones and many times we were given water. At the end of a particularly tough day battling the road surface and a headwind I felt pretty low and drained when a trio of truck drivers who had pulled-up for the night called us over. They were eating their dinner from the front radiator of the lead truck and introduced themselves as Vladimir, Vladimir and another name I forget from Russia. We were instantly offered vodka (by the signal of tapping the neck as if checking for a pulse) and meat and pastries from their dinner. It could have been my mood but that was the best vodka I have ever tasted. As they poured out the end of one bottle it was tossed over Vladimir’s shoulder and another was opened with big smiles and more photos. We had to make our excuses to avoid getting totally wasted by the roadside but the last couple of kms before pulling off into the scrub to camp were tipsy bliss and I grinned from ear to ear.

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Within 40km of Beyneu and just 5km from the return of the broken asphalt the desert delivered one last cheeky trick. A stunning dusk electrical storm turned into torrential rain, which (apart from causing my tent pegs to give way and my tent to cave in on me just before ı went to sleep – cue a mad scramble in the rain and dark to peg it down again) had a massive impact on the road. By morning the dust and sand had turned to mud; heavy, sticky mud that stuck to the bike wheels and shoes and brake blocks like clay. Impossible to ride through it we resorted to pushing, but even this became impossible as every 50m we had to stop and scrape out the mud guards and brakes to free the wheels. We had no choice but to flag down the first and only vehicle to come our way in over an hour. By some miracle it was a flat-bed van with the perfect amount of space for 3 bikes and luggage and 3 seats for tired cyclists. They very kindly dropped us at the chaihana that marks the return of the asphalt and we battled one last bastard headwind, taking 1km shifts riding at the front to make it to Beyneu. First stop in town was of course ice cream and a litre of fruit juice each! After a well-earned shower and a night in town we left early in the morning again to avoid the heat of the day and covered the 60km or so to the last village before the border without any trouble. Finally we were blessed with a tailwind and raced along to broken road surface. We met up with Jon and Alex again as we had all timed our arrival in Beyneu to coincide with our shared entry date on our visas for Uzbekistan. We spent our last afternoon in Kazakhstan hanging out with a group of boys in the small village. Despite the language barrier these kids were really communicative and interactive and we happily whiled away an hour or so outside the village shop chatting with them, taking photos and naming football players! Jon hit the jack pot when he bought a packet of Mortal Combat crisps (out of date of course like everything in the remote town shops) and got a real US $1 inside. We spent the bought 3 big bottles of beer and headed off to spend a lazy evening camping in the desert around 15km from the border. The stars that night gave an incredible display, probably the mjellyjuost and clearest I have ever seen. Sleeping outside under them made you feel both humbled by how tiny you are in the universe and lucky to enjoy the free show from nature. In the morning there was a different show from nature as almost everyone found scorpions under their tents or on their bags. Jon performed a hilarious dance when he found something in his tent; the fly sheet bulged as he leapt around inside it before he came bursting out of his doorway waving his sleeping bag like a crazy matador. Trying not to laugh I asked what it was –expecting a scorpion or snake –“massive spider” was the reply. And with that our short time in Kazakhstan was over, we covered the short distance to the border and prepared to face the much fabled and daunting prospect of the Uzbekistan border. We had heard much speculation and some horror stories –but I write this from the other side so at least you know there was a successful ending!

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