(This post has been back-dated due to the lack of internet for uploading over the past month).
Our first morning on dry land again after our Caspian Sea voyage, and we found ourselves standing in the middle of Aktau bazaar, bikes at the ready, wondering what on earth we should take with us into the desert. Our not-too-detailed map showed us stretches of over 100km at a time in between towns or villages, and we had no idea whether we’d be able to even buy supplies when we came to them, or whether they’d just be a cluster of houses that had made it onto the map. Nervously, we filled up Joe’s 10l water bag, packed my bags up with extra bottles of water, filled up the remaining space in the pannier bags with pasta, oats and dried fruit and decided, “Right, we’re as prepared as we’ll ever be…let’s go.”
We were eased in fairly gently, with a few villages hugging the coast and a surprisingly warm sunny day. As the road turned away to the east, we got our first glimpse of the desert proper, stretching out to all horizons and shimmering in the sunlight. It seemed like we were in a dreamworld as a herd of camels sauntered past, smiling a casual greeting. We cruised along through the warm afternoon, before pitching our tent on the sand and sitting out to watch the sunset. At this rate, the 550km to the Uzbekistan border was going to be easy!
The next morning, the desert had different ideas. It seemed the welcome period was over and it sent a ferocious headwind our way, which we battled against all day long at less than 5km/h. In the afternoon the road changed direction slightly and it became an even more aggressive side wind, blowing us off the road several times! At around 3pm, having done only 20km but having used up more energy than a normal 70km day, and by this point pushing our bikes because it was actually easier to balance, we decided that it was pointless to keep going and set up the tent to get some shelter. Maybe it would be easier the next morning…
Nope, the desert wasn’t letting us off that easily. I woke up in my sleeping bag feeling unusually cold, to the sound of rain pattering on the tent. Boring. We tried to snuggle further into our bags and have a snooze until the rain stopped, but eventually I gave up and unzipped the tent to venture outside to investigate. I wasn’t prepared for the sight that greeted me- everything was white! It wasn’t rain, but in fact snow that was falling! This was a big shock. We weren’t expecting snow for another month at least (in fact the plan was to make it all the way to Bishkek before the winter properly starts). It was still October! Two days before we’d been cycling along in the sun in our T-shirts! What on earth was going on?
We decided to bite the bullet and pack up as quickly as possible before our hands froze, and get moving to warm up. The wind was still ferocious, so it was pretty much a snowstorm. Wearing every piece of warm clothing we had, we set off for our first snowy ride, stopping every ten minutes to beat the ice out of our mudguards and snap the icicles off my derailleur. Our water bottles froze, and our sunglasses (which we were wearing to keep the snowflakes from blowing directly into our eyes) kept steaming up due the scarves covering our frozen faces! Does this count as ‘extreme conditions’ yet? We cycled past more camels, now looking a little out of place as they trotted along with their new white snow-coats.
After a couple of hours, we saw to the junction we’d expected to arrive at the morning before, and right beside it, the glowing windows and steaming chimney of a chaikhana! We whooped with relief and rushed inside, to be greeted by a steaming pot of tea and plates of delicious plov (a rice and meat dish that tastes much better than it sounds). It was pretty surreal watching the blizzard through the window, trying to come to terms with the fact that it had caught up with us before we managed to beat it to Bishkek. We’d never dealt with anything this intense before on the trip and had no idea whether it would even be possible. Before we left, we’d read books and blogs of other cyclists who have done crazy things like cycle through Siberia in winter etc, but they fall into the category of ‘hardcore cycle tourers’, which we definitely do not. One thing was certain though- we only had a 15 day visa for Kazakhstan, so we couldn’t hide out in the warm forever. It was time to get back out there.
A few more hours of ice-cold pedalling (still against that headwind) and we started to feel anxious about where we were going to sleep. Was it even possible to get the tent up in such a ferocious snowstorm? Our map showed a little dot of a village maybe ten kilometres away, so we decided to aim for that and all would be well. Luckily a cluster of houses eventually materialised out of the whiteness, and we headed towards them looking a little more needy than usual. Before long we found ourselves sitting around a table in a warm house, drinking tea and being fed dumplings by a lovely Kazakh lady named Karina and her husband. They told us it was far too cold to be camping outside (some truth there) and laid out a couple of floor mats for us in a spare room. She even ordered me to sit at her feet and started giving me a head massage before bed! A warming end to a very scary cold day.
Houses here are huge, with three generations of families living together, and when a woman gets married, she is expected to move into her husband’s parents’ house. No more indoor toilets anymore though, so in the night you might find yourself trudging through the snow with your head torch on to the communal village hole in the ground. We learnt from the family that many villagers around this area own camels as domestic animals, and use them for milk and meat. Apparently they let them out in the morning and the camels go for a little trot around the desert, before coming back obediently in the evening to their huts. For some reason this tickled me.
We were saved from putting the tent up the next night as well. As soon as we arrived in the town of Shetpe in the early afternoon, we met a very friendly man who spoke pretty good English, and took us for a cup of tea to escape the snow. Three cups of tea later, he’d convinced us that 40km really was enough for such a bleak day, and we should stay at his family’s house. First though, he took us in his car up to the mountains to see the view from the top.
Luckily for us, after another bitterly cold day of riding, the sun came out and it stopped snowing. All of a sudden we could feel our fingers and toes again and enjoy riding through the stunning landscape. It was still cold enough to wake up with ice inside the tent and frozen water bottles, but as soon as the sun came up we could manage just fine. (Just as well really, as Joe had chosen this extremely cold snap as the optimum time to lose his winter gloves and so was cycling with thin wooly ones and a pair of socks over his hands. Let’s just say he didn’t take that realisation too well, quite understandably)!
For a desert, it was more hilly than we expected to begin with, with plateaus and craters like the surface of the moon, which was great as the scenery would change from time to time when we emerged from one crater and descended into the next. I found myself thinking in ‘horizons’ as units of measurement. “Shall we stop after that next horizon for a rest?” Two days out of Shetpye though and the landscape changed to the flat nothingness we were expecting from the start. It felt a bit like Groundhog Day, cycling along with nothing but the railway parallel in the distance, thinking, “This looks suspiciously like the part we were in yesterday…I’m sure I’ve seen that bit of old piping before…have we been here already?” The only thing to entertain us were the chaikhanas that seemed to pop up conveniently out of the sand around once a day. These little oasises of warmth became our lifeline, as we had already decided it was far too cold to sit outside cooking unless we absolutely had to, and we looked forward to warming our hands around a pot of tea and a hot plate of rice or bowl of borsch (cabbage soup, mmm). It was a bit hit and miss with these places though, and sometimes the only thing on the menu would be a plate full of meat…
Amazingly, the desert decided it had maybe been a bit hard on us at first, and treated us to a powerful tailwind that had us soaring the last 50km into Beyneu, the last town before the Uzbekistan border. It felt good to be finally getting some distance done. By this point, we’d realised that at this rate there was no way we were going to be able to get across the whole length of Uzbekistan on the bikes, as we were already five days late for our 30 day visa (thanks to the wind) and it’s absolutely huge. Most people heading this way on bikes take the route through Iran and Turkmenistan, before cycling a short stretch of Uzbekistan which is possible on the visa time, but as we weren’t able to get Iranian visas, the only way we could approach Uzbekistan was from the furthest western point, and unless we planned to cycle into the night every day without stopping to talk to anyone or see anything, we wouldn’t have enough time. That hardly sounded like fun. There was planning to be done, so we needed the internet. After finding the sad-looking, ex-soviet town to be pretty much devoid of anything useful (including supplies), we decided our only option was to check into a hotel for a night. Surprisingly expensive considering it was in the middle of nowhere (they even tried to charge us extra for breakfast the next day!) but my god, it was worth it for the indoor shower. After nine days of washing in the cold with a bottle of water that is partially composed of ice crystals (a routine accompanied by lots of loud shrieking) I couldn’t help but laugh like a maniac as I stood under the hot water, thinking at the time that nothing could make me happier!
We learned that it was possible to get a train to Samarkand, but after a very stressful ten minutes in the Kazakh ‘queuing system’ at the train station, we were told that we couldn’t buy a ticket from Kazakhstan, we’d have to go to Uzbekistan. At least I think that’s what she said-it’s difficult to blunder through these exchanges in Russian at the best of times; even harder when you’ve got men on all sides, pushing you out of the way and trying to shove their passports through the window and shouting their own demands as you’re trying to translate your own dose of bad news.
The road to the border and onwards until the first town in Uzbekistan was a 400 km stretch of apparently terrible road surface, and headwinds. Weighing up our options, we decided we’d get more enjoyment cycling the eastern part of Uzbekistan in the time that we have available to us, so decided that our mission was to get that train ticket as fast as possible. It makes me sad that we don’t have time to cycle every single kilometre, but when short visas and big countries are involved, you really can’t be dealing with headwinds and short daylight hours if you’re going to make it the whole way by bicycle. I’m so impressed with the people who never have to fall back on public transport. We decided to hitch the 80km to the border and not waste our time on the bad road. Within twenty minutes, a friendly old man driving an empty minibus had stopped to give us a ride. It seemed to easy- we’d be at the border in a matter of hours- too good to be true. Of course it was. He drove 15km and stopped outside a railway engineering station. It turns out he was the driver for the engineers there.
At that point, a very bizarre stoke of fate happened. As we lugged our bikes and bags out of the bus in front of a crowd of curious engineers, a man stepped forward to greet us. He was the same man we had met over a week ago on our first day in Aktau when we got off the boat and were looking for somewhere to stay! He remembered us, and excitedly told us that we must come into their station for lunch and a cup of tea, and then he was going to arrange a pickup truck to take us to the border after we’d had a rest! It turns out he was some sort of boss man there, and had been in Aktau on business, where he bumped into us the first time. What a small world.
That afternoon, we found ourselves driving along in our newly aquired pickup truck with Albert and one of his employees, listening to russian rock music and getting to know each other. About 10k away from the border, he pulled into a little village shop and emerged with a large bottle of vodka and chocolate bars. “Now, before you go, we have Russian tradition,” he winked. Hours later, we were still 10k away from the border, by now feeling very warm and fuzzy. By this point we were all best friends, and making toast after to toast to our chance second meeting. We eventually got there just as the sun was setting (gone was the hope of putting up the tent in the daylight on the other side). After making some mysterious calls, Albert drove us straight to the front of the queue and had the border guards (in their impressive black furry hats) shaking our hands. We said an emotional goodbye, and our new friend shed a vodka-laced tear before the two of them drove off, back to work.
The border crossing was fun. Lots of different queues for stamping passports, scanning your baggage, being interrogated and filling in declaration forms. I was discreetly told by a guard to rip up my first form and start again- they were so obscurely translated and confusing that it seemed I had ticked boxes to imply that yes, I was a drug smuggler and yes, I was carrying spy-equipment into the country. He pulled me aside and instructed me to basically tick all the ‘No’ boxes, no matter what the wording said. Two hours later, passports stamped, baggage scanned, questions answered, and we were through. Out into the pitch black Uzbekistan desert.