A night to remember

Our one month visa in Uzbekistan was always going to be stretched. We were both very aware of the blue tiled silk route cities that adorn the country with spectacular minarets, domes and madrassas which have to be high on any tourists agenda but throw in yurt camps in off the beaten track desert areas and Margilon, the centre of silk production in Asia, plus days lost with travellers tummy, it was looking pretty impossible. The obvious answer was to short cut the cycling to get us quickly from one place to another. It feels like cheating; we’re on a bike trip and want to be able to hold our heads up, once we get home, and say, ‘Yes, we cycled’.
We’d spoken a few times about catching a train across the desert between Khiva and Bukhara but we hadn’t booked a ticket. Dropping further behind our travel itinerary due to tummy problems, and wanting to avoid staying in teahouses for the same reason, we decided, after a day cycling, to try hitching the remaining 100km to Bukhara. We put our thumbs out as we coasted to a stop: The very first truck picked us up. We had to ride into town to a pre-chosen hostel in the dark, but that was a small price to pay for a day saved.
On leaving Bukhara, we decided to cycle out of town and once again hitch, but our luck had run out. Having wasted several hours waving a thumb around at various locations over about 70km, we cut our loses & diverted to the next train station. The train left at 2115 leaving us a couple of hours to munch some supper and fret over our 0130 arrival time in Samarkand. The station policeman was very helpful both while buying the ticket and by assigning us a platform helper.
As the train ground to a halt we sped along the now gravel ‘platform’ to the designated carriage. The train guard immediately started ranting along the lines of: no space, too big, won’t fit, but our platform helper was quite insistent –  yes, the bikes were coming. Some further gesticulating resulted in them being quickly stripped and shoved up the steps all but blocking everybody’s passage. Bags followed. Gid & I, plus other passengers, we’re still on the platform as the train started to pull away with a grinding of metal on metal. Some 20 odd carriages from the driver, the outburst of protestations had no impact.  A mad scramble ensued: the platform helper off, a throng of people on, as I was anxiously climbing the steps & looking back for Gid.
We’d boarded on carriage 5, our cabin was in 3. As the train rumbled on we made our way along; pigeon steps, straps caught, doors swung, passengers waiting.
We finally reached our cabin eager to dump the bags. Tucking them under the bed was obvious except there was no under the bed. Once all in we stacked them up as best we could. Thankfully, the other passenger was traveling empty handed and the fourth bed wasn’t taken yet.
Settling down, having made the bed, the peace was shattered as the train guard was back, once again, gesticulating wildly.  ‘Bikes, bikes. Move the bikes’. He had to be joking! There was nowhere to move them to. Not only did they have to be moved but they had to be moved NOW!  He wasn’t prepared to wait for Gid who had popped out for a pee break. Back I went to carriage 5 in a state of disbelief.  Where did he think I was going to put them? There was barely room for two people to pass along the passageway and now we had to leave our bikes outside our cabin. Even this guard didn’t suggest we should get them in it.
With the train rolling, people in the corridor, flapping metal doors, intersections between carriageways and bikes swerving – barely maneuverable around the tight corners – it was quite some task. Once outside our cabin the guard flapped his hand suggesting we took them to the next carriageway access point. They blocked most of the space and limited the use of the connecting door. More wild gesticulations, ‘Can’t I fold them!’ Nope.
Violent jerking on the four hour journey resulted in a tangled heap of bikes, but thankfully nothing broken.
As we approached our station it all started again – move the bikes. They were at the wrong doorway. But this guard was perfectly friendly and kept trying to reassure us that there’d be plenty of time to disembark.
Finally, we left the platform, with the staff wheeling my bike across the tracks. Once through the gates we were greeted by a huddle of taxi drivers eager to take us to poor unsuspecting hoteliers, even at this unearthly hour.  Encouraged by this we made our way to our chosen hostel. The metal doors were firmly locked but rattled outlandishly against the still of the night. The bleary eyed proprietor opened up, the expression on his face said it all. One brief flicker of forgiveness flashed across his face with the words, ‘2 nights?’.

Crossing the desert is gruelling.

During the first multiday section from Bejnue to Nuxus the desert had a lot of ground cover. You could see the sandy soil but there were plenty of small shrubs growing. With that was an abundance, I would now say, of wildlife.
Camels and horses were frequently spotted off in the distance,  hogging the fast lane or moseying across in front of you. Cows , especially around any villages, also making an appearance.  In periods where none of these could be seen it was the turn of our feathered friends with equally frequent sightings of large birds of prey accompanied by marmots, sand rats and gerbils hopping about. (Gid managed to get a photo good enough to identify a Steppe Eagle).
The traffic was so sparse that we were often two abreast, occupying the broad expanse of their highway, chatting away the miles or fumbling around with cameras trying to take action photos while on the move.
But this second section from Khiva to Bukhara is very different. The desert itself has far less vegetation. It’s possible, at times, to see the classic ridges in the sand which is sparsely populated with taller but wispy shrubs. Traffic passes more frequently now but there is nothing out there. Not a living thing that we have seen. Endless kilometers of nothing.  Hour upon hour of nothing.
Except, that is, for  winged torpedoes that dart across my face waiting for a break in my demented arm flapping to make their attack; ears, eyes, nose and mouth are the targets where they can feed on my sweat and spittle.

(Gid managed this section a whole lot better than me. A brief, ‘ bit boring isn’t it’ cast over his shoulder and he was away.)

A Dash of Kazakhstan

Reaching the eastern shore of the Caspian felt like a new chapter in our adventure. Off the ferry, we headed into Aqtau. First impression is – what a normal place. The buildings aren’t notably tatty; nor are there excessive amounts of new marble. The roads are in good repair but not brand new. There weren’t convoys of vehicles that looked overdue for scrapping, nor Baku’s fleets of shiny limousines and SUVs. Curiously,  there were lots of new Ladas, new designs, smooth and round and modern, not seen before. Driving was kind of relaxed, so cycling was unstressful. We easily found a serviceable supermarket with a working ATM. We headed for a slightly posher than usual hotel recommended on a tandemists blog. And who did we see outside, but the little pickle from the ferry. Small world. Topping up the number of seas we’ve swum in, we finished the day with a celebratory dip in the Caspian, as it started to spot with rain.

We looked at a forecast: Rain until tomorrow lunchtime. We can cope with rain, but if we are on dirt roads, everything gets horribly gritty, and camping on bare mud is horrible too. Blogs described some of the next roads as spectacularly awful. Fingers crossed for asphalt and grassy camping.
We made a slow start: overslept, faffed, walked to the Migration Police to register. They said we didn’t need to (later, we exited Kazakhstan without trouble).  We spent an hour at the outdoor shop, getting new bootlaces and hot weather shorts for Gid. Finally, we set the Garmin to guide us to Shetpe, roughly 100km north; and set off in light rain.
Leaving Aqtau. There are, according to Gizi’s map, three roads from Aktau to Shetpe. A loop north west, a loop south east on the main trunk road, or more directly on a smaller road, which I recall someone confirming was asphalt. We, or rather, the Garmin, naturally took the shorter, middle route and it was indeed asphalt, although in places it was poor and bumpy, for 1km dug up. But we liked it: it was very flat, deserty, villages off it occasionally, a rail line and a pipeline, and …  Camels! So lots of photostops. There was not a lot of traffic, but clearly there was a quarry or two ahead. It rained sometimes, and with standing water too, soon the bikes, and parts of us, were caked in fine sand and grit. After about 25km, a quarry truck passed, with the driver half hanging out of his window, making strange, urgent gestures. After 30km, another stopped ahead, and the driver flagged us down. Road closed! Despondently, we turned around. It was already 3pm, we weren’t going to get anywhere today. We went back to the same hotel. At least we were able to clean the bikes, ready for better weather.
Take 2: Porridge for breakfast – Yay! Thankfully it went to plan, and the road was OKish, although on this route, Shetpe was too far to consider staying there for the first night, so we pulled 100m off the road and camped in wet dust – not mud – behind a gas pipeline cock hoping for some concealment.
Shetpe. The morning was still showery, so when we reached Shetpe around lunchtime,  after 60km, we both felt a bit low. Seeing a sign for a “hostel”, there was a unanimous vote for a short day and dry out. The hostel was a work in progress.  The man saw us coming and broke off from building it to open the big steel gate, allowing  us into the bumpy dirt yard. The building was new and the room looked splendid,  with a smart looking shared bathroom. The price was reasonable and dropped to 6000T when we dithered. Only after unloading did I spot the missing link. The karzi was a long drop jobbie in a little blue shack on the other side of the truck graveyard behind.
One to add to Clare’s toilet tales!
The hostel was mostly quietly occupied by young Kazakh chaps working 8-8 shifts at the quarry. One had been learning English for 3 months, very successfully I thought, and was keen to practice with me, which helped a lot with the visit to the pharmacy, and allowed him to observe that outside, not to say distant, toilets are a Kazakh thing: Practically I suspect the desert doesn’t yield enough water to run flush toilets, or enough slope to design sewers.
Apparently a month before the hostel hosted two girls cycling from Manchester. Exotic indeed – neither of us has ever been there! From the hostel we watched the afternoon’s weather cheer up and dry our laundry.
Next day the weather, and road, changed to the good. We had our first ride really out on the steppe, with a smooth new road, gentle sun, and a bit of a tailwind. There were gentle undulations,  and one hill, signed,  in English,  “the dangerous section” and 12% climb. It was being rebuilt, and so the steepest 1km was a dirt road, but I don’t think more than 8%. Older blogs bemoan this horrible stretch, but short, partly rebuilt, maybe already regraded, and in perfect weather, it isn’t even nibbling at the foot of Turkey’s list of awful climbs. Just as we started it, a van pulled up alongside and offered us water, ain’t that nice. The roads often have a shallow ditch, then low bank, at the side: We camped in the lee of suchlike on a dirt road turn off, after 115km.
Friday, 9th Sept, was also perfect cycling. The westerly side/tailwind was stronger, the sun not too hot. The road undulated gently with one long fast downhill, and maybe a slight loss of height overall. The surface was new and great, except one 10km section being reworked,  diverting us to the old dirt road beside: but after about 4km we thought “sod this” and dragged across 100m to use the tarmac, a decision the few road workers were content with, as long as we stopped to shake hands. We often find this with eastern roadworks, if the work is minor we can go through. The bikes cruised effortlessly at around 30kph, all day, and there were just enough little tea shops selling bottles of iced tea to keep us comfy. We’d planned to camp, but when, around 4pm, we passed “Beyneu 60km”, we both thought we’d go for it, get a comfy bed and a shower. Which we did, covering a record 195km for the day. It was a long day and we were both pretty tired. But 195km, that’s almost 122 miles! This section had been reported as horrible in older blogs. With headwinds it still could be painful, but the road itself is now great.
Honourable mentions to Robert Lange, a German motorcyclist going the other way, we chatted for maybe 20 minutes, and he topped up our water. And the lorry driver who overtook, stopped, and asked if we’d like a lift.
Beyneu. Has many hotels, the first we tried in the gathering dark was fine. Following our mammoth effort we declared a rest day and stocked up on provisions.
Kazakhstan is a relatively rich, and equal, country compared to many we’ve visited. But today here in Kazakhstan I was again aware of poverty I’ve never been exposed to before when in a shop teeming with people buying their groceries. We guessed it was payday in a cash economy. The queue was far too long to wait in a hot stuffy atmosphere, our purchases weren’t vital, so we decided to return later. Whereupon, I waited behind a lady to pay.  She brought out a small pack of coins all counted into smaller bags according to their denomination.  The coins were very small and the process was time consuming.  Once counted they went into a large ‘ice cream’ container behind the counter along with all the other small coins.  Clearly, quite a few customers paid in small coins.  Passing by outside, the lady was loading her shopping into a Lada.  It was covered in rust holes and the door didn’t quite shut but presumably it was going to get them home and live for another day.
The day after, we set off for the Uzbekistan border, blogged separately. So we had only 8 days in immense Kazakhstan. It feels like we barely scratched the surface of its intriguing potential, and friendly people. Some final pictures of Beyneu: