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:



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