KAZAKHSTAN, 16th – 25th August 2017
I tried to remain calm. There wasn’t space in the minibus for everyone to go at the same time anyway, so I walked a little away from it, to the back of the queue. It filled up with truckers and drove off, giving me some time to think before it would return for more of us. But what was I to think? Being forced into a motor vehicle?! I couldn’t believe that this was happening again. Not now, not so close to the finishing line.
I tried to remember the lessons I’d learned from Siberia. Flashing money around, trying to bribe my way through, had been a mistake. I wasn’t going to do that this time. I needed to make friends, plead my case more sincerely. There was a row of young guards in army fatigues standing opposite, so I approached them, asking if any of them understood English. They waved me away dismissively. Then a more official-looking woman strode past us. She probably spoke English, and held more sway in matters, so I tried to grab her attention as she passed, but she just ignored me and kept on walking (oh, she was allowed to walk!). Things were not looking good.
I could see that the bus was already coming back. It could not be more than 200 metres to Passport Control, it was absurd we had to take this vehicle. It parked up and the Mongol Rally team and more truck drivers climbed aboard. The young guard in charge of loading up the bus beckoned for me to join them.
“No, no,” I said, “ I cannot use vehicles. Only bicycles.”
“Bus,” he said, pointing us over to it.
“No, I can’t. I really can’t. Can I please walk?”
He pointed at the bus. I made walking motions with my fingers. He pointed at the bus. I made walking motions with my fingers. This went on for a while. I stood firm. I needed to make it clear to him that short of him raising his gun to my head I was not going to be getting in that minibus, and very likely not even then.
The bus departed, but our conversation continued. He seemed like a friendly enough chap, and he grew curious as to why I could not take the bus, so I did my best to explain the premise of my trip. He could speak a little English and he seemed to understand. He seemed to think I was crazy, but he at least seemed to understand, and when the minibus came back he loaded up some truckers and jumped in it himself, telling us to wait. Dea (who of course still stood loyally beside me) and I looked at each other, hoping optimistically that this was a sign that he was going to try and ask if there was a way for us to walk to Passport Control instead of using the bus. The whole trip hung in the balance. Either he was going to return and tell us we could walk, and everything would be fine, or he was going to return with his boss, who was going to tell us to get in the bus or be arrested. I took a deep breath and waited for my fate.
The minibus returned, and the same guard jumped out. Initially ignoring us, he began to shepherd more truck drivers aboard. There were only a handful of them left now. This was to be the last busload. I watched as the last man climbed in, praying that the guard would slide the door shut behind him, that he wouldn’t turn to us and tell us to get in too. I watched, willing him to slide that door shut. ‘Please, please, please…’ And then, slam, the door slid shut. The bus pulled away, and the guard turned towards us. “Okay,” he smiled, “let’s walk.”
With great relief we walked the three minutes to Passport Control. The guard accompanied us, now even more friendly, as if pleased that he had played an important role in helping me towards my goal. “Record… World… Guiness?” he asked me, showing a remarkable ability now not only to speak English, but to speak it backwards.
“Maybe,” I replied. “Maybe.”
Passport Control was easy enough and we were even given two stamps on our entry card, meaning a visit to register at the OVIR Office was not going to be required. Then we walked out the other side of the building where I was pleased to discover there was no requirement to utilise the minibus to return to the ship. In fact I don’t think it was even an option, and everyone used their own legs to walk back. Another unexplained period of waiting followed, then a thorough search of our bags, before we were finally allowed to pedal off into Kazakhstan. By this point it was dark and so, even as we felt super excited to have arrived in the Stans, we settled for putting up our tent a kilometre down the road, hidden by a convenient bend in an oil pipe.
The next morning we cycled off towards the city of Aktau a few kilometres away. We soon came across a beach set up for holiday-makers that was deserted this time in the morning. There was a volleyball net and a football goal, the softest sand for diving in, and of course the water to cool off in. It looked like a paradise before the thousands of kilometres of empty desert ahead of us. But we had run out of food and water and Dea wasn’t in the mood for games on an empty stomach. Oh, how sorrowful it was to have to pass that place! But I didn’t really mind because I was in a good mood and pleased to be in Kazakhstan. We rode on a few kilometres into the city and found a bank to get some local currency and a supermarket to get some food, where the sight of baked beans, peanut butter, and chocolate milk had my spirits soaring. With Dea’s stomach full we continued, riding on the wide footpaths, until a man stopped us to say hello. Salyh was his name and he was out walking with his wife and three children. 30 years old and a manager in an oil company he spoke good English and welcomed us warmly to Kazakhstan. Not wanting to leave us without a gift he ran over to a nearby cafe and bought us each a cappuccino and a cookie. Such a nice man, and my spirits were now sky high!
As if Kazakhstan wasn’t already great enough we were able to ride for a while along the seafront promenade on an actual bicycle path, and I got to have my dip in the water. Then we headed inland through the outskirts of the city and after a bit of confusion, eventually found our way to a hostel. And blow me down and call me Sally if you want, but what a magnificent hostel it was too. We had a big room to ourselves, air-con, good wifi, good showers, everything you could want in a hostel. There was even a big world map on the wall, for looking at and saying “We’ve come a long way, haven’t we?” to each other.
We each had our tasks for the afternoon and settled to them. For me it was publishing a couple of blog posts, going shopping again, washing clothes and making the dinner. For Dea it was the ambitious challenge of rebuilding her rear wheel from scratch with a new hub, with no one to help her except for a youtube tutorial. She went at this challenge with considerable gusto, setting herself up on the floor of our large room. First she disassembled the old wheel, then methodically relaced the spokes with the new hub, gradually putting together a wheel and truing it all herself. Within a few hours it was done, and I was seriously impressed by Dea once again.
The next day we departed Aktau, but not before stopping off at the supermarket one last time. We were heading out into the vast emptiness of the Kazakh steppe, and 475 kilometres lay ahead of us before the next big town of Beyneu, so we wanted to be prepared. But we were not even really out of Aktau before we encountered our first problems. The roads were busy and we’d been bumping along on a dirt shoulder. When our wheels hit tarmac again they made a gritty noise as they went around, as if the tyres were covered in stones. I ignored it for a bit, thinking it would sort itself out, but when I stopped I realised it wasn’t going to be doing that. All our tyres had scores of goathead thorns stuck in them. It was an absolute nightmare, and for the next half an hour we were stooped over our wheels pulling them out. Luckily most of our tyres hadn’t punctured, but my rear tyre, which was getting thin, had in several places and I decided to just put the spare tyre on the back. This was a pretty new Schwalbe Marathon Plus Tour that I’d been carrying for a while, but it simply would not sit correctly in the rim, and when I rode onwards, it felt somehow very unstable.
But during all this faffing about we had some nice encounters. First a Kazakh man stopped his car and gave us four cans of Red Bull, then returned again later with ice creams. A pair of touring cyclists also appeared. They were two women, Jack and Barbara, who, having cycled from London, were, like us, on their way to the Pamirs. It made sense to cycle together, but Dea and I hadn’t quite sorted ourselves out, so they rode on ahead, with us thinking we might catch up.
But the road was not at all nice. It was surprisingly busy, and dangerously narrow, so Dea and I bumped slowly along on the shoulder. Within a few minutes we were stopped by some workers at the side of the road who wanted to take photos with us. I remembered well from my last visit how much the people of Kazakhstan enjoyed this, and we stopped for the photo-shoot. Then before we could get moving again a car pulled over and a man got out to ask if he could take a photo of us with his boys, and we began to wonder if we were ever going to make it anywhere across this country. But the man was nice and could speak a little bit of English. He asked us about our professions and I told him I wrote books, which would have been true if I hadn’t put the ‘s’ on the end. Still having a couple of copies of No Wrong Turns I showed one to him and to my astonishment he asked how much it cost.
“Erm…4,000 tenge,” I said.
“How about 2,000?”
“You want to buy it?!”
“Yes, why not?”
I couldn’t believe it. I’d thought there was no way I was going to sell any of these books before the Uzbek border, and here I was selling one at the side of the road to a random Kazakh man. Alright, he got it half price, but considering he probably couldn’t read it, I thought that was a fair deal.
Unfortunately the book sale did not mark a complete turnaround in fortunes for us, and no sooner had we started moving again I got another flat tyre. I stopped to fix this, trying ever so hard to fit the new rear tyre on properly, but no matter what I did it just would not sit right. It was a pain to cycle on, but it was 3:30 in the afternoon and we’d gone eight kilometres, so I had to cycle on something. And things did improve for a while after that as we headed out into the Kazakh steppe for real, past camels and herds of horses. The road got gradually less busy and the shoulder better, and our progress through the afternoon was good. Then, with the sun low in the sky and us beginning to look out for a place to camp, my rear tyre suddenly deflated again. I sighed and set to work. But now I saw the real problem with this tyre. The wire bead that circled it had somehow deformed and bent itself over into a U-shape, and it had now burst through the tyre wall and speared the tube. I could only guess that this had occurred as a result of the way I’d been carrying it under the bungee cords on the back of the bike for so long, and now it was useless. I put the old worn tyre back on but now we had a major problem – we were heading across Central Asia, destined for the remote Pamir Highway, with worn tyres and no spares, and little hope of finding a decent bike shop for a very, very long time.
Despite the early setbacks we soon settled into the rhythm of life cycling across the Kazakh steppe. The first section was actually very interesting, for there was a variety of rock formations, reminiscent of America’s Wild West, to liven up the landscape. There were a few villages, and a lot of camels and horses roaming the big empty spaces. The wind was generally against us, but not so bad as to seriously hinder our progress, and we both enjoyed being in this landscape. The best of it was the evenings, when we could camp wherever we wanted and sit and watch the long red sunsets.
And there was more good news when I made yet another book sale at the roadside. In a remarkably similar happenstance, a nice man with a bit of English stopped his car to say hello, and asked if he could buy my book when he saw it. The name of this man was Birdybye, although that is almost certainly not how his name should be spelt. He also worked in the oil industry and was driving home to Aktau after visiting an expo in Astana. He told us that he’d seen Jack and Barabara, some 20-25 kilometres ahead of us on the road.
We finally caught up with Jack and Barbara at one of the few chaikanas along the road. Chaikana literally means teahouse, but they generally serve food and a variety of drinks and most importantly offered us a blissful opportunity to escape the heat and wind for a while. For Jack and Barbara the heat and wind seemed to be especially taxing. They both looked exhausted and were hoping to try and catch a lift from here. We encouraged them to ride on with us, suggesting that cycling as a peloton would negate the worst effects of the wind, but they didn’t seem in any rush to leave the haven of the chaikana. We continued on alone, and the next morning as I cycled a big truck beeped at me and someone leaned out of the passenger window shouting “Hello, hello!” This was not particularly unusual behaviour, a high percentage of vehicles beeped at us (in what they very incorrectly assumed was a kind gesture) all day long, but this one was different, for I looked up and saw Jack’s face, beaming with joy.
Later that day another car stopped and I was surprised when Birdybye got out.
“Do you remember me? I bought your book.”
Oh dear, I hoped he wasn’t after a refund.
“Yes, I remember. Have you read any of it?”
“Just the first page. It’s good. I read ‘Some names have been changed.’”
“Yes, that’s right.”
“Based on a true story, yes?”
“Yes, that’s right. Did you read any more?”
“No, that’s it.”
Halfway to Beyneu the interesting scenery ended and we found ourselves cycling across an unbelievably featureless landscape. There was nothing besides dry yellow grass, sand, and the occasional group of horses or camels for hundreds of very flat kilometres. The sporadic chaikanas on this stretch were often closed or useless, and we had to make a six kilometre detour into the village of Say-Otes to ward off starvation and dehydration. Entering this little place came as quite a shock after the emptiness of the steppe. Children ran around and rode bikes everywhere and shouts of “tourist” filled the air. We found a couple of shops and, though the process of buying things was made more difficult by a drunk local who very much wanted me to buy him some booze, we left with enough supplies to see us through to Beyneu.
For the last couple of days we had an increasingly tough headwind, but we kept on plugging away, and eventually the brightly coloured roofs of Beyneu appeared on the horizon. It was a moment of relief after six days in the desert to cycle into town on the dusty streets and find our way to a hotel. A shower, a bed, it felt almost too good to be true. And there was another nice surprise. Three touring bikes were parked outside. We recognised two of them immediately, and found Jack and Barbara in the hotel restaurant, tucking into a big pizza along with the owner of the third bike, an Aussie named Mark. Jack and Barbara revealed that they hadn’t got too far with their first lift and had needed to cycle again, but they’d got another lift eventually. Now the prospect of more desert had lost its appeal, and from here they would be leaving on a train in the evening that would carry them halfway across Uzbekistan. As for Mark, he’d left Perth a year and a half earlier and had come through Southeast Asia, India, Pakistan and Central Asia. Having cycled all the way across Uzbekistan he told us we’d have a lot more desert to come ahead of us. The road would also be bad for a while, something that had cost him dearly, as one of the screws holding his rear rack on had sheared off and got stuck in the frame.
With a bad road ahead I thought it might be time for me to get my front rack welded up. It had been cracked in a couple of places all the time since the UK, but I hadn’t wanted to pay high prices to get it fixed in Europe. I’d recently noticed it had cracked in the same two places on the other side now, and when I unwound the electrical tape I was holding it together with it literally fell apart into three pieces. It seemed like just about the right time to find a back street welder and get it fixed.
Mark and I went along together to search for a welder, with him hoping he might find someone to help remove the trapped screw from his frame. It didn’t take too long for us to find a place, thanks to the directions of some locals, but it seemed dubious at best. We were allowed in through a big solid gate by a man wearing a full white cloth mask over his face, with sunglasses and dungarees completing the Texas Chainsaw look. As he pulled the gate closed behind us, trapping us in a work-yard full of men who looked us up and down suspiciously, I must admit I did slightly fear for my life. But nobody attacked us, and when I showed them all my broken rack one of them took it and did indeed weld it back together for me. It was a very long way from a tidy job, but it was a proper Kazakh weld, and that was good enough for me.
Then it was Mark’s turn. He was rather hoping the man might be able to weld a new screw onto the old screw that was stuck in the frame, offering a means of unscrewing the offending part.
“I really don’t think he can weld precisely enough for that,” I ventured, but Mark was short on options and decided to take his chances. The man went to work. We both winced as the blowtorch licked at Mark’s expensive frame. The welder continued, until the screw glowed red hot, along with much of the frame around it. Then, I’m afraid, the frame caught fire quite a bit. “WHAT ARE YOU DOING?!” Mark cried, trying to make it stop. The welder stopped his relentless torching and tried to turn the welded on screw, which of course snapped off immediately. “Ah she-et!” Mark wailed, examining his poor frame, which was now, ever so slightly, a different shape.
We left the work-yard soon after that. We hadn’t been killed at least, but I think it will nevertheless always be remembered as a scene of horror by poor Mark. It worked out alright for me though, because the men all disappeared very quickly after the welding fiasco, and so I got my work done for free, so every cloud, Mark, every cloud…
Dea and I took the next day off. The wind was blowing in strongly from the east but was forecast to die down over the coming days, so we had a good excuse at least, and we made good use of our rest day to write four blog posts and get on top of our online duties. There was also good news for Mark, who found a man to drill out the screw and worked out a solution bolting on the rack to the frame, which wasn’t as badly damaged as first feared. The following morning we said goodbye to Mark, and headed back on out into the hot, windy nothingness. Another leg of about 500 kilometres of deserty nothingness lay ahead of us before we would reach the Uzbek city of Nukus.
As promised the final road in Kazakhstan was poor quality. For large sections it was unpaved and rutted, and a selection of other tracks had been carved in the desert that often provided better cycling conditions. It reminded me of Mongolia, and we both found it to be quite good fun. Picking the best track and concentrating not to hit big bumps or skid in patches of thick sand offered some interest to the monotony of desert cycling, and as we neared the border with Uzbekistan Dea and I could only conclude that Kazakhstan had been a great, great adventure. The emptiness of the steppe was mind-blowing, but it was also inspiring to cross by bicycle. It was humbling, but it gave us great satisfaction to survive, to conquer. And with Dea to keep me company, I’d even been able to resist turning to poetry this time. On our last night in Kazakhstan we sat outside our tent in the vast desert, under a vast sky full of stars. Three camels wandered over towards us, then stood watching, curious, silent, silhouettes in the twilight.
“This is pretty good out here isn’t it?” we whispered to each other.
“Yeah, yeah it is.”
Aktau – Shetpe – Beyneu
Distance cycled: 558 kilometres
If you want you can check out Jack and Barbara’s blog here: Cycling the paper road