Crossing the desert in Kazakhstan
I was sure my new plan was fool proof. In Baku I required two visas; Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. I was very confident that both of these would pose no problem at all. Tajikistan was an example of how applying for a visa should be… A friendly smiling consul, a free tourist map and even some joking around – the most memorable being when he pointed the security guards gun at me. The Uzbekistan embassy was just down the road in Baku, but couldn’t be further away in terms of experience. We were told by the drunken consul to wait 8 days for the visa and expect an email confirmation. After 8 days we started calling for updates, after 14 days and numerous visits to the embassy we had reached boiling point. On that day there were 5 others foreigners who had applied for their visa on the same day as me. The consul finally listened and investigated our applications. It transpired due to “technical issues” our application was never received by the capital, Tashkent. In this context “technical issues” translates to “drunken inept Uzbek consul who forgot to send our application”.The end result of this, is I can’t cycle through the length of Uzbekistan as I would have liked. Kazakhstan now issues a free 15 day visa to a select number of countries, finally the UK is on this list. Those 15 days would have been enough to cycle from the port in Kazakhstan to the Uzbekistan border, it is no where near enough to cycle around Uzbekistan and into Kyrgyzstan. So, my first mode of transport, that’s not bicycle or a boat will be needed. I’m planning a 3 day train to take me to the capital, Almaty, hopefully this plan comes together.
To reach Kazakhstan I opted for the cargo boat to Aktau. Everything you read on the internet describes this boat as a nightmare, getting a place can take 10 days and the conditions on board are poor. We turned up at the harbour, jumped straight on a boat and began the smooth 22 hour journey in the comfort of a private cabin. The key to having a successful journey was bringing a large cache of food and drinking water, everything was expensive on the boat. Time flew by… Relaxing on the deck and staring out into the endless blue, firing up the cooker at night, eating pasta under the stars and watching movies until I was overcome with tiredness. It was all too easy, and as we approached Aktau I was wishing for more time, the gentle rocking of the boat made for some great sleeps. Be careful what you wish for… We arrived at 1am but didn’t moor the boat until around 16:00 and didn’t get out of the port until well after midnight. I later heard of a cyclist waiting 6 days before the boat was moored.
A new country, complete darkness and zero energy is not the best combination. Potential camp spots were marred by the smell of shit, so we continued until a friendly guy offered to show us the nearest beach. The beach had security guards, but they were happy to meet us and insisted we use the outdoor restaurant area. Within minutes we were set up and trying to block out the barking from savage dogs roaming their patch. Later in the night, I felt a shadow over my head, the security guard had come back with 2 packets of crisps, 2 lemons and a note copied from Google translate offering his assistance. I still don’t know what the lemon was for, but a nice gesture.The next day I had the simple task of booking a train across the 9th largest country in the world. Much to my surprise and disappointment, it turns out trains are pretty popular in Kazakhstan during the summer months. There were no trains to the East for over 2 weeks. A great excuse to cycle through the desert with Mark. We stocked up with dry food and loaded our bikes with as much water as possible. I was carrying 9 litres plus a few kg of extra food, this was by far the heaviest my bike has been. Cycling in the desert has 2 major problems; wind and heat. The mornings were cooler but with severe head wind. You have no other choice but keep pedalling into the wind and hope you reach shade before the midday heat. We were told it was between 45-50 degrees at the hottest part of the day and we quickly learnt how difficult it was cycling during this time. The first shaded opportunity was a bridge and we were immediately underneath hiding from the sun. Even in the shade it was unbearable. Mark compared the wind to opening the oven at home, the intense heat makes you recoil… it’s like that all day.
The people on the road have been really friendly. For some reason I had a preconception about Kazakhs to be unfriendly, but they are curious and I believe if you need help they would try. There is an obsession with money though, often the first question will be where are you from and the second is about money. I have no idea what the third is because I don’t speak Russian.
On one of our 6 hour lunch breaks/cool down sessions, a family with English speakers came by. They were amazed at what we were doing and that we had come so far on bicycles. After much quizzing, the girl asked me if I like the nature in Kazakhstan, I couldn’t help but laugh. When I realised she was being serious I said the camels are nice. And that’s about all there is to keep you interested here. A few horses, some malnourished cows, lots of camels and so much bloody sand!
Sand… It’s something you get used to very quickly out here. In the distance you can see mini tornados swirling ever higher, your throat gets clogged up with the stuff, the bike is caked in it and a thick layer covers your entire body. It’s a minimum 2 shower job to get it all off.
Sunrises, sunsets and stars make it all worthwhile. The tiredness I have felt cycling in the desert is incomparable to anything else on this trip. Although taking one last look at the shooting stars before getting into your tent, is a great way to ensure a peaceful sleep. There is something rewarding about desert cycling, I’m not sure what it is, but there is something.I needed to push on some serious miles to get out of Kazakhstan before my visa expires. After 2 hours of riding I stuck my thumb out. After an hour of fruitless hitchhiking I got back on the bike in search of a mythical truck stop which the international lorries use. After another 10km a pick up truck stopped and out stepped 3 English speaking Kazakhs. They had just finished their 28 day rotation out on an oil field and their boss wanted them to drive this vehicle back to base in North Kazakhstan. I explained my situation and they immediately offered the remaining space for mine and Mark’s bikes… This would knock 700km off my 3000 target.
The car consisted of 5 people; 1 sober Kazakh driver, 2 completely wasted Kazakhs and 2 tipsy British cycle tourists. The lift started well enough – polite conversation, good asphalt road and drinking water that wasn’t as hot as the sun. Then the proper vodka drinking started for our new friends, and it all went pear shaped. Mark and I had learnt our lesson, if there is one thing we now know, it’s that vodka is evil. I have thought this for many years, but like getting kicked in the balls you forget the pain. Thankfully, the after effect of drinking vodka with people from ex Soviet states was fresh in our minds, so we stuck to beer. Our hosts for this journey really couldn’t have been any more generous – feeding and keeping us hydrated with beer. As the ride continued, things turned more surreal… We sang our hearts out to classics by Cliff Richard, Whitney Houston and even Coldplay while the road disappeared. All you could see was desert, camel carcasses and 2 bicycles precariously tied to the back. Maybe disappeared isn’t the right word, it turned into about 5 different tracks. Choosing the right one was guesswork and judging by some of the bumps we went over, I think our driver was making the wrong decisions. If you listened carefully over the sound of sand hitting each window, you could hear our bicycles letting out a little whimpers of pain.
Our next stop would be to drop off Mark, the cycling sausage, at Beyneu. This would be the turn off for Uzbekistan. Having already obtained the stupid sticker in Ankara, he was free to go. We made plans to meet up in Tajikistan and take on the Pamirs together, let’s hope we both make it that far.
At this point the mood in the car deteriorated. At first I thought maybe they’re missing Mark as much as I am… Then the mighty fell hard. A day of smashing back the vodka had finally caught them up, and the next 7 hours were regretful for these troopers. I should remember the endless desert and enchanting camels on this ride, but instead I’ll probably have the image of 2 drunken Kazakhs squatting to vomit, while letting off a trumpet symphony of flatulence… Priceless.They had agreed to drive me to Atyrau. With a major train station, this gave me another shot at reaching Kyrgyzstan in time. I was very fortunate and a seat was available to the border, leaving in 2 days… I’ll take it! The driver had become more and more agitated throughout the day (I’m not surprised) and pointed me to a hotel. It was past 23:00 and they had told me earlier it wouldn’t be a problem for me to stay in their hotel for free. Thankfully they relented when I told them I had no money and would start looking for a park to camp. They reloaded my bike and I had a sweet hotel for the night.
The ticket I had bought was for an expensive fast train with no lower class beds. Instead I had a “private” 4 bed cabin on a brand new Spanish made train – the best in Kazakhstan’s fleet of shit trains. I much prefer the open living arrangements of the lower Plaskart class, both for price and the crazy company. Before being allowed to board I had to jump over a few hurdles. Every attendant I spoke to was a new game of sherades, where the end result was “there is no room for your dirty bike on this shiny new train”. I put my best desperate looking face on and 10 minutes before departure they magically found space in the front carriage. No one even asked for money, which I thought was a bit strange at the time. I ran over to my cabin, where I was told to clean my bags before bringing them on board. My new friend and translator, Chingis, pulls out a cloth and I start furiously scrubbing my bags in the ever increasing heat. It must have been funny to watch, but it worked and I was on easy street to the Kyrgyzstan border, or so I thought. An hour later, a very angry looking female attendant pulled me aside for a “conversation” in Russian. She demanded I pay 5000 Tenge (about £15) for the bike, here we go. I got my translator out of his cabin and told her I have no money (that was a lie), she continued to get more pissed off and I continued to laugh. She and her minions left with faces full of scorn and told me my bike would be thrown out at the next stop. The next stop came and I walked around to see if it was a bluff. With no sign of the bicycle, I thought maybe I had won this round. My English speaking friend came to find me later and explained they need money, this is how things work in Kazakhstan he said. We agreed on 1000 Tenge and I was told there would be a 50/50 chance my bike won’t be taken off the train! Feeling my pain and with his pain of translating, Chingis took me to the restaurant carriage and got me drunk on good Kazakh beer. It was getting late so I headed to the sanctuary of my cabin to sleep it off, only to find my two elderly room mates downing shots of vodka. Neither of them spoke a word of English to me up until this point, when one of my new friends stared at me with dejected bloodshot eyes and said “fucking hell”. He had summed it up perfectly…. I seem unable to escape the madness of alcohol.
The good news is my bike made it to Taraz alive and everyone was all smiles when I removed the bike from the carriage. After washing myself and all my clothes in the river (the only agreeable thing I found in this town), I went off in search of a place to camp. I was so close to the border of Kyrgyzstan and mountains on mountains lay ahead of me – pure bliss. The next morning I made my way to the border crossing. I think every country should hire the kindest, most friendly people to work in shops and petrol stations at border towns. This way you’ll leave/enter the country with a smile on your face and a great impression of the people. At the last petrol station before leaving Kazakhstan, I entered with the intention to spend all my remaining Tenge. Inside I found the sweetest women who fed me noodles, cookies, tea and wouldn’t let me pay for snacks I bought. I didn’t know how to say “I don’t want this money anymore”, but it was such a nice gesture.
And that is that. I made it through this huge country before my free 15 day visa expired. It certainly is a crazy place, but the people made it another worthwhile country to visit. And if someone ever asks me if its hot in the western desert of Kazakhstan during the summer month of August, I’ll say yes. During the days cycling, I tried to think of an advertising slogan to sell Kazakhstan. A sentence that sums up the nature and people to entice others to visit. The best I could come up with was
“Come to Kazakhstan to get away from it all… Or if you have a fetish for pregnant women.”
Hopefully that makes you want to visit.