UZBEKISTAN/KAZAKHSTAN - THROUGH THE WASTES, TO THE CASPIAN SEA
I stop by the bazaar on my way out of Bukhara to load my panniers up with food. It is almost a thousand miles northwest through the desert, out of Uzbekistan and through to the lonely Kazakh city of Aktau on the Caspian Sea. There are not many towns between here and there and I am not particularly looking forward to the ride. My original plan had been to take the shorter route through Turkmenistan to the boat at Turkmenbashi, but with an increasingly unstable and isolationist dictator ruling the country, getting visas has become a matter of low probability and the best I could hope for anyway would be a 5 day transit visa. The northern road through Uzbekistan will be long, remote and bland but at least I will be able to take advantage once again of Kazakhstan’s excellent 15 day visa free period.
I have heard various things about the road quality and my plan to ride the distance in just 10 days already looks ambitious from the route out of town – there are often more potholes than road. I meet an English guy on a motorbike on the outskirts of Bukhara who is trying to hitch a ride to Aktau in order to make the same crossing of the Caspian. When I ask him why he cannot simply ride it on his bike, he tells me with a chuckle that his bike cannot handle the extremely low quality of petrol that is all he can find in this part of Uzbekistan. I have already noted that the petrol here, which I have been using to fuel my cooking stove, creats a lot of soot; but to learn that it is actually too dirty to use on a more modern western motorbike is a surprise. I had never heard of anyone hitchhiking with a motorbike before but he seems confident that he will be able to get a lift so after sharing a bite to eat I wish him luck and pedal off into the distance. Ah the advantages of human powered travel.
In the end the journey of a thousand miles takes me just over nine days to cycle and I arrive in Aktau in time for lunch. I am blessed for much of it with a slight tailwind coming from the east, a huge relief on a notoriously windy stretch of desert. After the first 100km of pothole masquerading as road I have a lovely 300km stretch of brand new concrete to glide along towards Urgench before the old road takes over once again and conditions range from fine in parts to downright appalling. Traffic is generally low, with mainly long distance heavy goods vehicles on their way north to Russia.
I speak to many of them at roadside cafes where I stop to fill up my water bottles or stock up on more bread; they drive in pairs, taking turns to sleep as they make their way thousands of miles north through the desert towards Moscow and St. Petersburg. It is a long time to be away from their families. They also tell me with disgust how the Uzbek police routinely stop them at checkpoints to fish for bribes - they will always contrive some fault to slap on fines - so truck drivers keep wedges of bribe money in their glove boxes. The police seem to be universally loathed in Uzbekistan for their corruption. I am never asked for bribes myself though, perhaps with my dusty bicycle and worn out panniers they just figure I am not worth the hassle.
I am invited in to a number of houses for food and tea along the way, and one man who overtakes me stops his car and gets out to insist on giving me a few dollars worth of som with which to buy myself a meal at the next roadhouse. Everyone I meet, without exception, is incredibly friendly and supportive. Days are generally grey and overcast, though it rains only a little. Nights are bitterly cold. I sleep in my tent in the desert every night, half a kilometre back from the road and wrapped up wearing all my clothes inside my sleeping bag. On the sixth morning I wake just before dawn to more frozen water bottles as my thermometer drops to -10C, the coldest I have been since the Tibetan Plateau. The third night finds me lying awake and alert with my small folding knife to hand as the howling of wolves echoes around me.
The landscape is bland, monotonous and flat, with only the occasional camel to peak my interest. Unlike the beautiful sand dunes of the Taklamakan Desert, the landscape here is rarely more than arid scrubland, a vast expanse of steppe. I put in my headphones, turn up the music to drown out the sound of the wind, and get my head down. I ride hard from dawn to dusk every day, rarely finishing on less than a hundred miles. When I finally reach the border one morning it takes almost an entire day to cross; it seems that somewhat ridiculously the Kazakh side of the border is open but the Uzbek side is not. I sit and drink tea, watching the queue of vehicles growing progressively longer. The border is in the middle of nowhere, with nothing but desert in every direction.
Eventually things do get moving, I jump through the necessary bureaucratic hoops and cross the line in the sand back into Kazakhstan. I am invited to dinner with a family who are driving two vans north to Russia to buy goods to sell back in Uzbekistan. The father tells me that his youngest son was stopped at the border as there were some irregularities with his passport – he is therefore having to drive one of the vans back to Bukhara whilst the rest of them continue on. It is 1000km back to the city, a 2000km round trip completely wasted.
Still, the men seem cheerful and as we each munch through half a spiced chicken we talk and laugh together. It can be easy to focus on the differences between cultures, on how different ‘they’ are to ‘us’. In my experience though the similarities far outweigh the differences. What do a group of four men in the middle of the desert, from different worlds, talk about? Women, of course. And family, and food, and friends and sports. Muslim or not, once you get them talking the Uzbeks can be hilariously lewd.
Once I am in Kazakhstan it is only another 500km to Aktau and the Caspian Sea, but the three and half days it takes me prove to be a major grind. The road quality is mostly dreadful, some of the worst I have ridden. The bleakness of the landscape continues, and I have to ride through a day and a half of icy rain. My bike computer ticks over 20,000km cycled. By the time I reach Aktau on the morning of the 10th day I want nothing more than a night out of the tent and a big juicy burger. Fortunately for me I have been invited through Couchsurfing to stay with the lovely Aigul; her cosy apartment and superb cooking skills spoil me rotten over the next week.
My 5 day transit visa for Azerbaijan takes 5 days to come through, and then I have to wait a few more days for a ferry going over the Caspian Sea to Baku. Aktau is a nice enough little place, though I’m feeling too lazy to do much after the long road north – I’m happy just being out of the weather, enjoying great food and conversation with my host Aigul. I give a short talk at a school where Aigul works, where the general consensus seems to be that I am crazy, though I am still chased down for selfies afterwards. I also spend more time than I’m proud of in a local fast food joint, KFC. The branding may look similar, but here it’s called Kazakhstan Fried Chicken.
On the day my ferry is supposed to leave I pedal out of town to the port, where I spend the entire day sitting in a cafe with some other travellers. Finally we are told that the wind is too strong and the ferry will have to be delayed until the following day. Rather than prepare for a slow night sleeping on the floor of the waiting room, I call Aigul who kindly agrees to have me for one last night. I ride back to Aktau in time for dinner and then seeing as it is a Friday night, Aigul takes me out for drinks in town. The rest of the night is blurry, but again I am struck by how similar the nightlife here is to what I’m used to in Europe. Kazakhstan is not so far away from the west.
The following morning I nurse my hangover enough to ride back to the port, where after a few more hours of waiting the officials decide the wind has calmed sufficiently to set sail. I board the ferry and chain up the Duchess, taking my panniers upstairs to the cabin I am sharing with an affable Dutchman. I am pleasantly surprised by how comfortable everything is, and delighted to learn that food is included with the price. I stand on the deck looking out at the Caspian Sea before me, technically the worlds largest lake. It certainly feels like a sea though, with big salty swells, a sky full of seagulls and water as far as the eye can see. Eventually a horn sounds, the boat departs and before long we are out of sight of land. Central Asia is behind me, the Caucuses and the road to Europe lie ahead.