Golden teeth flash in ready smiles. The solemn contemplation of roadside camels. Oncoming headlights like flames in the mirage. The brief bliss of cool apricot dawns. A dim, sleepy tea house where the flies can scarcely be bothered to buzz in the heat. Pylons dwindling into infinity. Wild horses gallop across the sunset, blurring the horizon with their dust. And every night the Milky Way blazes a searchlight across the sky.
I, perhaps, fell in love with the desert a little more than John did.
After our desperate flight from Baku to catch the boat across the Caspian (see previous post), it was hard not to feel frustrated when we spent the next 4 hours in dock and then set off only to spend the next 36 hours moored just outside Baku, apparently due to bad weather out at sea. On the other hand, we’d miraculously made it out of Baku in a mere week, and we weren’t paying for extra nights or meals on the boat, so at least this was an economical kind of limbo.
We were allotted a cabin with Tiff and Marco – the largest one, but with no ensuite toilet, unlike every other guest and crew cabin on the boat. Having to share a single stinky public loo with 2 dozen blokes was upsetting, and the communal shower, despite having a curtain, didn’t really provide the kind of privacy a gal on a ship full of blokes requires. Mark, a kindly English biker who had a cabin all to himself offered use of his ensuite, but within 24 hours the toilet had blocked up and, with the crew uninterested in fixing it and the temperature rising, it was soon a no-go area even for showers.
However, the food was good and the crew were friendly (when they weren’t trying to convince us we had to pay for various things such as meals and cabins that were included in the ticket price) and time was whiled away with conversations, films and occasional demands for some live music from the crew. One of the crew played keyboards, so we got more use out of the melodica than on the entire trip thus far.
On the fourth morning, we awoke to the news that we were just outside Aktau and could be docking by 11am.
Cue hurried packing from John, who seemed incredulous that I’d risk taking the time to make a cup of coffee before getting started. Ha ha ha ha ha! 11 hours later, after spending most of the day waiting for permission to land, then an hour confined to our quarters while customs checked the boat and everyone’s documentation, then another hour being bused over to immigration, interviewed and processed before being allowed to return to the ship for our bikes, we finally leave the port.
Setting foot in Aktau, it felt like we were finally in Asia. Although the Bosphorous supposedly splits Europe from Asia in geographical terms, both Turkey and Azerbaijan describe themselves – and feel – like ‘gateway’ countries, cultural boundary lands with one foot in each cultural continent. In fact, Aktau was one of the most ethnically mixed places we’d been since northern Europe – there were a lot of Russian faces, and a fair few of Turkic descent, but also, for the first time, Mongol features. And alongside the now-familiar ex-Soviet infrastructure (and Ladas) and the Islamic customs, elements I associate with East Asian culture started to appear – tea in little bowls, restaurants with low tables and cushions, rooms which transform from dining room to bedroom.
Our first (and subsequent) impressions of the Aktau were good – it seemed modern, clean, egalitarian and very friendly. Indeed, one old guy came up to us while we were looking for our hotel on a map and tried to give us money from his wallet! We declined this, along with his invitation to stay at his house, since he didn’t speak a word of English and we didn’t speak a word of Russian, and we really needed some privacy, rest and good internet.
We managed to find the cheapest hotel in Aktau (despite it not having any sign outside saying ‘hotel’ – a pattern which was to repeat throughout Central Asia). For about $10, the room was ok, the bathroom a bit odd – the toilet cistern had no lid, the shower was just a base on a pedestal of unfinished crumbling concrete with no curtain, and they’d forgotten to put a sink in. But it was infinitely better than having to share with a bunch of blokes who couldn’t be bothered to lift the seat or flush, and for this we were grateful.
At the restaurant next door, no sooner had we sat down to our salad we were adopted by a group of Kazakh Russians on the next table, and before long the infamous vodka toasts started. We mentioned we had to do some shopping the next day and it was decided that the lovely Maria would be our personal shopper and meet us the next morning to drive us around.
Feeling somewhat worse for wear (the party had continued on the beach until the small hours) we set off with Maria the next morning. Her help proved invaluable, as most shops in the city seemed to be hidden away in the middle of scattered residential compounds. Within a few hours we’d scored a long-sleeved shirt for John, new sandals, sunglasses and contact lenses for me, and an English-Russian dictionary.
The next day we set off early to take advantage of unseasonally cool weather (a mere 18C after a night of heavy storms). What we’d hoped would be a tailwind morphed into a strong headwind for the first stretch heading north, and somehow failed to improve much when we turned east 50 km later. So with a mere 80km between us and Aktau, we headed for a curious landscape feature to seek a campsite.
We found this beautiful, sheltered spot in a dry gulley, which was fortuitous because we were to spend the next three days here. On the first night we discovered the stove had finally packed in after many months of trouble, and the following morning the zip from John’s only pair of shorts broke. So the next day I hitchhiked back to Aktau to try and find replacements while John stayed at the camp. Stove-wise I could only find a gas stove (pain in the bum for Asia, since the canisters are only sold in extremely rare camping/ hunting shops) and with space for spare canisters limited, we realised that our beloved camp cuisine would have to be curtailed quite significantly until we could get a replacement petrol stove posted out. On the plus side, John encountered an eagle while I was away – it took off from a perch in the gulley (where, later investigation suggested, it took hedgehogs to dine on) and swooped right over his head.
The next day, perhaps because of food poisoning, or a bug, or sunstroke from being stuck out in the desert all the previous day (there were rocks to shelter under but little relief around midday) John spent the morning vomiting and the rest of the day completely wiped out, dragging himself from rock to rock to find shade.
But finally we were ready to move on.
To the surprise of all, the next day we caught up with Tiff and Marco, who’d stayed in Aktau several days after we’d left! We rode together for the afternoon as far as Shetpe – a total dump of a town in the middle of nowhere where the local sport seemed to be getting pissed by 6pm and driving around looking cyclists to force off the road by swerving towards them and shouting very loudly. Tiff and Marco thought they probably had a host arranged there and that we might be able to stay too (it was all a bit confusing) but with John still wiped out after being ill, we decided to skip socialising with strangers and find a hotel. The police directed us towards a totally unmarked compound behind a high wall. This was indeed a hotel, but the owner, despite living in Aktau, for some reason insisted being there in person to hand over keys. We had to wait an hour and a half for her to show up (though spent the time well eating dinner at the restaurant next door) and then had to fight to convince her we weren’t going to hand over our passports only for them to be left with the restaurant owner next door since she was going back to the city. The room was a total rip-off – $30 for two single beds, a shared bathroom and a stinking hole in the far corner of the compound for a toilet. But she had us over a barrel.
And so on into the desert. It was very flat …
… and our sense of perspective and distance was thrown into total disarray. In the UK, you generally expect to see the next 10, maybe 15 km, but probably expect a hill or haze to obscure anything further. But in the vast plains and the clean, dry air of the desert, you can see 25, 30 km stretches of nothingness – ‘a longer way of seeing’ as the artist David Hockney once put it in reference to the American plains. On the dullest stretches – like a 200km straight road across a featureless plateau – we’d play games guessing how far to the next phone aerial, building, miniscule bend or road sign (all extremely rare occurrences) and we almost always underestimate the distance.
Our journey was possible only thanks to the shaixana (tea houses) dotted along the road every 25 – 50km or so along the road. Often unmarked from the outside – spottable only by the trucks parked up outside or a sense that this would probably be a sensible place for one to be – these are essential sources of cold drinks, food and shelter from the midday sun. Typically, they would have a menu of a dozen or so items, of which only one or two would be available (usually soup and plov) and most offered quiet, dim-lit rooms with cushions and low tables where you could siesta. When you were ready to stir, a pot of sweet tea would appear along with some (inevitably stale) bread to dip in it.
As it turned out, the lack of stove wasn’t so bad: the desert heat forced us into early starts (on the road by 7am) and under shade ideally from 1 – 4pm. Long siestas were paid for by hearty lunches at the tea house, and in the evening we were content to eat cold food and get to sleep early. Despite the long siestas, large stretches of unsurfaced road and less than favourable winds, we were covering about 120km a day.
Once on the bikes, the heat was far easier to cope with. Even if we were caught out at midday with no shelter, simply drinking plenty and riding gently kept us cool enough, as in the absence of any humidity, breeze and sweat combine into an incredibly effective cooling system. Maybe this is why the desert horses always seemed to be cantering across the plain in the midday heat…?
Nevertheless, this barely saved us on our final day in the Kazakh desert, where our midday chaixana – the only one in 100km – turned out to be a mean little dive, where the owners served food and tea resentfully from behind a counter (customers had to fetch their own food) and no rest area was provided. When we asked if we could sleep in a corner, we were brusquely told no, effectively condemning us to get on our bikes and ride through the hottest part of the day on the hottest day thus far (over 40C) until we reached the border town of Beyneu, another 50km away.
And so we crossed the Kazakh desert and rolled up,our hair thick with desert dust, our legs heavy with the hundreds of miles, and a thirst to match a camel’s, at the Beyneu Hotel. It was a bit pricy (about £35) but worth every penny, with a spotless ensuite room with hot water, the starched linen I’d been dreaming of since the boat, air conditioning, a TV (for John to catch up on the sport) and good internet. We were only slightly gutted when the owner’s son told us (too late) that we should have asked his mum for a discount, but have successfully applied this lesson at almost every other hotel in Central Asia.
With nothing much else to do in this border town in the middle of nowhere, drinking and driving dangerously in brand-spanking new, spotless white cars also seemed to be the main source of entertainment for local lads in the evening, and fights are certainly not unheard of in this town. But at least no one felt it was fun to try and run us over, and the presence of local kids playing in the square by the hotel at 10pm made it all seem much friendlier and safer.
From Beyneu lies a 300km stretch of desert with no shops or tea houses before the first town in Uzbekistan. With limited gas for the stove and no means to create our own shade, we were simply unequipped for riding in those conditions, and so we decided to complete our Kazakh stint and begin our journey into Uzbekistan on the overnight train.