Despite being such a short distance away from where we had set off in Azerbajain, Kazakhstan was a considerable contrast. We rode around Kuryk, a small, sandy, empty ghost town neighbouring the city of Aktau. ‘Where is everybody?’ we asked. The few shops we saw, were closed. Homes looked vacated, or with no sign of presence. Wind blew across the roads carrying sand in curly waves, like cheesy quavers. It felt like we were on a film set of an old western film. The sand here was whiter than what we had left in Azerbaijan. It forced you to squint as the strong sun bounced of the reflective land like a mirror. The air was drier too and we quickly felt the effects of being exposed to our new environment. We needed to find water and shelter. We had already decided to stay here for the night and tackle cycling in a new country the following day once we had replenished our stocks, withdrawn some money, and learnt at least two Kazakhstani words. We located the only cash machine in town and withdrew what we hoped was a decent amount of money by doing some quick exchange rate maths. We felt rich with our wad of Kazakstani ‘Tenge’ notes. We rode around with the goal of finding the cheapest hotel in town.
The goal quickly became to find any hotel at all. We asked the only two people on the street we had seen since disembarking the boat if they knew anywhere to stay. Now when I say we ‘asked’, what I mean is we both said the word ‘sleep’ (in English) whilst miming the international sign for sleeping by squashing our hands between a shoulder and the side of a face. They both simultaneously pointed in the same direction saying ‘paradise’. We looked at each other with a knowing glance of ‘paradise, yeah right!’. This far on in our journey we certainly wise enough to not expect to find paradise in a dusty port town, but it didn’t stop us hoping. ‘The Paradise Inn’ was run by a lady in her seventies with no facial expressions and a strict refusal to haggle. We were in no mood to cycle round the town looking for alternatives, so we checked in to the overpriced, underwhelming paradise. Paradise is obviously subjective; one person’s paradise is another person’s shithole. But as I stood bent kneed under the shower built for a three-year old and felt the intermittent lukewarm water trickle over my head, I was indeed in paradise. The old lady was not mis-advertising after all! The hotel was spotlessly clean, and our host showed maternal characteristics as she often appeared at our door to check if we were ok.
Having spent my birthday on a boat trying not to be sick I felt I deserved another celebration on land. I failed at this and spent the night in the bathroom, but I had great fun getting there. We found an eatery just round the corner run by a young energetic couple with great hosting skills. Our shoulders and heads slumped when they told us we could have stayed in their new hostel rooms upstairs for half the price of paradise. We all know a good rule of thumb when you’re on holiday is to avoid any restaurant that has photos of the food on it, however this is the opposite when you have just arrived in a Kazakh town with somewhat limited culinary knowledge of the country. We had read about a dish called ‘Laghman’ and were keen to try the dish described as ‘Kazakh Bolognese’. I think it was more ‘Kazakh Pot Noodle’ personally, but I may be splitting hairs. It went down a treat along with several pints of local beer and Kazakh pop music blaring out of speakers bigger than the shower cubicles at ‘Paradise Inn’. I’m pretty sure I had one pint too many although Hannah concluded it was four. After a photoshoot and contact details exchanged, we walked out of the empty restaurant into the brightest sunlight we had ever seen – we felt like we had been in a cave for six years as we covered our scrunched up faces and retreated back to paradise via a pit-stop for three packets of biscuits. I’m genuinely not sure if it was the birthday beer session or not but it certainly didn’t aid matters as I laid on the bathroom floor in ‘paradise’ all night feeling incredibly weak and sick. Maybe it was a dodgy pack of biscuits.
We left at 5am the next morning. I felt weak and dehydrated but could indulge myself no longer in my paradisiacal surroundings. We had a very reasonable 70kms to ride today but we were slow as we faced strong headwinds and bumpy roads. It would be the start of many more hot, exposed, arid, baron, desert riding days ahead. There was nothing much to look at for a long period of time as we rode in the general direction of Uzbekistan. This abruptly changed when we spotted our first camel. It felt quite significant and a measure of just how far we had come from home. We decided to stop and eat breakfast by the side of the road and stare at the camel. I opted for stale bread purchased yesterday. It was stale when I purchased it so now it was only really good for putting tent pegs in the ground. Hannah chose homemade strawberry milkshake that came with a thumbs-up from the shop owner when she purchased it the day before. As I broke bread and broke teeth, Hannah discovered the strawberry milkshake was of the fizzy variety as the contents of the opened bottle exploded all over her and her bike. We later discovered that this was strawberry flavoured fermented camel’s milk. Hannah was not best pleased as she licked the sour milk from her face. The camel and I however found it very entertaining.
The day’s cycle was pretty uneventful as the view around us and ahead failed to change for a great distance. This would be the beginning of a large section of our journey that required not only physical exertion in cycling huge distances in excruciating heat, but more so, mental exertion. The empty open road can be liberating, humbling and its desolation can strip the mind of clutter. Yet it can also be lonely, melancholic and demand great mental strength to maintain positivity.
We were soon distracted by a car that passed us and stopped up ahead. ‘Very hot!!’ stated the craned back head hanging out of the driver’s side window. This fact had not escaped us as we rode panting with sweat dripping from our bodies as the sun melted away our energy levels, but it was often delivered as breaking news from passers-by. ‘Yes, very hot’ we replied. The driver gave half a wave as he drove off into the distance, but the car then reappeared soon after facing the opposite direction and came to a stop on the opposite side of the road. The dirty vested, bearded man got out of the car, went to his boot and crossed the road towards us presenting a watermelon the size of a small person. Our fourth gifted watermelon of the trip so far. The generosity was extraordinary and warmed our soles. The addition of 20kgs to our bikes however was soul-destroying. We chopped up the watermelon by the side of the road and ate as much as we could to avoid carrying it. Hannah and I debated whether it made any difference to the weight we were carrying whether the watermelon was on the back of our bikes or in our stomachs.
As we rode into our destination for the day at the 70km mark we were very quickly disappointed by the lack of amenities. We had been told there was a guesthouse at this location but when asking (miming) a lady entering the only shop open, we were informed by the speechless lady otherwise. We briefly considered our options and then decided not to make any decisions on an empty stomach. The lady entering the shop turned out to be the owner. The only shop in a small village stocked all the essentials as you can imagine – camels’ milk, white onions and playing cards. I love playing ‘ready, steady, cook’ but this was tough. We contemplated cooking up some emergency noodles by the side of the road and then spotted a fast-food place in an adjoining building. We entered the empty small restaurant that reminded me of a small fried chicken shop back home – one plastic table with matching affixed chairs and the menu with pictures displayed in a wall-to-wall band above the counter. I rang the bell on the counter and as if we were in an 80’s comedy sketch, the lady from the shop from 30 seconds ago appeared behind the counter. She looked blankly at us. I looked at Hannah and we both laughed. The lady then laughed. I’m not entirely sure she knew what she was laughing at which made the situation even more hilarious. We ordered a bunch of samosas or ‘somsas’ as they are called here and devoured them as we contemplated whether to pitch a tent in the single-occupant village or push on. It may have been the instant giddying effect of the somsas, but we felt strong at this point so decided to do another 70kms to the next town. What we failed to investigate however, was the terrain ahead.
Fourteen hours after leaving that morning we stood at the reception of a hotel happy to pay whatever the owner was asking for a bed. A long relentless gradual climb in searing heat against a headwind all afternoon had stolen all our energy. I more than Hannah felt like I was going to pass out. The enthusiastic hotel owner was keen to explain in detail every single tour of the surrounding landscape that he had to offer. The photos of the huge gnarly naturally sculptured rock formations looked incredibly cool, but now was not the time. I told the owner that we travelled by bicycle and would pass these beautiful landscapes the following day without the need for a 4×4 jeep, but he wasn’t listening. The room was new, clean and had air conditioning and wifi. It felt like The Ritz as we sprawled out on the clean sheets with the air con on full blast. We ate in the hotel’s restaurant that night, sitting on the floor crossed legged at a floor table chowing down on laghman. The owner of the hotel appeared after our meal with a pint glass full of camel’s milk and his permanent enthusiastic smile. He plonked it down in front of Hannah and nodded. Hannah looked at me and then at the owner who stood, smiling and waiting. ‘Mmmmmmmmmm’ Hannah said as the glass very nearly touched her lips before it was put back down on the table. I hate wasting food and hate even more rejecting kind hospitality, but we just couldn’t stomach it and so discussed how we could make the milk disappear like in the Mr Bean sketch where he hid the steak tartar in various places around the table. We left some money on the table and hastily snuck out. We took a day off the next day and hid in the air-conditioned room. The effects of heat exhaustion from the long day’s riding taking their toll on our bodies overnight. I will spare you the details.
Well rested, we left the following day at 4.30am. It was hard waking up to an alarm so early in the morning, but we never regretted it once on the road. The air was cool, the gentle breeze on your face was almost chilling, your bike and panniers were cool to touch and you had goosebumps on your skin. The road was empty, and you felt like you had the world to yourself, hearing and seeing nothing. As the dark sky slowly diluted, the desert crept to life. Unidentifiable insects with ten too many legs for my liking scuttled across the road in front of you. For fear of getting too close we often raised our legs on the bikes as we passed them, letting the pedals spin freely. We passed dozens of camels by the side of the road; apparently spending the cool nights borrowing heat stored in the concrete road from the day. The hour of light before the sun appears is blissful. The horizon slices through skies of orange and purple above and baron desertscapes below. The only sounds are the purring of your wheels on the road and the gentle wind passing your ears. And then the angry sun appears above the horizon and envelopes your body, swallowing it whole with its already scorching energy. You layer up in the knowledge there will be no reprieve for the next twelve hours.
The day’s ride was long, not just in distance but in mental demand. We were faced with a strong headwind for the majority of the day, often reducing us to a soul-destroying 8km/hr. It was cooling, but also dangerous as it disguised the heat and the effects it was having on our bodies. We rode in single file to be more aerodynamic and reserve energy. The headwind meant we couldn’t hear each other speaking, so we rode in silence and without making eye-contact. It was anti-social but there was no alternative. These would be the loneliest times of our journey. You may as well have been cycling alone, on mars, all day. The landscape didn’t change. The heat didn’t let up and rose to over forty degrees. The wind pushed you back like you were cycling through sticky mud. It became harder to lose yourself in your thoughts as you would easily be brought back to the reality of the moment. It became necessary to entertain yourself to take your mind off the situation. One player eye-spy was good for about thirty seconds as the only thing I think of was sand; and the only thing I could see, was sand. We resorted to listening to downloaded podcasts on our phones. We powered them by using a solar panel on the back of our bikes, or by a dynamo on our front wheels and a converter to turn the energy in to electricity, accessible by a USB port. I didn’t like this at first, I felt like I should be absorbing all the sounds of the desert, but the headwind in your ears soon became maddening. It was at these times, and only these times, when we wished time could be sped up, and we could be at our destination. Cycling alone with a podcast on was not good for team morale, but it did detract you from the hardship of the challenge and became a necessary part of the day; until Hannah’s headphones fell out her ears and got caught in her front wheel and shredded, leaving one pair between two.
We were shattered by the time we stopped. We stayed at a ‘chaikana’, a tea house frequented by locals and passers-through. These single storey, stone made, minimally decorated large rooms with floor tables and no chairs, provided shelter from the sun, food, tea and even lodging. They dotted the roads of Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, organically spaced according to travel times and distance along the road. Tonight was our first experience of staying in one. We ate borscht, a delicious and hearty beetroot-based soup, with some tough bread whilst a cat sat at the table staring at us like he knew we weren’t from around here. The owner told us we could stay the night and now even more tired on full bellies we chose not to risk cycling further and put up the tent and took her up on the offer. The room was filthy and clearly hadn’t been stayed in for years. There were bugs and cobwebs everywhere and the sheetless beds were uninviting, but our tired bodies needed them. We ‘showered’ in a cracked, leaking sink and slept on our sleeping bags and in our cycling clothes. It’s not often you can say that £4 was too expensive for a room.
This theme continued for many days. Long, hot, dry days riding against headwinds in baron landscapes along a single road. 531kms to Uzbekistan. It was the few people we met on this road that would break the monotony and lift our spirits. A young man driving in the opposite direction was incredibly pleased to see us and informed us that he had let some cyclists sleep on his sofa some time ago and that we were welcome to do the same, until he remembered that he was driving for three days in the opposite direction, and we would have to wait a week for him to return. He gave us two ice cold cans of Red Bull from a cigarette lighter powered fridge on his passenger seat. We hadn’t had a cold drink for days and an ice-cold drink in the midday heat was spectacular and boosted our moods, powering us on through the afternoon.
We stopped at a chaikana late one day to find reprieve from the heat. Two young children of maybe six and eight manned the counter. We spotted a fridge and asked for two cold fizzy drinks; they presented us with a puppy and a smile. It didn’t quite quench our thirst, but it did boost our moods. Although the young hosts of the chaikana thought it much better business sense to offer us a free cuddle of a kitten rather than selling us drinks, we eventually persuaded them to open the fridge. We paid the youngest child what he guessed was the right amount of money and we sat drinking our sickly sugary drinks whilst the children chased the puppy around. It was one of those perfectly normal moments on the road that would be completely surreal in any other setting.
Another chaikana stop came as we were low on energy and craving food. The small building had a horse and a bull in a tiny enclosure adjacent. The small single room inside had no tables but two rugs on the floor. We sat on a rug and asked the portly lady for food, any food. ‘Et’ she replied. Et translates as meat. ‘No et’ we responded in an attempt to avoid eating meat, not only as vegetarians back home but primarily to avoid getting sick in remote locations. ‘Et’ the lady repeated. ‘No et’ we replied again. ‘Et, et, et, et, et’ she repeated again and again until we agreed to order et. We nibbled at the unidentifiable bony, fatty, overly salted et whilst creating a late night illness evacuation plan for that evening. Abruptly, a clean, fresh-smelling and well-dressed German family entered through the door. I speak no German, but I could translate the conversation perfectly as they nervously eyed the place up and down before committing to entering. They sat at the other rug and we listened to a familiar ‘et’ conversation. They upped and left as the et arrived on the plate; The Mother and Father smiled to us as if to say good luck. The two young children looked at the floor, wishing Mum and Dad had taken them to Disneyland this year instead.
As we continued through the Ustyurt Plateau towards Uzbekistan we camped if there were no chaikana’s that would let us sleep inside. This was the sort of experience that would excite me back home when daydreaming about a future adventure – camping in the middle of a desert, under a blanket of stars and with no noise or light pollution. In reality, it was incredibly uncomfortable. It was so hot that our tent became an oven. We removed the cover so we had just a mesh layer above us – much cooler, but it enabled sand to blow inside and coat us and all our belongings like icing sugar on a Victoria sponge. Packing away our tent before the sun rose revealed a graveyard of unrecognisable insects and scorpions; opportunists taking advantage of our body heat.
We headed to our last stopping point in Kazakhstan; Beyneu, a previously oil rich town surrounded by desert. A camel stood in the middle of the road on the outskirts of town. We weren’t sure if it was welcoming us or warning us as it stood firm and watched out the corner of its eye as we skirted it. We were physically sick with heat exhaustion as we rode into the town. We found shade outside the first shop we could identify and bought two ice lollies, and then two more. We sat on the kerb and guzzled disgustingly sweet fizzy drinks until we felt some kind of vague improvement and mustered up the energy to find accommodation. We rode around asking for hotels and settled on the first one we found. We were in no mood to shop around. Three other touring bicycles in the foyer reinforced our decision to stay there. We showered off four days’ worth of sand, dust and crusty body salt and hit the town for food. We sat in an empty restaurant eating manti (small dumplings of unidentifiable content) and drank warm beer. Despite the grey food and tepid drinks, it was a celebratory meal; another chunk of harsh unforgiving road completed. We felt exhausted but proud. We told ourselves we would never remember the pain and discomfort, and in time would only have fond memories of the desert’s solitude, its soul-cleansing sunsets and camel encounters.
The following day was still very far from this time however. The pain and discomfort were still very much with us. Another day resting in an air-conditioned room was in order. This came with an air of almost guilt and depletion, as though our bodies were not fit to continue when we wanted them to. This was in hindsight ridiculous but not easy to shake at the time. We used the time to make the most of the wifi and connect with home. This often had a bittersweet impact on our moods; spirits would be lifted speaking with loved ones but then we would be left lower than before with feelings of sadness knowing it would be months before we would see them.
I distracted myself from the emotions by walking the town in search of a supplies; sun tan lotion that we hadn’t been able to find since Turkey with no more luck here, a bike lock to replace the third one I had lost on of the trip, and emergency/comfort food for the next 500 miles. It was also time for a haircut. Such a mundane duty back home but a culturally rich experience when away. I sat in a barbers waiting in line with all eyes on me, inquisitive stares that said ‘what on Earth are you doing here?’. Explaining what type of haircut you would like in a barbers back home is pretty straight forward, but with a language barrier and a trend gulf between a London trim and a Kazakh cut I bowed down and accepted whatever it was the barber chose to do. Big mistake. As the proud barber floated the handheld mirror around my crafted head like it was his greatest achievement, my first thoughts were – who is this sharply pruned Kazakh oil baron I see before me? I pushed vanity aside and decided to embrace my new look. I felt like a new man. Not the same man. A completely different man.
As we muddled over a bumpy road beside an industrial railway line towards the Uzbek border at 4.30am the following day, our bags heavy with resources (calorific food) collected for the next baron stretch of desert, we reflected on our time in Kazakhstan. It would be easy to say it was desolate, hot and nothing much happened. It was. And it didn’t. But it would be unfair to conclude on such a summary. Yet again the people we met were truly wonderful. They shared their time, their wisdom, their knowledge and their camel’s milk. They were hospitable, clement and kind. The landscapes although harsh and unforgiving, were more so beautiful in their desolation and simplicity. It was true what we had been told thousands of miles before – the further east you go, the more stunning it gets, and the more wonderful the people are.