Arriving in Aktau having crossed the Caspian Sea on the Barda was incredibly exciting as it has been a major point on the horizon for so long; it meant the beginning of Central Asia, it meant the first of the really hard stretches of cycling, and it also meant that we no longer had to rely on other forms of transport to get us to Singapore. What wasn’t so exciting was arriving at the only cheap hotel in town, it was simply disgusting; but given we were only in Aktau for two nights we figured that it would do.
Ever since the “Iran-no-go” had been confirmed we had been reading anything and everything we could get our hands on about the Aktau to Nukus section of the journey, as the isolation, distances, and bitter cold can make it quite precarious. Based on the information we had gleaned we realised in order to be as comfortable (and safe) as possible we needed to purchase a handful of items before setting out into the unforgiving Kazakh desert. Items of importance to us were winter boots, a thermos flask, bin liners (to make “bin liner bivvy bags” and “bin liner vapour barrier liners” for our sleeping bags), food, and more dishwashing gloves (to act as vapour barrier liners for our hands). Thankfully there are shops and supermarkets aplenty in the bustling metropolis that is Aktau. The boots and thermos were picked up in the RobinZon outdoor shop, which stocks all manner of hunting and fishing gear. Shopping for the boots was excellent; we had been informed that RobinZon stocked the legendary Baffin boots… we couldn’t resist trying on the boots rated for -100 degrees, but in the end went for the -20 rated pair. For food, we went for high calorie snack bars, instant noodles, porridge, and chocolate bars; not the most nutritious meals, but we figured that calories were more important than vitamins for this stretch and also banked on picking up some health at the various chaikanas (tea houses) along the way.
Our final afternoon was spent packing, and repacking the panniers with the newly purchased goods, writing blogs, double checking weather forecasts and making our bin liner protectors; by the time sleep took us we felt as confident and excited about the desert as we ever had.
Given that the sun does not rise until around 0900 it was a slow start to the morning, but by 0845 we were ready to leave; amidst a lot of strange looks from the hotel owners, other unfortunate guests, and pedestrians. On more than one occasion people looked directly at us with utter bewilderment, just to shake and then tap their heads…. the universal language for saying you have a screw loose and should really see someone. To some extent we agreed with them, but we had chosen our path and we now had to “cycle it”.
Leaving Aktau was busier than expected and progress was painfully slow as the roads are not built for mad cyclists to exist in the same lane as huge soviet-era trucks, so we spent a fair amount of time cycling on the semi-hard sand that acts as the shoulder to the road. The extra effort required to cycle in sand accompanied by mild weather meant that after less than 10km we had stop and remove our pogies as they were helping to generate too much sweat. Aside from the mild temperature there was virtually no wind to speak of, and what there was, was helping us along… all in all we could not complain about our first experience in the Kazakh desert.
Eventually, after around 20km the traffic thinned and a rhythm was found that we thought would surely take us far beyond our expected distance for the day and possibly contribute to getting to Beyneu (the destination of the first part of the desert crossing) sooner. The desert was quite mesmerising, large plateaux and basins sweeping into the distance as far as the eye could see. At the edge of an escarpment we pulled over to consume some of the calories we had brought along for the ride, it was at this point that Katie mentioned that she thought her chain was playing up. I had a quick look at it, all seemed in order so we agreed to crack on to the 50km mark for the day, setup a base in a sheltered area, make a hot cup of tea and I could clean the chain with petrol, re-oil and all would be good again. We never made it to that 50km marker!
At 42km, Katie pulled over and complained that she could barely turn her pedals, and as Katie never complains I was concerned. As I started to take in the situation my heart sunk; I knew at that point that our dream of playing the Great Game and crossing the entire Central Asian desert by bicycle was over. A complete feeling of emptiness, shock and hopelessness enveloped us, but as with anything in life that does not go to plan you need to reassess and crack on. Sitting dumbfounded and doing nothing has never solved anything; there would be hours to sit and think what we could have done differently to possibly avoid this mechanical misfortune. The facts were that Katie’s bottom bracket had become so loose that the washers were essentially floating around and it was filling with desert sand, clogging up ball bearings and ceasing to behave as designed.
I have been cycling my whole life and never had a bottom bracket blow out… EVER! The bottom bracket (rightly or wrongly) is something that you don’t expect to break and if it does you probably wont have the misfortune of being in the middle of nowhere, so as you can probably guess we did not have spares, or the tools to fix it anyway. With cold(er) weather forecast, and a 42km walk back to Aktau facing us the decision to start pushing was a frustratingly easy one.
Even though the traffic had thinned, there were still enough vehicles to make us confident of getting a lift at least some of the way, so that we did not have to camp in the desert. After hailing down two dump trucks, and playing charades with no great success (I speak less than 10 Russian words) we finally hailed a minibus where our beloved bikes were stowed and we were driven 20km back towards Aktau. When offering to pay the man he downright refused to take a single Tenge from me, when I insisted I thought he was going to punch me so I let it slide. From here it was a short walk to the Aktau sign that we had had our photo taken so proudly in front of just three hours previous. This was without a doubt the low point of the entire journey. To rub salt into the proverbial wound I could see the tyre marks we had made heading out into the desert earlier that morning; what a difference three hours had made.
The next three hours were horrendous as we pushed our fully laden bikes through ever cloying mud and into rush hour traffic. Rush hour traffic in Aktau is not full of office workers in their nice small cars, it is thick with tough men, driving fearsome trucks that take up the entire road and then some; it was incredibly intimidating to say the least. The job was not made any easier by the fact our minds and emotions were still cycling joyfully across the Kazakh desert.
It was around this point that something remarkable happened. Remarkable to me, remarkable to Katie, remarkable to almost no one else on earth! I saw a car drive past with the three letters on the number plate almost punching me in the face and waking me from my self-pity; I yelled out to Katie with the biggest smile on my face, pointed at the car and she smiled back. Not a fake smile forced to ones face through gritted teeth, but the sort of smile you associate with a child winning a prize, or families (and friends) being reunited at an airport. Katie knew exactly what I was smiling about. The three letters were CYA; for those of you unfamiliar with this acronym it stands for Choose Your Attitude (thanks Tammy, we absolutely love this acronym and it is always with us). Essentially the time had come to drag ourselves out of the desert, forget the original dream, reset our attitude and be incredibly grateful that we were lucky enough to be gallivanting around the world by bicycle. A small mechanical failure should not be enough to dampen ones spirits; as one door closes another opens, which is exactly what we found happened.
With an extra spring in our step, straighter backs, and smiles on our faces we bounded (as much as you can bound pushing a touring bike covered in mud) into Aktau. To be precise we bounded straight into Aktau’s Burger King, which, with its free wifi, pumping dance tunes and cheap coffee was the perfect place to reflect and regroup. We realised almost immediately that we were exhausted as it dawned on us that aside from breakfast we had had only one Mars bar and one banana each; cycled 42km out into the desert and then pushed our bikes 20km back into town. There were many things to consider, one thing that we did not have to consider was returning to the hotel we left from in the morning; that was an absolute last resort, and I can assure you it is no resort!
Tucked away safely in the excellent Silk Way Hotel we started scouring the Internet for information on bike mechanics in central Asia. Unsurprisingly we found that there were none to be had in Aktau, which essentially confirmed our numerous conversations with people that day “velocipede mechanic Aktau?”. We also confirmed that other cyclists that had suffered the same fate as us had had to get the work done in either Almaty or Tashkent, both of which are thousands of kms from Aktau. To mull over the various decisions we thought that the best course of action was to visit the highly rated Barbeque From Uncle Gadim restaurant in town, sink a few beers and eat as much shashlik as we could handle and wake up ready to face the new world we had found our way into.
The restaurant was excellent and thoroughly deserved its high rating, but what was most rewarding for us was the meeting of two local business men; Vadim and his business partner (whose name shamelessly escapes me). After helping translate our food order to the waitress the conversation invariably turned to what we were doing in Aktau. Once they heard of our plight, the Kazakhstan hospitality/generosity kicked into overdrive. Vadim made some phone calls and then came back to us saying he would happily pay for our train journey to Almaty to visit a mechanic if we could sit with his young son Nil (around 15 years of age) and speak about travelling the world… in English. We said that the offer was far too generous, but we would be happy to speak with Nil, if they could help us locate the train ticket office and do all the talking and translating; so a deal was struck and very fine relationship started. The Aktau lads left the restaurant; we had another beer and went back to the hotel feeling a hell of a lot better about the day than we had previously.
At 1030 the next morning Vadim and Nil turned up to the hotel and we sat and spoke for well over an hour about our travelling by bicycle, about travel in Europe, about New Zealand, about Nil’s school, and about Kazakhstan; it was fantastic. We were both blown away not only by Nil’s excellent level of English but also how kind hearted, polite, and generous both Vadim and Nil were. Finally we got around to heading to the ticket office and purchased tickets for the Aktau to Almaty train for the following day. Essentially, with our promises fulfilled it was time to go our separate ways; us to head back to the hotel to spend the best part of three hours cleaning the bikes, and Vadim and Nil to return home for the Christmas celebrations (as the 7th January is Christmas day in this part of the world). As we were departing, Nil kindly said he would come to the hotel and take the taxi with us to the train station in the morning to be our translator.
Even though we were initially gutted beyond words about the mechanical misfortune that had beset us, the ensuing time in Aktau had been fantastic. Once we had chosen our attitudes, cleared our heads, and embraced the new plan for the great adventure it is, we felt great. Who wouldn’t want to spend up to 132 hours on a return journey by train across the Kazakh steppe to get their bikes fixed?!?!