Having traversed almost the entire width of Kazakhstan twice by train it was a relief to finally arrive in Beyneu, the starting point for continuing our journey towards New Zealand. What was more of a relief than arriving was the fact that we had timed it so that we only needed to stay one night… Beyneu is not the sort of place you want to while away your life in!
Leaving Beyneu for the Uzbekistan border requires cycling in the direct opposite direction of intended travel for a handful of kilometres before turning 180 degrees, crossing the train tracks and heading off into the desert. I think it is fair to say that the handful of kilometres that we cycled in the opposite direction were the most joyous of the entire desert crossing. The sun was shining, the tail wind was strong enough to push us along at 30km/h, and the road was paved. The about-turn into the desert immediately resulted in a fierce headwind lashing painfully at any exposed skin with increasing ferocity; and a road deteriorating into something usually associated with the Dakar Rally. The two redeeming factors were that the sun was still shining, keeping our spirits up, and the temperature was cold enough to keep the mud frozen as we battled at 8km/h for the entire day.
Given that this was our first proper day in the desert we were quite excited about most things; look, look, camels! Look, look, wild horses! Look, look, a desert rodent. Suffice to say, this lunacy wore off quickly as the scenery became mundane; same, same; and incredibly boring. The real highlight of the day was that at exactly the same moment we were discovering that our bread was virtually inedible due to freezing, a kind man pulled over in his hardly road legal battered car and offered us hot bread, which we accepted with grace and politeness… that is until he had driven off when we lost all semblance of politeness and devoured it like vultures fighting over the last scraps. At the end of the day, who can see us in the desert anyway?!
As the day drew to a close we finally reached our desired destination. Now it should be noted that destination is used in the very loosest of terms here. It is not like destination Zanzibar, or destination RWC Final; it is more like destination survival. Turning off the highway into the tiny desert town we pushed our bikes along the sidewalk, as the mud on the main street was a foot thick and not conducive to cycling in, and stopped outside the first two shops we came to. We had read on other blogs that we could ask in a shop for somewhere to stay (ask; meaning play charades as our Russian does not cover such things). It was decided that I should go first, so I chose the blue door of the second shop and walked in with a big smile… I figured that if I looked happy to be in the most remote, wind swept, depressing place of all time I might have pity taken on me and a magic hotel would appear. Clearly every customer and worker did not see it this way! They must have thought with the smile I was wearing that I was about to tell some sort of joke, or perhaps I was the joke. Laughter erupted as soon as I started playing charades to the audience. I don’t mean sympathetic laughter; I mean full on wet-your-pants laughter. I was a crushed man! I smiled again, which brought more laughter and then quietly left to contemplate my life.
Thankfully Katie had significantly more luck than I did; for one, she chose the correct door to walk through, second, she probably didn’t look like a walking joke, and third, she was given a phone with someone on the other end that spoke English (to be fair I think they spoke English like I speak Russian, but nonetheless we got a result). We found ourselves being rescued by a teenage lad who directed us back to his family house, where we were given the run of their very charming “spare” cottage for the evening. The first day in the desert was over, it was a learning curve, but was considered a success; we relaxed and enjoyed the warmth, knowing that the next four days would possibly be the most challenging of the entire journey.
Rising early on the second morning we were greeted with the god awful sound of the wind howling outside, which immediately raised the question “in which direction was it blowing?” Thankfully it had turned completely around from the previous day and was in favour of pushing us all the way to the border. With most things when cycle touring, particularly in the extreme cold we were facing, everything is a compromise. With the wind literally pushing us to the border we found that we barely had to cycle, which on any normal day would be great, but in sub zero temperatures without generating heat through working the body you become very cold, very quickly. Stopping and donning our down jackets resolved this; the first, and hopefully only time we have to cycle in them.
The border was a paltry 25km from where we spent the night and having heard some horror stories from other cycle tourists we were fully prepared to be spending a significant amount of time there, and would not have minded at all given that it meant we would be inside. As luck would have it (or not, depending on your point of view) we cleared Kazakhstan in less than 10 minutes and were being ushered over to the Uzbekistan border. Immediately we were on edge as the guards ushered us forward, whilst their Kalashnikovs hung idly over their shoulders. In hindsight it was ridiculous to be intimidated by the sight of the rifles, as the border guards were the most jovial we have met. The four-hour queues, the rummaging through all bags, and the checking of hard drives were non-existent for us.
As Katie set about the task of filling out our customs forms, numerous guards were jostling for position around me, then started uttering the two words you always rejoice in hearing… “David Beckham, David Beckham”. I pointed out that although I am clearly not David Beckham, I think the man is a hero to all, and should be put on a gold pedestal; this sudden connection brought a landslide of banter about all things football, which meant that all things official were put on the back-burner. This lasted for a significant amount of time, and when they were sick of talking about football they asked if they could see the videos on my iPhone. This was even more of a coup than David Beckham, for my iPhone videos are almost exclusively of my perfect little godson Lennox. These videos transfixed even the most stern looking men in the room and brought a joy to the proceedings that I have never seen at a border.
When it was finally my turn for being quizzed in an official capacity I was asked one question…
Border Guard: Do you have a gun?
Me: No, definitely not!
Border Guard: Why not?
Me: Um, um, um, why would I carry a gun?
Border Guard: Looks bemused
Me: Um, um, um, do I need a gun?
Border Guard… shakes his head in disappointment.
To this day I think he was being serious, and I am still none the wiser if it is even legal, but all of the initiative I had gained with banter about Beckham, and videos of Lennox seemed to be wiped away with the one question; I was now on the back foot…
He then pointed at our first-aid kit, which I duly opened and went through the medicines we carry (Paracetemol, Imodium, anti-histamine). Believe me when I say that describing why one carries Imodium via random sounds, facial expressions, and charades is guaranteed to bring a nervous smile to a border guard and all other questions to cease immediately.
Without a doubt the best border crossing of the journey and a great way to enter a country. With that behind us the arduous task of cycling 430km across a barren, desolate, apocalyptic landscape became a striking reality.
We knew from a number of blogs that there is a cayhana (tea house) situated roughly 20km from the Uzbekistan border which has hosted a number of cycle tourists, it was this cayhana that we had firmly in our sights as we left the border. With the wind pushing us along we were there ridiculously early, but decided that it would be better to stay put in the warmth than cycle off and camp at a random location in the desert. After it was made clear that we wanted to stay we were ushered in to a private room away from the local punters where we duly made ourselves at home around the table and settled in for the long afternoon/evening.
At most establishments in this part of the world, the toilet (generally of the hole in the ground variety) is situated some distance from the warm building that you are located in and it becomes an arduous journey to relive oneself. This cayhana was no exception. The toilet was situated across the road, past a treacherous lake covered in ice, and next to an old rusty railway carriage doubling as someone’s home. Every time I ventured out into the cold and the wind I was unbelievably (and shamelessly) happy that I did not call this place my home. Without a doubt this location is the bleakest I have ever encountered and I really felt (and still feel) for the hardy souls that live there. To cap it all off there was the distinct smell of gas on the breeze, hissing from some unseen pipe. I think it is fair to say that leaving in the dark, before breakfast (i.e. as soon as possible) the next morning was our only option.
Cycling off into the desert with the anticipation of a great sunrise was a good way to start the day, unfortunately the sunrise never really materialised and the desert grew more grim by the minute. The first few hours following the break of dawn were incredibly tough; not physically, but mentally and I am sure we both asked ourselves on more than one occasion what the hell we were doing. We climbed the most gradual hill the world has ever known for the best part of three hours and at times it felt as though we could see the curvature of the earth, the horizon was that enormous. As we crested the hill we were greeted with a flat expanse that went on forever; the only thing breaking it up were the power poles accompanying the train track about 2km to our right, which after a while start breaking your brain. The only thing that really changed were the kilometre markers counting down from 1203; each and every kilometre.
It was somewhere on that flat expanse that we felt the first real pangs of hunger and suddenly realised that skipping breakfast had been a bad, bad idea! Even my unabated love of chocolate was stretched to breaking point as we consumed Kit Kat after Kit Kat to try and rejuvenate ourselves and with an almost desperate desire we pushed on towards Jasliq and the second cayhana in Uzbekistan.
We knew next to nothing about the Jasliq cayhana, except it was rougly 140km from the first cayhana (and that Jasliq has a notorious past). What we got was the equivalent of a palace. There were private rooms (with showers), there was a shop to stock up our depleted Kit Kat supply, there was a variety of excellent food, we could pay in dollars, we could register, there were the obligatory truck driver drunks knocking back the cheap vodka, and to top it all of there was a resident prostitute who spent a lot of time propping up the bar dressed in her very fetching leopard skin print, fluffy polyester dressing gown (unfortunately no photo opportunity presented itself). We spent the next hour devouring enough food to feed a small army, avoiding eye contact with the lady of the night, and making excuse after excuse not to consume the vodka being thrust in our faces by the drunkest drunk there. Travelling experiences at their finest!
The next two days to Nukus were much the same as the first day to Jasliq, aside from the fact we made sure we had breakfast. The desert scenery was giving my eyes RSI and at times we thought we must have misbehaved badly because the wind just would not leave us alone; then finally after almost 430km we rolled into Nukus. The main feeling on arriving in Nukus was probably one of relief as by this point we were both suffering badly from colds we had picked up and just wanted to be somewhere warm to relax.
Although for the most part the first desert section was horrendous, it did teach us a number of valuable lessons; both about cycling and about ourselves. We feel we are mentally much stronger than when we started out in Beyneu, and with that comes a confidence and belief we might not have had previously. For that we have a lot to thank the first stage of the Uzbekistan desert for, particularly given the number of deserts we still have to negotiate on this journey.