Last Night in Asia

It’s been a tough few days, with a constant headwind trying to batter me into submission.  And a few more hills than expected.

But I’ve made it to where I want to be; just 60 km (38 miles) from the narrow strait between Asia and Europe.  I should get to the Asian side of the crossing just after lunchtime tomorrow (Sunday), from where a ferry should whisk me effortlessly across the (roughly) three mile gap between two continents.

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Leaving Iznik was hard, though.

Partly because of that interesting mix of history and culture that I discussed last time (the Ayasofya mosque, above, sums it up pretty well; an ancient church converted into a mosque, just like its much bigger and more impressive namesake in Istanbul).

Partly because it was a really nice, chilled-out little place with loads of lakeside cafes.  And partly because, from Iznik, the only way out is upwards.

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At least I got a last view of Iznik as I left.  The vast majority of Turkish towns I’ve been to have been flat, meaning there’s rarely a vantage point on the road to see the whole place at once.  And, despite a little shower as I hit the top of the hill, the short(ish) run to Bursa was unproblematic.

The only big issue in Bursa (which is regarded as the birthplace of the Ottoman Empire, by the way) was the traffic, which got a bit manic in the city centre.  It’s the biggest Turkish city I’ve ridden in, so I suppose this is excusable to an extent.  Although it made me very glad that I decided against riding through Istanbul, which is many times bigger (and therefore the traffic’s likely to be many times worse).

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Another reason that I was happy not to be riding into Istanbul on Thursday was that there was (yet) another bomb attack there that afternoon.  In the eastern suburbs, which may have put me nearby if I’d headed that way.

Then again, there was also a suicide bombing in Bursa only a fortnight before I got there (27th April), which I thought it was probably better not to mention until I was through, in case people worried.

It seems to be a grim, almost daily occurrence in Turkey at the moment.  And the frequency may go some way to explaining why neither attack appears to have made it anywhere near the news at home (along with obsessive Euro referendum navel-gazing, I’d guess).

In any case, unless you’re unlucky enough to be in the wrong place at the wrong time (and that could happen just as easily at home), you’d never even know they’d happened.  Bursa city centre was a scene of total, big city normality.  I’m sure Istanbul’s the same.

It’s a real shame that things like that seem to be putting tourists off coming to Turkey.  I’ve had a great time here so far, but I’ve lost count of the amount of people in the tourist trade bemoaning the lack of business this year.

I was much more worried about the bike’s health, to be honest.  It had developed a distinct wobble at the back end.  And wobbles at the back end can’t be good news.

As usual, it took a while to work out that it wasn’t something mechanical (and therefore expensive, and maybe problematic).  It was just the rear tyre finally giving up the ghost.

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I’d decided not to rotate the tyres this time, just to see how long they actually last.  The front will be fine all the way home, I think.  Maybe even for ever; it still looks almost new.

But the rear, having carried most of the weight, and delivered all the traction for 11,500 fully-loaded kilometres (including the UK Tour) had finally had enough.  As you can probably tell from the badly-focussed picture above; the replacement tyre (identical to the old one) is on the left, obviously.

Still, 11,500 kms is pretty good.  Especially as it still showed no signs of actually falling apart.  One puncture in all that time (way back in Myanmar).  Dirt roads, potholes, mud, rocks and glass dealt with with aplomb.  It’s just a shame that it didn’t quite last until Europe.  But, in the end, the wobbling was driving me nuts, and making the whole bike shimmy, so it had to go.

It’s possible that I just spent slightly too long mourning the loss of a tyre.

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For the rest of the bike and me, Europe awaits.  Although I’ve been roughly following the south coast of the Sea of Marmara for the last few days, I only got to see it for the first time today (above).

Tomorrow should take me pretty much along the coast, until it narrows into the Dardanelles (that strait between the two continents I mentioned before).  The ferry will take me to the town of Gelibolu.

Which, as well as being my entry into Europe, also gives its name to the peninsular on which it sits.  In English, its name is Gallipoli.  Site of one of the most appalling wastes of life in the First World War.

And that should certainly put today’s relatively tiny risks of terrorism into perspective…

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On the Edges

Borderlands are always interesting places.

Mountains plunging into the sea provide stunning landscapes.  Places where cultures bump into each other produce fascinating history (even where they also – all too often – provoke conflict).  It’s at the edges where things are most compelling.

I’ve been in border country since the last post, although I’ve only really appreciated it today.

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Bolu (above) was the last proper city in the hills.  Since then, it’s been small towns and smaller climbs (and some immensely fun downhills), as I’ve crossed from the mountainous interior of Turkey back towards the Sea of Marmara.

And the sea (together with the Aegean, immediately to its south, and the city of Istanbul at its northern end) has been a cultural crossroads since people started writing history.

So the borderland between the hills and the coastal areas is also the edge of a fuzzy cultural boundary.  Although I’m not in Europe yet, things are changing already.  Up in Bolu, things still felt very Asiatic, with the fairly mono-cultural cityscape of mosques, minarets and square buildings dominating.  Within a couple of hundred kilometres, things are much more cosmopolitan.

But the noticeable changes had already begun at Bolu.  Just a few kilometres east of town, my road had been joined in its valley by a motorway.

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That’s not just a road with a designation beginning with ‘M’, as was the case in the former Soviet countries.  It’s a proper, European-style motorway (the main drag between Ankara and Istanbul).  The sort of road where bikes are not allowed.  It’s the first road I’ve seen for months that I can’t ride.

I know that this will be the new normal from here on (and that it’s my normal normal in any case).  But I’ve got so used to rolling along whichever road I want that it feels like a big change.  So does the fact that the chocolate bars in petrol stations have suddenly become the same as at home, where further east, they are all Turkish versions.

I think my perspective might have got a little skewed somewhere along the way…

There are still plenty of reminders that I’m not home just yet.  It’s pretty certain that a flatbed van in Europe wouldn’t be allowed on the road with a ton of apples tied loosely on the back with string.

But that appears to be what caused me a twenty minute delay this morning:

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Thankfully, things got slightly more organised after the big guy in the red shirt started waving his arms and shouting.

This afternoon (Tuesday), the cultural variety and complexity of this area became clearer.  I dropped down to lake Iznik.  I’d been trying to get to a town on the edge of the lake, which is marked up on Google Maps as ‘Nicaea’.  And I’d been getting increasingly concerned that I’d not seen it signposted.  I was just following signs for ‘Iznik’, and hoping that Nicaea would become obvious.

It turns out that Iznik and Nicaea are the same place.  Google uses the Greek name for some unfathomable reason.  Although that was the town’s name when it was established (by a Greek mythological character, apparently), it’s been Iznik for ever as far as the locals are concerned, and Google should probably have caught up by now.

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But it’s not just the names of the town that show how many cultures have had a say in this region over the full course of recorded history.  The city walls, which I casually parked the bike against on the way into town, were originally built by the Ancient Greeks.  The local tourist guide notes, sadly, that ‘only Roman and Byzantine construction remains’.  And that’s still not counting the role of this area of Turkey in the birth of the Ottoman Empire.

There’s an intimidating amount of history in this part of the world, on the edge of so may empires.

I’m going to have a day off tomorrow (Wednesday) to have a proper look around Iznik, and digest some of this stuff.  It’s only about half a mile across, but has ancient churches, mosques, Roman arches, and so on.  It even has a mosque called the Ayasofya, which used to be a church.  Just like Istanbul.  But much, much quieter.

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I’m happy I can get all the layers of history around here, as I’ve decided not to head to the metropolis on the Bosphorus.  I could probably have got to the outskirts today, and entered European Turkey tomorrow.  But I’ve been to Istanbul before, and I’m not quite done with the Asian continent just yet.  And I’ve heard a lot of nightmarish stories about the Istanbul traffic.

Instead, once I’ve had my rest, I’ll head along the south of the Sea of Marmara.  It’ll take an extra few days to get to Europe, but I should see some more interesting places, and enjoy the coastline.

There’s one other, slightly fuzzy edge which merits a quick mention (in my book, at least).  And that’s the edge of space.  This is usually considered to be the Karman Line, and is 100km (62 miles) above the surface of the Earth.

Why is the Karman Line of any interest?  Because, yesterday, while grinding up yet another incline, I reached 100,000 metres (or 100 km) of vertical gain on the round-the-world trip.  I’ve climbed to the edge of space on a bicycle with bags hanging off it.

No wonder my legs need a break…

The Cloud Tunnel

Back at altitude, and dodging showers.

It’s felt like the same day over and over for the last few.  With the honourable exception of yesterday (Friday), which I sat out, due to the entire day being nothing but one long thunderstorm.  But I was due a rest, anyway…

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It took a little while to arrive, but the rain comes with a vengeance in the hills.  There was already a hint of it in the air as I left Osmancik on Thursday.  But it stuck on the mountains, and didn’t do more than spit on the road as I headed gently downhill in the Red River valley (above).

The downhills haven’t lasted long, as the road’s been mainly upwards.  I’m in Cerkes this evening (Saturday), due north of Ankara, and back up at around 1000 metres altitude.  So every down has been paid for by a slightly longer up.  And the hills have got steeper as I’ve got further in.  Where the first days out from Samsun were on lovely, moderate gradients, I’ve been copping three or four 10% ramps a day on the way here.

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By Thursday afternoon, as I dropped down another short valley (above), the clouds were closing in at the end.  For the whole afternoon, there was at least one massive downpour lurking within a mile or two of where I was.

A man at a petrol station pointed at the sky, and performed a very entertaining and realistic mime of a wet and shivering cyclist.  I was worried he might be right.

And whenever I wasn’t moving, I was staring at the sky, trying to work out if I could outrun the nearest rain before it got to the road, or whether I should stop and wait for it to pass.

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If there’s an effective incentive to finish the last (uphill) few kilometres of the day, it’s seeing a bank of black clouds following you up the road (above).

But later, as this particular storm again missed the road outside, I began to wonder.  There had been showers around ever since I left Samsun, and yet I’d not got wet.  More surprisingly, the road had not even been wet when I got to places where showers had seemed to be minutes before.

Maybe the road, as well as being smooth and well-engineered, has some sort of magical rain-repelling properties?  Maybe it’s a tunnel through the clouds.

It wasn’t yesterday.  Thankfully, I’d taken notice of the forecast this time, and decided that a day off was in order.  So I lay around, stuffed myself with food, and listened to the rain battering the streets outside.

But today, it seemed to be back in full effect.  Showers everywhere except on the road, even when I watched downpours apparently cross the route just in front of me.  I was certain I was about to get soaked three or four times, and yet I finished the day dry again.  Despite a vast amount of liquid falling from the sky as I approached Cerkes this afternoon:

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Whether the road really does repel the rain or not, things should clear up in the next couple of days.  And, from tomorrow afternoon onwards (after one more biggish hill), I should begin dropping towards the Sea of Marmara and Istanbul.

Though, as well as pondering the weather, I’m still trying to decide whether heading to Istanbul is the best option.  It’s a great city, but I know that because I’ve been there before.  And, although the Bosphorus is by far the most famous border point between Asia and Europe, there are other options which don’t involve the dire Istanbul traffic.

With a bit of luck, the more downhill nature of the riding in the next few days, together with fewer showers, will give me the chance to think through my best route to Europe.  I’ll let you know exactly where I’m going next time.

On Climbing and Waiting for Rain

I wasn’t sure that I’d get very far after I left Samsun yesterday morning (Tuesday).

First, there were some horrendous weather forecasts flying around.  Most of which suggested that I’d be pinned down by thunderstorms and wave after wave of heavy rain until Saturday.

Second, it was time to hit the mountains again.  This was sure to slow me down, and so leave me trapped in the middle of nowhere as the lightning flashed and a month’s worth of rain fell in twenty minutes.

All in all, it looked a bit nasty as I pulled on my brand new cycling shorts*.  The cloud was already down on the tops of the hills around the city, and I almost decided just to go back to bed for a week, and wait for the rain to get to me.

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So far, it’s been a decent decision not to.

The clouds began to clear as soon as I turned inland, and the remnants of the breeze which had pushed me along the coast were funnelled by the hills into a little tailwind.  The road has been beautifully engineered throughout, too.  But it was still quite a surprise to start at sea level, and to hit a 900-metre (close to 3000 ft) pass before lunchtime.  At an average of 13 mph.  And in the sunshine, too.

I wasn’t fooled, though.  This was not allowed to be a brilliant day.  I knew the mass of rain that the TV news was showing couldn’t just disappear.  It was just a matter of time.  I watched the skies, suspiciously.

Still, as I rolled into Havsa yesterday afternoon, I was still bone dry.  There were a handful of heavy storms about, but they were all pretty small and none came too close.  I figured I’d got lucky, and prepared to be rained in the next morning.

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After watching the sun go down behind the mosque, I considered composing a few sentences on how my trip has also been a little window onto the Islamic world.  Then I realised that nobody likes a pretentious cycle-tourist, and went to bed instead.  To everyone’s great relief, I’m sure.

I was woken after midnight by the sound of rain pounding down outside.  I felt vindicated, and a little smug, and drifted back off again.

The morning sunlight woke me before my alarm went off.  I was confused.  There really wasn’t supposed to be any sunlight this morning (Wednesday).  I looked outside.  There were some clouds scudding about on what looked like a fairly strong headwind.  But nothing that really spelled the sustained heavy rain I was anticipating.

I put my jacket on against the wind, and pedalled onwards in the sunshine.  Towards Osmancik.  More hills, more tunnels, and another 1000-metre pass.  With a beautiful, swooping decent off the top (below), which was only partly spoiled by the headwind.

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But finally, as you can see above, the horizon was darkening.  A mass of cloud was rushing toward me.  This was obviously the forerunner of the huge area of rain.  I actually thought I’d cut it too fine as I dropped into town, with another small but vicious-looking storm pummelling the valley next door.

As you can see, I didn’t get under cover a moment too soon, as the sky blackened over the castle, and the rain began.

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It stopped five minutes later, having barely wet the street.  And although there have been a few evil-looking clouds about since, it’s still dry as darkness falls this evening.

The forecast, needless to say, reckons that it’s already raining here, and will do so (heavily) for the next 48 hours.

However the weather works out, I’ve got to congratulate the Turks on their main roads.  The climbs are very long, but barely get above 3%.  And the road surface is almost silky, meaning that the bike rolls really nicely on the inclines.

So, if the weather seems designed to make me look silly at the moment, the roads are making me look good.

There’s definitely a lot more climbing to come, though.  And I can’t help feeling that the rain’s going to have its say eventually…

* This was a great result: I found a far-flung branch of Decathlon (large, French outdoors store) in Samsun, so was able to get a cheap (but reasonable quality) pair to replace my original shorts, which… erm… seem to have melted.  Or maybe rotted.  Don’t ask…

The Lego Brick Coast – Northern Turkey

I’ve covered a fair bit of ground in the last few days.

The sea has remained much the same, and, although it changes colour as the sun appears and disappears, it is still resolutely refusing to live up to its name.  Green, blue, grey, yes.  But never the Black Sea.

Except at night, obviously.

The mountains on the other side of the road have gradually shrunk as I’ve headed west.  Although they still look a little intimidating.  I’ll find out on Tuesday, after a day off here in the city of Samsun.

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Maybe it’s the terrain, squeezing all the towns into the same shape between hills and the sea.  Or maybe it’s just how things happen when small fishing villages are subject to rapid development.  But every small and medium-sized town along the coast is built on an almost identical pattern.

First, there are a straggle of houses and small businesses along the main road on the way in.  Then, as in the picture above, there’s a mosque in the middle.  The mosque is surrounded by square blocks of flats (usually five or six storeys – the ones above are larger than usual), many of which have shops on the ground floor.  And there are a few cafes and restaurants.  Then, there’s another straggle of houses etc on the way out.

I’ve come to to think of this as the Lego Brick Coast.

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Given that the sea and the towns have remained the same, and that the road has been flat and smooth, it’s been left to the bigger cities and the weather to keep things interesting on the bike.

Despite benign winds, there’s been a constant battle between a huge blob of rain over the hills to the south, and the onshore sea breeze.

When the breeze is winning, it’s wall-to-wall sunshine, and the riding is easy.  When the rain gets its turn, it’s cold, grey and a bit miserable (as you can probably see above).

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The bigger cities along the coast provide most of the personality.  My ‘sea view’ at Trabzon (above) was not exactly what I was expecting, but watching the bustling port in action was a nice change.

The steep, cobbled streets of the old town of Giresun provided an unexpected cycling challenge.  And that was before the guesthouse owner and his friend decided to take me out for a few beers (and English practice) on Friday night.  After which, the challenge of the steep cobbles was on a whole different level.

Most of the cities have bundles of building work going on.  Both Trabzon and Samsun are building new football stadiums on the outskirts.  And Samsun already has some imposing architecture, which definitely doesn’t fit into the ‘Lego Brick’ category (below).

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And there have been one or two smaller places which have bucked the identical towns trend.  The lovely old castle and harbour at Tirebolu was the highlight for me, and probably the nicest place for a coffee break on the whole coast:

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Still, the Black Sea coast, ‘Lego Brick’ or otherwise, is over for now.  I’ll be cutting inland from here, across those big hills.  With a bit of luck, they won’t be nearly as high as those near the Georgian border, where most of the passes are over 2000m.

I’ll use the rest day tomorrow to prepare the legs.  They’ve had it much too easy for the last few days…

On a more personal note…

Today is May 1st  2016.  On this day last year, I was on a sofa, watching the inaugural Tour de Yorkshire professional bike race on TV, while trying to find a comfortable position for my accident-damaged back and shoulder.

The peloton grappled with the beautiful, but rugged, North Yorkshire Moors.  The riders were tackling the roads where my Dad grew up and went to school.  Today, May 1st, exactly a year later, the same race was tackling the same roads again.

And May 1st was Dad’s birthday.

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Dad died a few years ago, at the age of only 65.  He died with dementia.  A cruel way to go, and one which is still both incurable and (generally) badly treated by health and social services.  It’s a disease (or rather, a group of diseases) which will affect more and more people as the global population ages.  And, as Dad’s case shows, it doesn’t always wait until you’re old.

I never wanted my journey around the world to be sponsored – too many obligations and too much pressure on what is supposed to be fun.  So this is not a request for money (though I’m sure the organisations below could use anything you could afford).

If you can find the time, though, please have a look at the relevant link(s) below.  Inform yourself about dementia, how it affects sufferers, and just how many of those there may be in future.  And then, maybe, think about doing something about it.

In the UK:

Alzheimer’s Association
Alzheimer’s Research UK

Outside the UK – Alzheimer’s Disease International has a Global List of Dementia Associations with information in your own language:

Alzheimer’s Disease International

Thanks,
Tim

Samsun, Turkey.  May 1st 2016.

Back Out of the (Former) USSR

The Black Sea isn’t black.

This was not exactly a massive shock.  What was quite surprising was that a day’s bike ride in Georgia can take you from snow-capped mountains to palm-lined seaside resorts so easily.  Though it might, I suppose, be trickier in the other direction.

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I made the most of what the weather forecast said was going to be the last day of tailwinds (on Sunday), and decided to get as close to Batumi as I could.  Before the wind decided to punish me again.  I ended up only around 30 miles short, and was rewarded by my first view of the non-black Black Sea (above).

Looks nice, doesn’t it?  Those snow-capped mountains in the background, dropping into the sea in the spring sunshine.

The short ride into Batumi on Monday was beautiful, marred only by the knowledge that it would be my last night in the country.  The last chance to stuff my face with delicious, cheap Georgian food.  And the last night for a while that I’d have a language in common with the locals.  I’m going to miss Georgia, I think.

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Batumi is one of Georgia’s major ports, and also a tourist resort, as well as being the last major town before the Turkish border.  The locals also seem to have developed a taste for architecture, with an impressive array of oddly-shaped towers springing up on the skyline as I approached.

The one aspect of Georgia which I won’t miss is the driving.  A bit like Thailand, they have good roads, but drivers whose skills have not caught up yet.  The massive amount of traffic cops on the roads (mostly in equally massive American police cars, for some reason) is hopefully an indicator that they’re working on it.  I had a sudden thought that I hadn’t seen a bicycle lane for thousands of miles.

A few kilometres north of the centre of Batumi, a cycle track magically appeared.  It took me all the way into town.  And then it multiplied.  The whole city is covered in bike lanes.  It was almost shocking.

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I had a wander around town in the afternoon, and marvelled at bike lanes zigzagging between cafes and their outside seating areas, between supermarkets and their fruit displays, and dead-ending at busy junctions.  The one above is one of the more sensible ones.  Which just stops at every road it crosses.

There doesn’t seem to be any great planning involved.  And the locals appear genuinely astonished when a bike actually uses a bike lane (which is usually for drinking coffee, walking the dog, or shopping).  But the effort is commendable.  And the major bike lanes along the seafront and the main roads are light years ahead of anything I’ve seen for months.  So, hats off to cycling city Batumi!

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Still, after my stroll, some seaside ice-cream, and a proper feed, it was time for bed.  And a few hours later, to cover the last ten miles of the Former Soviet section of the trip.  It’s been a great few weeks, all the way from Tashkent.  From the desert to the mountains to the seaside.  More people should come here.

The road to the border (and after the border, for that matter) hugs the shoreline, with the impressive cliffs, and more impressive snowy mountains, dropping straight to the water.  The picture below is from the last headland in Georgia (the border is in the next bay).  So the land ahead is Turkey.  It seems a little strange that the landscape it reminds me most of is New Zealand, which is a long, long way from here.

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Another five minute border crossing, and I was in country number 23, heading south-west along the Black Sea coast.  A coast which takes you straight to Europe.

It’s starting to feel perilously close to the end of the trip now.  Turkey’s quite familiar to many Europeans as a package holiday destination, and the local time has ticked back to within just two hours of the UK.  It begins to feel like home is just around the corner.  Despite the beautiful scenery, the sunshine, and the wide, smooth road, I was feeling a little melancholy as I trundled along.

Then I heard a muezzin calling from a minaret, and I remembered that there’s still actually a long way to go.  Turkey’s going to take a few weeks, as it’s another big country, and then there’s the huge variety of relatively tiny European countries to look forward to before home finally beckons.  No need to worry about the end just yet.

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I haven’t formed much of an impression of Turkey so far.  Yesterday was just the pleasant ride from the border, and I’ve cunningly spent today having a rest while the rain hammers down outside (above).  My weather anticipation is definitely getting better.

But the people have been friendly so far, even though I’m back to having significant language barriers.  Things are more expensive than anywhere I’ve been since Vietnam.  And it’s still cold when it rains, so it’s definitely not summer here yet.

I’ll find out more over the next little while.  I’m heading straight along the coast to start with, but I’m still not sure of my exact route after the first week or so.  There are three options, all of which are more-or-less the same length (though with massively different levels of climbing).

I’ll make up my mind on the way.  The Black Sea might not be black, but it is quite big.

So there’s plenty of time to work things out as I go…

The Unbearable, The Unspeakable, The Unforgettable and the (Nearly) Undrinkable

Central Georgia.

Not top of many people’s lists of places to spend a few days on holiday.  But I think it probably should be.

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Since leaving Tbilisi (above) on Thursday morning, I’ve only covered a couple of hundred kilometres.  Pretty slack by my standards.  I even had an impromptu extra rest day yesterday.  But the last 72 hours have still felt quite intense.

Headwinds, tailwinds, sunshine, snow, climbing, descending, motorways, tunnels, falling off the bike, home-made wine and Joe Stalin’s bathtub.  Actually, perhaps it really has been quite intense…  Where do I start?

When in doubt, I sometimes resort to stats.  Not this time, though (but there will be some at the end).  This time I have photographic proof of how unbearable the weather was on Thursday afternoon:

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You’ll just have to imagine the painful legs and tiredness that had developed during the morning.  I knew there was a lot of rain coming, but reckoned I could beat it to Gori.  The wind (into the face, naturally) began at about 15 mph, and got stronger and stronger.  By the time the picture above was taken, it was gusting over 30 mph (50 kph).  I got slower and slower.  And then the rain came.

It was only a brief (but intense) cloudburst; a prelude to the main storm.  I hid for a while, and then put the hammer down for the last 25 kms to Gori.  When I say ‘put the hammer down’, we’re talking about maximum effort in return for less than 10 miles-an-hour.  Unbearable.

I’m sure there’s a scale for how slippery things are.  I don’t need to look it up, because if there’s one thing that’s more slippery than wet ice, it’s wet cow droppings.

An unfortunately-timed gust of wind drops your front wheel off the road and onto the gravel shoulder.  This is a problem, as it starts sliding.  And it has bags attached.  Time slows down, reactions kick in.  You get the front wheel back on the tarmac (somehow).  Then the back wheel’s on the gravel.  Sliding again.  You get your weight forward to lift the heavy back wheel onto the road, just as the front wheel hits the wet cow droppings.  Bags or not, you’re now doomed.

The only good thing about Thursday is that, having stacked the bike and smashed into the road with my right shoulder (yep, the one the truck broke in Thailand), I can now report that the bike is a tough little thing, and that my shoulder appears to be in decent condition.  Apart from the new abrasions, that is…

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Thursday night.  Looking at the weather forecast.  It says that it’s snowing in Gori.  I stick my head outside.  It is snowing in Gori.  And blowing a gale.  It says that tomorrow will be dry, but that the wind will be up to 40 mph.  Average.  In my face again.  I believe it.  I’m having a day off.

The weather forecast was spot on.  As you can see from the flag ripping itself apart on top of Gori Fortress (picture above), the wind is, indeed, a wee bit brisk.  Thankfully, as well as the castle, and a pharmacy, Gori is the home of the unspeakable Josef Stalin.  So at least there’s a museum (or dictator’s shrine, depending on your point of view) to poke around while I’m there.

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I got to see Stalin’s bathtub, on Stalin’s personal train carriage.  It’s hard to imagine Uncle Joe sitting in there, playing with his rubber ducks and smoking his pipe, while supervising the deaths of tens of millions of people.  Or industrialising the Soviet Union and winning World War 2, depending on your point of view.

The museum is pure Soviet, and could really do with a bit of updating to include some of the less positive aspects of Josef’s career.  But I guess it’s a little tricky for the Georgians.  How do you play it when the only world-famous person from your country is a character like Stalin?

Focus on the scenery and the food (and maybe the wine), I think…

Because, once the wind had not only died, but turned magically through 180 degrees, the ride today was unforgettable.  Sun out, wind at my back, snow-capped mountains everywhere.  The little castle at Surami (below) was an especially nice bit:

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And I met my first fellow tourer since India.  I’ve no idea where they’ve all been.  As usual, I forgot to ask his permission to use his real name, so I’ll call him ‘Mark’.  Another Brit, and another solo inter-continental rider, heading for India via China (which is an especially long way round, in my opinion; but then he’d got to Georgia via Morocco, so what do I know?).  A great chance for the standard bike chat, with projected routes and info shared.

Both of us have been struck by the Georgian hospitality, and especially their penchant for ‘forcing’ home-made wine and vodka, some of which is outstandingly dubious, on unsuspecting guests (in my case, it was the same in Armenia, too).  ‘Mark’ was actually running with a hangover due to last night’s host insisting on ‘four for the road’ this morning.  And I had a 500ml glass of unusually yellow wine waiting for me at my lodgings this evening.

Though to get here, I still had to drop out of the high mountains, towards one of the few flat areas of Georgia, which I’ll cross in the next couple of days, before hitting the Black Sea.

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Lower hills, but the same tailwind and stunning scenery.  By the time I got here, I’d all but forgotten Thursday’s hardships.  A really beautiful run down the valley, twisting and turning in the warm sunshine.  A coffee in the shade halfway down.  Lovely.  That’s bike touring for you…

And, somewhere along the way today, I hit some large-ish numbers.  23,000 km for the round-the-world trip so far.  8000 km (and 5000 miles) since I started Part 2 in Vietnam in December.

So that’s the last three days.  A milestone or two for the trip.  Some unforgettable scenery.  The unspeakable Uncle Joe.  Sometimes unbearable weather.  And the home-made wine.

Which, it turns out, isn’t undrinkable at all…

Capital to Capital: Across Armenia to Tbilisi

This update is a little later than originally intended.  This is not due to any unfortunate mishaps, mechanical disasters, or internet access issues.

It’s simply down to nostalgia and Georgian wine.  Which is entirely unavoidable here in Tbilisi.

Hold on a minute, though.  I’ve just skipped blithely on to another country.  You thought I was in Armenia.  I’d better rewind a little…

It turns out that Armenia has three features which are hard to miss.  Firstly, it’s small.  I’ve just ridden pretty much right across it in two-and-a-half days.  Second, it’s absolutely beautiful, as you’ll hopefully agree from the pictures.  And third, it’s a little bit hilly.

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As soon as you turn north in Yerevan city centre, you start climbing.  There’s no avoiding it, whichever road you choose.  To get to Georgia, you have to cross the southern Caucasus.  You can get an idea of the climbing involved from the picture above; the TV tower poking over the near horizon is massive, and perched on a hill above the city centre.  So the city is a long way down from where this picture was shot.

You might also have noticed the giant volcano in the background.  That’s Mount Ararat (where Noah allegedly parked his ark).  The Armenians love Mount Ararat, and there are hotels, cognac, and all sorts of products named after it.  The slight downside is that, although the town of Ararat is in Armenia, the mountain is now in Turkey.  This is one of several reasons that the two countries don’t get on too well.

Regional politics were not the biggest issue on my radar on Sunday, though, as I laboured uphill out of town.  Yerevan sits at an altitude of about 1000 metres, so the air’s already a little thinner that one would like.  And the day’s ride would take me up past the huge lake at Sevan, which is another 900 metres higher.  I was gasping a little bit, I must admit.

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Still, the big benefit of climbing hills is that the scenery is generally a little more interesting than on flatter ground.  And Armenia is pretty stunning all the way from Yerevan to the Georgian border.  Wiggling through narrow gorges and straining over passes was a fantastic change after the flat lands of the last few months.

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By Monday lunchtime, I was over my second significant pass (above), and dropping in to the town of Vanadzor.  With the exception of a few minor rises around river bends, it’s about 80 kms of generally downhill road from there, all the way to Georgia.

That’s not quite as easy as it sounds, mind you.  There are a handful of scary tunnels (think pitch black with potholes and trucks), and a few rough-ish patches of road.  And Armenian dogs are the most enthusiastic bike chasers that I’ve yet had the displeasure of running away from.  But to be honest, it was a blast, essentially just dropping down one long, stunning gorge for hours.

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My last night in Armenia was where the blog update procrastination really kicked in.  I stayed at a little B&B in Alaverdi, about 40 kms from the Georgian border.  It was a really nice, family-run place, and they made their own wine.  Of course, not to try would be to offend, wouldn’t it?

A few glasses later, and writing anything was off the agenda.  And my journey to Tbilisi yesterday (Tuesday) also got off to a remarkably sluggish start.  There’s a lesson in there, somewhere…

Still, start I eventually did, and enjoyed a relaxing run down to yet another astonishingly easy-going international border.  The Armenian immigration guy had a quick chat, the Georgian just stamped my passport and waved me through.  Maybe a minute of formalities all told (plus a three or four minute ride between border posts), and I was rolling into country number 22.

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I was looking forward to Georgia, although I’ve never been here before.  Long, long ago, when I was in Russia as a student, I kind of fell in love with Georgian food (and also, their sweet and dangerously alcoholic red wine).  Although I’d seen an increasing amount of Georgian restaurants in Armenia, I was going to hold off until I got to Tbilisi, for the full, authentic nostalgia experience.

It wasn’t a hard run from the border, despite a last-minute headwind whistling down the valley as I entered town, and first impressions of the Georgian capital are really quite good.  Entering from my direction, you run along the river, with cliffs, old churches and fortresses overlooking the road.  Apart from the mildly aggressive traffic, it seemed like my expectations were going to be met in full.

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Having found my accommodation, I ran into an Irishman and an Australian who were about to head out for dinner (if anyone’s got any Englishman, Irishman and Australian jokes, let me know).  This, fairly predictably, meant that I consumed a colossal amount of Georgian food, topped up with the obligatory dose of red.  So a blog update was once again out of the question, and a late night round of talking rubbish was inevitable.  And quite enjoyable.

I had a sore head this morning.  Poor me.

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And so, today (Wednesday) was restricted to a slightly tentative exploration of Tbilisi.  Thankfully, I’m right in the middle of the old town here, so there wasn’t too much walking involved between either sights or strong coffee.

As with so much of the Caucasus region, there’s a lot of history here, from churches to monasteries to castles, to impressive city squares.  There’s also a cable car, which was an especially handy addition, given my fragile condition.  The views of the city from the top are really quite impressive.  Although they do remind you that the hills certainly aren’t over yet.

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My next destination here reminds you of that too.  Assuming the weather stays decent (which it may well not, unfortunately), I’ll be aiming for Gori tomorrow.  And Gori (in Russian) means ‘mountains’.  It’s also home to another side of Georgian history; it’s where a certain, less than cuddly dictator called Josef Stalin grew up.

So Georgia should continue to be interesting, with a bit of luck.  I’ll just have to try to stay off the sauce long enough to update the blog again before Turkey…

All Change

It was probably pretty clear from the last update that I wasn’t likely to be in Kazakhstan for this one.  It was time to move on from Aktau.  And from Central Asia as a whole.

Enough deserts.  Enough camels.  And enough full-on ex-Soviet towns with planes on sticks.

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The last of those three may well continue to crop up, however, as I’m still in the former USSR.

The plan (once again, proving itself to be a flimsy and unreliable thing) was to follow the standard route of cycle tourists past, but in reverse.  The Beastlet and I would take a romantic voyage on a boat, across the Caspian Sea to Baku in Azerbaijan.

As a result, I had to leave the delightful panorama of Aktau, which I’d been enjoying from my room for the last couple of days (picture below).

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And, in the early hours of this morning (Friday), I finally arrived.

In Yerevan.  In Armenia.

I know just how sharp many of my readers are.  So it can’t have escaped your notice that this was not the city (or even the country) that I was aiming for.  It’s not like it’s far away, but it’s definitely not the same place.  So much so that Armenia and the country I intended to be in are pretty much at war at the moment.

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Not for the first time, though, doing things in reverse has proved to be a bit of an issue.  It was, once again, bureaucracy which caused the trouble.  This time, it was the Azeri government that was the problem.  Their foreign ministry’s website is quite excited about the fact that tourists can now get their visas online.  According to them, you just need either a ticket or a hotel reservation, put in an application, and the whole thing goes through in a few days.  Hey presto!

So, I sat down in Bukhara (Uzbekistan, for those with short memories) to apply for my Azeri eVisa.  I went to an approved travel agent’s website.  Only to discover that the foreign ministry is full of fibs.  You need to know exactly when you’re going to arrive.  You need both return tickets and a hotel reservation.  And the visa is only issued for the length of your hotel booking (i.e. you’d need to book somewhere for a week or ten days, and then cancel it after you get the visa).

If you can’t fulfil those criteria (few touring cyclists heading west would be able to: you won’t have a return ticket, and probably only a vague idea of when you’ll get there, especially as the boats don’t have a fixed schedule), you’re stuffed.  You’ll need to go to an embassy.

And, of course, by that stage, the last available embassy was already a week’s riding behind me, in Tashkent.  Grrr.  Bad Azerbaijan foreign ministry.

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Thankfully, Aktau has a surprising variety of destinations to fly to, so it was just a case of picking the nearest place for which I didn’t need a visa.  That was Armenia, so here I am (that’s Republic Square in Yerevan, above, by the way).

Sadly, that meant that the bike, which had fondly imagined that its days of being stuffed into boxes were over, had to take one last one for the team.  I’ve solemnly promised that there are no more planes from here on.  But I don’t think it believes me.

Still, I can just mosey up the road for a few days to Tbilisi, in Georgia, and rejoin the planned route.  The little research on Armenia that I’ve done suggests it should be stunning mountain scenery most of the way up there (with some big hills to ride, too).

Which will be a big change from the flat, sandy deserts I’ve been used to for the last few weeks.  It’s basically been flat ever since I left Nepal, in fact.  So it’s time for something a bit different.

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Armenia is also, apparently, the world’s oldest Christian country.  I’m not entirely sure how you prove a claim like that, but it’s definitely a very different culture from the Muslim countries I’ve just left, whereas I guess Azerbaijan would have been similar.  So another change.

And where all the signs in Kazakhstan were written in Kazakh and Russian (both of which use the Cyrillic alphabet), most signs here are in Armenian (and English, surprisingly often).  And as you can see from the picture below, the Armenian alphabet is very definitely new to me:

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I’m still not sure what I bought in that shop…

Given that Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and Armenia were all part of the USSR, it’s amazing how different they are from each other now.  Yerevan, with its broad, tree-lined avenues and street cafes feels very European in comparison to the other side of the Caspian.  It really is all change.

And, as noted last time, I may actually be in Europe already (though not by any definition of Europe that I learned in school).  Yerevan feels European, and looks quite European, too.  So maybe it is?

But I still can’t get my head around the geography.  Turkey’s border with Armenia is closed (they don’t like each other very much).  But it’s just a few miles down the road.  To the west of here, there’s nothing but Turkey for hundreds of miles.  And the whole of Turkey, surely, is in Asia, until you get to Istanbul.  So Armenia, and the Caucasus region as a whole, must be in Asia, too.  Mustn’t it?

Maybe that’s something to ponder as I’m grinding up the first serious hills I’ll have seen in months.  Maybe I’ll be able to work out the answer by the time I’m definitely back in Asia.

But maybe it doesn’t really matter.  It’s different here, for sure.  There are so many of those changes to get used to.  And that makes it interesting.

Whether it really needs a label on it, or not, I don’t know.

Sailing the Steppe (to Where the Streets Have No Name)

In the olden days (olden enough that even I wasn’t born then), ships couldn’t sail against the wind.  Captains would wait in port for a favourable breeze before putting to sea.  Otherwise they’d just get blown straight back to where they started.

I know very well that loaded touring bikes work in exactly the same way.  So I waited another day in Beyneu, enjoying the surprisingly fast internet and the nearby supermarket.  Waiting for the wind to change.

And finally, on Saturday, it was time.  The wind flipped to a more-or-less favourable direction, and I weighed anchor and set sail across 475 km of steppe towards the Caspian Sea, and Aktau.  I was going to try to hammer it in three days, before the wind decided to change again.

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The Beyneu to Aktau road is notorious among long-distance touring cyclists.  A few years ago, it was described as ‘the worst road in the world’ and ‘the bicycle demolition derby’.  It was mostly rough dirt (remember that track from the Uzbek border to Beyneu?) until very recently.

The only reason I thought I could get across so quickly was my chat with the two German cyclists I met, way back in Vietnam.  They said that the new road was only a few months off completion when they came this way last summer.  And, as you can see from the picture above, times have, indeed, changed just a little.

With the exception of a handful of kilometres, the whole run is now on decent tarmac.  And it even has informative signs.  Although, I’d be slightly concerned about why a brand new road already needs warnings about bumps…

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While the first couple of hundred kilometres were just as featureless as the Uzbek desert, things started to change a bit after the little town of Say Otes.  There’s a steep drop-off from the Ustyurt plateau to lower ground (you can just see the – still dirt – road down the cliff on the right of the picture above).

And the scenery suddenly looks…  Well…  Like southern Utah or Colorado in the USA.  It’s not just me, is it?  It definitely has the look of the landscape between Monument Valley and the Rockies, just in different colours.  If you’re not convinced by the picture above, try this one:

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Or maybe it really is just me.  In which case, put it down to desert fever…

Anyway, with the wind still favourable, the riding was good.  I started to imagine I actually was in the States, rolling along long, straight, smooth roads between the Mesas.  This was only contradicted by the occasional disapproving camel, which I studiously ignored.  The wind actually got stronger, and at some points, I was being pushed uphill without pedalling.  Just the power of the wind on the bags / sails.  Fantastic.  This three day thing was going to be, erm, a breeze.

By the end of day two (Sunday), I was already 335 km (210 miles) down the road from Beyneu.  One more long-ish day to go; maybe 90 miles.  The wind would be mostly behind for the first stretch, pretty much across me for the second part, and a cross-head wind for the last forty-odd kms.  But I’d nearly be in Aktau by then.  It wouldn’t be a problem to gut through that.  I went to bed a very happy boy.

Then Monday happened.  These deserts really do have a habit of kicking you in the backside if you get ideas above your station.

The first stretch went much as planned.  Wind in my sails again, I whistled along effortlessly at over 30 kph to the junction at Tauchik, where I turned onto stage two of day three.

Then I got blown off the road.  Twice in five minutes.

Quite literally, blown off the road.

It’s no wonder I was ripping along that first stretch; the wind was gusting over 40 mph.  And now, it was being funnelled through the hills, so I never knew exactly where it was coming from next.  The only thing that was clear was that it was further round than it should have been, and pretty much stopping me in my tracks.

One minute, I was in my lowest climbing gears, struggling to make walking pace as the wind battered me head-on.  The next, I was leaning over at twenty degrees to keep the bike upright, as the wind made a concerted effort to push me off into a herd of those disapproving (and by now, slightly alarmed) camels.

Those sails of mine are really not great when the wind’s not playing ball.  But at least the scenery was still impressive:

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By the time I’d made it a few more kilometres down the road, though, even the landscape wasn’t keeping me happy.  My quads were fried from fighting to move forward.  My back was fried from trying to stay upright.  Even my ears were getting wind-burned.

And, maybe more importantly, I realised that this was actually quite dangerous.  If you’re leaning over against the wind, and the wind suddenly stops, you swerve uncontrollably into the middle of the road.  This is dodgy enough if it’s just the wind gusting and then easing.

If the wind happens to have been blocked by a passing truck, it has very alarming consequences.  Impressive though the wheel-nuts on articulated trucks are, I’d rather not be looking at them from a couple of feet away while swerving towards them in goggle-eyed panic.

After a few more near-misses with lorry wheels, I pulled over to rest and consider my position.  Maybe those sea captains of old had cunning ruses in hand for when they suddenly found they were being blown way off course.  Maybe.  But I didn’t.  At the pace I was going, I’d die of old age before I finished the last 50 miles to town.  If the trucks or the camels didn’t get me first.

For a moment, I was actually considering walking it (over two days, probably).  Thankfully, that particular line of stupidity was cut off by the arrival of Rustam in his shiny 4×4.

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Although he spent a bit of time mocking my idea of a windy day (apparently, you can get sandstorms out here which last for days when it’s having a proper blow), Rustam turned out to be an absolute gentleman.  Bundles of insulation in the back of the car were moved.  Seats were dropped down, the bike was loaded.

And, and hour or so later, I was in Aktau with my rescuer, who also insisted on buying the coffee.  I may not quite have sailed all the way from Beyneu under my own steam (so to speak), but this was a far better ending than I was contemplating by the roadside a short time before.  Thank you, Rustam!

And so, I found myself on the shores of the Caspian Sea.  In Aktau, where the streets have no name.  They really don’t.  I was vaguely aware of this from researching the region before I started riding.  I doubt if Bono and U2 had Aktau in mind when they wrote the song, though…

The city is divided into ‘micro-rayons’, which are essentially large city blocks.  The micro-rayons are all numbered.  Roughly speaking, the micro-rayons change at every major junction.  And, again roughly speaking, the numbers increase the further from the centre you are.  Your address here is just three numbers: micro-rayon number, building number, and apartment number.  That’s it.  It completely does my head in.

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It may also be the most interesting thing about Aktau, from a tourist’s point of view.  It’s a port town, so it’s pretty functional, rather than fascinating.  But it’s good to have the benefits of civilisation (beer, pizza, cash machines etc) again after the desert.  And there are Soviet war memorials, statues, parks and shops.  It’s getting wealthy, too, from oil, as is a lot of this part of the world.

And I’ve managed to get a ticket sorted out for the next stage already.

Depending on how you define it, it’s Europe on the other side of the Caspian.  The Russians see the sea as the dividing line between Europe and Asia, together with the Ural mountains further north.  As a western European, I’m struggling to think that a region which is east of Turkey (which is clearly mostly in Asia) can really be in Europe.

After all, I can’t be that close to home already, can I?  Anyway, more on that next time…

For Touring Cyclists:

I’ve put together a PDF guide to the Aktau to Beyneu road, as it was quite difficult to find anything current (after 2013), and the road has changed so much in the recent past.  The PDF has GPS distances, water and food points, road conditions etc.  Beyneu to Aktau – April 2016.  Or feel free to contact me, and I’ll be happy to discuss.