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.

IMG_1409 Edit

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).

IMG_1402 Edit

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.

IMG_1414 Edit

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.

IMG_1416 Edit

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.

IMG_1418 Edit

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:

IMG_1419 Edit

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.

IMG_1356 Edit

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…

IMG_1362 Edit

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:

IMG_1370 Edit

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:

IMG_1377 Edit

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.

IMG_1383 Edit

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.

IMG_1394 Edit

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.