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.


Desert Storms

I’ve taken a bit of a beating over the last few days.  Deserts are not to be taken lightly.  Even (or maybe especially) when they’re cold and wet.

I’ve also made it to country number 20 on the round-the-world ride (Kazakhstan).  But it hasn’t been easy.  And it hasn’t all been on the bike.

It all began well enough.  I picked up a decent tailwind on the way out of Nukus on Sunday.  It was a bit chilly, but the sun was out.  I was a happy boy, and fairly flew up the (generally) well-surfaced main drag towards my second stretch of Uzbek desert.  I had three long days (each between 130 and 140 kms) to the end of Uzbekistan.  If they were all like Sunday, it would have been a doddle.

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It’s easy to spot where the Ustyurt Plateau begins (spellings, once again, differ).  Not because, being a plateau, you have to climb a massive hill to get to it.  You can see most of the hill above, and it’s really not very big.

But the ‘city’ on the skyline to the left of the picture is an unmistakeable marker.  And it’s not a standard city.  It’s a city of the dead.  This is a local tradition, on both sides of the border; the dead are all put together, in tombs ranging from the basic (the ones that look like houses if you zoom in) to the flamboyant (the ones that look like mosques).  It’s quite a spectacular sight, and with only about 30 km to go to my first stop in the desert, it made a nice end to a good day.

Day two couldn’t have been more different.  I’d timed my exit from Nukus to coincide with what should have been two days of tailwinds.  The weather had other ideas.  A 30 mile-an-hour headwind greeted me as I turned north-west (the last turn for three days).  Within an hour, it was pretty clear that I wasn’t going to make the 130 kms that I had pencilled in for the day, to Jasliq.

It’s pretty demoralising to realise so early in a ride that you’re not going to make it.  And riding solo in the desert, self preservation dictates that you need to be careful.  I decided to give it another hour to see if thing got better.  Meanwhile, I began deliberating whether to turn back, or to try to flag down a lift.

Things didn’t get better.  After two hours on the road, I’d made 20 kms.  And it had started to drizzle.  As soon as I stopped, I could feel the wind-chill stealing my body heat.  This wasn’t going to end well.  I found some partial protection from the wind, and waited for a vehicle to come.

It took a while, but I was eventually picked up by a road-building crew.  I’m not sure exactly what the process is for building roads over here, but there were fifteen of them in the truck.  They dragged me and the bike on-board, with a warning that they were only going to their camp, another twenty kms on.  But that there might be a bus later.  They stopped twice on the way to the camp, once to hammer in a wonky fence-post, and once to pick up some wood.  That appeared to be the team’s entire output for the morning.

In any case, they were all really nice, and forced me to thaw out next to the stove and drink tea while waiting for the (possibly mythical) bus to arrive.  Eventually, four hours after they picked me up, a bus arrived.  The bike was thrown unceremoniously into the back, on top of a couple of slightly (and understandably) irate pensioners, and I got to sit in the front and be lectured at by the driver as he flew along the road to Jasliq.

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I felt a little bit defeated.  But I also know that being wet and being thrashed by a cold wind (counting the wind-chill, the internet says it’s only the equivalent of 5C at the moment) is not a good mixture.  The road-workers and the bus saved me from either retreating to the previous night’s accommodation or possible hypothermia.  So I’m very grateful to them.

On arrival at the picturesque motel at Jasliq (the town also comprises a gas compression station – in the picture above – and a notorious prison.  And nothing else.), I discovered another evil awaiting cyclists in this part of the world.  The Ustyurt mud.  You can see some in the picture.  It’s like no other mud I’ve ever come across, and clogs bikes to a standstill within a couple of yards.  More like wet concrete than traditional mud.  It’s horrendous.

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Thankfully, as Tuesday dawned, it was sunny again.  The wind had shifted to a crosswind, which is not comfortable, but doesn’t slow you down too much.  My composure and confidence returned, and I began making decent progress towards the tiny hamlet of Karakalpakiya.  Look it up on a map.

The picture above could have been taken at pretty much any moment in the last 350 kms of Uzbekistan, which gives an idea of the sheer monotony of riding slowly through a completely unchanging landscape.  Tuesday was only enlivened by an unexpected storm front moving through in the afternoon.  This time, I was too far out from shelter, so I spent an exhausting (but at least vaguely interesting) couple of hours trying to out-run the incoming rain on an increasingly broken road.

I nearly made it, too, before being thoroughly soaked about 5 kms short of my destination.  And that 5 kms was enough for me to be a shivering wreck by the time I finally collapsed into a basic, but super-heated tea-house for my last night in Uzbekistan.

At dawn yesterday (Wednesday), I had the most beautiful view in the world.  Ladies and gentlemen, I give you the metropolis of Karakalpakiya:

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I also had the headwind back.  And the border to look forward to.  And the infamous dirt road from the border to Beyneu in Kazakhstan.  A dirt road which I knew would be at least partially clogged unrideable Ustyurt mud.  Because it had rained some more in the night.

I got to the border at about eleven.  I’d read a lot of mixed reviews; most cyclists seemed to agree that it took about two hours to get through, as bags were thoroughly searched, medications inspected, dollars counted and so on.  It took me forty minutes in total.  As a tourist, you get to jump the queues.  And the customs on both sides decided that asking if I had anything illegal was enough.  I’m now in the slightly odd situation of being in country number 20, and not having had a bag searched so far.  The only land border that was easier was between Vietnam and Laos.

And so, I popped out of the Kazakh customs building, and into the dirt.  It’s still far from clear to me why, when the Uzbeks have gone to all the effort of building a tarmac road (not a great one in places, admittedly) all the way to the border, the Kazakhs haven’t done anything at all for the first 60 kms on their side.  It’s not even that there’s a poor gravel road.  It’s that the only route is desert dirt, compacted by trucks.

When it’s dry-ish, it looks like this:

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And yes, the eagle-eyed among you will have spotted that I was in a vehicle again.  I already explained about the mud.  I knew there would be some.  And there was another line of showers incoming.

I talked to a man with a four-wheel-drive van at the border.  A price was agreed.  It was just as well.

Even with 4WD, it still took us over three hours to drive the 80-odd kms to Beyneu.  This was mainly because, about half an hour from the border, the deluge began:

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I counted at least ten articulated trucks stuck up to their axles in the mud within 20 kms.  I can’t imagine what it would have been like trying to push the bike through.  Or how the trucks will get out, come to that, once the concrete-mud sets.  It may be cheating, but taking that van was definitely one of my better decisions.

And so to Beyneu.  A small and not-especially attractive little town, although the fact that it has supermarkets, hotels and mobile phone shops is more than enough for me, after the barren wastes of the last few days.

I should be leaving tomorrow (Friday).  Apparently, the once-notorious road from here to Aktau on the Caspian Sea is very nearly finished (locals say that there’s about 30 km of dirt in the middle, but the rest is all gold).  And it’s not entirely impossible that the headwinds may ease enough to give me a decent chance of making the run.

It’s also not entirely impossible that I’ll have another day off, or that more cheating may be on the cards.

If I’ve learned anything from the last few days, it’s that the most sensible way across the deserts of the former Soviet Union is in one of these:

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Oh…  Spot the camel, by the way.

We’ll see how it goes.  But I’m not sure that I’m mentally strong enough to fire into another 450 km of desert just yet.  And yet that’s all there is in front of me.  And behind me.  Erk!

For Cycle Tourists:

April 2016 – The desert stretch from Nukus to the Kazakh border has not changed since previous (2012/13) write-ups.  There are still only three water / food points once you’re into the desert from the south.  They are still in the same places as identified in other posts.  The southern truck stop (Bon Voyage, on Google Maps – 140km from Nukus) is now a big complex with restaurant and good hotel rooms ($40, but at official rate, so really $20).  The Al’Yan at Jasliq – 130km from Bon Voyage – charges $10 (at official rate) for a bed, or $5 to sleep in the chaikhana itself.  Both Bon Voyage and Al’Yan will do registration.  The Karakalpakiya chaikhana (130km from Jasliq / 20km from border) is still free if you eat there.