former soviet union

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.

Back in the (Former) USSR

I’ve been off the bike for a whole week.

I’m feeling a little bit chubby, and a little bit lazy.  Especially lazy, as I watch from my warm room as yet another band of cold rain strafes Tashkent.

It’s been worth the time off, I think.  A few days to recharge, and to ready myself for a lot of long, hard miles to come.  And a little time to adjust to the cultural and meteorological differences between India and Uzbekistan makes the change less stressful.

And it really is a different world on this side of the Hindu Kush.

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I was a little nervous flying over Afghanistan on the way here (above).  Not because I was worried about flying over Afghanistan, but because of some of the stories I’d read about Uzbekistan.

It’s apparently impossible to get hold of dollars here, as the handful of cash machines in the country are always empty.  And I wasn’t sure I’d managed to collect enough in India to get across Uzbekistan.  Customs apparently take your bags apart, searching for prescription drugs, undeclared cash and pornography.  And the currency is apparently so shot that you have to take your money around in carrier bags (due to the fact that the highest note here is only 1000 Soms).

All very dramatic and a bit worrying.  And mostly not quite right (dollar cash machine working, customs polite, bags scanned but unsearched).  Although the currency is definitely shot, and my Uzbek Som are, indeed, in a carrier bag…

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As it turns out (so far, at least), I feel surprisingly at home here.  Yes, it took a few minutes to get India out of my system.  I got in the wrong side of the taxi at the airport.  I gawped at the cleanliness and quietness of the streets on the way into town.  And I thought I might have gone deaf for a moment, due to the almost total lack of honking.  We even stopped at a pedestrian crossing to allow people to cross.  It was all a bit disorientating.  Disconcerting, even.

But, fairly shortly after arriving at my magnificently old-school Soviet hotel (above), I realised that I actually knew how things worked here, and that I was probably going to enjoy myself.  Not that the relatively posh hotels will last for long, mind you…

I was lucky enough to spend many months in the former Soviet Union when I was (a lot) younger, as countries crashed, recovered and crashed again in the 1990s and the noughties.  And I speak enough Russian to get by (it’s the common language here).  By the time I’d had my second conversation about unofficial money changing (with the second person I spoke to – it’s a national sport over here), things were starting to come into focus for me.

The currency here is, indeed, something of a mess.  The government sets the official rate (currently just under 2900 Som to the dollar).  The market sets a more realistic rate (currently around 6600).  Although you’re unlikely to get quite the market rate as a foreigner, you can get close with a bit of haggling (another national sport).  You can see both rates here.

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The dual exchange rate basically halves the cost of anything which is priced in dollars.  Which means that dollar prices initially appear really expensive.  For example, my SIM card and internet package, which was outrageously priced up at $35, actually cost more like $17.  Still very pricey, compared to South East Asia and India, but not too bad.  And, unlike India, it worked as soon as I bought it.

While it’s no longer true that the biggest Uzbek note is 1000 Som (less than 20 cents), things have not changed that much.  The biggest note is now 5000 Som, which is still less than $1 at the ‘real’ rate.  The picture above is a million Som, or less than $200.  And it’s still pretty bulky.

Apart from readjusting to life in the 1990s, I’ve spent my two days in Tashkent generally staring at driving rain.  I managed a couple of little strolls, to inspect the impressive city centre buildings, but the weather has been woeful here since I arrived.

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I’ve also been enjoying the widespread availability of proper cheese, which is an immense step forward.  And I unpacked and rebuilt the bike today, alleviating the last of the major concerns that were bothering me over Afghanistan.  As always (so far!), the bike survived the flight with no obvious problems, and is ready to hit the road tomorrow (Friday).

And it’s hitting the road in a big way over here.  Most riding days will be over 100 km, as I head south-west for a long, long way, before turning to head north-west to Kazakhstan (for another long, long way).  Ancient cities, camels, and long desert days should be in the offing.

There are likely to be some tough days ahead.  But for now, I’m fed, rested, and raring to go.  The Silk Road is calling, and I’m excited to see what it brings.  As long as the rain stops, I’ll be happy…