mud

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.

The Wet, Muddy and Slightly Spooky Way to Perfect Cycling Country

The story of a day of two halves (and the day after, too)…

Sunday started damp in Vietnam, at the foothills of the mountains which form the physical frontier with Laos.  It had rained most of the night, so the roads were wet.  Which translates into dirty.  But, by the time I was ready to go, the weather had decided to restrict itself to low, dark clouds.  So I set off.

The road deteriorated into mucky dirt for a little while.  Then it turned into a four-lane highway for a few hundred metres.  Then it stabilised into a normal, average road.  Gently rising through smaller and smaller villages.  With very little traffic, which was a plus.  If a little odd for one of the main routes between Vietnam and Laos.  Maybe it’s busier during the week?

Then the climb began.  I knew it was about a 15 km, 600-odd metre haul to the border.  Which is just a little different from the Dutch-style flatness of the Vietnam coast, but I was prepared for that.  Jens and Bjorn (the two German cyclists I’d met the night before) had said that the hill to the border was really steep on my side, but that I’d have a great run on the other side in Laos.  So I was prepared for that, too.  And in the end, it wasn’t too bad; three or four steep sections of around 10-12%, with decent stretches of false flat in-between to get my breath back.

What I wasn’t so happy about was riding more than half the climb in the clouds.  Which really means light drizzle, with visibility down to less than 50 metres near the top.  I ended up putting the high-viz jacket and lights on to give the logging trucks half a chance of seeing me.  Several sections of the hill, where the surface had been removed for repairs, had deteriorated to mud and slimy puddles.  One of the muddy puddles was deep enough for me to get my feet wet.  Grr!

And, if I wasn’t happy about it, the Beastlet was even less so, as it clicked and ground its previously spotless drivetrain (and even the disc brakes) on mud:

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I finally clattered and wheezed my way to the top of the hill to find the spookiest border crossing I’ve yet encountered.  The visibility was down to maybe 20 metres, and I spent a while on the Vietnamese side circling parked trucks, shouting “Lao?” at the handful of ghostly figures who emerged from the gloom from time-to-time.

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Eventually, I found my way to the apparently deserted border post on the Vietnam side.  I checked a couple of empty rooms which might have been passport control.  I began to worry that I might accidentally leave the country and enter Laos without even seeing an official, let alone having visas or stamps or anything in my passport.  About the fifth ghostly trucker I asked finally pointed me to the passport desk.

I knocked on the glass to wake up the sleeping border guard (as you do), who dealt with my stamp very efficiently, and then, slightly bizarrely, offered me some chewing gum.  I’m still not sure exactly what he was trying to say, but I was out of Vietnam.  Almost.

There’s about a mile of no-mans-land between the two frontiers, with another huddle of parked buses and lorries, and a massive building, which I guess will one day be a new Vietnamese border post.  It’s still completely deserted at the moment, but with near-zero visibility, cost me another few minutes trying to work out if I needed to do anything there.

I gave up in the end, and started down the hill, hoping to come across a border post for Laos.  The clouds began to lift almost immediately.  By the time I glided in to the well-staffed and friendly Laos border at Nam Phao, sorted out my visa on arrival, and had my passport stamped (all of which all only took about 15 minutes, but cost me an extra $2 because it was Sunday), it was dry, and the sun was threatening to put in an appearance.

By the time I’d negotiated my way around a comically aggressive miniature poodle, and got a couple of kilometres down the road, it was wall-to-wall sunshine.  On a perfectly smooth, almost empty road.  With a tailwind.  That is a decent recipe for a big smile on a muddy cycle-tourist’s face.

And I even got a nice sunset, just after I got into Lak Sao, the first town of any size (or the last, I suppose, if you’re going the other way).  I’d only been in Laos for a couple of hours, but I already liked it.

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If the first impressions of Laos were good, yesterday (Monday) blew me away.  I was only going 60-ish kilometres (still easing in to the ride, so not piling the miles on too hard).  But what a 60 km!

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The road from Lak Sao was stunning from the start, with mountains on both sides.  There was still virtually no traffic.  The sun was out, but up at around 400m altitude, the temperature was around 25C, and the humidity negligible.  And after the permanent haze, diesel fumes and clammy dampness of northern Vietnam, the air was crystal-clear.  Beautiful cycling in a beautiful country.

Towards the end of the ride to the little village of Na Hin (where I’m having my first full rest day of Part 2 today), there was a short, sharp 200 metre climb, with some properly steep (15% plus) sections.  So I got a decent workout.  And then, over the top, a superb, fast, twisty 400 metre decent to Na Hin.  I nearly hit a snake and a deer (not at the same time), and I did hit 40 mph on a loaded touring bike for the first time in ages.  An absolutely spectacular day’s riding.  I’m still smiling now, just writing about it.

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So, what next?  Well, it’s nearly Christmas, apparently.  In marked contrast to Vietnam (which left me never needing to hear Wham’s ‘Last Christmas’, or any form of dance-remixed carols, ever again), it’s no big deal here in Laos.

I’m thinking at the moment of riding through the big day to Vientiane (I should be able to get there by Christmas afternoon if I can get across the mountains to the Mekong river tomorrow; it’s less than 300 km in total), and then having a mini-celebration and another day off on Boxing Day.

But we’ll see.  In case I don’t get another update in beforehand, I hope you all have a great Christmas.  I’ll certainly update this again before New Year.

Meanwhile, I’ll be enjoying this spectacular country on two wheels.  Which feels like a pretty decent present at the moment…