I’m in Uzbekistan – words I never thought I would write. It’s quite surreal really, being in a country that sounds so far from home, a country I knew next to nothing about before this trip. Yet things tick along as usual, I keep pedalling and the kilometers pass by, people wave and offer me bread and water. It is such a relief to be back into the swing of things, rather than sitting on my hands at Alat port.
Once I had finally caught it, the ferry itself was rather pleasant. We boarded around one in the morning, then got to bed at around 3a.m. In my cabin were myself, Hubert (the Frenchman who was also deported), Grytzen – a Dutch gardener, and Andrea – an Italian Software Engineer living in Oxford. At the 8.00a.m. breakfast, Andriy, a Ukrainian truck driver who was parked next to my little camp spot at Alat, spotted me and sidled up. Breath stinking of Vodka and waggling bread in my direction he drunkenly offered me both, which I managed to avoid with my very limited Russain – telling him Пять Минут! (5 Minutes!)
Half an hour later and he spotted me again, I couldn’t escape this time and with a large arm clamped around my shoulders, he persuaded me to join him. 5 shots of Cognac at 8.30a.m. was a little much for me, but the truck drivers huddled together in the cabin were friendly enough. I muddled through some Russian, spoke of my plans, was told I was crazy, then finally left after an hour. My cabin-mate Andrea, who had spent a year in Russia as a teenager, was not so lucky and he and Andriy quickly became inseperable, it seems when a drunk Ukrainian truck driver likes you, you just have to go along with it.
The rest of the day was a hazy mix of naps, eating, chilling, exploring the boat and occasionally bumping into Andriy – who would always greet me with a booming “Josh!” and a hand around my shoulder – for incoherent Russian practice, although understanding drunk Russian will probably come in handy in the coming months. A beautiful Caspian Sea sunset topped off the day, by which time Andriy had settled into a stupour. We landed in Aktau, Kazakhstan the next morning, a fun crossing and certainly more exciting than the Dover to Calais…
Delays in Baku (have I mentioned them?) mean I’m fighting against my Uzbek visa dates and with this in mind, I took the disappointing decision to take a train across the no-mans land of Kazakhstan to the Uzbek border, to save five days. In some ways it’s a shame, but in many other ways I don’t really care and this way I get to cycle the whole length of Uzbekistan. The train itself was a wonderfully charming sleeper, overnight from Aktau to Beyneu. A 1000 Tenge bribe was enough to allow my bike to be put in my sleeping compartment – a small wooden clad affair and (bonus) no snoring Kazakhs joined me. One day I’d like to come back and do the full 40 hour ride to Almaty, with the quaint carriages, restaurant cart and desert scenery it seems it would be a pleasant affair.
Disembarking at 5.00am in the Kazakh border town of Beyneu, I rolled out to a chilly sunrise and headed for Uzbekistan. A surprisingly short border crossing followed – only one and a half hours, easy considering the horror stories I’d read about online- and I was into Uzbekistan! For the first time on this trip I’ve had to be really self sufficient, as the next town was 5 days’ ride away – loading up with days worth of water, food and stove fuel. This has of course made the bike heavier and the roads were pretty rough near the border, meaning progress has been slightly slower.
Karakalpak’stan is the name of the near empty desert region of North West Uzbekistan. Bordered by the Kyzyl Kum desert to the east and the Karakum to the south, there’s not a lot here and many cyclists opt to skip it, in favour of the better known Silk Road cities (Khiva, Bukhara, Samarkand) that lie further south. But I am so pleased that I did not do the same, as desert cycling has been truly unique and, in October, suprisingly pleasant. The road (singular, for there is only one) stretches out to the horizon, the sun shines down but in autumn at a pleasant mid-twenty degrees and when the cars or trucks are out of sight it is beautifully, staggeringly quiet.
It’s tempting to say there’s nothing here, but the fauna slowly show themselves, especially if I stop for a break. Desert foxes sprint out of sight from the road and I’ve crossed paths with numerous small rodents, as of yet unidentified, who burrow into their sandy homes as I thunder past. There is also one animal I couldn’t possibly miss, being on the silk road it is, of course, the camel. They’re pretty docile, especially the ones who are unfortunately chained by the legs, but I never tire of seeing them. Nothing makes you feel further away from home than having a camel plod past you and giving you a bemused stare as you stop for a water break.
If I had cycled through this region 50 years ago then to the east I would have seen, shimmering, the waters of the then fourth largest lake in the world – the Aral Sea. 68,000 square kilometres surface area of water, fed by the Amu Darya and Syr Darya rivers, the great arteries of The Stans. Now – barely 10,000 square kilometres remain, split between the twin puddles of the North and South Aral Seas, neither visible from the road I was cycling. Unlike its more nomadic neighbours, Uzbekistan is a country of cotton farmers and during the Soviet Era, where production of crops was everything, more and more water from the Amu and Syr Darya was diverted for irrigation. The Aral dried up, the fish died and Karakalpak’stan lost its main source of prosperity – Man’s effect on the environment, plain for all to see.
No Rest for the Wicked
I’m blasting on south, through the deserts and out the other side to Bukhara where after 10 days I will, like so many silk road travellers before me, take some rest. The iconic Samarkand will follow, then a mad dash to the border to get out in time and avoid the $5000 fine or gaol time. Wish me luck!