Trip Diary – Aktau to Bishkek

Trip Diary – Aktau to Bishkek

With my tedious and slow-paced crossing of the Caspian Sea finally behind me, I felt more ready than ever to jump back in the saddle and explore country number 14 of the trip, Kazakhstan.

What’s more, for the first time since leaving the UK six months ago, I was going to have a little company on the ride, at least for the first five days, with Iain, another British cyclist who I’d met on the ferry from Azerbaijan and who had been part of the mix of walkers, backpackers, and cyclists staying at the hostel by the port in Aktau.

          Last stop off to stock up at a local shop before leaving Aktau

The plan was to stay together until the town of Beyenu, almost 500km to the east of Aktau, when Iain would head south into Turkmenistan and I’d catch the train across the vast central deserts of Kazakhstan into the town of Turkestan where I’d continue my ride towards Kyrgyzstan. I wasn’t too sure how I’d find cycling with someone. What would happen if we cycled at different paces and held one or other up? What if we didn’t get on? I’d consoled my worries a little when I learned his approach to cycle touring seemed to mimic mine: he was more than happy to wild camp every night, rise early, and put long days in if needed. By the time we paid up at the hostel and wheeled the bikes up the drive to the main road, I found myself looking forward to having company.

Back on the road

Leaving Aktau was relatively straightforward. Together we zigzagged our way across the city towards the north, making sure to stay as far away as possible from the large SUVs and trucks that treat the city streets like a race track. City riding stresses me out pretty quickly; you really could do with eyes in the back of your head, especially here. Traffic lights are only sometimes obeyed, and red lights are largely ignored when the streets are clear, which made for more than one close call. Lane markings, it seems, are merely provided just to give someone the job of painting them. The majority of drivers clearly don’t see them as anything more than a suggestion. At junctions, cars pile up with five or six abreast across two lanes leaving little room for us to squeeze by. Within an hour though, we had made it through the worst of the city traffic and found ourselves leaving the concrete jungle of Aktau behind, replaced by a seemingly unending landscape of desert and scrubland.

                   The empty and quiet roads of western Kazakhstan

That’s pretty much how it remained until Beyenu. Vast deserts stretched out to the horizon on either side of the road, interrupted by nothing apart from the odd camel or horse, abandoned building or, strangely enough, cemetery. Dusty tracks occasionally led off our tarmac road into this barren landscape, a hand-painted sign signalling that somewhere over the horizon lay a small village or farm but, judging by the nature of the road, not one that attracted much attention. Occasionally we would spot a gathering of houses off the main road and stop to guess whether or not there might be a shop amongst them we could replenish our supplies from. On a few occasions, after detours of anywhere up to 10km, we came up empty handed having found nothing but a few houses and some surprised locals. Thankfully, most days we could at least find somewhere that would sell us water, albeit nearly always at a rather higher price than advertised, something that became all too familiar wherever I stopped in Kazakhstan.

A land of perfect camp spots

As the days went by, the traffic became lighter and lighter – occasionally we’d get up to half an hour of solitude before a truck screamed past and shattered the silence. By the middle of the second day, we had discovered a pattern to the weather or, more precisely, the winds. In the morning the wind would always blow from behind, making riding easy and ensuring the kilometres racked up quickly, but by early afternoon, the winds reversed and we’d battle a headwind that would last until dusk when silence and stillness would once again return to the desert. So we devised a plan that would serve us well until Beyenu: rise early before dawn, enjoy the sunrise over breakfast, and then spend the morning getting as many kilometres under our belts as possible before the winds changed and then struggle on, eyes fixed on the front wheel and head bowed against the wind, ignoring the pain in our knees, back, and legs until 5pm came and it was time to find a camp spot. One memorable day, we clocked up 80km before lunch thanks to a stronger than normal tailwind, only to cover 20km in the same time that afternoon with the same strong wind in our faces.

            Perfect camp spots in the deserts of western Kazakhstan

Perhaps the highlight for me of these five days spent with Iain was the camping. Finding a wild camp spot in this part of Kazakhstan is easy. We stopped at 5pm and decided whether we preferred the look of the desert to the right or left of us and then just ride over the sand and mud until the sounds of any traffic were lost amongst our vast surroundings. Waking up to the sunrise and complete silence of the desert was one of the best experiences of the trip so far. It’s just simply stunning and highly recommended.

By the time we reached Beyenu, we were both in need of a good shower and a meal that didn’t consist of rice or pasta. It didn’t take long for us to track down a reasonably priced hotel in the centre of town and with the bikes safely locked up in the foyer, we hit up the restaurant for a well-earned feast. I had less than 12 hours until I was due to catch my 5am train the next morning and spent most of what remained of the daylight preparing the bike for the trip, getting fuel for the stove, and stocking up on food supplies.

             Racing the locals

A train journey to remember

When my alarm went off at 4am the next morning, the hotel was dark and deserted. The town lay under a mist and the few street lights that existed flickered dimly leaving the streets in an eerie soft glow. Fumbling around the dark foyer, I fixed the panniers to the bike, unbolted the hotel door, and made my way out into the empty streets. The train station, no more than a dirt strip with a few buildings, lay less than a kilometre away and I made my way through the chain linked fence and into the station just before 5am. What I found took me somewhat by surprise.

Out of the darkness and mist loomed hundreds of people; men standing in groups smoking appeared out of the gloom, their gold teeth about the only recognisable feature in the darkness, and then disappeared just as quickly as I passed by. Hawkers surprised me every few meters as I almost walked straight into their stalls and the piles of passengers belongings (no one it seems travels light here) presented a constant obstacle course as I picked my way through the darkness along the train line in an attempt to find a quiet spot where I hoped the train might stop. But, quiet spots don’t exist, even at 5am, in a Kazakhstan train station. Within minutes of stopping, I was surrounded by curious locals, the glow of a phone would appear and the now obligatory “selfie” shot would follow, each one the same: a grinning gold-toothed local stood next to an obviously bewildered and rather sleepy looking me in a frame pre-dawn blackness and mist.

The train’s arrival brought the platform to life in a chaotic mix of movement and noise. My ticket was for carriage nine, but with no obvious numbers on any of the carriages, I resorted to pacing the station and counting. Outside each carriage, a smartly dressed conductor checked tickets but each one I talked to sent me farther down the train until I reached the end. Clearly my Russian was worse than I thought. Finally, after many hand signals and gestures, I found my carriage only to be told by the female conductor that I couldn’t take the bike on. By this point, 20 minutes had passed since the train’s arrival and I was beginning to panic that I’d be left behind and stranded in Beyenu. I tried again to convince the conductor to let, the bike on and after a conversation that I understood practically nothing of, she finally, although somewhat reluctantly, let me on. With a five-foot gap between the platform and train, just loading the bike proved difficult. My panniers were hurled onboard by a fellow passenger and the bike roughly dragged and scraped up the metal steps. Despite sunrise being still an hour away, I was a sweaty mess but glad to be on board.

             Not ideal, but at least I got it on

Bike bribery 

With the bike still blocking the narrow passageway and panniers spread across the floor, I was motioned by the female conductor into her small compartment with a rough grab on the shoulder. As soon as I stepped through, she slid the door closed and began talking far too quickly in Russian for me to understand a single word, until, that is, she made the international signal for money (a rub of her thumb and forefinger). If the bike was to stay in her carriage, it would cost me $30. I was ushered back out and a spot was found for the bike, so I removed the front wheel and stood it upright in the space between two carriages and locked it to a door I hoped wouldn’t be opened. It had cost me, stressed me, and confused me, but I was on my way out of Beyenu just as the sun rose.

My home for the journey was to be in cabin four, a small room I would share with three Kazakhstan men who I later found out were oil drillers traveling to work in some distant part of the country and, it turned out, were heavily into their vodka, bottles of which were stashed away from the preying eyes of the conductor under pillows and behind curtains. The amount they could drink, from dawn ’til dusk, was astonishing. All of them looked like they boarded the train with their life’s possessions, every possible nook and cranny of the compartment was stuffed with bags, clothing, food, and electronics leaving me no space for the my five panniers. I ended up sharing my narrow top bunk with all my bags, leaving just enough room for me to lie down, always in danger of falling off should the train lurch or brake suddenly, as it often did.

 My home for the journey

I spent the next 32 hours walking the corridors, staring out of windows, checking the bike hadn’t disappeared out the door, drinking chai, and doing my best to make conversation with anyone. It was obvious pretty quickly that I was the only foreigner in the carriage, if not the train, and again, time after time I posed for photos with smiling, often rather drunk, passengers and did my best to explain my reason for being onboard. Sleeping was hard, not only because I only just fit on the bunk but also due to the endless snores emanating from my bunk mates – the type of snoring that only copious amounts of alcohol consumption can produce. By the time the train rolled into my stop at Turkestan, more than 1,000km away from Beyenu, I was more than ready to get off.

Stretching the legs

After a night in Turkestan, I was eager to stretch the legs and get back on the bike. It would be a week of cycling from here to my final stop on this leg of the journey, 700km and a border crossing in Kyrgyzstan’s capital, Bishkek. One of the first things I noticed was just how different the south of Kazakhstan is to the west. Gone where the deserts and vast swathes of emptiness that dominate western Kazakhstan. Here there where more people, more towns, large amounts of agricultural land, and less empty space. Camping spots became harder to find, although the small valleys carved out by rivers and streams, the odd disused quarry, and the cover provided by small patches of trees and shrubs enabled opportunities for a peaceful and uninterrupted night’s sleep.

     Beautiful camp spots can still be found if you look hard enough

Change of seasons 

With winter fast approaching, the weather had also changed. Nights became much colder with temperatures dipping to -5°C in the hours before dawn and I’d often wake up to a tent incased in ice and a world of frost and frozen water bottles. The days remained fairly warm and as long as I was wrapped up in gloves and most of my clothing, cycling remained bearable. All the way to the border with Kyrgyzstan, I was treated to a view of an unbroken mountain range on my right, at times no more than 20km away. Snow capped peaks rose to over 5,000m and acted as a natural and impenetrable southern border between the two countries and provided the backdrop to some truly stunning sunsets.

    Sunsets over the mountains from a camp spot close to the border

Reaching the border

Five days after leaving Turkestan, I arrived at the Kazakhstan/Kyrgyzstan border in the small town of Andas Batyr and was greeted to the now familiar scene of utter chaos that comes with any land border crossing in this region. A mass of people, noise, pollution, dust, and the presence of large groups of police and army personnel all mix together to create a rather inhospitable and uninviting atmosphere. After squeezing my way past lines of stationary lorries and cars, negotiating around bored looking locals, and doing my best to ignore the hawkers offering to exchange currencies, I joined the mass of people filtering into customs. With the bike locked up outside, I stepped inside to be greeted with an even more chaotic scene. The solitary, smartly dressed, border guard did his best to control the pushing and shoving crowds. Clearly, my ingrained British trait to patiently queue would get me nowhere here, and I had to stand my ground or risk never getting through. Despite the crowds, I made it over the border within 45 minutes, collected my bike, and wasted no time crossing through the big metal gates and away from the madness. After 199 days of cycling, I’d made country 15, Kyrgyzstan.

                        Closing in on the border with Kyrgyzstan

One thing became clear immediately. Gone where the smooth roads of Kazakhstan with their small hard shoulders. Kyrgyzstan was a land of poorly kept roads, a labyrinth of pot holes and gravel, broken tarmac and glass that would test the bike’s build quality over the next 100km into Bishkek. The riding was slow with most of my time focused on the meter or so of road ahead of me in an attempt to avoid the worst of the obstacles. Towns seems to line the road for its full length, merging into one another without a break. That night, I camped in the only open space I could see on the map, along the banks of a small river, sheltered from the road by a small rise and three or four trees. Despite houses all around, my first night in Kyrgyzstan was a peaceful one, if not cold and mosquito ridden.

Bishkek loomed up on the horizon late the following afternoon. The road widened but remained in terrible condition and the traffic became steadily heavier. The closer I got to the city, the more terrifying the experience. Busses brushed past me and taxis cut across me, forcing me off the road on more than occasion. At traffic lights, cars honked the second the light changed to amber and I’d be left sandwiched between vehicles negotiating four lanes of traffic in a cloud of diesel fumes and screeching tyres. Eventually, after much confusion and resorting to ignoring, as most locals do, one-way systems, I found my way to the hostel I’d booked and checked in, glad to be out of the noise and madness and happy to have survived the city’s roads.

The peace and quiet of the hostel gardens

Kazakhstan had been quite the experience and one I’ll never forget. The people were amazingly friendly and the landscape was truly stunning. There are far worse countries for a cycle tour, that’s for sure, but just be prepared to be the centre of attention in the smaller communities. Now then, where can I get a drink around here?

This diary entry covers dates from 10th Oct – 28th Oct, 2017

 

Edited by – Emer Garry

 

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