There is a 500km section of road between the ferry port Aktau, and Beyneu in South Kazakhstan, that is renowned amongst cycle tourers for being desolate. It goes through the steppe; almost but not quite desert, this is a semi-arid, scarcely featured landscape with nothing but low scrub as far as the eye can see. In June temperatures frequently get up to 40 degrees. There is little shade outside towns, which can be up to 100km apart. We had intended to skip this section by taking a train straight to Uzbekistan, mainly because of my poor track record in hot climates, but also because we had read that it would be uninteresting. But then we met a couple in Tblisi who really enthused about it, especially their experience of ‘riding in the nothingness’ and this made us reconsider.
We knew it would be tough and it required a bit of planning. How much food and water should we carry? Where would we find shade, and how often? It was difficult to find answers to these questions as we were relying on offline maps. Most of the towns looked very small and it was hard to tell whether there might be a shop or a cafe. We heard some cyclists had carried as much as 15 litres of water each! However, we were reassured that there are ‘шайхана’ (çaykhana) or teahouses along the route, and there would be tunnels under the road at regular intervals where we should be able to hide from the midday sun. By now we were excited by the challenge and the prospect of discovering a totally new landscape. We had to at least give it a try…how bad could it be??
We rolled off the ferry donning our new desert attire; long sleeved collared cotton shirts and hats, and factor 50 suncream. But it was midday, and far too hot to start riding! So after stocking up on our staples of rice, lentils and oats, we decided to go for a leisurely lunch whilst we waited for it to cool down. We thought we should be able to refill our water fairly easily, so we took our usual 2L in bottle cages and an extra 5L bottle each, strapped to the rear pannier rack. We wrapped these in foil to stop the water from getting hot and tasting of plastic, a handy tip we picked up from our friends in Tblisi.
By the time we eventually set off it was late in the afternoon. We waved goodbye to the Caspian sea and turned inland, where the scenery was mostly just the dusty outskirts of the town, but it gradually became less built up. We came across camels on the roadside (the first of many) – bizarre creatures with their huge humped backs and squishy feet that enable them to walk on scalding hot ground. Many of them were still in the process of moulting their winter coats, and were trailing clumps of fur or sporting shaggy beards even more impressive than Max’s!
The people we met definitely looked different from on the opposite side of the sea; although there is still some turkic influence in the Kazakh language and culture, people appear more mongolian. The road signs and shopfronts were now written in Cyrillic script for the first time on our trip. We suddenly felt that we had crossed a geographical divide, and were now in Central Asia for real.
The next day was not exactly what you would call a gentle introduction to desert riding. We learnt some valuable lessons. We had intended to get going early to make the most of the coolest part of the day, and our plan was to ride split shifts, finding somewhere shady to sit out the midday heat, and then finish riding in the evening. But the last few days of ferry shenanigans and lack of sleep had caught up with us and we slept through our 6am alarm. Big mistake! We finally got riding by 9am, with a stiff crosswind, and it wasn’t long before the temperature rose above 30 degrees. After 25km the road turned right, uphill and straight into the wind, which was gathering pace. There was a teahouse at the junction but we hadn’t covered enough ground yet to take a break. Our average speed slowed to 12km/hour whilst we battled on, sweat evaporating off our skin the second it started to bead, tongues sticking to the roofs of our mouths and sand gusting into our eyes with every passing vehicle. We were making painfully slow progress despite working hard to keep the pedals turning. I am no stranger to heatstroke, and began to realise that this level of exertion in the current temperature was not sustainable for long. Max had spotted an interesting geological feature on the map, ‘the valley of the balls’ where we thought we might find shelter and shade for a lunch stop. Maybe we needed to venture further away from the road, but the balls we found turned out to be a great disappointment, no more than a metre high and with the sun now directly overhead, not a chance of any respite. We traipsed across the scrub to a cairn, ate our sandwiches in between mouthfuls of sand, and tried decide what to do next. We met a steppe tortoise and felt quite envious that he could fit in the tiny patch of shade underneath the rocks! We considered using the tent flysheet as a tarp but we doubted it would help. It was 1pm, and we knew it would be unbearably hot for at least another three hours. So our options were; go back down the hill to the teahouse and face slogging up it again later on, or keep going for another 17km to the next town. We opted to plug on into the hot wind.
It took us nearly two hours and was easily the longest and toughest 17km I have ever ridden. We were relieved to finally find a çaykhana when we reached the town, with a cool, tiled interior where we spent the next few hours. Unfortunately there was no power or running water, but they did have ‘samsa’ – a kind of flat, triangular, Kazakh version of a Cornish pastie. We stirred a teaspoon of salt into our lukewarm sprite which seemed to ease our thumping heads. We reluctantly got back on the road around 5.30pm, but it was still baking hot. I soaked a shirt in water and wrapped it round my neck and shoulders. It was lovely and cool at first, but after only 15 minutes it was dry as a bone! Bedding down in the tent late that night after a total of 107km, we both admitted we had considered sacking it off and taking the train the next day – we were outside Shepte, the last place this would be possible. However, it felt too much like quitting, and neither of us like to quit! We were just going to have to step up our game. We now had a newfound respect for the steppe… it was going to require an expedition mentality.
The next morning we woke at 5.30am, happy to see a few clouds in the sky, and the wind had dropped to a gentle breeze. Time to get cracking! Once out of the town the road climbed and then descended into a beautiful wide valley, hemmed by chalk and sandstone outcrops, eroded into interesting shapes, occasionally revealing pretty bands of orange, white and pink rock. Another short climb revealed an incredible view; the rocky edges petered out into literally hundreds of miles of vast, flat nothingness. I felt as if if I was looking out of the window of an aeroplane.
Apart from the road, you could barely detect a trace of human existence. At first glance there appears to be no sign of flora or fauna either, but in fact this unique environment is surprisingly biodiverse. ‘But where is the water to support all this life?’ we kept asking ourselves. I now understand why they say people hallucinate bodies of water in the desert, because the heat haze on the horizon creates a shimmering mirage. I mistook it at first for the Caspian sea!
Day three was panning out much better so far; we were back up to our usual pace, and by 11.30 we had already covered 70km. But at the back of our minds we were constantly wondering where we were going to find shade. The clouds were long gone and the mercury was rising. There were no clues on the map, and the next town was still 50 km away. We had already investigated a few of the so called tunnels.. I just about managed to crouch inside one only to discover that here there was a trace of human existence.. not a pleasant one. There was no way we were going to hang out there for five hours!! So we continued. Thankfully, not too much further on we found a much larger one. It was surrounded by a huge puddle of murky water, and to get inside we had squelch through ankle deep mud, but it was shade!!! Each perched on our own rock, feet in the mud, we ate, dozed, brewed coffee and somehow managed to pass the time until it was cool enough to ride again.
In the afternoon we climbed one last hill to reach a sandy plateau. The wind was up to its old tricks, and now there was no picturesque view, just a long line of telegraph poles stretching ahead to infinity. It gradually dawned on us that this was going to be our view for the next 200km, and were just going to have to get our heads down and grind it out. With the ferocious wind constantly trying to push us backwards, and no landmarks to confirm our forward progress, it became far more of a psychological test than a physical one. We tried playing eye spy…and funnily enough it was more interesting than usual…because it was actually harder to think of a word than to guess! We called it a day after 122km, just outside a small town where we managed to buy water, unfortunately all in 1L bottles..but needs must!
Day four we stuck to our early wake up routine. The wind was howling again but alas, had not changed direction. We kept thinking it could be worse; the road could be unsurfaced, there could be a steep hill…then started to worry that around the next corner these things could all come true. But then we remembered that there were no corners for the next 150 km!! So we just kept turning the pedals and saying silent prayers to the wind gods.
We were relieved to find another tunnel to hide out in just at the right time. And this one was clean and dry, so we could get out our thermorests and sleep for a couple of hours, bliss!
When we got going again the wind had finally abated, and we were ticking along at 22km/hr without too much effort. We knew we needed to seize the opportunity for some serious mileage, and the idea of carrying on into the night started to take root. ‘Have you ever ridden a hundred miles?’ Max asked. ‘Nope’. ‘Maybe now’s the time!?’
By dusk we reached a village, ‘sidings no. 5’. We figured that these settlements had been built during the Soviet era to service the railway. This one now looked pretty run down but had a lovely feel with all the kids out playing in the cool of the evening. We were directed to a tiny shop where we managed to find water and food. They had no bread but when I asked, someone ran back to their house to bring us a loaf, and refused to let us pay for it. We rested and refuelled by the side of the road with spaghetti and a tin of unidentifiable fish that we had to eat with our eyes closed. At 11pm we were back in the saddle with renewed enthusiasm, eager to reach our goal of a desert century.
The darkness gave us a whole new landscape. And as luck would have it, there was a beautiful, bright, full moon in the sky. When there were no cars, we turned off our lights and cycled by the moonlight. The steppe seemed to come alive with creatures; foxes, hares, gerbils, singing crickets…and one tiny pair of glowing eyes that turned out to be a jerboa – a hopping little fella with huge ears and kangaroo legs. We read afterwards that they can hop along at 48km/hr, which is significantly faster than us!!
Just as we were starting to feel the effects of our extra long day, that damned headwind picked up again. Our estimated 2am finish became 3am as our pace plummeted. Thank god for snickers!! They powered me through the last 30km, which felt like an eternity. I think even Max was tired by the time we stopped and pitched our inner tent, with the lights of Beyneu in sight on the horizon. But we had broken the back of it now, and felt very satisfied to have reached our 100mile target.
Five hours later we dragged ourselves out of our beds to roll the last 20km into town, and straight to the train station. We no longer felt any reluctance to get on a train for the next 600km stretch of hot, sandy steppe. Been there, done that!!! In retrospect though, I’m very glad we did.