The feeling of dread I had felt on that first morning in Kazakhstan made me reluctant to get out of bed and check out of a particularly comfortable hotel I treated myself to. I made it to Central Asia and the epic silk road cities of Khiva, Bukhara, and Samarkand beckoned; but before I could enjoy them I had to cross the more difficult leg of my bypass around Iran.
My plan, for lack of an alternative, was to ride across the Karakum Desert to the oasis town (relatively speaking) of Beyneu before heading back south and into Uzbekistan. The internet told me it was going to be difficult, with tales abound of bad roads, relentless winds, and extreme heat if you choose to go in July, as I had.
This part of the world had been crossed by players from both sides of the so-called ‘Great Game’, the diplomatic and subversive contest for influence and control in Central Asia between the British and Russian Empires. It felt exciting to be following in the footsteps of the il-fated Russian expedition to Khiva or the British adventurer-come-spy-come-viceroy or India, George Cruzon. On the other hand, I had recently read the latter describe this remote corner of what is now Kazakhstan as “The sorriest waste that ever met the human eye.” As such, the road ahead ominously stood before of me as I loaded my bike with about 5 days of food and 25 litres of water that would ensure I had enough to drink and cook with between the occasional village. The water was solely for drinking; for cleanliness, I had to make do with wet wipes and the reassurance that few people lived there to judge. And so, I hopped on the bike, wobblier than ever under all the extra weight, and cycled out of Aktau and into vast swaths of nothingness.
After the first day’s ride from Aktau, I was alone on a deserted, dirt road. The only things around me were a set of power cables on one side of the road and a railway line on the other. Everywhere else was filled by a dry, dusty landscape habituated by a smattering of hardy shrubs, pumpjacks, and wild horses. A few days later I was on the pancake flat steppe; nothing penetrated the horizon except for those power cables and with no hills, towns, or other landmarks in the distance, it felt like I was in the middle of an ocean and there nothing for me to gauge progress except the distance on my bike computer. A teahouse popped up at the side of the road every 70km but, after the initial excitement of coming into view over the horizon (due to the promise of ice cold drinks and the luxury of water to wash the layers of dust and sunscreen from my face), it took a frustratingly long time to get to.
It was July and it was hot; too hot by 10:30. So I continued the desert routine I used in the hotter parts of Azerbaijan: I would wake up and hit the road before sunrise, riding until the heat got a little too much when I would find the nearest spot of shade I could find. If I was lucky, this would be a teahouse; if I was less lucky, this would be a drainage pipe that passed under the road. Either way, I’d wait there until the worst of the afternoon heat had subsided, around 5pm, and then carry on riding until sunset, when I’d just pull off the road and set up my tent anywhere I wanted.
While the temperature was predictable, and my routine could somewhat circumvent it, the wind was not. Every day seemed to come with a powerful and relentless headwind that slowed me down, often to a walking pace that made each day hard, frustrating, and, when neither of the former, just plain boring. It was the wind that was what made this part of the trip so difficult.
Daytime brought with it the heat, the dust, the wind, and the boredom of waiting to avoid the worst of all those things. But night time brought respite and beauty to this otherwise depressingly barren part of the world. The challenges of the day were compensated for each night with the most beautiful night sky I have ever seen. As each day out there ended, the wind died down and I was left with nothing but complete silence. It was this time, bookended by a rather spectacular sunrise and sunset, when you can appreciate the environment you’re in and forgive the difficulties of the day. Sleeping under the stars was my optimistic intention on many nights but this only lasted around 15 minutes before I heard the rustling of (presumably) huge, flesh eating/poisonous desert insects and I quickly put up my tent.
Mercifully, the final stretch to Beyneu on the 5th day was on smooth, brand new asphalt. When I finally reached the town, I found the nearest shop that had a fridge and downed a 2-litre bottle of freezing cold, sugary iced tea on in the shade of the sidewalk – covered in alternate layers of sweat, dirt, and sunscreen – thinking about what I just accomplished.
And therein lay the problem: there really was little sense of achievement for cycling all the way across part of what I knew would be one of the most difficult stretches of the road to China. Later that day I was reunited with two other cyclists I met in Baku. We had each taken our own way across the Caspian Sea and crossed the desert via various means: one hitched, and the other caught the train. I certainly didn’t feel like I was the ‘winner’ or deserved any bragging rights for cycling it all. In fact, I felt a bit of a fool. Why didn’t I think of hitching a ride? Stubbornness, probably.
Later that day one of the motorcyclists I met on the boat emailed me about the road ahead. It didn’t look good and the three of us decided to catch the train, avoiding the worst of the road between Beyneu and the Uzbek border and shaving off about 3 days of riding. This allowed us to use the time saved to make a detour to see what remains of the Aral Sea instead (more on that later).
The train, of course, broke down. In the mid-afternoon heat and with no pipe or teahouse to hide in this time, I sat in the carriage sweating and reflecting on what cycling across this part of the desert had taught me and about what I actually wanted from this trip. This whole thing was never an attempt to cycle every inch of the way. I’m no hardcore cyclist and a bike has always been a means to an end. In the past, it was to avoid the horrors of the London Underground during rush hour. Now, I came to realise cycling was merely circumstantial form my desire to independently see the world from an interesting perspective without spending a lot of money. ’Cycling around the world’ was not the primary goal, even though I might accidentally end up doing that one day. Or I might not. It doesn’t matter.
They say there are two types of people on bikes you come across on the road: there are cyclists who travel and travelers who ride a bike. I came out of the Karakum desert knowing I was certainly the latter, and this realization has influenced how I ride from then on up to now, and how I will continue to ride in the future.
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