Straight roads and a sprint
We wake up to the sound of rain pattering against the dark window. Yesterday we were still eager to pitch our tent outside, but a friendly farmer convinced us to take shelter inside his small and currently abandoned house, next to his house. Lying now in my sleeping bag and listening to the rain, I am very grateful he offered this shelter to us. During the summer workers probably live here, but as the harvest is over the farmer has no need for further help. The house isn't exactly clean, but we set up our inner tent inside and indulge on the bread the farmer brought us.
We are in West Uzbekistan, only 350 km away from the Kazakh border. The temperature is low and the forecast not very promising. We hope to quickly push through this last bit of Uzbekistan and western Kazakhstan to reach the city of Aktau before it gets too cold. But the total distance is approximately 1000km on not always good roads and sometimes with a strong head wind. Fast is relative when traveling on a bicycle.
As it continues to rain, we take our time eating breakfast and packing our things. Luckily at 11:30 the rain stops and we eagerly grab our panniers, pack them on the bikes and hope to still get some kilometers done before dark. As we step outside, we notice that the powdery lose soil from yesterday has turned into a sticky clay-like mud. It immediately adheres to our shoes. We start pushing our bicycles, but the mud sticks to the tires like glue and gets caught in the mud guards, clogging them up completely.
We are only 150meters away from the main road, but our path is unpaved. Soon the bicycles are impossible to push. Together we half carry, half push the bikes towards the road. Finally after 45 minutes of hard work we reach the asphalt, but the mud has agglutinated the chain, cassette and wheels. With our bare hands we clean the bikes. By now, our clothes and shoes are also covered in mud and our hands are freezing. It is 1 o'clock when we finally pedal off.
This western bit of Central Asia is characterized by desert landscapes, where in the summer temperatures reach a scorching 40º to 50º C while winters are extremely cold and the mercury drops to a freezing -40º C. At the moment we are in between these two extremes: day temperatures of around 10º, nights at 0º or less. With the sun out its OK to cycle, but the camping did get a bit uncomfortable.
Before starting this stretch, I had read some other cycling blogs where travelers described it as monotonous, mentally challenging and either really hot or really cold. For most parts, this road is completely straight, especially on the Uzbek side. Not many people live here and tea houses, the chaihanas, are sparse. I was a little anxious when we started cycling here.
However, this stretch is full of life. Thousands of great gerbils live along the road, poking their heads out of their burrows.
With such a large rodent population, carnivores have an easy game. Foxes both scavenge for dead gerbils hit by vehicles and hunt them in a surprise pounce. On our first day of cycling we saw 15 foxes! and also the following days we saw at least one individual per day.
Another predator that roams these vast lands is the golden jackal. Unfortunately the only individual we saw was lying dead by the side of the road.
After that first rainy morning, the skies had cleared up the next two days and we were making good progress towards the border. Twice we slept in the tent, but due to the rain the air was saturated and water drops condensed and later formed a thin layer of ice on the tent and bicycles.
On the day we crossed the border and entered Kazakhstan for the third time, the sky had turned gray. As our things were damp from camping the previous nights and we felt frozen to the bicycles, we looked for an alternative sleeping place for the night. In the distance a small train station appeared, not too far from the road. We knocked on the door and two surprised but friendly workers peaked out the old soviet station. We first asked for a camping spot next to the building, but they welcomed us inside and let us sleep in a small room.
80km after the border crossing and 40km away from our little train station lies the small city of Bejneu. We arrived at lunch time but decided to stay a night as the wind was strong and chilly and we wanted to rest. To our dismay, the next morning we woke up to a light drizzle. It is frustrating to be stuck in a place where there's nothing to do, so we put on our rain gear and cycled off.
The next days the weather didn't improve. Fortunately we had a slight tail wind and as it was too cold to stop for long breaks or lunch we were making good progress. More fortunately we encountered a chaihana every evening where we could spend the night and enjoy a warm dinner.
One morning a young camel was wandering around in the parking lot of a chaihana. It curiously eyed us getting the bicycles ready and then came closer to get a better look. I slowly reached out my hand towards the animal, but it turned its head away and nervously blinked its eyes, a reaction I have seen before in domestic animals which are beaten. So sad to see such a beautiful and impressive master of the desert being ill-treated.
Thoughtfully we left the young camel behind us and were soon treated with some sunshine! We were getting closer to Aktau and the Caspian Sea and the landscape changed. Sure it was still desert like, but we had to cycle up and down into canyons and over small hills. Along the road were large round stones and on several occasions we spotted fossils in the rocks. A geologists dream.
On the thirteenth day we arrived in the city of Aktau. A place surrounded by oil fields and without any real tourist attractions. But it is the sea-gateway to Azerbaijan so many travelers come through this place. I was tired after 13 days of cycling and instead of going to the port to check when the ferries leave, we checked into a hostel. An hour later a young French-German couple walked into the hostel dressed in motorcycle clothes. We started up a conversation and were surprised to hear that they had just bought tickets to a ferry leaving early tomorrow morning. Other travelers had told us stories about people being stuck in Aktau for days and even weeks waiting for a ferry and now it turned out one was due to leave within a couple of hours. Maybe we could also try to board this ferry, I thought and asked the young couple when the boat would leave. "A man will give us a call and tell us to come to the harbour," they answered, "We can ask him if there is still room for two more passengers, if you like." Of course!
Two hours later the phone rang and yes, they still had room for us. "But come to the port as quick as possible, because the ship will leave soon," the man added. In a rush we packed our things again, made sure we had the right directions and jumped on our bicycles. 15km to the port, doable in 40 minutes, less if we push it. We raced through the dark city and along the shoreline - what a thrilling sprint in the night. Quickly bought our tickets, went through customs and were sent to the ship. The crew was still unloading the trucks and no passengers were allowed on deck yet. We sat beside the large ferry, between port cranes and containers.
Why we had to rush so much before, I do not know. We waited for at least an hour in front of the ship. Four other travelers were waiting to board the boat with us. When we finally were let on board, an energetic middle aged woman showed us the cabin. A cabin for six with bunk beds and a shared toilet outside. The ship was still tied to the shore when I finally laid down on the bed, exhausted. It was 3AM when I fell asleep to the soft sound of waves beating against the ships side. After four months of cycling in Central Asia we were now off to a new region: the Caucasus.