Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Kazakhstan

Cycling Baku to Uzbekistan via Kazakhstan and Karakalpakstan.

















I didn’t have to wait long for a boat to Kazakhstan. The boat ride was an experience. It is meant to take 18hrs but mine took 55. There was a lot of vodka drunk and a lot of fighting. The first fight broke out before we even left Baku port. (A lot of people have asked so I’ve put all the info on boats, visas in a post at the start of this blog, here.

Leaving Aktau and heading for a far flung border between two far flung countries I was at best feeling nervous and at worst scared shittless. Much like I felt back in England then. The first day was glorious, perfect asphalt and blue skies. The asphalt soon ran out and an icey headwind picked up. I made most of the 500km to Beyneu rattling through the steppe at about 8kmh, teeth bared and muttering curses that would make Chubby Brown listen with interest. It doesn't matter though. I now realise that headwind builds character! The sheer scale and emptiness of the place is awesome and the memory of that headwind fades against the memory of camping out on the steppe, miles away from anything under a million stars with only a few camels skulking aroung for company. An experience I will never forget and something you have to do for yourself to fully appreciate.

The asphalt runs out 200km out of Aktau and it's pretty bad ruts all the way, 300km to Beyneu. Be prepared to make all distances between villages on your own. There are meant to be truckstops/cafes but you can't garuntee they'll be open. For the last 190km to Beyneu there was nothing, absolutley zero save a dilapadated building that was meant to be a cafe, a few camels and about 1 or 2 cars an hour. I think most of the roads in west Kazakhstan are unsealed. The long haul north across the entire country must be one hell of a ride.

Made it to Beyneu, a ramshackle mad max jumble of a place that looks like it's just been dropped onto the steppe. Kazakhstan was meant to be the easy part, there was 300km or so of even worse roads through even more empty land to get to Uzbekistan proper. The thought of dissappering alone, into complete isolation onto the Eurasian steppe for 5 more days didn't appeal and I ended up on the train for 350km to Kunghirot, the first sizeable town in north Uzbekistan. The conductor led me onto the train, announced to everyone that I was a tourist, an Arab from England and then, with all eyes on me, sat me down and gestured for me to lead the cabin in pray.

Will I regret not cycling that leg, or not even attemting to cycle it....maybe. I know it's possible because i've heard of other people doing it but at I was wasted after the Kazakh leg and the sight of the train sitting at the platform was too big a lure. I went into auto pilot and before I knew it was buying a ticket. I was told there was a "road" of some description within sight of the rail tracks but all could see from the train was a couple of tyre tracks through the sand running parallel to the train tracks and zero traffic.

Kazakh kids.

It's not as flat as you think out here, climbing onto the Ustyurt plateau.

Beyneu: A long way from Kidderminster.

A view from the train, I think thats the road down there.

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