From Alat, Azerbaijan to Nukus, Uzbekistan June 1st – June 14th 2018
Chris ended the last blog saying we are now in Alat waiting for a ferry to cross the Caspian. Heady stuff! And all true. The word waiting can mean different things in different places… ‘Waiting’ for a ferry in Dover might mean an hours uncomfortable wait on a tarmac, white lined holding area. It wasn’t quite like that. We had been warned by fellow travelers about this part of our journey. The boat, in theory, leaves roughly every 3 days. We didn’t know exactly when it was due to leave but we went to the port where we camped just next to the tarmac. And waited.
Maybe tomorrow we were told. Great news. There was another touring cyclist there – Mark – and we were joined during the day by more cyclists and a motorcyclist.. Alat is a bit of a bottleneck.
The mood was laid back. We pottered with bicycles, swapped stories,drank tea in the cafe (a converted container) and cooked pasta. That day passed quickly but there was no sign of a boat. The next day we took down our tents and waited some more. We played a game of stone throwing at plastic bottles, a bit like a coconut shy come to think of it. They told us 10% chance today 70% tomorrow… More pasta cooked. The tents went up again.The next day was hot and cloudless but we were all still upbeat and it seemed that there would be a boat today… And there was! At about 2 p.m. we were all processed through customs and two by two cycled onto the boat.
We were handed sheets and shown to a cabin which was fine. A bit basic but fine. The toilets were okay although there weren’t separate ladies and the locks didn’t work. Much the same for the showers. And we waited. In the morning we woke to the same view. The same port. Breakfast was served – very stale bread, jam and cheese. Then lunch – chicken and pasta. And we waited. Still the mood was good. We played cards with the other travelers and chatted. Then quite unexpectedly without any hooting or change in engine noise the harbor wall slipped behind us. We were moving! Heading out! We all rushed up to the top deck to say farewell to Azerbaijan and then discovered the captain didn’t mind us coming onto the bridge. Hard a-port Mr. Mate I wanted to shout. The little boy in me…
The crossing was uneventful. We were told, once we were on our way that the 24 hour wait in port was for the sea to calm down. And it was calm. Lunch was chicken and potatoes, dinner chicken and pasta and lunch the following day chicken and rice… In 24 hours we were across the Caspian Sea. Kazakhstan!
Before we were allowed off the boat we all had to stand in lines. There were a dozen or so travelers and the other 50 odd passengers were truck drivers. Our bags at our feet. Soldiers came on board and they sent a big dog to sniff everybody’s luggage. All fairly good natured. Then we were bussed 100 meters to a building and processed by immigration. Then a walk back to the boat for our bikes. And back through the same building for our bags to be randomly x-rayed.
Finally We Were released into Kazakhstan.
Then the next part of our journey began. The desert. We had been thinking a lot about this desert. Reading a lot about it and in many ways dreading it. We had a thousand kilometers of desert to cross. We’d read about cyclists carrying 15 litres of water. It was going to be incredibly hot and shade was non existent. There was a train from the port all the way through the desert. We considered that option but in the end decided to give it our best shot. We peddled out of Aktau with some trepidation.
For the first 30 km the traffic was a big problem. The road wasn’t really wide enough for two cars or trucks to pass a bicycle comfortably. We were forced to the edge of the tarmac. The inevitable happened. A bus passed me and i swerved, bumped off the tarmac and failed to bump back on the road. I ended up sprawled across my bike. A driver stopped and I got him by sign language to stop Chris and send her back . Fortunately nothing was broken apart from my rear brake. My thigh took a bashing though and I ended up with a purple bruise the size of a dinner plate. Maybe I was trying to balance up my previous injury…
We pushed on, the traffic thinned and we both started to enjoy the desert.
We passed camels, a large soaring bird of prey, a snake and the galloping horses. We stopped that night behind a gas pipeline. Chris did a little dance to discourage snakes… The following day there were chalk cliffs and endless plains of scrubland. Another cyclist had given us a list of chaianas, complete with the distances from one to the next. Chainas are small cafes where you could buy tea, water and food. We carried about 16 litres of water between us when we left but quickly reduced it to about 10 once we knew we could trust the list.
We arrived in our first large-ish town Shetpe, where we’d arranged to stay with a warm showers host, Bauirjan. Shetpe was the next stop along the railway line and again we considered the train partly because Chris was not feeling too well. But we had enjoyed the desert! It’s true, there was an awful lot of nothing but it wasn’t boring. So after a two day break (with English lessons) we pushed on.
We got lucky with a tailwind and thoroughly enjoyed bowling alone good tarmac roads with little traffic, enough tea shops to keep the wolf at bay (no, not real ones, although Kazakhstan has the largest number of wolves in the world) and great campsites. It was around about here where we met two other touring cyclists, Roberto and Marita, who we had last seen two years ago at the cycle touring festival in Lancashire! It really is a small world sometimes. So we joined forces with them for that part of our journey and all camped together.
It was great to meet like-minded people and to cycle and chat and camp together. We joined forces too against the man eating zombie spiders. That’s what we christened them anyway. They were huge, 8 centimetres, hairy legs, darting movements and waving tentacles. And there seemed to be quite a lot of them.
We were later told by a lorry driver that they were tarantulas. Now, though,with the benefit of Wi-Fi and Wikipedia we think they were camel spiders and reasonably harmless. We are not so sure about the scorpions though
– they didn’t look at all harmless. Despite the endless flat plains we both declared that day to have been a great day’s cycling. Chris called it “the sort of cycling that makes your heart sing.”
We arrived in Beyneu a bit tired and battered, we now had a headwind and found a little hotel which had been recommended. Cold beer was very welcome. And the meal wasn’t bad even though it bore little resemblance to the picture on the menu. “That’s just a photo” they said. I still think it should have had something to do with what was dished up… our room wasn’t bad either. Two beds and a bathroom. Though when we pushed the beds together to the centre of the room we were a bit taken aback by the condom and dust on the floor…
We now had to decide to take the train or tackle the next 500 km of desert. The road, we knew was going to be a rutted sand and the distances between tea houses to be 100 km or more. The deal-breaker was our visa for Uzbekistan. There wasn’t time for us to cross Uzbekistan by bicycle and to see Samarkand and Khiva. So it was a choice between cycle and see nothing or take the train for 500 kilometers and have time to see these cities of the silk road. We chose the train. With a little disappointment. We’d enjoyed the desert. It hadn’t even been as ferociously hot as we thought it would be. But to get all the way to Uzbekistan and not have time to see Samarkand was ridiculous. So we took the train.
The train was due to depart at 0300 so we got a couple of hours sleep at our hotel and presented ourselves at the station at about 0200. Our bikes were jammed upright into a tiny space at the end of the carriage and our bunks were pointed out. So we made up our beds and Chris hoisted herself up onto her bunk. Ten minutes later the lights all came on and the bossy carriage conductor? manager? told everybody to put their beds up and sit on their seats. Soldiers and Customs officials came on board, careful searches of the carriage were made and passports studied and stamped. When it came to our turn they just asked what was in our bags and seemed quite happy with clothes and camping gear… Roberto and Marita had their bags poked a little and their photos flipped through. 0500 and the lights went out. Beds down again and to sleep. Only to be woken again at about 0600by the catering crew coming on board. That is – private enterprise catering crew. About 30 women, each with their own goods, came on board and charged up and down the length of the train shouting out their wares. It was a supermarket on legs.
There was soup and dried fish, porridge, bread and meat. They were money changers and water sellers. Ladies selling dresses and plastic toys. Or you could buy cigarettes, sellotape videos (videos?!) and nail clippers. Ice cream, cola, beer and musical instruments.
Vendors swiftly walked up and down the train shouting their products. Then it all died down and we settled for another doze. Then the train stopped at a passing place and another train pulled alongside which was going in the opposite direction. Doors opened, all the hawkers jumped down and onto each others train. And the whole process started again with a completely new set of vendors. Fifteen hours on the train to Nukus.
The cold beer was swiftly followed by a bed…
Health and wellbeing.
We have been very fortunate so far on this journey in not having had any real health problems. I think that WalltoWall one and Peter’s fractured femur made me, probably more than him, a little nervous and as we get further into unknown territory I find myself being strangely reassured when an ambulance goes by thinking ah, they exist, that’s good. I warn Pete about steps as if he’s a child and we hold hands when we cross the road.
When Pete came off his bike recently, it brought back some horrible memories but he was stoical and we were soon back on the road with just some very nasty bruising to show for the fall. I think Pete was more concerned for his bike than himself as it had a very twisted brake lever which proved challenging to get fixed but probably not as difficult as another broken leg would have been.
My neuroticism surfaced recently when we were waiting for the boat at the port in Alat. It was early evening and I started to get stomach pain and my stomach became alarmingly distended. Appendicitis? Strangulated bowel? I went to bed but thought, what do I do if it gets worse? It didn’t get worse and I woke in the morning like a deflated tyre and decided that the diagnosis was excess wind caused by eating too many dried apricots. Luckily Pete hadn’t been asphyxiated during the night and we both survived the experience.
Next I developed what was probably just a common or garden cold but when I started to get a fever and a painful cough I diagnosed at least pneumonia or pleurisy. Where were the ambulances ? We were in the desert and even the nearest doctor was probably a good 200 km away. When we got to the nearest town I went to a pharmacy and rather surprisingly was able to buy antibiotics without a prescription. I haven’t taken them but it was reassuring to have them in my bag.
My cold is getting better and I don’t think I had pleurisy.
We have seen snakes and scorpions, become overheated and probably slightly dehydrated but have to accept that we are in a risky environment and have to be careful but hopefully not so neurotic as to spoil the experience. I am trying.
We have really enjoyed seeing the camels in the desert. Our first sighting saw us screech to a halt and take excited photographs not knowing for sure whether we would see camels again. But we did. We saw many and they became as familiar as cows would at home. We would get quite close to them and stare at them while they chewed, looking back at us like insolent teenagers. They really are quite ugly and their coats and skin look mangy but we think that they were shedding their winter coats. They made strange moans and groans which could sound quite eerie but from a distance they looked elegant and beautiful as they marched across what seemed like such aninhospitable environment for any animal to survive in.
I realised I knew very little about camels and have found out that the the two humped ones are Bactrian and the one humped are Dromedary. We have seen both. The humps are actually composed of fat which enables them to release water as needed. A camel can drink up to 30 gallons of water in 13 minutes and can live for an amazing 6 months without food or water!!
They are completely suited to their environment and have a third clear eyelid to help protect their eyes from sand and they can also shut their nostrils during a sandstorm. They travel in herds with one dominant male and greet each other by blowing in one anothers faces. When angry or threatened they will spit but it isn’t spit as we know it but contents from their stomach.
These days they are less used for transport or carrying goods but for meat, milk, leather and wool. Everyone has one or more. The children we spoke to in Shetpe didn’t talk of their pet dog or cat but their camel and all the camels we saw were either branded or had a wooden block hanging from their neck with what looked like their name and number.
We tried camel milk as we felt we ought to but didn’t really like it and the cheese made us long for a good crumbly Lancashire.
Carry on teaching.
We haven’t used Warm Showers (the touring cyclists hospitality group) since Turkey and so decided when we came into Kazakhstan that we would as it really is the best way of meeting local people and getting a glimpse into their lives.
So we contacted Bauirjan who lived in a town called Shetpe which would give us a good half way break. We knew that Bauirjan was an English teacher and that his guests would often take part in his English classes. Knowing this made us even keener to stay with him as we thought that would be a really nice thing to do.
Bauirjan lived with his sister-in-law and her 2 little girls Asemai and Zhanya. He is due to get married in about a months time and his new wife will then move from her home in Uzbekistan to be with him.
Their house is under construction but liveable in and we slept on the floor in a carpeted room. For meals we sat on the floor around a large low table and ate from a huge communal plate with our own spoon which was laid down by the plate after each mouthful.
We learnt a little of Bauirjan and how he had become an English teacher just by being moderately proficient at speaking English while working as a tour guide in Uzbekistan. He had about 20 students who he taught for 2 hours 3 times a week and they took time out of school to come to him either at his home or his schoolroom in the town. This was a private arrangement so the children’s parents were paying him.
On our first day in Shetpe we set off for the schoolroom. I was feeling unwell and had lost my voice completely so I knew that the burden of talking was going to fall on Pete but he was OK with that. What we didn’t know was that once Bauirjan had introduced us to the students he would just go and leave us to it. So there we were with a class of 8 students ranging in age from 10 to 16 with no preparation at all and expected to “teach” them for an hour. Disconcerting to say the least but Pete rose to the challenge , put on his teacher hat, grabbed the chalk and leaned against the blackboard as if he did this sort of thing every day. The children were quite shy at first but had some prepared questions to ask us and it went quite well.
The evening session was harder and lasted 2 hours which was far too long for all of us. There were 5 students this time and after an hour they were starting to get restless. I had left the room at one point to get a map and saw Bauirjan lieing on the floor watching TV which made me a bit fed up! The kids were great and at one point got out a dombra, a traditional Kazakh instrument to play for us but then I felt I should go and ask Bauirjan to come back in and help which he did for 5 minutes until someone called and he had to go and speak to them!
At the end of both these sessions, proud group photos were taken of us with the students no doubt to be put onto Facebook to boost Bauirjans standing as a teacher.
All of this wouldn’t have been quite so irksome had Bauirjan showed any interest in us or even spoken to us very much. He spent most of his time looking at his mobile phone even during meal times. It seemed such a lost opportunity for us all especially as Bauirjan had said to us originally that he would love to go to England and immerse himself in the English language. Yet here we were , two English speakers, albeit one with no voice, but a great opportunity to share our lives. The mobile phone trumped all that.
In Bauirjans defence it was Ramadan and he was fasting from 0330 in the morning until 9pm each day. He didn’t even drink any water which in temperatures over 30c seemed very harsh. He must have felt terrible. The rest of the family weren’t fasting so we were able to have other meals with them and not feel uncomfortable . The two little girls were delightful and after overcoming their initial shyness with us tried to teach us to whistle through our fingers, sang and danced and played hide and seek.
They didn’t appear to have any toys at all but seemed happy. I hope their futures are bright but to our eyes Shetpe felt a depressing place. Very hot and dry with no trees or parks, rather crumbly uninteresting buildings, a railway line running through the centre with long goods trains noisily bashing through night and day.
However there was no sense of despondency there and it’s very easy to be judgemental without knowing anything about the sense of community that I’m sure exists. Maybe someone visiting Hallbankgate on a rainy, grey November day might not be too impressed but know nothing of what a great place it is to live !!
There are no vices in Shetpe.
While we are in Shetpe the need to repair Pete’s brake lever became urgent as since his mishap he had been travelling with only one brake. The lever was very bent and he had been unable to bend it back at all. We needed a vice.
We asked Bauirjan where we could find a workshop in Shetpe and described what we needed. He said that Shetpe was such a small town there would be nothing like that here. Pete refused to accept this and said that no town could exist without a vice and from that moment on he was a man with a mission and out we stepped into the hot afternoon sun to start our search.
We were reluctant to put the word “vice” into Google Translate fearing it might be misinterpreted so hit on the brilliant idea of finding an image to show to people. We first went to a garage and Pete pointed to his tablet with the image of the vice on the screen and after much peering and discussion they wrote down the name of the place we needed. Fantastic! We were on our way vicewards only to find ourselves outside a mobile phone shop. We went in thinking that maybe there was a vice hidden away in their somewhere but the lady behind the counter looked very confused and who can blame her when two sweaty, wild eyed English people come through her door talking about vice. We think that our original helpers had thought that we had a problem with our computer and hadn’t even looked at the image on the screen.
The next stop was the fire station where we had seen the firemen sorting out their fire hoses. They didn’t have any vices either but directed us to a garage on the edge of town. They had a vice and within 10 minutes the lever was straightened. Whoopee! !
Do you need a uniform to instil confidence?
Navigating a very large, heavy cargo boat out of a port requires great cleverness as far as I am concerned and it was a (surprising) privelige to be allowed onto the bridge of our Caspian Sea ferry boat as we left Azerbaijan. No one seemed at all bothered by a gaggle of scruffy tourists peering at the radar screens and gazing with awe at the complicated array of navigational instruments that would guide us through the many sandbanks, abandoned oil derricks, shallow waters and out to sea. The only rule seemed to be absolute silence and it was only because of that silence that I became aware of who the captain actually was. No gold braided epalettes here, just an Adidas track suit and worn trainers.
Despite that I was in awe of him and he definitely had gravitas as he quietly instructed his first mate who had the steering wheel to turn a bit left here, bit right there. At least that seemed as if that’s what he was saying as the first mate repeated his instruction and it all began to sound like a mantra . I knew that we were in good hands and felt very relaxed and confident in our safety as the only other sound to punctuate the silence was the gentle clickety clack of the captains prayer beads.
All would be well but we still decided to carry out our own safety drill.
My best and biggest impression of this part of our journey has been the desert. We were both slightly nervous as we had heard it would be tough with long distances between water and shade but I think that it was such a unique and different experience for us that we couldn’t help but enjoy it. My impressions on the first day was of a dry and flat terrain that looked devoid of life, but as we got further in we became aware of a great variety of life and colour and we even had hills with striated slopes exposing a myriad of different colours.
We saw camels, herds of stampeding horses , small mammals that looked a bit like guinea pigs, birds both small and very large, lizards, dung beetles, scorpions, ants, a snake, clouds of butterflies following our front wheels and of course the dreaded zombie spider that sent us all scurrying and screaming. It really wasn’t an animal you could get fond of.
In the evening we experienced a unique stillness and quiet with deep red sunsets followed by a starscape like we have never seen before.
Marita and Roberto
Cycling with Marita and Roberto has been a real pleasure and we were even there to share their 25th wedding anniversary. That particular day started with us all being able to watch the mating ritual of the zombie spider which we called our David Attenborough moment. Imagine the scene when 2 extremely large spiders invaded our camp site but instead of running at us which is what they usually did, one attacked the other and looked as if it was about to eat it. It flipped it over onto its back and carried it away, then stopped and some white fluid appeared. It then dropped the spider and scurried away and we thought the second spider was dead but after a while it too scurried away seemingly ok. Our subsequent research seemed to say that we had just witnessed the mating of two camel spiders. The female will have left this unromantic encounter , dug a burrow and laid between 50 to 200 eggs which she will guard until hatching. The thought of 200 of them emerging from a nest is something that Alfred Hitchcock might have liked to have in one of his films.
Marita loves cooking and has a wonderful ritual when camping. She unpacks her “table cloth” and then sits cross legged at one end. She surrounds herself with pots, pans, cooking stove, herbs, spices, and all the ingredients needed for the meal. All you hear then is chopping slicing , sizzling and the next thing you know is that a beautiful meal has been produced all from a couple of panniers on her bike. Miraculous.
I have yet to find out why so many people here have gold teeth but don’t want to offend by asking.
Is it an alternative to a mortgage and when you get a bit hard up you go and have a tooth removed? I shall continue to try and find out but meanwhile we are enjoying the golden smiles.
Money, money, money.
We are now officially millionaires. Yesterday we went to change £160 and came away with a wadge of notes amounting to 1.5 million Som. Wow.
We are now in Uzbekistan, yet another country with a z in its name. We have to pinch ourselves sometimes but now feel to be well and truly on the Silk Road. People’s faces are changing, it’s getting hotter, we are seeing camels and place names are becoming exotic. Tomorrow we take the road to Samarkand.