- Jamie Shannon
Aktau to Beyneu. Starry eyed nights in the steppe
Okay, just one more day I said to myself. Holed up in my cosy hotel room and knowing precisely what lay ahead of me filled me with just a hint of trepidation and fear. 500 difficult, barren and dusty km’s lay before me and that was only to the Uzbek border. It would be another 500 km’s before I would reach anything resembling a large town and the creature comforts I was now enjoying. One night in Aktau thus turned into four.
The days and nights would get tougher from here on out but this is why I came all of this way. For me, the real test of my grit and determination would start here.
Cycle touring through Kazakhstan. Let's do this!
I left Aktau carrying so much weight, it really did feel like my tyres might explode any minute but I knew from other blogs I have read that that supply stops en route would be few and far between and sold only a few basics. With this in mind, I left with almost an entire pannier bag full of food and devised an ingenious way to transport two extra bottles of water on my bike thus upping its capacity to ten litres. It may have been overkill but I do like to be prepared for any eventuality. Besides, the Kazakh steppe can’t be that hilly……can it?
There were basically two routes I could follow to the small town of Shepte at which point they both met up and two roads would become one. I chose the route than ran along the coast for the first 60 km’s as I had read somewhere that it was asphalt all the way.
On my way from Aktau, someone shouted out from a car “geez mate, you're loaded up." It was an unmistakable Aussie or kiwi accent and he shouted for me to pull over so we could have a chat. Turns out he’s a kiwi who has lived in Aktau for three years running a construction company. He really did advise me not to go ahead with my plan, not alone anyway. He said there were very few inhabitants along the way and you can get only one car passing all day long. He even described it as the Wild West too! I thought he was being just a touch overly dramatic and told him everything would be fine just as it usually is.
The traffic coming out of the city was a little hectic but after ten km’s or so, the cars dwindled and I found myself cycling along with the open expanse of the steppe on my right and the Caspian on my left.
I passed a few towns along the coast that looked achingly depressing places to live and after about 50 km’s, another car slowed down and I found myself having a conversation with him whilst cycling. I asked him to pull over so we could chat. His proficiency in English was quite impressive and it turns out he stayed in England for five months in order to learn the language. He was a doctor whom now worked for an oil company that I found particularly odd.
From here on out, I just cycled and cycled. There were many features to keep me occupied and the terrain was certainly more hilly than I had anticipated which isn’t nice when you’re carrying ten litres of water. The sun was shining however and the fearsome wind that I have heard so much about showed no signs of appearing. I was really quite enjoying it. Then I saw a camel. No wait two camels. I looked on the other side of the road and there were more camels there! Wow this is cool I remembered thinking. Fucking camels! They do look quite stupid.
I found a fairly good spot in which to camp but I had to cycle over a km into the steppe in order to get there. It’s a pain in the ass but you have to do it if you don’t want to be seen.
Steppe Zero, Jamie One
My first night in the steppe was indeed quite magical. I was about to nod off when I thought I might have one last pee before nap time and so opened up the tent. Just as I was putting my boots on, I looked up and saw the most vivid celestial image of the night sky I have ever seen. Even though there was still some light pollution coming over from Aktau on my right, the sky was simply breath-taking in its complexity and the brightness of the millions of stars. I was awestruck, I really was.
The next day went better than I could have hoped. After just 20km’s, a tea house popped up where I was able to replenish my water and buy some chocolate. This ferocious wind I keep hearing about had still yet to arrive and the ‘boring’ desert scenery was anything but. There were many physical features to admire and with the constant company of the camels and the odd pack of wild horses, I was really enjoying myself. It was pretty desolate for stretches though but then another roadside tea house would pop into view.
The weather isn’t so hot either considering where I am. The fact that it's September now helps I guess and for the first time since Sweden, I actually got a bit chilly during the previous night. This bodes well for the rest of my time here and also in Uzbekistan but it also means that Tajikistan is only getting colder too.
The second tea house I stopped at had a teenage boy stood behind the counter. He followed me outside where I sat down in the shade to drink my coke. He kept looking at my bike, touching it and then looking back at me. He obviously wanted to ride it and I would have let him sooner had the last guy whom tried to ride her not fallen flat on his face. Well I gestured that of course it was okay but that I would walk by the side of him whilst he did it. Quick as a flash, as soon as he started to turn around, bang. There he goes. I got hold of it just in time to avoid him breaking his nose, pride and my bike. It’s harder than it looks you know.
After some hard climbs, I arrived in Shepte, the last town on this leg of any importance. What a dusty little backwater type place that is. As I was doing my usual thing and getting lost down the small streets of this metropolis, people kept shouting ‘otkuda, otkuda, otkuda’ at me. Where are you from they were saying. Anglia, Anglia, Anglia I would shout back. And that was my conversation for the day.
Another great campsite booked tonight for free.
Steppe Zero, Jamie Two
I woke up to find my tent being battered by the wind and some fairly heavy rain pelting down. I’m in the bloody steppe, it’s not supposed to rain. Well I guess it’s time for a change of clothes then.
For the first time in months I had to don my jacket and trousers in order to continue the day. To make matters worse, the rain had tuned the ground into mud which made everything a right old mess. The wind was kind of coming from the south east and as I was heading directly east, this was something I could cope with.
After only five km’s, yet another chaikarna (teahouse) crept into view looking very lonely at the side of the road. This was a stoke of luck as I had lost one of my water bottles the previous day and was now down to just six litres. Noooo.
I couldn’t really face another bowl of porridge and so after a short game of charades with the man behind the counter, he walked out from the kitchen with an egg in his hand. It was a thumbs up from me. Ham and eggs it was. Yummy.
I ate my breakfast whilst about six pairs of eyes watched me chew every mouthful. It’s very unnerving you know. As this was playing out, I looked out the window to find several truckers all standing around my bike talking. Who knows what they were saying. They asked the usual questions one asks when they see a strange person but oddly left out the football references and this was fine by me. One of them even offered me a lift in his truck all the way to Beyneu but I had to say no. Things were just going too well I thought.
A little later as I was riding through this valley, all the truckers came flying past. One by one, these huge vehicles flew past all beeping their horns at me. It’s nice to have some encouragement.
I spent the rest of the afternoon riding through such stark beauty that I had to turn the music off and put my shades away just so I could take it all in. Packs of wild horses littered the roadside and it just felt wonderful to be part of it.
It still took me forever to reach the other side of the valley though. That’s the only thing with these long straight roads; the end just never seems to materialise.
When I finally reached the top of a short sharp climb, it all became abundantly clear. I had now reached the infamous Kazakh plateau. Stretched out in front of me was a road that simply went on seemingly forever without a bend in sight and an expanse of, well, nothing for as far as the eye could see for 360 degrees. And the wind. Oh dear lord. It howled and howled past my ears. With absolutely no physical features whatsoever in any direction it seemed, there was nothing to hinder the wind and so it blew and blew me almost to a standstill at times.
I crawled along at 5 km/h for the rest of the afternoon literally using all my energy just to achieve this. I’m only thankful I wasn’t cycling this at the height of the summer because there was not a single rock, tree or bush to offer any respite from the sun or wind. There was nothing. Just an endless view of the sandy steppe in every direction. I felt so small, so insignificant.
There was one saving grace though; the small culverts that ran under the road every few km’s. These would offer a precious break from the howling wind outside and at least allow me to cook my food too. They really did help me get through the day. The only problem was that they were filled with camel shit. Oh well.
When it was time to camp, I looked around. Hmm. Where will I not be seen? Nowhere.
I thought about how camouflaged my tent is, the fact that there was hardly any traffic and about how alert the truck drivers would be having been driving through nothing for several hours. Surely if I walk half a km into the steppe they wouldn’t even spot this little tent in the midst of this vast steppe and so this is exactly what I did.
Steppe Zero, Jamie Three
The following day was spent in much the same way as the previous afternoon; endless steppe filtered off into the distance for 360 degrees revealing such a desolate and barren landscape for as far as the eye could see. The wind wouldn’t relent either, and by early afternoon, I found myself taking break after break. It was getting difficult to say the least. Physically, it was challenging what with the wind but mentally, I was having a hard time. With no maps or physical features to gauge my progress, it felt like I was almost going backwards at times. It was indeed a dark day.
I came across another tea house later on. Well at least I thought it was a tea house but there didn’t seem to be an entrance. Just a toilet outside and lots of truckers sat around talking. It looked like I wasn’t getting water from here. No sooner had I leaned my bicycle against a wall than I was immediately surrounded by eight or ten people looking quite surprised and laughing to themselves too. One guy kept getting money out of his wallet and pointing to my bike. I laughed. Funny man. I asked if anyone had any benzene to spare but after receiving only blank stares, I walked off feeling rather dejected. Just as I was about to remount, they called me back over. They had benzene. They really couldn’t fathom why I needed benzene but I tried to explain anyway. I rubbed my belly. I spooned imaginary heaps of food into my mouth but they still didn’t get me. Sign language, it appears is beginning to fail me.
Well I had my benzene so at least I wouldn’t go hungry. They didn’t even want any money for it either.
I cycled on and on, through the wind and underneath the darkening clouds willing it not to rain. I pushed as hard as I could. Just keep going Jamie. It has to end sometime. By early evening and feeling sufficiently pleased with my slow progress, I attempted to find somewhere to camp but, like the previous few hours, there was simply nothing to hide behind. It really might have to be a culvert tonight. I didn’t like the sound of that and so I pressed on some more.
A few kilometres later, I found myself by a large gorge where a river had once rolled through and thus I had a hideaway for the evening.
Steppe one, Jamie Three
I was now less than fifty km’s from Beyneu and was extremely pleased when I woke up the following morning. The wind had abated somewhat and I powered my way along the road with an enthusiasm that had been missing the previous couple of days. I knew that the end of the first leg lay within reach and this just pushed me on and on.
By eleven, I began to spot the tell tale signs of life in the distance. Smoke was billowing out of some unseen factory and I could make out the faint outline of a large building not ten km’s away. Oh lord I am saved.
Nearing Beyneu and the luxury of a hotel for the night
By noon I had reached the outskirts of this dusty little town. It really did feel like the back and beyond of nowhere but my difficulties were not yet at an end. I must have took a wrong turn into town as I ended up completely in the middle of nowhere – in the outer suburbs I think. Every street was covered in sand which was a complete nightmare to cycle through. Children were everywhere and every single person fixed their eyes upon me. I really did feel like a museum exhibit now. Relent people. Go back to what you are doing. I tried to ignore it and continued on my way but I just came upon dusty street after sandy street. I felt like I was in a hopeless situation and to make matters worse I didn’t even know the Russian word for centre. I pressed on and on and on until I somehow came upon beautiful tarmac. I must be going in the right direction.
I then stopped outside a shop, wrote down the words for town centre and hotel and asked the owner in which way I should go. With some knowledge of where the centre now lay, I cycled on and found the small centre shortly afterwards. Shit. Still in the world of Cyrillic. Now which building looks like a hotel?
The first one I tried offered me a price of 8000 tenge. I left seconds later. I then went into the police station to see if they knew of a hotel close by but that was of no use.
I then cycled back to where I had actually seen the word hotel written above building and enquired there as to how much one night would be. I was quoted 4000 tenge and this I accepted with a smile. A hot shower and a long lie down awaited and I couldn’t help but feel pleased that leg one was over with.
Steppe one, Jamie four