Thursday 8th June – Aboard the ferry boat from Alat to Aktau
We wake at 5am and the ferry still feels like it’s not moving. We go off to investigate and find the hold is now full of lorries but we’re still in the docks. About 6am we finally set sail.
8am – breakfast. 2 boiled eggs, stale bread, jam, honey, cheese and çay.
10am. Ferry drops anchor.
12pm Lunch – soup and chicken and pasta. The ferry is still at anchor. We’re still only 30km east of Baku. Apparently there are strong winds out at sea and we’re not moving until they ebb.
We’ve spent our time today reading, playing cards and planning our Uzbekistan phase. So both relaxing and constructive. In Uzbekistan we only have a 30 day visa but from border to border it’s 1800km. That’s 36 day’s cycling at our usual pace. So we definitely can’t cycle the length of Uzbekistan instead we’re hoping we’ll be able to use the train for the desert areas.
8pm. Dinner – soup and chicken and potatoes and more stale bread.
Friday 9th June – Aboard the ferry boat to Alat
4am. Finally the anchor is raised and we set sail.
The remainder of the day is spent snoozing, reading and playing cards. We even persuade Marta and Coco to play cards too but Nominations probably was a bad choice. It’s tough enough explaining the rules to British players.
Saturday 10th June – Aktau port to Aktau town and Zhetybai
Distance: 95.62 km
Total Distance: 13734.62 km
4am. There’s a knock on the door, we’re in Aktau port. The ferry is still reversing into its dock but we manage to get our bags down into the hold before being evicted.
We have to wait for the custom officials and their sniffer dog. Then we’re sent to the quayside before being driven to the customs office.
Once our passports and registration slips have been stamped we walk back to the ferry, sort out our gear and head off.
But then we called into a holding area whilst the officials check the contents of our bags. One of Daz’s front tyres is a bit low, as is one of mine so Daz takes this opportunity to pump them up. Disaster our new pump fails and Daz is not impressed. The other cyclists are also having their bags checked so we borrow a pump from Thomas. Tyres inflated and off we head but the officials still hold us at the main barrier – personally I think it’s just so they can take a selfie with the trikes. Finally at about 6.30am we’re out. We head into Aktau town centre.
In the centre there are many soldiers and police formed up – perhaps for a parade. I spot a Holiday Inn. They’ll be able to help; we need money and the exchange rate, a Kazakhstan SIM, location of the Migration office and location of a bike shop. We get money ; it’s the Kazak Tenge. 352:1€. Lyzzat, the receptionist, tells us the Migration Office won’t open until 9am and the shops perhaps not until 10am. But they’re serving breakfast and there’s WIFI so that’s where we head. Lyzzat prints some documents for us and then at 10am takes us to the shopping mall and helps us buy a SIM.
She’s also phoned bike shops and the Migration Office for us. She gives us her phone number and tells us to call if we have any problems. Our first Kazak encounter and she’s been unbelievably kind and helpful.
We cycle out with the intention of going to the Migration police officer but bump into the other cyclists who have just been and they say we don’t need to register. We join them in a supermarket to stock provisions then head to a bike shop. It’s already incredibly hot. We get there but no bikeshop. Fortunately a mechanic, Alexander, asks us what we are after and his friend, the Pastor, Maxim, offers to take Daz in his car as it is a long way. I wait around, drinking tea with the workers. Finally they are back successful, new pump acquired.
We swap numbers with Alexander and Maxim and they tell us it’s going to be tough going and tell us to ring if we have any problems on the road. Then we cycle out of Aktau into the Kazakh desert. We need to cycle 80 km to get to our next probable water stop. Just before leaving the outskirts we stock up with 8 litres of water. What follows is an unbelievable exhausting 8 hours of cycling in blistering heat. At times we both feel nauseous from the temperatures. Fortunately we are given water a couple of times by passing cars and roadworkers otherwise we wouldn’t have made it. At its hottest our thermometer reads 43.7 degrees. By 6 pm it’s still over 40!! Not only is it hot but it’s unremitting barren plains.
There’s nothing to see, no wildlife just dry scrubland with the occasional camel or herd of horses. We both slip into zombie mode desperate to stop but without shade, there’s no point. We finally sight our garage stop in the distance and arrive at 8.30 pm. There’s a little shop and we guzzle cold drink after cold drink. We buy 2 big 6 litre waterbottles then cycle around the back to some scrubland and pitch camp. We eat some tomatoes and bread with olive oil and herbs and 2 ladies come to visit. They want us to join them for çay and use their shower but we’re just too tired.
We use one of the 6 litre bottles to wash the sand and grime off our bodies. By now it’s 10 pm. And the moon comes up.
Within minutes of getting into bed we are asleep! What a day – hellish just about covers it. In fact it probably was the temperature of hell!!! At least now I’m acclimatised to what awaits me in the afterlife lol.
Sunday 11th June – Zhetybai to Shetpe
Distance: 85.95 km
Total Distance: 13820.57 km
A light shower during the night and this morning it’s overcast and cloudy. We’re so pleased, it should keep the temperature down.
After a porridge breakfast we head off. We were warned by Björn that the winds across Kazakhstan were formidable but we’re much more aerodynamic than conventional bikes and stable in cross winds. An initial strong headwind soon switches to a tail wind when we turn onto another road and we make good progress.
We know the key points today are the village Zhetybai at 10km, a hamlet, Bika, at 50km and then Shepte at 85km. There’s nothing, and I mean nothing, in between. At the first village progress is good so we push on. The cloud cover means we have a cooling 27deg C. Such a relief after yesterday. At Bika there’s a roadside restaurant (in the Kazak sense) and we stop for dumpling soup, burger and mash followed by coffee. Delicious.
We have an hour’s break to prepare for the last phase. Today, like most of yesterday, there’s abundant roadworks and often one lane of the dual carriageway is closed. This is our special domain. It means often having to negotiate earth banks (used to block the lane), trenches and holes that are being dug and handrailing the road along the dirttrack if there’s fresh tar or tarmac. But regardless it beats being on the main drag and reduces the dust clouds we have to endure. It also means we meet many of the road construction gangs who make us stop, not for a bollocking, but for group photos.
The last phase is tough. We’re tiring and the wind isn’t so favourable. Finally we hit Shetpe. As we come over the hill and see it lying in the basin below, I feel almost tearful. I can’t believe we made it. We fly down the hill and cycle into the town. I wish we’d videoed it, it’s like coming into a modern wild west town. It’s just bizarre.
We find a place for dinner and then on the outskirts a spot to pitch camp. The last 2 days have been the toughest cycling to date and it’s not the terrain which fortunately lends to our strengths – flat, good roads.
It’s the distances we need to achieve to get to the next water stop. We carry full water bottles and about 5L in our reservoir for top ups. It’s extra weight we’d rather do without but we need the water!
Monday 12th June – Shetpe to Sayotesh
Distance: 128.00 km
Total Distance: 13834.78 km
Last night the storm clouds that had chased us most of the afternoon, finally caught up but by the time the rain hit we were tucked up in bed. This morning after a porridge breakfast we supplement our water reserves at the petrol station and then we’re on our way.
Today there’s a village at 28km and a railway station (possibly also a village) at 70km. Other than those there’s nothing out there in these desolate plains. 70km should be doable but today there’s no cloud cover and it’s already incredibly hot and it’s only 9.30am. We’ve only just started when a truck pulls up in front. We’re muttering to ourselves about a photo session but no, the driver gets out and there’s no evidence of the camera or phone. Ahhhh he’s just checking his truck. But no he wants us to stop. And then he only wants to give us a lift to Beyneu. He has an empty box body truck. Ummmm decisions, decisions. So we take the lift – why? Because we can and because we feel it’s our duty, afterall our site is ‘Any which way you can!’.
So we load all our stuff into the truck and off we go. Our hero today is Polad, originally from Azerbaijan, but now living in Astrakhan, Russia with his wife and 2 children. We decide Beyneu is just too far. It’s almost at the Uzbekistan border but since our UZ visa doesn’t start until the 18th June, it would just be too much time to kill. So we decide on Sayotesh which was our intended destination for tomorrow. We drive through the desert, now it’s a pleasure to see the miles flying by rather than dragging.
Especially when we hit some big hills. After the hills it’s just flatness. A row of pylons crossing the desert plains the only feature except for the occasional camel. On the outskirts of Sayotesh Polad stops at a cafe. He treats us to coffee and we swap WhatsApp and Facebook details.
We unload our gear and say farewell to Polad – what a wonderful chap. We return to the cafe for more coffee and ham and eggs. A guy, Ruslan, from Kazakhstan comes in – he eats at the table next to us. He’s travelling around in an old Soviet 4 wheel drive, radio command truck. For the spotters out there – a Gaz-66 R-142N Command vehicle.
He’s really chatty but sadly the internet connection here is so poor we can’t communicate well. But he shows us his truck, gives Darren a special bracelet – it’s like a James Bond accessory with firestriker, whistle and paracord.
We swap details and we’re told to send him messages and selfies. We decide to head into the town of Sayotesh – big mistake! The kids follow us on their bikes and keep kicking out at us and trying to hang onto our panniers.
We’d hoped to find a bar/cafe/restaurant so we could just relax for the afternoon,out of the sun, but there’s only a train station and 2 shops. We can’t decide what to do but we know we want to get away from the kids who keep messing with our trikes and gear. We buy some provisions and then head out of the village. On the outskirts we see a house that’s half built. Perhaps we can camp next to it for shade.
When we arrive we discover there’s a house next door. We knock on their door and ask if we can camp in their backyard. They agree and that’s what we do.
Tuesday 13th June – Sayotesh to Railroad Siding 6
Distance: 54.28 km
Total Distance: 13889.06 km
Porridge and flies for breakfast. We hit the road and that’s it for the next 54 kilometers. It’s flat, well maybe we are gaining a couple of metres per kilometer, but with a slight tailwind we are scooting along at about 20 kmph. We are passed by the occasional truck, and we in turn pass the odd camel or herd of wild horses. It’s great seeing the stallion watching us as he protects his mares. There are a lot of foals at this time of year too.
Apart from that it’s dull, but with the music playing and feeling strong after yesterday’s rest day we make good progress. Highlight of the day was seeing loads of desert rats scurrying through the low scrub. There are no trees here, and very few birds. It’s weird thinking we are side by side cycling down this dead straight road through the desert for miles. With a couple of kilometers to go we can see our stop for the day materialise out of the heat haze. On the map it’s marked as Railroad Siding number 6. It’s actually about 3 km to the left of the road down a side track, but when we reach the turning we see that there’s actually a cafe – restaurant on the junction. From the Sayotesh experience we know we’re better off with these roadside cafes than the actual villages. They have 2 tables and we sit at one. Ramen soup followed by eggs and fried processed ham.
After eating we get some Internet time using our phone as a hotspot. We receive messages from the Defence Attache in Tashkent. This is great for us because we’ve been planning to send a parcel by the BFPO system to the Embassy. Unfortunately whilst it’s possible to use a courier it’s incredibly expensive and there’s no guarantee the locals will allow it through customs without a hefty bribe. We also hear from the Defence Attache in Astana, Kazakhstan. He’s been chatting to Dave and Tracey (Tbilisi) and he’s offering assistance (24/7). Loving the Embassy network – what an incredible bunch of people. We also agree they can put our blog on the Embassy website. Fame once again.
Admin done we relax, write the blog then go round the back of the cafe to pitch our tent in the desert. The kids come out to watch and assist.
Wednesday 14th June – Railroad Siding 6 to Railway Siding 1
Distance: 100.41 km
Total Distance: 13989.47 km
We’ve decided desert camping is a tough gig. Invariably there’s no shade but a guaranteed strong wind ensuring we’re enveloped in a dust/grit cloud of varying severity. Sand gets into the tent and into all our bags and even into my tea (sacrilege). Despite having an easy schedule the wind drives us out of the tent at 8am (in the wind the tent makes hell of a din so it’s impossible to lie in). After our breakfast (yup still eating porridge, but now more gritty) we pop into the cafe for some water. She gives us some donuts for our trip. They’ve been lovely here and seem genuinely pleased to see travellers.
We hit the road at 9am. Our target today is Ushyurt, next to a railway siding, at 48 km. Between us and it, nothing. There’s no cloud cover today so it gradually heats to a barmy 37 deg C. At 12.30 we reach today’s destination.
There’s the obligatory cafe/restaurant next to the road and in we go for lunch. It seems the only thing on the menu is ham and eggs and a mug of tea. By the way, in Kazakhstan they serve white tea, it’s with camels’ milk. Sadly the proprietor doesn’t seem that friendly. No smiles and no attempt to converse (yes I know we can’t speak her language but usually there’s some degree of receptivity, but not here). Yesterday we spent hours in the cafe before setting up camp next to it. Since we’re not feeling the love we decide to push on. We’ve made good time this morning, so Siding 1 at 100km should be achievable. An afternoon of heat, miles of straight road disappearing in a heat haze and………. well nothing really! Highlights of the day; a car stops and the guy gives us 5L of water, a box of biscuits and a packet of Tuc biscuits. Another guy gives us a packet of nuts and a ribbon for our bike and we meet a very inquisitive lizard.
We’re tiring and just shy of Siding 1 when we spot a restaurant. Gutted, it’s closed. We make Siding 1 and there’s…….. nothing. Bugger, the obligatory cafe/restaurant isn’t here. This is a huge disappointment. Thank God Daz took the 5L of water off that guy. We spot an abandoned building. These are scarce indeed. We walk over to investigate. It’s an unfinished house with no roof that’s just been abandoned. Inside it’s clean and there’s shade. Perfect. Our home for tonight. Our abandoned house was a perfect site. Quiet and shaded! Daz was shattered so he had a nap whilst I made dinner, a rare event indeed.
Spaghetti with garlic, chilli, oregano and lashings of olive oil. We ran out of milk, 3 in 1 coffee sachets and had less water than usual so a wet-wipe wash and wet-wipe washing up after dinner – disgusting admin drills.
Thursday 15th June – Railway Siding 1 to Beyneu
Distance: 39.32 km
Total Distance: 14028.79 km
After a porridge breakfast and a very late start (10.15 – Daz wanted to finish his book) we hit the road. It’s going to be a hot one, it’s already 37 deg C. The ride into Beyneu is as interesting as the last few days although a goat herder comes to check us out and we’re surprised when a van passes and we spot Thomas hanging out of the passenger window waving frantically!
On the outskirts of Beyneu the wind is hitting us head on and the dust clouds are severe. Finally we arrive at the train station. We are pretty much strip searched on the way in, obviously the guards are bored! We want a ticket from Beyneu, Kazakhstan to Nukus, Uzbekistan on 18th June, the day our Uzbekistan visa starts. It takes ages, about 90 minutes, before we manage to purchase our ticket. People queuing or queue jumping; the fact each person takes about 10 minutes to get a ticket and one guy takes about 40 minutes to get his ticket. And the language barrier all add to the frustration. But we finally have tickets in our mitts. It’s a shame the train leaves at 03:57 am on Sunday, oh wait… all train times in Kazakhstan run on Astana (capital city) time, so that’s actually 02:57am here!
No we set off to find a hotel. There are 4 to choose from but we opt for one near the central square. The manager drove past us this morning and told us to drop in if we needed a place to stay. Obviously he was touting for business but we are fair game and it’s not a bad price. They’ll even do our stinky washing for one pound fifty!
Showered and with clean clothes on we need to head back out. Our next country, Uzbekistan, is a bit of a banking rip off, if we use an ATM we can get maybe 3000 Som for 1 US $. Whereas on the Black market it’s more like 8000. So we need to hit the banks, withdraw enough US$ to last us the month in country and convert it to Som. This will mean several trips to the bank as both our cards have a daily limit! We initially tried cash withdrawal in Tenge but then discovered the other bank does an ‘over the counter’ US$ transaction. We withdraw the maximum we can and will repeat tomorrow. Job done we grab some food in Burger King, no wait… Beyneu King, a rip off local version that only has pasties, chips and pizza ( the pizza had cucumber on it and was cooked in the microwave… go figure!)
As we come back out onto the square we see Coco, Marta and Perry with their bikes. They have just arrived in town, can’t believe we beat them. Turns out they were advised of a short cut from Aktau which meant they took 2 days to get to our lunch stop on day 2! It was very cross country they said! We chat for a while and catch up but they need to get some accommodation sorted (we took the last rooms in our hotel) so we say goodbye and head back to our hotel for a cold beer and to catch up on some Internet admin, no rest for the wicked!!
Friday 16th June – Beyneu
A day of chores, napping and reading. We hit the bank early for another wad of US$. We apply for our Tajikistan visa, research various elements of our forthcoming trip, catch up with people at home and do some UK admin. And that’s a day off. Oh yes and Daz washed and checked our trikes.
Saturday 17th June – Beyneu
Today is our last day in Beyneu. Tonight we’ll catch the train to Nukus, Uzbekistan.
Our 30 day visas start tomorrow so we want to maximise our time there. The other cyclists, Perry, Magda and Coco intend to speed through in 14 days. We’re just finishing breakfast when a guy, Daren, comes over to chat. He’s from Brighton and he flew to Almaty about 2 months ago and has just cycled the route we’re about to cycle but in the opposite direction. We tell him what to expect from here to Aktau and then Baku and glean some information from him about the Pamir Highway.
Then we go off to explore the Beyneu Bazaar and then head to a supermarket.
We’re not sure what to expect from our 15 hour train journey to Nukus so we get some provisions. There really isn’t much to be said for Beyneu although we love the sock / shoe combination. The fashion police would be on overtime here.