Uzbekistan: Beyneu to Nukus and the Aral Sea – 18th to 20th June

Sunday 18th June – Beyneu to Nukus
Distance: 6.19 km
Total Distance: 14034.98 km

We were rudely awoken at 1am by our hotel proprietor, Murat. It gave us both a hell of a scare, thinking we’d overslept and missed our train but it was just minutes before our alarm. Shower, pack and out the door. We’re at the train station at 1.20am (yup we’ve got this routine down to a fine art). At the station we need to work out what to do. It’s not actually possible to get on a platform next to the train as there isn’t a platform. We have to carry everything down some steps, then I go onto the train and find a ‘train official’ type person.

He looks at our tickets and sends us to coach 1 (the one at the very end, back end, not front). We load up and cycle to the end, it’s some way, it’s a very long train. Then unload again and carry everything across 2 sets of tracks. OK now the really difficult part. The steps into the coach are very steep, narrow and there’s a considerable gap between the ground and the first step. Nightmare. We get all the luggage inside and we have our own sitting/sleeping compartment. Now the trikes. Our first attempt to get one in fails, it’s too wide so off come the seats, and we manage to get it onto the train. But the only space we can utilise is the small corridor area between coaches.

If we just park the trike there it blocks the door to the next coach and there’s no room for the 2nd trike. The train official doesn’t seem inclined to give us another area. So after various positions and manhandling 2 awkward trikes in a very confined space, they’re parked up the wall (stood on their back wheel against the main coach doors). And then bungied into position. At least the official is content that the main access door to the carriage stay locked otherwise someone trying to get up into our carriage would have a trike on their head! All of this has been done in the pitch dark because the train interior lights are still off.
Thank goodness that’s sorted.

We settle into our compartment and nap, there’s still an hour before the train leaves for Nukus. About 2.50am the train lights come on and I realise this coach is already full of sleeping passengers. They were already aboard when we loaded our stuff on.

Finally we set off. On board there are Kazak custom guards and we’re frequently disturbed by requests for our passports, where we’re from, whether we’re tourists and where we’re going. At 5.20am we stop at the Uzbekistan border. So it’s taken 2 hours 20 to cover 90 kilometers – the definition of a slow train?
Now come the Uzbek officials. They check through all our bags. They’re particularly interested in our medicine. No drugs containing codeine are allowed in Uzbekistan. They also look at our photos on our phone and notepad. We complete a registration form and we have to declare how much money we’re taking into Uzbekistan. Once that’s done they take away all the passports. Just before 8.30am our passports are returned and off we jolly well go.
Once we set off we realise why the connecting door between coaches had to be kept clear, there is an endless amount of people walking up and down the train selling food, clothes, black market currency etc. These ‘traders’ appear to change after each stop so they must all have their own ‘manor’.
The day drags on. The train which was deliciously cool at 5am warms up and there’s the smell of piss, the sound of snoring and the constant hawking of phlegm – OMG these guys love to spit. We’re frequently disturbed by the traders and others.

 

They see nothing wrong in just sitting down beside us to read our kindles with us or to pick up our stuff scattered on the table. At one point I’m lying down reading my kindle and I realise there’s another head right next to mine, trying to read my kindle.

We stop one lady selling ‘plov’, she has a large cooking pot wrapped in towels and plastic bags, inside is some steaming hot rice with vegetables. We order some and she whips out a bowl and 2 spoons. She also has a jar of cucumber and tomato and a jar of cooked meat in small lumps. She dishes some of each out and we pay her 5000 Som, about 60 pence we think! It’s quite delicious, we also buy some pancakes to supplement it. A guy stops in our compartment to entertain us with some card tricks. And Daz, unhappy to have no attention, shows some of his tricks.

By 7.00pm we have been on the train nearly 17 hours and we are finally pulling into Nukus. We thank the young Uzbek girl who has helped us with translating. Then it’s time to unload the trikes and baggage from the train. Surprisingly both trikes have survived unscathed from being parked on their tail end (thank God).

Now we just need to get to the centre of town. We have been told that a visit to the shrinking Aral sea is a must whilst we are here, so we need to speak to a tour operator about going tomorrow. Fortunately we have found a hotel, Jipek Joli, that runs tours. So that’s where we’re heading. With a bit of haggling we manage to get a reduced price on the tour and on a hotel room for the night. We would normally camp, but in Uzbekistan it is the law that foreign tourists need to register every 3 days in a hotel. It’s actually supposed to be everyday, but as cycle tourists there is a little leeway. Once we’ve got all our kit in our room we head straight out to see the central Bazaar which is still open at 8pm. There are loads of people out and about, and lots of local cyclists riding about the city.

As we wander back to the hotel looking for a restaurant /cafe we hear loud music coming from a restaurant, and with hunger prowling at the door we pop our heads in to see what’s going on. It seems there are a number of parties in the restaurant, and a lively disco. Everyone is up and dancing too. We manage to convey our hunger to the waiters and are shown to a table. After some confusion, due to noise, language and no prices on the menu we order food. Whilst we wait I’m suddenly grabbed by an ornately dressed woman and dragged onto the dance floor! Oh well, in for a penny… Daz joins in as well (eventually) and we dance with all these crazy Uzbek ladies until our dinner arrives!

After eating we sidle out before we are dragged up again and head back to the hotel, knackered, but knowing we have an early start tomorrow.

Monday 19th June
Nukus to Aral Sea Tour

Our alarm goes off at 7am. Arghhhhh we could both sleep longer but our tour starts at 8am. We head to breakfast and we’re given the first course; fruit, pancakes and cake. We’re offered a choice of eggs or porridge. I opt for eggs and Daz, the porridge. And then we wait, and wait and wait. We see our 4×4 outside and still we wait.

We’re getting a little restless and impatient. We came down in plenty of time and now we’re late and still no food. Finally, after Daz has gone into the kitchen to kick arse, we get some food. Daz’s porridge is actually rice but not a lovely creamy rice pudding (although to my mind there’s never a ‘lovely rice pudding’ ‘bleughhhhh’) but a sad bowl of rice cooked in water and then dumped into milk. I get my eggs (they haven’t messed up 2 fried eggs) and just as we’re about to leave along comes my toast. A rushed pack and we’re out the door. We have a very comfy Toyota Land Cruiser with our driver, Kazim and ‘security’ Urdal. And off we go.
A quick side note: we’re now working in US$ and Uzbek Som. Having been told not to use ATMs in Uzbekistan we withdrew a wad of dollars in Kazakhstan. On the train (as we’d been told by Beth and Max – it’s so handy we now have 3 sets of cyclists ahead, feeding us useful information! ) there’s numerous black market money changers. We were told to expect 8000 Som :1$. We fail to get this on the train but finally settle for 7,800 Som:1$. Daz wants to change 200$ but I want to get a feel for how expensive things are here so we change $100 = 780,000 Som. It’s a huge wad of notes. What a ridiculous currency. Our dinner last night had no prices marked but finally we settled for a Thai(?) beef dish with rice and 4 beers. Cost 65,000Som = 8$.
Back to the tour. Our target for today is the Aral Sea.
The Aral sea, or what’s left of it, is not a nice place in that it represents one of the biggest disasters that humankind has created. Back in 1960 the Aral Sea was known as the 4th biggest lake in the world and covered 66000 square kilometres. Nowadays the lake a mere 5th of its original size, only 12,000 square kilometres. The drying of the Aral Sea has ravaged a region roughly the size of Germany with disease, birth defects, agricultural and economic devastation.

The two rivers that feed the Aral Sea are the Amu Darya and Syr Darya rivers, respectively reaching the Sea through the South and the North. The Soviet government decided in the 1960s to divert those rivers so that they could irrigate the desert region surrounding the Sea in order to favor agriculture rather than supply the Aral Sea basin. The salinity of the lake has increased more than 10 fold as it has shrunk and now the lake which once supplied thousands of tons of fish each year, contains no fish.
On the way we stop for lunch at a fishermen’s settlement at Sudochie Lake.  Above it sits an ancient Watch Tower.

Just above the fishermen’s camp there’s the ruins of a Gulag and a cemetery for the Polish and Soviet dissidents that died during their incarceration. En route we see rice fields, cotton fields and a number of gas and oil installations. We also drive along and then over the Ushyut plateau, it covers 180,000 square kms, stretching from here to the Caspian Sea.

 

Kazim ordering bread.

 A typical Uzbekistan toilet!

 

It’s a long drive (mostly on sand and dirt tracks) but the campground overlooking the Aral Sea is incredible. There’s 2 Yurts here (one just for me and Daz) and a shower and toilet cubicles. There’s also 2 puppies and a pregnant cat. There’s a guy here looking after it and this is when we realise that Urdal, the ‘security’ guy is his relief. They spend up to a month at a time here looking after the tourists that visit the camp.

After dumping our kit we’re driven down to the beach for a swim in the Aral Sea. Well it’s not so much a swim but a float. Neither of us have ever been to the Dead Sea but we assume the experience is similar. After wading out (no easy task because the floor is thick, squelching, stinking, black mud) we’re buoyed up by the salinity of the water. It’s a little bit smelly and stinging (on some of our more sensitive nether regions) but Wow, amazing. There’s no-one for miles, it’s totally deserted. It’s actually a very sad shadow of what it once was. A sad testament to Man’s destructive capabilities but beautiful nonetheless.

After our swim it’s back to the campsite. After showering off the stinky mud and layer of salt from our bodies we enjoy chatting to Kazim.

The guys prepare our dinner of fried fish, salad and bread and afterwards we nip up the hill for sundowners. Sadly we’re a bit late so instead we watch the light fade and then return to camp and the fire pit for a lovely log fire.

We don’t last long though and we soon head to bed.

Tuesday 20th June
Aral Sea Tour

We want to see the sunrise over the Aral Sea. We do a practice run at 3am. Yup it’s definitely too early but Daz failed the alarm setting test. One of the puppies and the cat have decided we needed closer scrutiny and broke into our Yurt to provide close protection. Since we’re awake and need a wee we see how beautiful the sky is here with zero light pollution.

At 5am we’re up again for the sunrise. It’s beautiful.

Then Daz goes back to bed but I take the puppies for a walk. Actually I need them for protection to scare off any scorpions and snakes. Plus they’re fun and soooo cute.

Back at camp for breakfast of egg and chips, yogurt and cookies and lashings of tea and then back in the truck for the long drive back. We have a couple of stops on the way back: the burial grounds of the Nomadic tribes that travelled the silk route; the canyons of the Ushyut plateau; the ships’ cemetery in Moynaq and the Mizdakhan complex, once a big city on 3 hills dating from IV BC to XIV AD.

And that’s it. We’re back at the hotel at just passed 4pm feeling shattered and very hot. Kazim and his partner test our trikes before heading off.

We had planned to go forth this evening on our bikes but decide we need a decent night’s sleep. No alarm setting tonight Daz!

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