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Cycling Eurasia : Stepping out

Josh Cunningham
21 Jan 2016

A freight ship across the Caspian Sea and a night in a yurt. Josh continues his journey into the first 'Stans' of Central Asia.

I don’t remember much of our three day voyage across the Caspian Sea and I have two Georgian train drivers to thank for it, as they were only other passengers with their 20 carriages of frozen chicken legs.

Everything had started so well, if in a haphazard fashion, with our efforts to get a ticket, pack up our belongings, make it to the port, through customs, and onto the ship. The fact that no knowledge of a Baku-Aktau voyage was made public until the morning of embarkation, that the ticket office was 20km out of town in one direction( and the port 70km away in the other) and that we hadn’t followed the required registration process as tourists in Azerbaijan, and were therefore potentially at risk of deportation, were all surmountable problems.

Waking up at sunrise and taking advantage of the deserted ship by climbing the masts, exploring the engine rooms, and doing Titanic re-enactments, also forms a solid memory of positivity in my head. 

No, it was when the Georgian train drivers saw us cleaning our bikes on deck and invited us into their carriage living quarters that things took a downhill turn. The homemade chutneys and stale breads were at least palatable, but the homemade wine less so. Once the home made ‘ChaCha’ - a moonshine-esque beverage that anyone who’s been to Georgia will be familiar with - made an appearance, the battle was over. The Georgians had us (my companion Rob, I, and a Bristolian couple on a tandem) as their adopted drinking partners, and drink we did. 

‘Eta tolko shest’dysyat,’ This one’s only sixty (percent), I remember one saying as he reached for a bottle. A bout of inadvertent seasickness soon followed I’m sure, but the next image I can be certain of is of a Kazakh military official standing over my bed in our cabin and demanding, with no lack of volume or impertinence, to see my passport. I looked through bleary eyes out of the small window, and beyond the fences, pilons and customs buildings, under the empty sky and bare sun, there was nothing. 

For the next ten days, in the desert-cum-steppe of south west Kazakhstan and northern Uzbekistan, I experienced a landscape the like of which I had struggled to picture prior to arriving. Mountains and jungles seemed, with my modest experiences of both, imaginable - even if only to a degree that would later be proved totally insufficient. But there, in those vast swathes of inland Eurasia that stretch belt-like from Hungary to Mongolia, was a land of such vast emptiness that I couldn't really liken it to anything else I've seen.

We cycled east out of the oil-rich coastal town of Aktau through the region known as the Mangystau Desert, and for a day or so our attention was held by curious rock formations and a wealth of animals - camels, wild horses and even flamingos - making strides between watering holes. But as we crept further east the plains gradually flattened, the road straightened, and the bestial company lessened, until the only flirtation with life we had was the occasional passing truck, and their customary blaring of a deafening horn, or the even less frequent trains; long, slow and rhythmic, tracing their way through the steppe on an arrow-straight line that ran directly parallel to the road. 

Every fifty to hundred kilometres a building would appear on the horizon, and once we eventually arrived at its door - for just because something was visible, by no way did that mean it was close - we were greeted with what would become a familiar Central Asian establishment: A dilapidated building that neither looks abandoned nor occupied, is primitively furnished with some low tables and mouldy seating mats, serves one of the three staple ‘Stan’ dishes (plov, manti or lagman - each being as appetising as they sound), and has either one of both halves of a couple acting as proprietor. 

Thankfully the serving of tea - black, sugary, and without milk - is also a prerequisite for these establishments, known as Chaihanas (tea house), and the sighting of one was therefore always met with excitement. Being that we had to ration the food we could carry for our delicious breakfast and dinner meals of either instant noodles or pasta with stock cube seasoning, we indulged heavily in the aforementioned culinary delights at lunchtime, and actually grew to like them. But with hygiene regulations yet to reach this corner of the world, and no electricity or running water anyway, the short term pleasure of satiation frequently led to long term pain of the intestinal variety - a problem which although plagued me for most of Central Asia, at least toughened up my stomach for the coming onslaughts of India and China. 

The Kazhak-Uzbek customs post materialised 200km after departing the Kazakh town of Beyneu, and the forewarnings we had received of the scrutiny its officials pay to incomers were annoyingly confirmed during a three-hour ordeal of unpacking and repacking under the orders of jobsworthy men in uniform. The black market rules in Uzbekistan, and waiting at the gates accordingly were a host of stern-faced women, armed with sacks of notes with which to exchange for our US dollars. A one hundred dollar bill went their way, and thanks to governmental refusals to accommodate for inflation with higher denominated notes, stacks upon stacks of next-to-worthless cash came back in ours. But with a reported total two ATM machines in the entire country, we had no choice but to stuff our bags full as crossing her would take another three weeks.

For those to whom Uzbekistan isn't merely an almost unavoidable country on a west-to-east overland journey, the prime reason for coming is to marvel at the architectural wonders of its former Khans and to lose oneself in the romance of the Silk Road at their sites in Khiva, Bukhara, and Samarkand. We of course made the most of the fact that the former two were directly on route, and permitted ourselves a side trip on a viciously bartered-for taxi to see the blue minarets and domes of Samarkand as well.

Between these oases of colour, life, and antiquity was a mere continuation of what had gone before, with long stretches of barren, sandy wastes, punctuated by the occasional chaihana or petrol station. The temperatures began to steadily increase as we made our way further south, and the first cherished tan lines began to appear on our arms and legs. After one particularly long winded day, during which we covered over 190km, we were welcomed into a yurt camp of three shepherding families after having originally approached to ask for some water.

After causing much amusement and disbelief by cooking some pasta on our pressurised petrol stove, and handing out a cigarette or two (even as a non-smoker, carrying cigarettes to offer is a simple, cheap, and universally appreciated way to offer friendship), bed time soon came around.

It was hard to tell who we had for company in our yurt, but three generations were surely covered, from quietly snoozing toddlers to snoring grandads, and we were shown two spaces amid the 8 or so bodies in which to curl up among the blankets. The senior men went about a few last errands, with the last person to finish his day silently turning off the oil lamp before tiptoeing his way to bed. The door was kept open for the whole night, and one roll of the animal skins which formed the walls was also pulled up, leaving a panoramic view out across the desert if one should prop themselves up on their elbows. The breeze was cool, the sky was clear, and the sound of one final hushed conversation between two of our hosts sent me off to sleep.

At some point a few days later we received news that Gorno-Badakhshan, the semi-autonomous region of Tajikistan whose borders we would have to cross in order to ride the legendary Pamir Highway, had been closed to foreigners due to a number of countries, including Russia, Kazakhstan, Georgia and Tajikistan itself, carrying out military drills along the Afghan border. So soon after some fatal attacks in Kabul, and reports that towns just 20km from the border had fallen to the Taliban, I wasn’t feeling optimistic about the prospects of it reopening. But the situation, we were told, was always fluid: Borders open and close; rebels gain and lose ground; authorities tighten and release restrictions with the passing of every month, and so we resolved to keep riding towards Tajikistan in the hope that things may have changed by the time we got there.

Although the deserts and steppes that this eastern edge of Central Asia had made for weeks of harsh and monotonous riding, they have nonetheless imprinted themselves fondly into my memory. The sheer lack of sensual stimulation from the surrounding environment forces those who pass through to look elsewhere for something to asses and digest, and for me that was found in realising the adeptness of Rob and I as cycle tourists.

Camps could be made and broken without one word exchanged between us; the mutual understanding of a need to stop, be it for lunch, a mechanical problem, or map consultation, could be highlighted by a mere half second of eye contact; the ability to extrapolate between people, the weather, changing landscapes, currencies and languages. Around us the environment could change so quickly, and yet in our primordial world of food, water, shelter and bike riding, nothing would really change at all. It was the desert that drew this to attention, and if luck was on our side, it would be the Pamirs that would confirm it.

You can follow josh on twitter @coshjunningham, or his website

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