Beyneu. “The City of Dreams”. Just kidding. It’s shit. Most of the hotels don’t even have showers.
This isolated town in a forgotten, far-flung corner of Kazakhstan, in the Kyzylkum desert, is where phase two of the desert crossing begins (part 1 here). Most of the touring cyclists I met on the cargo boat from Azerbaijan are bailing out, and I’ll continue onward with just Nick and Ian. I don’t blame the others. It’s summer. It’s August. It’s stinking hot and we’re about to cycle deeper into a desert when in the shade it’s no cooler than 40°C every day. There’s no running water. We expect to see nothing—there are hardly even any settlements. In the next 500km we’ll probably pass four small villages, to finally get to some place called Nukus in Uzbekistan. Nothing but hot and dry land in between. Cycling even 50km in this heat is hard enough, and that’s considering access to water which we won’t have.
I’d been marvelling at this road from Kazakhstan and through Uzbekistan ever since google maps was born. A long straight line piercing right across the desert. The only road. I always wondered what it would be like. I never thought I would actually be on it one day, on a bicycle. And here I am.
Though we barely spent 24 hours in Beyneu, we learnt a lot. Breakfast supplied by the hotel (one of the few which have a shower @10€) was a shockingly firm welcome to the Central Asian cuisine. A menu with at least 20 items was placed in front of us, and as we gleefully pointed at each little picture, the waitress sternly shook her head. “No. No. No.” Why did they give us a menu if all they have is a boiled egg, runny porridge or soup? Actually, the only thing you are guaranteed to get anywhere around here is soup. And sometimes even that is just boiled water with a potato floating in it.
We left in the evening, passing all the grand features of the city like the dusty train station and the trees near the market. Bye bye trees! We made our preparations. Mainly buying a couple of bottles of water.
And we’re off! At the breakneck speed of 10km/h. The road is the absolute worst I’ve ever had the great misfortune of rolling over. Surfaces of what we know as “roads” are generally of a common material and have things like boundaries or edges. Whatever this anomaly is, it’s not a road. It was built by the Soviets and probably did serve its purpose once upon a time, but now it’s the ultimate in discomfort for all those that cross it. Full of washboard bumps, strewn with potholes, stones, boulders, dips, mounds [insert obstacle here]. The two features I remember most fondly are the huge bars of metal wire randomly jutting out the surface and the two distinct types of sand: either rock solid or super soft, and you couldn’t tell which until you had either fallen off your bike or buckled a wheel. At least we took comfort passing several broken down vehicles along the way.
Mercifully, after about 35km a new road was being built adjacent, and we could sneak on for the few parts that had been completed. It felt a bit like cheating—a whole road to ourselves. The workers actually didn’t care at all, even welcomed us, smiling and waving as we meandered through their steam-rollers and diggers, which speaks a lot about the relaxed atmosphere in this region. But we continually had to switch between the roads, a task in itself as we dragged our bikes through mounds of sand.
The new road should be finished in 2019. Shame, as the abominable old road makes this part of the journey quite something. Wouldn’t you like to cycle on the worst road in the world? I guess it will still be there. More worse.
Camp was amidst a fine cloud of dust, our torches penetrating the airborne sand like light-sabres. It’s like swimming in air-sand, whatever that is. You can feel it when you lick your teeth. Our throats are coarse yet full of goop. Our eyes all red. But still functioning enough to spot a scorpion next to my shoe before bedtime.
The next day the dusty road continued to the border until every crevice of our bikes and skin and hair were thoroughly caked. We were fortunate enough to come across a small cafe-like place where a very kind man gave us some tea, bread and vegetables and asked nothing for it. People are so generous around here. You could ask a favour of any complete stranger and they’d be more than happy to help you.
The Uzbek Border
The border was, as expected, seriously disorganised. People and soldiers wandering everywhere. We skipped ahead the long queue of dust-covered vehicles and lorries that had thus far survived the road, and were led back and forth a few times with our bikes before hitting the main gate. We were told this was one of the strictest borders we’d cross, but actually things are a lot more relaxed now. Ian and Nick barely got their bags checked; mine not at all. No x-ray stuff, no checking the meds, no hassle. The only thing the guards forced us to do was skip the long queue before the main passport check, based on the fact that we were foreign. Consisting mainly of pushy-shovy Uzbek men, they weren’t too happy about us zipping to the front, and we weren’t particularly happy about it either. Little did we know the time saved would be lost elsewhere in the country, as nobody here actually knows how to queue and in every shop from now on we’d be served positively last.
After another couple of passport checks, we were in. We had to each fill out a customs declaration form in Russian whilst standing awkwardly outside a booth in the baking heat. Fortunately a Russian happened to be passing by. Supposedly you can’t take more money out of Uzbekistan than you take in so you have to be precise with what you’ve got. But I doubt anybody cares. I have scatterings of about 10 different currencies somewhere in my bags and there’s no way I’m counting that. There was a mini bank where we promptly exchanged $100 for 770,000 Som. It was a good rate. The touts loitering around a few hundred metres away would only have given us 600,000.
So this is Uzbekistan. It looks exactly the same as where we’ve just come from. Dusty, barren nothingness. We ate in a busy canteen next to the border, which was probably full of everybody else that had passed through that day. There were a few other tourists (some cars from the Mongol rally), but most people were Uzbek. Tables were busy with chatter and spilt noodles and huge wads of cash. It’s still stinking hot. We ate plov (rice, veg, meat) and lagman (noodles, veg, meat) each, two traditional meals of Central Asia, and with a drink it came in at about 2.50€ per person. Stuff is cheap here. We’d later learn that the two meals we had just eaten were actually a little expensive.
We cycled on, now about 5pm to the first village in Uzbekistan, Karakalpakia. There was a police check before but it was clear the bored policeman was just fulfilling old bureaucratic duties and didn’t really care at all about us passing. We were most disappointed, having taken a little detour to the town on yet another terrible road, that there was in fact no hotel. We had been counting on staying in one and getting a shower. And we had to wait almost a day before we could cycle again: The next village is 145km away, and the ground is so flat and barren there’s nowhere to shelter from the intense midday heat in between. Essentially, we need to leave the following evening and be in the next place before the afternoon, otherwise boil to death.
This gave us a lot of time to get to know this tiny, remote village and its people. Straight off the bat, we learnt this region, the Republic of Karakalpakstan (wiki link), is actually autonomous within Uzbekistan. It has it’s own language (Karakalpak) and was once its own country! Not much to it right enough, these days; just desert. Plentiful fields of irrigated crops have vanished thanks to climate change and the Soviet mismanagement of the river which flowed into the now-disappeared Aral sea.
But there was some magic in this place for me. It was full of people on bicycles!
No wifi; 1-bar phone signal; a small, rarely visited train station and one place to eat out—but plenty of smiling locals. It’s amazing what we take for granted, like running water, or a hot shower. The people live here without a lot. No place to nip for a pint. You can’t just buy a new “X”. There are a couple of places to get tea, a few small food shops and a school. Two women are baking their own bread at the side of the street in a stone oven. Men come over and together we eat watermelon atop an old well. It’s all very simple and I like it.
We camped just outside the town. Supposedly the nearby Chaihana (tea house) will let you stay, but they are normally hotter than just camping. Dust kicked up from a herd of goats made an interesting sunset.
It was a hot morning the following day, making us a bit nervous about the journey ahead. We hung around the town and got some tea and pastry at the cafe (the only thing on the menu) and stocked up. Good thing we had enough petrol for our stoves; they don’t sell any in Karakalpakstan. All the cars and trucks here run on methane gas. We bought some water for the journey. No fewer than 26 bottles of water between us. 39 litres.
A lot of plastic. But the ground water here (if you can find any) isn’t safe to drink. It contains high concentrations of Uranium and other chemicals (like pesticides) that are blown across the desert from the dry bed of the Aral sea. Consequently this is one of the most environmentally hazardous places on Earth. The air technically isn’t even safe to breathe. Time to cycle through it! It’s 225km with only one place in between.
We were joined at the last minute by a German cyclist, Jan, who had just come around the northern shore of the Caspian Sea (he said it was boring). We rolled out of the awful road, followed by smiling and laughing kids on bicycles back to the main road and past the last building we’d see for a while. The road got worse before it got better. Only about 30km after the village there was a notable improvement. We were riding hard and the wind wasn’t in our favour. A few lorries past us here and there but the traffic infrequent. They can’t get faster than 25km/h with all the hard compact sand and potholes on the road. We passed a few more broken down cars and camped up next to the road. People can see us but nobody cares. Why would they?
We got up in the morning while it was still dark. A hot night. I have to leave my camping mat to dry in the morning because of the sweat. But the nights are still, and insanely quiet. You can’t hear a thing but the ring in your ears. There is a lot of peace to be found here. If you head off the road about 20km you’ll be able to do a 360 spin and not see anything but little dry and spiky shrubs.
As we headed off there was a thin layer of high cloud to keep us cooler and it sure made a difference to our day. But it was tough. Our psychology wore down to “this again tonight and tomorrow”. Staying positive involved either thinking about food or eating it. The day got increasingly hard as the wind picked up and blasted us in the face, sand in all. We were cycling full burn in a pelaton and only breaking 14km/h, and then the sun came out and boiled us. It was one of the hardest days I’ve had. But at around 2pm we made it to the stop, which was nothing more than a truck stop, and gobbled down all they had. There was a village nearby, Jasliq, but a 10km detour that we couldn’t justify. We were so knackered we fell asleep on the little beds of questionable cleanliness they have for customers. We split wtih Jan as he decided to take a dirt track to the Aral sea, or what’s left of it. We had a shower for 10,000 and the woman gave us apples and plums for free, and a bag of battered bread. It took us a while to recover, if we even did, and then we were back on the bikes at 7pm to get another couple of hours in before bedtime. We camped in an area with some small trees around, which was quite rare, as you can imagine, and under a sea of stars.
The wind picked up the following day, and we were so bloody thankful that it was a tailwind. We were covering epic speed…cruising at 30km/h. Though from the bumps on the road many things were falling off our bikes which was followed by a cry of the object in question… “SANDAL!” … “BOTTLE!” …etc. and we would stop to make sure each item was correctly reattached. Though we failed to notice Nick’s favourite t-shirt had fallen off (hot enough to ride topless even at 7am) and he actually went back to get it, in that wind. For a t-shirt. He went back 10 or 15km, but never found it. Meanwhile Ian and I pushed on. But we were brought to a standstill as a pothole I hit managed to completely dismantle the attachment of my bar-bag, and thus I had to cycle the next 50km with it over my shoulder and digging into my back. Luckily the road surface improved greatly, and before long we were at the next village, Kyrkkyz (also spelt Qyrqqyz), where I could make some repairs and Nick could catch up. We covered 90km in just over 3 hours of riding. Not much scenery. But there were two corners today.
The town is completely new and a bit odd. But thankfully, nestled within it, there was a shop where we could resupply. I bought an ice-cream cone for 600 Som. That’s roughly 0.06€ . How is that even possible? The woman didn’t have a small enough banknote to give me change and so gave me two bits of chewing gum instead. They do that here. Those ice-creams though. I’ve had many addictions in my short time. But as soon as that cone touched my lips…
I’m a goner.
People in the village were very friendly. The village drunk a bit too friendly perhaps. But he bought us a great hot loaf of freshly baked bread, and the man in the shop gave me one for free too. There was a café of sorts there, but we decided to push on and get food in the next place 20km away. It took just half an hour to get there, passing some factories and a nuclear-blue lake of waste on the way. We ate and continued again, very tired, but our spirits were lifted in the evening when we finally made camp. We clambered over the rocky ground with our bikes and peered out over the edges of the steppe onto a vast green land. All of us looked over the fields in awe. It was the first time we had seen a field in 25 days, since Azerbaijan.
It was our final day and we knew it. Nukus was within our grasp. We packed up quickly and performed the morning ritual of trying to rub suncream into skin covered in salt, sweat and sand. Those alien towns on the map didn’t seem so alien any more. On the ground you have a much better idea of what to expect from the size of the dot on the map (which isn’t much).
We entered the land of irrigation. It felt like we had rejoined the world and rejoined civilisation. Cars are abundant now. Instead of one vehicle every thirty minutes we get thirty in one. It feels almost like we could be anywhere; back in Europe perhaps. Until a woman crosses the road with a donkey and cart carrying all the reminders that we’re still in Uzbekistan.
The women here are beautiful. They have long, alluring hair and warm faces and every single one—without exception—wears a pretty, patterned, floral dress.
The men here mainly dress like slobs in baggy shirts and jeans or tracksuit pants. Consequently we fit in rather well.
As we approached Nukus I was mainly filled with a sense of curiosity and relief. The town was exactly as shit as I expected. Nick, however, was sorely disappointed upon arriving to the capital of Karakalpakstan, described by lonely planet as “Uzbekistan’s least appealing city.” Still, we got some good food there and could relax a little with some beer. In a day we’d be back out there in the desert, doing it all over again…we’re only one third of the way through.