Here’s the story of a five-day, 500km ride across the edges of the Kyzylkum desert from Kuryk to Beyneu in Kazakhstan. This one’s quite a long one. But I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I enjoyed cycling it and then writing about it.
We all sort of knew what lay up ahead, but we were perhaps all too relaxed from spending three days slumbering around on a boat crossing the Caspian Sea that we never quite grasped the gravity of it. We were about to cycle across a desert in the middle of summer. None of us had done anything like it before, and needless to say we were all pretty ignorant of what it would actually be like.
Cycling the Kazakhstani Desert: Day 1
It all began so sweetly when we left the port of Kuryk in Kazakhstan, still shrouded in innocence and naivety, and began pedalling the dusty and barren plains across the far reaches of the Kyzylkum desert. We were heavily dehydrated as soon as we set off in the morning because we weren’t really given water on the ferry (only copious amounts of Sprite and tea) and the hotel we stayed at also didn’t have any water. So we first had to cycle a short 25km from the port to the closest town so we could buy water and stock up on food for the “big” journey. This was also the first time we had cycled together and it was the first time I’d cycled in such a big group of people. There were seven of us in total, and overall it was a pretty good laugh.
Kuryk was our first taste of Kazakh life. The people look completely different from the Azeri’s, something quite startling given the short distance between nations. They appear almost Mongol looking, or slightly Chinese. Some of the guys look like sumo wrestlers or even PSY. The women are notably freer than in Turkey or Azerbaijan and come up and join in conversation (which would be almost unthinkable before). The people overall are very friendly, doing the usual horn honking and waving frequently. The characters and mannerisms are what I imagine a Chinese style to be, more reserved and yet somewhat forward. People also seem quite poor around this town. And there seems to be quite a disparity between rich and poor, manifesting itself in fancy air-conditioned cars driving past fruit sellers in tattered clothes.
How much water should we take? None of us had any idea. The first section was 50km without anything, so we’d need to take enough water to get us to the next place. No shops, no taps, no shade. Individually, we struggled to find solutions, but with our collective mass of brainpower we settled on 6 litres each, and began pedalling.
Our main problem was that we underestimated just how deserty the desert is. There was almost literally nothing there. The scenery is desolate. No trees, not even a bush—just little, dry, scraggly shrubs made of spiky twigs. It was a bit of a reality check for those of us (Nick and I) who had already committed to cycling the whole way. Just 2,000km to go!
There are two things you desperately need in a climate like this: shade and water, and you aren’t going to find much of that. So we all got smashed up pretty quickly. It was unbelievably hot and dry. Something over 40°C in the shade, except we were in the midday sun, taking us a lot closer to something like 60°C. As we cycled we slowly became more and more exhausted, fighting against the strong headwind. And that wind was a little dangerous too. It was so hot that it took all the sweat off our bodies—we didn’t sweat. We couldn’t. The moisture was also zapped from our mouths until our tongues felt like furry foreign objects and we couldn’t swallow.
Within three hours, we were, for lack of a better description, fucked.
Jade and Jim bailed out, managing to hitch a lift in the back of a truck to the next town. Ian was increasingly tired and delirious. Adam’s face actually looked different from his normal appearance due to dehydration. I had a pulsating headache that throbbed with every slight move. And the lot of us had bloodshot eyes. We looked like we’d all just woken up from a mental piss-up that somehow ended in a desert.
Luckily, we were able to find shelter in the form of a tunnel directly under the road. And there we remained for three more hours toiling in misery.
It was full of shit, some of it human, and had a half-chewed up dead bird inside. But the urgency of the matter obliged us not to care. We were just glad to be out the sun. Not to say we weren’t still suffering. We were so dehydrated that we couldn’t even come to move our bodies. At one point Tim was so knackered that while lying down his foot was in the dead bird carcass but he was too tired to care. We sat exhausted and delirious until we had drunk nearly all our water, and then we had no choice but to carry on.
Somehow, in an increasingly dizzy ride to the next town, Zhetybay, we all made it. By about 6:30pm it was much cooler, though still over 30°C, and we could finally laugh and joke about the situation. We stormed the surprisingly well-stocked supermarket, and hit a restaurant to recover and refuel. The food was relatively cheap. 3€ was enough to get us a kebab or a pizza each, with a dish of rice and beef, bread and drinks. (Later we learned most big meals in a restaurant with a drink would come to 3€/1,200 tenge.)
We camped just outside the town without too much difficulty despite the darkness, and were only bothered by a couple of stray dogs which Nick scared away just by looking at them. Some of us slept without a tent, something I very much prefer, but I had a feeling the clouds closing in would rain and so I pitched up. I boiled in my tent that night, and it didn’t rain, which led Nick to exclaim, “It doesn’t rain in the desert!”
Cycling the Kazakhstani Desert: Day 2
We woke up at 5:30am. We had a plan. We decided to break the days up into a morning and an evening ride. Since our target town of Beyneu, near Uzbekistan, was still around 400km away, we’d split the journey over 4 days, doing 70km each morning before the midday heat, then hide from the sun for 5 or 6 hours in whatever place we could find (usually a chaihana—a tea-house), and then do a further 30km after 5pm. In the evening we would need to buy all our water for the night, for cooking our dinner, breakfast and for the morning ride. It often exceeded 8 litres per person. Every day we would also drink about 8 litres each. We would need to plan carefully as there were some long sections, up to 70km or more without anywhere to get water. We didn’t really know exactly because there’s a lot of conflicting information online and between our different mapping apps.
We killed the 70km to Shetpe with relative ease, before 11am. It got uncomfortably hot around 10am, so we were only really in the crap for one hour. The road was a little hillier today, which thankfully broke up the monotony of the desert sand. The landscapes are very peaceful, but can get old quite quickly. We spent 6 hours in a restaurant relaxing and eating before heading off. We discovered in the restaurant that you can only get instant coffee in Kazakhstan (though it is cheap, at about 0.30€) and surprisingly, they more commonly drink English tea with milk in mugs.
We wet our t-shirts from some dodgy water tank out back and put them back on to keep cool. Then cycled off. The t-shirts were bone dry again in about 20 minutes. It was a little windy but we formed a strong peloton and powered through. The road has been resurfaced recently, which is great, but this has led to some unexpected changes where we thought rest points would be. Some new businesses have popped up, and others, because the road doesn’t pass them any more, have turned into skeleton chaihanas. This meant that when we left Shetpe we were rather surprised to find a whole village that wasn’t marked on the map.
I was so glad we could get some cold drinks from a fridge because even though we were carrying sufficient water, it feels like drinking bath water very quickly. We cycled on until sunset. The most notable thing that happened was a male driver and his wife and daughter who stopped to give us water in the middle of a vast plain. This kind of thing happens often and usually ends up in an exchange of photographs, or as they say here “Selfie, selfie”, which seems to be more regular than the word “photo”. The most prominent feature of all three of them was their really, really golden gold teeth. It appears to be quite fashionable here. We camped just over a small hill out of sight of the road. There’s no shortage of places to camp in the desert. We were all in much better spirits, and the banter was flowing into the night. This particular assortment of miscellaneous long-distance cyclists, who only met just over a week ago, get on rather well. And this night I slept out.
Cycling the Kazakhstani Desert: Day 3
And in the morning, it rained! It does rain in the desert! But to be fair, it was so faint that you could barely notice it, and it wasn’t even worth setting up the tent. Today was a more difficult day than expected. The road continued over some hills and then back down across more flat plains. We cycled about 30km to the first rest stop (a small chaihana) where we could get chocolate bars and water, but as there was another one marked in 30km most of us didn’t bother buying anything. Apart from some small ridges in the distance, the landscape was the same as ever.
We reached a building, the first in 30km which we thought would be the tea house we were aiming for (and which we now desperately needed to get water and shelter from the sun), but it was just a building. Perhaps an old house. Outside there were workies building a little wall. They had fluorescent jackets and white, full-face balaclavas, which made them a little scary to talk to. We couldn’t work out if it was for the heat or the sand or both. They told us the tea house was 5km further at the top of the hill though, and so we gladly pushed on knowing that we could rest from the heat very shortly.
But when we reached the top of the hill, there was no sign of it. Ian went to check with some more workies who were finishing building the road we were cycling on. It appears that the tea house which was marked on our maps had been demolished as it was in the way of the new road, and no longer existed. That was bad news, because it meant we had to cycle a further 30km through the hottest part of the day to get anywhere. It took me a while to accept that there was no tea house. I was constantly scanning the haze on the horizon looking for it. And mirages are something which I frequently experienced. The heat rising from the surface can make something like a dark rock or some other object miles off in the distance look like something. But as we got closer, we were always disappointed. The road had nothing. And so we cycled until we were ready to drop.
The most significant part of the day was crossing the power lines which had been on our right side for a while. We all cheered (or as close to a cheer as we could get) as we went under. Now they were on our left, stretching behind us in the same manner as in front, disappearing just beyond the horizon and giving some slight inkling of the curvature of the Earth. At least we could find something to amuse us. Tim recognised we were all feeling pretty low and soon had us all singing “The Grand Old Duke of York” and then again and again, trying to sing it with out saying the “up’s” and the “down’s”—but we all failed. We couldn’t even sing a child’s song!
Finally we reached somewhere. A grubby little restaurant where we tanked plenty of water, Sprite and Coca Cola. Only when we got inside did we begin to sweat as the air allowed us to do so. I’m not sure what the women that worked there thought of us, but I imagine she was rather shocked to receive seven sweaty cyclists in one go.
After restocking in the nearby and very poorly town of Say-Otec, eating quite a lot of snack food and getting to know the village opium addict, we ate in a small truck stop at the side of the road (there is only one road).
We were quite sure that since we didn’t understand the menu, which was only either in Russian or Kazakh, that when the woman said “beef”—one of the few words in English she could say—we were actually eating horse meat. It probably isn’t uncommon here, as we had only seen one cow in over 200km but there were hundreds of horses. So much for being vegetarian. They put meat in everything here. Meat with rice, meat with pasta, meat in soup. The only food I’ve found here that doesn’t have meat is salad, and that normally just consists of chopped tomatoes and cucumber.
The toilets out back left a lot to be desired. So far nearly all have been squat toilets. I never knew until now that there were actually different grades of squat toilet too, ranging from ceramic and not too unpleasant, to large rectangular holes in the ground made of wood with a huge visible pit below. (You can imagine the smell of such places in desert heat.) To give you just a flavour, this toilet in particular place was so bad that people had begun shitting outside the actual toilet building in a radius further and further afield for several metres. Jim thought this a good time to get off his chest that he’d seen worse, yesterday, when he saw a kitten that had sadly fallen down the hole and into the huge pit and was trapped half swimming in human shit.
I’m really sorry about that. But I felt I had to share it. Now you can try to forget it.
We also spotted this huge truck-bus outside with huge wheels to deliver people to more remote sections of the desert where there aren’t paved roads. They were probably a lot more common before this road was paved.
We camped soon after to a fantastic sunset behind a bunch of rocks. The few cars or trucks passing on the road could see us but they didn’t care and neither did we. There are very few people here to care anyway, statistically there’s less than 1 per square kilometre.
Cycling the Kazakhstani Desert: Day 4
We woke up again at 5:30, this time to a bit of a chill. Though I’m beginning to like watching the sunrise each day. It was hard to believe that it would be boiling in a few hours. Even though I was still tired, last night I managed to get a full 8 hours sleep for the first time. The other days I’d been sleeping only about 5 hours, adding to the difficulty of it all. But at least if we made our target today, there would only be one more day until we arrive in Beyneu.
We still had 185km to go, and on the way lie no villages, only four possible places to get water. By now we had learnt not to trust our maps, or much of the information on the internet. It’s best to proceed cautiously and just assume that some of the places to get water on the way either don’t exist any more or are closed for whatever reason. If we don’t make it to a place, then we’d need to stop cars or trucks and ask for water, which most carry in case of a breakdown.
We absolutely smashed it today, and it was easily the best day so far. We went from being utterly terrible a few days ago to being quite proficient. By 10:30 we had done our 70km which aligned perfectly with an open chaihana. It was a great one too. The main (only?) difference I can think of between a chaihana and a restaurant is that chaihanas have little mattresses on raised wooden platforms for sleeping on, and it’s perfectly acceptable to do so, even if you just by a cup of tea. And slept we did on the pillows of questionable cleanliness. We have now been 4 days without a shower and are probably dirtier than everything else anyway.
The food was great. We didn’t understand anything on the menu (and often they don’t have half the dishes anyway) so the women took us into the back and through a mixture of charades and pointing we ended up with a fantastic and cheap meal. We tried camel milk here for the first time too, I think it tastes a bit like Kefir. We also wondered if the milk in our tea was from a camel.
The people are very trusting here and not once have we had to worry about our bikes being safe or locking them up. The most people do is give a few strums to my ukulele. Even if they did steal anything, you would probably be able to see them for ages as there is only one road and it’s now completely flat. You’d find them.
We cycled on after 5pm and stopped to help a driver at the side of the road. He gave us some horse milk in a plastic bottle, which tasted pretty rank. We asked him when the next place was and he said maybe in 20km. We now had a range of answers from people we had asked ranging from “no chaihana” to “50km”. We spent a lot of time squinting at the horizon hoping that the next object would be a building and not a rock or a camel. We came across only one more chaihana on the way, which didn’t sell any water, but we could at least get some tea. And we finally sang The Grand Old Duke successfully without the “up’s” and “down’s”. Horray! We camped at the top of a “hill” (more like a little bump) under a sea of stars. Just one day to go.
Cycling the Kazakhstani Desert: Day 5
There’s a light wind blowing across the shrubs and crusty light brown ground. Some trash around too, because like everywhere I’ve seen outside of western Europe everybody just launches their rubbish from their car window. Then it blows across the desert and gets caught in the shrubs. I’m making my porridge next to some camel poo as the red sun slowly rises over the flat landscape giving warmth to the chill. We can see a couple of camels slowly walking about 10km in the distance. I think I’m coming round to the desert. The calmness and remoteness of it all, now that we’ve figured how to beat the elements.
It was easy cycling today. There was no chaihana in the end, but between us we shared around our water and had just enough. We made it to Beyneu all together just before lunch after 5 long days on the same unwavering and mainly straight road. In this moment, I was so glad I found these guys, these oddball cyclists with their different ideas and routes and ways of cycling. As the days grew more monotonous, and as the scenery remained unchanging, it was always nice to have someone around to share it with. Someone to go through torture with. Cicero rings true when he said “Friendship improves happiness and abates misery, by the doubling of our joy and the dividing of our grief.”
The town is big and well stocked. The biggest we’ve all seen since Baku a couple of weeks ago, and it’s still just a little town. The cash machines were a pain though.
It was so good to have a wide selection of food again. Aside from eating out every day, it was often pretty slim pickings between tomatoes, eggs, stale bread and out-of-date tins of peas. (Puke.) We managed to haggle the hotel down to 10 dollars each. I’m pretty sure I ruined their plumbing washing my hair. It was worse than straw.
Sadly, despite how well we all got on, this was the last time we’d all be together. Four would take the train and skip out the most difficult section, but Ian, Nick and I would take on the challenge of cycling the next 1,500km to Samarkand, in Uzbekistan, across even more sparsely populated desert. But that’s a tale for another day.