Wow. What an adventure the past 5.5 days have been. “Adventure” is one way of putting it I suppose. Other words I’d use to describe the 490km across the Kazakh Steppe could be “survival”, “endurance”, “suffering”, and …..”WIND”. Maybe all of these words together come within reach of describing how tough the most recent section has been. 5.5 days of being battered by a relentless headwind that slowed me down to just 9kph for days at a time as I bounced along possibly the worst road of the entire trip.
Now, before I commence the enthralling description of the misery I sustained over the past week: If you’re one of those people who’s been saying “I must donate some money to that mad scone on the bike on his way to China…” but haven’t quite gotten round to it. Go now and donate. Please. I started this cycle to inspire people to help sick children in Crumlin Children’s Hospital. I wanted my suffering to be a motivator for others to reach into their pockets and throw a few quid to a cause that greatly needs and deserves it. My suffering. Believe me I have suffered this week and if ever there was a time I feel my cycle is worthy of donations, it is now. And remember: Not one cent of your money pays towards my cycle. I’m funding my sore backside entirely myself, and rest assured, it’s bloody sore after the past week.
Some blogs about cycling this section of the Silk Road label it as “the worst road in the world”, “the bicycle destruction derby’ and “one of the great crazy bike rides”. I can vouch for them all being fairly accurate. You see, it’s not just the wind that was the problem, and believe me the wind was a relentless monster that never once left me alone, even at night. The road, the heat, and lack of anything were all incredible challenges. In my last blog post I likened this section to a “boss” in a computer game. Holy crap, this was some boss. I’ll start at the beginning…
I left Aktau early on Wednesday morning loaded with 10L of water and enough food for 6 days. The sun was beating down and within an hour I had my first puncture. Dammit. The wind was blowing a gale but it was a crosswind so I didn’t fret too much. After some hills in the midday heat I had my first sample of a “Chaikhanna” (teahouse) that would be my saviours over the next 450km. Then the road turned North, towards Shetpe. The wind was no longer a crosswind. It was fully in my face and reduced my speed to just 10kph, grinding out the kms in 2nd/3rd gear for the remainder of the day. I’d only made 110km. That night I slept in a pipe under the road, but the wind was so bad I barely slept a wink.
On Thursday I pushed on at 9kph all day to Shetpe, fixed another puncture, restocked on bread and water and made the second turn of the route, now heading North-East towards Beynou. The wind from the North was now blowing from the North East and I pulled up at 8pm having only covered 80km for the day. One of the great things about the Steppe is camping is really simple: pull off 200-300m from the road and you’re done. You can camp anywhere, and the stars were beautiful that night. The wind even eased down for long enough to enjoy staring at the sky.
Up early on Friday to get ahead of the wind, and I was expecting the tarmac to vanish after around 30km. It continued on for much longer and I had a siesta in another pipe under the road (thanks to Tom Bruce for the tip). Then it began, or ended really: The tarmac vanished and I was now on the “bicycle destruction derby”. The road degraded into a bumpy, corrugated and broken rocky mess that sends traffic out to the sides where they carve a dozen tracks into the sand which the intrepid cyclist must try to follow. Constantly switching between tracks to try to find a smooth surface. Combined with the gale force headwind, progress was slowed once again to just 10kph. I fell several times having been caught by a rogue sandbank and not being able to unclip my feet in time.
The same continued on Saturday, and you see, that’s just it: This is a desert. There is nothing out there to entertain you, so it was just the same again: Up early, bumpity bumpity bump. Crash, fall. Sleep in pipe at midday. Find Chaihanna. Scream at the wind. Listen to audiobook. Skip past songs you’ve heard 500 times so far on the trip. Wave at passing trucks. Spit out mouthfuls of dust from aforementioned trucks covering you in a cloud of dust. I passed the days in chunks of 5km, as these would take roughly 30 minutes to cover. Sounds insane, but that’s the truth of it. Progress was that slow and it really tested me mentally. Physically it was gruelling of course, but just being inside your own head, in 40+ degrees, bouncing along on that road, battling that wind. They were certainly the toughest 5.5 days of the entire trip and I was offered to have the bike thrown into a truck/car a few times. I was sorely tempted.
In the middle of the route there was a good 50km stretch of perfectly new tarmac, which I wasn’t expecting. I actually kissed it when I got on it, but quickly realised that battling that headwind on smooth tarmac was actually tougher mentally than the destruction derby at the sides! The constant switching of the tracks kept me on my toes and made time pass by easier. On the tarmac, well, you’re just cycling in a dead straight line and with that headwind, it’s a loooonnnnnnggggg straight road that goes by sloooowwwwwwllllyyyyy.
When I returned to the destruction derby I soon regretted my previous thoughts of missing it as the road got much worse. Much much worse, and I once again longed for tarmac, which returned on Sunday night for the final 45km. I camped 30km from Beyneu and arrived at around 10am to check into a hotel for some much needed rest.
There was one incredible encounter on the whole route, which has to be one of the highlights of the trip. I pulled into what I thought was a teahouse asking for food. The setup was weird, but I was hungry and soon was in front of a banquet, surrounded by lots of women and children eating the same. No truckers. Odd. I realised I’d stumbled upon some family gathering of sorts (out in the desert, I have no idea why). Soon my photo was being taken, and I was brought to meet the grandmothers (all in another room, again, no idea why). Two of them took to me in particular, and the older one, who had a mouth full of gold teeth, just wanted to hold my hand and then gave me a big kiss on the cheek. God she smelled awful, but I’m sure she said the same about me! I went to pay and my money was refused. Then I was handed a big bag of food which I was delighted about as my own bread was going stale and horrible, so fresh bread was fantastic. I was sent off with a huge wave from the massive family. I was euphoric, since after several days of pretty much nothing, I’d received so much from complete strangers. I’ll never forget that morning, and despite the wind, the road and the boredom, the route was possibly worth it just to experience those people.
So, where does that leave me? Well, sadly, I’ve to take a couple of trains to cover some ground in Uzbekistan and try to get to Bukhara ASAP. It’s physically impossible for me to cross the country within my visa dates. It’s such a shame as I want to get to see Uzbekistan, but the numbers don’t lie, and with the wind the way it is I’d be hard pressed to do even half the country in the time I have left, so I’m hopefully taking a night train to Kongrad tonight, then 300km of more desert cycling, followed by another train to Bukhara, at which point I’ll be on another sprint to Osh in Kyrgyzstan. I’ve adjusted the route from Osh to China to recoup the distances on the train in Uzbekistan so I should still cover the original distance.