I am sitting in a teahouse in Kazakhstan about 180 kilometers from the town of Beynu. I have been here for a little more than an hour and a half, waiting for the rest of our group. Frederic is here too, he waited for me for a little over an hour, so he has had a nice break. Kazakhstan thus far has been very interesting, an arid, empty place full of wind, a few plateaus, a sparse population of Kazakhs and little else, as far as I have seen.
I am very happy to be here, for we put in our time in a small autonomous country that is little known. It lies on the edge of the Caspian sea and is called “Port-istan.” It is encircled by a fence that would be a good fit for any prison. It has a stable population of Ukrainian truck drivers and, during the summer months, a hodge-podge of backpackers, Mongol Rallyers, motorcyclists and a few bicycle tourists. There is a store, a police station, a bank, and a Post Office. The currency is the Azeri manat and most of the country’s money circulates between the atm and the little store- which is surprisingly well-stocked and reasonably priced- and are only four meters apart. Five days and four nights we waited for the ferry there. The winds were untenable for the ships, which must navigate a narrow channel and perform a 180 degree turn to dock with a little help from a tugboat. These boats are newer than I supposed, both built in the mid-80’s. They are not really built for open water, so any wind really clogs up the process. One is called the Professor Gul, the other is christened the Mercury 1. There was a Mercury 2, but in 2003 it sank along with about fifty unfortunate souls.
Life at the port is difficult to describe. In a somewhat indolent attempt to convey the nature of such a life I will furnish the following excerpt from my journal during this time:
“Our biggest challenge aside from evading the sun and coping with the lethargy induced by this endless waiting is that there is no beer sold here. Of a hot, windy morning one might behold a couple dozen listless forms hidden beneath bags and blankets strewn right on the paving stones around a vacant building, occasionally shifting with the shade. Four boats lie 5 kilometers out, waiting for the wind to die down. We can feel them out there. One might be able to steal in today, in three days, no one knows. I cannot help thinking of a quote by Roald Dahl, describing the tedium of soldiers waiting in the desert with nothing to do but catch bugs and pit them against each other, something to the effect of: “and the pastimes of children became those of grown men.” We while the days away, dormant, apathetic, sluggish. I cannot say I am possessed by any impatience, really, but there is a pervasive restlessness underlying our quiet lives as we watch the sun trace its conspicuous arc. We seem to have fallen between the cracks and stumbled upon a new state of mind that suits us just fine, an abnormal feeling for an abnormal collection of people seeking out new and unusual experiences. None of us has anywhere to be, nothing pressing to do, and are thus by nature pretty laid back and accustomed to quietude and a slower pace of life. Yet we are all nomads at heart, unhurried, but accustomed to constant movement and change, and being stuck in one place for too long incites a little discomfort; we are the itchy-footed, those who let no moss gather on our stones. It is a testament to the severity of this unease that I am writing, for a strange aspect of life at the port is that we are incredibly unproductive. We all have books to read, writing to do, language to practice, instruments to play, chess and cards, but no one seems able to get any momentum going. Perhaps it is because we are busy, busy waiting, which has become a sort of occupation that becomes increasingly significant as the days drag out.
Who do we have here at the port? Frederic, a charming Swiss cycle tourist whom I rode down with from Baku, Marine the French backpacker with a broken foot, Bertie the goofy English hitchhiker (fluent in Arabic and quite skilled on a guitar), Jan, a Dutch motorcyclists who speaks English with an impeccable Birmingham accent, Sam, a young Oxford graduate who is also travelling by motorcycle and is writing a book, Nitsan an Israeli hitchhiker, Eugene, a Russian traveller, a skinny chap whose English is a bit unpolished, and Cody, a rave-tastic cycle tourist we met here. There are others around, some Mongol Rallyers, a pair of German motorcyclists who are our heralds of any and all news concerning the ships, a German couple and a German/Spanish couple, all backpackers.
Sleeping on the ground like hobos, refugees, Indians, stuck here, privy to the whims of the wind, waiting for our ship to come in. Someday we will leave, but we will inevitably take a piece of Portistan with us.”
Bertie and Chacha, our Port Pet.
We did manage to acquire a few brews…
Sam’s bike. Nice model name.
We passed through customs without too much incident, though there was a certain degree of silliness that I have come to expect. This may have been due to the absolute break-down of a certain fiery Spanish woman who was unable to contain her restlessness any longer and took it out viciously on the poor employees of Portistan. This had the effect of evoking a certain amount of silliness, I think, though it is difficult to tell. Lamentably, a few days before an Italian woman with the most powerful voice I have ever witnessed caused such a scene that security was called, and I hear she even put in a call to the Italian embassy, as if the government could do anything about the wind.
Once cleared, we rode a long way down to the dock, where the boat was waiting, ass-open and ready to receive cargo. We park our bikes and chat with the workers while we waited for the pedestrians (poor Marine had to walk the whole distance on crutches!) We unloaded all we would need and were led up to the deck where a very spirited stewardess tersely and with much sass explained the arrangements to us in Russian. From all I had heard, I expected some rotting hulk with hot, stuffy rooms and ghastly amenities. Some articles claimed that there was no food or water on the boats. We were prepared for this, and were pleasantly surprised to find ourselves on a vessel in good order: the ship was freshly painted, the life boats had been tested a few days prior, the cabin area was clean and comfortable! There was a lounge with nice leather couches around the perimeter, an adjoining room with three showers and three toilets and what looked like an area where tea was regularly served, judging from the heaping buckets of sugar. We were led back to the cabins, which for us all had a window. Four beds to a cabin, bunk style, a sink, and plenty of storage space. There were even outlets that worked! We were also told that we would get three meals a day! This all put us in a very good mood. After taking some much needed showers and switching to the cleanest of our clothes, we had dinner in the dining room. Unsure of the quality of the food, we were again surprised by a delicious piece of chicken served on a bed of pasta, lentil soup and a bottle of sparkling water apiece. We began to feel out of place without tuxedos, this was a veritable cruise to us! After feeling more homeless than ever before, suddenly we found ourselves in the lap of luxury and we made the most of it. After the meal we explored a bit and wound up on the top deck. We watched as the ship was refueled and then someone produced the vodka. We sat up there drinking and smoking until about midnight before retiring for some much needed rest in a comfortable bed.
I spent the next day napping in between meals and studying heaps of Russian, and it was glorious. Far better than words to describe the nature of our pleasure cruise are a few pictures:
We all hoped that we would be “stuck” on the boat another day, but it was not to be. We were rousted at about 1am by our spirited hostess and prepared for customs: removing sheets, lugging our luggage back down to the cargo area and preparing for customs to board. We watched the boat move through the harbor until we were rounded up and sent to the lobby. We waited another half-hour and then half a dozen Kazakh soldiers came in with a dog. They all had asiatic features, and this was quite a surprise; the features of the people had been changing gradually, getting slowly swarthy in Greece, gently transitioning into Turkish features, a throwback to European features in Georgia, then back to Turkish again in Azerbaijan. One more country over and the change is dramatic. We are definitely in the Asian side of Central Asia, at last, though there is a mix here. You have some European-Russian looking folk, but by-and-large the Kazakhis as a whole have very unique features, very Mongolian to my mind.
They searched the bags quite thoroughly, flipping through the pages of books and instructing everyone to empty out most of their packs. The dog ran around, searching for drugs. All of the rally car drivers and the cyclists had stowed their luggage on our vehicles to avoid being searched twice. After we were cleared, we deboarded and waited, unsure of what happened next. A van pulled up, we were loaded on, and driven past the boat to the customs building. Here we filled out registration cards and waited some more, nobody seemed to be working the booths. Then all the truck drivers issued in and were processed first. When my turn came, a lady took my passport and registration, took my picture, yelled something to someone and I was sort of rejected and put in another line. A man there performed the same tasks and all was well.
At last we returned to our bikes, hopped on, and said our farewells. We were now a group of five cyclists, but Marine, who I have been meeting intermittently over the last two months since Istanbul, bid us adieu for now, having hitched a ride with a very nice Italian rally team. The two motorcyclists (Jan and Sam) also split from us, planning to ride together into Uzbekistan. At last we set off only to meet the motorists again around the corner, where our bags were searched and inspected by the dog. This done, we headed for the exit.
This is where the silliness set in. We assumed the guards would look at our passport and then open the gate,, but no, they tried to search us again. We, of course, had no intention of unpacking again. This explained, they sent us to a side building, where we were processed as pedestrians, but they seemed entirely confused as to how we were to retrieve our bikes: we couldn’t go back through the pile-ons and we apparently weren’t allowed back through the gate from the other side, but eventually we did hop the pile-ons and found ourselves back where we started. They then sent us back to the customs building, apparently to have our pictures taken. We explained, again, that this was already done. At last, someone led us back to the building and through a side door where we had to get our bikes in, unmount our panniers, send them through an x-ray machine, reassemble them, and carry them up some steps and out the door. It was as if they had never fielded a cyclist before, but we know full-well they had done this a hundred times! They were looking at each other, asking what was to be done and generally useless and obstructive; reflecting the fundamental aspect shared by all governments and large organizations.
Free at last, we only had to remove a huge chain that obstructed us from the road and replace on its hook afterward with a herculean effort. Free at last! Goodness gracious, what a joke that was. It was now almost 5 a.m. and we decided to catch a little shut-eye at a beach nearby.
After a fitful sleep on some conveniently places mattresses under shade tents, we awoke to the clamor of people beginning their days. We had a lot to do, some shopping, locating wi-fi, and finding our sixth man, Cody, who had arrived on the boat just before us. We were in no hurry though. We swam, we ate, Zach, Alizé and Frederic played paddle-ball, Freddie joined in on a soccer match. I pretty much sat there, after a rinse and a little meal, ready to go and dreaming of coffee. At last we set off. We immediately stumbled on an outdoor shop, where I loaded up on camping fuel. They also reluctantly let us use the wi-fi, and we made contact with Cody. After a little trip to the store we met up with Cody and set off at about 2 o’clock, sleep deprived but excited to be on the road! We made it about 70 kilometers before pulling off the road and setting up camp, which you can do about anywhere in Kazakhstan, a land of rolling, dusty plains.
Riding in a group takes a little adaptation. We all have different styles, routines, paces. Alizé is just beginning her trip. A brave girl to fly to Azerbaijan with a bicycle and start in the deserts of Central Asia! After a slow morning, we set off again. It rained that night, a lot, and was cloudy the next day.
Initially I was thinking it would take us five days to reach Beynu, doing between 100 and 130 kilometers a day. I hadn’t planned for the wind. After pushing all day, we did about 55 kilometers. Granted, we hadn’t started very early. The next day was cloudy again, with a little rain in the early morning. Lucky. I heard the temperature would be between 50 and 55 degrees, which is scalding, but we have been more around 25 most days, which is a blessing. We have been given a few watermelons so far, which are perfect for groups and we devour them immediately.
We left late again, and only made it 45 kilometers after fighting even stronger winds. Alizé got a double cramp in both legs and we took a hostel for the night in the charming little town of Shetpi. I was surprised she had been doing so well, and she is in fact doing well now, but the conditions are very challenging, my legs are extremely sore! 55 kilometers the next day after a very slow start, we rolled out of Shetpi around 2 p.m. The scenery, which has been fairly flat, was beautiful this day, with plateaus, greenish pastures, beautiful mausoleums, and horses and camels everywhere. Yeah, leaving before 11 in the morning is good if you want to make distance, but it is difficult; there is more socializing, but I think that it is mostly that we are expending incredible amounts of energy, and not getting very far. We camped on a plateau the night before and started our day with a nice downhill and even a bit of a tailwind!
The following day we got up at 7. Good start. We had some complications and sort of got split up for most of the day, but we did 80 kilometers, which is a vast improvement! We are figuring it out, drafting, taking turns, being more disciplined about breaking camp. Right now everyone is sleeping in a teahouse while I write. We did 50k this morning pretty quickly, and hope to do 50 more this afternoon, so we are getting there! Should be in Beynu tomorrow, which is the 14th of August. I am a little worried, because my Uzbek visa expires at the end of the month. I am not sure I can make it. May have to take a train, which I don’t want to do, but we will see. The Pamirs are probably getting cold too, there is already snow there. The road through the Pamirs is the second highest thoroughfare in the world, by the way. Didn’t know that. It is actually a little chilly at night here, and for some reason it is still raining in the night. I cannot believe how much rain I have seen this summer. When will it end? Do I want it to? Yes, a little. My tent is okay but still broken, of course, and I worry about the wind. It is no problem without the rainfly, the wind goes right through the mesh, but I have had to whip the fly on in the middle of the night twice now. Curious. At least I am not burnt to a crisp!
The riding is very, very boring, we climbed a good hill up onto a plateau and there has been NOTHING for the last 100k. May be like this all the way into Beynu. Boring, flat, windy. At least we keep each other entertained. It is still very dry though, my lips are chapped, I ride with my mouth closed and we are always watching our water supply. We are very grateful that these chaikhanas are here… intermittently. The camping is so fun though, I am in great company. Never have I seen so many stars in my life, and we are seeing hordes of big shooting stars! The milky way spans the sky from end to end, a nebulous starbow of such beauty as to make one wish electricity had never been invented.
That’s all for now- Wish me luck, it’s been great riding with a group, but we need better wind, I don’t have much time to get through Uzbekistan!