Kazakhstan. 15 days. Over 1300 kilometres. And an excessive amount of asking ourselves: “What on earth are we doing here?”
After a restful and productive time in Baku, we were ready to catch our ferry across the Caspian Sea to Aktau, Kazakhstan. Somehow we hit the jackpot and managed to catch a ferry right from the port in Baku instead of travelling 70km to the usual point of departure. We arrived at the dock at 11PM ready to board, but it wasn’t until 430AM that we were woken up from a deep sleep by a young Azeri man who told us it was time to go to the boat. We stumbled to our bikes, along with an English couple that we had met earlier that day, and after a brief hold-up at passport control, which turned out to be nothing more than a shipping container with a dividing wall in the middle, we were through and made our way foggily onto the ferry.
The ship was pretty old school and our English friend Jonathan described it as a “proper batten down the hatches” type of boat. The ride was largely uneventful and between meals we spent most of our time napping, reading, sitting on the upper deck, or playing cards with our new friends Jonathan and Harriet.
When we arrived in Aktau, the Kazakh border guards marched on-board and demanded that we get our documents. The problem was, when we boarded the boat we had handed our documents to one of the crew members, who was no where to be found. This delay really set off the head patrol officer and we realized we had not made a good first impression. Eventually everything got sorted out. After a slow passport control process and a real half effort baggage check, we were on our way. We stopped at the Caspian Sea to dip our feet in, then rode on to our hostel. We spent a nice night relaxing and by 2pm the following afternoon we were headed out of the city and into the desert.
Within a few kilometres of riding, the road turned from smooth asphalt to a bumpy dirt trail. Camels and horses were scattered throughout the flatlands surrounding us. For many hours we didn’t see any trace of other human beings. This road continued for the rest of the day as we made our way along dried out river beds and up into the rolling hills. As the sun was setting, we realized that our water supply was running low and we were becoming dehydrated and very hungry. A few minutes later a small group of buildings appeared on the horizon and we made our way hastily towards them, while not letting our hopes of finding water get too high.
The buildings turned out to be a Muslim heritage site comprised of underground mosques and beside that was the living quarters of the local caretakers. We came for water, but were treated to a dinner of bread, cookies, raisins and dates, and a chai tea overload. We then showered in a small brick room, using a small pot to pour water over our sweaty, sweaty bodies. We slept beneath the stars on a raised platform behind their house, and in the morning we were given breakfast and chai before continuing on our way. We thanked them as sincerely as we knew how and headed onward. Nearly 20kms down, the dirt road ended and the highway began. We thought things were going to get a lot easier from there. Oh, how wrong we were.
Early the next morning we made a steep ascent. When we finally reached the peak, we found ourselves riding on top of a seemingly endless wasteland plateau. There was no shade, no trees and nothing to block the extreme headwind. For the next three and a half days we rode through the most dry and desolate landscape that either of us had ever seen. From around 11AM to 4PM the temperature did not drop below 40 degrees. We got in the habit of waking up at 6am, riding for a few hours and taking lengthy breaks to beat the heat. Flood tunnels under the highway were the best place to do this, as they were the only source of shade for hundreds of miles. Water was scarce. It was only the generosity of drivers giving us water and those who occupied the rare truck stops that kept us moving. According to our GPS route, we had at least another 600km of this barren desert, possibly worse, in order to get to the next major town. We realized this was ludicrous and made a unanimous decision to try and take a train to avoid a torturous, perhaps even impossible stretch of road.
This stretch of the trip was the most difficult thing that I have ever done. It wore us out physically, mentally and emotionally. No part of us was left unaffected by the desert. The five hour mid-day rests were almost as difficult for me as the riding. We would cook lunch and then try to nap the day away, but I mostly found myself awake, in a tunnel too small to stand in and too rounded to sit comfortably, thinking of home and everyone that I missed so desperately. These times caused me to reflect on why we were even doing this. At times it seemed too painful to be worth it. However, I realized that no matter how lonely and uncomfortable my situation felt, it could not even be measured on the same scale of the despair and isolation that is experienced daily by those that we are riding for. This was motivation enough for me to keep pushing on.
When we finally arrived in the town of Beyneu, (the first city in over 300km) we immediately headed for the train station. Within an hour we had our train tickets booked. We checked into a sketchy looking hostel right beside the station and crashed hard. At 1:30 in the morning, we were holding up the train as we tried to find a place to put our loaded bicycles on an already overly crowded carriage. The journey was by no means restful, but it saved us the trek by bicycle and we were very grateful for this (later we discovered that the route we were planning on taking was not even a legitimate road, but for some reason our navigation app wanted to take us that way).
We arrived in Kyzylorda after a 30 hour train ride and began the next 450km desert stretch to Shymkent, where we had a home-stay lined up with a local man that we had met on the train. Thankfully, the terrain was a little more green and the wind was at our backs, so we made really good time over the next few days. Upon our arrival in Shymkent, we called our Kazahk friend who had offered us a place to stay, but we got no answer. A few minutes later, we recieved a text back saying that he had left the city and wouldn’t be back to the following afternoon. We really did need a shower and laundry so we went online and found the cheapest place in the city. It turned out to be an amazing two bedroom apartment entirely to ourselves. After a brief exploration of the city, some much needed ‘camca’ (a trianglular pastry stuffed with meat and onions), and a football match with some local kids, we made our way back to the apartment through a gap in the barbed wire fence surrounding the complex. This led to us being shouted at by a group of elderly Russian ladies who were upset enough to get a police officer involved. In the end it turned out to be nothing more than a case of mistaken identity and some extremely paranoid neighbours, but it sure made for an entertaining evening.
From Shymkent we rode to Taraz in two short days. As we reached the outskirts of the city we saw two local road cyclists up ahead. They struck up a conversation with us and I told them we were looking for a place to eat (noodles and canned beef were getting old) so they took us to a restaurant, the grocery store, and eventually one of them offered to host us for the night. He took us on a night ride through the city and even did some minor work on our bikes (one of his occupations was a bike mechanic). The next day we slept in. After breakfast (camca and coffee) he took us to the bike shop where he works. His trainer was an incredibly kind man who treated us to lunch in one of the nicest restaurants in the city. We ate until we were full, which is an incredibly rare occurrence when we are on the road. During the meal we were informed by our new friend that his racing team, many of whom are on the Kazakhstan national team, would be accompanying us 30km outside the city. Fortunately for us, they were gracious and kept a speed that we could maintain, but we still felt pretty legit riding alongside such elite riders.
The following night we camped in a field looking out at the rugged mountain range that had dominated the southern horizon for the last few hundred kilometres. In the morning we woke to what I thought was the sound of rain pattering against the tent, but it was actually hundreds of sheep walking by our tent. This has weirdly becoming a normal way to wake up. After a brief 30 minute ride we had arrived at a small border town where we treated ourselves to one last pot of Kazakh chai as we braced to enter country number 14: Kyrgyzstan.
One thing that stood out to me during this entire time was the unbelievable amount of encouragement and support we received from you folks back home. It made me profoundly grateful for the people that I have the great privilege of calling my family and friends. It also made me miss home more than ever, but both Brad and I can say that we are excited for this next stretch of the journey and believe that, even though we can’t see it with our own eyes, our actions, combined with your support are bringing freedom and hope to precious lives.
With much love and great anticipation,
Joel & Brad