It is rare for a desert to be a pleasant surprise, but the ~500km stretch of road from Aktau to Beyneu in eastern Kazakhstan was just that. I had read blogs telling tales of terribly surfaced roads, relentless headwinds and unfriendly locals and I briefly considered taking the train. Luckily though, with some bike friends (two Spaniards, Marta and Coco) from the ferry to Aktau I decided it was best to ride. I’m on a bike trip after all!
Since those blogs were written there must have been some road works because the path connecting the two cities is now for the most part silky smooth tarmac. The wind gods were on our side too, only burdening us with headwinds for the final of our five days.
Growing up in the heart of Melbourne’s leafy suburbs there is something fascinating and other-worldly about the bleakness and scale of an endless desert horizon that draws me in, and I was drawn in completely over the last five days of dusty, dirty and dramatic desert riding.
For those considering riding this route, take a lot of water. Water stops are around 80km apart and shade between them is often non existent. For us the weather hovered around 35 in the sun but a regular breeze left us feeling cool despite that. I carried 9 litres of water but rarely used more than 6 before filling up, and in an emergency drivers, truckers and roadside workers will often have water to share.
A motley crew of overland travellers and long haul truck drivers soaked in this epic sunset over an industrial complex behind the port of Baku while we waited for our ferry to Kazakhstan.
Catching the ferry was far simpler than complaints on the internet had led me to believe. First go to the ferry ticket office in Baku and get their phone number. Call each day at 11am and ask if a ferry is leaving – the ladies who work there are great and very helpful. Every 3 or so days a ferry will leave, so be patient. On the day, pay your 80USD at the office and get your ticket, then high tail it to the port 70km out of the city and wait for departure.
The office had told me the ferry would arrive at 6 and begin boarding at 8 – probably departing around 11pm. I luckily took this timeline with a grain of salt. We boarded at 2am and left the port around 5am. Still – all that mattered was we were on our way across the Caspian.
Anyone taking this ferry should take with them a good book and a flexible approach to deadlines. High winds saw our boat grind to a halt so close to the city of Baku that we could still see its skyline on the horizon. For 14 hours we sat stationary near the coast until the winds died down and we could proceed. By the time we eventually reached Aktau we had been on the boat for around 50 hours.
It wasn’t all that bad though. Two days at sea gave me plenty of time to explore the rickety old ship and watch the antics of the heavily smoking truckers who populated it.
Without much to keep us in Aktau we set off the day we arrived. A Canadian expat pulled over and gave us some route advice, highly recommending a road that would later become infamously known as ‘the shortcut’. Rather than the eastern road, populated with trucks and cars, he sent us on a dirt road going straight north east out of the city and intersecting with the town of Beki.
This road was always bumpy, very dry and if it were to rain would be extremely muddy. Rather than being a shortcut it took us two days to complete what we otherwise could easily have ridden in a day and a bit. The last 15km are very sandy and any momentary lapse in concentration will see your front wheel washing out sideways in the loose sand.
At the end Coco and and I thought the diversion had been tough but worth it. Marta disagreed.
Despite feeling very far from everything, there was no shortage of friendly truckers along the early stages of ‘the shortcut’, giving out encouraging honks and offering water, directions and warnings about the road ahead.
Some remarkable rocks beside the road bear the clear fossilised remains of shells, a reminder that this arid desert was at one point in history part of the sea floor.
A day and a half into the shortcut, this nondescript building suddenly disturbed our flat horizon and a detour was made to see what it was. Inside was a long table full of breads and sweets and we were instructed of course to eat. The building housed a man and a woman who service and maintain an ancient mosque and cemetery next door.
The cemetery was beautiful, with old tracks winding between grand tombs etched with the writing of some indecipherable dialect.
The mosque was buried underground, and is over 1000 years old. Holes dug into the surface provide light and ventilation, and when the building is not in use they are covered with carpets. The air inside was cool and calm and when you held your breath it was totally still. It is designed as a place of prayer and contemplation where you can be with your thoughts alone and reach realisations that would be disturbed by anything other than perfect silence. The layout was slightly labyrinthine, with circular rooms connected by small passages, thick rugs lining the ground.
The Kazak women here dress beautifully. No dark colours. Everyone wears dresses with vibrant patterns and shapes, often also paired with a colourful headscarf. Fashion like this would kill on the streets of Melbourne. I felt awkward asking the women if I could photograph them so I sent Marta in to sit with them and pretended I was taking a photo of her.
A sheep was slaughtered as we were leaving the cemetery. These guys were good. In a few minutes the animal was unrecognisable. The men cut the meat into strips while the women sorted the guts into bowls.
Rabbles of kids greeted us at every rest stop along the route – few as there were. While the adults were either at work or hiding from the summer sun, their children ran riot around us filling the air with screams and giggles as we refilled our bellies and water bottles.
After Shetpe is where the real desert riding began. Long stretches of flat road with little to ever see off to the side.
Stretching on and on…
Riding through landscape like this is all about repetition. Pedal stroke after pedal stroke, breath after breath, kilometre after kilometre you feel like you aren’t moving forward. With little on which to focus the mind begins to wander, sifting through plans and possibilities, recalling past conversations, loved ones from home and things that need doing. With nothing else to do your mind uses the time to clear and organise the clutter of life and while sometimes the road was downright boring at others it was almost meditative.
Every 50 or so kilometres, rising out of the sand like a mirage, is a tea house. Blink and you can miss them because only some of them have signs.
Inside we refilled with tea and high energy snacks while hiding from the harsh midday sun.
All of those we visited were family businesses, doubling also as the residence of the owner. All of the owners seemed to be women, and all of them were lovely accommodating people who didn’t seem to care when we fell asleep in the corner for a small midday nap.
The roadside workers don’t have the luxury of a tea house in which to hide from the midday sun and instead fashion these nifty sun protection masks. They go about their work apparently totally unaware that they look like serial killers.
Even in the emptiest stretches we were never really alone. Small birds, rabbits, ferrets, hedgehogs and snakes all populate the areas where we camped. Sadly they were most often viewed motionless by the side of the road. By far the most disturbing sight was these large yellow spiders with red protruding fangs that scuttle quickly and silently through the brush like some kind of tiny nightmare. I now sleep with my shoes inside the tent.
And always on the horizon were camels, looking haggard and unkempt as they shed their winter coats.
When there was no wildlife around dust was a constant companion.
But no matter how dusty or difficult the day, none of it mattered as the sun dipped slowly behind the horizon treating us to dazzling sunsets and jaw dropping colour gradients. What a place to be!
I have now rolled into Beyneu, had a long overdue wash and am enjoying the luxury of an air conditioner for a couple of days. It’s lucky I enjoyed the desert because in Uzbekistan there is plenty of it ahead and as I ride further into summer it’s only getting hotter. Yet even with the prospect of 45 degree days, there is nothing I’d rather be doing than continuing slowly east.