Once we left Aktau and it’s (relatively) smooth tarmac roads behind, we headed for Shetpe and then onwards to Beyneu. This was one of the harder sections of our passage as the road deteriorated and at times became just dirt tracks. They were building the new road alongside and it was with much relief when we could occasionally climb up onto the new tarmac, but the hard packed earth sections called ‘washboard’ in cycling speak really took it’s toll. By the end of a day my whole body would ache and muscles in my forearms would lock up tight.
Our next night was spent sleeping in a tunnel underneath the new road and these would become a regular stopping point to look out for, as there was no necessity to put up the tent, we’d simply lay out our mats with sleeping bags on top. It was also a good spot to get out of the wind and make a brew!
There is no doubt this is a ‘hard man’s route’ and not a road any sane cyclist would attempt if other options were available. The winds play a huge part in your progress, the headwinds are horrendous and can become very demoralising when (as in our case) they last for days. There were some highlights, like the time we said ‘wouldn’t it be great if there was a melon stop’ and literally two minutes later there one was – in the middle of nowhere. Most bizarre.
Myself and Clive parted on the road to Beynau as our riding was just not compatible, but we would later meet up again in Nukus and then share a dorm in the hostel in Khiva. I think if we’re around together at the start of the Pamir Highway we will most likely tackle it as a team, not least of all for the amazing photographs we can take of each other.
The border crossing at Beyneu into Uzbekistan was chaotic and I expected to spend a good few hours getting through, only to find ‘tourists’ were given special treatment and pushed through rather quickly, unlike the unfortunate locals. After declaring my 95$ and being amazed my bags were not checked at all, I was sent on my way with a bottle of Ice Tea from the guard, who welcomed me to Uzbekistan. A nice touch.
I had hoped the road would now be smooth tarmac to give some respite, but if anything they were just as bad and it was a long ride to my next stop, Nukus. The occasional repite came when as in Kazakhstan, I was able to ride on the new roads they were building for a short while. At times I struggled with the dust and consequently cursed Uzbekistan, but there is no denying how friendly the people are here and I had some very memorable moments along the way. My first taste of Uzbek hospitality came when I arrived tired at one of the roadside chianas and was invited to sleep the night, no charge of course.
Then I was offered a bunk in a roadside crew’s hut in Kungrad. After being plied with copious amounts of vodka and fed so much food my stomach was bursting they took me shopping and wouldn’t let me pay, absolutely amazing people. One of them, Dawron, invited me to his house in Bukhara, I’ll need to borrow a phone and let him know I’m now running a few days behind.
While trying to find the ‘short’ route into Khiva I got totally lost and ended up riding through some small villages. This turned up trumps as towards the end of a very long day I was looking for somewhere to camp and asked a local farmer if I could sleep on his land. I’d no idea I would end up staying the night with his whole family, watching Russian war movies and being fed the national dish, Plov, before showing them my whole trip photographs. Again amazing hospitality.
We take for granted clean drinking water and electricity here in the west, but many families in the villages struggle for these basic amenities. The family I stayed with had to wait until 7:00 p.m. until the power came on, then it would go off again at seven the next morning. But, as in when I stayed, the power often goes off unannounced and they rely on candles and torches. Melon season was about done and they were now into the back-breaking work of cotton picking, which pays 2,000 Som (about 1 UK pound) for each kilogram. It’s a hard life.
My final check-in with the locals was the day before I rolled into Khiva. Once again I was on the back roads and asking for directions, only to be invited for chai. In no time at all I was being fed fried eggs and bread, before the English speaking daughter turned up. I had wanted to get to Khiva today but couldn’t walk away from such wonderful hospitality without giving something back, so spent a few hours helping her brush up on her English, quite important as she was a teacher. When asked what an English teacher earns in the UK I was embarrassed to find she earns just 300 US dollars a month.
It was now too late to try and find the hostel, so I camped on the outskirts of Khiva and woke early the next morning to roll into town. Fortunately I had the name of the hostel from my internet browsing earlier, which once I showed to locals led to me finding it pretty quickly and the really nice owner Rashid allowed me to check-in early, a big bonus as I was badly in need of a clean-up and some decent rest. Once showered I fell sound asleep and was only wakened by the arrival of Clive later in the day.
I’ll post another update with pictures from Khiva, but for now I’m enjoying a well earned rest after what has been undoubtedly the hardest part of my journey thus far. The hostel is clean and tidy and the food is good, especially the breakfast.
More soon, please keep the comments coming…