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Published: June 19th 2014
"A broom is drearily sweeping
up the broken pieces of yesterday's life.
Somewhere a queen is weeping.
Somewhere a king has no wife."
-The Wind Cries Mary, Jimmy Hendrix
Flying is always a bewildering change of pace after a long cycle tour. Our warp from Tbilisi to Aktau was the first time we have flown in the middle of a tour, making it even wierder. The departure from the airport at 0130 alone was enough to turn us a bit on end. To complicate matters further, the cashier at the oversized baggage desk recieved a message just as we walked up requesting that she refuse our payment as our bags had been deemed a great threat to security. "The med kit" we thought, "it must be that"....
We sauntered down to the not-so-secure baggage basement with a representative from SCAT Airlines, dubiously named and boasting one of the world's worst airline safety records. The man was solemn and seemed a bit intimidated to be in the presence of such major suspected criminals. It was a bit strange but actually not very surprising when the first security guard asked why we were carrying a handgun. Looking
on their screen, you could clearly see a bike pump and some parts. It was odd that they had not taken the liberty to look for themselves but after I opened the bags and pulled out the offensive items they were no less on alert as they were still quite sure that the pump was somehow a deadly weapon. Finally one of the younger security agents was convinced to handle the pump which he did with great timidity. As the first puff of air emerged from the orifice, the whole group jumped back with wide eyes, seemingly certain of their eminent demise. I could not help it, i just started laughing at them, as did the SCAT representative.
Now with the bags repacked and a fee yet to pay I charged back up to the baggage desk, making jokes about the Kalishnakov in my other bag with the SCAT guy, only to be told that Georgian Lari alone would be accepted for our nominal baggage charge. We had exchanged all of our Lari earlier and so off to the exchange booth it was where a friendlier than usual lady traded a crisp fifty dollar bill and an old tattered
one-dollar note for our needed Lari. As I was walking away, she called out for me to take a look at the one-note. She held it up and asked "what does this mean?" Unbeknownst to me, someone had added a "B" and an R" to the beginning and end (respectively) of the "ONE" already printed on the bill. "I will never forget the look on the her face with her crooked golden teeth and a curious grin holding the bill for me to see with "BONER" written on it. I told her that she should look it up in a book because, if she didn't know by now, it was not my place to tell her. She just smiled and put the bill aside.
So off we went to the wierdest part of Kazakhstan. Traditionally this is done by ferry from Baku on the caspian coast of Azerbaijan but we were not up for paying hundreds of dollars for a visa to a country that might turn us around for having an Armenian stamp. We have also had past experiences with miserable waits in nasty cities for rusty ferries and we did not want to bother with the process.
The plane was obviously not painless but cheap and fast, landing us in Aktau just fifty minutes after takeoff. We assembled our bikes as a kindly security guard asked us questions and offered advice about the road ahead. Aktau is an oil town and there were also a slew of expats shuffling about the airport in the predawn hours who were all shocked that anybody would be here by choice. The best quote of the morning went something like "people have died out there you know, there is no cell service or anything!". "Dear god" we replied, "No cell service?! No wonder they died!"
The landscape was ominously flat in all directions and we had the distinct feeling that we had taken a rocket to another planet rather than a plane to another country. We went into town accompanied by every slick, new SUV imaginagle and checked into a cheap hotel room which was not actually that inexpensive. The two of us then passed out under the aircon for a few hours before going out and about to take on the task of prepping for a brutal piece of steppe ahead. Oil towns are wierd to say the least.
Everything is ugly and expensive and there is a fervant desperation in the air that accompanies lives centered solely on careers at the expence of every single element of aesthetic pleasure. Walking around as a tourist is an experience only enjoyable from a stoic perspective as the flash new realities of money practically run over the drunken heaps of yesterday's youth; staggering about with eyes fully functional and yet totally blind. None the less, the average Kazakh we encountered was willing to give directions and even crack a smile. Our experiences with the Kazakh people have led us to feel that they are actually quite good natured, once you scratch off the rough surface with a smile and a greeting.
As predicted, the winds were menacing from the first moment out of town. A left sided, head/cross wind is every cyclists nightmare. It means that (in right sided driving countries at least) every passing truck will form a dynamic in the wind that gives you a shake just after they pass. Some of these you can anticipate but others, particularly those caused by several passing trucks in a row or a double pass, are hard to compensate for. On
day one we were pushed off the narrow, busy road on a half dozen occasions but by day two we had relearned how to assert ourselves. Riding right in the middle of the lane with a violent headwind the trucks would first blow their horns, then blow again. Then would come the sweet sound of them gearing down and almost stopping behind us untill they could get a clear pass. It felt good to just take control of the road as the smallest, most vulnerable vehicles and really, we had no other choice if we wanted to keep riding. By day three we were away from the main coastal road and the highway was less busy. Truckers would come up to us at cafes and chat cordially about the road ahead, often offering rides past the upcoming construction sections. When the wind blew hard, we were tempted by the kind offer of a free ride, a russian conversation, and endless cold water but we had a certain knowledge in our guts that told us that we did not actually want that. We wanted to ride.
By day four the winds were absolutely insane and we struggled to stay upright
and maintain six km/h. It was at about noon that we tucked into a dusty roadhouse and devised a new plan. The winds had not been abating for the past few nights and we were not sleeping well. On this night the forcast called for a break and so we decided to try to sleep through the rest of the day and ride in the dark. We did not really sleep but at about sundown a nice man came to tell us that the wind was lighter. We had been resting in a pipeline crew's chuckwagon on his insistance and we quickly put together our kits and hit the dusty road. In the middle of the night the wind died and we found a piece of new pavement that had just recently come into use. By morning we had put in eighty kilometers under a starry sky. It was time to sleep, which we did, sort of, untill late afternoon when we crawlwd up out of our steppe hole and into a chaikhana where we downed instant coffee and meat with bread.
That night was even more calm but the pavement was totally absent for most of the ride.
In the caste of our lamps the road came alive. Between halucinations. desert rodents, and hidiously scarry camel spiders (actually a type of scorpion), we were well entertained. At about one in the morning we reached the broken pavement that would take us to our next rest in Beyneu. It was the fourth of june, 36 years from the day of my birth. Making instant coffee and opening containers of leftovers by the side of the road under the stars, it was my most memorable birthday party yet. Should a day ever come when I am want for a cause or direction, I will remember that on that night in the Kazakh steppe, I wanted something and I got it.
We finally crawled into Beyneu and shared a hotel with some Turks, an Uzbek, and a Korean who were trying to move a 250 ton chemical reactor from Korea to Uzbekistan. It had come though The Suez, The Med, The Black, The Azov, The Don, The Lenin, The Volga, and over the Caspian. Then overland at an even slower pace than ours before encountering the greatest obstacle just three hundred kilometers from it's final destination: a drunken lecher of
a beaurocrat with a classic Soviet mentality. For weeks the crew had languished in the heat as proposal after proposal to move it over the new road and on across the desert was rejected for reasons that were not explained to them. We comisserated for a day about how much more delicious Turkey was than wretched Beyneu. While the town gave us a pleasant respite from the hot desert, it was full of the sort of shadyness that does not involve trees. Drunks staggered down the streets and passed out on the sidewalk while others sped around in new Mercedes sedans down the streets of a town with no obvious source of income. We had the feeling that the unsmiling, rough face of the town was not doing a very good job of covering up something deeply sinister and we spent most of our time in the hotel where the food was good and the Turks were friendly. On a trip to the supermarket we visited an ATM and managed to aggressively make our way to the front of the disorderly que. Just as the locals do, we had stood closely and watched as the two men in front of
us looked warily at their account balances. The sums were puny, barely enough to buy a piece of meat in the overpriced dust bowl in the middle of the desert. We wondered how they could make it and the looks on their worried faces as they turned and walked off implied that they were wondering the same. Feeling fortunate, we bought some more meat and cookies, along with some instant coffee to feed our addiction, and walked back to our hotel, watching our backs.
The road to the Uzbek border was unpaved and relentlessly washboarded. We bumped along in the heat with a renewed feeling of patience and confidence despite a sandy headwind. We had a major mechanical failure about ten kilometers from the border but managed to fix it with blood, sweat, and hose clamps. The Kazakhs let us out with a smile, a stamp, and a wave but getting into Uzbekistan was characteristically slow. Horror stories abound about these borders but we were treated with great kindness throughout the whole length of the two hour process. They were mostly concerned about our med kit of which they made a perfunctary assessment. They knew nothing about medications and,
taking a look at our pharmacopia, obviously knew that they were completely dependant on us to tell the truth. After a few moments of playing "and this one, what does it do" they moved on to questions about our potential links to terrorist groups before moving on to our phone. Our photos are hard to navigate and they mostly looked at some great skiing shots from the Tahoe backcountry. Then we all sang a few lines from "Hotel California" and on into Uzbekistan we rolled.
The first task was to find a "black market" money changer to sell us Soum at a rate fourty percent higher than the official rate. For a lone hundred we recieved a stack of money about ten centimeters thick wrapped up in string. The Uzbek Soum is virtually worthless and constantly weakening. This means that almost anybody with a wad of cash will exchange it at a rate much better than the bank in order to convert their wealth to the almighty dollar. It is a sad state of affairs but it works for us and so, after finding room in our bags for all of the money, we rolled off from the first
chaikhana with bellies full of food and bicycles loaded with water. Feeling immediatly softened by our first encounters with Uzbeks, we slept well knowing that the wind forcasts had finally subsided and we could again become creatures of the early day.
Our first challenge in Uzbekistan was crossing the empty desert of Karikolpakiston; an autonomous region inhabited by linguistically distinct ethnic minorities. The biggest difficulty was gapping the chaikhanas which were the only watering holes and stood at 150 km apart. This proved to be a lesser challenge than expected as it encouraged us to keep with our early schedule and roll long days. Three days passed quickly and we were in the first town of Kungrad. Hoping to register our visas (a task most grievous to travelers here) we found a guesthouse and settled in. They could not offer registration but offered to keep our gear while we went up to Moynaq, on the former caost of the nearly extinct Aral sea to get registered by a hotel there. Planning to go there anyway to check out the former seabed, we were thankful for their hospitality and a cheap room accompanied by a feast.
Travelling out to
Moynaq was like going to a museum devoted to the most miserable places on the planet. We were the only people with smiles on the overpacked bus and we pretended to not understand russian so that nobody would tell us to give up our seats by the window. The town was abandoned and the few people who lived there were either too old or too young to leave. A fourteen year old girl was managing the hotel and spoke beautiful russian. They registered us with the migration cops and we went out to check out the abandoned ship yard where the sea used to be. For those of you not familiar with this situation, the Aral sea was one of the world's largest lakes before Soviet era agricultural diversions reduced it's inflow so substantially that the lake has since shrunk to less than a fourth of the original surface area. It provided a decent life for the people who lived in Karikalpakiston, as well as the Kazakhs who lived in both Moynaq and the north shore town of Aralsk. When the sea went away it disenfranchised an entire region, ostricised an ethnic group, and left behind a seabed composed of
sediments laden with chemical residues from the crop that the water was diverted to grow: cotton, the fabric of our lives, but certainly not theirs. The concurrant change to the local climate, replent with toxic dust storms, wild swings in temperature extremes, and a host of health problems that come as a result; was written on the faces of virtually everyone we met. These are people living in a state of dilapidating poverty as daunting as many Africans, haunted by the memories of a rich, verdant, abundant, and simple life that was. We checked out the famous rusting ships of the old harbor, forlorn in the sand. But the striking sight was the town itself and all of the people that the sea left behind. The Aral Sea may have been shallow and fragile, but it is still one of the most tangible evidences on our planet of the power of humans to destroy beyond repair.
Returning to Kungrad we were ready to ride. Our hosts insisted that we join them for a late night of dancing and ice cream after a long evening of stuffed peppers and vodka. We slept minimally but still managed to be on the
road by 04:30 to get to the City of Nukus on the banks of the Amudarya. We hoped to visit a quirky art museum there that was put together during the Breshnev years by a Russian artist named Igor Savitsky. Much like Norton Dodge (the American Collector described in John Mcphee's: The Ransom Of Russian Art), Savitsky was concerned that the "dissident" artists of the Soviet Union were falling by the wayside and so he started this museum far from the eyes of Moscow. It lended a voice to the many artists of that time who did not work in the state accepted style of realism, as well as to those who would use their work to critisize the regime in the era of stagnation. Looking at the sample of the total collection that is on display at the museum, it was interesting how many of the works did not posit critisicm in any way but were "banned" more so for their expressionist qualities; portrayal of common subjects that the intelligentsia considered dangerous to the overall sanctity of the state. The work was heavy on rich, painterly oils depicting still lifes, portraits, and landscapes. Surprisingly, the displays were light on
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anything avante-gard, must less controversial. Most of the artists simply did not work in realism (the only state accepted style) and as such were not approved. A few posters that were critical of the policies that had led to the destruction of the Aral Sea were some of the only works that seemed obviously offensive to the central Soviet of the time. The Kremlin was certainly aware of Savitsky but probably left him alone because he was so far from anywhere or anyone that was deemed important. The museum was very well put together and, really, would likely be the only thing we have seen so far that would put us to the trouble of returning to Uzbekistan. It was nice to take a half-day away from the dusty desert and align our senses with something totally different, and utterly pleasing.
Nukus would have been a nice place to rest for another day but we had already taken two full days away from riding and the hotels were quite expensive. We camped on the outskirts of town that night in a sand pit and plotted our next move through the long oasis of the lower Amudarya and out
across the Kyzyl Kum desert to Bukhara. We had expected this to take four or five days with a prevailing head wind, but on day two a vicious wind came from the west and we were able push out a two hundred kilometer day. It was an alltime record for us and we were then set up to finish out the Kyzyl Kum stretch fast and roll into Bukhara a day ahead of schedule. On our last full day in the desert we joined forces with an Englishman named William who had started his ride on the black Sea coast of Turkey and was headed on in our general direction with plans to cross into China and end up in India via Tibet. It was nice to have a travel buddy for a few days and we liesurly made our way into ancient Bukhara with many stops for apricots, ice cream, and jovial conversation.
The three of us rolled into Bukhara, checked into the hotel that we had all (perhaps by serendipity) reserved earlier, showered off the dust, and headed off for a feast. That night, with our bellies full of food and our minds full of desert
Riding through the night to avoid strong winds, We stop around 3am to make coffee. Chad's Birthday morning, June 4th
memories, we slept like babies as the aircon blew on. Bukhara is your usual overpriced tourist scene at it's heart but after the desert we are unconcerned. Feed us ice cream, pour cold beer down our throats, wash down kilos of meat, and overcharge us. Please, we came here for it. The city has a very tolerable vibe for a tourist destination and many of the street vendors are happy to make conversation and help us practice our Russian. They know our type all too well as many of these street stalls have seen cyclists and know them to be cheap customers and friendly conversationalists. We are living up to that reputation quite well and we are often invited to sit a while and chat, especially as the coolness of evening casts it's refreshing spell on bright, hot Bukhara. There has been far too much history made here to be listed and we are a bit in awe of the age of some of the structures. In this climate they look quite good for their age as the lack of rain has meant slow degredation of the materials. Also surprising are the structures that survived eons of invadors from Ghinghis
Khan to the Red Army and are still standing as tall and ornamented as they were built over 1000 years ago. We will spend the rest of the day today wandering around reading plaques and collecting needed supplies before we head off to the next oasis in Samarkhand tomorrow morning.
Crossing these deserted places has really tried our patience but it has defined quite clearly for us where we stand. Ten days ago, as we beat on a broken bike part with a rock in 48 degree heat, a trucker slowed down and asked if we wanted a ride, for free, to our next destination. We looked at the broken bike, the desperate repair, the blowing heat, our dripping sweat....and told him we were fine. It is at moments like these when we realize that we are fanatics. Now that we are looking at the last thousand kilometers of this tour, a stretch that will take us back to mountains and familiar terrain, we are empowered by the memory of the past weeks. Every tour we have made has had a crux, often in a desert, and this has been a fitting chapter in the story of this
years journey. We would not willingly go back and do it again but making these sorts of epic memories has become an integral part of our lives. They fill us with an energy, a freshly sandblasted gust that sets us free to imagine in ways that words can not describe.
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