Before Kazakhstan, the ride had felt somewhat familiar. Each country brought with it slight changes in culture, values and religion, but nothing drastic enough to feel uncomfortable. In fact, the trip had been comfortable; food, bottled water, and opt-out options at our disposal.
As we stepped off the plane in Aktau, the strength of the wind nearly blew us over. Head down, I held onto my cap and ran to the safety of the shuttle bus. The six of us didn't speak on the bus, but it was clear our thoughts were the same; how would we cope with that wind in the desert. The strong headwind mixed with heat and lack of food or water stops was a concoction of factors that we hadn't experienced before.
It was 2am by the time we left the airport. We were greeted by an army of taxi drivers eager to take our cash. After an intense rush of broken communication, we agreed to get a taxi each and pay in USD – the only cash we had.
The car headlight lit up the road as the wind blew swirls of sand across the tarmac. ‘Welcome to the desert’, I thought.
In bed, I couldn’t help but compare our situation to an adventure reality TV show. We were a group of almost strangers with the aim to cycle a desert together: How would the group mould? What if the paces didn’t match? Would it be survival of the fittest? Could people be evicted? Would Bear Grylls emerge from the sand?
To top it off, the group consisted of two Brits, two Americans, one Irishman and one Australian. Between us we spoke one language: English. We couldn’t have been more diverse if we tried.
We woke to the news that Ted’s pedal had broken in transit. Ted decided to stay in Aktau until it was fixed, which would put him a few days behind.
One down, five to go.
The sun’s glare was suffocating; it was morning but the heat was distinctly stronger than Georgia’s. We’d only be in Aktau for a few hours, but it already felt different. The streets were wide, built in the mid 20th century for an expected influx of traffic that never arrived. The sandy pavements were lined with Soviet style apartment blocks. And the locals appeared ethnically different – our clothes were no longer our single distinguishing factor.
We said goodbye to Ted and headed into the desert. It was 7pm by the time we left Aktau; not the start we had hoped for. It was a stark reminder that admin takes twice as long in a big group.
Two minutes in and Connor had a flat. Whilst we waited for him, we rode to the gas station to fill our stove canisters with petrol. Back on the road, the traffic was heavy and the wind was strong – it hadn’t let up since we landed. We braced the hard shoulder for the first 15 miles and prayed we wouldn’t succumb to the heavy machinery travelling next to us at 100kmh.
We stopped, again, as McK got a puncture. It took him 40 minutes to fix – which couldn’t be helped, but it set us back even further. Light had faded fast. Head and tail lights switched on, we rode into the night. The headwind made for slow progress, but the city lights had been replaced by the night’s sky – a beautiful distraction.
It was 10pm when we decided to sleep in a bus shelter-urinal-windbreak. Connor put his bike behind the shelter and let out a deafening scream. It was a sound no man should be able to make.
The noise was not a one-off, however. He continued to scream and then ran into the road.
“Connor, what’s wrong mate?”, I said.
He pointed at the floor. I followed the trajectory of his finger to find a large spider crawling next to the shelter.
“A spider! I thought you were being mugged.” I laughed.
As we set up our matts and sleeping bags, the occasional scream would come from Connor’s corner. There was more than one spider.
It was quite entertaining.
Before hitting the pillow, we decided to be on the road at 4.30am. The wind was forecast to get worse throughout the day, and we wanted to reach Shetpe – a 120km ride.
McK is an ultra fast packer, he set off at 4.15am. Robin quickly followed suit – his set up weighed 50kg, so his pace was naturally slower. Myself and Harriet stayed with Conner, who didn’t have a tail light, and rode as a peloton. We managed to be on the road for 5am.
A sunrise is the least windy time of day, a temporary phenomenon. As we descended into a canyon 130 metres below sea level, we made the most out of the lack of wind . The rest-bite didn’t last long, however. By the time we had relaxed into our new environment, the headwind had returned – and with vengeance.
As the sun rose, the desert slowly came to life. An orange glow filled the pupil’s perception, which brought into focus a landscape of sharp golden tranquillity. It was the first time we had properly seen our new home and it was mesmerising, if a little daunting.
Connor struggled. In Tbilisi he had food poisoning, which he hadn’t fully recovered from. This was obvious. As the wind picked up, his pace had slowed and the number of times he stopped had increased.
To exit the canyon, we had to cover a long 6% gradient climb. The wind was bad, its roar was deafening. This made each rotation around the chain ring menacingly difficult. Robin was one third of the way up the climb when he came into shot – this encouraged Harriet and I to catch him. But, Connor had stopped again. The sun was up, which meant he no longer needed our services, so, we left him at the bottom of the hill.
The climb was painfully slow. The wind made it hard to keep the bike in a straight line. I nearly fell off twice, but unclipped just in time. McK waited for us halfway up, so we joined him for a break and to wait for everyone else. The strength of the wind consumed all conversation, I don’t think any of us had experienced anything like it. I certainly hadn’t. Robin joined us briefly before he continued on. We waited for Connor, who was practically off the bike at this point. When he caught up, he stood bent over the barrier in a bid to throw up. No success.
Eventually, we reached the top of the pass. We stood in a truck stop, behind a lorry and waited for Connor. Our expressionless, windswept faces had disbelief written all over them. We barely spoke as the realisation of what we were doing sunk in.
It was all too clear that Connor wasn’t fit enough to cross the desert. Some time later, he appeared walking with his bike. He stubbled over to us and announced he’d hitchhike until he felt better. Cycling in the desert with food poisoning is not where anyone wants to be. We agreed to meet him in towns along the route.
Two down, four to go.
The headwind continued to chisel away at our energy and mood. It was hard to think about anything else. We quickly dropped Robin and cycled as a three – however, the heat and illness had caught up on me. I sat at the back and was gratefully pulled along by the other two.
We stopped just before a junction to wait for Robin. I was wrecked. I sat on a bench, closed my eyes and thought ‘what the hell am I doing’ (a moment of weakness). At this exact second, a man stopped his car, ran over and handed us a watermelon. He didn’t say a word. He returned to his car and drove off.
It was a miracle.
Shortly after, we realised the building we were sitting behind was a shop. We couldn’t have stopped in a better place. We stocked up on water, Fanta and chocolate – the essentials. We sliced the watermelon and ate it until we couldn’t eat anymore. It had been a while since we saw Robin, so we checked our phones. He had hitchhiked to the next town – we couldn’t believe it.
Another one down. The three of us were the only ones left who had cycled the entirety together. It was day two.
Kazakhstan is a living gold mine. Its oil fertile ground makes it the richest country in the Stans. The route to the next town took us through fields littered with fracking machines – an ugly sight, but a welcomed change from the empty void. By the time we reached Robin, a small crowd of teenagers had gathered. He was doing the usual spiel about the trip, so we joined in for an obligatory selfie before we found a kebab shop for lunch.
Shortly after lunch, I dragged my weak body to the pit toilet outside. With the morning’s excitement, I hadn’t had time to go for my morning number two.
My relationship with pit toilets is difficult. Simply put, I struggle to squat. I blame this disability on my ankle which I broke two years before. Since then, I haven’t regained the full motion I had prior to break. So, when it comes to squat lavatories, I take my clothes off from the waist down. I’m aware this is a strange ritual, but I can’t risk a miss-aim.
In this case, I even took my shoes off. An error of dramatic and traumatic proportions. After I had finished my business, I redressed. As I attempted to slip the shoe over my toes, I missed. My toes knocked the side of the shoe, which pushed the shoe away from the grip of my fingers.
The shoe bounced off the side of the 'toilet seat' and, to my horror, fell into the murky depths of the pit below. It happened in slow motion. I saw the shoe leave my hand and slowly fall into the darkness; it fell so far it disappeared into the abyss. I heard a loud squelch-cum-thud, as the shoe made landfall with the excrement. That sound was the exact moment of realisation.
My heart began to race. What had I done? I shone my phone light into the hole – my shoe was well and truly married to its new acquaintance. ‘Crap, crap, crap!’, was my initial thought. My second: ‘I can’t cycle without a shoe, this is the perfect excuse to hitchhike’.
I hobbled back to the cafe, with only one shoe on.
“You’re not going to believe what’s just happened!”, I exclaimed to Robin and Harriet as I opened the door.
Harriet looked at me. "Err.. the toilet, my shh…”, I trembled.
Before I could finish, Harriet looked down at my feet. “Noo!” “OH MY GAWWD!” “Eeedddd!”, she yelled in a diluted Australian accent. She practically fell over laughing, only to be joined by the women who worked in the cafe. I explained the story in full, and everyone, including myself, were in disbelief.
A man working next door found a long metalic pole, which he offered as a hook. I joined him in the toilet.
As the pole entered the murky hole, my heart went into overdrive. My mouth turned into sandpaper. It was make or break; cycle or hitchhike. I felt like the ride as I knew it was on the line. He hooked the pole onto the inside of the heel. Shoe balanced on the pole, the man began the nerve racking motion of pulling the item from the darkness.
After a terrifying minute, the shoe was back on dry land. It went straight to the jet washer for a spot of beauty treatment before we left it out in the sun to dry. The shoe had been saved! This was a traumatic, yet amusing experience. One I do not want to repeat. Am I ashamed of my lack of flexibility? No. Do I want to work on my pit toilet procedure? Yes.
I will forever be known as Brown Boots.
To lower my heart rate and hide from the midday sun, we took a nap outside a petrol station. The wind was due to die down at 4pm, so we agreed we’d return to the grind then.
Back on the road, myself and Harriet cycled ahead of the other two. The sun was strong. Worried about heat stroke, I stopped a couple of times for a water bottle shower – this helped, temporarily.
At this point, we were immersed in the desert. The landscape hadn't changed since Aktau, apart from the introduction of camels. Camels strolled through the sand adjacent to the road, none-the-wiser to torture the desert had put us under. After one hour, the wind picked up, again. This time she was aggressive. On a steep descent, I was forced to pedal to avoid coming to a stop.
At the bottom of the hill, I saw a shop – an oasis. I cycled over and lent my bike against the building, in the hope that Harriet would notice. The shop was someone’s home with a small store in the back room, hidden behind a curtain. I bought Fanta and water, which I downed faster than a shot of camel milk. I heard Harriet shout my name. “I’m behind the curtain”, I replied. She appeared a few seconds later with a very confused look on her face.
We were joined by McK and Robin some time later. Both looked gormless. All of us were spent, so we rested outside on a raised carpeted floor before making the decision to continue cycling.
We were faced with 18km until Shetpe, another two hours in the saddle. It would be a late finish, but it was possible. Back in front, Harriet and I had briefly stopped to take on water. Exhausted, demoralised and absolutely drained of any energy, Harriet let out a scream. Nothing had happened. It was a scream out of frustration. The headwind caused havoc, mentally and physically.
The two of us cycled together for the remainder of the day. We were fixated on reaching our planned destination. After two more climbs, we stopped on the side of the road. It was 9pm and we still had 10km to do – progress was slower now than it had been before.
McK caught up with us and announced that he was going to camp right where we stood – we had stopped next to a drainage tunnel. He made a good point: it was out of the wind and we wouldn’t make it to the town until at least 10.30pm. As we discussed our options, three trucks drove past and made gestures for us to head back. All three of them. It was extremely reminiscent to Sam's car crash in Turkey. Naturally, I thought the worst.
McK got on his bike and cycled back to see if Robin was OK (I say ‘cycled’, but the tailwind pushed him). Five minutes later, he returned with Robin in tow. Robin was fine, just running on empty. He didn’t want to cycle any further either.
We set up camp next to a drainage tunnel – half sheltered from the wind.
Day 107 was one of the hardest cycles I’d done. We spent 15 hours in the saddle and barely made 110km. The headwind was more of a mental battle than a physical one, yet it took its toll on all of us. It was tough.
I woke to the dreaded sound of wind ripple across the tent's outer layer. The nightmare was still present.
It took us just over an hour to ride the final few kms to Shetpe. The town was a small settlement at the bottom of a hill – and one of the few towns with a train station. Shetpe felt sparsely populated; buildings appeared empty and windowless, and shops closed. It was a depressing place – and one we didn’t have any desire to stay in for a long period.
We stopped in a cafe for breakfast. The wind was forecast to reach 50mph that afternoon, which confirmed our plans for a short day. McK had started to feel unwell – an afternoon off was more than needed. We would ride 30km to a truck stop and rest there.
After a two hour break, we forced ourselves to get back on the bikes. ‘It’s only 30km’, I reminded myself. To return to the highway, we took the one road out of Shepte. The road was smooth and the wind surprisingly calm. Within a few minutes the group had separated; McK left early so was out in front, Harriet was in eye-sight, and Robin was behind.
At the bottom of a descent, a railway track acted as a physical border between the road and highway. I had put headphones in, something I rarely do, but it helped lift my mood and made the descent a breeze. As I crossed the track, I took a direct hit from a strong gust of crosswind. I lost balance. As I fell, I quickly unclipped. In doing so, the rear wheel went in between two tracks. I came off the bike and landed on the railway. I brought the bike with me.
I got up immediately and pulled the bike out of the gap in the tracks. The rear wheel refused to rotate. I picked up the bike and leant it against a metal pole on the side of the road. It was obvious that the rear wheel was ruined. The force of the fall had bent it into a 90º angle.
I started to panic.
I threw the bags on the ground and turned the bike upside down. I removed the wheel from the frame and inspected the damage. It was bad. At this point, I was joined by Robin. He took the wheel and banged it against the metal pole. With brute force, the wheel started to return to its original shape. Or, at least, that’s what we thought. I took the mudguard off and returned the wheel to the frame. We tried to cycle, but the bike shook. We decided that, if we continued on, the ride would do irreparable damage to the rest of the bike.
My desert ride had to come to an abrupt end. To say, I was gutted was an understatement. Not only was the ride over, but the rear wheel, which I spent an eye-watering amount of money on, had been written off.
Robin, the hero that he is, joined me and returned to Shetpe. He still hadn’t recovered from his illness, so was grateful for a forced stop. Connor was also in town, so I left the two of them to catch up. I frantically searched the small town for a wheel but to no success. In absolute desperation, I almost bought a new bicycle just for its wheel. I didn’t. It was expensive and it would have been unnecessarily wasteful.
I had to go back to Aktau.
In the hostel, I noticed that a local man, who shared a room with us, had a car key in his hand. Through Translate, I asked him if he knew anyone driving to Aktau. Immediately, he nodded and pointed to himself. I couldn't believe my luck. He said he would drive me if I paid for petrol. I agreed without hesitation.
My plan was to travel to Aktau, find a rim, rebuild the wheel and return to Shetpe by train the following day. I went to bed annoyed and frustrated, but at least I had a plan.
I was extremely grateful Robin stayed with me. He was more helpful than I would have been if roles were reversed. He also said he’d wait in Shetpe until I had sorted the wheel.
Four down, two to go.
After a restless night’s sleep, I packed the bike into the car and started the drive back to Aktau. As we left Shepte, I noticed Ted sitting on the side of the road. Coincidentally, I was messaging him at the same time. I told him the hostel Connor and Robin were in, so he could pass by on his way through.
The drive was a quiet, reflective one. Limited signal meant I couldn’t communicate with my new friend. Instead, we spoke through music. It became apparent, very quickly, that my music taste is extrovert-ly British. The music session ended with Arctic Monkeys’ greatest hits.
In Aktau, I went to the same store where Ted fixed his pedal. The mechanic had one rim in 700c, so I happily parted with my cash. Whilst the mechanic built the wheel, we found a restaurant. I asked my mate what he had planned for Aktau – I thought he was travelling for business. Turns out he had no business – he just wanted to help me. What a legend. I paid for lunch to thank him before we collected the wheel. The kindness of strangers continues to amaze me.
To my surprise, we drove back to Shetpe that day (with a new wheel). It was nice to view the desert from the comforts of a car – it wasn’t appreciated when we cycled through it. Back at the hostel and nerves eased, Ted, Connor and Robin sat around a table. I thought Ted would have continued on, but he enjoyed having company.
I now had an unexpected day to play with, which meant the desert ride was back on. I just needed to convince Robin. If we put in long distances, we’d only be one day behind Harriet and McK.
Connor still wasn’t well, so got the train to Beyneu (the border town with Uzbekistan).
A monsoon filled the Shetpean landscape. The desert continued to surprise; heavy rain was the last thing I expected. As rain water transformed the road into a temporary dam, Robin and I decided to wait it out. At 12pm there was still no let up, so after some persuasion, we chose to get the train to the next town. This meant we’d still only be one day behind the lead team. The train wasn’t an option for Ted, so he rode 30km to the truck stop. Some time later, Harriet messaged to say they’d had an excellent ride and had pushed over 160km to Beyneu. Beyneu was our end destination in Kazakhstan. This put a spanner in the plan as we’d now be two days behind, at the earliest.
On the train, there was a commotion with the ticket guard. She tried to charge us more than the ticket was worth – she said the price was the same for the next town and Beyneu. Exhausted, annoyed and frustrated, I agreed to go to Beyneu. I was deeply disappointed at this decision. I had unnecessarily agreed to skip 200km of desert, which I knew we could have cycled.
We arrived in Beyneu at 11.30pm and stayed in the same hotel as the others. I was happy to be reunited with my fellow companions, but upset at the circumstances. There was no need to have caught a train – I had broken the continuous cycle, a pointless action which would take some time to get my head around.
However, as I was to later learn, things always happen for a reason.
The border with Uzbekistan had been closed for one month due to civil unrest in the autonomous region of Karakalpakstan. Karakalpakstan was once part of Kyrgyzstan, then Kazakhstan and now Uzbekistan. However, the ethnicity in the region is different to Uzbek and the language spoken is closer to that of Kazak. In 1993, Uzbekistan said that after 20 years, the region would have the right to hold an independence referendum. In recent months, the president of Uzbekistan had drawn up plans to remove Karakalpakstan’s right to secede from the constitution. This was one of many reasons why riots started in July. The unrest ended with 21 people dead and 250 injured. A nightly curfew was enforced, the border closed and the internet switched off (to stop an Arab Spring style uprising).
The only way to get into Uzbekistan through that border was by train. The first train to cross the border, since it closed, had left two days before. The next scheduled train was in two days. With that in mind, we strolled to the station to buy tickets. The woman at the ticket counter suggested we return in the morning and buy the tickets then. The reason for us to do this was unclear, so I pushed her to give us the tickets there and then. She conceded.
“Boarding starts at 10pm, but your train leaves at 3.30am”, the ticket woman announced through Translate. ‘Perfect’, I thought, if a little confused.
We had bought the tickets not knowing whether bikes were allowed on the train, or if foreigners could cross the border. It was a risk, but one worth taking. The alternative option was a 2,000km detour across the Kazakhstan steppe, which nobody wanted.
Ted had pushed hard for two days to catch up – and he made it. I was happy for him. It was the first time we’d been a group of six since Aktau. However, I couldn’t help but think I should have cycled – this only worsened my negative internal monologue.
On our advice, Ted headed straight to the station, but he returned with disappointing news; the train was sold out. The next available train was two weeks later. He booked into the hotel and weighed up his options.
The remainder of the day was spent in a coffee shop. I ordered a new wheel from the UK to be delivered to Dushanbe (a strong 36 spoke wheel for the Pamir Highway). Afterwards, we packed up and went to the train station for 8pm.
The train arrived at 10.30pm. On Kazak/ Uzbek trains, each carriage has a guard. That guard is the manager of their carriage and what he says goes. We spoke to the guard and informed him about the bikes. It was a straight up, no. The bikes weren’t allowed on the train. He held his arms up in a cross symbol and shook his head. He did this a few times. We offered to pay him 50 USD (an extortionate amount of money, but desperate times…) Again, it was a no.
We hadn’t given up hope, so we retired to the platform to sleep – the train wasn’t going to board until 2am.
Thankfully, the guard had a change of heart. He found us an entirely empty carriage for the bikes. After we arranged the bikes, every single seat-cum-bed was taken in our carriage. The train was packed. We had a brief glimpse into what life would be like for the next 16 hours, so we turned around. We got off the train and asked the guard where our reserved seats were. The thought of not having reserved seats was incomprehensible to us westerners. He raised his arms into a cross and answered in a firm and authoritative manner: “No!”.
We forced our way back onto the train and stood in the alleyway awkwardly as hundreds of eyes glare at us. Everyone wanted a glimpse of the helpless westerners. After feeling like a zoo animal, a couple of nice women gave into their guilt and made space on their beds.
We sat in a sweaty, painful, airless cage for the next two hours until the Uzbekistan border. Conor struggled, he fought off the urge to vomit by placing his head between his legs. Relief only came when, one by one, we were called to the front of the carriage to have our passports examined by the Kazak authorities. I was grateful to walk 10ft.
The prison cell would be home until 6pm. It was a tough pill to swallow.
The day the border was supposed to open, Ted cycled there and was turned around. Border officials said they didn’t know when it would open. This left him no choice, but to get the train. Ted stayed in Beyneu for two weeks. Beyneu is infamously known as the most depressing town in the world. We felt for him.
However, for me, this reasoned the train I caught from Shepte. If I hadn’t caught the train, I would have been in the same situation as Ted. And, I didn’t have two weeks to spare. My Pakistan visa expired on 13th September, which meant I would have had to cycle through Uzbekistan and the Pamir Highway in just over a month.