It was the first full day off the boat, and myself and Amund were now joined by Dan- a very pleasant Englishman, and Elie – an equally pleasant frenchman.
Dan and I, would later spend hours – in true British fashion; discussing prominent issues facing the world today.
The most influential of these, was the ability to teach a Frenchman- namely Elie; the idiosyncracies of the English language by explaining the difference between two words. These were, sheet and shit. The practice was simple. Have him repeat eat and it. Revolutionary.
The first night was spent in the company of an extremely generous Kazak man, who opened his heart and wallet, to four dirty looking western strangers. A traditional Kazak meal, followed by an introduction to his extended family – which would appear to be the procedure in Kazakhstan; and a bed of sorts for the night.
We awoke the following morning refreshed and greeted with a large breakfast spread, proudly prepared by his wife. We departed with the living decendant of Gengus Khan – accordingly to his family tree; making our way to the edge of town.
On the edge of the steppe, I came across a Canadian oil worker who blended in well with the locals – large bellied; if not for his pale complexion.
His advise was simple. Do not drink the camels milk, otherwise you will spend two days on the toilet. It was rather late hearing this now, especially after the previous night’s dinner invitation. This morning I had first hand experience, that supported his statment. But rather than explain this to a complete stranger, as he waited patiently for his ice cream to be whipped into the cone, I simply nodded and thanked him for the advice.
We would travel for up to 60km without sight of a town, village or shop. The landscape – flat and yellow, streched infinitly. I felt a strange mixture of wonder and vulnerability, standing in a place where there was, literally nothing.
It was oppressively hot. Skin was covered with layers of clothing to ward off the sun’s punishing rays. It wasn’t long before I went full Lawrence – of Arabia; with a towel drapped over my head and secured by a bandana. It was as much a homage to the explorer as a necessitity to function.
Water was a constant worry. Having water did little to calm my nerves. There was always a need to find more and the day was now measured by the distance between water refilling stations.
On the eve of the second day, we sat around the shell of a crumbling building eating noodles. Suddenly on the horizon we made out two figures. In true Hollywood fashion, riding into the sunset, was Kim and Karen, a Swedish couple we had met in Baku.
Every now and then we would come across small chaikhana’s- tea houses or cafes. They were indistinguishable from any other buildings. On the horison, what seemed a lifetime away, was a single structure. Alone in the vast expanse, almost mirage like. Metal corrugated roof, large metal door. Breeze block outhouse, and not a soul in sight.
On a particularly challenging day, we were forced to venture over 40km in search of water, arriving at the foot of a 2km hill. White gravel snaked up the pass, lined with bunker like pot holes and flanked by boulders. The steppe was not completely flat after all.
The climb was like nothing I had faced before. The heat clung to every inch of my body. Every breathe was suffocating and every pedal punishing on the rocky terrain. Some 30 minutes later, and we reached the summit, the cafe was closed.
As we stepped inside we were often confronted by an empty room, until a man or woman would appear, disappointed that they had been pulled away from whatever they were doing.
They were basic, each concisting of the same furnisings. One or two tables, with a clear plastic sheet draped over the surface. A room or area for sitting on colourful cushions and a bright rug, to eat.
On display behind the counter, water, Coca Cola, Snickers, and a sort of rice biscuit. On the counter, reinforced with a plastic cover – for the oilly hands of the steppe workmen; a Kazak menu with a handful of dishes, mainly rice with vegetables or meat.
The outhouse’s were a definite change to the usual procedure. During the morning on the steppe, you looked for a slight dip in the terrain, a large-ish shrub or a rock to shelter behind. Which in most occasions was few and far between. I had been accustomed to rumaging through the over growth to find a private spot.
A wall divided the rectangle box into two, covered with a metal roof and occasionally a door. Large letters, M and * were smeered on what appeared to be entrance to the facilities.
A distinctive smell pierced my nostrils – some 10 feet away; where it would remain throughout my visit and for the next fifteen minutes. There was little else to clear my sysnasis on the steppe. It was an intense spirit like aroma, that rose fiercely from reservoir pit below.
There must have been a hole that stretched below. The wind outside bellowed, and the discarded paper that had just left my hand, returned twice – despite my best efforts. Although, I was immesly pleased that this was the only item to return.
The days drew on, and a routine was enforced to ensure that we would make it out alive. Wake to cycle at 5am, find shade and eat at 11 and continue in the cooler temperatures of the afternoon.
On the approach to Beyneu, the weather stepped up it’s game, only this time we were faced with a head wind. Every inch gained was a metre lost as we battled the terrain and heat.
So far I had been lucky not to encounter any residents whilst cowboy camping-under the stars; but this was about to change. Elie shouted that something was by my wheel. So I slowed my stead and looped back around.
Basking in the heat of the day, poised in anticipation, was a camel spider. So aptly named – according to Amund; for its ability to jump high enough to bite a camel. It’s yellow exoskeleton camouflaged it in the steppe sand. Two front legs hang out aggressively in the air, and it’s large bullbose teeth look menacing.
If there ever was evidence of alien life on this planet, you can be sure that this is the missing link. It wasn’t long before we lay witness to it’s prowess, as it rumaged through the stomach of a cricket, sucking out it’s insides and eating it’s head.
In the early afternoon, we finally roll Into Beyneu, our salvation from the steppe for now. It is a peculiar town, in what seems like the middle of nowhere. Streets lined with houses, sand and camels. There is a strange abundance of people here. After a short rest I will continue to cross the boarder into Uzbekistan and tackle yet more of the Steppe.
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