We rode into the sunset and out of Beyneu, the temperature mild and the outlook warm. We catch an early glimpse of the road ahead. Like impressions made from a giant roll of bubble wrap.
Eagles – disturbed by our arrival; rise up from the earth and soar into the sky. Their wings silhouetted in the morning red glow. Camels step out of the shadow of night and into the rays of the sun, chewing on the shrubs along the side of the road.
It feels every bit the same as the kazak steppe before but in the same moment, completely different.
The routine has instilled an early morning regime into each of us. Rise, pack and cycle. Breaking at 8am for a short breakfast, then once more at 1pm for lunch. Before finishing the day around 6 or 7, drained of every ounce of energy, but safe in tbe knowledge that you covered the distance with water remaining.
Uzbekistan was a bit of an odd one. We had all read that various medicines – freely available in the UK; carried serious penalties, but no one knew which. There was also the added issue of currency. Rumours and experiences were rife in travel blogs. You would not be able to withdraw money inside the country and should get rid of all pain killers.
I had only been able to get my hands on $200, which you convert when in the country, but I refused to chuck away supplies from my first aid kit. As I stepped across the boundary, I was sure that my western, tourist arrogance was permitted.
Kazak boarder guards simply waved us on, and we were now in a sort of no mans land inbetween boarders. Funneled into a two lane road with high ring fences, was not new experience. But the smoke rising from my right side, and flames bellowing from below it, was. Several oil drums were fully ablaze.
Panic rushed over me. Behind was a high ring gate, infront the tail end of two arctic lorries – covering both lanes; and a labyrinth of vehicles and foot traffic. It was as if I had entered a parallel universe, everyone was unphased by the growing inferno. The Kazak guards turned their backs as if to say “not my problem”. The locals ventured up to the flames only to add more plastic bottles, and increase the dark black cloud expanding over the pen.
We navigated the bikes between several cars before turning left and down the side of a lorry to the front. As we did so, we were met with offers to buy bread, phones, water, and currency. The last item I shrugged off, as if I new better than to buy it at the boarder.
At the sight of six very western looking cyclists, a commotion began which resulted in a fast-track through the boarder. This treatment continued throughout the whole process, despite the unsettling feeling from a thousand Kazak and Uzbekistani eyes burning through the back of my head.
Reluctantly, I place my passport and visa before a robotic middle aged man, and prepare to plead my case. A week prior to my arrival, I had swallowed my tongue whole, when my passport and visa was slid back to me, in the Baku Consul. The entry date had been incorrectly printed to start 10 days late.
Horrified, I pointed out the mistake in the waiting area of the consul. Ted – consul employee; simply crossed out and wrote over the laser printed date, signing his name. When I asked him to reprint the visa, he remarked that it would all be fine.
As he turned the pages of my passport, the suspense grew. Suddenly, staring at the page in front of him, he raised his eyebrows sharply. Quickly followed by a shrug of his shoulders and a stamp crashing down on the table.
One ordeal over and now I faced the next hurdle, medicine and currency. They had developed an intense system over the years, which results in simply asking if you have any medicine.
Out of the office through the gates and I’m in Uzbekistan. Its a matter of seconds before it transpires that the black market rate for converting $ into Uzbekistan Som, is twice the legal rate. You would have to be crazy not to take up this opportunity. God knows how they make any money. Strapped with cash and big pimping, we head out once more.
Registration is the next hurdle. Its not clear whether you must register every single or third day, not even the boarder guards knew. But what is apparent, is only hotels can do the registering after you stay with them.
Over the next few days we cover enormous distances. 350km over two days, 170 plus in a single day. On one occasion finishing by lunch. Elie unfortunately becomes sick with heat stroke and dehydration, and so he and Dan wait behind as myself, the Sweedes and the Norwegian action man continue.
Encountering local cyclists after Europe is a whole other story. Nearing Nukus, they spill into the streets on rusty old bikes, rattling and chiming as they go. They flock towards us on the wrong side of the road hugging the curb. Forcing you to move out into the thick of the traffic to avoid them – usual procedure now.
Loaded with tall grass, one local carries his bundle on the back of his bike, as if it was a fender from a race car. A child cruises towards me, transporting an elegant lady dressed in purple with white hijab. She sits sideways on the back rack, sporting bug eyed sunglasses- high end travel.
The familiar trucks and 4×4’s that paved the road to Nukus, are replaced with tiny squashed transporters, ferrying families around town. Its amazing to see such an influx of cyclists into the streets. We really are getting that much closer to Asia. There’s something humbling about cycling amougst locals and having something basic in common with them.
Russian men wear tank tops and sandals, with women’s handbags drapped over their chest and shoulders.
The guys head into a local restaurant as I cook up some noodles outside – budget not stretching far. The waitress is puzzled, letting out the smurk she was so desperately trying to conceal, as she walks past.
After lengthy negotiations, I manage a room for $10 with breakfast and registration. Not my ideal expenditure, but for once I have a lie in.
If you enjoyed reading this post or have anything to add, please leave a comment below.
If you haven’t already, please visit the charity fundraising page and make a donation towards Meningitis now and Macmillan Cancer Support