This post involves a lot of kilometers, a lot of weird stories, many events, not much cycling, but many various modes of transportation and multiple border crossing!
In Khiva, we simply asked the taxi driver from the stretch Bukhara-Khiva if he was interested to continue all the way to Aktau. We had also decided to get to Khiva as trains from there are more direct towards Kazakhstan than from Bukhara. As he was driving surprisingly safely (especially for an Uzbek), could speak a little English (useful when you are 10+ hours in a car) and was just behaving better than the previous drivers we had seen (from heavy smokers in the car to guys spitting chewing tobacco in the car, or drivers that look like they have various types of addictions…). He also kept on saying that he had driven 11 times from Bukhara to Moscow and back in the last few years, plus to Estonia, Sochi and a few other places (look at a map, these are huge distances for a taxi – almost 4000km one way!), so we just tried to motivate him to keep on going for a few more days! Because trains don’t run as frequently as in Europe, and are about as expensive as taxi and the Urgench-Khiva area not too exhilarating (that was so remote in the USSR that this place got chosen to be the soviet research and testing center of chemical weapons… you may have heard of the Novichok recently?)
He accepted to go up to the Kazakh border, but not further due to corrupt customs and a lot of fees involved to pass the border (it is always a lot easier by bicycle, and if they find a “problem” we have no problem camping between the borders until the “problem” is solved… I am expert at turning people nuts). This day, the 90s Eurodance music changed to Camel-riding music. We have no idea what the official denomination of this genre is, but just check a few videos – we figured that the music is perfect when you ride a camel across the desert 😊. By the way, this is not pejorative – we found the rhythm quite nice, although to be honest we often thought that the song would be about happily dancing in the desert, until we saw that the music-clip was actually more dramatic and had nothing to do with synth-rich journeys to faraway lands. The ride was seriously boring, a flat and never changing desert with nothing on the horizon but a gas station and restaurant every 50km. We really admire cyclists who bike that stretch, the ride is probably physically not too hard (at least with the shoulder season’s temperatures) but mentally extremely strenuous! Ah, and every now and then, between some camel-riding-music, comes the “What is love” song (you know, the one with Jim Carrey in SNL where he seems to have also trained his neck-movement on a camel – uh, now we understand why they play that song!).
A few examples:
- That one, remember it has to be with at least 100dB in your loud speakers – note that we have no idea where they found trees for the clip in Uzbekistan!
- It’s probably hard to be more Uzbek than that one:
- or the more modern-Uzbek version
- Another one, we noticed that a lot of clips are about dying in a car accident – apparently an (unsurprising) usual fate in Central Asia. Also, there is a little bit of censorship in Uzbek music and music videos (something about preserving cultural identity), so women have to be perfect, men are the greatest, and policemen are the heroes of the country! The driving style is fairly accurate though.
- That one just to prove (again) that German rap music is compared to anything, really crap.
The only slightly memorable part of the landscape was the arrival on the shore of the Aral Sea near Kyrkkyz. The only problem is that the large Amu-Darya river (the Panj river from the Pamirs) is completely drained-out at this point, with only some remains of soviet cotton field delirium, and the Aral Sea simply does not exist anymore! The soils have become salty and have huge concentrations of agrochemicals on the surface making any sand-storm a serious chemical-hazard (also a good reason to not cycle across that desert). The sea is still present on our map, but the shore is now hundreds of kilometers away, some boats are abandoned there, and a few fishing villages have become ghost towns.
Our driver had yet forgot something for the trip, that his car was running on methane – which is very common in Uzbekistan – on a car that also can use gasoline (Methane cars usually have two tanks). Methane being much cheaper than gasoline, he had apparently not tested using gasoline in a while… Problem, the gas stations in the desert only offer gasoline (although they also often don’t offer anything but a sign saying to try 50km further). So, after the switch to gasoline, our speed went from flying across the desert, to a more camel train pace (jerking forward, then stopping, then forward again). He started to panic that he would never make it back to Bukhara (now 1000km away) and stopped on the side of the road to transfer us to whoever would ride by next.
We did not have to wait too long and moved the bike from an aging Lada to a brand-new Lada-Argus (also called Dacia Logan in Europe since Renault bought Lada), the new trendy car in these parts of Uzbekistan. The new car made the way to the border in a record-breaking time, with a much louder Camel-riding-music blasted in the stereo, and we wished a little for our previous, safer driver. We arrived at dusk at the border after 12h across the desert. The border was surprisingly swarming, although a little rough, with various traffic of people, merchandises, trucks, and whatever may be more interesting to get in one country than in the other one. Luckily, a nearby motel meant that we did not have to camp in the area.
We started in the morning with our bicycle for the few hundred meters going to Kazakhstan with a few wonderings. First, we were not sure about the hotel registration system of Uzbekistan – and because we had camped half of the time, we should have normally had to pay some extra taxes (although nobody really seems to know how that works in Uzbekistan, and everyone has a contradictory explanation about it). Second, the border is in the middle of nowhere, and the desert is just as boring on the other side of the border – so we would have to find again a way to reach Aktau (although no longer that far, cycling could now have been feasible in a week). Third, borders always make us a little nervous, especially with slightly rotten custom officers in Central Asia – Cassie is forbidden to talk to anyone as I am much better at schmoozing and becoming their “brat” (“bro”) for a couple of minutes. Cassie also really sucks at lying, so any question about things to (not!) declare come to me.
The queue of tens people behind the gates (actually. several long queues of tens of people each behind several gates) worried us as we again thought that it would take us the entire day to go a few hundred meters. We decided to just hop on the bicycle and take the lane for cars (again, official and unofficial fees for cars are high, so people rarely cross with a vehicle) and simply pass by the first waiting lines of pedestrians, sorry! At some point the technique could no longer work (especially as cars are almost dismantled and every corner checked), so we joined the pedestrians. Again, just like at the bank in Denau, it seems that being a Western tourist or a local VIP offers some advantages and the custom officer takes us with him ahead of everyone else, looking at us, while yelling “tourists, tourists”. We felt half-ashamed and half-relieved to go through the border so easily. While Cassie was showing the passports, I was chatting with the guards – ‘Uzbekistan very nice! Bayern Munich greatest soccer team.’ – resulting in basically no serious questions whatsoever, no question about the hotel registrations, and here we are, back in Kazakhstan!
The Kazakh side had a lot less fuss than the Uzbek side, but luckily several taxi drivers with relatively good-looking cars (the Dacia Logans / Lada Argus), so we tried to bargain prices to go directly to Aktau. Not much bargaining at the end as the taxis there seem to be all in yet another local taxi-mafia, apparently led by a Korean-Kazakh guy; there are surprisingly many Koreans in Kazakhstan, from yet another Stalin great idea to displace Koreans to the most remote corner of the USSR when they decided during WWII to attack the Japanese-colonized Manchuria and Korean Peninsula. Due to the following events in the USSR and the split of Korea, those Koreans remained in Kazakhstan.
We renamed our taxi-cartel baron Kim-Jong-Un (he seriously looked like his doppelganger, I swear that the North-Korean dictator has a back-up guy in Kazakhstan!) and basically gave us a price, arranged various drivers to move their cars and put our bags and bike on the car (I quadruple-checked the tightening of the tandem on the roof), gives orders and whereas we thought that some driver would apparently drive us, Kim-Jong-Un takes the wheel at the last moment and pumps-up the music. Kim-Jong-Un is not just the taxi-gang-supreme-leader but apparently, he is also a little psychedelic. That ride was thus with high-voltage, going at 140km/h between road, fine dust, sand and anything possible around a road, to sudden snack-stops, various random neighborhoods visits to his buddies in the villages on the way, some yelling in the phone to other taxi-drivers whenever the cell-phone network was available, etc. The other passenger in the car was apparently used to the circus, bought some strong beers, drank them straight, threw the garbage out of the window (the favorite garbage disposal technique in Central Asia) and passed out for the rest of the trip. We however tried to hold whatever we could in the car to remain seated with always some camel-riding-music at full level in the car.
Kim-Jong-Un decided to drop us off 20km before Aktau – absolutely not as arranged – but we were happy to leave the car and cycle an hour. Since Bukhara, we had just done 1700km of taxi in three days, and very important: we still had all our gears, and the bike wasn’t damaged (and the various cars had not crashed!).
Now that we were in Aktau, the long-awaited mission was to cross the Caspian Sea. This mission is actually a lot more difficult than simply taking a ferry across the Caspian. We had chosen that way to not have to take a flight (we are not against flying but the packing, airports, unpacking, getting in and out of airports, etc. is exasperating), and because the Iranian or Russian ways are a no-go for our passport combination (plus Russia would imply going through not so stable regions of either Chechnya, Ossetia or eastern Ukraine).
Being back in Kazakhstan meant first dealing with Kazakhs. Although we have had some great encounters, we felt that Kazakhstan was probably the country where people were the most Sovietized in a way that they act nonchalantly and simply do their business, and can be quite brusque. That means the first question you get from the hotel reception is for example “what do you want?” – well I didn’t come here to tell you about a Grimm-fairy-tale… You ask about any information, they don’t know, or they just tell you to go further, even for things that they obviously now (restaurants, ATM, etc.) – Aktau is not that big.
So, first things first, we check at the ferry company to see if they know where and when their ships are supposed to come (and possibly getting tickets) – we got told that one ferry leaves in 10h, the next one in three days. That completely contradicts the information we had from their own website, and also from satellite tracking data of the ships (the best source of information about ferry on the Caspian BTW!), but we get a bit of panic as we did not have the Azerbaijan Visas yet, we had to go grocery shopping and most importantly, we found out that ships no longer leave from Aktau but from a brand-new terminal 95km south near the small village of Kuryk, basically on the Caspian coast, but in the most remote location possible (which is already a big challenge given the remoteness of Aktau!). I start to freak-out and am ready to cycle the 95km in the evening (it’s flat so if we push that should be feasible in 4/5h and we can sleep on the ferry later…). Cassie is more reasonable and prefers to opt for the next ferry, so we head to a hotel nearby and after applying for our Azeri Visas, we go out to try to get both cash and a restaurant. With the information we got from the hotel reception, we got cash 2km away (we realized the next day that there was an ATM in a building across the street and had dinner in a Japanese restaurant – the only place interested to have guests that do not speak Russian.
In the next morning, quick check at the ferry satellite tracking – it appeared that the boats were stuck in some bay near Turkmenistan or in the harbor of Baku and Alat, so the information given the previous day was definitely wrong.
We piled up a large amount of food in a supermarket, to last at least three full days in the Kuryk terminal (if we had to wait that long), plus plenty of snacks for the length of the boat ride. Kazakhstan being way richer than the other Central Asian countries – pretty much only thanks to oil – they have a much larger variety of food in the supermarkets, yet usually still having an expiration date a few years ago (it’s always great to find sardines that have probably been fished a decade ago…), so we go a little crazy with goodies (me mostly, as evidenced by my purchase of a giant can of pineapple and coco-puffs).
We biked the 95km easily with a strong tailwind most of the way, which is also good because wind means that the ferries cannot cross the Caspian Sea. The USSR has had the great idea to use ships (some ancient German cruise ships, probably used in the Baltic during the 70s) on the Caspian that were not designed for the weather conditions of that sea. One ferry sank a decade ago due to rough sea conditions, so they know take extra care of the other sister-ship, i.e. whenever there is wind they stop!
Arriving in the ferry terminal was surprisingly as the terminal seemed huge with railways, large roads and parking lots, completely new buildings, hotel, docks for 5 ships, etc. and the plans to expand the place even further. Only problem, the whole place was completely empty except two other cyclists, their (well-behaved) dog and a lonely guard. The two cyclists had already been waiting for 24h due to exotic information, so we were about to join in the waiting. In Kuryk, you have to remain extra relaxed, because it is not just that there are no information, there is also nobody that could possibly provide any information – so you wait in an empty building with a guard who is just here to strictly tell you to not cross a line on the floor of the building (seriously). The evening goes on, we cook noodles in the terminal, we sleep on the floor of the terminal, we walk around the terminal, we just cannot get into the terminal because that means we would have to cross the line. Only event of the day, some Georgian truck drivers slam the door of the terminal in the middle of the night, are clearly drunk, aggressive, yell at everything and everyone and want to get someone for the tickets (we thought) – we had heard and had been warned about Georgians, slightly rough, now we had them live… and not a good sign for that country a few days later (if we cross the Caspian at some point). Because there is nobody, they obviously cannot get tickets so go back to their trucks (and brandy).
Second day, still nothing going on, except two Germans driving back from Pakistan in a van join us in the waiting terminal. Late at night, an Australian who apparently had a different source of information arrives on a road bike, completely exhausted after a 300km (!) bike ride across the Aktau region and pretty much collapsed of tiredness.
1am, the guard wakes up everyone in the terminal to tell us that the boat leaves in 2h so we have to pack – that seems insane given that the satellite tracker still gives a location hundreds of kilometers away.
2am, four guys arrive in the middle of the night to open the ticket counter and all ferry passengers have to buy a ticket – they behave like the local ferry-mafia, they get our cash after weird exchange rate calculations: officially we have to pay in Kazakh-Tenge, but today they prefer dollars so calculate the exchange rate Tenge-Dollar and then the rate Dollar-Tenge, so our ticket just got 5$ more expensive – we have nothing to say about that.
3am the ticket counter closes (and won’t open again). If you had missed your only chance to be in the terminal between 2am and 3am, you apparently cannot get in the boat (still not here btw).
After yet another check of the boat location, we decide that the information is bullshit and we may just go back to sleep (although the ticket sellers told us that we’d board in two hours). At 8am, there is still nothing going on, no boat on the horizon. 10am, the guard rushes-in and we must cross the line of the building IMMEDIATELY! We pack quickly and can finally see the other side of the building, were it happens that there is another fancier terminal behind with tens of ticket counters (and tens of employees obviously never doing anything because the tickets are sold an hour per week during the night), a restaurant (that probably works 10min per week because nobody is allowed to cross the line the rest of the time), and the urgency of getting into the boat becomes a lot less urgent. At this point, Cassie is lost in udder confusion because the second terminal was much nicer and appropriate for a 48h wait – but that’s how it works in Kuryk. The boat finally arrives though, and we board at 1pm, the inside of the ferry is about as chaotic as the terminal, you get to enjoy meeting more angry-drunk truck drivers from Georgia, and your decades-old cabin. Once into the boat, we have at least some hopes that the ferry will leave someday, and it does after more hours of waiting in the port. We had waited only 2 full days, thanks to a storm that had delayed the boat that was supposed to leave 4 days before. This isn’t so bad given some horror stories of people who had waited over a week there, but the Kazakh/Azeri organization and behavior is just hopeless (this ferry route has been running for decades, and no one seems to know who/what/where/when/why about the ferry). Again, they are lucky to have some oil to pay for some fancy constructions and people working to just wait and do nothing.
The ride across the Caspian is quite pleasant and smooth, with regular meals provided (well, the same meal – chicken and noodles – provided every few hours), we thus sleep, snack and relax. We wake up the next morning seeing the Azerbaijan shore (more the oil derricks and platforms all over the sea and the coast), so we have hopes to actually land soon after. Bad news, the boat simply stops in the sea ten kilometers away from the port, and more waiting, more waiting until the early afternoon when we finally get into the port. The Azerbaijan terminal seems about as unorganized and useless as the Kazakh one. Large, new, shiny, also 70km south of Baku in the middle of nowhere, and again completely empty. The 20 passengers can disembark after some more waiting in the terminal, and now comes the customs. You would imagine that ten custom officers would deal with 20 passengers once a week fairly quickly, but we get our visa stamp after over two hours of – well, we have no idea whatsoever. But with our passport stamped, we can finally get out without much problems (here also, the Azeri customs are also known for their own interpretation of laws, and Azerbaijan not being the greatest democtature, they have some weird restrictions).
Just before sunset, 4 days after arriving in Aktau we have reached Azerbaijan. The whole area is shockingly rich in oil, you can literally see some fuel/tar on the ground wherever something was dug, but yet the first villages are shockingly poor and in a total state of disrepair. For the first time this year, we also got asked by kids for some money… not the best impression of Azerbaijan, especially after the generosity of the remote communities of Tajiks and Kyrgyz. We cycle up some hills and a few kilometers in an area of mud-volcanos and methane flames burning literally from the soil, we are joined by the two other cyclists and two Germans in their van from the boat for our first night of camping in Azerbaijan, in yet another unearthly landscape.