As we ride our bikes off the Caspian Sea freighter ship we are immediately greeted by two local Kazakh customs officers. My first impression is one of bewilderment…they look nothing like Borat. To my prejudiced Sydney-raised eyes, I’d say they look more like Chinese on steroids. These guys are absolutely huge! I definitely see that their stature is somewhat Russian-like yet the beautiful slant of their eyes leads me to think that of all the influences of invading cultures in this area, Genghis Khan and his Mongolian army are the ones who left the biggest mark. Now I’m going to have to rethink everything I learnt about this country from that movie…bugger!
We’re ushered into a waiting room along with the Turkish and Georgian truck drivers who crossed the Caspian with us. Our passports are processed in a very judicious manner; even at 2am these guys are taking their jobs very seriously. There’s a lot of quarrelling between the officers and the truck drivers. One of the Turkish men’s paperwork seems to be out of order, but a few minutes of excessively loud arguing seems to fix the problem. I resolve to use the same tactic should I also encounter problems, although I sincerely hope that yelling in Italian has the same effect as yelling in Russian. We’ll see.
Chris and I are the last to get our passports stamped and, as soon as we approach the counter, Mr-God-with-a-stamp flashes a big, broad smile. Even his teeth are huge! He has issues working out what ‘Germany’ means (on Chris’ passport) yet seems to be acquainted with Italy. He also seems to be a little confused as to which visa page to stamp; I realize he cannot read the Roman alphabet and has issues determining which of our three brand new visas says ‘Kazakhstan’. Eventually, with merely a little coaxing from us, he seems convinced enough to stamp us in. As our passports are handed back, the grinning officer wishes us a hearty ‘Welcome to Kazakhstan!’ He then proceeds to point out a sign on one of the office windows in the waiting room, but because it’s in Cyrillic we can’t make out what it says.
One of our fellow truck driving comrades sheds light on the matter: “Customs closed, you must wait”
So wait we do…in the office waiting room…for the next 7 hours.
Luckily, the waiting room is heated and there is a bathroom so I figure it could be worse. The truck drivers proceed to claim 3 chairs each, lie down and (within literally 30 seconds) start snoring like there’s no tomorrow. Something tells me they’ve done this before. As the adrenalin rush of our arrival starts to wean I am also overcome by intense sleepiness so I decide to follow suit and settle in for a little shut-eye, or the closest thing to it I can manage. Apparently, I do not snore.
I wake up at 8am with an absolutely splitting headache. I feel as if I’ve been hit by a truck and a quick visit to the loo confirms that I also look like it too. My bandana is half way down my face, my hair is a matted mess and my eyes are puffy as hell. I freshen up, tidy up my bandana and make myself somewhat presentable to the lovely customs’ lady who has just turned up for work. Our proceedings to have our bikes stamped into Kazakhstan take a whole hour, even though there are only four counters in the office. First we must get the blue stamp, then the red one, then return our papers to window #1, but not before lady at window #3 has looked over the papers, shrugged, and photocopied them. Only when everyone is happy with the colours and amount of stamps on our import papers are we allowed to proceed.
Driving into the totally uninspiring port city of Aktau is strangely invigorating. The sun is out in full force and the refreshing wind does a great job of waking us up. We had mildly contemplated spending a night in a hotel here to refresh, but after checking the price of the most basic accommodation in town we decide we are actually refreshed enough. In a city like Aktau, which only attracts well-heeled oil-company workers (attract being the wrong word here) the cheapest room we could find goes for a whopping USD150. No wonder Borat was filmed in Romania…
After stocking up on petrol and food we decide to head out of town with the intention of camping as soon as signs of civilization weaned out. What we encounter, first and foremost, is a ferocious and rather frosty headwind. We’d read countless blogs of bicycle riders who deemed this stretch of highway to be a total nightmare due to the wind, yet they fact they had travelled at different times of the year made us hopeful that it was seasonal. Instead, it does seem that this may be an inherent trait of the area. Incredibly strong winds are our constant companions for the next two days, yet at this stage we were still not questioning their unusually low temperature.
We set out to look for a bush camp spot, yet finding a wind-sheltered one proved to be impossible. The desert of south-western Kazakhstan is about the flattest place on earth that I have ever personally seen. The only contours on the horizon turn out to be camel humps!
We come across a roadside eatery and decide to stop for a bite to eat. We take our time enjoying a delicious meal of lamb kebabs (shashlik) and salad. By the time we venture outside again the weather had made a turn and the temperature dropped drastically. Chris and I looked at each other in utter bewilderment and hopped on our bikes again. We agreed to just turn off into the desert at the first available opportunity and set up tent as a matter of urgency because (if we didn’t know any better)….we’d say there was snow on the way…
As the first big, fat flake lands on my helmet visor, I roll my eyes in complete exasperation.
As the road finally makes a curve and passes over the country’s western railway line, we finally spot a hill and ride straight towards it. Normally, we’d want to be better hidden from passing traffic but desperate times call for less than ideal solutions. Setting up tent is a nightmare due to the winds; by the time we are sheltered inside we are both frozen to the core. I still can’t believe it’s snowing in the desert. I’m reminded of the time I took a tour group out into the Atacama Desert in Chile, reputedly the driest place on earth, and woke up the next day with about 10 inches of snow. My passengers were convinced we’d taken a wrong turn, one even quoting a line from his guidebook which stated that it snows in the Atacama about one day every few years and, in some places, even DECADES. What are the chances you’ll get to see it in person? Quite high if you happen to be travelling with me, apparently!
Chris and I unpack our stove and boil up some tea in the hope of defrosting our bones. I peer my nose out after just ten minutes and find the scenery so surreal I’m propelled to actually get out of my sleeping bag to take a photo. This is just unbelievable!
Luckily, we are both so exhausted that we actually manage to fall asleep quickly, even though our thermometer is trying to convince us that it is -8 degrees and the winds are doing a mighty fine job of pushing and pulling our tent in all directions.
That $150 room is starting to sound mighty appealing right about now.
We awake the next day with perfectly clear skies which, to be honest, freaks us out just as much.
Within an hour of setting off again all traces of the freak snowstorm have disappeared. Within two hours, the tarmac road also seems to have disappeared. Major reconstruction work on the only road to the Uzbekistan border means that, for approximately 50kms, we must ride on a dirt track instead. This would normally not be much of an issue (seeing as though it’s all so dry here, right?) yet today there is an issue indeed. Thanks to the snowfall and subsequent melt, we must ride 50kms over the sludgiest mud we’ve EVER encountered. This stuff is SO sticky and slimey that we are forced to stop every kilometre or so, simply to scrape the earthly glue off our front fenders.
It takes us almost six hours to struggle through our mud river and reach tarmac again. By the time we realize that not only is the temperature mild, but the wind has also died down, much to our relief. If ever we needed a break….now would be it.
We spot some abandoned dwellings in the far horizon and decide to stop for the day. A perfectly shaped ‘crater’, which must’ve been used by herdsmen a while back, provides us with the ideal protection should the wind decide to make an unwanted return. It’s still quite early but we’re both worn out and hungry.
We finally have the chance to cook a proper meal for the first time in two days (yes, two minute noodles with a can of mushrooms does constitute a ‘proper meal’ thank you very much!) and indulge in the best night’s sleep we’ve had in almost a whole week.
We head to the Uzbekistan border early the next day. It seems ridiculous to spend only three days in the ninth largest country in the world, but we don’t have much of a choice. To actually see anything of major interest in Kazakhstan, a nation which is larger than all Western European countries combined, we’d need to drive thousands of kilometres eastward. Instead, we head south toward Uzbekistan or, to be more precise, Karakalpakstan.
If you’ve never heard of this particular ‘Stan’, there’s no need to worry…we hadn’t either until we saw the name written across the northern Uzbek part of our road map.
Karakalpakstan is an autonomous republic, housed within the political borders of north-western Uzbekistan. It’s home to the southern half of the infamous Aral Lake, often dubbed the site of the world’s worst environmental disaster. But I’m getting ahead of myself here; first we need to rest.
Besides, I reckon we’ve had enough disasters to deserve at least a full day of peaceful existence 🙂