I realise it’s been a couple of weeks now since I last posted an update, so this one will probably be a bit of a whirlwind! I’m now in, what lonely planet describes as ‘Uzbekistan’s least desirable city’. Nukus. An imposing soviet style dwelling, harking back to the ‘glory days’ of the USSR, it sits right on the edge of 400 km’s of desert to the border with Kazakhstan. After which, there is another 500 km’s of desert… Essentially if you go west, be prepared for a whole lot of nothing, and if you go east, be prepared for a lot of nothing with the occasional Silk road gem.
Thinking back three weeks, a lot has happened and I struggle to bypass this thick yellow hue in my mind – the last 8 days of cycling through the desert! Before that strange land unfurled itself though, I’d just come out from being ‘kettled’ by some not so friendly Georgian police, protesting against their attempt to shut down Tbilisi’s nightlife (it’s been an odd 3 weeks!).
A late evening, start and humid heat made leaving Tbilisi hard work. We (me and my Spanish friend Pol) had spent the evening with an American girl, Jackie, who I’d met in the hostel, Ben, an Austrian journalist Pol met in the protest and Nino, a local who Pol knew through work. A mish-mash of people made for an interesting evening that wound up at a quirky bar with a few goodbye beers. Accounting for this handicap like any good sportsman or woman, we began pushing our pedals nearing the afternoon hours. Foolishly we immediately bore the brunt of the days heat and traffic until far out of the city fringes.
Georgia’s rugged green mountains had now given way smooth rolling hills plastered with vineyards stretching out in all directions. Every house seemed to have its own stall where you could buy a sheet of pressed fruit or a plastic bottle of home brewed wine. I have no idea how they all make money when they all sell the same thing on the same road, just 10 feet away from each other. Nonetheless, we couldn’t tempted by any of the 2 litre bottles as we both craved a relaxed night and a good catch up on sleep. A quick break at an abandoned castle and a cheap pastry shop later, we cycled into the evening in attempt to claw back some ground from Tbilisi’s bars. It was to be our last night in Georgia, a country so beautiful, vibrant and the home to many good memories over the past two weeks. I was sad to see the back of it, vowing to return and explore more of the country in the coming years. For now at least, we planned to ask someone if we could camp in their vineyard to complete the Georgian experience. The Black Sea to the Azeri border. It wouldn’t be complete without a campout amongst the vines.
Pol soon spotted two men working one of the fields as the sun began its descent. Employing his best Russian (Pol lived in Tajikistan for 6 months and is actually quite good), the guys were soon intrigued by the strange Europeans on bikes in their field, offering us a nice spot to camp. We pitched our tents under the shelter of a tree neighbouring the ripening grapes and waved the guys goodbye. Just as I’d began cooking my spaghetti they returned, this time with another friend. Walking into the field I could see one of them clutching a 5 litre tank of wine. So much for a quiet recovery night then… We sat in a circle, eating the huge amount of food they’d brought along and toasting to everything and anything under the sun. They wouldn’t settle for anything less than going drink for drink and it wasn’t long before Pol was being tormented for struggling to keep up. They’d look over jeering ‘Espania, espania!’, beckoning him to down his last cup of wine. Needless to say the wine was quickly polished off and we were soon merrily asleep. A fitting end to Georgia.
The following day we rode over the last of Georgia’s hills, reaching the first large flat plain we’d seen since entering the country. Facing us were an array of huge snow-capped peaks, imposingly rising out from the flat fields below – it looked like a set from Lord of the Rings. Russia lay just 10 km’s over those mountains, which, thankfully we weren’t to climb today. A bemused border guard bid us farewell from his green country as we crossed over a ‘no man’s land’ bridge to Azerbaijan. A big gate was opened, signalling the start of the whole border guard charade. All panniers were opened but not looked inside, the guard instead wanted to try out my drop handlebars for size. I was more than happy as he gave the bars a good squeeze before tapping the saddle approvingly. That was that. Azerbaijan. Now that sounds far from London.
Despite being far away, Azerbaijan also reminded me somewhat of home. Beautiful green fields complete with grazing horses and trees that look similar to those back in the shire. Remembering that it was now spring, I did have a momentary twinge of homesickness. Afternoons spent cycling around the hills back home, exploring the countryside around where I live had essentially led me to this place. There was a satisfying completeness to that path of curiosity. But it was telling me to go on and explore more.
I had never given much thought to cycling through Azerbaijan, it was a path to the ferry across the Caspian sea, surrounded by two countries (Iran and Russia) that are hard or impossible (Iran) to get visas with British passport, long enough to cycle across. Looking around me as I cycled, the landscape here was a real jewel wedged next to that of Georgia. The two of them spanning a sparkling path between two seas. Huge mountains loomed to our north for most of the next 3 days as we wound across forests, hills and mountains of our own. The Azeri people met us with a Turkish level of hospitality; whenever we stopped people would excitedly ask what we were doing and if we liked their country. It was never difficult to find somewhere to sleep when everyone would invite you in. Conversing with locals for hours on end each night was enlightening, if not slightly scary as we began to unearth a little more on the real workings of the country. In short, everything in Azerbaijan has a price, be it you wanting to change job or acquire a driving license. Now the horrific driving we’d witnessed in this country started to make a little more sense!
On our way through the northern green belt of the country, we slept in cafe’s, beautiful forests with rivers to wash in and even a treehouse/chai shop. After summiting a few surprisingly tough hills however, all greenery was left behind as we descended into desert. It didn’t take long after seeing dozen of dead snakes on the road for me to nearly run over a live one. Pol unwittingly rode very close to it, making it coil up and hiss incredibly loudly as I thundered along behind him. It was too late to turn, I was committed to my line and sensing my leg was about to become its appetiser, I shouted s***! S***! S***! To which, Pol then stopped dead thinking the sound of the hissing snake was my tyre deflating, I escaped with my shin intact, weaving around his bike and leaving him now neighbouring a very angry snake. Safe to say that we asked a cafe owner if we could sleep on his floor that night, to which he was more than happy. Only 20 miles now from Baku, watching the sun set over the desert it was nice to just take moment to myself and reflect on the end of the Caucasus. The most beautiful section so far had brought with it some truly great times spent with interesting people, a lot of whom had soon reached a ‘friends for life’ status. I felt truly lucky to be able to experience all I am right now, living day by day never knowing what lies around the corner. I have never been happier.
Waking early the next morning, we rode the final miles into a hot and busy Baku. The traffic snarled around us as we tried to negotiate our way through the plush looking city. Unlike anything we’d seen in Azerbaijan so far, Baku appeared very modern – what I imagined Dubai to be like. The iconic flame towers looked out over a city complete with an ornate old town juxtaposed with more modern builds still in their development stage. It was a fascinating place. In my head I had already decided I wouldn’t like it – I enjoy old cities with small streets all over the place to get lost in, or the quiet countryside. Little did I know that Baku would slowly win me over.
We checked into the tiny ‘Caspian Hostel’, run by a lovely family who also lived in the same building. The aim of the game now was for me to get a visa to Uzbekistan and for Pol to work out how this infamous ferry crossing proceeded. As we’d read, it wasn’t straight forward. The ferry has no schedule and leaves only when the boat is full with cargo, regardless of how many foot passengers (almost entirely cyclists and motorbike tourers) are there. You can only buy a ticket on the day, or so we were told, in Baku or at the ferry port (located a convenient 50 miles away) with some people writing they were unable to buy one at the ferry port. As you can see, the information we had was all over the place. I had been following people making the crossing on Instagram a few weeks earlier, with both of them ending up camping at the ferry port for 4 nights waiting for the boat. We were ready for a struggle, but first I had to sort my visa.
We had purposely ridden at reasonable pace across Azerbaijan to coincide our arrival with the day before the Uzbekistan embassy opened (to make things even more fun with the ferry the embassy only opens on Monday, Wednesday and Friday). I rolled up on Monday morning with all my documents in check, to be told that the opening hours of the Embassy conveniently weren’t those written on their website and that I would have to wait 3 hours. No problem, I was prepared for a struggle with this one and had brought my kindle just in case. The guards clearly expected me just to leave and kept reminding me how long I would have to wait. I smiled, sat and read my book, positioning myself right next to the door. 10 minutes later a man came out for a smoke and I asked if he knew whether I could process my visa now? The man turned out to be the consulate – I’d hit the jackpot! Documents all handed over in 2 minutes, visa will be ‘maybe sorted by Wednesday but definitely Friday’. I was out of there in a total of 20 minutes feeling very smug.
Now we could just relax and play the waiting game, there was no point fretting over the ferry until the visa had arrived. Although, we would still get our hostel lady to call her friend at the port every morning so we could keep tabs on what was going on. Not in the mood to traipse around museums all day, we were keen to meet some locals and just wander about to find out what this place was really like. We put out a message on Couchsurfing and soon we had a small group of people willing to meet up over a drink. After a nice evening spent chatting with a local lad and a Polish hitchhiker, I received a message from an Azeri girl asking if I was free the next day. This just doesn’t happen in the UK and I was half expecting a large bloke to turn up as I walked to the park to meet her. Sure enough though, Parvana was there. I got a guided tour of the city’s hotspots, including the real necessities, like the good bars, a slice of history and healthy dose of what Baku life entails. We got on really well, spending most of the evening laughing until the early hours by the Caspian. Vowing to meet up the following day and explore a different part of the city, I was starting to like Baku.
Pol had booked a ticket to watch an English movie at the cinema that night, so I was surprised to wander back to the hostel at 3:00am and find he wasn’t there! He staggered in around 5 muttering that he’d met the coolest people in Baku at a Jazz club but really needed a lie down. I found the whole thing very funny, but at the same time was glad I’d met someone who equally likes to do their own thing and doesn’t need babysitting around a city. The next day was almost a carbon copy, me and Parvana back down at the Caspian and Paul nowhere to been once I got back. I had to see what was going on at this Jazz club, so after no news from the Embassy I brought my new found friend along with Pol to see who he was banging on about. The man had stumbled across what seemed like Baku’s only creative hub of people. All of which descended on this small single road in the city each night to hangout, chat and play live Jazz. After a couple of nights there we felt like true locals at that place and in the city itself. Each evening we’d say our goodbyes, thinking the visa would come through the next day and we’d be whisked off to the ferry, only to find ourselves back at the bar come the evening to everyone’s joy.
In total we were in the city for nearly a week, in that time I’d written my two magazine articles, taken photos of the city and people, with our friends even making a short interview and film about Pols trip so far. It was a great whirlwind of a week, leaving me genuinely sad to say goodbye as I picked up my Visa as we got wind of the ferries ‘imminent’ departure.
Our sadness wouldn’t last however, as down at the ferry port we met a collection of bike and motorbike tourers camping out at the ferry port, all determined to have a good laugh. The word was that it was too windy for these old boats to moor up, so the ferry had been waiting a few hundred metres off shore the last two days for a gap in the wind. In total there was around 20 of us down there, some of which had been camping for 5 days waiting this boat! We considered ourselves lucky, found a spot in the shade and cooked up some dinner. Tonight was the Champions league final and despite the ferry port shop, admin building and cafe all consisting of 3 shipping containers, we’d heard it was on. At 11pm we all piled into a cosy container with the locals and watched Liverpool put in a painful performance as Real Madrid dismantled them on the pitch. It was definitely one of those ‘pinch yourself moments’, looking around at these Azeri truck drivers and us all animatedly watching a game of football in a shipping container. When will that happen again?
Most of us were feeling lazy with our sleeping arrangements that night, opting to just roll out the sleeping bag and sleep directly on the floor. We were sheltered behind a building from what was now a howling wind. At around 1am that all changed, a huge storm rolled in and the rain began to lash down. The wind was now so strong that the rain was horizontal, to the point that you could stay dry sleeping out the in the open in the slipstream of this building. I decided this probably wouldn’t last all night, packed up my stuff and slept underneath a lorry instead. Speaking to people the next morning, this turned out not to be such a bad idea.
The wind was still strong that day, so we set about amusing ourselves by playing game of cricket with a tennis ball a piece of wood we found. Everyone who wasn’t British had no clue what was going on, including the Azeri police who watched on intrigued for a while until one of them decided that fun wasn’t part of the ferry waiting experience. The rest of the day was spent being drip fed pieces of information about when the boat was supposed to to arrive. All pieces of information differed massively and it was only at 2am that we lined up, got stamped out of Azerbaijan and rode our bikes onto the ferry. I had been looking forward to crossing the Caspian Sea since I dreamt up this trip. It seemed so exotic and far away, and for me to be here now signalled a big moment in the trip. We stayed up until 4am waiting to toast our departure which never came. Everyone eventually deciding to go to bed; me opting to roll my sleeping bag out on the deck with the idea of waking up to sunrise on the Caspian. Well I saw the sunrise on the Caspian but we were still in the port…
It took until midday before we set sail – not that anyone cared – we’d made it and were heading for Kazakhstan! Because the boat was primarily a cargo ship, we were left to do as we pleased, spending most of our time hanging out in the relics that they called lifeboats (which would have definitely sunk if used – one had a massive hole in the side) taking in the sun. It was nice to just read and chat, watching the hundreds of abandoned oil rigs pass by as we left Azeri waters. Apparently in the height of the of the Soviet empire, 75% of all their oil came out of Baku, making it one of Stalins cornerstones. It wasn’t hard to imagine it back then, full of life, all rigs pumping like crazy to feed the thirst of this empire.
We had a good laugh on the deck fathoming together a very crude game of golf out of a bottle cap and a bent piece of metal piping. Yours truly putting on a stunning display of two under par and taking the record for the only hole of the course. We had a great crew of people of that boat, there genuinely wasn’t a moment that someone was out of conversation or not laughing at something silly that was being done or said that day. I opted again to sleep out on the deck that night but was forced to pack up at 4am after big winds swept along the boat. It didn’t matter, we were nearly in Kazakhstan now. A dusty shoreline greeted us from afar as we laid our eyes on this foreign land for the first time. After mooring up we were put into a line with our bags, whilst drug dogs sniffed everything down. The storm trooper-esque guards whisking us away in vans to check paper work and stamp passports.
The whole process took some time, with the atmosphere getting quite intense at points. For us, thankfully it went without a hitch and we all cycled off from the port, forming a 7 ‘man’ chain gang. I lent my helmet to a German hitchhiker Sophia (I eventually found out here name was Dalia after calling her Sophia for 3 days), who was going to grab a lift off one of the motorbike tourers into town. I planned to meet her later to pick it up as the crew of 7 cyclists set off into Aktau. Immediately we saw camels running across traffic, nearly taking out a distressed car and us in the process. This place was crazy! We found a hostel altogether, got some food and stocked up for the desert which lay ahead. Sophia invited me for dinner with her couchsurfing host that evening, so I left the others, enjoyed a Vegan taco with some lovely locals and picked up my helmet. It was time for things to get serious. A lot of desert lay ahead.
3 of us began pedalling out of the hostel at 6am the following morning, all slightly nervous about what lay in wait. Soon faced with strong headwinds, horizons of nothing but scrub land, this place felt strange. Me and Pol were riding with Adam, a Polish guy who had already cycled around the world on a previous tour – no biggie eh?! He hadn’t bothered getting an Uzbek visa and now found himself having to ride 100 miles everyday for the next month to make it across the whole of Kazakhstan before his visa expired. We decided to set a strong pace with him, making up the 320 miles in just 3 days. Camels, a few ‘mountains’ and a trip to 130m below sea level later, we arrived in Beyneu. A dusty town where we held up for two nights before we left Adam for Uzbekistan. We had been given a fair warning about this road, one person described it ‘ HELL’ and the other as ‘very, very, very bad’. In all fairness it was crap, but really fun to ride. Constantly swerving to avoid huge potholes became a game of sorts that diverted the mind away from the bleak surroundings of the desert. We crossed the Uzbek border later that afternoon, got duly ripped off exchanging of money and made our way to the nearest town.
The only settlement for the next 100 miles, this pre-fab soviet fixture was as incredibly strange as it was intriguing. Not wanting to be disturbed in the night, we asked a family if we could camp in their garden where we were quickly ushered us into their house instead. They cooked a lovely traditional dinner, where we sat around low tables and tucked into this feast before falling fast asleep. An early start got us stuck into what would be the headwind that plagued us for the next 3 days. Staring out at a blank horizon, riding on crap road, the mind games could begin. It was all consuming, these introspective thoughts combined with the slow pace we were reduced to began to lower the mood. Soon we weren’t talking, simply because there was nothing to talk about, nothing of interest, just heat, headwind and horizon. Having come down with an illness that morning, I could tell Pol was beginning to struggle a little as pace slowed again in the late afternoon. I tried to ride in front of him to try break the wind and make things slightly easier as we approached the 90 mile mark – signalling the only point of civilisation. He pushed the bike for the last 3 miles and I was becoming slightly concerned.
The next day brought more of the same, only this time the wind was even stronger. As we had lunch, Pol said he would take the train at the next opportunity, with me catching him up in the coming days whilst he rested. I agreed that would be for the best, but before that we had to reach the next town. Hours upon hours of mind bending straight road passed by as we crawled along, pushing hard against the wind. Finally we arrived at the town only to find two military guards at a gate refusing us entry. The whole town was a purpose built compound for employees a gas refinery, meaning we weren’t to be allowed inside. We had planned to stock up here, as it was the only place for a hundred miles and accordingly were running very low on water. Thankfully two guys saw us, called their boss before word came down from the superiors that we were allowed inside.
They turned out to be two engineers who dearly understood our need for food and water. After dinner we were invited for round two. To celebrate ramadan with them, their friends and site managers at a neighbours party that night. More food? Perfect! A huge feast awaited as we were to become the centre of attention for that night, finding ourselves having to politely decline invitations to look around their refinery the following day. Uzbek people are some of the friendliest I’ve come across. We were really thankful for these guys helping us out of a bad situation and back on our feet that day.
Pol hopped on the train the following morning as 40 mph headwinds plagued my progress yet again. This time I could barely hear my music above the howl of the wind as fought tooth and nail for every mile. After 60 joyless miles, I stopped for a few hours sleep in the first bus stop I’d seen this side of the Caspian. Getting going again in the evening was tough but the sight of civilisation drove me on – I was so close now. Only a few miles from the nearest city, I got talking to a young Uzbek farmer, asking in terrible Russian whether I could camp on his land that night. I helped him round up some ducks and chickens before he invited me in to spend the evening with his family. We watched Asterix and Obelix with Uzbek over dubs for the next hour before dinner and sleep fell over me.
Only 15 morning miles separated me from my destination. The end of this desert section. The most remote I was due to face on this continent and the section I had feared the most on this trip. I listened to smooth jazz with a grin on my face that morning. Riding into Nukus, ‘the least desirable city in Uzbekistan’, I had made it.