There are bad roads and then there are bad roads! Western Kazakhstan had no road, well unless you want to count the sandy desert track on which we were to spend the next 4 days a road!! After sailing/waiting for 36 hours to cross the Caspian we have arrived into Kazakhstan, and the start of Central Asia. We left the boat at around 05:30 in the morning once we had been processed by immigration, and then said our goodbyes to the two Australians and cycled into the main town of Aktau with Cliff & Richard, the two English guys we met onboard. The ride from Aktau port to the main town is only about 7km, along a very industrial road where only gas pipes and a large oil refinery spoil the sunrise. I think Finola was very tired since she managed to cycle into the back wheel of Cliff only about 2km away from the port!!
In Aktau, we had to change money, and since the banks do not open before 9am we went around the town to see if we could find a money change desk or something similar. Here we bumped in Eugenie. Eugenie was a Russian man aged about 55 who asked us if we needed anything, he was also going to change money so we all agreed to go together (plus he would show us the way.) After changing all of our money Eugenie invited us to his house for breakfast, and showers. Perfect!! Kazahstan was extending to us the same hospitality as Turkey and Azerbaijan. Eugenie was a nuclear engineer and he explained his role in the construction of new power station, After lunch he invited us to stay the night, so we enjoyed a further dinner whilst Eugenie was trying to talk us out of cycling and get the train. According to Eugenie we would all die through lack of water, heatstroke or by getting bitten by the snakes or scorpions!! Finola had a small cry in fear but soon after we all left excited and ready to tackle the isolation of the desert!
We left Aktau for the provincial town of Zhetybay, just a short 35km from Aktau. The first 10km was beautiful paved roads and was giving us false hope that the road had been repaired and Eugenie was wrong. The next 25km the road let us know it meant business as very quickly it deteriorated into rubble. This along with the fierce desert wind meant all four of us had to cycle in a straight line, each taking turns at the front as the wind battered us backwards. We must have looked quite the sight struggling along like this, but we reached Zhetybay at around 12:30 and therefore it was time for lunch and a rest. We purchased food from the small shop and ate quickly before all passing out in the shade of the nearest bus stop. 4 adults and 4 bicycles all sleeping off the wind and food, must have put anyone off getting a bus that day! We were soon joined by a man called Bijan, a short Kazakh man who wanted us to sleep in his house rather than the bus stop! Our dreams had come true. Bijan put on the chai, and immediately went about organizing beds for us all, which were immediately taken up on the first offer. We all slept soundly until we were awoken by the smell of freshly cooking soup. As we eat and got to know Bijan, he told us he used to be part of the Russian mafia and was known as a 'kingpin.' He had to leave Russia after being left for dead by other members of gang so he fled to his homeland of Kazakhstan where he know lives a peaceful life in the desert with his wife and child. Bijan shared with us his home and introduced us to each member of his family who live in different parts of the town. He was an inspiration and his hospitality was perfect when we all really needed it! When leaving Richard gave him his banjo which he was carrying, which brought tears to Bijan's eyes, we had made a good friend in the desert.
After leaving Zhetybay it was time to tackle the next 120km to the next main town of Shetpe. The sun was shining straight down upon us as we rode into the desert and the road became an isolated sandy track with only a headwind for company! I had envisioned desert cycling be an emotional journey under stars with just camels for company but really the desert road was taking its toll upon each of us. Although it does make for amazing photographs and the ability to camp anywhere was a perfect, the headwind and the poor roads meant we could not cycle more than about 50km each day and were unable to look and enjoy the scenery due to the sand blowing into our eyes, espically when the overloaded Kazah trucks sped right past. Although part small part of me was enjoying the challenge, Fin was not enjoying herself at all! The decision was taken to cycle only to Shepte where we would carry onto Uzbekistan by train whilst Richard and Cliff would carry on alone through the desert.
After we had reached this decision, we were welcomed by a sign stating this is the start of the dangerous section. (although following this was smooth roads for about 5km!) The road condition became worse as we approached Shepte, passing two stranded familys with car trouble, with which we were unable to help, it was time for us both to leave the this part of the desert and jump onto a train to Kungrad in Uzbekistan. That evening we all shared a beer that night, camping behind a petrol station just east of town. In the morning the lads cycled off their way and we went back into town to join our overnight sleeper train to our next leg of the journey.
Looking back we really enjoyed our four days in the desert. The road and the heat was not easy but the best roads are those which are hard. The struggle led us to reach new adventures on our bicycle and has prepared us for the journey ahead.
Getting the sea ferry from Baku to Aktau, Kazahstan is a really fun experience and certainly beats getting a flight over the Caspian Sea. We choose the ferry since as British cyclists we are unable to head north via Russia or South via Iran due to us being unable to get the correct visas required. (Apparently Britain and Iran are currently in talks to reopen each other's embassy so this may change in the future.)
Please note that this is all correct for he boat BARDU and we crossed on 03 September 2015.
The benefits of getting the ferry are however clear, the beautiful sunsets, the romanticism of sailing aboard a large cargo ship and the people you meet onboard. The down siýdes are that it is quite expensive, costing $110pp, there is no timetable and the port is 70km away from Baku so you will not be able to cycle and therefore hitchhike or pay $50 for a taxi. In light of all the confusion please see our short guide to purchasing a ticket and boarding the sea ferry
I hope this helps to give you an use of how to board the ferry and the headache that it can be to get everything organised. The meals on board were very good and the rooms excellent. There were no working showers but toilets and drinking water was supplied. It did get very hot due to the captain refusing to turn on the air conditioning to save money on board. The journey was a total of 36 hours and this was due to a 10 wait in Aktau for our 'slot.' We were in swimming distance from land but unable to land due to other boats having priority, so we played some more shithead and slept until we were allowed to depart. Once on land we had to scan our bags through the X-ray scanner and push our bikes past and were then stamped and have arrived in Kazahstan!! Woohoo
The next leg will see us travel through the kazah desert towards Uzbekistan with the two English lads we met on the boat. One called Cliff one called Richard!!
Tim n fin
Buy me a beer!! Thank you
This blog follows my cycle ride from Reading, Berkshire to Reading, Pennsylvania.