(warning: alliteration may have been overused for emphasis)
Having ridden on parts, and now also been driven over parts, of the road to Beyneu, Alex and I felt it essential that we share a few deep insights into a section of the trip which we are not embarrassed to say is not worth the effort. As it may have become clear from previous blogs, our five day Kazakh transit visa, and the additional wait at sea, had set us a tough challenge: ride an average of 160km a day through a boring, windy, arid desert and end up fresh enough to ride 100km to the border the next day before customs closed. We had managed 170km on the first day, riding from 6.30 am to 7.30 pm and pushing up rather more hills than anticipated but far worse was to come.
A 6.30 am start once again (before sunrise as early as lights are not necessary) set us onto the straight road out of Shetpe and directly into the headwind. Tarmac in the most part, but hilly and with regular barriers on the road forcing us into the sand for 400m as culverts were renewed, progress was tough. Alex’s mood turned sour enough to lash out (in a way he would never do to someone who understands him) and sarcastically tell some local kids he would rather they went and died in the desert instead of fiddling with his bike and dropping it! They didn’t understand the joke, but soon became bored of our poor mood!
By 11.30am , we had gone 45km. With the road set to worsen, even at that speed we would be forced to cycle most of night to make it on time. Blindly ambitious, we continue and hit a section of brand new road, with markings every 100m; I measure my speed as 7 km/hr. We eat some power biscuits we bought the previous day to give us strength and very soon reach the end of the asphalt.
It was so much worse than we had imagined. Plentifully peppered with potholes and substantially sprinkled with sand butts, every vehicle and extra gust of wind threw up billows of dust. Rocks riddles everywhere prevented any semblance of a path and rugged ridges creaked our bikes and backs simultaneously. Realistically predicting no gain in speed from the morning, we were quick to notice the need for a kind lorry driver who would save our skin from the wrath (and fines) of the Kazakh border patrol. Fortunately for us, hitchhiking here is not an issue. Drivers feel enough sympathy toward you that they stop to give you water and offer lifts regularly, and the first two lorries that passed us agreed to do just that.
We threw our bikes in under the instruction of the two drivers, who drive this route to and fro as their living for the six months of the year when it is not a complete quagmire. We were relieved to hear that even they take three days to get to Beyneu, despite early starts before sunrise and driving into the night until midnight. So that explained it: most cyclists wisely take the train, or take 5-6 days for this road. Our visas had forced us to attempt it as fast as the lorries, and we just could not do it!
The ride in the lorries was no more comfortable, but 3-4 km/hr faster and less draining. Dozens of dirt paths (deep enough to let go of the wheel) branch off the road regularly as escape routes for drivers to try and find a better run, usually in vain and to the detriment of any drivers around as huge clouds of dust kick up once again.
Other than a couple of stops at tea houses, the road was endlessly dull to add to the discomfort, with nothing to see other than occasional sand tornadoes and lots of camels… Really in the desert now! We stopped at midnight having come 30km further than we had planned to by bike and hope to make headway towards the border tomorrow.
In conclusion, our advice to intrepid cyclists tackling this route or even drivers mad enough to drive it if they are not obliged to do so: hire a hovercraft, a helicopter or hang around for five years for a new surface. Otherwise, just don’t do it!
*** Unfortunately, according to other blogs, the road we are about to take out of Beyneu as I write is in a similar condition, and in a similar headwind, for 500km of straight road until the next town. The excitement is building (!) but at least we have no visa deadline. Our main rush in Uzbekistan is that we are meant to be registered in a hotel for every night of our stay… ***