Riding out from Aktau were Stuart, Oli, Marcus and me. Attempting to beat the scorching sun the all American heroes had left at first light. We being European, stupid or both got rolling around midday, aiming to make just shy of Beyneu 300 miles north east before nightfall and camp on the steppe. Progressively deteriorating from tarmac to loose gravel and pot holes the road was tough going, all the while running tantalizingly close to the new road which is ever so slowly being rolled out between Aktau and Beyneu. Continuing to rise, reaching near 50c, the temperature just added to the challenge ahead. Keeping hydrated was key, but storing water on top of a black bag wasn’t my finest idea, swigging from the bottle just about burnt my lips. Perfect temperature for a brew.
A never ending stream of lorries heading south kicked up dust reducing visibility to nothing, combined with patched of deep sand and occasional piles of rubble left to block the path made for a cautious, peralous and fun ride to Shetpe. This section claimed it’s first victim, the welds on the chain guard I’d had re attched just before leaving couldn’t stand the constant battering and failed. This would’t be the last victim that day.
Turning north east from Shetpe we picked up a section of the new road, beautiful, smooth tramac rolled out to the horizon, and we made good progress catching up on the time we’d lost on the previous stretch. As quickly as it had appeared the way ahead was blocked by a Kazak stop sign; a huge pile of rubble, kicking the convoy of lorries and us back onto the rough stuff. Rougher than ever and the old tactic of powering through hazards and obstacles not working, progress dropped to a bike battering snails pace. More bits began dropping off the bikes, Stuart lost his spare inner tubes and a mile further down the road Oli’s pannier box broke clean off sending that and his food bag bouncing down the road.
A quick fix and back on the move again. Each bike picking out it’s own route along the path, a hanging trail of dust marking where it had been, ahead of us a multicoloured ridge, the only change in topography for 500 miles, off to the side rolling scrub to the horizon, all illuminated by the sinking sun. At this point I had an almost euphoric moment, this is actually happening, I’m doing it, riding the empty expanse on the map I’ve stared apprehensively at countless times. I think I started singing in my helmet. Possibly a sign of dehydration. But was quickly distracted by a shed load, literally, of water melons. After stopping to pick the best for later we decided to get off the road, make camp and cook dinner. The food bags earlier tumble meant everything had the taste of jam and the crunch of almonds.
Mounting the ridge the next morning the tarmac reappeared, 100 straight miles of it to Beyneu, after yesterdays challanges, todays was staying awake, only the occasional camel or herd of wild horses breaking the monotony. Plus the moment a wild dog running from the nothingness bit into Stuarts soft pannier, who was going maybe 40 mph, ripping a great hole down the side before letting go. He was livid, we were in stitches.
In town we caught up with our friends from across the pond and discovered the desert had been no kinder to them. A broken rear rack, flat battery and finally a fried CDI unit meant Gary and Mike were off sorting a train to take the ’89 Tenere, Mike and Rebecca to Dushanbe, Tajikistan where they hoped to get a replacement unit shipped from Germany. Everyone decided to stay the night in Beyneu and lick their wounds from the desert before continuing our own journeys in the morning.
From Beyneu to Kungrad, Uzbekistan, is a straight 300 miles of dirt track and road, baked in the unforgiving heat, and excluding the border crossing there is nothing, not a house, not a tree, not even a shadow. And so I thought not even a fuel stop. The Peril has at best a 250 mile range. To solve this petrol issue I’d planned to pick up a gerry can on route, the best I could find was 10 liter water canister from a bazaar in Baku and Heath Robinson it to the side of the bike. With a full tank and an extra 7 liters perilously placed under my left leg I set off alone south east towards Uzbekistan. 220 miles of a never changing vista and a boarder crossing later, Jasliq came into view, the first watering hole and surprisingly fuel, I hadn’t needed to risk blowing my leg across the desert after all.
Later in the afternoon overlooking a couple of rusting sail boats listing in what would once have been the Aral sea I caught up with Gary and Jamie, who were just getting going again after a flat. We continued on together dropping down into the Armurdar’ja delta just outside of Kungrad, never in my life have I been so pleased to smell vegetation, in fact never have I noticed how beautiful it smells. 15 miles shy of Nukus, where we planned to spend the night and re hydrate with beer, the sun setting behind us, their rear went flat again. Forget the beer. With not enough light or enthusiasm to fix it we camped in a field by the roadside, fixing it for breakfast before riding on to Khiva, a walled silk road town of beautiful tiled medressas and minarets. It was on the way there that Gary discovered he’d snapped his rear shock spring, another victim of the desert.
Having a deadline to meet the other two in Dushanbe, Gary and Jamie left the next morning. I stayed another day before heading on wards towards Bukhara, 300 more miles of desert away, but at least this time with occasional Chikhanas for tea fueled chats with Uzbeki lorry drivers. I caught up with Walter an Argentinian nursing a Royal Enfield with another broken shock. This desert doesn’t like to release bikes in one piece. We kept the same schedule for the next week meeting in Bukhara, Samarkand and Tashkent, him leaving early and arriving late, me passing him somewhere along the way around lunch time. In Bukhara we were invited to join a large gathering of men all sat about feasting on plov, with typical Uzbekistan hospitality we were seated and give plates of delicious food, laughing and joking with the locals only stopping when an elder at the top table occasionally prayed. With no comprehension of what the celebration was for it wasn’t until we left and asked the lad next to us we discovered it was his grandmothers funeral. We’d had no idea.
Right now I’m in Tashkent where I’ve been for nearly a week waiting for the Indian visa. For the first time since leaving the blog has caught me up. I’m chomping at the bit to cross the boarder and hit the Pamir Highway in Tajikistan, my visa started last week. In anticipation of more tough roads ahead, the new rear tyre that’s been bouncing along with me from Trabzon got fitted today, with the help of a couple of guys from the Bikers Of Uzbekistan MC.
For anyone who’s made it to the end, I’ve put together a video as a little treat, I’m no Spielberg but it’s a start. Enjoy.