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Not anymore. Once upon a time this section of desert in the west corner of Kazakhstan would have been a worthy contender for worst road in the world. When I rode it the road was a mixture of sand and rocks. In brutal heat it was a trial of fortitude and persistence. One I didn't always stand up to particularly well. Now it has been paved. With a fair wind you can whizz across the 485km in a little over 3 days. I admit to being green with envy when I first heard this but then I would have missed out on one of my most memorable weeks on a bike. I didn't say good. I said memorable.
Hitching a lift on a cargo boat across the Caspian Sea
It all begins when you get the cargo boat from Baku in Azerbaijan across the Caspian Sea to Aktau. I travelled across the sea with three Turkish guys who were planning on getting a train to Bishkek in Kyrgyzstan in search of work. Good blokes. We played cards a lot. They just laughed when I told them I was also heading to Bishkek but by bicycle. I don't think they believed me. I'm still in touch with one of the guys. I get the distinct impression he wants to marry me to his daughter. Every few months I get an email saying you must come to Istanbul and meet my daughter. Maybe I will one day. For no explicable reason the boat sat a few hundred metres offshore from Aktau for 20 hours which was fun. At Kazakhstan immigration we had the most thorough bag search I've ever had. Three kids with enormous guns went through every item in all our bags under the gaze of a severe looking sergeant. I had some hydration tablets that over the course of a few months in my panniers had been crushed into white powder. This caused much excitement and me much consternation. They all had a wee dab and appeared disappointed to feel no notable effect other than to be a little less dehydrated. Eventually the severe sergeant left the building and the kids realised they no longer needed to pretend to care and waved us through. I said goodbye to my Turkish friends. It's a long way to go in search of work. I heard later that they had found work as engineers and were able to return to their families 6 months later. Aktau itself is a typical Kazakhstan town. A complete dump. The hotel I stayed in was the worst I've ever stayed in. It was en suite but I wished it wasn't. I closed the toilet door and kept it shut. The mosquitoes and bed bugs were so bad I pitched my tent in the room. Something I had never done before and have not done since. The owner of the establishment looked like he hadn't smiled in decades. I survived the night and was glad to get out of Aktau and head off into the desert.
It all started well. Cycling along the Caspian Sea with a tailwind. I went for a dip. Soon though it was time to turn inland and head off into the desert and there began one of the hardest weeks on a bicycle I can remember. The road soon deteriorated into the rubble that was to be my lot for the next week. Sometimes the road was so bad that the vehicles would leave the road altogether and try their luck in the desert. There are vehicle tracks criss-crossing each other all over the desert as people just make it up as they go along. I would often try to leave the road as well and follow these tracks with mixed success. It was always slow going. This made the heat unbearable. Normally when you cycle in hot weather you can get up enough speed to create you own little breeze which keeps you sane. I could never get close to this on the road to Beyneu. The heat was stifling, morale sapping, relentless and there was not an inch of shade for miles around. I would keep an eye out for culverts. Little tunnels beneath the road. Quite hard to spot but there was little else to do other than play spot the culvert so I never missed one. The tunnels are quite small but you can curl up in them and get some respite from the sun. There's not much to look at on the road. The scenery is monotonous, repetitive, indifferent. The desert steppe in all directions.
Myself, looking pretty damn cool, and some Kazakh road workers.
I spent a lot of time thinking about water along the route. The next Chaikhana is never more than 100km away but that can seem very far away when you are inching you way through the rubble of a road. Chaikhana's are tea houses where you can get food or water along the way. In truth they are vodka houses where the Russian truckers spend the night and get shitfaced. I would stock up with water. A couple of times I gave the truckers water to drop off at a specific kilometre sign further down the road. The first time it worked great. I found 2 very warm water bottles at the agreed point. The second time I didn't find anything. I don't think the trucker stole my water. I 'm sure he just forgot. Vodka can do that to you. However I will forever be indebted to the trucker who passed me on a particular hot and grueling section when I was running low on water. After he had gone past me he put his arm out of the window and dropped a 4l water bottle onto the side of the road and gave me the thumbs up. I cycled up to the water bottle and discovered it is possible to love someone you've never seen or spoken to. It was bit too heavy to carry so I greedily quenched my thirst there and then. I then got my kit off and had a quick shower by the side of the road. I still had plenty left to add to the back of my bike and my water worries receded. God bless that man.
Getting there. Slowly.
I didn't always cope well with the challenge of cycling the world's worst road. One unbearably hot afternoon I was struggling in the sand. I was getting nowhere fast. I was hot, tired, thirsty and hungry. All I could see was the endless steppe in all directions. Then there was this fly that would just dance in front of my eyes. I would swat it away and a fraction of a second later it would return to dance in front of my eyes once more. It was doing my head in. My patience was running thin. I swatted the fly away again, hit a rock, lost control of the bike, skidded in the sand and all the water carefully attached to the back of my bike fell off. I snapped. I got off my bike, threw it down and started shouting into the desert 'WHY! WHY! Why have i given up my job in an air conditioned office where there are water tanks every 30 yards to cycle in this shithole of a desert?'. Why on earth would i do that? The fly was probably laughing his head off. I sat down on the side of the road for 10 minutes and muttered to myself before finally deciding to get my act together. As always I felt a little bit better for my hissy fit and things improved from there. The sun began to go down, the temperature began to cool, I found a nice hard edge to the road where I could pick up some speed and actually made a little progress. A hour or so later I was watching a beautiful sunset having noodles for dinner wondering why I lost my shit back there.
The trucks also did battle with the road and didn't always move much quicker.
It's not all bad in the desert. Once I came across some wild horses and they ran alongside me for a few kilometres. I would slow down, they would slow down. I would speed up, they would speed up. It was really cool. Incredible how they can survive in such a place. Cycling at dawn and dusk was wonderful. The sky a hundred different shades of orange. The temperatures were bearable at these times. There was the occasional brief spurt of asphalt which felt like manna from heaven. I knew each section wouldn't last long so I wasn't too depressed when I hit sand again. I loved the camping. At the end of each day you simply wheel your bike off into the desert and pick your spot. Then watch the sun go down, all Halloween orange and chimney red, before the sky slowly fills with a million stars. The chaikarna's were also good places to hang out and get some respite from the sun. You can even get shitfaced with the truckers if you are feeling brave.
Sunset in the desert
One trucker offered me a lift with just 50km to go. He thought I was crazy when I politely refused. Why wouldn't he? He could have saved me 50km of misery. A lot of people hitch a lift through sections of this road and I don't blame them. It's the same mentality as at the end of a marathon. You've come this far. You know the final mile will be hell on earth but nothing is going to stop you from finishing what you set out to do. It's a kind of idiotic stubbornness that I have no idea is a character strength or flaw. Eventually I stumbled into the outskirts of Beyneu. I went into the first shop I came across. My eyes lit on a fridge. I could see that it was plugged in. From the faint light I could see coming from inside the fridge there was reason to believe that the electricity actually worked. I tentatively opened the door and what I saw made me nearly fall over with happiness. Water, ice cream and beer. I bought all 3 and sat down on a bench outside and felt something akin to bliss. Beyneu itself has to be one of the most charmless places on the planet but after a week of suffering in a desert in Kazakhstan it seemed like Vegas. Very much a desert town. Like something out of Mad Max. Minus the thunderdome. I can't imagine what it would be like growing up somewhere like this. Even worse than Liverpool.
Beautiful Beyneu. Worse than Liverpool.
I spent a couple of days in beautiful Beyneu. Sleeping basically before it was time to head back off into the desert and into Uzbekistan. It's only a day from Beyneu to the Uzbeki border but the road was also appalling and apparently it is still appalling. So if you are heading this way then you'll get a taste of what the road from Aktau to Beyneu used to be like. I am not sorry that the road was such a challenge when I was there. I'm a great believer in what doesn't kill you makes you stronger. I always knew there would be some hard yards in my cycle from London to China. I found them in the west corner of Kazakhstan. Sure it was awful at the time but now when I look back I smile. If it had all been paved I would of forgotten it all by now whereas I will never forgot my cycle from Aktau to Beyneu. And that's good right?
Once dreadful. Now quite good. You lucky, lucky b******s.
Time to Go:
The best time to cycle this route is in April/May or September/October. Summers are brutally hot and winters are brutally cold.
As easy as it gets and I loved the desert at night. There are desert foxes about. I saw a couple but they seemed more scared of me than I of them.
The wind can really get up in this part of the world. Worth checking what it's doing before you set off. Although the distances between water opportunities aren't too bad if you get stuck in a nasty headwind you could find yourself running low. Ventusky is an excellent site for wind forecasts.
Current wind direction/speed for the cycle from the Aktau to Beyneu.
The Visa situation has relaxed since I was there. Previously everyone required a visa which meant a visit to a Kazakhstan embassy prior to travel. I got mine in Baku. Took a few days to process. Now you get 30 days free which is plenty for getting from Aktau to Beyneu and then into Uzbekistan but not enough if you want to stay in Kazakhstan and cycle all the way to Almaty in the east. If you need more than 30 days then you will need to visit a Kazakhstan embassy prior to travel.
There's nothing. Best to get parts/repairs before you sail in Baku.
Rubbish. Kazakh cuisine is traditionally focused on mutton and horse meat, as well as various milk products. Shops sell basic fare only but you can get bread, biscuits and noodles so you will survive. I take multi vitamin tablets in such a part of the world.
Carry hydration tablets, wet-wipes, a wide brimmed hat and a good wind break for cooking.
The road isn't always smoother on the other side. I would forever be switching sides of the road as the other side always looked smoother than the rubbish i was riding on. I would then get to the other side to discover it was exactly the same.
Here's a list of where you could find water along the route
52km Chaikhana. Water and basic groceries.
100km Chaikhana. Water and basic groceries.
126km Shop and Chaikhana.
168km Shetpe. Decent sized shops off the main road through town.
261km Chaikhana at the top of the hill.
301km Otec. Town a few kilometres off the road. I didn't venture in bi reckon it would have a shop.
Hotels in Aktau and Beyneu are about $10 and are generally awful. Food is certainly cheap.
Side of the road:
Whichever is smoothest or if the road is really bad then sack it off and make your own route up in the desert.