The Kazakh Steppe
The route between the far western city of Nukus, Uzbekistan and the Caspian Sea is a pretty straightforward one from a navigational point of view; One long straight road north through Uzbekistan, and then another west through Kazakhstan. Simple stuff….if you’re a hover craft gliding several metres up from the road surface that is; Sure, I have cycled along a number of rack rattling, backside bouncing, unsealed roads before. Regularly in South East Asia I would escape the busy main roads instead choosing to explore interesting back lanes, but this was always a choice, an adventurous alternative with the option to return to the tarmac as and when I please. However, the road leading across western Kazakhstan, through the lifeless lands of the semi-desert Kazakh Steppe was quite different. This was essentially a main road, a common transit route, an artery connecting Kazakhstan and Russia. And yet the road (for want of a better word) was in such dire condition. Its hard to believe that the oil rich nation of Kazakhstan could fail to address the urgent need to implement efficient infrastructure in such a place, but alas, to my displeasure they haven’t. And if I were an influential member on Kazakhstan's board of transportation, I would suggest you keep yourselves a healthy distance away from me, forever.
On one particular day, I spent over 9 hours in the saddle clocking off the painfully slow miles along a rutted dirt track. Quite possibly one of the most challenging days of my entire trip. And the only relief one has from this irrigated sand track are the occasional Chaihanas (tea houses) which crop up once or twice a day. In the midst of a desert these beacons of sanity make the dusty days very almost bearable. They also provide the perfect venue for exhausted truckies to drown their rattling sorrows over several bottles of liquor. You couldn't blame them, I was almost reaching for the bottle myself, but quite frankly, I draw the line at ‘drink cycling’- didn't want to risk any points on the ol’ cycling proficiency certificate now did I….
Theres no denying that the Chaihanas along the way made the miles all the more easier though, giving you a reason to keep turning the pedals, knowing there was something up the road to aim for, there was something out there offering a moments break from the arduous hours of solitude in such a desolate, bleak environment (this place made outback Australia seem like a blimmin’ theme park); these small, seemingly insignificant buildings in far flung places (locations that would most likely have Phil and Kirsty reaching for the bucket) offering that much needed dose of caffeine to keep you going through the day. The days became mad desert dashes from one cuppa’ to the next- A bit like a pub crawl I guess- a really bad tea bag based pub crawl in an even worse location. And similarly to how one wakes up the following morning after that alcohol fuelled day feeling jaded, worse for wear, telling yourself “thats it, I'm not doing that again, I'm never putting my body through such hell again”, you do anyway, because a part of you relishes that buzz, the challenge, the excitement that came with the days events.
The Caspian Sea
But after several long days, I did finally make it to the Caspian Sea and into the the coastal city of Aktau marking the end of my central asian experience.
I spent a week here organising my visa for Azerbaijan. Much of this time was spent gazing out at this landlocked sea ahead of me, jotting down some time/distance calculations in order to swim across. In the end I realised this probably wasn't a feasible option- I’d left my swimmers in Thailand.
Having initially anticipated taking a boat across to Azerbaijan, with a Kazakh visa deadline fast approaching combined with the uncertainty of not knowing when the next boat would cross, I was forced to instead fly to the port city of Baku, Azerbaijan and perhaps more relevantly, the current host of the 2015 European Games.
Over the past week I have cycled my way across the nugget sized nation of Azerbaijan and into the Georgian capital of Tbilisi. This area of the world seems relatively unknown; a small collection of countries trapped between the Caspian and Black Sea- nations perhaps torn between Europe and Asia? But, without doubt I felt this overwhelming sense of Europe both in culture and landscape. My days pedalling across the illustrious landscapes of Azerbaijan, hugging the Caucasus mountains along my route have been utterly brilliant. Azerbaijan became this gateway to greenery again! Rolling hills, streams, sun bathed meadows, stray cattle, dewy mornings, cosy stone walled villages, hedges (#HeartHedges)! I have spent my days cycling simply binging (in the visual sense) on foliage, sapping up everything I have missed over the past month. Likewise, I really felt this renewed vigour for pedalling once again, a reason beyond just ‘making it’ to a pin point on a map, but the joy of just being on my bike had returned. I was back on familiar soil again, home turf nearing; temperate scenery, temperate weather, countryside similar to that of England on a summers day, if it were sunny, imagine. Like i said, imagine.
It wasn't long before I had crossed into the 13th country along my journey, Georgia, and yet again I was blessed with beautiful countryside; vineyards, idyllic camp spots at every turn, hilltop castles….it really has been an absolute pleasure to pedal trough this region of the world.
Im now in the capital city of Tbilisi which lies in the foothills of the Trialeti mountain range. Im currently preparing for the next leg of my journey towards Turkey, well, not so much preparing in the organisational sense but more mental preparation; Tomorrow my sister will be joining me for a weeks cycling. *Takes a deep breath*…..Laughter, smiles and joy every pedal stroke of the way……I should imagine.