by Marcus Leach
When one thinks of the Silk Route great images of the old trading route are conjured up, caravans of camels loaded with exotic goods. Today it isn't quite like that, as Max and Emily found out as they continued on in their quest to cycle to China.
Kazakhstan to Khiva: The Rhubarb Road
"When you have exhausted all the possibilities, remember this – you haven’t." (Thomas A. Edison)
The two main Silk Route highways from Baku – south through Iran and east through Turkmenistan – were closed to us so a much less travelled branch to the north through Kazakhstan was our only hope of continuing overland toward China. In old silk route parlance, it was known as the rhubarb road because Peter the Great had used it to create a Russian monopoly on Chinese rhubarb exports which – somewhat fantastically – were regarded in 17th Century Europe as a medicinal superfood of unsurpassed potency. Now devoid of rhubarb or any other healthy foodstuffs, it has become a long and lonely desert road, but with a bit of luck we would be able to follow it all the way from the Caspian Sea to the medieval Silk Route city of Khiva in Uzbezkistan.
We arrived in the Kazakh port of Aktau at dawn on the Shahdag, a cargo ship carrying train carriages of crude oil from Azerbaijan. It had been an unexpectedly pleasant 24 hour crossing and my preconceptions about the unsavoury conditions and crews of cargo ships had been proved wrong. After impatiently waiting all morning, the train carriages finally clattered out of the hold to continue their eastward journey, with us following close behind. A nightmarish 1000km of desert now lay before us and we were itching to make progress, but by the time we cleared customs it didn’t seem worth leaving town.
Having been an avid fan of Borat, I was surprised to see that few locals looked anything like Sacha Baron Cohen. Instead, many had asiatic features that wouldn’t have looked out of place in China. In the most budget hotel we could find, a friendly young woman unashamedly showed me round a mosquito infested room with fist sized holes in the door, no running water, and someone else’s poo in the toilet. It was very cheap though, so we dumped our stuff and retreated to the relative sanctuary of the Guns and Roses English Traditional Pub for a last meal of cheeseburger and chips. For the next couple of weeks we would have to get by on whatever slim pickings could be found on the road in chaihanas (tea houses) and in the threadbare convenience stores of a few isolated towns, supplemented by the following selection of goodies from the supermarket in Baku:
500g flour (for chapatis)
4 x instant noodle packets
2 x tins of tuna
1 x can of sweet corn
1 x jar of tomato sauce
4 x onions
1 x bulb of garlic
1 x tinned pineapple chunks (I said it was too heavy, Emily insisted!)
6 x supersize Snickers
2 x large bags of peanut M&Ms
2 x large bags of nuts and raisins
1 x tube of salt and vinegar Pringles
1 x bag of dried apricots
2 x apples, oranges, and bananas
1x loaf of bread
1 x carton of cheese
1 x jar of extortionately priced but worth every penny Bonne Maman Raspberry Jam, imported from France
….plus our faithful tupperware box of essential kitchen supplies (salt, pepper, olive oil, turmeric, cumin, chilli powder, ground coriander).
As well as this, we decided to top up our water supplies to about 10 litres each whenever possible. That we reasoned, should see us through to civilisation on the other side of the desert. As we pushed inland, the temperature crept up into the mid thirties (in the shade) and the traffic died away to a thin but steady trickle of goods lorries and construction vehicles.
At 7pm having covered a respectable 100km, we came across a chaihana and ordered a supper of plov, the quintessential Kazakh dish of rice – glistening with animal fat – topped off with a few chunks of braised beef. The depressing noise of microwaving could be heard emanating from the kitchen and I thought about how awful it would be at this point to get poisoned by old reheated rice and meat. Against our better judgement, we wolfed it down anyway and headed out to the desert to find a secluded spot to camp… By early afternoon the following day I started to feel weak and shortly afterwards, was making regular dashes from the road, toilet paper in hand. Emily was also afflicted although not as badly as me, and to add insult to injury I managed in the space of a few hours to break my kickstand and lose my helmet. Without the energy to lose my temper, I consoled myself with the thought that I was at least about 1.1kg lighter now.
It was a bad start and to make matters worse, a persistent headwind was keeping our speed down, and the road had disintegrated into an appalling surface of uneven compacted dirt, studded with large jagged stones and interspersed with lethal dust filled potholes. In an incredible feat of pointlessness, the Kazakhs had managed to create a road that was more difficult and treacherous to drive on than the natural surface of the surrounding land! Consequently, the desert was criss-crossed with dusty tracks, forged by cars and trucks searching for a smoother path. This is where most people – including us – preferred to drive and once we’d abandoned the road our progress began to speed up.
For the most part we were now alone, and the sight of two forlorn cycle tourists must have inspired a fair amount of sympathy, because what little traffic there was often stopped to donate water, ice cold red bull (particularly welcome), and bits of fruit. We were occasionally delighted to see wild camels and horses near the road, but disappointed on closer inspection to see that they were almost all branded. God knows who owned them and how they are controlled though – we never saw a single fence or shepherd. The utter desolation of the landscape, day after day, was at the same time boring and magnificent. The modern world can seem like a small place, but at times like this, one is reminded that physically it is still as large as it ever was. To see such expansive tracts still unsullied by human presence was immensely reassuring and despite the hardships and long days, this was turning into one of the high points of the journey.
On our map, the border between Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan is a perfectly straight line, indicating that it was drawn up arbitrarily by politicians, rather than according to some topographical or cultural logic. As such, very little changed when we crossed the border. Two things that did change were the road which thankfully reverted back to tarmac, and the currency which became very strange indeed. Uzbekistan is not a cheap county by Asian standards, yet the highest value note is worth about 30 pence! As a result everyone carries around ludicrous mafia-like wedges of cash. Exchanging a hundred dollars I was given a thick wad of 267 bank notes held together with elastic bands. The locals have become highly adept at leafing through their stacks, but whenever we had to pay for something, we invariably ended up with money everywhere, clumsily counting out piles of cash and feeling rather self conscious for flaunting our wealth so indiscreetly.
On the Uzbek side, the desert became even more featureless and inhospitable, although there were gerbils living here which I had no idea were so hardy. The view was completely flat as far as the eye could see in every direction, reminiscent of an ocean floor without the water. And indeed, marine fossils in some of the rocks suggest that it was an ocean floor at some point in the past. On one stretch of road there was nothing whatsoever for over 140km, not even a single tree. The climate combined with the increased isolation now presented a number of logistical problems. Because the morning and evening were less hot and less windy, we set off before sunrise and would only stop to strike camp as the sun was going down. The cool and peaceful nights came as a huge relief and although a bright moon robbed us of the desert stars, it did provide plenty of light for cooking, eating, and the all important flannel wash. For three hours in the middle of the day, we would attempt to get out of the sun to dose, read, and guzzle water, but because there was no shade we had to construct precarious shelters by stringing up Emily’s pashmina and sarong. These were uncomfortably exposed and made unruly by the wind, so these hours weren’t as restful as they should have been.
Our only true respite from the battle against dust, wind, and sun were the chaihanas, sat by the road in splendid isolation roughly every 50km. However, these bore little resemblance to the enticing English vision of a tea shop, and were as much a test of endurance as anything else in the desert. Grimly functional and sparsely furnished, the average desert chaihana was actually a poorly stocked cross between a restaurant and a convenience store, frequented only out of necessity by long distance truckers, and flies. Most also turn out to be stuffy, smelly, and dirty. In one particularly depraved chaihana, we arrived at 8am searching for yait-sa (eggs), but the only food they had were some left over cow organs that under normal circumstances would surely have been given to the dogs. With no other choice though, and in need of fuel for the long day ahead, we sat on floor cushions next to three truckers and stoically gobbled down two portions of the fried chopped up organs, washing them down with chinese-style ceramic bowls full of sweet black tea.
The truckies, unperturbed by the disgusting breakfast were merrily making their way through a bottle of vodka in preparation for their equally long and bleak day on the road. It wasn’t the first time I’d seen people getting wasted at breakfast time and later that day another trucker cheerfully offered me some dubious looking black powdery sludge from a see through plastic bag (chewing tobacco?). When I asked what it was he rolled his eyes back and swayed around like a zombie… ‘No thanks, it’s quite hot today, I’d better give it a miss‘. Evidently drink/drug driving is not frowned upon here as it is elsewhere. In this extraordinarily poor and environmentally harsh corner of Central Asia there is very little in the way of treats or comforts to motivate oneself or to look forward to at the end of the day, so perhaps it’s understandable.
When we eventually rode out from the desert, the end was abrupt. One minute there was nothing but sandy monotony, the next minute, we had dropped thirty metres over a small rise and found ourselves on a lush, heavily irrigated, agricultural floodplain. The air was suddenly thick with an overpowering smell of plants and soil and moisture. There was also something more exotic than usual about our new surroundings. Having pondered at various points from Eastern Europe to Azerbaijan whether we had crossed the invisible dividing line between east and west, it was now abundantly clear for the first time since leaving home.
We had arrived in Asia. Cotton fields and rice paddies stretched back from the road. Goats, donkeys, and cows nibbled at the verge. Pleasantly asymmetrical mud built houses sat in clearings of bare earth in amongst the vegetation. My smattering of Turkish no longer seemed to work as well as it did in Azerbaijan, and with no Russian whatsoever, we were completely incomprehensible to the locals, and vice versa. But it didn’t matter. We had passed the most prolonged physical challenge of the trip so far, and it felt good. Sterner opposition awaited a few weeks down the line in the form of the Pamir Mountains, but having successfully reconnected to the main strand of the Silk Route, it was time for a well earned break.
Days on the road: 144 (101 cycling, 43 rest days)
Average Distance per [cycling] day: 86km
Average Distance per day over total days: 60.5km
% of total distance done: 48%
Longest number of days in a row without a shower: 6
Longest number of cycling days in a row without a rest: 13
Longest number of days in a row in the same T-shirt: 13