Doubt, desert & dust // Part I

One of the reason I have so many stories to tell is because I hate planning. I love the actual riding but I don’t care for everything that takes place before. Even when on a long trip, I usually plot my route in the morning. And if I have a general idea of where I’m going, I don’t mind changing my plans last minute or even mid-ride. Not only I don’t like researching the places I go, I actually enjoy discovering them with a fresh eye. Most of the time, everything works out fine. But sometimes things prove to be more difficult than I expected. Like that one time in Uzbekistan…

The story I’m about to tell takes place in 2017 as I was riding from my home to China on the famed Silk Road. After a mammoth stage the day before, I wake up late in a cheap run down hotel in a small Kazakh town called Beyneu. I live for travel and adventure, but I have to admit, some of the places I see… well let’s just say I’m really happy I don’t live there. 

After wasting too much time not doing anything in my room, I finally check out and go grab some food. It’s hard to get motivated some days and when I get going it’s way past noon. I have a small plastic bag with a few cookies and caramel nuts nougat bars in there. Enough snacks to carry me out of Kazakhstan into Uzbekistan, some 80km away. Looking at Google maps, I see I have two options to spend the night: Karapalpakya, not far from the border, or Jasliq, some 100km after the crossing. I’m almost out of Kazakh currency, which is exactly what I had planned. I have enough to buy a couple bottles of soda whenever I find a shop, which is important as the temperatures are pretty high in september in the deserts of Central Asia. 

The day before, the ride to Beyneu from Aktau, the main Kazakh port on the Caspian sea, had been fairly straightforward, if kind of boring. A long, wide, freshly paved, flat road across the desert with very few and very little towns. I expect it will be the same all the way to the border. 

It takes me ten minutes to realize I’m wrong. I’m barely out of Beyneu when the nice asphalt turns to an old broken road covered in desert sand. My 35mm wide tires are clearly out of their comfort zone. Now if you’ve never ridden a road that used to be paved and then disappeared, you must understand it’s one of the worst surfaces to ride. On this particular stretch, the superficial asphalt layer is completely gone, and what remains is just a base layer made of some sort of concrete with numerous, long and wide cracks. Cracks that you can’t see due to the sand. For the whole afternoon, it’s just me and a few lorry drivers battling on this unforgiving road. I try to ride as close as possible to the sandy shoulder. The pavement seems to be in better shape but it sometimes completely disappears and I end up riding on nothing but fine sand which, almost every time, means losing my grip and crashing, literally biting the dust. It doesn’t hurt as it’s just soft sand. But the dust ends up accumulating in my shifter which, at some point, stops working. I’m expanding a lot of energy and making very little progress. It’s hot and I’m out of water.

Luckily, soon enough I spot a small town with a shop. I grab a couple of bottles of soda, but when I look for my money, I notice I lost a bill somewhere and I can only afford a single bottle of lemonade. No problem. I’ll find water at the border or in Karalapakya.  

About five hours after leaving Beyneu, I reach the border checkpoint. It’s not the busiest in the world and I had prearranged my visa in Paris, so after fifteen minutes, I’m allowed into Uzbekistan. As soon as I’m in, money changers rush towards me. I checked the rate this morning and they’re clearly trying to scam me. Their offers are so ridiculous, I don’t even try to negotiate. I just leave, telling myself I’ll change money in Karakalpakya or withdraw some cash if there’s an ATM. As I pedal away, I hear a money changer yelling but I don’t pay attention. Maybe I should have.

Now I have spent pretty much all afternoon hoping the road would get better after the border. Five hours at 17km/h is not something I enjoy and I badly need a change. Things look good at first. The road is not covered in sand, which is good. But the improvement is marginal. The layer of asphalt survives here and there, but there’s still too many potholes and cracks to ride at a decent speed. It takes me about an hour to cover the 20km to Karakalpakya. It’s dark when I get there. A bit too dark actually. Where are the lights of the city? I take a gravel path off the main road. I soon find out that the dot I saw on google maps is not a city, nor a town. It’s a tiny village with barely any street lights, and said streets aren’t paved. No shops, no hotel and of course no ATM. This presents me with several problems. The most pressing one being that my water bottles are empty. Riding around the village, I notice a small faucet from which a little water comes out. Is it drinkable? Probably not. I still fill up one of my bottles in case of emergency. Sometimes dubious water is better than no water at all. 

I ride out of Karapalkya and back to the main road. I still have a few cookies for dinner, so it’s not all bad. Then it’s a matter of getting as close as possible to Jasliq, where hopefully I will be able to change money tomorrow. But after battling with this broken road for 6 hours, I’m mentally exhausted. And the surface doesn’t improve, far from it. An hour after leaving the village, I’ve only covered 17km. I can’t take anymore. I need a break. An hour, maybe two. I sit down on the shoulder. I’m hungry; I’m thirsty; I’m tired. I eat my nougats then I wander a bit further away from the road to lie down. Not too long. But I soon get cold so I decide I’m gonna be more comfy in my sleeping bag. And that’s my doom. I fall asleep and every hour I opt out of getting up and choose to spend another hour in the warmth of my bag.

I know it’s a bad idea. Because riding during the day, when temps are high, I will need a lot of water to get to Jasliq. The right thing to do is to ride now, to cover as much distance as possible when it’s nice and cool. But I fail to gather the mental strength necessary to get back on this hellish road. And worse than that; in a semi-sleep state, I drink all the dubious emergency water I had gotten in Karakalpakya.

When the sun gets up, I know it’s more than time to go. Yet I still can’t get up. The way I see it, it’s too late already. No matter what, I’m fucked. Leaving now or in three hours won’t change much. So I might as well keep sleeping. I close my eyes and, for a few hours, my problems go away.

to be continued

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