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The Great Central Asia Bicycle Trip: Part Two, Across the Steppe

Chris Walker and Morgan Hartley spent three months cycling through central Asia as part of an 18-month bike trip. Here is part two of five, across the Karakum Desert.

See part one, part three, part four, and part five.

The Kazakh Steppe is among the world’s most remote and isolated regions. For centuries, its vast and desolate expanses offered protection of Central Asia’s khanates against the invading armies of Europe and the Far East, braved only by the few camel caravans and Turcoman slave traders who dared its ruggedness. Not until the Russians colonized the Steppe with railroads late in the 19th century was there considered safe passage through its lawless domains.

We were doing it by bicycle. After crossing the Caspian Sea in a cargo boat, the steppe was our first cycling challenge along our overland route to Kashgar. It involved passing through a particularly menacing stretch in Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan known as the Karakum Desert, where we could expect intense heat, high winds, abominable roads, and only two or three towns over a distance of 1,000 kilometers. The crossing takes at least 10 days. Upon arriving in the port city of Aktau, many bicycle tourists decide to skip it, taking a train into Central Uzbekistan instead. We were determined to ride there, driven by a macho desire to conquer the blank areas on our road map.

It wasn’t without some trepidation, however. Before embarking, we had managed to connect with a few bicycle tourists who had made the trek themselves. Their words of advice were daunting.

“Carry nine days of food with you at all times,” cautioned Mel, over a weak Skype connection.

When she and her Canadian buddy Kate made the crossing in 2010, the winds and the heat had turned violently against them. Their crossing took twice as long as they expected.


Chris pushes his bike along a road buried in sand in the middle of the Kazakh Steppe.

The other cyclist we talked to was a friend of our couchsurfing host in Aktau. He didn’t speak English, but when we translated his Russian from a chat box in Facebook, we were able to make out three words. “Water.” And “mortal danger.

We looked at each other and laughed uneasily. We certainly would get the adventure we had come for. Early the next morning, we hugged our worried host and set out for the steppe.

The desert started the moment we left Aktau’s soviet housing projects and carefully planned micro districts. There were vestiges of civilization for the first 160 kilometers: water pipes, a well paved road, even a town with a building they call a hospital.  But it all dead-ended at Shepte.

After the outpost of Shepte, the steppe engulfed us. Crossing the steppe is like navigating an ocean. It is vast and disorienting.  For hundreds of kilometers, there is nothing but flat horizons and ankle high shrubbery racing off in every direction.  You can look down the road where you’re going, and up the road from where you came, and the views are often mirror images. You can climb a poll that puts five times more distance between you and the horizon, but again the view would not change. Even if you saw a landmark you would not know how far it was.

The steppe made each day seem the same. There were the same trucks slamming through dust and potholes, the same shrubs, the same evening campsites that looked like the morning campsites. In a featureless landscape, we pitched our tent wherever we happened to finish our rides. We talked little, and saw no one besides the few cars that passed us. Focused fatigue and dullness was broken only by the occasional crop of camels, which would make the imagination explode with romanticism, taking us into dreams of ancient Silk Road caravans until interrupted by impact with the next pothole. Muscle soreness from carrying 60 pounds of gear and kilometers marked on our odometers were the only proof of progress.

The battle started every morning when first light roused us.  One of us would cook a pack of spaghetti, the other would roll and stash the tarp, on which we slept under open skies. The jobs alternated every day. The spaghetti was devoured and sunscreen slathered mostly in silence. After 17 months on the road, we hardly needed to wake up to execute this routine. We did four hours of saddle time before lunch, measured by our trip computer. Then it was a search for shade. When there was none, we’d stretch a tent fly over our bikes and huddle underneath until the hottest part of the day was over. After lunch, it was three more hours. Then it was spaghetti again and our kindles and 7 hours of sleep of the dead. We followed these times with an almost military discipline. The rules settled squabbles about who was hungry when and who got tired early.

When there was no shade to be had, we built our own to wait out the hottest hours of the day.

When there was no shade to be had, we built our own to wait out the hottest hours of the day.

Water came from the trucks. We stopped trucks when either one of us went under two liters. The truckers knew the desert, and carried 20-liter jugs of the good wet stuff with spigots that they wouldn’t turn off until every bottle we had was full. They never asked for payment, and we were surprised by their kindness. We must have looked pathetic to them, covered in dust and frantically waiving empty plastic bottles. For us, begging for water let us glimpse the desperation the desert feeds lost travelers.  There was the buried terror that maybe a truck would not stop, and that we would be left baking and parched in the desert like thousands that had tried to cross before us. Not a single truck passed us by in Kazakhstan, but the fear never really left.

By day four traveling across the Karakum Desert, the roads and exhaustion started to get the better of us. Morgan broke off the eyelet that attached his back rack to his bicycle, and our jerry rig was a poor solution. It made the over weighted rack ride at an angle, and we figured it would probably not last through Uzbekistan.  Morgan also got sick, had chills and a light fever.

It made the outlook a little bleak as we rolled into Beyneu, a city halfway through our journey, and our chance to resupply with six more days of food. We expected the second half would be as arduous as the first.

It wasn’t. A machine shop in Beyneu was able to fix Morgan’s rack. Then, when we crossed the border into Uzbekistan, we almost couldn’t believe our eyes. Smooth pavement! The highway couldn’t have been more than a year old, and we set off upon it with glee, counting down each kilometer as one we wouldn’t have to cycle on rutted dirt roads.

The bad roads would never come. For the next two days, the pavement continued. Coupled with a strong wind at our backs, we made record distances, even logging a hundred miles in a day. It was quite a turn of events, and we should have been elated. Yet we were taken with an irrational sense of disappointment. We had psyched ourselves for this adventure for weeks, wanting to bag a trophy and take ourselves to the edge. Now it almost felt too easy, like the pavement and tailwinds had cheated us.

The feeling would be short-lived. As day 7 wore into days 8 and 9, our tired bodies and strained muscles ached for rest. Moreover, the cycling gods had responded to our mockery by turning the tailwind against us. By the time we struggled over the last bridge into Nukus, the first town in Uzbekistan with a hotel, we were only filled with relief.

Like many otherwise unremarkable towns throughout our journey, Nukus was more than a place to lay our heads. There is nothing special to do or see in town, but we had repeated the name in our heads so many times throughout the long hours on the bike, and actually getting there meant we had conquered the desert. Nukus meant that the water of a shower could run black with a week’s worth of grime and sweat and whatever critters had nested in our hair. It meant a dinner that wasn’t spaghetti, and that more than a few beer mugs could be tilted vertically in celebration. Another phase of our Central Asian crossing was over.

There will be more challenges to come. That night, as we collapsed into our first cushioned beds since Aktau, we were already looking forward to what was ahead. There would be new names to repeat in our heads, like Bukhara, Samarkand, Khorog, Kashgar. The historic Silk Road cities and the Pamir Mountains awaited us.

NEXT: making coffee for the locals in Uzbekistan.

PREVIOUS: Baku’s elusive ferry.

Read more about Chris and Morgan at Postulate One.