– The adventures of a solo round the world cyclist –

Day 886 (Caspian Sea / Azerbaijan Day 1)

I woke up in limbo, floating on the Caspian Sea with no land in sight. We found our own ways to pass the time. I switched between resting on the top deck and watching a couple of movies in the cabin. We dropped anchor outside Alat in the early afternoon and waited for our turn to enter the port. Entering Azerbaijan proved a relatively slow, but easy process. Customs was closed so it was just a matter of waiting for our turn to be stamped in. After saying goodbye to my mates from the last few days, I rode out of the port with Peter, an Austrian cycle tourer. By this time it was just getting dark. Hoping to find a place to sleep in town, we rode into Alat, but soon discovered that the town lacks any form of accommodation. Several people told us there is a hotel at the port, so, annoyingly, we headed back to where our journey had begun. On returning to the port we were told that there was no hotel. We think there is a place to stay there, but either it’s only reserved for local truck drivers and port workers, and/or it was too late in the night to arrange for us to stay there. Our pleas to be able to set up our tent in a dark spot nearby were refused. In the end we decided to see if we could set up a tent out the back of one of the nearby petrol stations. Once again we rode out of the port into the night. Absolutely not, was the message we received. Left with only one choice, we rode a short distance along the main road before disappearing into a patch of shrubs. In ten minutes we had set up out tents and crashed into bed.

Waterworld

Accommodation Free-camp
Distance ridden today 9.48km
Average cycling speed 16.7kph
Total distance ridden 23,056km
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Day 885 (Kazakhstan / Caspian Sea Day 13)

No prizes for guessing how I felt on getting up. And how I feel now. I spent much of the morning in a daze as the last of my wretched drunkenness wore off and a punishing hangover set in. Fortunately, I didn’t have to move much, as we faced a four-hour wait at the ferry port before anything happened. I spent this time dozing on my sleeping met while Tien and Axelle lay prostrate on the adjacent bench. Damien, bless him, did all the work with getting vehicle on board. Finally, we were allowed to drag ourselves through immigration and customs and board our vessel. After a short wait we were given our cabin and were delighted to discover it had a window. We chilled out for a while before being delighted even further when the call for lunch came. Surprised to find a small cafeteria on board, we enjoyed grabbing the humungous silver plates on which we were served two types of soups, a watery meat and potato one, and a lentil-based one. We returned to our cabin and continued resting our suffering bodies.

The boat didn’t get moving until around 2.30pm. We have spent the afternoon moving between our cabin (where we can all be horizontal) and outside (where it is pleasantly cool, unlike the extremely warm cabin). We enjoyed a beautiful sunset from the top deck and just before the last of the pink orb had disappeared the call for dinner came. It looked like the two lunchtime soups had been combined into one, which was served with a plate of noodles. Not fancy but good enough for hungry stomachs. We are all now in bed. It’s still super warm in the cabin but it has cooled down just enough that you can lie still without sweating.

Goodbye Kazakhstan

Accommodation $ Caspian Sea Ferry
Distance ridden today 0km
Total distance ridden 23,047km
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Day 884 (Kazakhstan Day 12)

I’d heard it can take a bit of running around to organise tickets for a ferry out of Aktau and this was certainly the case for us today. After two trips to the ticket office in town and three trips to the ferry port, we finally had all the paperwork we required to catch tomorrow’s boat, which is called the Professor Gul. In the late afternoon we (me, Tien, Damien and Axelle) finally managed to find time to spend at ‘the beach’. We went to a popular spot relatively close to town and it turned out to be much nicer than where we went swimming yesterday. The water was deeper and the bottom was clean sand. After a long swim, I returned to shore where I had the most amazing power nap. On waking I felt like I’d been asleep for hours and hours, fully energised and extremely relaxed. As I spied on the locals enjoying their time in the sun and water I really felt like I was on a relaxing holiday, giving me a wonderfully welcome change from pushing hard on the bike, which has filled my life recently. As the sun put on an impressive show as it sunk towards the sea, we treated ourselves to a beachside shaslik.

We didn’t get home from our last trip to the ferry port until around 10.30pm. After stocking up on food supplies at the nearby supermarket, we chilled out the front of the hostel. One of the vodka bottles we bought for the ferry journey was opened, soon followed by a big bottle of beer. Initially, we were all keen for a couple of quick drinks before getting some rest before waking up at 5.30am to be ready for the ferry. This quickly changed when a friendly Russian man joined us, bringing along a 5L plastic container full of vodka. It wasn’t long before we were well and truly on our way to another big night. I proceeded to drink far too much of the vodka-of-unknown-origin than my body could handle and spent the last while with my head in my hands before having a quick spew and somehow getting myself into bed. I was present enough to check the time (3.30am) and realise I only had two hours of sleep ahead of me.

Drinking buddies

Accommodation $ Hostel
Distance ridden today 0km
Total distance ridden 23,047km
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Day 883 (Kazakhstan Day 11)

Having drunk nearly 1.5L of water before bed, I woke up feeling tired, but not hungover. What a relief. I got moving around 11am, getting up around the same time as Axelle and Damien. We all had food on our mind, so we went out to their van and cooked a feast of scrambled eggs, tomatoes, beans, bread and melon. Returning to my room, I made it as far as the bed and crashed asleep again. Around 3pm I got up and washed some clothes by hand, then prepared some food for the three of us (bread, melon, apple and chocolate). By this time it had cooled down a bit outside, so we went out for a drive to find a nice swimming beach. The one we found was nice, but not amazing. The water stayed shallow for as far as I bothered exploring out from shore and the bottom was rocky and muddy. Still, it will remain a very memorable time for the fact that it was my first swim in the Caspian Sea.

Swim time

Accommodation $ Hostel
Distance ridden today 0km
Total distance ridden 23,047km
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Day 882 (Kazakhstan Day 10)

It’s 5.15am and I am just getting to bed. Why? Because I have just had a very enjoyable night hanging out with a French trio, drinking beer and discussing whether people choose to be in the position they are in life, or if their position is the result of things out of their control. Fate verse free choice basically. The three consisted of a couple who I met at the Aktau ferry ticket office, plus another guest at the hostel we chose to stay in. The destination for our in-depth discussion: the back of the couple’s van, which is decked out with a dining table and stove, where we cooked and ate a delicious pasta meal.

The day’s ride went well. Being close to Aktau, I found the motivation to push hard and make it in relatively good time. It was a desperate struggle in the end though, as a headwind did its best to slow me down. I rode straight to the shore of the Caspian Sea, where I found a natural-looking place to take a photo. I then searched for a place with WIFI, finding it in a fast food joint on the main strip, where I treated myself to an awesome burger, chips and coke. My internet search told me where to find the ticket office, and that was where I met Axelle and Damien. I relied on them for information, finding out that the next ferry might be tomorrow, the next day, or the day after. Anytime basically. The office will call Damien when there is a ferry ready. I loaded my bicycle into their van and joined them for a drive to the port, where they registered their vehicle. We then found our home in Keremet Hostel. We had just started consuming the first of many beers out the front of the hostel when we met Tien. So began our big night.

The Caspian Sea!

Accommodation $ Hostel
Distance ridden today 73.28km
Average cycling speed 14.9kph
Total distance ridden 23,047km
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Day 881 (Kazakhstan Day 9)

Following yesterday’s reminder that I need to pay attention to my health, I drank enough fluid that I needed to go to the toilet twice in the night. This, and keeping up my intake through the day, meant that I have put a stop to my dehydration worries before they get any worse. Fortunately, today marked a turning point in my journey and I am now returning to ‘civilisation’, so places at which I can stock up on water are becoming more frequent. I had a headwind for a fair proportion of the day, but nothing as strong as yesterday, and I was able to maintain an okay pace. After just 17km I reached Shetpe, the first town I have seen since Beynou. Thus, for only the second time in Kazakhstan I have been able to get a glimpse into ‘town life’. It was quite a change seeing fewer people dressed in traditional clothes and more wearing modern, stylish garb. I got a (pleasant) shock seeing a girl in a singlet and tiny shorts. Outside of these towns has been way more conservative, with everyone being covered up and women wearing scarves. I also get the impression that more people speak English in Kazakhstan than they do in Uzbekistan. I bought a few supplies (bread, tomatoes, salami and coke) at one shop before stopping at another to get more coke, an ice cream and a couple of baked goods.

Twenty kilometres on I stopped again at a roadside motel and café, where I bought some cold water. As I left town I panicked for a moment when an approaching car veered towards me sharply, but then a hand holding what I thought at first was an apple appeared out the window. The guy holding it didn’t speak English, but neither of us minded as I accepted his gift and rode on. The fruit wasn’t an apple. I had no idea what it was. I put it in my handlebar bag to investigate later. I rode until I reached the outskirts of Zhyngyldy, where I stopped at an unused melon stand to have lunch. I ate a couple of tomato and salami sandwiches, to which I added the fruit I was gifted, which turned out to be a cucumber, the likes of which I’ve never seen. It was the shape of a mango and just as delicious. My next place to aim for was a prominent junction, where roads lead away to different parts of the Caspian Sea. On the way there I got a fright when a car came up right beside me. I was about to get angry when the passenger passed out an ice-cold water.

The junction is a bit of refuelling station, for both vehicles and their occupants. I have felt quite a few times as if I was back riding in northwest Australia and I felt like it again when I came to this junction. It felt just like travelling along way in Australia before reaching an isolated roadhouse. Drivers filled up cars while passengers stocked up on junk food. As I arrived I was approached by a friendly guy who really wanted to buy me a cold water. He was Uzbek, which, given his open kindness, didn’t come as a huge surprise. I gratefully accepted his gift, and drank it slowly while waiting for him to leave. Then I entered the shop and bought even more water (waiting till he was gone because I felt like it would lessen the goodness of his kind gesture if I took his water then just entered the shop and bought my own anyway).

By this time it was 5.45pm, which gave me just enough time to ride a little further and find a home for the night. This part of Kazakhstan consists of rolling hills that take you onto and off little plateaus. I have built my nylon house behind a set of hills running alongside the main road. The ground is sloping but I found an area of fine sand that I could level out for my tent. For dinner I decided to use up my canned food, cooking pasta with red beans, peas, fish and tomato. As I was cooking I got to witness one of the most spectacular sunset shows I have seen in a while. The ‘fingers of god’ it produced might just be the best I have ever seen, reaching far into the still-blue sky.

Not bad

Accommodation Free-camp
Distance ridden today 97.97km
Average cycling speed 16.5kph
Total distance ridden 22,973km
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Day 880 (Kazakhstan Day 8)

I wasn’t feeling quite right when I got moving this morning and I began to feel sick as the day went on. ‘Had I eaten something bad?’ I wondered. Things made sudden sense when I went to the toilet. Orange is one of my two favourite colours, but that doesn’t mean I like my piss being an alarming shade of it. I was suffering from dehydration and needed to find shade and cool water quickly. These two things proved hard to find. My woes worsened when a chaihana I knew was coming was closed. It would be another 45km before I came across another. Of course today had to be one of the hottest days I have had in Central Asia. And of course I had to have a headwind. I began to hate life as I battled the elements and worried about my health, but there was only one thing I could do: struggle on. Finally, when my hot drinking water had all but run out, I rounded a curve in the road and saw a roof. Saved. The roof belonged to a chaihana and a chaihana meant both shade and water. I immediately bought an ice cream and cold water before collapsing in a chair and beginning my recovery. After about fifteen minutes my mind had settled and I became self-conscious about my appearance. My shirt is falling apart, faded and extremely salt-stained and I knew my face fit a similar description. I found a sink where I could wash my face and freshen up a little, but I couldn’t really do anything about my tattered shirt. Keen for more relaxing and medicine, I ordered borscht, beer and more water. When these were settled in the bottom of my stomach, I bought another soup and more water. I stayed at the chaihana through the remainder of the afternoon.

At 5.45pm I began to make a move to leave and find somewhere to sleep. With a plan to drink a phenomenal amount of water and electrolytes overnight, I bought ten litres of the liquid gold and re-entered the heat. These days the mornings remain pleasantly cool for the first couple of hours after sunrise, but the heat doesn’t begin to dissipate until the sun goes down, so even though it was approaching 6pm, it was still warm enough to make me sweat heavily. After about ten kilometres I spied my driveway, leading away to from the main road to a set of low hills. I rode the track for a while before veering off, pushing my bike the last 300m to get over a hill and out of sight from the road. As luck would have it, I found a perfectly flat, bare patch of ground amongst the prickly vegetation that otherwise covers the area. As I set up my tent, a curious herd of horses approached as close as they dared. Having eaten at the chaihana, I didn’t feel very hungry so haven’t bothered with dinner, just eating a few snacks instead. The hot day has transitioned into a warm night, much warmer than previous ones. It’s not yet dark but I’m ready for bed nonetheless, knowing that if I am to feel up to riding tomorrow, my body needs a good rest and time to absorb all the water I’m putting into it.

Relax and recover

Accommodation Free-camp
Distance ridden today 87.92km
Average cycling speed 16.2kph
Total distance ridden 22,875km
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Day 879 (Kazakhstan Day 7)

I have just had the most magical evening. I was getting quite hungry around 4.45pm and started looking for a place to stop and have a quick snack to get me through another 1.5 hours of riding. I found the perfect place to rest when the landscape changed dramatically. To the right of the road appeared a natural canyon. It was quite astonishing to come across when all I’ve seen for a couple of weeks now is completely flat plains. There was no warning at all that the earth would open up into this chasm, so it took me by surprise. I left the road for the canyon’s edge, where I prepared a little picnic. The canyon wound its way into the distance and I wondered if it finished as abruptly as it began. I saw more birds than I’ve seen in weeks, suggesting that the well-vegetated gorge is a hotspot for wildlife. It didn’t take me long to think that this would be a perfect place to camp for the night. I had already been thinking of making a camp slightly earlier than normal so it seemed like it was meant to be. When I’d finished eating, I went scouting, following the edge of the gorge along a well-worn horse trail. It wasn’t long before the track dropped just out of the sight of the road and led me to a perfectly flat area just big enough for my tent. It couldn’t be more perfect. I retrieved my bike. Being earlier than normal, I was able to take my time preparing camp and cooking dinner and while I did so, the magic happened. Five herds of Kazakhstan’s stunning horses wandered by through the evening, the latter two of these being silhouetted against a spectacular sunset. Each time a herd passed, a few horses would act as lookouts, at first approaching a little, but then seemingly urging the herd on, stopping every few seconds to turn in my direction and check what I was doing. I wasn’t doing anything except sitting quietly and admiring their majesty. All the horses were healthy and moved with stunning power and grace. I can see why Tim Cope was inspired to traverse this part of the world on horseback.

The former part of the day passed by easily. Before leaving last night’s camp, I adjusted a pedal strap and zip-tied my broken mirror the bike, my electrical tape solution not proving lasting. A gentle tailwind guided me on and the kilometres flew by. I stopped for lunch after riding 45km, but with nothing around, I was left to rest and eat on the side of the road. Later in the day I took refuge in a chaihana, where I bought a Sprite and had a nap on the ‘chill-out deck’. From here it wasn’t long before I started getting hungry and came across the geological wonder beside which I’m currently lying in my tent, the sun having just gone down and the moon beginning to shine brightly.

A nice home

Accommodation Free-camp
Distance ridden today 105.49km
Average cycling speed 22.8kph
Total distance ridden 22,787km
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Day 878 (Kazakhstan Day 6)

Today has gone well and I’m back to old happy self. It’s really nice to ride again without the pressure of having to get out of a country before my visa expires. This really hit home when I stopped for my first lunch at a rest stop. Just as I finished filling myself up with a range of goodies (tomato/cucumber sandwich, nectarine, apple, dried fruit and nuts, cookies and oatmeal cake), a man came over and invited me to join him at his van. My automatic reaction was to point first at my watch and then down the road, indicating that I needed to get going, just as I did countless times in Uzbekistan. As I did it today though, I realised I wasn’t in any kind of hurry today. When the man insisted I join him, I relaxed and did so. He was a stout guy in his sixties, travelling alone in a van that was setup for long distance travel. I learned that his name is Ruslan. Set between a series of well organised boxes was a gas stove heating up some water. He tried to have a conversation for a while, but quietened down when it was clear I had absolutely no idea what he was saying. The rest of our time was spent in comfortable silence. The hot water was used for two bowls of noodles and tea. He had a really cool thermos that consisted of two canisters in the one unit, one for tea and one for coffee. Each canister had a pump system attached so instead of pouring tea out, you simply dispensed it into a cup by pumping the lid of the one you want. I had to work hard to squeeze in the noodles, and a slice of bread I was given, on top of what I’d already eaten. Hanging out with Ruslan was worth the squeeze, however, as it really sank in that I once again have all the time I need to take it easy and say yes to all the experiences that travels brings. After we’d finished our snack and had packed up, Ruslan insisted that I put my bike on the roof of his van and let him drive me to Aktau. He repeated the word ‘security’ as he did so. It took a fair bit of pleading and gesturing before he got the message that I actually really want to be out here cycling.

While I’d enjoyed a cruisy ride up to this point, the afternoon became a bit of a slog as the wind turned into a westerly, giving me a cross-headwind. I didn’t mind much though, knowing that I was in no hurry. I have tonnes of food with me, so my only worry needs to be finding a place each day where I can stock up on water. I began looking for a place to camp around 5.45pm, but it quickly became clear I’d struggle to hide myself anywhere. The landscape is incredibly flat and treeless and it had been a long time since I’d seen tracks leading off the main road. Fortunately, the ground is hard and vegetation covering the ground non-threatening to tyres, so I was able to leave the road without needing a track. I pushed my bike about 800m away from the road. I can still see traffic moving past but it is unlikely that people using the road will be able to guess that the blob they see in the middle of the steppe is a vulnerable tourist with a bicycle.

Back to it

Accommodation Free-camp
Distance ridden today 109.58km
Average cycling speed 18.2kph
Total distance ridden 22,682km
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Day 877 (Kazakhstan Day 5)

I’ve had my relaxing day and I’m now ready to get back into it tomorrow and see where the road takes me. After a late breakfast, I spent the rest of the morning preparing an email for Santos, explaining my bike issues and asking for advice. I then ventured into town to do some food shopping, finding an indoor market area with almost everything I needed: fresh fruit and vegetables as well as dried fruit and nuts. I returned to a little shop I visited yesterday to buy a couple of somsas for lunch, asking where I could find a pharmacy. I bought some Giardia medication and enquired about alcohol for my cooking stove, discovering that they offered 90% proof alcohol, whereas I have been using 96% proof. I bought one bottle to test at home. It worked fine, so I hit the hot streets again to return to the pharmacy and tick ‘shopping’ off my to-do list. I then set about washing the green goods I’d bought and packing as much gear as possible. I soon began to fade and decided it was time for an afternoon nap, but this just turned into a mindless YouTube-watching session. I had a simple dinner and have just been working on cleaning up some diary entries. It’s now approaching 10pm and I’m about to get ready for bed. I hope with all my heart that my bike will get through tomorrow.

Ready to re-enter this?

Accommodation $ Hotel
Distance ridden today 0km
Total distance ridden 22,572km
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