Man vs Road

Man vs Road

 

Route from Kazakh border to Aktau

 

The first section of appalling road surface, that stretched 85km from the Kazakh border to the first proper town of Beyneu, somehow slips into obscurity in my memory. 

 

It is just a blur of pale white stone, flanked to each horizon by slightly rolling desert wilderness, passing the occasional camel, and a miserable looking village about halfway along the distance.  Slowly making our way over bumps and ruts, slewing through patches of gravel, enveloped by swirling clouds of dust whenever a big truck went by, I just watched the distance meter crawl its way through each kilometre. 

 

The glorious scenery of Kazakhstan

The land of no scenery

 

At one point we passed a section of road that did have storm drains passing, at intervals, underneath.  We took advantage of this to stop and have our meagre lunch wedged in one of them, but it was hardly comfortable.  You could do the same trick in western China where the storm channels were big enough for a man to stand comfortably upright.  This one wouldn’t have stood a toddler, and we crammed ourselves in as best we could. 

 

But there was no question of hanging around.  The distance wasn’t great so we pressed on into utterly forgettable territory till the theoretical distance closed to about 20km.  At this point, we rounded a corner that followed a sandbank on our right and suddenly the shadowy lines and patches of a town came on the horizon.  We all breathed a sigh of relief.

 

A couple more kilometres and suddenly the road turned back into asphalt.  There was no need for any spoken words between us to express how we felt about this, the speed told all.  Within a few hundred metres we were charging along at nearly 30kph with the wind at our back, energised and excited to be drawing into this (for us) important waypoint through the desert. 

 

We arrived on the edge of the town of Beyneu very quickly only to be slowed up again as the road surface broke up and we had to pick our way a bit more carefully.  There didn’t seem to be much to this town beyond being a hub of infrastructure – a junction of roads and rails where the rail-yards seemed to spill over into the residential parts of the town. 

 

We didn’t really know where we were going but a sour-faced shopkeeper condescended to tell us there was a hotel next to the train station.  We carried on along the road passing closed up shops, and sparse looking gas stations.  At one point, we pulled up by a café to ask some men standing outside whether we were on the right track.  I was standing right on the edge of the empty road – with two full lanes of tarmac available to anyone who wanted to pass by.  But this apparently wasn’t enough for the driver of a shiny new 4x4, who blared his horn obnoxiously and changed course to head straight at me with an angry look on his face.  His whole demeanour was so offensive to me, I couldn’t help assuming a stance and even advancing towards his bumper with my bike.  For a ridiculous moment, I thought he actually was going to ram me out of spite, and I would have been almost happy had he done so.  In the end, we steered round each other with pointless snarls at each other.  I really couldn’t fathom his response as the 30 feet of road had been completely empty the whole time this unnecessary confrontation was going on. 

 

This was the first of several occurrences in this town that would have us all agreeing with the Uzbek chaikhana owner who had said that “roughly 100%” of the people who lived in Beyneu were thieves.  I don’t know about “thieves”, but certainly “unpleasant roadhogs” I would go along with. 

 

However, Beyneu had one redeeming feature – a supermarket.  We reached this before we reached the hotel, and Kellen was amused that despite all the variety of drinks on offer, I still went for a litre of Fanta.  Fuel for my new addiction. 

 

Somewhat refreshed, we soon found the hotel by the station, where I was completely stone-walled by the landlady when I tried to beat her down on the price of a room.  It seemed extortionate to me, but I suppose it was just a reminder that Kazakhstan is, in general, more expensive that Uzbekistan.  However, her victory in this one-sided battle of wills was not enough to raise a smile from this old bag or her daughter during the entirety of our 12 hour stay under her roof. 

 

Still, clean at least, we strolled out in the evening and did manage to find a good and substantial meal in a nearby cafe.  I would say the “roughly” exception, in the “roughly 100%” rule, was proved by the waitress, who was entirely charming and cheerful with us.  But the slight softening of my impression of these people was immediately lost within a couple of minutes of leaving the café.  As we walked along the side of the road chatting away, there was suddenly an ear-splitting screech of rubber on the road as yet another oversized 4x4 came within inches of running me straight down from behind.  What was wrong with these people?

 

Anyway, Beyneu is probably best left behind. 

 

From a couple of soundings from local people in the know – like policemen who really should know what they are talking about – we had gathered that we were in for a rough ride to Aktau.  In the morning, within less than a kilometre from the main junction on the edge of town, the road abruptly stopped and turned into a sand track.  We refused to believe that all 450km could be this bad, and when we looked it seemed that there was a beautiful new road being worked on within a hundred yards or so of this track. 

 

 

Long way to the sea

 A long way to the sea

 

We pushed our bikes up onto this tarmac surface, and approached a group of workmen who beckoned to us enthusiastically.  After the usual chat:  “Atkuda vy?  Kuda yeditye?”  [This is horrible Russian transliteration by the way for Where are you from? Where are you headed?  Questions we must have been asked well over a thousand times by now.] we flung out our all-important question:  how is the road to Aktau? 

 

“It’s like this all the way,” he said indicating the pristine tarmac beneath our wheels.  “A new road.”

 

“Really?”  The beaming grin on my face gave away my innocent desperation that this was indeed true.

 

A moment’s pause, before all of them descended into a cackle of laughter.  “Hahaha – no not really it’s terrible.  This road goes on for 2km then you are back to that…all the way.”  He pointed at the sand and rubble. 

 

Very funny.

 

The truth, it turned out, was something in between. 

 

But again, we just didn’t know.  All we could do was set out and individually adjust our expectations as best we could.  Still, I can’t deny the sinking feeling I felt in my stomach.  This was the 6th day.  We’d had so little sleep, rising as we did around 5am each day, and we had already done 670km.  Strangely, I did feel like I had more energy that day than on several mornings, probably because we’d eaten well.  But I didn’t expect this to last.

 

One big thing in our favour was the wind.  Although it wasn’t strong, it was with us.  And that, in my view, was a mercy. 

 

So off we went.  Crawling along into the pale light of the Kazakh steppe. 

 

10km later – much to my shock – the tarmac returned.  Could it be that no one really knew what on earth they were talking about?  Why was it so hard to tell us what the road was going to do?

 

Accustomed now to taking the “free bits” as they come, we just carried on for another 30km or so at quite a speed, until we saw once more off in the distance the tell-tale dust clouds of big trucks and lorries ploughing their way over the unsealed road. 

 

At length, we reached the beginning of the broken road.  As we climbed up a little rise, I did my best to stifle the sense of deflation that rose up inside me.  5km later we passed a car that was stopped on the road.  We pulled up and spoke with the driver.  How far does the road continue like this?  He stood with his chin in his hand for a moment or two. 

 

“About 215km.”

 

I couldn’t suppress a rueful laugh which came out more like a bark.  At our current speed of 10kph, that was over 20 hours of riding on this stuff.  This would be an exercise in perseverance and patience that I would not forget. 

 

All three of us would listen to music or audiobooks at different times during our ride.  Not all the time by any means but now seemed like an obvious time to do so.  But just then I had a desire to face this challenge in all its purity.  Just the road, the bike, the distance, the heat, the fatigue, the monotony.  Just endure it all.  No hiding behind entertainment or taking my mind off the reality of the present moment.  Embrace it, face it, overcome it.

 

Man vs Road. 

 

Perhaps it sounds a bit overblown.  But you need those kind of thoughts to get through a situation like that.

 

An example of the road surface

An example of the road surface

 

I need not drag you with us over every stone or rut or jarring bump.  You have an imagination.  You can picture how the hours dragged on and on with nothing to look at except the patch of dirt in front of you.  The only appreciable measure of change was the distance meter.  The scenery around us remained constant – like a vast white screen, before which we lived out this unreal reality. 

 

There were waypoints – the chaikhanas – places of meeting with other travellers along this atrocious route, none of whom appeared able to agree on where the tarmac would resume.  The only positive thought was that it would end sometime. 

 

There were about 1,000 possible lines you could take on the road, which, as it had deteriorated over time, had grown out sideways from its original two lanes into an empty swathe of dust that cut across the steppe, maybe 80 feet in width.  Sometimes you would see truck a few hundred yards from the road, piling along in a storm of dust pioneering a new track through the sand, as the cab bounced and bucked over every tussock of scrub, the driver having decided anything was better than the road itself.

 

 

Lorry taking an alternative road

Lorry ploughing a furrough 

 

The bigger trucks had to go very carefully.  We once crossed paths with a car-transporter, overladen with an impressive collection of BMWs shining in the sun, whose speed was reduced to even less than ours.  For drivers like this, the journey must have been tortuous.

 

Aside from the discomfort of the road, I should also say that company was comfort.  When I think back to that situation, had I been doing it alone it would have been considerably worse.  To the extent that suffering is shared, to that extent it may be more easily endured. 

 

(Speaks the one who would continually slide off into the distance in front!) 

 

We still had our target of 150km for the day.  In fact, by dusk, as the man some way in front, I reached 140km and figured that if we were going to camp that night, we needed to get on with setting it all up.  So I pulled off the road and began putting up my tent.  Cory was along soon after, and Kellen a little while later. 

 

The camping went well.  We ate and slept well and got away in good time in the morning.  As we set out, my legs felt like lead.  It was the seventh day.  I was happy to trail along behind the others that morning.  It was 50 painstaking kilometres to the next little town which was built in the middle of nowhere; why, I have no idea.

 

With my brain locked in a kind of semi-catatonic state, I followed the line set by Cory and Kellen, sometimes getting left far behind, and at others catching right up and sitting on their wheel.  We were certainly going faster than the previous day.  Perhaps we were getting better at this.

 

We reached the town and pulled off at the bright pink chaikhana next to the road.  To our surprise, the grit ended and the last few yards we were on tarmac.  I was soaked in sweat already even though it wasn’t yet 9am.  The t-shirt I have worn across China and Central Asia that has been saturated countless times was grimy and wreaked, my hair was knotted and heavy, my hat brittle from the old salt marks that lined its peak in waves. 

 

But all this dried very quickly in the sun as we stretched out our tired legs and padded about in bare-feet.  Cory fixed another puncture picked up literally yards from the chaikhana.  We ate once.  And then a second time when we still felt hungry. 

 

Feeling replenished and encouraged by the waitress who told us – categorically – that only 60km of bad road was left before the tarmac would resume and remain all the way to Aktau.  We wished we could believe her.

 

By this time, I’d had enough of my Man vs Road game, and asked Kellen if I could borrow his iPod.  This was actually a great move.  To listen to another man’s iPod is to enter into another world.  Another universe.  A mind, full of different tastes and emotions, what inspires and what delights.  The songs that carry the story of his life.  All this I was treated to at least for a few hours, and the novelty brought blessed relief from the monotony of the road. 

 

Somewhere along this section, I once again was bringing up the rear, when my front wheel hit a soft patch of sand and I briefly lost control and went up and over the edge of the road.  Though hardly lethal, the ground did drop away a little over this lip and I found myself gripping tightly and trying to keep the wheel straight as I bobbled over the clumps of scrub, trying to run out onto the flatter ground further down with my feet dragging either side.  This I just about managed to do, as Cory looked round to see whether I was OK. 

 

On the mprning of the seventh day...

Cory - still going strong, somewhere on the seventh day

 

Realising it was all fine, he turned away just as I let the bike run on a couple of yards further.  The bike hit one more bump and suddenly leapt up, causing the top frame to crash violently (it seemed to me) into my “breadbasket” between my legs.  Not being one for contact sports, this was the first time in a long time I’ve been soundly smacked in the family jewels.  I kind of half reached out towards Cory in a weak sort of appeal for sympathy but he’d already turned and carried on.  So I stayed there, bent double – half laughing, half wheezing at the ridiculousness of my predicament. 

 

It was bad enough having a painfully sore bottom from the bumping up and down on the road.  Added to this now was an entirely new and considerably sharper ache! 

 

My goodness – the things we do for fun.

 

THRB - still with the program

Enjoying myself around 200km into the unsealed road

 

We came to another chaikhana (not another one!).  Yes.

 

Cory had another puncture. (Not another one!)  Yes.

 

But – something new.  A canyon.  Amazing.  A change in scenery. 

 

We had been forewarned of this, but it had struck us as very hard to imagine given our present predicament of being enveloped in a world of monotony and bland nothingness and heat.  In the event, the road did descend very steeply into this sudden new geographical feature.  Only a few hundred metres down this descent, Cory’s back wheel finally gave up the ghost (at least for now).  With two spokes busted, and no amount of rubber patches apparently able to hold the air in his ailing inner tubes, it was officially game over for Cory.

 

The end - for Cory's rear wheel

No amount of patches could fix his tyre 

 

We were 250km from Aktau.  Still a fair way, but there was plenty of traffic passing along the road with us, most of which (going our direction) would be headed for Aktau.  So once we’d made the decision for Cory to get a lift there ahead of us, it wasn’t long before a big refrigerated truck stopped, and out jumped a rough-looking driver in shorts and nothing else, most of him following about a yard behind his belly-button.  Kellen recognised him as the jovial Russian truck driver from some kind of exchange a day earlier on the road behind us.  He was happy to take Cory and sling his bike in the back with his refrigerated products (I forget what they were).

 

What a lovely tummy!

Cory's knight in shining armour

 

Despite neither being able to speak the other’s language very well, it seems they got along very well nonetheless. 

 

As Kellen so rightly said, having come all the way from Hong Kong, for both he and I, completing this section to Aktau was all about “punishing ourselves” (who’s knows what for), whereas for Cory this was about the new experience of travelling to different countries, seeing extraordinary things and having novel encounters.  So his day and half living the life of a Russian truck driver on the road was going to be a great experience for him. 

 

I think he would agree.

 

With all of us settled into the new situation, Kellen and I carried on into the evening.  If possible, the road seemed to get worse.  This was the end of the seventh day.  We both wanted to get within 200km of Aktau before stopping, but the way became quite brutal.  The surface deteriorated, and once we reached the bottom of the canyon, the road then started climbing back up again.  Kellen took the road head on, while I stayed on the iPod until it ran out of batteries. 

 

Then I battled on, determined to get to the 210km marker (these were lined up along the road) before we stopped.  Drenched with sweat, a storm of fury brewing in my head, legs utterly shattered and filthy beyond recognition, I stopped precisely on the 210km and waited for Kellen.  This was halfway up a steep slope that finally climbed back up to the level of the original plateau. 

 

Meanwhile, a lorry pulled up and handed me down a freezing cold bottle of water.  Sweet deliverance (for a short while).  I asked, as a formality now, where the tarmac began.  (We’d passed the waitress’s 60km prediction 10km before.) 

 

7km was the answer.   Ahhhh……so close.   But I couldn’t go any further that evening.   Or I thought I couldn’t until Kellen arrived and said there was no way he was stopping before we got to the top of the hill. 

 

So following his lead, we slogged our way back onto the plateau, and pulled off to set up camp.  The view was stunning.  Looking back in the twilight at the country which we’d just crossed.  You could see the lights of trucks and cars churning up the evening dust in the canyon below us.  The colours of the dusk were a gorgeous fan of reds and blues and purples.  Crusted in salt, hair like straw I couldn’t help but feel like a free man.  Like we’d just broken out of some gaping abyss of nature.  Leaving behind us a personal torment to which we need never return. 

 

And yet, we had done it.  At least we’d done it this far. 

 

And the sun set on the seventh day.

 

Beautiful dusk after a brutal evening ride

Sunset

 

Shattered, and with Cory gone, Kellen and I shared his tent and ate most of the rest of the food we both still carried.  The full moon of the previous days had waned almost completely by now.  Before collapsing into an exhausted unconsciousness, we stood out in the darkness, brushing our teeth and looking up into the infinity.  The sky was bursting with the light of a billion stars.  The Milky Way was lit up in a colossal arch like a trail of smoke across the night.  No one can look at such a thing and not be humbled by a sense of awe.   Awe of the infinite.  Awe in the presence of majesty.  Awe in the shadow of such beauty. 

 

Every man and woman must choose what they believe, but I felt the awesome presence of my God just then.  And as my soul soared, my heart bent low in gratitude.   

 

I wish I could have sat there gazing up all night, but my body was finished.  As soon as I lay back down in the tent, the lights went out – perhaps more unconscious than asleep.

 

Dawn silhouetter of Kellen - brushing his teeth

Dawn - and the brushing of teeth

 

The eighth day dawned.  I was excited and confident.  We would make it to Aktau.  I was sure we could.  Even though we’d never ridden more than 200km before as a team, there was no way we would stop pedalling until we were there.

 

It was only 10 minutes of riding before we came over a small crest and the road dropped away.   The pale road transformed into a ribbon of blue and black than ran on between the low hills on either side. 

 

The tarmac!  Amazing…... it looked like a landing strip.  It must sound trivial to you, but to us it was vindication, it was success, it was respite. 

 

The beginning of the tarmac

The end in sight

 

If anyone were ever to ask us where the stupid tarmac begins and ends, be sure that we know and shall never forget.  205km from Aktau, we resumed our normal speed.

 

Less than 2km further on, a man in shorts began waving us down from the side of the road.  As I drew closer I was very surprised to recognise Cory!  It seemed his driver friend had decided they’d gone far enough at around 9pm the night before and they pulled up and bedded down for the night.  So he’d barely gone 5km further than us. 

 

We stopped and had a short chat before wishing him luck and pressing on. 

 

We were 40km from the next moderate sized town called Shetpe.  The landscape now was completely different.  The steppe had given way to the canyon which had now become rolling plains and hills – very beautiful in the dawnlight as it crept over the hills.  We must have been treated to about five sunrises that morning, as the sun gradually climbed up over ridge after ridge. 

 

The new scenery in the dawnlight

Passing through beautiful valleys on the way to Shetpe

 

We climbed and descended – rolling up and down as we drew closer and closer.  Eventually we crossed a railway line high on a bend in the road, and let the road takes us the last 3 or 4 kilometres, free-wheeling down a steady slope into the town. 

 

It was still early.  We ate as much as we could in a little restaurant in the town and smiled.  160km to go. 

 

We set out full of energy and enthusiasm.  A little confused about which was the right road to take, we eventually crossed paths with a roving Austrian, dressed like he was on his way to go surfing with a shaggy red beard and straggly hair, who had been driving around Eurasia in a battered looking Transit van.  He said he’d just come from Atkau, and told us if we just keep going down that road we’d get there. 

 

We carried on but it was becoming hard.  It was hot.  Really hot, and the climbs when they came were intense and steep.  At some point, we realised we weren’t quite where we thought we should be.  A road we were expecting simply wasn’t there, so suddenly the journey increased by 40km.    Uhhh….it would be 220km to reach Aktau that day.

 

The wind began slewing around just as we reached a place where we could have lunch.  I took off my shoes and socks and padded about their stone floor, enjoying the coolness against the soles of my feet.  My butt was in quite a lot of pain making it awkward to sit down.  We carried with us a kind of industrial sized pot of cyclists “butt cream” we called it.  Cory had brought it with him from the US.  It’s quite magical stuff.  But even this was not able to cover the aches and pains of the seven and a half days of intense riding that we had endured.  

 

My wrists hurt; the balls of my feet ached.    Basically it was all falling apart now.  Kellen was the same.

 

We had 90km to go.  It was 4pm and as we rolled away from the restaurant, we also had a headwind. 

 

It seemed cruel to have this inflicted on us now.  We ground away at the distance.  Down one hill and up another, always hopeful that the next rise in the steppe would reveal the first glimpse of the Caspian Sea in the distance.  We must be getting close now.

 

Over the last days, it had become our habit not to be overly concerned with sticking together too closely.  We knew we’d come together again soon enough.  But this time, I got a fair way in front of Kellen.  I kept stopping and looking behind me to see if there was any sight of him, but nothing.  So I’d push on, feeling like we were really in the home straight.

 

But it was all starting to get to me now.  The wind increased.  The hills drew out longer – higher, steeper.  My speed dropped lower and lower. 

 

A couple of days later I would have a conversation with a French woman leaning over the railing on the ferry across the Caspian towards Baku, another traveller on her way back to Europe from Central Asia.  Why do you need to do this? she asked.  Why do you need to push yourself to the edge of your limits and beyond? 

 

Perhaps it was because we were speaking French (badly in my case), but I was drawn into giving her something of a philosophical answer about how there were certain parts of me that could only be uncovered in these extreme situations.  That it was necessary to know yourself fully, and that it was only by these means of “pressure” (for want of a better word) that I could reach those deep places. 

 

I don’t think that is a very good answer but it is a good question.

 

What do you find when you come to the end of yourself?  What is there in you?

 

There have been times on my journey when I have found a deep joy in this place.  Something irreducible and permanent, even eternal.  At other times I have found love, a kind of painful desire for love and forgiveness for the whole world and everything and everyone I have hurt and been hurt by in my life. 

 

But this time, I most certainly did not find that.

 

As my body came closer and closer to its limit, I found not joy, but rage.  A deep, hateful anger.  Like a cesspool of festering hate long covered.  Hate of myself, anger at some of those I have loved, hate of the most trivial of people that have passed in and out of my life, bitterness at the manipulators and hatred of myself for being manipulated.  Even some kind of resentment against an all-powerful and sovereign God.  An inexpressible anger which I am simply incapable of releasing in any other situation, least of all to the people concerned.  I am familiar enough with psychology to know the importance of being able to “express” emotion.  The word itself implies something being squeezed out, and that is what I need.  Perhaps that is the answer.  I need to be squashed like an orange to get this out of me. 

 

And when it is released, surely that is healthy.  It is at least honest.  And I can’t seem to express it any other way. 

 

But it tells me another greater truth.  Just like everyone else, there is a dark shadow across my soul.  There is a black wound of rebellion and selfishness there that is as true in my heart, as any goodness and purity.  And this must be the fall of man.  This is sin.  And I am sure it is in us all.  If you can’t recognise this, maybe you haven’t journeyed far enough into your own soul.  Where you can see that this is not just human imperfection, this is a very crime against creation and against the Creator.  And perhaps if you did, you would come close to your first cry for forgiveness, and your first cry for salvation.  Just then might be the first time that you’re ready to hear the goods news of the grace of God.

 

Maybe there is more.  I cannot speak for women, but I am sure that in men there is a wildness that can and must be directed, either for the good or the bad.  This is not only a natural tendency but a commission.  It is at the very centre of why we exist.  “Fill the earth and subdue it.”  Isn’t this why we cross continents?  Isn’t this why we build companies to win markets?  Isn’t this why we sacrifice our lives for sporting triumphs?  Isn’t this the instinct of Columbus?  Of Edmund Hilary?  Of Napoleon and Ghenghis Khan?  Of Fitzroy McLean or a Joseph Wolff?  Of St Paul?  Is it blasphemy to say that Jesus himself was wild?  Isn’t this why we push ourselves till our bodies can go no further?  Why does a line across a map give me such delight?  Because I’ve been there.  I’ve overcome it.  I have, in my own way, subdued it.  In some sense, I have made it mine.

 

This is why, when I cry at the wind in rage and frustration yet still keep going, I am merely at the outer limit of what man was created to do. 

 

Perhaps these are the beginnings of a better answer.  My brother has often described this whole idea as a need to “peer into the blackness of your own soul”.  But it is more.  It is to stand and peer into the blackness, and fall neither into it, nor fall back from it.  But simply to hold your ground.  To stand.  I am sure I could name three dozen friends off the cuff who know exactly what I am talking about.  (Though they probably wouldn’t express it in the same terms as me.)

 

But this will always look to some people like “self-flagellation”.  If that is all it looks like, then you have missed something essential.  Punishing yourself out of some conscious or sub-conscious sense of guilt is a denigration of the purpose of man, and in any event, no punishment that you could deliver yourself would be enough to fit the eternal crime of sin.  This is why asceticism fails.  But pushing beyond yourself as an expression of this intrinsic wildness is in some sense glorious.  It looks like glory in others, so why should it not be the beginnings of glory in me too?  And glory not in any prideful sense, but simply in the sense of fulfilment of purpose. 

 

God sees…..and it gives him pleasure.

 

.......................................................

 

Hey ho. 

 

Be all this as it may, we still had to get to Aktau!  At the 50km marker, I sat down and waited.  While I might try to make sense of the need to go through these experiences later on, just then I realised I wasn’t being much of a support to Kellen.  Two can make headway against a wind like that much more easily than one, and it’d got far too wrapped up in my own personal battle.

 

After a little while, Kellen showed up.  He had being going through his own meat-grinder experience, with the added seasoning of cursing me for disappearing off ahead without helping me.  I apologised profusely!  He was quite right. 

 

But we were together now.  10km further on, oh great joy!  We saw the thin line of blue on the horizon that was the Caspian Sea.  Actually I was beyond feeling any great joy.  My bottom was now in agony.  My wrists jarred with every bump on the road, my palms of my hands were numb, and my whole feet felt like they were on fire.  My thighs were completely drained of energy, feeling like slowly setting concrete and my ears were ringing.  I was falling apart. 

 

First glimpse of the Caspian Sea

Kellen spies the Caspian Sea

 

Every kilometre was painful.  We were rotating on the front every 3km which seemed to take forever.  I kept watching my speedo, knowing that the sun was dropping, but wanting to get to Aktau before sunset. 

 

All the pain got worse and worse and my legs got heavier and heavier.  Eventually with about 20km to go, I said to Kellen, “I’m really sorry. I’m really suffering.  I need you to slow down a bit.”

 

He graciously took the lead again for a bit and we then decided to stop for a drink and food even though we were so close.  We looked a pretty sorrowful pair to the waitress who served us up a couple of sandwiches, giggling at our bedraggled state and salty faces.  But this was the respite and lift I needed and when we got back underway, it became somehow easier and easier as the numbers counted down.

 

Dirty and exhausted, but delighted

That says "Aktau" - which makes me very happy

 

As the sun touched the horizon, we reached the big signpost that told us we had arrived in Aktau.  We stopped and took some commemorative shots, raised a baleful cheer, Kellen kissed the sign, and we then pressed on into the city.

 

A holy relic....or as good as

A welcome kiss

 

Visions of ice cold beers, platefuls of shashlyk and French fries, bucketfuls of tomatoes and cucumbers (we were in Central Asia still after all), gallons of ice cream and a 15-hour lie-in came together in a sort of rapturous vision of delight as we rolled past the outskirts and closer into the centre of the busy port town of Aktau. 

 

We had made it.  Come.  On.

 

There was civilization all around.  Bright lights, smart hotels, shining glass office blocks, supermarkets, traffic lights, busy junctions, speeding cars, and the hum of voices floating up into the twilight sky from terraced restaurants.  Palm trees.

 

As darkness proper fell, and the city lights came on, we were directed to the area of town where we hoped Cory would be waiting for us in the little hotel where we’d arranged to meet.

 

We hoped that he’d been able to find out something about the all-important ferry to Baku in Azerbaijan.  This was the reason we had headed for Aktau in the first place.  To get across the Caspian Sea to continue on our journey through the Caucasus.  We had heard painful stories of travellers waiting for up to two weeks in Aktau before a cargo ferry arrived that would take passengers over the sea.  Although we hoped for a bit of luck that our wait wouldn’t be anything like that long, we were both looking forward to a rest – a sleep at least – before addressing the headache of how we could get ourselves on one of these infrequent passages across the Caspian. 

 

After the immensity of what we had just achieved – 1,100km in just 8 days, across a wilderness of desert and steppe – our arrival seemed understated.  Quietly opening the swing-door of the hotel and pushing our bikes into the foyer.

 

But after we sat down on the little formica chairs, we did look at each other and grin.

 

Made it.....

 

“I think that needs a hug,” said Kellen.

 

Indeed it did.  We hugged it out.

 

What a legend!  What a pair of legends!  I shall always be grateful to Kellen and Cory for their company through Uzbekistan and across the Kazakh steppe.  I couldn’t have hoped for finer companions. 

 

It was 10pm.  Despite the warm glow of our arrival, I was still feeling pretty spaced out, needing not so much the five ice cold beers which I’d promised myself, as simply a bed. 

 

Just as we asked the receptionist where our friend Cory might be, the door opened and in he walked.  I thought, considering the culmination of our massive endeavour, he might have looked a little more cheerful.

 

Just as I was thinking this, he said, “OK.  The boat leaves at 2am tonight.  We have about two hours to get all our stuff together, get to the port and try and bribe our way onto the boat.  We’re too late to buy tickets.  The last boat left on July 4th, so the next one probably won’t leave for another three weeks.  We have to get on that boat.”

 

Ohhhhh…….bum. 

 

There goes our sleep.


Comments (2)

Nanna
Said this on 8-20-2011 At 03:56 pm
So did you manage to catch the boat?
Theo
Said this on 8-20-2011 At 10:08 pm

There's a clue in the text!  But if you missed it, I'm in the middle of writing the next leg across the Caucasus.....coming soon!

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