The 1600km ride across the Kazakh Steppe to Shymkent has an infamous reputation in this part of the world and the memorial stones that dot the highway are testament to its name. This is our first extended period of camping, three nights. Juliet and I have volunteered to cook for the entire trip…….let’s see how that goes. Our rationale is that life is too short to eat bad food and everyone else seems happy with that arrangement…………….gets us out of doing the dishes and we get our tents set up!!
We left Aktobe at around 9am and the temperature was already climbing up into the high 20’s. Once clear of the city we got a taste of what was going to be the vista for the next four days. Flat, brown, featureless as far as the eye could see. A treeless plain shimmering in the heat; think Berkley tableland but three times as vast. It wasn’t long before the temperature gauge was reading 34deg and there it stayed as we rode kilometre after kilometre. Strangely though landscapes of this magnitude have an aura that is quite spellbinding. Late afternoon we noticed in the distance the sky had become very dark and whilst we thought we would avoid it we rode straight into a very fierce thunderstorm, strong wind, torrential rain and the temperature went from 34 to 16 in a flash…..I didn’t worry about wet weather gear as when we came out the other side it was 34 again! Given the temperatures it is pointless to stop too early and setup as you would be just sitting in the heat hence we rode until around 7pm before pulling off the road and setting up camp. There were problems with the trailer so while we set up next to a partially demolished building in the middle of nowhere Mick & Justin went back to the last town to search for a welder. Into the kitchen tent we went and after some initial problems with the stoves we turned out Kazakh Cacciatore for the crew…another successful meal or at least that was the feedback…..the food gets better the more beer they give the cooks It doesn’t get dark around here until around 10pm and the sunset was stunning….on the flip side it is daylight at around 4.30am!!....and you know what that is like in a tent It rained tonight around 2am so I took the opportunity to jump out of the tent, strip off and have a shower in the rain. It felt good.
Day two and we were packed and ready to ride around 8.30, already the temperature was 34deg. Now I have to say the road had been very good but today we came across large sections of the old road…….and you can now understand why it has the reputation it does. Narrow, deep potholes, undulations, ridges, no run offs, loads of deep sand and volumes of dense choking dust…. throw in the oncoming traffic and countless semi’s and you have a free for all. Yes some “offs” today but no injuries and I was oh so close to losing it in the sand on the wrong side of the road but hey power is your friend and a last ditch squirt on the throttle just got me out of it! In addition some of the other obstacles that you regularly encounter are wild horses, cattle, camels and donkeys, all highly unpredictable. The most concerning of the day was a donkey who was facing down the highway, it was so hard to see until the last minute, yep got to say it he was making a real ass of himself We stopped for lunch today in Aral which besides being a fair sized city was once a bustling seaport on the shores of the Aral Sea. For those the that don’t know, the Aral Sea no longer exists; in just thirty years the Russians managed to create one of the biggest environmental and ecological disasters of all time….82,000 sq./kms of Sea vanished…….the dry sea bed and the remains of the many ships sitting where they run aground is all that remains. Apparently attempts are being made to resurrect parts of it. Still the temperature was climbing and at a little “roadhouse” we found that it was 41deg! Again we rode until around 7pm and set up camp on the left this time opposite what has to be the remotest roadhouse I have seen. Tonight was Chilli con Carne with rice and warm beer…. I think that as it was eaten for breakfast and lunch (cold) is testament to how well it was received.
Today Alpha, Echo & Oscar had decided that they had had enough of the heat and were going to push through to our destination….a 650km ride with unknown road conditions, it’ll be a long one. I thought of going with them but since I had volunteered to cook I decided to stay and with my failing fuel pump problems I did not want to hold them up. I’m flying a new fuel pump into Tashkent and I hope that will be the end of it…..still going to have to change the head stem bearing sometime soon…..they’ll last to Almaty, I hope??!. During breakfast we noticed slow movement on the horizon and shortly thereafter a herd of two hump camels came meandering by. It was visually spectacular to see them in their natural habitat. The rest of us pushed on until we were about 250km’s out and tonight we found ourselves by a river…..bliss, well almost, once we decided how to work around the thistles and ticks……temperature hit 40deg again today and everyone was feeling it…..Beef stew with vegetables tonight and again for breakfast! As it was still steaming hot after dinner Roomie and I grabbed a stool, and went and sat, chest height in the river to cool off; it was also a chance to enjoy a cold beer and do our washing at the same time. No fly’s on the tent tonight and I fell asleep under a brilliant starlit northern sky.
We were all eager to get going today…the lure of a shower and all the other little luxuries kept us on task for our destination Shymkent. After a short visit to the 13th century mausoleum of a Sufi mystic Khoja Ahmed Wasawitask in the town of Turkistan we arrived around 2pm just as the mercury hit 39deg…it was a fight for the shower but I had waited that long I could wait another 10 minutes! Booked a massage for 5.30 which was excellent and I was ready for a lazy dinner (great outdoor grill spot with the best Shaslyk so far) and a cold beer! Looking forward to a night between sheets tonight……Off to Uzbekistan tomorrow!!