After a few hiccups we did not leave Aktau until 3pm. Not such a big deal as we had already planned to stay until noon making the most of our hotel. We pedalled off on a lesser road to Shetpe. Travelling along what felt like an industrial waste land, the road quickly deteriorated and we followed power lines, a train line and gas pipeline into the starkness that was the desert.
I was feeling on edge, we knew finding ‘stealth’ camp sites was going to be difficult and I was feeling very, very exposed. Sooner than necessary we chose a place to pitch the tent….behind the pipeline and a few piles of rubble.
Fortunately we only traveled 36km as the next morning after another 2 km a car pulled us over enquiring as to where we were going. Much gesturing and crossing of arms later we understood the driver was saying the road to Shepte was impassable. We deliberated, looked at our map, looked at Google maps…..where the road mysteriously disappears about 30km before our first town….and turned back to Aktau. We would trace our steps, our pedalling, and take the longer route.
After Aktau, the road deteriorated further. The asphalt appeared fine, until we rolled, bumped….bumped, and jumped along it. The road was crazed and in places patched, thousands of patches never flattened down so that despite an absence of pot holes the road was slow and uncomfortable. Like cobble stones….irregular cobble stones. Occasionally we would be blessed with 10 meters, even 50 meters of a thin veneer of smooth bitumen but you could still feel many of the old patches underneath.
Again I began to feel edgy, where would we spend our night…..there was absolutely nothing, not a hill, tree, hump as far as the horizon. We descended into a valley situated well below sea level and as evening approached we noted a big climb back onto the steppe. Just before the climb a sign indicated a picnic area and small scrubby plants off the side of the road. We investigated. A small spring from the ground explained the plants but nowhere was invisible from the road. Li strolled off to further investigate the ridge we were soon to climb. She soon returned saying she had found the perfect camp spot. Puzzled….”but I could see you the whole time?”
“Can you see the 5 camels”
“Good…..then no one will see us”
“What about the camels?”
“There is plenty of room for all of us!”
The camels did not think so and wandered off as we descended into the banks of a dry river bed. Wild horses strolled the ridges as we pitched for another night.
…….more crap roads…..ferocious headwind. The wind was hindering, bitter, cold…..crap wind. Still on asphalt and so very slow. We took refuge in our music and after a 90 degree bend in the road, music and tail wind, we were feeling euphoric as we clocked 9000 kilometres on the odometer. We celebrated with a brief rest to watch the mechanical donkeys, oil and gas fields, and shortly afterwards an unexpected town to purchase some extra food and some beer. We requested and were given well water at the mosque.
With the beer we celebrated our next found refuge for the night. Our first experience of sleeping in a culvert, a small concrete tunnel directly under the road……after we cleaned out the fossilised human crap.
Shetpe…..our last chance to stock up on supplies, and we made our first purchase of water for the entire time we have been traveling. We knew there would be the occasional tea house and as it is getting cold we use less water so we only purchased two 5 litre bottles. We still had a small supply from Aktau.
Not far after Shetpe, about 30 km , the crap road ceased to exist and became a crap track. A very wide track as the 2 lanes became 6 as trucks and the fewer cars have over time worn a super slow ‘highway’ further and further into the desert, away from the centre of the “road” in an attempt to avoid the bumps and sand and dust holes and crevices of the original path. In places up to 7 further tracks weave their way in roughly the right direction, occasionally diverging and criss crossing and the traffic including ourselves, moves between all the lesser width tracks looking for the smoothest way forward.
Bull dust……Li thought I was making the word up, but the Oz outback is full of it…..this track was full of it, as were our eyes, noses, clothes, our underpants. Unlike sand it is not so abrasive, but gets in even more places, is sticky and cloying…..Especially in your mouth……We put on our ski goggles. Fortunately it was mostly shallow bulldust…..when not in the air…. and we rolled…..ok….bumped, relatively easily over most of it. In other places it was a foot thick.
We found another camp site between 2 hills above the road. It had been a beautiful day, riding in T-shirts. The temperature plummeted. As we finished our camp meal ice crystals formed on the remains. We woke struggling to remove the frozen caps of out water storage. Both 5 litre containers almost solid….we peeled our frozen bananas, packed away our frozen eggplant and remaining tomato for later on. Too cold to check the temperature over night it must have been our coldest yet going by the degree of ice. It was -2 when we climbed into the not so welcoming tent at 8pm.
More tracks, more wind, no wind, beautiful sun shine, even tail winds. The wind bought on the cold and we were in and out of layers of clothing as it picked up then abated. The wind chill could make a high temperature of 20 degrees feel like zero.
More culverts…..we slept in 6 tunnels under the road out of the ten nights. Mostly they were clean and a refuge from the wind, occasionally they became a wind tunnel. There was evidence camels had entered some, crawling on their knees which must be a sight. Their fur stuck to the small circular walls.
Despite the refuge from prying eyes I did not overly like sleeping in tunnels but I loved our desert adventure. The cold and our troglodyte adaption was well worth the extremes of experience. Starry nights void of all light pollution. Shooting stars. The sun rising, pinks, reds, blue hughes and camels silhouetted on the horizon. Picture books becoming reality, the real sounds of silence.
And occasionally the road became pure bliss, fresh new Tarmac for 20 kilometres or so, then tracks, then Tarmac. We rode on the unfinished road that is years from completion and joining up, but the small sections were a well earned break, briefly from the filling, teeth jiggling kilometre after very long kilometre to Beyneu…..our last town before Uzbekistan.


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