Our bodies are able…..’ish’…..but our minds….emotions?…..the past few days have been a roller coaster. Never, in what is almost 8 months on the road have either of us contemplated giving up…. Not seriously and not into a whole day, or several days of grief. It is today that these feelings began. The feelings….flat….failure….insecurity….. mistrust…. fear…. Feelings inside ourselves and towards others came as a sledge hammer hitting us both simultaneously, unfamiliar and disabling.
We had booked flights to Hong Kong for Christmas. We will take the bikes from Almaty to Hong Kong. Hopefully secure visas for China and planning to cycle back to Almaty in fairer weather. We reason that this is sensible, logical, but it feels slightly wrong.
Next we looked at our visa restrictions in Uzbekistan. 30 days, requiring to register our presence every 72 hours. About 500 kilometres to the first place of registration. For us this is impossible in current conditions. From Beyneu in Kazakhstan we make another unwelcome decision to take the train. Not every cycle tourist registers, handing over money to falsify papers….a very few are deported……we will play by the rules.
Purchasing tickets is problematic. Hours at the station, queue jumpers, elbows and fighting to get to the ticket window…. Find the price….go to the AtM (no credit card payments here)….back to the ticket office…. They will not sell us tickets. Voiceless, dejected, unable to hear, translate…. Why? We have no idea why, but without a ticket we decide to ride….
We set out early and struggle to pedal at 12 kilometres an hour with poor road surfaces and a head wind. My knee that has changed from a small niggle in past weeks is now painful after only 10 kilometres. We turn back towards Beyneu and try our luck at the train station again. With some difficulty in the queue that is not a queue but a battle ground Li purchases tickets for a train to Kungrad in Uzbekistan.
I look after the bikes, a small crowds of curious onlookers come and go.
We celebrate the tickets and make lunch…..children come and go…they want to wear our helmets, ring the bell….we watch but don’t watch well enough. The little b*******s, they steal our compass and mirror…..small things useless to themselves but priceless to our daily tasks, and impossible to replace in small town Central Asia.
We decide to remain 12 hours in the cold, till midnight watching our bikes rather than take refuge in the warmth of the station.
We try and forget the theft, forget we are not riding…..soak up the atmosphere that is Beyneu…..not much written in travel guides….not much written about this point of call at all but intriguing, different and for me well worth the visit. This is Kazakhstan. I need to go to the loo….ask strangers, gesture to strangers….no signs, no language, I waddle up and down the bazaar that was once such a treat when I had an empty bladder .I find the magical door just as I am close to tears, imagining I will be wet for an entire train journey. The toilet attendant….like almost all toilet attendants the world over, does not like me, barks at me…..but my pants are down…..I am relieved and tired with relief that we will soon be in Uzbekistan.
Back at the station, my turn to approach the station staff. Where, how go we get the bikes on the train? Someone is going to push in front if me….I nudge closer to the window….grit my teeth….I am angry and pissed off….fuelled by the theft ….I feel I will bite if necessary….I scowl….nudge closer….the man does not push in front.
I half expect to be dismissed but I am moved over to a newly opened window….my own window to commence a conversation via google translate. Men still try to steal my window, push in….but they are ignored. It takes an hour passing the phone, the translations, back and forth…my helper is in fits of giggles…..actually, hysterics…..I am giggling, relaxing….a few sentences takes an age….I am told
“To immerse the bike talk to the gods let money guide”
I go back to Li feeling strangely uplifted reporting not to worry and that we just need to give the conductor some money……and pray!
Hours, hours…. later, we make coffee on the platform, then beer…..my toilet is closed…..more searching, requesting…..the whole of Beyneu must know I need a toilet…….and the next attendant is nice to me….even when I walk in on a squatting man….then the woman’s communal squatting loo where I frighten another woman who I think assumed I was a man.
Back on the rather cold platform it becomes very interesting watching numerous vendors set up…..50kg flour bags…..alcohol…..sweets…..and we become very interesting to the locals…..I spy the thrives….chase them…..do not catch them.
Everyone is interested in our ticket….the conductors are not. We watch closely as a group of women look at our tickets… Pass them about…. a lot of discussion….and indicate this is our train. The conductors are still not interested. We do not know if it is our train…. The time is wrong.
The women take our ticket to some soldiers…. Lots of conversation…. The soldiers, border control……banging on the train door… Tickets becoming hard to follow….women, soldiers, conductor, soldiers. The Conductor slams the train door closed. Soldiers bang on door…. Door open, closed…. More banging on the door.
The soldiers indicate that this is our train and for us to bring our bikes and luggage. They help us up onto the train….. Through the train…. Onto tracks on the other side. What on earth is going on? There is another train hidden behind the first, stationary in the darkness. A small amount of English….. This is your train…..more waiting, the soldiers talk with another conductor…… Problem….. They will not accept the bikes. In English we can make small conversation with soldiers…. Offer money…. They disappear to talk to conductor…. We hand over 2000 Tenge and are assisted to load the bikes and luggage onto the train. Soldiers chat with us for a while, take passports, return passports and tell us conductors may ask for more money and not give any more.
We share a sleeping compartment with 2 Uzbek men who try and help us fill out a customs form in Russian. They offer tea and food. Tired we decline and the 4 of us go to sleep in our berths as the train departs. Around 1am, somewhere in Uzbekistan we are woken and asked for our passports. We are “informally” asked questions and returned passports 2 hours later. Go back to sleep. Later we are woken and asked for customs forms….. Hand them over and the 2 men in our department indicate we should sleep as customs officials continue to ask many questions. Our instincts are to trust the men and we go to sleep. About 4 hours after stopping we hear the train gently move on.
As the sun rises we wake to more desert, desolation, flat, sparse…. There is nothing out here. The men in our compartment hand us our customs forms, stamped without our luggage having been inspected…… Except “informally” by the one who initially collected our passports, customs form and wanted to see our kindle and steripen. We are relived as some tourist stories of border control and customs are problematic, involving bribes,hours of questioning and a full luggage inspection.
More desert. The men in our compartment are kind….. Give us breakfast and will not take any of our food in return. They help us with money changing. Check the amount is correct….. We can not help but be nervous…..help with the forms….. Declaring everything on the forms meant everyone knew our business, the amount of cash and valuables we were carrying.
Kungrad, Uzbekistan, time to depart, our instincts were right. We were not robbed and were instead assisted in taking all luggage and bikes off the train.
Our moods soar…. Then plummet. Frustration at our feelings of mistrust towards everyone. We ride off into desert that is now irrigated and somewhat fertile….. Oceans of fluffy grasses swaying, rising and swelling in the wind.
We have 2 nights to find a hotel, to register our presence in the vastness that is now Uzbekistan. Our moods are fragile. But there is a road…..actual asphalt and locals on bicycles!