I had dreaded the Uzbek desert crossing. In the end what can sound less appealing to a cyclist than the monotony of a straight road through the middle of the nothingness, with the almost the same scenery from sunrise until sunset, day in and day out. It is the unknown around the corner that turns my wheels, except that in the case the next corner is just a slight angle variation in the road direction and I’m pretty sure what I will find after it: another stretch of bushy and barren desert.
And then there’s the wind, the constant side wind which has been blowing continuously for the past 5 days from the same direction. I think that there are few things more demoralizing than going to sleep after a hard day of fighting the wind knowing that tomorrow you will have to start over again.
But surprisingly as the days went by I have to admit that the desert became more and more enjoyable and somehow I found a certain tranquility of the monotony of each passing day. Usually when touring you have your mind set on the next destination on the map, the next mountain pass, the next city where you can take a rest but now only the Caspian Sea which the end of desert and it’s more than 1000 kilometers away. It’s impossible to plan anything when such distances are involved and quickly you forget about the destination and you settle in what seems like an endless daily routine.
But then there’s the light and the incredible clear and blue skies of the desert, accompanied by a million stars during the night. Slightly changing but constantly beautiful, coloring each sunset and sunrise in a different way.
And then there’s the peace and the silence which you find either on the bike while cycling or each evening at the chosen camping spot. While on the bike moments when you are completely present alternate with moments when your mind drifts off to an imaginary place following it’s own internal monologue.
Days fly by and your only worry becomes to carry enough food and water to get you to the next small village. The daily agenda consists of 120 kilometers of nothing, followed by a small village and another 140 kilometers of empty desert. Each evening’s goal becomes knowing that I put in a good effort for that day which I usually quantify as time spent in the saddle. Kilometers are completely irrelevant when you factor in the wind and the road quality.
Time seems to lose any kind of meaning. How many days has it been since the last real shower and the last night spent in a bed? Certainly more than a week… How many days until the well deserved swim in the Caspian Sea? No idea but probably also around one week. Probably this is the best test to see if I will ever get bored of myself.
And yet the days go by and finally after almost 1600 kilometers in Uzbekistan I finally cross the border into Kazakhstan, changing countries but unfortunately not the scenery. The welcome sign into Kazakhstan consists of 80 kilometers which could be easily classified as one of the worst roads I’ve ever cycled on.
Three days and 400 kilometers later I finally see the shimmering water of the Caspian sea in the distance. It’s hard to explain in words how you feel when realize that finally the desert is over and that shortly you will sink your dusty self in the cold and clear waters of the Caspian sea. I honestly cannot think of a better way of ending a desert crossing.
Looking back I have to admit that I really enjoyed what I had dreaded at first and that I had grown fond of the desert, of the feeling of being completely disconnected, of losing track of days and of time and of the monotonous peace and serenity of the desert. I would clearly rate it as one of the most interesting bits of the road back to Europe.
And now for some practical considerations.
1. Visas and costs.
It seems that all the people I met along the way were Englishmen and they were all cycling eastwards (or the wrong way as I used to say when I met them) and probably the only reason you would chose this route through Central Asia is that you can’t get a visa for Iran (which seems to difficult if not impossible for people from the UK and the USA). The visas for Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan while not cheap are at least obtainable, and you also avoid the Turkmenistan 5 days fixed entry/exit madness.
2. Road quality.
The tarmac isn’t as bad as I expected and there are construction work still going on both in Uzbekistan and in Kazakhstan so it will get even better the following years. In September 2015 there were plenty of newly opened bits where tragic wasn’t allowed yet but where you could ride your bycicle, perfect conditions. Also the bit between Beyneu and Aktau (once dubbed the worst road in the world) has been repaired. Just take care to choose the northern alternative and not the main road after Shetpe. There are some broken bits along the way though and the 80 kilometers between the border and Beyneu are absolutely horrible.
3. Supplies and distances.
Probably the most challenging bit is between Nukus and the border where for 400 kilometers you only have 3 settlements. And there is literally NOTHING in between (except camels) so depending on the speed you need to plan and have enough food and water for 140 kilometers / 120 kilometers (the greatest distances in between settlements). At the same time if you run out of food or water you probably can wave for help at one of the occasional trucks, the drivers are usually more than helpful. Also depending on the temperature you really need to carry a lot of water, I had temperatures around 30 degrees and I was still drinking around 7-8 liters per day. And Uzbek melons rock.
My experiences in Uzbekistan were a bit mixed regarding the people, which is probably due to a real presence of a police state. And even though I had some genuine examples of hospitality something still felt strange. From the overly sanitized like Samarkand and Khiva, to the police checks every 100 kilometers to the monuments portraying Uzbekistan and it’s president in positive light something just didn’t fit in. And perhaps in comparison with other Stans when talking with the people they seemed to have a good opinion about the president and government which also seemed somehow strange. Other than that I had no problems with the police except for the 2 hours spent at the border crossing between Tajikistan and Uzbekistan where the customs officials were simply assholes (it seems that almost everyone passing through this border crossing had the same experience).
Be prepared to carry bags of money, or “Sum” – the local currency. With the biggest note having the equivalent value of 2 euro and with plenty of smaller notes worth as little as 0.05 euros be prepared to have a special place to store all the cash. A plastic bag worked fine for me though. As a side note cash machines exist only in the big cities (Samarkand and Bukhara should have one but they could be out of service). Also it’s worth asking around to find out which is the black marked rate, as the difference between the official rate and the black market rate can be as high as 30-40%. A good place to change money at the black market rate is the local bazaar, just as for the money changers corner.
6. Temperatures and the best time to cross Uzbekistan.
I spent most of September crossing Uzbekistan and the temperatures were almost perfect for cycling (between 25 and 35 degrees, but mostly around 30) but I heard horror stories from cyclists which crossed Uzbekistan in July and August and which had to deal with constant 40 degree temperatures. Weirdly enough while you are cycling and the wind is blowing around you temperatures above 35 degrees are tolerable, but the moment you stop sweet covers you instantly. There were many moments where I was thinking if how much extra water I need to drink each stop just to make up for the water lost through sweat in the same time span.