Baku is finally in my rear view mirror, and with it a week and a half of consternation, restlessness, and a gradual acceptance of my short- and long-term life fate. In the fall, I will be starting graduate study in Biostatistics at UCLA. Any new readers from there that might come across this poorly-written sequence of diatribes and petty grievances I call a ‘blog’, welcome. Thanks also to two particular individuals in Baku, Dan and Victoria, who helped me with accommodation and hospitality for what turned out to be more than a few days in Baku. I am in their debt for their willingness to put up with me for what turned out to be a longer-than-intended stay.
No thanks to Azerpost, and Azerbaijan customs. My tires didn’t arrive. I’m fine, my tires work, I have a spare, so it’s just an inconvenience. These will hopefully get me to Dushanbe, where a bike shop in Baku (2Təkər. hit them up if you come through. They’re a rare high quality bike shop in Central Asia. If you’re on this route, probably the last one until after the Pamirs) will ship them to when they DO arrive, IF they arrive. I guess I’m not as much of an unseen, unfelt gust of wind as I may have thought. Human kindness is the most incredible thing.
Ready to let the wonderful country of Azerbaijan slip into my memory banks, I headed to Alat, 70km south of Baku, to take the notorious ferry over the Caspian to Kazakhstan. The ferry is very much a right of passage for motorized and motor-less travelers on the Silk Road. When you reach Baku, you are on a spit of land jutting out into the Caspian, hemmed in on three sides by water. To travel by land to the north puts you in Russia and Dagestan, a no-go for anyone. To the south lies Iran, a no-go for me because I’m American. So the ferry was my only option between this Homerian, rock-and-a-hard-place dilemma. The ferries are much less ferries and much more 30-year-old rusted tin can Yugoslav freighters intended to maybe some passengers along with truckers headed across the Caspian. So their schedule is subject to weather conditions, and run when the captains feel it is safe to do so, with very little communication between ports in Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan. Everyone has a different experience with the ferries. Mine was somewhat painless, but still required some patience and persistence.
The problem for the longest time was that you had to book your ticket in Baku, and then take the ferry from Alat 70km to the south. This is not true anymore, but it is still the most reliable option if you’re in a car or have freight. In fact, when I reached the ferry terminal, the security guards at the entrance told me that I would have to go back to Baku and buy the ticket there. But I had just pulled into Alat in a driving rainstorm, riding a massive tailwind, having already spent nine long days in Baku. I wasn’t going back(u) to Baku.
Through talking to these guards, I gradually realized that it was perfectly fine to buy the ticket here, the real reason they wanted me to go to Baku was because the office in Baku has more information about which ships are underway, when a ship is arriving, and which are in port. If I needed to know that information, like precise departure, etc. when I bought my ticket, it would of course be better for me to buy it in Baku. It wasn’t that buying the ticket here was impossible, it was that they didn’t really know which exact ship would be coming in. I did, because I had a maritime tracker site open on my phone. But they didn’t, and probably wouldn’t know literally until it came steaming into port.
What they also didn’t realize was that I was perfectly willing to wait, camped in the loading area for ANY ship coming through, and would happily, without the complications of a truck of freight or an automobile, pay with cash when it arrived to get on it. So once that was communicated, they let me through, and I was able to purchase a ticket with the name of ship left blank. On a bike, you’re just looking for different things than their usual customers, and once that is communicated you should be fine. The waiting area has a nice protected place to set up tents, pit toilets, showers, a shop, a bank, and an ATM. It’s really quite pleasant, and the office to buy a ticket is well staffed. Everyone is polite, and the ticket costs $70 for a four bed dorm and $80 for a double bed with a private bathroom. I splurged.
I headed off to set up my tent in the corner of the parking lot, armed with the knowledge that the ferry was on its way, and sure that it would just be a matter of hours before it showed up and we would board. And I was right! A short 60 hour wait later, I was told to head to passport control, went through customs, I settled into my cabin. Ha. That was a joke. The wait was more than I thought, but was about what was in line with what others have experienced at this port. I was just unlucky to have arrived when I did. Also, the port of Alat is just a true clusterfuck of questionable cargo loading decisions and boneheaded planning. In the time I was there, I watched the dock workers successfully unload and load a grand total of two small cargo ships. And these weren’t cargo ships with cranes and things, they were literally train cargo ships, which hook up with the train tracks on shore. All they had to do was pull two trains worth of cargo off using a train engine, and push two more trains of new cargo on. Two days to do this, as our boat waited literally 5 miles offshore. The wait would have been excruciating, if not for the endless entertainment of watching and internally judging the efficiency of this loading process. Finally on the boat three nights later, we were underway.
The ferry was almost pleasant. Napping in the Caspian sun, reading, and enjoying one final rest day before hitting the road again. It took about 24 hours to reach Aktau, including four included meals and a tour of the ship given to me by a very kind, English-speaking deck hand. It was foggy for the most part, so I missed out on a sunset which I had heard from others is usually glorious. But I did get some great night photography in the fog. The ship, the Professor Gul, was about 30 years old, complete with a bridge pulled straight out of The Hunt for Red October. Big switches, lights, Russian labels, and an old route charting desk complete with a protractor and pencils. Most of this had been functionally replaced with computers, but the old equipment was still there.
Of the about 100 passengers, maybe 80-90% were just massive, hulking Central Asian truck drivers that had an average of 5-10 gold teeth and smoked like chimneys. If I can say this politely, they were genuinely terrifying folk to me when I first boarded. Each of them was about twice to three times my size, and clearly viewed this tiny American that didn’t speak but twenty words of Russian with tremendous skepticism and in one case uncomfortable fervor for all things Trump. The second night I walked in on about 50 of them in the ship’s lounge, silently transfixed by a steamy Russian sex scene playing on the TV, and damn if that’s not one of the most unnerving and uncomfortable situations I’ve ever been in.
There was no subtlety here. To slink around the cabin in the shadows was to invite more glares. So I did the only thing you CAN do to feel comfortable in a situation like this: reflect the prevailing hypermasculine attitude and try to fit in. I puffed out my chest, squared my shoulders, and strutted around like I owned the place. Or at least tried to communicate through my body language that I half belonged there. I didn’t have the language skill to converse at length about this trip, especially with my most convenient visual aide, my bike and gear, hidden below deck. Eventually though, word got around that I was on a bike and I was heading to Uzbekistan and beyond. I’d like to say this made things easier for me, and in some regards it did. Less skepticism about my masculinity and physical stature, certainly. But in the end I realized I had only succeeded in trading that discomfort for a different one, concerning my mental state. ‘Are you fucking crazy?’ became the new implied question of the hour.
Upon my arrival in Kazakhstan, I patiently waited through customs and headed into Aktau. Within five minutes I found myself riding with what must literally be the only people in the city (or in Central Asia, for that matter) who ride bikes long distances, as a group, for fun. They were tired and quiet at the tail end of their 100km ride, and I was, to be honest, absolutely stunned into silence by this incredible, one-in-a-million coincidence. We rode quietly along, and they invited me for lamb kebabs and tea with them at a restaurant in Aktau. I happily obliged. They told me about how they made a once-a-month order to Chain Reaction Cycles for the top-of-the-line cycling gear, and oh my if that’s not the most delightful thing I’ve ever heard after my ordeal with the tires in Baku. By the way, this was not an imagined thing. This actually happened, five minutes after I got off the ferry. I have photographic proof. After our meal, my new friends eventually helped me find a little hotel for $8/night and my Instagram name, and I fell asleep, high on human kindness, ready to tackle the desert.
Desert riding is about self-care and patience. You can’t ride across these regions in one day. You can’t ride across them in a week. There’s no sense in killing yourself if you can’t make your distances each day. Out of the 500km to Beyneu, I rode maybe 350-400km. One afternoon, battling a growing side/headwind which had me riding progressively slower, then walking, then struggling to even do that upright, I accepted a ride from a passing truck. I usually politely decline when someone stops and gets out to offer me a ride. However, the severity of the situation sunk in when I saw my prospective savior struggle just to open his door as he got out. It was genuinely unsafe to be out there. I’ve had this happen once before, in Argentina, and I hitched then as well. I said “10km. The next turn in the road.”, he said “Beyneu.” We settled on a campsite 100km from Beyneu. Nevertheless, I spent the hour-long ride second-guessing the decision and dealing with the oh-so-familiar devil and angel voices in my head. Their dialogue usually goes a bit like this:
Voice 1: “If you don’t do X, you’ve sacrificed the purity of your trip”
Voice 2: “The only person in the world who cares about trip ‘purity’ is you, Voice 1.”
Voice 2 wins 90% of the time. The other 10% was Iceland, and the success of that trip seems to have given him some more confidence to speak his mind.
Desert riding is a fickle thing. You come into it thinking “oh, flat for 1500km that should be easy!” And it is, for the most part. The easy riding is easy. You’re making great progress. It’s boring, but you can handle boring, right? You start to get complacent. Why would it be any different than it is now? Then the hard days come, and man, they’re hard. Maybe it’s a headwind. Maybe it’s a bitterly cold night. Things start to gnaw at you, mentally and physically. There’s no protection from the elements. You haven’t seen a tree in a week, and there’s nowhere to set your bike upright when you need to pee. The last roof you had over your head was that bus stop you had lunch at two days ago. Your tent won’t stake properly, and you find yourself woken up at 1am, your tent collapsed, belongings covered in sand. Self-care and patience.
Eat your food, drink your water. Always pack more food and water than you need. Yell and scream all you want into the suffocating flatness about anything that comes to your mind. Belt out your favorite music. Ride from the exact minute the sun rises to the exact minute it sets, because there’s no pressure of anyone finding your campsite. Who’s going to see or hear you at night? The prisoners at the Jasliq prison? They’re too busy being tortured. The biohazard workers at Kantubek? They’re too busy burying literally tons of anthrax left over from the Soviet Union. Sunbathers relaxing at the edge of the Aral Sea? Boy, do I have news for you, there is no sea. People who live elsewhere drained it, and it’s an ecological catastrophe. My campsite descriptions in my journal along this stretch look like this:
Nowhere, but with wind.
Voice 2: “Why do we like doing this, again?”
Voice 1: “Because deep down I know that even you like it and find it fun. C’mon. Let’s go.”
500km down of this desert, about 1500km to go until it’s over.
There was an accident involving a ski lift at Gudauri last week or the week before. It involved a lift that slid back and, I think, a proverbial ‘big red button’ that didn’t work. There are some scary videos online, and I think everyone I met there is well and accounted for. Safety standards exist for a reason, but freak accidents occur as well. I’m obviously not qualified to give any sort of expert opinion, having only spent a few days there. Nevertheless, my thoughts go out to everyone involved.