As I rolled my way past Jasliq, a tiny town out here in the vast expanse of Qaraqolpakstan, a local man walked up to me and, in perfect English, said “Hello there! What’s a dazzling urbanite like you doing in a rustic setting like this?” We shared a hearty laugh. This is probably one of my favorite lines from one of my favorite movies, Blazing Saddles. Newly-appointed Sheriff Bart has just ridden into the Western town of Rock Ridge, carrying Gucci-branded saddlebags, looking like a million bucks. But he’s obviously not welcome there, because he’s black, and the rest of the town is white. Gene Wilder’s character, recognizing that the Sheriff is out of his element, hits him with this line, which perfectly sums up the absurdity of the situation.
I was astounded. The cultural comprehension that this guy had just shown! He must have seen the movie! The ability to make this connection and compare my unexpected presence in Jasliq with Sheriff Bart’s in Rock Ridge resulted in a truly unique first interaction among thousands that I have had. Wow. Incredible. Looking back now, it is really quite hard to convince myself that the interaction actually occurred. Maybe I’m having trouble convincing you too. Ah. Well. There’s the rub. It didn’t actually happen. In reality, he came up to me, said a few words I can’t understand, grinned in a way I can’t really tell was menacing or not, and left disappointed when I dismissed him with a shake of my head and a quick “I don’t understand” in Russian.
Over the last while, I’ve had very little to think about except for how to work Blazing Saddles quotes into my blog post for this stretch. For long stretches of this post, I am just… nowhere. Launched like a sputtering old Lada into a vast desert. I am in Nukus now, the capital of the Qaraqolpak region.
Not everywhere in the world is pretty. Not everywhere in the world lends itself to majestic pictures and tales of triumph over mountain passes. Over the last two weeks or so, I crossed Mangystau province in Kazakhstan and Qaraqolpakstan in northwest Uzbekistan. There is nothing remarkable about these regions. There are prettier stretches of road in my immediate plans. There are also many other deserts in Central Asia. But this one, the largest and most remote I’ll probably cross on this trip, grew on me as I went. The crossing it was a gruelingly tough but undeniably powerful experience that I’ll never forget. I am struggling while writing this post with how to succinctly communicate why this was. It all comes down to an overwhelming frustration with the inaccessibility and desolation of the whole region. I’ll try my best to describe my experiences and as usual give advice to anyone else (god forbid someone else finds this sort of thing fun) who comes this way. Along to help me is the world’s foremost expert on all things Uzbekistan, Herman Cain. Back to Beyneu!
Beyneu turned out to be less than the horror story that I had been fearing. Someone out there has written a “guide to Beyneu” on the internet, which describes it succinctly as “a town” and proceeds to just rip it apart. I’ll update that description for 2018 and say that it is “a town, but with a good (for the area) supermarket and a hotel with good (again, for the area) wi-fi.” It’s really not that bad, and I stayed there for a few days while I waited for my Uzbek visa to start. An unexpectedly pleasant stay.
The ride to the border, though was the first of a series of demoralizing slogs. I had been telling myself for months that “oh, it’ll be fine, you’ll luck out and get tailwinds straight away and just sail across this region. Nope. A couple of long days into a headwind to start things off. It’s a special kind of frustration that settles in when you struggle against a headwind for 20km, look back and see the town you left an hour ago still on the mind-numbingly flat horizon.
A note as well on the road from Beyneu to about 50-60km past the border. Oh my goodness. The wet Ustyurt (geological name of the region) mud that others have found can apparently go die in a fire. And the dry, hard-packed Ustyurt mud that I found can go right along with it. I thought that by coming in a ‘dry’ season, I would be able to miss the worst of what other cyclists had found. Pictures abound (actually one or two, not many people come through here and take pictures) of trucks stuck to their axles in mud. There is no ‘road’ from Beyneu to the border, although there might be one in a few years. Right now it’s just some dudes pushing around dirt with their diggers in a Central Asian hurry, which is to say not much of one at all. The prevailing condition of the road is mostly a desire path. People need to get from Beyneu to the border, so they have gradually worn a route across the steppe. There is no gravel, because where (and more importantly why, it’s truly in the middle of nowhere) would you get the gravel here for an 80km road? It’s a rutted, potholed, often muddy mess, with broken glass everywhere.
The desert has ruined my bags, and it’s taken an axe to my tires. My zippers, on my bike and in my tent, are struggling with a fine dust that just seeps into everything. My face is coated in a few layers of it as well. The ruts have caused a handful of pinch flats, my Holy Rollers whining under a weight I’ve determined they just weren’t designed to carry. I’ve spent most every night out of Beyneu fixing a new snakebite pinch flat and I’m running low on patches. Between new tubes and patches, I have five ‘strikes’ before I have to hitch to somewhere I can get more of either item, or some rim strips, or, I don’t know, something. For the first few times I’d curse and get really angry and frustrated at the misfortune of breaking down. What was I doing wrong?? Then I started to look around me, to see that there was pretty reliably a car with a flat tire every 20-30km as well. I’m not the only one struggling with the roads out here.
Anyways, on to Uzbekistan. Qaraqolpakstan is a province covering the entirety of the northwest of the country, and it’s one big desert to the south of the Aral Sea. To get there, I had to go through Uzbek customs, also in the middle of nowhere. Uzbek borders are known for being notoriously difficult to cross, but this has recently changed for the better. The new president won a power struggle with one of his (newly-demoted) top generals, and is rapidly liberalizing the country’s tourism policies. And by ‘liberalizing’, I mean bringing them up to modern standards. Green/red ‘to declare’ lanes meaning I didn’t have to declare how much currency I’m carrying. A new e-visa system goes into effect in July for Americans. The exchange rate reflects the market rate for dollars, and a new 10,000 Som bill (about $1.25) has made it easiER to carry around cash. In short, customs is no longer the hours-long hassle it used to be. It took me maybe 45 minutes, and I was picked out of line as a tourist and ushered through. That being said…
They still really care about pills and other drugs. I had to go through my medical kit and describe the meds I had with me. Mostly innocuous stuff. A multivitamin, altitude meds, Benadryl, etc. The only problem was immodium, and come on, these guys have seen immodium before. I have a sneaking suspicion that they just want to see me humiliatingly mime out the reason I’m carrying immodium. So that’s how I ended up mimicking diarrhea in front of a handful of heavily-armed Uzbek soldiers.
As I was packing my things up again, ready to leave, the captain asked if I liked “Uzbek Cigarettes” and pulled a dime bag of something green out of his pocket. I’m like 95% sure it was tobacco, but then he made a snorting gesture and grinned sort of oddly at me. I smiled, tried to say “I don’t understand you. My abstention from mind-altering substances is an eternal gift that I would never give up.” and continued on my way. That part was a lie. Fearing a lengthy customs inspection, I had finished what I can only call a healthy amount of Kazakh vodka the night before in my tent. I also deleted literally terabytes of porn from my tablet and external drive, and 15 copies of The Qaraqolpak Separatist Bathroom Reader: 40 Hilarious Ways to Piss Off Your Local Authority from my e-reader. (Joke) Customs cleared, I thanked them all for one of the more interesting border crossings I’ve had to date, and headed out the door.
After the border, I thought there would be a paved road, but that’s not really true. I’d say it’s about 25% paved until about 50-60km after the border, and the other 75% alternates between as bad as the Kazakh side and slightly less bad. That entire, maybe 130-140km stretch was a nightmare, though and I’m glad I’m done with it.
Water stops between the border and more substantive civilization include Karakalpakiya (25km), Jasliq (~160km), and the Bon Voyage Chaikhana at about 300km. Plan accordingly. There’s not much else here. Karakalpakiya has a dirty chaykhana with not much for sale. I didn’t inquire about rooms, but some have stayed. Jasliq’s is quite nice and has private rooms and warm showers for 45,000 Som (about $5.50) and filling Plov for 15,000. It’s about 6km past the turnoff for Jasliq, just past Duke Ellington’s grave. (Jasliq. Jazz lick. Ha.) Jasliq has a notorious prison, which has been condemned for a broad array of human rights abuses. I didn’t stop by the prison, or the town.
I don’t really know what to say about the sparse bits of civilization that exist out here. I didn’t take pictures of the people, or of the buildings, because it just felt a step too voyeuristic. You can find them elsewhere if you’re curious. It’s cold, it’s barren, and it’s just… well, there’s no good way to put it. It’s unbelievably bleak, and the people who live here manage to survive somehow. Truckers pass through, and people like me come through occasionally. Once every summer hundreds of Mongol Rally teams fly through in weird, decorated cars that must look like spaceships. The locals sit around and drink vodka, as evidenced by the absurd amount of broken glass along the side of the road. Qaraqolpakstan is certainly not set up to sustain me for long periods of time, so hitting my daily distance goals became not just a personal desire, but essential to my survival. I try to hit at least 80km a day, but unfortunately 80km can either be a pre-lunch snap or a 7pm-setting-up-camp-as-the-sun-sets grueling ride, depending on the direction of the wind. On this stretch, in the truly remote areas, I unfortunately had more of the latter than the former.
That being said, the camping has been divine. It’s cold, maybe a little below freezing every night. But I came prepared, and that part of my setup has worked out remarkably well. Phenomenal desert sunsets, a stunningly bright full moon, and vibrant purple sunrises. And in the end, that’s what I’ll take away from this region. Tougher than expected riding, bleaker than expected scenery, but just an incredibly memorable and powerful experience driven by amazing nights spent camped out here in the desert alone.
The kind old lady who runs the Jasliq Chaikhana (which I kept on mistakenly referring to as the Jasliq Cantina, like Mos Eisley) saw me dejectedly return inside after testing the wind the day after I rode in and responded by blowing and miming a headwind. It was probably the most adorable thing I’ve seen in my life. It was not something I wanted to ride in, and so I spent the day hiding out and filling up on Plov. (“You want TWO plovs??? At the same time???”)
The next day, the wind had abated, and over the next two days I managed to cover a total of 280km to Nukus. It was very close to the most distance I’ve ever covered in two days, but it sort of felt like cheating. I had a great tailwind the entire second day. I had finally reached the end of this desert, and settled into my second choice (and slightly higher priced) hotel in the center of town. I reveled in that mix of overwhelming fatigue and accomplishment that I love about this mode of travel. Absolutely drained for the last 50km, I found myself starting to take emotional beats in the podcasts I was listening to pretty hard, and tearing up pretty regularly. It was wild. Things just seemed to carry a little more emotional weight. I’d been worried about this section of the trip for a long time. Water and food availability. Remoteness. There were a few moments at which I considered giving in and hitching. Bent over my handlebars, with nothing but miles and miles of desert around me, tire slowly going flat for the third time in as many days. But I’m here, still rolling. Qaraqolpakstan has been crossed.
I’ll save Nukus for next time, as I did with Beyneu. This post is getting long. Please send tire patches.