I have left the Caspian and won't see the sea again until Thailand next year. I am now nearing the end of my time cycling in Western Kazakhstan, just 100km from Uzbekistan, my next country. I'd told myself Kazakhstan would be easy, just 550km of nothing. But I'd massively underestimated how hard nothing can be. Kazakhstan is the country which has come closest to breaking me so far.
I avoid looking at the long, straight road ahead. It stretches off into the horizon and just looking at it drains the energy from my legs. There is nothing much on the left or right either, as only small shrubs and grasses grow from the dusty, cracked ground, extending all the way to the horizon. A chain of pylons parallel the road on the left and follow it as far as I can see, to the horizon, and probably a few more horizons after that too. This view has remained unchanged in the past 280km, and cycling it has felt much like running on a treadmill. Am I actually getting anywhere?
The feelings of slow progress are exacerbated by ferocious winds which have whipped across Kazakh Steppe for thousands of unobstructed miles just to slam into my face. It has been a slog; stop pedalling, stop moving. Even on the downhills, you must keep pedalling just to continue heading in the right direction at a slow 7 miles (10 kilometres) an hour. My mind wanders; I usually manage to keep positive and feel privileged to be out here, experiencing this, but sometimes the bleakness is too much of a mental strain, and the distances seems too great! In those moments I gaze at the ground rushing past in between my legs, evidence I am actually moving, or I count my pedal strokes to 100, and then start over again, simply to distract myself.
This desolation is incredible to witness, and cycling across it really puts into perspective
just how vast these distances are. Kazakhstan is the 9th largest country in the world, and yet remains home to only 17 million people. Susanna and I have had to carry up to 18 litres of water, and three days of food to get us from one village to the next. When we get to the next village, our hopes of finding good food are invariably crushed pretty quickly; shops are poorly stocked with many only selling a bizarre combination of crisps and boiled sweets. Not exactly a nutritious or calorific diet for two cyclists. A shop with more variety remains disappointing seeming to specialise primarily in out-of-date tins and jars.
These difficulties pale in comparison to the heat however, which has made cycling, or just being outside in general, almost unbearable. Shade is a completely unnatural thing in the desert, leaving little option but to keep cycling through the 50°C heat until shade is available, sometimes up to 60km without stopping. Occasionally a cloud will pass in front of the sun providing a few sacred seconds of shade. These are moments to savour, and I immediately stop cycling and soak up the coolness, before the cloud passes and throws me back into the furnace of Kazakhstan. Sometimes an irregular feature will appear on the horizon; it will be half an hour before I reach it, but it promises some degree of respite. A bus stop is the best, with a roof and a bench, providing shade all day and somewhere to lie down. Usually though, it is just a signpost. I still take the opportunity to contort my body into whatever shape is required to fit in the small patch of shade. All morning, as I watch the sun climb to its harsh midday peak, the patches of shade shrink all around me, leaving me feeling like a polar bear whose vital ice floes are all melting.
This hostile environment threatens my very existence for the entire time I am here, and yet life appears to thrive here. Seeing all the wildlife has been one of the highlights of my time in Kazakhstan. Reptiles love to bask in the heat of the road, and I often spot lizards and snakes darting away from the road. Gigantic birds of prey soar high above, a huge feathery silhouette against the bright sky above, while small birds flutter and dance around on the edge of the road. Head off the road and you might spot a tortoise, spider or scorpion. If you're lucky (or unlucky) you might catch a glimpse of one of Kazakhstan's 90,000 wolves. And then there are the camels; seeing something like a camel, of which there are an abundance in Kazakhstan, makes me realise just how far from home I have cycled!
While I'm sure this blog post makes it sound like a miserable experience, it hasn't actually been so bad! I have enjoyed the emptyness, and am proud to have made it through the desert, even if much more desert lies ahead in Uzbekistan. Sometimes, it is what is known as 'type 2 fun' – more fun looking back on the experience with hindsight, than it was at the time!