One Steppe Beyond


I find myself, quite unplanned, in Shymkent today. It wasn’t my intention to come here, nor was it my intention to get a train a couple of hundred miles, bypassing Kyzlorda, to Turkestan. Not for that matter did I intend to grab a train from Shalkar to Aralsk. But plans change, and that is a part of the fun that makes a good adventure.

Kazakhstan is enormous; primarily comprising rolling Steppe. In August that, for the most part, means arid grassland, dust, and sand; open to a vast horizon as far as your can see. For want of typically Western dichotomy, it is beautiful and relentless, exhilarating yet monotonous, challenging, mindumbing (honestly – my mind wondered to weird places) and seemingly unending. It is a peaceful calm, quiet and engulfing, a place of soring eagles where you can wrap the silence around yourself as you breathe deep and watch a blazing sun descend towards the horizon… At the same time it can produce angry swirls of dust, intense heat, and furious unabated oven-door gusts of wind, that whip your bike back-and-forth-and-off-the-side, slowing you down and cutting your progress to a crawl.

The roads are of a similar nature, some, honestly most once you reach Aralsk, are good (shiny new and smoothly paved), and some are bad. Or rather they are a comical and chaotic mix of old and weathered-away paving, rough gravel metalling, potholes evoking bomb sites, packed dirt, loose sand, and anything in-between. Most local drivers refuse to use such roads, opting to drive parallel to the road along worn dirt tracks through the Steppe. The same tracks were often better for me too, when firmly packed enough; when loose, the bike’s skinny tyres would sink in, and jolt to a stop.

On arrival in Atyrau, Day 1, I packed my bike together, pumped the tyres, and headed straight for the main station; there I stood around like the lost tourist I am, until a lady took pity on me and showed me how to get a number for the ticket booths. I was too late however, the tickets being sold out, and my number never came up; rather the booths all simultaneously shut, leaving me stumped and a little confused.

Again my befuddled appearance paid off, and I was approached and offered a chance to bribe my way into the postal carriage at the end of the train. I did so, unsubtly ‘sneaking’ my bike through the bay doors in the wagon side (set a good metre above platform level), grabbing some snacks, and boarding myself. I shared the day long ride with a postal worker and two others, chatting, and sharing food atop a makeshift table of other people’s packages.

I alighted in the less than remarkable Kandiygash, bought water and food, before setting up camp a short ways on. From there down to Shalkar I made decent progress, despite bum numbingly poor road conditions. Along the way I was treated to gifts of cold water, encouragements, and an invitation to tea and lunch with a family in the village of Mugodzhary. Tea in Kazakhstan is an exotic and tasteful affair, prepared in a teapot, with a splash of fresh milk (and maybe biscuits and a piece of toffee or rock on the side). I also, much to my delight, saw several eagles, soring low over the road.

At Shalkar I decided, despite reservations, to give my original plan a shot; to head south, then east, via the small village of Aqbasty amidst the remnants of the Aral Sea. To do so would require me to carry at least three days worth of water, and to follow a series of increasingly less travelled dirt roads. Ambitious and a bit stupid with road tyres. I made it 10 miles before the relatively untraveled road became too sandy (and simply annoying in its bumpiness; there is a phenomenon of dirt-road erosion which results is ripples, or ‘washboarding’, of the surface… it pummels the derriere of poor cyclists). I camped out, used my excess water for a wash, before returning to Shalkar the following morning to catch a train.

As no train would be available until nearly 9pm, I had a lot of waiting to look forward too. I was rapidly adopted by the station’s cadre of mechanics, headed up by a man named Bouran: being fed; given space to snooze; and being taken on a photographic tour of the station, to the top of a rickety old lookout tower, and to the local bazaar to buy melons. The train ride was hot, but painless, arriving at 1am in Aralsk for a slightly scary night-time ride to find a camp spot outside of the town.

Aralsk was formerly a busy fishing town, before the recession and salinisation of the Aral Sea due to extensive and damaging irrigation and fertilising practices by the Soviets. Between 1960 and 1997 the sea had shrunk to just 10% of its former size. It was formerly one of the four largest lakes in the world.

From Aralsk the road became good, and I hoped for good progress – instead a steady and strong east-southeasterly wind sprung up and reduced me to pushing around 50 miles a day.

The first night from Aralksk I slept by a lake, a leftover from the retreating sea, swimming and having my first quasi-wash of a the trip (excepting wet-wipe showers). On the third day I tried in vain to visit Baikonur Cosmodrome, understanding that on occasion it is possible to visit the town and museum, but the Russian border guard turned me away, arms crossed over chest.

Baikonur, the worlds largest cosmodrome, is the site from which Yuri Gagarin, the first man in space, launched, and from which all International Space Station missions launch today. It is also something of a wasteland, devastated by toxic fuel emissions from decades of rocket launchers and experimentation.

A day in from Baikonur I rode past the strange spectacle of the Korkyt Ata Memorial Complex; a post-modern monument erected in the 80s to Korkyt Ata – a bard of folk legend amongst Turkic peoples. The monument channels the wind across a series of pipes, producing a haunting and almost unnerving sound. It was working very efficiently when I stopped to visit.

Alongside the monument, a somewhat tacky ethnographic museum of yurts and inflatable props (Ethnoaul) seeks to educate Kazakhstan nationals of their nomadic heritage. I intended not to visit, but, as I battled across the eager evening wind and back towards the main road, I was stopped and told that I should visit, and could stay as a guest (for free). Thoroughly convinced I swerved into the museum, toured the yurts, dressed convincingly as Ghengis Khan, and ate a fantastic Beshbarmak prepared by the site staff (a fun and welcoming mix of family, friends, and students working a summer job; they all live on site in yurts). Beshbarmak is the Kazakh national dish; a pasta soup with horse meat. Breakfast the next day was a typical hot rice pudding, with a delicious pasta and meat course at lunch, before I battled on, in the wind that never stopped, to Zhosaly, the nearby town, to try for a train (I had by this point got rather behind schedule, and was reasonably, and rightly, envisioning no end to the wind). The train left at 10am the following day, taking me south to Turkestan, where I finally checked into a hotel and had a real shower.

As the sun set, I explored the inspiring environs of the never-to-be-finished Khoja Ahmed Yasawi Mausoleum (entombing the self-same 12th-century Sufi mystic); a forbidding maw of 14th century brown brick (or ganch) rising to a pointed grand arched portal, 37.5 metres high, ornamented by jagged timber corbels and spiralled architraves, with colourful glazed brick and tile work, including central-asia’s largest brick dome, to the rear of the edifice. The spectacle is completed by a chorus of thousands of singing birds, which nest upon the corbels of the portal.

This morning I swung by the Mausoleum once more, taking a look inside at the museum displays and tomb therein, before heading out.

Before I got more than a mile out of town I got a puncture. Then another (other tyre). Then another; which turned out to be two punctures in one. Apparently a number of caltrop-like thorns had attacked my bike. I think the heat of the road softens my purportedly hardy tyres, leaving them soft and susceptible to perforation.

With my rear inner tube so dotted with red adhesive patches it resembled a case of chicken pocks, I continued. A few miles on, into the same old southeasterly headwind, two car loads of cyclists from Shymkent (members of the South Kazakhstan cycle club, or some such) stopped me for a selfy (a surprisingly common occurrence) and offered a lift to Shymkent. I’d been planning on bypassing the city, but figured I’d might as well go with the flow, so accepted; avoiding possibly quite a dull bit of riding, and being dropped at a bike shop in town. There I purchased new inner tubes, and had the bearings in my front wheel changed (rather long overdue).

Tomorrow I plan to finally do some cycling, and am praying that the wind decides to come from anywhere but the East… Onwards to Almaty!


2 thoughts on “One Steppe Beyond

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