Cycling the Kazak steppe

Moments after our boat docked in Aktau, Kazakhstan, I opened the door of our cabin and peered down the hall. My eyes were greeted from a scene straight out of James Bond, as 4 military men decked out in black boots, furry hats and AK47s hanging loosely from their shoulders, marched down the hall. Like anyone whose seen too many Hollywood films, my mind instantly froze. We haven't done anything wrong, have we?


Their apparences were misleading, as they so often are. Although we couldn't understand a word they were saying, and neither could they understand us, there were smiles all round. Five minutes later and our bags were being carried off the boat by the gentleman in our Military escort, before we were whisked away for a quick passport stamp and pedalling off into the silent night.


Our late night arrival in Kazakhstan felt eerily similar to the first night of our trip. With butterflies in my stomach and a sense of nervous excitement at what lay ahead, we cycled on to a new continent, with new cultures and new adventures to be had. Kazakhstan represents the half way point of our trip, our first taste of Central Asia, and our entry to the heart of the Silk Road.


The next morning we were hunched over a giant cheesy pizza (my dream breakfast had finally come true), tracing our route along the map. 500km of nothing but desert and steppes lay between us and the border of Uzbekistan. With the odd town or tiny settlement every 100km, we needed to carry 5L of water per person per day. We crossed our fingers hoping that these tiny towns would have markets for food supplies, and pushed off into the unknown.


It didn't take long to get back into our rythme and the kilometres fell as the hours went by. But as night closed in, we weren't particularly keen on setting up camp. Western Kazakhstan had been pounded by recent rains and every patch of ground was a mud bath. Not your ideal campground. Luckily our guardian angel stepped in, and like so many times before, we were welcomed into the home of smiling strangers.


Zaman had impeccable English and was keen to hear our stories from the road, as well as teach us the local Kazak culture. At dinner I was pleasantly surprised by Kazak cuisine, and thoroughly enjoyed a bowl of home made Borsch. My prejudices against Russian foods were quickly smashed, and to top it all off, we even had our own private Hammam and sauna. What a wonderful welcome to Central Asia it was!


The next few days were filled with endless open plains. Herds of beautiful wild horses cantered by every hour, completely at home in this wild landscape. At one point we were cycling along the smooth tarmac racing a herd of 30 horses, completely in awe of their grace and power.


The horizons were dotted with majestic camels, slowly ploughing forward to unknown destinations. Wandering the landscape like their ancestors before them, the life and blood of transport along the Silk Road for centuries past. They'd often stand by the side of the road and stare as we slowly pedalled by, maybe wondering where these crazy kids on bicycles headed.


Hundreds of kilometres of open Kazak steppes meant countless perfect campsites. For the first time in months we could even enjoy the last hours of the day, lying in he grass reading and drawing as the sun slipped away. We were greeted by the singing songs of birds each morning, as springtime finally spread its warmth across the landscape. Wow, it felt good to be back on the road again.