Across Continents

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Road to Bishkek

June 7th, 2010
The sticking point seemed to be that there was no longer a train across the border into the Kyrgyz Republic and the Capital Bishkek. Rioting had put a stop to that. In any case, I planned to cycle across the frontier. If things got sticky I wanted the flexibility, the self-sufficiency, a bicycle offered. Not trapped in a train. There also seemed to be a bit of a debate about how Emma might be carried, but I’d the advantage of having done this once before. Knew there was a separate baggage car, wouldn’t be a problem.Despite the fearsome heat I’d managed to cover two hundred miles or so, pretty much the length of Wales, in three days. Conditions had been much, much tougher than I’d expected. Suppose, under the circumstances, I was pleased with progress. But it wasn’t enough to make the Chinese border before my hard won visa became invalid and entry would be refused. Not without passing up an irresistible chance to visit Bishkek, or to spend a day or so in Kazakhstan’s old Capital Almaty.

When I’d originally decided to cross much of the Kazakh steppe by train, I’d toyed with continuing on beyond Kyzylorda, disembarking much closer to Bishkek. But I’d wanted to experience desert conditions, an environment I’d never cycled in before. Put the theory I’d been taught into practice. Develop and refine skills I’d need quite a bit before the expedition was over. Box ticked in spades. And I was really glad I’d done it. Learnt an awful lot.

The revised plan? Overnight train from Turkistan to the small town of Lugovoy, about thirty miles from the Kyrgyz Republic border. Puts me back on track. Practical necessity I tell myself. And it is, but it still niggles because I know that, but for visa constraints, I could ride the whole way. In the grand scheme of things I’m sure none of this really matters, accepted practice for long-haul touring cyclists. But I’ve never been very good at acquiescing just because others do.

So, I found myself back at a railway station, this time in Turkistan. Ainur had, once again, very kindly offered to help, taking me to the station late on Sunday evening to make the arrangements. How close to the border could I get? Where did the Bishkek train now stop? All sorted. Eventually. Arrived in town less than eight hours earlier. You never know quite how each day’s going to play out.


Tales from Turkistan

June 5th, 2010

Turkistan. At last. Two hundred miles south of Kyzylorda across the inhospitable Kazakh steppe. I’d stopped briefly at a small cafe on the outskirts, seeking directions for the centre. Found a mobile phone pressed into my hand, an English speaking female voice at the other end. Wasn’t exactly sure who the woman was, but explained what I was doing, adding I’d been given a sketch map to help me find somewhere to stay.

After the emptiness of the steppe, a mele of sights and sounds in Turkistan. Vehicles stopping suddenly, forcing others to weave erratically around them. Scant regard for traffic lights. Pedestrians wandering aimlessly across the road, unperturbed by the traffic. Alluring aromas from roadside cafes and market stalls.


I drifted around for a while, soaking up a little civilisation. Then off to find somewhere to stay. Chancing on a hotel mentioned in my guide book, I’d suspected it’d be outside my budget but thought I’d enquire in any case. Barely reached the reception desk when a young woman arrived, addressing me in English. Ainur explained that it was she I’d spoken to earlier in the cafe her mother ran. She’d guessed where I might go and had come to help. Which she did admirably. Got an ensuite room for the price of a basic single. About fifteen pounds for a night. Came with air conditioning. And Emma could join me.

All that would have been generosity enough. But no. Returning to the lobby after dinner, I met Ainur once more, quite unexpectedly. She was keen to show me something of her home town. The Mausoleum of the first popular Turkic Muslim holy man, Kozha Akhmed Yasaui, built in the fourteenth century. Beautiful rose gardens.


Toilet tips

June 4th, 2010


On the train from Atyrau to Kyzylorda there was invariably a wait for the squat toilet at the end of the carriage. But not for the Western style porcelain affair at the other end. I seemed to be the only user, discretely placing a small tear in the roll of unusually soft toilet paper to see if anyone else made use of it. It appeared not.

Squat toilets aren’t anything new on this expedition, commonplace in France and again in the old Eastern Bloc countries, Turkey and the Caucasus. Definitely never been my first choice of lavatory, so why their popularity? I suspect the answer is the very reason, ironically, I’m not a huge fan. Hygiene. Except for where you put your feet, no contact with where someone else has been before you. Provided you can cope with the squatting position, anatomically probably quite good, doesn’t sound such a bad idea. Except that some designs are susceptible to being blocked by paper, so you have to pop that in an adjacent bin.

Out in the villages, in more remote places, it’s the pit toilet. Same idea as the squat type, but without the water flush. Filling, if the guide books are to be believed, Western travellers with absolute dread, especially in hot climates. Bit harsh? I think so. For one thing, local people have used them for centuries, and I don’t suppose the old outside toilet down the end of an English garden was that much more attractive. No, like most things, some are truly terrible, many are not. Just like the Western style ones.

And what, you may ask, is a decent pit toilet? A stone built building helps keep the inside cool, less fragrant. Small windows, without glass, also help the air inside from getting stuffy, especially in hot climates. And, if all is working properly, natural biological processes render human waste relatively odourless. Which means no dropping paper into the pit. That normally goes into a metal receptacle for burning.


At the cafe

June 3rd, 2010

At the cafe from Ken Roberts on Vimeo.

Ken describes proper adventure in the Kazakh steppe, and a night in a small family run roadside cafe. And admire the only trees for miles.


Pit stop

June 3rd, 2010


I’d ridden hard from Zhangaqorghan towards the town of Turkistan, anxious to make as much ground to the south as I could in the relative cool of the evening. I’d intended to stop around nine and discretely pitch my tent away from the road, but instead came across a small settlement. Gave me an idea. A homestay. Usually very inexpensive, and a great way to experience village life. But had to be quick. Would soon be dark.

Asking around, I was directed to a small family run roadside cafe. In a mixture of broken Kazakh and Russian, I explained I’d hoped to reach Turkistan that night, but it was now too late. Could I sleep here? Yes. It seemed I could. And Emma could spend the night in the porch. The usual fascination with my map and phrase book over, I was beckoned to the water pump in the yard to remove the worst of the salty grime I’d accumulated. Then a generous bowl of mutton soup, a roll mat, pillow and duvet. Bed at last. Not bad for about five pounds.


In the Kazakh steppe

June 2nd, 2010

In the Kazakhstan steppe from Ken Roberts on Vimeo.

Ken describes riding across the Kazakh steppe in ferocious temperatures.


Blazing saddles

June 2nd, 2010

Shade. I lay prostrate against the sloping concrete supports of a small bridge, exhausted. Five in the afternoon, temperature still in the thirties in the Kazakhstan Steppe. Contemplating the road to Bishkek, how best to deal with such fierce, draining heat. A wide brimmed sun hat and sunblock provide a modicum of protection. Settlements are infrequent, sometimes thirty or forty kilometres apart, the odd petrol station, but sufficient to replenish with water. And frequent donations from passing motorists.

Long road

Nothing moves during the middle of the day. Except the traffic on the main road south, and even that seems lighter. Livestock, goats and cattle mostly, the sheep content to wander, vie for shelter in the occasional concrete bus shelter. Lorries parked up, their drivers lying beneath their trailers. Temperature in the high thirties. The air tastes hot.

Attempt to ride much after eleven in the morning, and again before four or five in the afternoon, and progress is barely worth the effort. A few kilometres at a stretch, then the struggle to find shelter, to cool down. And, despite the odd passing vehicle, so very lonely, the landscape barren, arid, inhospitable. The elements harsh, unforgiving.

I’d found myself stopping in small family run cafes, flaked out across chairs or benches, sleeping, like many of the local people, during the hottest part of the day. Given generous bowls of mutton soup to revive me, payment refused. Every sinew of meat devoured. And small gifts of local chocolate to take with me, surprisingly resilient to the intense heat.

Water alone fails to satisfy. You crave cold fluids. With temperatures close to that of the body’s core, the cooling effect seems as vital as keeping properly hydrated. And the quantities you need to consume are quite staggering. Close on a litre an hour. Quite possible to down an entire bottle without pausing. Even the smallest village shops, often precious little on the shelves, have freezers brimming with a multitude of cool beverages. But not cold. Too much of a struggle for the refrigerators.

Driving south from Kyzylorda across the Steppe, progress on the first day had been a respectable eighty miles. But much of it achieved by riding late into the evening, pushing hard in the relative cool. But the next day, from Shieli towards the town of Turkistan, had been much tougher going, the road conditions generally poorer and the heat more intense. By five I’ve reached the outskirts of Zhangaqorghan, where I’d found some respite under the small bridge. Still almost fifty miles remaining to my intended stop in Turkistan.

Unsure what I’d find on the road ahead, I decided to stock up with more supplies and then continue on until dusk, before pitching my tent a discrete distance from the road. Rest, then back in the saddle at first light, riding hard until mid-morning, hoping by then to have reached Turkistan.


Made in China

May 30th, 2010


I’d joined Alexander for breakfast in the restaurant car. Borsh – Russian cabbage soup – and tea. We were sharing a sleeper cabin – a coupee – for the twenty four hour train journey from Atyrau to Kyzylorda. Very smart I suggested, air conditioned carriages, towels and bedding in pristine plastic wrappers, much better than the ageing sleepers back in England. Made in China he explained.

With each of us having just a smattering of our respective languages – Russian in his case – Alexander and I found some common ground discussing old eighties computers. He’d recently been to a convention in St Petersburg, and I explained I’d a fair sized collection of hardware at home. And even an emulator for one in my netbook.


The view out of the window had remained largely unchanged from the previous evening. Largely flat as far as one could see, the hardiest of vegetation, grasses mostly, the odd scraggy bush, an occasional tree. Arid Steppe. Inhospitable. Just an unceasing line of telegraph poles alongside the track, each seeming to pass in time with the rhythmic motion of the train. Mesmorising.

Then occasional patches of green. Wispy grasses, like strands of fine hair, flowing in the gentle breeze. A few small houses dotted around. Cultivated plots surrounded by trees. The odd camel wandering around. First sighting along the Silk Roads.

A few stops offered the chance to step off the train and wander along the platform. Colourful stalls. Later on, closer to our destination Kyzylorda, women selling dried Aral Sea fish in the afternoon sun, a light breeze making it quite pleasant. Even the routine Police check onboard was, it turned out, uneventful. The officer appeared to have a look of consternation when inspecting our papers. But no, explained Alexander when he’d gone, it was just that all of us, the Policeman included, shared exactly the same day and month of birth.

Most of our fellow passengers seemed to be families, except for three carriages at the rear, between the coupées and the baggage car where I’d secured Emma. Young conscripts off to join the Army. Their families and girlfriends packed on to the platform the previous evening to wave them off. Much cheering and bravado. But now quiet, calm, as we meandered across the Steppe. Just the odd old lady wandering past, offering newspapers or a few other sundries.

Such serenity was in marked contrast to the previous day. By mid-morning I was beset by my first bout of traveller’s diarrhoea, dreading the thought of twenty four hours couped up in a train, camped in what I feared would be a very dubious toilet. I toyed with delaying my departure but quickly discovered there wouldn’t be another space for almost a week. And that would throw my plans for crossing Kazakhstan into turmoil. So, tonight’s train it would have to be.

In a series of brief forays from my lodgings, waiting for the medication to begin to, well… err stem the flow I suppose, I stocked up on a few essentials. Some more tablets to help make the journey bearable, plenty of water and lots of extra re-hydration salts. My phrase book didn’t really extend to dealing with such situations, so I’d had to rely on a bit of acting. Pleased I was the only customer in the pharmacy.

I’d allowed plenty of time to ride from my lodgings to the railway station, just in case of a puncture, or under the circumstances, the odd rapid detour down a side road. In the end, the journey passed without event, and I was able to board the sleeper quite early. But not as early as I thought. Quite convinced I’d been in the correct time zone in Atyrau, the train nevertheless departed an hour earlier than I’d expected. Bemused, I could only imagine that as Kazakhstan has two zones, perhaps, to avoid confusion, the timetables stuck with one. But not the one I was in.

[With thanks to the Oxford Handbook of Expedition and Wilderness Medicine and James at Travel Health Consultancy – – for guidance on diagnosis and treatment, and my brother Steve for practical, reassuring advice]

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