This is how we entered Kazakhstan - the worlds 9th biggest country, known only to some through Borat but soon to be known by most, by it's oil wealth.
The sun was beating down as we crossed the border and the wind hadn't let up either. We had to get transport through Turkmenistan on the last day because of visas, but we didn't have that problem here - so rather than get a lift to that first town, we immediately began trying to make my bike rideable in some way.
The obvious thing to do, was the same as we had done when the derailleur snapped off near Tehran - make it into a single speed. Kazakhstan was going to be very flat we knew, so we chose a gear we thought wouldn't be too fast or too slow and then made the chain fit that gear. Unfortunately it was just like before, the chain kept jumping up or slipping down a gear. I was off the bike, putting it back on every few minutes, for about an hour. We were getting nowhere at this rate, not helping that the road was terrible again, so we decided it was actually quicker to walk.
It was difficult setting up the tent in the wind as usual, but was made all the more fun when our groundsheet bag blew out of Dan's hands and took flight. He instantly took chase at full speed, sprinting after it across the desert. He was only about a meter behind it the whole time, but the bag was moving as fast as he was. I was cheering the bag on, wondering how long Dan would last. After about 100 meters he was starting to tire, and knew he had to do something, so he went for all or nothing... he put in one final push, as fast as he could go, and then dived - flying through the air. Unfortunately, he came crashing down and just managed to put his hand on top of the bag.
After we'd put the tent up and I'd stopped laughing, I began trying to make my bike rideable again...
We were really low on food again by this point and rationing what we had left, and the wind was becoming a joke. It not only made cycling really difficult, but it also meant we could hardly be bothered to talk to each other because shouting over the wind constantly was an effort, and simple things like making a sandwich or getting the bike up off the floor were always interesting.
Something was different when we awoke the next morning and climbed out of the tent – the wind was slightly on our backs. It was stronger than usual as well. A very welcome change, especially because our energy levels were rock bottom now – barely any dinner, and a slice of bread for breakfast, we needed to get to the town in one day - our food was almost all gone.
We did another 20km like this before the road did a 90 degree turn, turning into a horrible sidewind. By about 3pm we were 10km away, and I was tucking into my two emergency Cadbury Fredo bars, carried all the way from Cornwall. It was the very last bit of food I had, and Dan was completely out as well.
We found an ATM, foreign bank cards don't work in Iran, and we didn't see an ATM in Turkmenistan, so this was the first time we'd withdrawn money in two months. Then, starving, we headed to the nearest shop...
Round 1 – Simply buy everything that looked the most delicious, regardless of price, go outside and devour it all.
Round 2 – Re-enter the shop, inquire about prices of each item first and then buy what looked tasty but also good value, then go outside and devour all of that.
Round 3 – Go back in, ignore the confused looks from the shop workers, and stock up on food for the next few days.
As barely anybody uses the border crossing we'd entered from, this town rarely sees foreigners, so everyone was pretty excited about us, including the police.
We then got fingerprinted, filled in loads of forms and had our photos taken - which was the first time we'd seen ourselves in a long time. We definitely weren't looking our best and in need of a good shower...
It felt immense, not long enough to get every layer of dirt off, but I felt like a new man. Then the guys said they'd show us to a hotel. We thanked them but explained that we can't afford hotels. It was their gift though they told us, they would pay! So far the police seemed great, especially considering the Kazakh Police are well known for being some of the most corrupt.
30 seconds around the corner was the hotel, not a single sign suggesting it was one, it just looked identical to every house around it. Inside though, it was very obviously a nice cheap hotel. We set our bags down and the two policemen said for us to relax for an hour and then they will be back to take us for some grub.
After a shave and a lie down, they were back. We jumped in the back of their old banged-up police car and headed to a little restaurant/bar. Inside were loads more police who'd just finished dinner and heading off. We went upstairs, and knelt around a long low table. We were joined by a few more guys - all something to do with the police and then a round of cold delicious looking beers were brought over.
Two months it had been since we'd had an alcoholic drink. We cheers-ed and then drank – what a reward for the last two weeks this night was turning out to be – Sauna, shower, hotel room, beer, and now the waitress was bringing over plate after plate of amazing-looking food.
Well-fed and already a little tipsy, we headed back outside with them, everyone taking another beer for the road. We got back in the police car, the two uniformed police guys in the front and Dan, myself and a guy from the police office squeezed in the back.
“You smoke Ganja?” he asked.
Then they start preparing it and offered for us to go first – at the age of 26 I have never felt the need to smoke weed - beer has always sufficed, but there are some opportunities you just can't turn down and to smoke weed with some Policemen, in the middle of nowhere, in Kazakhstan, was one of those times. Ten minutes later I was very aware I was smiling at all of them way too much and Dan looked equally happy about everything.
“What time did you finish work today?” Dan asks them.
“We haven't finished” They responded.
It wasn't long before we were squeezing in the back of the car again and cruising back through the town this time at a much slower pace, but with 50 Cents 'P.I.M.P' blaring out for the whole street to hear and still occasionally putting the sirens on when the need arose. Next stop was a liquour store to get more beers. Just as we all cracked one open, a call came through on their radio...they truly were still working.
We turned around, sped through the streets and pulled up alongside another police car outside a house. The main guy got out and walked in through the open front door of the house. It was a fight going on inside the house, and our guys had been called in as backup. The fight moved to the front door and we could now see the whole thing. Our car lights were on full beam pointing at the front of the house. As we sat there watching this fight, with the driver in the front sipping his beer, Dan, myself and the other guy in the back also with a beer in hand, I looked across to Dan and said “This must be the oddest night of our lives”. He agreed.
A little hungover the next day, we left the hotel and headed to a mobile phone shop - The battery on Dan's phone was running out within minutes, so he bought a knew one. Then we noticed how cheap the 3G sim cards were. It worked out that we could get 6GB of data for about $6 each. We'd had no internet for the last two weeks and before that 6 weeks of Iranian internet which bans any decent website, but now we had the option of internet in the tent (as long as we were close enough to a town for signal). It was an easy choice.
We sat outside on the street floor, excitedly taking it in turns on Dan's phone to check our emails, Facebook and all the football news. Then an old woman walked past and tried giving us some money each. We refused it, but then she turned, put it on our bicycles, smiled and walked off. It was the equivalent of $2.50 each, which paid for nearly half of the internet sim card.
There was however one thing that made us very, very happy as we were leaving the town...The previous week of tough cycling and malnutrition meant that every day we would be fantasizing about food. Many things popped into my head that week – full English fry-ups, Steak and chips, fish and chips, but the most common one was a Cornish Pasty. So I could hardly believe my eyes when Dan returned from the window of a shop holding two Cornish Pasties?!! It wasn't quite the same but they weren't the worst pasties I've tasted, so we bought a couple for the road each and set off.
We decided to put our findings together and said we would buy some food the next day with it. It didn't stop though, we were bending over picking up a coin every 30 seconds. “When do we stop” I thought to myself, we were in no position to turn free money down, but we weren't getting anywhere and the sun was setting. We carried on for 10km like this until finally the money stopped. By the finish we had found over $5 in coins. A big bottle of vodka is about $3 and we could get about 4 bottles of beer with the other $2, so it was a good find.
It meant that in the last 24 hours, we had been fed amazingly by the policemen, had loads of free beer, a free sauna and shower, a free hotel, been given $5 by an old woman and found $5 in coins along the road. Had it not been for buying the sim card, we would have made money that day.
We made camp alongside an old small building to try and hide from the wind that still hadn't let up and tucked into another Pasty each. We then lay in the tent trying to get our heads around the previous night.
The wind was strong again and in our faces, but the road was being rebuilt – some parts were brand new and not even open to traffic so we had the road to ourselves and then it would abruptly stop and we would be back on sand and stones again.
There was virtually no traffic as the road was only 50% finished, but luckily a car pulled up alongside when we were having a food stop and just as we'd run out of water. The first thing they offered us was water, we couldn't say no, so just asked for a top up. He reached around to the back and pulled out a 5ltr bottle of water for us and handed it over, waved and drove off. It was perfect timing and without it we would've been in big trouble.
Food was dwindling again though and it looked as though we were still 2 or 3 days away from Beynue. That day ended with a nice section of new road, and only us using it plus the occasional snake...
Putting the tent up had been difficult every single evening for the past 3 weeks because of the wind and this evening was no different...we'd just finished erecting the inner tent and was just about to put something heavy inside it to stop it from going anywhere, when a huge gust of wind took the whole tent right out of both of our grasps. We froze for a second and watched as it flew up the bank towards the empty road.
I panicked and rather than run after it, just shouted "GO DAN!" - and that was all it took, Dan took chase at full speed just like he'd done before. He immediately caught up with it on the road, but then it gathered speed on the flat, crossed the road and started flying along towards the vast nothingness. Dan was a meter or two behind it the whole way, sprinting as fast as he could. This time I was really hoping Dan would succeed - there was nothing to stop the tent, if Dan didn't get it then it would just blow off across the flat desert and be lost.
Dan started to tire again after about 100 meters and knew he must do the same as before, I was waiting for it this time - he got as close as he could and then dived through the air...I hoped and wished, if he missed we wouldn't have a tent to sleep in. As he came crashing down his fingertips just caught one of the poles and he held on tight, then he crawled on top of it so it couldn't go anywhere and just lay there panting for 2 minutes. The boy did well. I went back to get my camera to get a few pics...
It was like a ghost town and everyone seemed to struggle pointing us in the direction on the town's one shop. We eventually found it, and began the 3 rounds again, lingering around the shop for a good 2 hours. I made a promise to myself that I'd never run out of food again, I would make sure of it,
After leaving the town for only 1 or 2 km, there was a roadside restaurant where all the lorry drivers stopped. It was about 2pm, but we were in no mood to begin pushing into the wind for hours again, so we went inside to have a look. A plate of rice and meat was about $1.80 and a pint of cold beer was $1. We thought we deserved a treat, so we sat down and ordered one of both each. It was perfect, and with the internet sim card now in Dan's phone he was able to make his phone a wifi hotspot - which meant I had internet on my laptop too.
It was pitch black and we were drunk, so we just pushed our bikes across the road and set up camp as soon as we could. 30 minutes of fumbling around in the dark and we had finally had the tent set up and everything inside. I lay in my sleeping bag and just before I nodded off, a little thought floated through my mind...“Where is my laptop?”.
Shit! It wasn't in any of my bags or the tent, but I definitely, carefully took it out of the restaurant. I got up and bolted out of the tent, across the road and back to the restaurant...there it was, nicely placed on the ground outside - where I'd put it 40 minutes ago while loading my bike up...oops.
The following morning we awoke to the sound of lorry's pulling up near us. I think it's called "stealth camping"...
There were a couple of lorry drivers inside and one came out as we were leaving. We had a picture with him (below) and as Dan took the pic he was already reaching into his back pocket... he tried giving us money, we refused and he did the same thing as the old woman – he stuffed it in a pocket of our pannier bags, shook our hands and walked off - $5 each this time. So we made money that day!
Dan set off and I began pushing. I was day-dreaming while pushing along on my own and within the first minute I got within two meters of a huge snake laying in my path on the road and almost didn't notice it - scared the hell out of me.
Two hours and 10km later I met Dan waiting for me outside a small cafe, just as it was getting dark. He'd asked the owner and a few customers and they all said Beynue was actually 30km away from here. So Dan waited for me to decide what to do. We both stuck together this time and walked along the empty, now perfect new road in darkness for about 4 hours, with music playing out from Dan's ipod. At midnight we stopped to camp, knowing we only had about a 10km walk the next morning.
The other sized spokes were just too long, but he had one that would fit, it looked cheap and weak though, but was better than nothing. We fitted it to my rear wheel and although it felt horrendous and dangerous to cycle, the wheel would at least go round. We spent the whole day there stocking up on food (making sure we weren't going to run out) and trying to fix my bike a little better, and then headed out of town in the evening to find a place to camp.
I'd filled up the 5ltr water bottle with tap water in the town, so when we camped I tied it around one of the telegraph poles running through the desert, punched a few holes in the bottom and had a nice cold shower while watching the sun set and camels roam around me.
It's a huge country and we'd read the west and center of the country are quite undeveloped, but the other side of the country - the East was much more advanced, had cities like European cities and most importantly – was supposedly the best place in Central Asia for bicycle shops.
Lunchtime came and we were next to another roadside cafe debating whether we could afford it. We went for it again, sat down inside and filled our bellies. A family sat down next to us and the guy started chatting to us in good English. We left the cafe at the same time as they did, he went to shake our hands and gave us a couple of notes, again we tried giving it back to him, but he just got in his car with his family and drove off! This time $10 each!
At the end of the next day, the spoke we'd fitted broke. Back down to 3 missing on the rear wheel, making it unrideable again. We were 20km away from another fairly big town, so we started walking through the night again.
A couple lorry drivers pulled over offering to give us a lift but we declined. Then a frozen-goods lorry pulled up infront of us offering a lift, again we declined. Three guys got out and shook our hands and then went and got two big ice creams for us. They drove off, got about 50 meters, turned around and came back to us. This time they had a couple of beers for us, we stood and shared the beers with them on the side of the road at about midnight, finished our ice creams and then carried on for another 30 minutes and set up camp just outside of the town.
We spent the whole of the next day in the town's market. There was just one guy again selling old bike parts, but no spokes the right size again. We had to try something though as the next town was 100km away and we didn't want to get a lift. We tried making the spokes fit and a young guy who knew what he was doing even spent over 3 hours with us trying to fix my wheel. Soon, the sun was setting, the market was closed and it was just us and the guards. We left in the dark and pushed the bikes out of town, unsure of our next move.
The next morning I had to take drastic measures – The wheel couldn't be fixed in the town, and we couldn't walk the 100km to the next town and I wasn't ready to get a lift yet. So I had to dump some of the weight I was carrying. All 4 panniers on the back weren't helping the situation. I got rid of loads of stuff - lots went in the bin and loads of clothes, including all my big heavy winter stuff, went in a big bag for the family we were staying with. I even gave them one of my sleeping bags (I sleep in two rubbish ones rather than one good one), as it was very hot now and I thought we wouldn't be hitting anymore cold weather for the rest of the trip.
We stopped in a cafe and I agreed that it was time to get a lift. Five minutes later I changed my mind. Maybe Dan could tow my bike I thought. We spent an hour outside the cafe trying to get it to work – trying to fix my bike securely to Dan's. We had a test run, but everytime he turned a corner my bike would topple over...
I sat there on the side of the road and tried thinking of another option. The town was 60km and was supposed to be a big one. I changed my mind again. I said I'd push the bike to Dossor, 60km away and if that place didn't have the right parts then we would get to the other side of the country and fix it there. One last chance.
I couldn't make Dan walk for 60km though so we planned that he would cycle on and camp at a specific km marker (there were km markers counting down to the town every 1km). We decided he would camp next to the 7Km marker, 53km away. I couldn't miss him, there is nothing to hide your tent behind, just desert, so there was no worry of that.
Dan cycled off and I began pushing the bike and walking along. It was about 6.30pm when I set off, and I guessed I would average about 6kph not including food breaks, so it would take about 12 hours I thought.
Dan said he woke up for the first time that night at 5.30am, looked up (he didn't have the outer tent on as it was too hot) and the first thing he saw was me hunched over doing a strange shuffle/walk along the road. I got to the 7km marker, looked around and headed straight for the tent.
A couple hours later we were in Dossor. There wasn't a bicycle shop but we expected that, but we hoped the bazaar might have something. We were told bad news by a guy in the street, so we asked lots more people in hope that he was wrong with what he'd said. They all said the same thing though...this town didn't even have a market - Great. Time to head to a pub.
We sat down and had a few beers. Out of options and it was time to take transport to the other side of the country where we could get my bike fixed. There was a slow sleeper-train, we learnt that headed to Almaty, a city in the East near Kyrgyzstan – our next country. It went through this town, but we couldn't get a ticket here for some reason, we had to go in the wrong direction at the start of the line to get on the train – in Atyrau, a big town/city 100km to the West.
We decided we would hitch a lift there in a couple hours, see if we could get the bicycle parts there(which we guessed we couldn't) and if not get the train to Almaty a couple days later. It was Dan's birthday and The FA Cup final (we are both Arsenal fans, who were in the final) in two days, so we would have to catch the train after that.
While sat in the pub two guys got chatting to us. One spoke good English, the other spoke none. They bought us a round of beers and then the one who couldn't speak any English offered for us to stay at his house. We accepted and after a few more beers we headed back to his place. He had a really nice house, but his wife was not impressed to see us.
They were arguing lots about us and she then made us go in the bathroom to have a shower because we both smelled too much. Then she gave us some clean clothes to wear. It seemed that the smell was the only problem though as after that she was really nice – she introduced us to their 3 little kids, gave us some more bottles of beers and laid the table full of food...
It was Dan's birthday and the football was kicking off in a few hours, so we then headed to an Irish pub we'd read about in Lonely Planet. We found it after an hours walk and headed inside. It was amazing, just like a pub back home in every way. This was perfect. Then we looked at the prices...not perfect. Beer and food was 5 times the amount in a local pub, and close to the prices back home. We outright couldn't afford it. We walked back out gutted, unsure where we would watch the football and where we were going to sleep.
We sat on the ground outside a little shop, eating a bit of food and sipping a little vodka – Dan's birthday presents from me.
He was catching his flight home to Romania in a couple hours, so after paying, he only had time for a quick photo and then he was gone...
The pub was filled with a load of guys from Sunderland who all worked on the oil rigs. They'd seen us earlier on the bikes so started chatting to us. They were nice guys and joked about how much money they were earning ($500 a day), and then they all started buying us drinks. Drinking is still infrequent for us, so it didn't take us much before we were a bit wobbly. The whole night didn't cost us a penny. Then, while watching Arsenal win their first trophy in 9 years, I decided I would finish the vodka off that was in my pocket – bad idea.
An hour later there is a knock at the door and the cleaners are outside asking if we are checking out. I tell them we will be 10 minutes. The room smells foul, but it's time to leave. We make sure we have everything and then hastily head out. We go down the lift, through reception, hand over the key, say nothing, and speedily head to where our bicycles are being kept.
Its super bright, super hot, we both feel horrendous and we need to get to the train station soon. 5 minutes down the road Dan realises he has left his passport in the room! He goes back, manages to quietly walk in, up to our room, the door is unlocked luckily and the cleaners aren't there yet, he gets his passport and gets out, without anybody seeing him.
We just make it to the train as it was getting ready to leave. We got the bikes on first in the cargo carriage, and than ran to get on our carriage. The whistle got blown and the doors closed just as we were getting there, luckily they opened them up for us again – the last ones on.
The train took one day where it headed North and then we had to change to get another train, east to Almaty, Which crawls along taking two days!
A friendly looking couple were going inside the building to their flat when they decided to come and see what we were up to. We said that we were going to the hostel, but were just having a rest outside first. They had a little chat together and then told us that we can stay at their spare apartment. He spoke good English and had one of those faces that you can trust within an instant. He was a really nice guy and he was insisting, like so many people had done through Kazakhstan that he would help us.
He said goodnight to his wife and then showed us around the corner to his garage so we could put our bicycles away. Then we walked with him across the road to an amazing Korean restaurant he had just come from with his wife. He sat down with us and ordered us a load of the most amazing food. The restaurant was out of beers, so he walked off while we ate and came back with two cold bottles of beer each. He got his phone and then called his son to come and meet us.
His son Baha was our age and turned up 10 minutes later. Baha had lived and studied in Bristol and London for 2 years, spoke perfect English and was just as cool as his Dad. His Dad left us to go home and then Baha drove us to the apartment they owned.
Baha was a cyclist also and knew many bike shops and people that could fix my bike. So he arranged to pick us up in the morning and help us get my bicycle fixed.
He arrived the next morning at the flat. We went to his Dad's garage to get my bike and strapped it on to his bike rack on the roof of his car. Then we went from shop to shop just like we'd done the day before, except this time my bicycle was on a stretcher - trying to find the right parts and the right guy. A few hours later we were running out of options. Then Baha phoned a guy whose shop he couldn't find as it had moved.
We found the guy's new shop and immediately it looked like the right place. Just a small shop, but with loads of tools and the guy looked like he knew exactly what needed doing. Baha was translating for us and it was obvious this was the right guy. So he got to work on my bike.
When we returned a few hours later my bike was completely fixed – he had solved every problem. I gave it a ride around outside – perfect. Now for the worrying part – the cost. 4 to 5 hours of labor, about 25 spokes, a new dropout and many other little things....$22?!! I called it $25 and couldn't thank him enough. I'd pushed and wobbled my way over 1000km through West Kazakhstan and finally my bicycle was working again.
It was late again by this point though, but Baha said it was fine for us to stay another night at the flat. That evening we went out for a meal with Baha and his old running trainer. The food was again incredible, the best yet. We were low on money, but Baha and his Dad had helped us out more than they knew. Without them my bicycle still may not have been fixed. So finally we got to repay a bit of kindness that we had received all through Kazakhstan and we were able to pay for the meal.
The next morning Baha met us and said he would drive in-front of us to show us the way out the city. We followed him to one last bicycle shop on the way out of the city, because the one thing that all 15 bicycle shops we had been to didn't have was a front pannier rack.
Amazingly, it had one, a really good one - It was the icing on the cake. It now meant that all my 4 bags were spread evenly across my bike...It also meant that after me throwing and giving away most of my gear, I now had all my clothes, laptop and everything fitting in to just one small front pannier bag. The two rear ones and the other front one was completely empty...Three bags just for food that meant! Surely I couldn't run out now!
We followed Baha to a huge supermarket on the outskirts of the city, filled our panniers with food, and Baha bought us a few last gifts of drinks and snacks each...
It should have taken two days to get to the border, but then it was Dan's bicycle's turn to start having problems. On the second day out of Almaty, his rear inner-tube suddenly hissed and went instantly flat.
The rim tape or hole that the valve goes through had sliced into the valve, meaning we couldn't repair it. So Dan put a new inner-tube in. Five minutes later the same happened. We cut the rim tape back and put another one in. Same again five minutes later. We had no idea what was doing it and everything looked fine around where the valve sat. We had two more inner-tubes left, so we wrapped lots of tape around the valves and hoped that would solve it. 30 minutes later and we were out of inner-tubes and out of ideas.
Somehow, two days after fixing my unrideable bicycle, Dan's was now also unrideable. We camped by the road that night and at 7am Dan got up, and he and his rear wheel hitched a lift back to Almaty, while I waited in the tent.
Then he had to hitchhike back and convince the driver that he wanted dropping off in the middle of nowhere. At 10pm he arrived back to the tent, the wheel all fixed.
We set off the next morning, both bikes working and 80km away from the next country. It was our first proper long days ride on good roads, with working bicycles for over a month. It felt very good, but I wasn't used to it, my cycling fitness had been lost while walking and slowly bumping along through Kazakhstan. We reached the border in the afternoon and passed through into Kyrgyzstan within minutes. No visa needed here (the only country in Central Asia where you don't need a visa) and a really relaxed border, made a welcome change.
The only problem was I could hardly breathe, literally. We made it 5km past the border and then I had to stop, I just couldn't inhale without coughing loads. I lay down on the grass, close to throwing up and fainting, but managed to surpress each wave of nausea that came over me...