Jul 05 2008
In Qandiagash we stop for a couple of nights to get some rest. We are invited at some sort of wedding anniversary meal on the first evening. There are about 15 guests and everyone is already very drunk. An hour into the meal the bride is clearly very unhappy and two guests start to fight. The husband wants us to stay but some guests make us understand that we should leave quickly. This is great timing for us as we were fed for nothing and started wondering how to get out of this without offending anyone!
Cycling on the first 100km to Embi is a pleasure, excellent tailwind on very good asphalt. The next 200km to Shelkar are a different story: the corrugated gravel road is a torture for the bikes and riders. For some reason everyone told us that Shelkar is a very dangerous city and when we arrive there a policeman escorts us to a food shop and then out of the city. This is the first time that we have a police escort in Kazakhstan. Outside Shelkar the policeman insists that we take the asphalt road to rejoin the M32 to Aral, a 150km detour! We try to find the shorter road instead but we can only find a few pistes that end in the sand. Eventually someone tells us that the start of the piste to Aral is 18km up the asphalt road. At this point we are exhausted and decide to camp just outside Shelkar. It rains all night and through the next day, and we eventually give up on the piste. Cycling through wet sand wouldn’t be fun.
We cycle 130km on an empty asphalt/gravel road to Irgiz. We only see one house on this stretch and they refuse to give us even a cup of tea. We start to be concerned about our food and water reserves. Eventually we make it to the crossing with the M32. The M32 is the “highway” between Moscow and Almaty. In my mind I had envisaged smooth asphalt, maybe even a dual carriageway. Instead we find a construction site. The road is still being built (or rebuilt?) and it doesn’t look like it will be finished anytime soon. From this crossing we still have 200km to Aral but half of it is on dry mud.
The first day we manage 5km before a storm turns the piste into a complete quagmire. The bikes are stuck in the middle of the piste and we need to camp there, just 10m from the road. The piste dries up during the night but the next day we only manage 30km before the same thing happens again. After a few days of this we start running out of food and money. There are cafe stops every 50km or so on this road but the prices are insane: £1 for a Mars bar! Eventually when a lorry driver offers us a lift for the last 130km to Aral we don’t hesitate for long!