Long-term Travel & the Importance of Social Interaction

1) loneliness travelOne need not be a Guantanamo Bay detainee to understand that having minimal social interaction can wreck havoc on one’s mental health. There is a very good reason why the use of solitary confinement is still widespread the world over (in the US prison system, especially) even though the UN has deemed it a tool of psychological and inhumane torture. If the aim is to break someone’s spirit and render them submissive….then isolation is extremely effective indeed.

If long-term travelling has taught me anything, in the last decade, it’s that human beings are, without a doubt, inherent pack animals. As individualistic and independent as we think we may be, leave us alone for longer than a few weeks and we’ll soon discover just how unnatural aloneness really is, for us, as a species.

I don’t mean to trivialize this very serious issue by comparing solitary confinement to what happens to some of us travellers, some of the time. Not only is our isolation self-induced, it also does not reach the kind of extreme levels outlined by the UN, naturally. But it is still a very real concern on the road and the detrimental effects of prolonged social-withdrawal on the wrong kind of traveller can actually be quite serious. There’s nothing trivial about becoming so detached from fellow human beings as to find it exceedingly difficult to reconnect.

I recently read a very interesting BBC article on the way extreme isolation can warp the human mind, and although I’ve yet to meet an overlander who has claimed to have had hallucinations of backpack-wearing squirrels…I’m willing to wager a bet that some have come quite close.

Sure it's a stunning sunset...but sharing the view with someone will make it unforgettable

Sure it’s a stunning sunset…but sharing the view with someone will make it unforgettable (CC licence image)

The fervent need for social interaction and close human contact is almost palpable among travellers, although this is mostly true of those who have been on the road for months on end, rather than weeks, for obvious reasons. We are out there at any time of year (especially in winter when short-termers stay away) and we can reach far-out destinations generally discounted by those with only a few weeks’ vacation at their disposal.

Moreover, the actual need for socialization increases with time spent vagabonding, so if you normally only travel abroad for short stints, you may have absolutely no idea of what on earth I’m talking about. Usually, you’d be much more likely to avoid fellow tourists (especially those from your own country) and go to great lengths to immerse yourself in the local culture and be as removed from your own as physically, emotionally and intellectually as possible. After all…this is why one travels, no?

Well not necessarily. Not always.

I’ve written at length about the emotional drawbacks of long-term travelling, and emphasized that isolation and loneliness are two of the most common ailments perpetual vagabonds suffer from. You don’t need to travel to the most remote corners of the planet or make solo-expeditions to the ends of the world to suffer from social-withdrawal symptoms. Sometimes, all you need to do is travel through a country which attracts very few tourists. You see, social interaction is not just about being with people, in general, but it’s about conversing and spending time with others who speak your language and with whom you have something in common. Even in a country like Uzbekistan, with a healthy population of 30 million, Chris and I found our own isolation quite harrowing at times. The local culture was too far removed from our own to make meaningful connections possible, the language gap was immense, the location remote, its appeal still somewhat limited and the time of year we visited totally off the tourist season. We basically got it all wrong, in that respect.

I knew there was a problem when I spent 10 minutes talking to this guy...

I knew there was a problem when I spent 10 minutes talking to this guy…

Why are fellow travellers so important?

By the time we reached the city of Khiva towards the end of April, we had not seen a single fellow overlander in over four months. We’d seen plenty of people, just none with whom we could socialize. When Franziska and Tobias showed up at our guesthouse with Manny, their kick-ass Land Cruiser camper, the poor things didn’t know what hit ‘em. We greeted them as if they were family members. I admit that the firm hugs and cheek-kisses were a tad too-Italianish for a first meeting, but they didn’t seem to mind. Luckily for us, they were in the same boat; they had also been travelling non-stop for a month without coming across a single fellow tourist. We spent a couple of gorgeous days with our Swiss companions. We shared laughs, chats, meals and quite a few beers. This, more than anything else, is what we’d been missing for weeks. Not as much as showers and good food, granted, but you get the point. Our desire…no, our craving for social interaction took Chris and I by surprise. We both needed desperately to catch up on work, emails and to sort out our bike problems, yet all we really wanted to do was sit by the front veranda with our new friends and have a good old fashioned gas-bag. So that’s what we did.

There's a time to disconnect...and a time to reconnect

There’s a time to disconnect…and a time to reconnect

Travel to remote countries and you’ll soon discover that an individual’s nationality only really matters during the Football World Cup. What really matters, on the road, is that we share a common language. It also helps if you are from a Western country and somewhat share my views on life. The further east we travel the more difficult it is to have serious conversations with locals we meet along the way, and this is even in those rare cases when they speak English. The last time I tried to strike up a conversation with a local at the guesthouse we were staying in, was a few weeks ago. After just five minutes of polite introductions, said gentleman told me that women shouldn’t really travel by motorbike because it’s not good for their reproductive organs. ‘nuff said.

I hope you don’t misunderstand me: I love Central Asia and its people; yet the kind of social interaction I need, after weeks spent traversing deserts and mountain ranges on a bike, is quite specific. I don’t want to waffle about the weather or food. I don’t need small talk. What I need is to have a stimulating conversation and share a joke or philosophical thought with someone who understands me.

As much as I cherish contact and interactions with locals, wherever I may be, what I need, at some very specific times, is to socialize with fellow foreign overlanders instead.

What happens when you go without for too long?

When we reached Samarkand in the last few days of April, we’d enjoyed almost 10 days of social interactions. As we walked into our guesthouse, right around the corner from the stunning Registan, we noticed a healthy crowd of foreigners gathered in the garden drinking and chatting. On one corner, I spotted a lone female traveller, deeply concentrated on the screen of her laptop. At the time, I didn’t give it much thought, yet it a few hours later, when she was now nose-deep in a book, I started to get the inkling there could be an issue.

Rosie is a super sweet Spanish girl who has been pack-packing around the world for almost two full years. She travels alone. She had no qualms telling me that she was going through a bit of a downer, within a few minutes of meeting, yet never once did she utter the word ‘lonely’ during our brief conversation. She said she was tired, disappointed, depressed and undecided about where to go next. She blamed the bad weather for her woes as well as the lack-lustre appeal of Uzbekistan’s major cities, for her general unhappiness. From where I stood, her downturned mouth and non-beaming eyes simply screamed ‘I’m lonely!’ My initial hunch was that she was suffering from lack of proper social interaction, but after two days I realised that her isolation was so intense (and by now VERY self-induced) that coaxing her out of it would be a colossal challenge. She had trouble keeping eye contact when we spoke and refused every invitation aimed her way: want to join us for dinner? A walk? An ice-cream? Root-canal therapy? Nah. She didn’t want any part of it at all.

She’d been travelling alone for so long that she was seriously suffering, but because she had literally forgotten how to be sociable (hopefully only momentarily) she was shunning the very activity she needed most. It was easier to stay in her lonely cave rather than try forcing her way out into the sun. I pride myself in my ability to engage others, but in this particular case I failed miserably.

We’ve run into Rosie twice more since Samarkand at approximately two-week intervals. She was much more extroverted during our last meeting, but she still kept to herself even though there were at least 10 other overlanders staying at the same place. I had thought  perhaps she was just uninterested in talking to me…yet considering there were so many fellow tourists around I figured she would have found a suitable person with whom to have a conversation if that were the case. She obviously didn’t.

Socializing galore!! Us with fellow overlanders, Black Sea Coast, Turkey, Sept 2013

Socializing galore!! Us with fellow overlanders, Black Sea Coast, Turkey, Sept 2013

Finding that precious balance

There’s no denying that we all need time to ourselves every now and then. In moderation, aloneness can have some seriously beneficial effects on our minds. Whenever I have an important decision to make, my first tactic is to seek solitude. I find it difficult to hear my inner voice unless I enjoy complete quietness for a while. Yet finding a balance between a therapeutic time-out and a mind-bending isolation is rather vital. If you ever start hearing more than one ‘inner voice’, it may be time to crawl out of your shell…and reconnect.

Connecting with fellow humans may be an innate skill we all possess, yet it seems to me that no matter how long you have been ‘at it’ you can always run the risk of forgetting how to do it when you stop practising.

Recharging those social batteries, and nurturing your social beast within, is a must for those who spend a lot of time on the road, irrespective of whether or not they travel with a partner. At some stage, you will need to have conversations with all sorts of different people, and realizing just how important this is, is paramount to ensuring you have a very happy and balanced travel-soul.

 

Posted in Overlanding | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Welcome to Tajikistan…wanna plov?

No matter what anyone tries to tell you, trust me when I say that patience is not an inherent trait, but rather a learned one. Learning it, however, is not nearly as easy as it sounds. After almost a decade of intense lessons (the most commonly found attributes the world over would have to be acute slowness, laziness and incompetence) I have yet to really master the art of being patient. I’d probably give myself a 4 for good effort though.

We’ve been standing outside the customs office at the Uzbekistan/Tajikistan border for at least an hour and a half. It’s inconceivably hot under the mid-day sun and the more I gulp gallons of water the more I need to use the public toilets, which incidentally stink as if someone suffered a slow and agonizing death in there and was left to rot for three months. Urgh…

Chris and I are covered in dust, smeared with sweat and have attracted a very healthy colony of sand-flies. As we meander about the dilapidated border compound, in search of shaded shelter, I spot a vision. She’s simply beautiful. Dressed impeccably and with nay a single hair out of place, a woman is sashaying towards the customs building (and us) dragging a Ducati-labelled trolley in one hand, and a handsome child in the other. If I didn’t know any better…I’d say she’s Italian. Italian women have this knack for being faultlessly and effortlessly stylish, even in the most ridiculous of circumstances. Like this one. The border is, quite literally, in the middle of a desert shared by both countries. Aside us, Chinese truck drivers and a handful of locals who obviously can’t afford to fly, there’s only a couple of stray dogs. Given half a chance for better options, I’m quite sure even they would love to stray elsewhere.

Oh I know what you’re thinking! If ALL Italian women have this innate effortless style going on at all times…what on earth happened to me? Australia happened to me, that’s what. I may be full-blooded Italian, technically speaking, but when I’m forced to stand for endless hours in the middle of nowhere under a scorching sun, I look more like something not even a dingo would drag out of a tent. Overlanding has a lot do with it too, I guess.

Anywho…her name is Maxina, she is in fact Tajik, but she IS married to an Italian from Genova. A-ha! Told you!

The agonizing wait for the custom dudes to take their fingers out of their rear ends and stamp our docs is alleviated for the next hour, thanks to Maxina’s lovely company. We manage to fill each other in on our lives and backgrounds impressively fast. Now THAT’s an Italian trait I seem to have retained ;)  The only reason this gorgeous woman is at this god-forsaken place is that due to the fact that these two bordering countries are in not-so-friendly terms, there are no actual flights to and fro. Maxina was just renewing her son Bruno’s Italian passport at the embassy in Uzbekistan (Tajikistan does not have an Italian Embassy), and is now making her way back to Dushanbe (the Tajik capital) where she lives with her family. So that’s at least one mystery solved, if you managed to keep up.

Chris and I fiiiiinally get our docs back, we re-pack our stuff and get ready to move on to that always exciting land of no-man’s, super thrilled at the thought of having to do this all over again on the Tajik side. Yippie. I exchange contact details with Maxina and leave her with the promise that I’ll contact her again once we get into the capital sometime between now and June 2015.

Less than 20 minutes later we are actually on Tajik soil with newly stamped passports. The swiftness of the procedure on the other side was mind-boggling. We are caught unawares and, all of a sudden, don’t know what to do with all the superfluous hours we’d planned on wasting at the border.

We bolt out of there as if on turbo-charge.

Within merely 10 kilometres the scenery changes to beyond any kind of human understanding. This is something which always catches me by surprise. Cross a tectonic plate overland and what you experience is an awe-inspiring change of topography the likes of which you could not imagine. From endless plains of uninspiring dust, rises some of the most beautiful mountains we have seen in months. With mountains come valleys, luscious plains and a breathtaking abundance of flower beds.

I am not quite sure if it’s only due to the fact that we’ve been riding in a desert for a month, or if it really is that impressive. It matters not: right now, to me, the explosion of colours is simply spectacular.

Image

Image

After just an hour of riding we hit the eastern fringe of the Fann Mountains. Everything here, in direct contrast to Uzbekistan, looks revitalisingly healthy. Rivers are flowing, flowers are blooming and we are in absolute heaven. As our senses awaken, our hunger heightens. We persist for at least another 30kms without spotting a single roadside eatery. Finally, I smell it! Meat!!!! Oh dear lord have mercy, we’re gonna have us some shashliq!

(PS. Now bear with me here, I’m not normally this carnivorous, but if you travel through these parts for months you may also succumb to what is commonly referred to as plov-overdose-syndrome. Plov, the national dish of Central Asia, is none other than a somewhat blander version of pilaf. So, basically, a mound of rice topped with two pieces of boiled meat. Now this is a lovely, simple meal which would certainly suffice in times of starvation, drought, natural disaster or if you lived in a refugee camp for a decade…yet if it’s the ONLY dish you EVER find ANYWHERE when you’re travelling…you’re going to get a tad OVER.IT.)

Anyway, as I start salivating inside my helmet I spot a plume of smoke emanating from a roadside homestead. The front lawn is huge and I see that it’s brimming with people. There are tables outside and I spot a man cooking shish kebabs (that would be shashliq) on a coal grill. Finally, a restaurant!

Chris is sceptical

“Are you sure it’s a restaurant?? They don’t normally have such high fences around them”

My insistent hunger pangs have obviously affected my eyesight because I had not even noticed the fence. Once I do, I genially dismiss it. I am really THAT hungry.

“Yeah sure, it’ll be fine. C’mon let’s ride in, I’m starving!!” I insist and proceed to ride ahead of Chris, go up the driveway, dismount, shake hands with a man who comes up to greet me and then, without undue delay, proceed to order two serves of shashliq and two coffees.

You have probably figured, by now, that sometimes I can be a complete and absolute retard. What I have just managed to do, is gate-crash a local family’s private Labour Day luncheon.

My level of embarrassment shoots through the roof and, as much as I try to backtrack once I discover my colossal cock-up, I know that it’s futile. Tajiks are renowned for their intense hospitality and if you think we’re going to be allowed to simply ride away without first being fed ad burstum you’d be painfully mistaken.

Chris and I are introduced to the entire family clan and shown to a food-laden table on the front veranda. Within minutes we have piping hot shashliqs, salads, breads and yoghurt sauces on our plates.  As we start tucking into our divine apparition (trying desperately to not look like we haven’t seen food for a month) the owner of the house starts asking us 101 questions about our journey and our lives. His English is faultless and he continues to refill our plates so, as you can imagine, I am more than happy to let Chris answer all the questions. :) Meanwhile…I gorge…

Image

Mum-of-the-house keeps looking at me expectantly. I know what’s coming. It’s that ubiquitous question I keep encountering time and again. I can almost feel my ovaries nodding in agreement…

“So…how many children do you have?” She asks and allows her husband time to translate

Travel here alone or with a partner and you can expect to receive this question about 20 times a day. Even when locals can clearly see that we travel long-term by motorbike they still can’t help themselves. My response is well-rehearsed:

“Oh, we have no children. We travel by motorbikes…so we have no place to put them”

Sometimes I swear I can see people looking at our side boxes quizzically. Perhaps they would more readily accept us shoving a baby in a box, rather than having none at all!

“Inshallah…later on” I usually add, in a desperate attempt to remind them that if we have no babies it’s obviously because Allah does not wish it upon us. They usually nod in sympathy after that.

After ‘only’ three hours (??) we are sent off on our merry way with a bag of left-overs and about a week’s worth of home-made bread. It’s local custom, apparently, to never let guests leave without a healthy doggy bag. It brings prosperity and ensures a safe ride.

I love this country already.

As we zoom down the valley, towards the turn-off to Iskanderkul Lake (our intended stop for the next few days) I contemplate how wonderful our first day in the country has been. Never have any of my stuff ups had such delicious consequences. Considering this is the first day in six weeks we did not eat plov…I’d say it’s been an overwhelming success.

Lake Iskanderkul is as breathtaking in real life as it looked on google images. But more so. A popular week-end retreat for locals in summer, it is blissfully deserted now, and we end up spending a total of three days bush-camping on the lake shore with a super friendly pooch as company. If we hadn’t shared our food supplies with her we probably could’ve stretched our stay for a whole week. But hey…they don’t call it doggy bag for nothing :)

I’ll leave you now with images of our most relaxing travel days of 2014.

Welcome to Tajikistan. We hope you enjoy your stay.

4) Iskanderkul

5) iskanderkul

6) Iskanderkul

7) Iskanderkul

 

Posted in Overlanding, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Uzbekistan: from tired overlander to reinvigorated tourist

Within just 100kms of crossing the invisible border between Karakalpakstan and the rest of Uzbekistan, we join the tarmac highway once again. Finally, I think to myself, we can get some serious kilometres out of the way. Yet it barely takes a hint of acceleration for me to realize that something is seriously amiss. Pixie has absolutely no intention of going faster than 30km/hr. She’s obviously become infected by that slow and steady camel sway we’ve been witnessing for days. She really does seem to be running on Uzbek time.

A quick evaluation by Chris results in a disastrous diagnosis: my clutch plates have almost completely worn out. I act shocked, upset and indignant, even though I actually have absolutely no idea what my clutch plates are, what they look like or what they do. I deduce that they are probably quite important to the running of a motorbike and that they are obviously in charge of my speed. Somehow…

The prognosis is even worst. Clutch plates are not something which can be fixed, but they must replaced. The nearest replacements? Well they would be in Germany thank you very much.

Clutch plates are round metal thingys (I soon learn) which determine how my motorbike changes gears. If they are worn out and do not move in the right direction (this part I’m just guessing) the bike will not be able to engage the gear and pick up speed. Basically, what I understood of our conversation was ‘blah blah blah blah blah you must ride in 2nd gear and below 2,500 revs at all times blah blah blah’. And that’s precisely what I do for the next 300kms.

Our first rest stop will be in the southern part of Uzbekistan. This is renowned as the most touristy area of the country, thanks to it being home to three of the most prominent pit stops of the Ancient Silk Road: Khiva, Bukhara and Samarkand.

For once, I wish my Chrissy would be hopelessly off the mark yet a quick check (which actually takes half a day because both oil and water need to be drained from Pixie) confirms that my clutch plates are well and truly kaput. My only option, for the very first time on teh trip, is to order new plates from Germany and have them UPSsed to Uzbekistan. As you can imagine, this turns out to be about as easy, straightforward and pleasant as it sounds.

You want them sent WHEEEREEE???

I shall now spare you the details of our two-week long saga which included numerous back and forth emails and phone calls between us, Chris’ mum in Munich, the BMW centre in god-knows-where and the UPS offices both in Berlin AND Tashkent. Let’s just leave all the stress and frustration behind, shall we? Because soon enough, with all the bloody dramas we’ve been facing lately…you’ll start to wonder what the hell we’re doing all this for. I know I have.

So we’re going to take a holiday from our arduous journey, you and I. We’re going to play tourists. We’ll sleep in a real bed for two weeks, have multiple daily showers, gorge on hamburgers, drink beer at lunch and maybe even go jogging again at sunrise, something we both dearly love.

We should also probably spend a few days exploring the amazing architecture which makes these three cities such an enticing place to visit. Because surely there must be more than one reason to visit Uzbekistan?

After spending so many days crossing flat, brown and bland land…the explosion of colours in the cities is a feast I’m sure your eyes will treasure.

Hope you enjoy your break…and the very best Uzbekistan’s historic gems have to offer :)

1 Khiva 4 2 Bukhara ??????????????????????????????? Samarkand (2) Samarkand (3) Samarkand (4) T Collage Uzbekistan 1 Khiva (1) 1 Khiva 2 1 Khiva 3

 

Posted in Overlanding | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Karakalpakstan: the Stan the World Forgot

It must really suck to be a Karakalpak. Once upon a time, you were one of Central Asia’s most avid farmers, then your land was prostituted, polluted and destroyed beyond recognition and, even after your livelihood was obliterated, you were never been compensated for your loss. The worst part, however, would have to be that while you evolved, thrived and subsequently suffered over a period of two thousand years…most of the world does not even know you exist.

Karakalpakstan is indeed the invisible Stan; the one which man has simply forgotten. Stretching out over 160,000 square kms and being made up of over 400,000 inhabitants, this autonomous region of north-western Uzbekistan is ironically only renowned for being home to the southern half of the Aral Sea, the site of one of humankind’s most tragic mistakes.

You see…the Aral Sea is actually a desert; one filled with sea shells and rusted old fishing boats. Once the 4th largest lake in the world, it has been dried like an old prune over a matter of just a couple of decades. Find a time machine and travel back to the 1950s and you would enviably visit one of the most thriving fishing hubs of Central Asia.

The demise of the Aral was due to a rather unhealthy obsession, by the Soviet Union, to grow cotton. The sea was fed by two formidable rivers, which were both redirected and endlessly exploited to irrigate newly farmed cotton plantation in both Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan. Cotton, a plant from which we derive our most beloved material, is one of the thirstiest crops known to man. It loves and needs water like few others do and it’s for this very reason that, soon enough, both rivers (and by consequence the entire Aral Sea) were drained to a crisp.

The visa-drama we faced in Baku, when we were denied a transit visa through Turkmenistan, had one optimal silver lining. By being forced to sail to Aktau instead of Turkmenabashi, we entered Uzbekistan from the north rather than the centre. This meant we would be riding within 80kms of the southern port town of Moynaq, once a very thriving fishing village. The chance to visit the southern ‘shore’ of the Aral Sea was one we just couldn’t pass up. Although the devastation to this entire region and its inhabitants is certainly tragic, it’s worth noting that the landscape itself is nowadays regarded as one of the most surreal and mesmerizing sights in Central Asia. We’d heard other traveller’s reports and seen plenty of photos but, being the sceptical adventurers that we are,  we were not entirely convinced.

We were gonna have to go and check it out for ourselves.

As we cross the border from Kazakhstan to Uzbekistan I am reminded, once again, that this is the flattest bit of land I’ve ever seen. There’s only one main ‘highway’ cutting through Karakalpakstan from north to south and, potholes notwithstanding, the major risk I face, in the next two days, is falling asleep behind Pixie’s handlebar.

Zzzzzzzzzzzzz….

Luckily, the odd curious camel provides some much-needed distraction.

Thorny bushes are no match for his ginormous tongue!

Thorny bushes are no match for his ginormous tongue!

As we pass what must have been an ancient settlement (it eerily looks like a dusty old village to the uneducated) we’re reminded of the fact that we are, for the first time this year, riding along the historic Silk Route. Marco Polo travelled through here over eight centuries ago and I do wonder if even he managed to stay awake atop the hump of his dromedary. We spot a Silk Route monument in the centre of town and, being obviously deprived of noteworthy photo ops, stop to take a picture of that too.

Marco Polo waz here...

Marco Polo waz here…

The 'original' camel-toe :)

The ‘original’ camel-toe :)

I must say that unless you are a lover of all things flat, dusty and beige-coloured, you may not necessarily enjoy riding along this road for a couple of days. Even Chris, who is a desert lover, admits that as far as striking scenery goes…this ain’t no Sahara or Simpson. Me? I’m quite impartial to green to be honest…and water. Lots of water…but there’s none of that here.

In the early afternoon we ride past Jasliq, a small desert community which exists purely for the servicing of a nearby oil field and jail. We are insanely happy to spot a roadside eatery as we’d actually managed to run out of food the night before. I’ve been salivating at the sight of camels in the distance for at least four hours!

As we slow down on approach I notice a sign crammed with symbols swinging in the wind. The only two which grab my attention are those for ‘bed’, ‘restaurant’ and ‘shower’.

Bingo!

Today's semi-modern caravanserai (ie. it didn't have wifi)

Today’s semi-modern caravanserai (ie. it didn’t have wifi)

Hello shower...my old friend

Hello shower…my old friend

These roadside eateries are really weird, I must confess. They look sort of decrepit and abandoned from the outside, but you’d never guess the quaintness of the décor and the liveliness hidden behind the fluorescent blue windows and frames. Even here: if it weren’t for the fact that two trucks are parked out the front, I’d swear the place was empty.

As we park and take off our helmets a little old man emerges from the front door to greet us. He bids us a hearty ‘salam alekum’ and proceeds to hand-sign everything they’re offering from drink, to food, a shower and even a bed.

Yep, we’ll have all four thanks!

As we enter the dining room I notice that the obsession with the colour blue extends to the floor tiles and the blinds. It is blissfully cool inside (the consistent rise in temps outside has been brutal by the way) and pristinely clean. If not a little Spartan…

Clinical minimalism at its best

Clinical minimalism at its best

Our first business of the day is to feast, and feast we do. We order two serves of shashlik (shish kebabs), fresh bread and salad (which in these deserty villages consist of pickled tomatoes and cucumbers) and gorge ourselves into a stupor. The over use of sheep fat in the cooking of the meat adds some much-needed calorie supply at this stage. The meal is delicious and we enjoy it more that you could imagine. If we’d known that it would actually end up being the best meal we would have in the whole country…we would have asked for seconds.

The young lady behind the counter is acutely observant (or perhaps she smelt us before we even arrived) and asks if we’d like to stay, have a shower and spend the night in one of their rooms. We agree without hesitation, especially once we discover it would only cost us $10 each. Our room is simple and the beds a wee bit saggy but from where we stood (at the front door) it may as well have been the Kempinsky Hotel in Djibouti.

5* accomodation in the desert...no arguments here

5* accomodation in the desert…no arguments here

Several showers and a restful sleep later we are ready to pay our bill and head off down the highway yet again. Once the inn’s owner gets a wind of our plan to reach Moynaq he suggests we leave the tarmac behind and cross the actual desert instead. According to him, if we follow the power poles for about 150kms we’ll come to the western outer rim of Lake Aral, what we had read being the most scenic part of the lake. As water receded at a swift pace , it left craters on the shores; creating a moon-like landscape of varying mineral colours.

We quickly change our plans and decide to tackle a real desert crossing! Even though the weather looks a little dubious, we are still keen for a little adventure. I’m not even all that worried about riding on this desert considering it’s all so flat. How far down could I possibly fall?

We line up our bikes between the double row of power lines (21st century explorers at their best) and set off on our sandy ride.

I bet Marco Polo wishes he'd had power poles to 'light' the way

I bet Marco Polo wishes he’d had power poles to ‘light’ the way

It takes us about six hours to reach the 1970’s shoreline of Lake Aral. The scenery which awaits us will go down in my travel history as one of the most astounding I have ever seen. I know this is supposed to be a lake, and I know I’m supposed to be depressed at the sight, but I tell you…this is one of the most beautiful places I have EVER seen.

The contours and colours, at this time of day, are simply spectacular. The ground crumbles beneath our feet due to the excessive concentration of salt. Much like the Valley of the Moon outside Chile’s San Pedro de Atacama, it feels like we’re exploring a different planet altogether.

9 Lake Aral (2)

9 Lake Aral (1)

9 Lake Aral (3)

We find a nook for our tent and enjoy a spellbinding sunset.

This is why we do what we do: bush camping at its very best

This is why we do what we do: bush camping at its very best

Next morning, as we set off to cross what was once the sea bed we are propelled back into what seems an eternal flatness. The contours of the lake-shore become a distant mirage.

10 Lake Aral

We reach the former port town of Moynaq mid-morning and this is the first ever hint that something is seriously amiss. On the edge of what was the town’s pier, stands a monument dated 1960; it proudly displays the drawing of a lake which no longer is.

Once upon a time in Moynaq...

Once upon a time in Moynaq…

Riding through the village is heartbreaking. Every second house is abandoned and there are still a considerable number of fish signs on dilapidated shop awnings. Everything about Moynaq feels old, worn out, defeated. Old men stroll along the main, sand-ridden street. They were all born into well-established fishing families but all will die into rubbles of sand. Grandfathers who spent their youth sailing, swimming and fishing must now retell stories to children who have probably never seen a mass of water in their lives. This is eerily reminiscent of the DRCongo, where grandparents sit around log fires in the evening, in the middle of the jungle, recounting the days when highways, trains, cars and airplanes where everywhere in their country. Nowadays, there are still plenty of Congolese communities who have no access to clean water or electricity, when merely a generation ago the country was thriving immensely.

Devolution is, to me, one of the most unnatural things in the world. Lives of people all over this planet are supposed to get better (to varying dregrees), not worse.

11 Moynaq (2)

We head down to the ‘beach’ to admire, both in awe and sorrow, the sight of a long line of rusted old ships now cemented in the sand dunes. I admit to one thing though…they are awfully photogenic.

I am not about to pass up the chance to climb up on a fishing trawler, stuck in a desert, which used to be a sea.

12 Moynaq Lake Aral (1) 12 Moynaq Lake Aral (2) 12 Moynaq Lake Aral (3) 12 Moynaq Lake Aral (4)

We decide not to spend the night in Moynaq, preferring not to bring attention to the fact that we have, in one way or another, come to admire their misfortune. Instead we head for the tarmac road once more; the one which will take us to an entirely different side of Uzbekistan.

As we cross the invisible border between Karakalpakstan and Central Uzbekistan, we can’t help but feel an enormous amount of sadness. Both nature and man thrived here for eons, yet countless invading forces have managed to reduce it to an endless and totally useless plain of nothingness. People are still trying to survive here, in one way or another. Perhaps they live in hope that water will flow in once again; that maybe fertility will return. Whatever the case may be…the world may have forgotten all about Karakalpakstan, but our experience has ensured this be the one Stan we’ll remember the most.

 

Posted in Overlanding | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Welcome to Kazakhstan (there’s not a hairy back in sight!)

As we ride our bikes off the Caspian Sea freighter ship we are immediately greeted by two local Kazakh customs officers. My first impression is one of bewilderment…they look nothing like Borat. To my prejudiced Sydney-raised eyes, I’d say they look more like Chinese on steroids. These guys are absolutely huge! I definitely see that their stature is somewhat Russian-like yet the beautiful slant of their eyes leads me to think that of all the influences of invading cultures in this area, Genghis Khan and his Mongolian army are the ones who left the biggest mark. Now I’m going to have to rethink everything I learnt about this country from that movie…bugger!
We’re ushered into a waiting room along with the Turkish and Georgian truck drivers who crossed the Caspian with us. Our passports are processed in a very judicious manner; even at 2am these guys are taking their jobs very seriously. There’s a lot of quarrelling between the officers and the truck drivers. One of the Turkish men’s paperwork seems to be out of order, but a few minutes of excessively loud arguing seems to fix the problem. I resolve to use the same tactic should I also encounter problems, although I sincerely hope that yelling in Italian has the same effect as yelling in Russian. We’ll see.

Chris and I are the last to get our passports stamped and, as soon as we approach the counter, Mr-God-with-a-stamp flashes a big, broad smile. Even his teeth are huge! He has issues working out what ‘Germany’ means (on Chris’ passport) yet seems to be acquainted with Italy. He also seems to be a little confused as to which visa page to stamp; I realize he cannot read the Roman alphabet and has issues determining which of our three brand new visas says ‘Kazakhstan’. Eventually, with merely a little coaxing from us, he seems convinced enough to stamp us in. As our passports are handed back, the grinning officer wishes us a hearty ‘Welcome to Kazakhstan!’ He then proceeds to point out a sign on one of the office windows in the waiting room, but because it’s in Cyrillic we can’t make out what it says.
One of our fellow truck driving comrades sheds light on the matter: “Customs closed, you must wait”
So wait we do…in the office waiting room…for the next 7 hours.

Luckily, the waiting room is heated and there is a bathroom so I figure it could be worse. The truck drivers proceed to claim 3 chairs each, lie down and (within literally 30 seconds) start snoring like there’s no tomorrow. Something tells me they’ve done this before. As the adrenalin rush of our arrival starts to wean I am also overcome by intense sleepiness so I decide to follow suit and settle in for a little shut-eye, or the closest thing to it I can manage. Apparently, I do not snore.

I wake up at 8am with an absolutely splitting headache. I feel as if I’ve been hit by a truck and a quick visit to the loo confirms that I also look like it too. My bandana is half way down my face, my hair is a matted mess and my eyes are puffy as hell. I freshen up, tidy up my bandana and make myself somewhat presentable to the lovely customs’ lady who has just turned up for work. Our proceedings to have our bikes stamped into Kazakhstan take a whole hour, even though there are only four counters in the office. First we must get the blue stamp, then the red one, then return our papers to window #1, but not before lady at window #3 has looked over the papers, shrugged, and photocopied them. Only when everyone is happy with the colours and amount of stamps on our import papers are we allowed to proceed.

Driving into the totally uninspiring port city of Aktau is strangely invigorating. The sun is out in full force and the refreshing wind does a great job of waking us up. We had mildly contemplated spending a night in a hotel here to refresh, but after checking the price of the most basic accommodation in town we decide we are actually refreshed enough. In a city like Aktau, which only attracts well-heeled oil-company workers (attract being the wrong word here) the cheapest room we could find goes for a whopping USD150. No wonder Borat was filmed in Romania…

Aktau's prime tourist attraction: THE BIG MIG!

Aktau’s prime tourist attraction: THE BIG MIG!

After stocking up on petrol and food we decide to head out of town with the intention of camping as soon as signs of civilization weaned out. What we encounter, first and foremost, is a ferocious and rather frosty headwind. We’d read countless blogs of bicycle riders who deemed this stretch of highway to be a total nightmare due to the wind, yet they fact they had travelled at different times of the year made us hopeful that it was seasonal. Instead, it does seem that this may be an inherent trait of the area. Incredibly strong winds are our constant companions for the next two days, yet at this stage we were still not questioning their unusually low temperature.

We set out to look for a bush camp spot, yet finding a wind-sheltered one proved to be impossible. The desert of south-western Kazakhstan is about the flattest place on earth that I have ever personally seen. The only contours on the horizon turn out to be camel humps!

If they all huddled together we could definitely set up tent behind those humps

If they all huddled together we could definitely set up tent behind those humps

We come across a roadside eatery and decide to stop for a bite to eat. We take our time enjoying a delicious meal of lamb kebabs (shashlik) and salad. By the time we venture outside again the weather had made a turn and the temperature dropped drastically. Chris and I looked at each other in utter bewilderment and hopped on our bikes again. We agreed to just turn off into the desert at the first available opportunity and set up tent as a matter of urgency because (if we didn’t know any better)….we’d say there was snow on the way…

Where did the sun go???!!!

Where did the sun go???!!!

As the first big, fat flake lands on my helmet visor, I roll my eyes in complete exasperation.
WHAT.THE.HEY!
As the road finally makes a curve and passes over the country’s western railway line, we finally spot a hill and ride straight towards it. Normally, we’d want to be better hidden from passing traffic but desperate times call for less than ideal solutions. Setting up tent is a nightmare due to the winds; by the time we are sheltered inside we are both frozen to the core. I still can’t believe it’s snowing in the desert. I’m reminded of the time I took a tour group out into the Atacama Desert in Chile, reputedly the driest place on earth, and woke up the next day with about 10 inches of snow. My passengers were convinced we’d taken a wrong turn, one even quoting a line from his guidebook which stated that it snows in the Atacama about one day every few years and, in some places, even DECADES. What are the chances you’ll get to see it in person? Quite high if you happen to be travelling with me, apparently!

Chris and I unpack our stove and boil up some tea in the hope of defrosting our bones. I peer my nose out after just ten minutes and find the scenery so surreal I’m propelled to actually get out of my sleeping bag to take a photo. This is just unbelievable!

This is the Kazakhi desert. No really...it is!

This is the Kazakhi desert. No really…it is!

Luckily, we are both so exhausted that we actually manage to fall asleep quickly, even though our thermometer is trying to convince us that it is -8 degrees and the winds are doing a mighty fine job of pushing and pulling our tent in all directions.
That $150 room is starting to sound mighty appealing right about now.
We awake the next day with perfectly clear skies which, to be honest, freaks us out just as much.

I'd read of 'unpredictable weather' in the desert, but this is just ridiculous

I’d read of ‘unpredictable weather’ in the desert, but this is just ridiculous

Within an hour of setting off again all traces of the freak snowstorm have disappeared. Within two hours, the tarmac road also seems to have disappeared. Major reconstruction work on the only road to the Uzbekistan border means that, for approximately 50kms, we must ride on a dirt track instead. This would normally not be much of an issue (seeing as though it’s all so dry here, right?) yet today there is an issue indeed. Thanks to the snowfall and subsequent melt, we must ride 50kms over the sludgiest mud we’ve EVER encountered. This stuff is SO sticky and slimey that we are forced to stop every kilometre or so, simply to scrape the earthly glue off our front fenders.

May as well be riding on skiis

May as well be riding on skiis

Oh look...it's never-ending! FUN! meh...

Oh look…it’s never-ending! FUN! meh…

Ride, slide, stop, remove mudguard, clean. Ride, slide stop, remove mudguard, clean. Well...you get the picture

Ride, slide, stop, remove mudguard, clean. Ride, slide stop, remove mudguard, clean. Well…you get the picture

It takes us almost six hours to struggle through our mud river and reach tarmac again. By the time we realize that not only is the temperature mild, but the wind has also died down, much to our relief. If ever we needed a break….now would be it.
We spot some abandoned dwellings in the far horizon and decide to stop for the day. A perfectly shaped ‘crater’, which must’ve been used by herdsmen a while back, provides us with the ideal protection should the wind decide to make an unwanted return. It’s still quite early but we’re both worn out and hungry.

Suuuure it looks idyllic now, but later...

Suuuure it looks idyllic now, but later…

We finally have the chance to cook a proper meal for the first time in two days (yes, two minute noodles with a can of mushrooms does constitute a ‘proper meal’ thank you very much!) and indulge in the best night’s sleep we’ve had in almost a whole week.

We head to the Uzbekistan border early the next day. It seems ridiculous to spend only three days in the ninth largest country in the world, but we don’t have much of a choice. To actually see anything of major interest in Kazakhstan, a nation which is larger than all Western European countries combined, we’d need to drive thousands of kilometres eastward. Instead, we head south toward Uzbekistan or, to be more precise, Karakalpakstan.
If you’ve never heard of this particular ‘Stan’, there’s no need to worry…we hadn’t either until we saw the name written across the northern Uzbek part of our road map.

Karakalpakstan is an autonomous republic, housed within the political borders of north-western Uzbekistan. It’s home to the southern half of the infamous Aral Lake, often dubbed the site of the world’s worst environmental disaster. But I’m getting ahead of myself here; first we need to rest.
Besides, I reckon we’ve had enough disasters to deserve at least a full day of peaceful existence :)

Posted in Overlanding, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments