Days 348 – 361 Bukhara to Aktau

September 23rd to October 6th 53km

For this second leg in Uzbekistan, we didn’t spend much time on the bikes. Most of the kilometers were covered in taxis or on the train. Hence this post isn’t a particularly long one!

The first thing we did after arriving in Bukhara was go for a traditional hamam bath. A sauna, a brutal massage and a skin searing ginger body scrub actually felt pretty good after a few days riding through the desert. The rest of our time there was spent wandering round the sights, lots more blue tiled madrassas and mosques, similar to Samarkand but a little less touristy and ‘Disneyfied’. Then from Bukhara we took another taxi with our bikes which took us up to Khiva. The desert we drove through didn’t make us regret the decision. The taxi dropped us just outside the gates of the old walled city, so at least we could ride into town, pretending we were cycle tourers!

We spent another few days off the bikes in Khiva, doing more of the same. Khiva is smaller than Bukhara and Samarkand and the old town is enclosed by a big city wall. Although beautiful, everything inside the wall was again very touristy and quite expensive. Maybe we were just getting jaded by everything having an entry fee, or even an extra charge to take photos! Some things were worth it though, like going up the tallest minaret and then catching an amazing sunset over the city walls. We met up once again with Tim and Claire, and went exploring outside the walls to find some good places to eat and drink in the evenings.

From Khiva, Tim and Claire headed back down south to cross through Turkmenistan into Iran. We continued north to Kungrad, again by taxi. 100km north of Kungrad is the town of Moynaq. In the 1960s and 70s, Moynaq was a booming fishing town on the Aral Sea. Since then, the rivers that fed the Aral were diverted to irrigate the cotton fields, causing the sea to shrink and virtually disappear. We travelled up to look at the remains of the fishing fleet which was left rusting in the middle of the desert, many miles from the nearest water.

For the final stretch from Kungrad to Aktau in Kazakhstan, we took a train. Loading the bikes into the carriage was a bit of a pain as the guards weren’t particularly enthusiastic about letting us on with them! Eventually we jammed them into a doorway and settled in for the ride across the border. Luckily as we had a ticket all the way to Aktau, we didn’t need to get off the train for the border crossing. Unlike entering the country, our panniers only got a token check by customs and our passports were checked and stamped fairly quickly. Early the next morning we arrived at Aktau, or more accurately, 20km outside Aktau. For a change, we actually rode our bikes to get into town.

Aktau doesn’t have a great reputation, but arriving from the East, it felt very developed and modern! It helped that the sun was shining and the Caspian Sea looked lovely and blue. We went straight to the ferry ticket office to try and get booked on to one of the boats crossing over to Baku in Azerbaijan. We were told we’d missed one by 30 mintes and to come back the next day. And then the next day we were told the same. It was alright though, Aktau had enough to keep us entertained for a couple of days and we found a nice cheap hotel with a great hot shower and western world speed wifi so we were happy to hang around. Returning to the ticket office on the third day, we were able to buy a ticket and were told to be at the port at 11 o’clock that evening. Once we were down there, the boat was nowhere to be seen. It arrived at about 2am, and then was unloading until 5 so we had a long wait with the truckers. One of the port workers took pity on us and invited us into his office for some tea, so we weren’t out in the cold for too long. Eventually we were able to get onboard and into a cabin to get some sleep. The boat finally left sometime after 7:30 the next morning. Azerbaijan next. We’ll do more cycling there, definitely.

Here’s a video edit from our time in Uzbekistan

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Kazakhstan Summary

We weren’t in Kazakhstan long and we will be returning in around 3 months but we will be mostly waiting in a port town for the boat across the Caspian Sea to Azerbaijan, so I thought I would write about our time in Kazakhstan and moving from East Asia to Central Asia.

When we crossed the border into Kazakhstan we didn’t see too many differences from the last section of Western China. The scenery didn’t change too dramatically, maybe just less human impact, and it still felt super hot. As we continued on, over the next few days we could see some changes. It’s the 9th largest country in the world with one of the lowest population densities and there were much longer stretches of road with very little around. It was amazing and probably the first time on this trip we felt so remote from civilisation. Miles and miles of land with just the road we were on running through.

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Days 252 to 255 Almaty to Bishkek

June 19th to 22nd. 244km

We stuck around in Almaty for a few days. We had a sweet hostel and our ‘city mode’ of relaxing, watching tv and eating international food kicked in hard. The weather turned nasty too, so we put off getting back on the road by a couple of days, sheltering inside from the heavy rain and storms. We did see some of the city, mostly walking from the hostel to restaurants, but we enjoyed strolling along the tree lined streets and through the many parks, taking in the new surroundings. As we mentioned before, Almaty is a real mix of East and West, and a great place to people watch. The buildings are a mix of very ornate, classical architecture, and functional Soviet blocks. The subway was beautifully decorated and clean, but completely deserted. And there was cheap craft beer. It was nice to have the flexibility to spend a bit longer in such an interesting place.

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Days 242 – 247 Khorgas to Almaty

June 9th to 14th. 328km

We were all packed up and ready to leave China. We checked out of our hotel in Khorgas and cycled a couple of kilometres down the road to the checkpoint, stopping on the way to change all our remaining Chinese Yuan to Kazakh Tenge. The gate was closed, which was a bit strange, but there were other people hanging around waiting, so we just found a spot in the shade to sit and wait for them to open up. There was a lone guard behind the gate, so I motioned to him, pointing at my watch to get an idea of when we would be able to pass, but he just shook his head. After an hour or so of waiting, there was no movement, so we tried asking a few of the other people standing around when the border was going to open. ‘Mingtian’ was the reply. Tomorrow.

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