Uzbek embassy official: “No more visa.”
“But the three of us are travelling together.. Can you not just possibly not just issue just one more…”
“No. You need to wait…….. one month.”
Uzbek embassy official: “Only joking.”
Twenty minutes later, cliché dealt with, I emerged from the Uzbek embassy with a freshly minted visa, and embarked on a bit of an adventure.
First challenge was to try and find out if there was a cargo ship leaving to Kazakhstan. Our newly adopted local fixer, the owner at Old City Hostel, made a call. “There is one leaving today. It is scheduled at 2pm. Get there by 6pm at the latest.”
Sorted. Next up buy a ticket. Tickets are in US dollars. So go to the bank to get some dollars. Whole country has an embargo on issuing dollars You need to be a bank client and the maximum is 300. Oh dear. Not enough for two months in Central Asia then. And taking out £500 in local currency was probably a bad idea.
Need to find black market, get to notoriously unreliable ticket office, buy ticket, pack, and find a taxi driver willing to cram the bike in the back of the car and drive me 70k to the port in the space of about three hours.
Ask our fixer. “Sorry I don’t know anyone.” Oh dear. Legendary taxi driver that just happened to be waiting for us at the hostel enters the scene. Says he knows a guy, despite speaking no English whatsoever. Not sure how that worked. 30 minute taxi drive to a residential estate somewhere very lonely and far away. We even stop off at the ticket office and manage to get tickets for the boat on the way. Notorious ticket office described in numerous blog posts is actually very friendly. Arrive. Gestures to give me £500 and he will go in to do the deal. I say no. He disappears and I sit around with a huge amount of cash feeling as stupid as I sound. He gets checked at the door and issued some kind of ticket and disappears. Comes back with several hundred dollar bills. Next issue: never seen one before. Feel nice though. They have a blue bit. Go for it.
Deal done, back to the hostel, pack up, go through the rigmarole of progressing from sheer disbelief that the bike will fit in the car to eventually getting it in the car, and set off with same legendary taxi driver to Alat 70km down the coast. He soon breaks out some loud dance music and we coast alongside the mud and oil flats near Baku, drilling rigs and occassional flares to our right and the vast expanse of the Caspian, dotted with ships and distant platforms, to our left. Breath deeply and hope we make the boat in time.
I arrive just before 6pm, and start unloading and reconstituting the bike and luggage. No buzz in the air and suspicions are soon confirmed when a guy tells my travel companions Tim and Jess that the boat might leave tomorrow if we are lucky. We accept the offer to camp in the port and set up our tents in between the railway line and the long line of lorries waiting patiently.
An hour later, a few pages in to our books, we are given five minutes to pack up our tents and luggage, strap them to our bikes, and get through passport control. A blur followed, and after a small amount of bureaucracy, a joyous three minute cycle ride to the boat in the fresh night air ended two wonderful weeks in Azerbaijan.
18 or 20 hours later and we were scheduled to arrive in Aktau, Kazakhstan. It took 80 hours. We arrived at 2am on day four, and cycled 20km through an allegedly radioactive port town evading dogs, wondering where to sleep, and lolling from side to side in the tired belief we were still at sea.
Some highlights from the boat:
- Not knowing about the toilet paper not going in the loo. Oops. Being stuck in the middle of the Caspian with extremely angry sailors, resolving the issue, guiltily hiding in our cabin, was a low point. But otherwise…
- Meeting Thomas the Georgian train engineer. He travels with maybe 10 or 20 train carriages from Tbilisi to Astana and back, regulating the temperature and fixing any issues. He also stores a huge hoard of homemade cheese, wine, and cognac, served on a dining table, in the old Soviet train carriage he calls home during the voyage. Legendary guy and an inspiration for his generosity and his outlook on life.
- Am impromptu fire hose shower on deck, pictures of which I deleted to remove any doubt about pictures of 10 bare chested sailors at the Uzbek border.
- Watching the loading of 40+ vast train carriages, loaded with oil, gas, coal, iron and steel. Proper stuff.
- Not having WiFi.
- Tim and Jess dancing
None of us regretted the $5 each we spent on a bed and it was all go again to make it onto a train leaving around 12. Bikes were somehow crammed in to the end carriage and we settled in for a day train ride with about five minutes to spare. Staring wistfully out the window, riven with regret for not cycling the 1000km or so, I was annoyed that my feet didn’t fit in the small booth in which I was to sleep. The border crossings were at 2am, and 6am, anyway, so I needn’t have worried.
And now we are in Nukus, Uzbekistan. Ready to cycle again…..!