It is 45C. A dry hot dusty wind dries your mouth, nose and eyes. You try to swallow and clear your throat but your saliva has long since evaporated. Your teeth crack as there is sand and dust between then, and your body radiates the immense heat absorbed from the sun. It is over a hundred and fifty miles in each direction to the nearest source of water, food or shelter. Your bike is extremely heavy with several days of food and over 15 liters of water. These thoughts are at first comforting but after a few kilometers of pedaling know that in this environment the water will only last you at most 32 hours. You can not over exert yourself, because if you get too hot these is no shade to cool you off, but you must keep pedaling to survive. (An average day in Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan)
My journey through Kazakhstan was quite challenging. In the 5 days it took me to pedal to the Uzbekistan border I pedaled through the most difficult terrain I have ever encountered. Immediately upon waking on my first day, I was engulfed with dry hot desert winds, and a sun so strong you feel like you are an ant in a child’s sandbox, seconds away from being torched with a magnifying glass. I have never been so thirsty in all my life, and I have really come to respect water as by far our most precious natural resource. The distance between towns and villages is daunting and can be as much as 200 miles on a dusty potholed road covered in a foot of powdered sand. The average daily temperature is close to 45 C, and there is little more than a concrete pipe to give you respite from the sun. I carry between 15-20 litters of water daily, but I can’t seem to consume enough water, I haven’t pee’d in days. I am haunted by the memory of my brother and I’s pet frog Samson, who we left outside in a small cage with little water during a summer weekend. We returned to find nothing more than a dried carcass.
After arriving at Aktau, the port city in Kazakhstan, I suddenly started having diarrhea, at first I figured it was my body, too scared to attempt cycling through Central Asia, trying to get me to give up, but it continued for close to a week. After a few days I debated taking antibiotics, I have a whole arsenal of intestinal chemotherapy, but every time I consume them they make me so weak that I can barely cycle for several days after a normal dose. Between being weak and having diarrhea I chose the latter and frequented all sorts of absolutely disgusting outhouses! However as foul and disgusting as they are, it sure beats digging a hole squatting in the hot desert sun!
There is something very unique about the Central Asia environment, the land between the Caspian sea and Central Uzbekistan (my current location) is completely devoid of life. In the evening, when the sun finally goes away for a few hours, it is absolutely silent. Scorpions prowl the evening sands and eat the moths that are attracted to my cooking stove and headlamp. I have never know such affectionate creatures as they like to cuddle and sleep next to me under my tent. Each morning I pack my tent only to find several underneath. In the morning lizards and geckos come to eat the flies that have gathered to drink my toothpaste water, and ants carry away my littered bread crumbs. In 2008 I visited the Chinese Central Asian province of Xinjiang during August, and I clearly remember the difficultly in handling the dry heat even when traveling around in an air-conditioned automobile! It is easy to get in a bad mood, and keeping a positive attitude is the key to survival here. You can not freak out about the heat or not having enough water! Otherwise you might as well hitch hike or take a bus because you will never make it! You can’t change your surroundings but you can always can change the way you look and relate to them.
Occasionally I encounter wild camels (who can survive for a minimum of 15 days without water). They wander about the desert in the hot in sun, and often wake me at dawn trying to eat my tent or panniers. The word for tree in Russian “Derev’ya” is almost as useless in Kazakhstan as the word for snow in Arabic, “Thalj” they don’t exist! Shade can be found when you are passed on the dusty road by a large semi truck, or inside a cement drain pipe, other than that there is no choice but to handle the heat. Pedaling at night is always an option but the roads are very busy as soon as the sun goes down. It seems that most vehicles out here are not equipped with air conditioning making the day time too hot for a commute.
Kazakhstani’s are extremely friendly and seem to be very curious of my travels. There are few that venture out into the desert herding sheep with nothing more than a bottle of water and vodka. These are known as the “Kochevnik poustynya” Desert Nomads. These nomads make me feel like baby as I pedal past with a bike loaded with 15 liters water. Life is definitely possible out here, but very difficult. I talked with a domestic tourist in the city of Beyneu and he told me that the USSR used to send criminals to these parts of Kazakhstan as the temperatures can be as hot as 50C in the summer and -50 C in the winter. Locals don their own form of the Arab kefiye, and often make masks out of old tee shirts to protect their faces from the sun. At first it was a bit scary coming across these locals in masks because they also often wear sunglasses making them look a lot like the scarecrow in Batman, but they are usually yelling hello and jumping up and down trying to grab your attention.
I know that the heat will eventually die down, but right now life if really difficult on the road. On one occasion a trucker gave me a half-drunken bottle of Fanta, rather than discarding this precious sugary liquid I boiled it and cooked oatmeal in it. Pretty disgusting but it’s food. I entered Uzbekistan 2 days ago and have only passed 2 villages, a part of me wants to take it easy and rest all the time, the other part wants to haul ass and get out of this desert hell. Days are torn between the two. My mind is strong and I continue on….
Hi Julian, Carla here. Wow, what a place! I’ve also had fellow scorpion bed mate under my sleeping bag in the Sierra so it’s interesting to know that it a universal scorpion trait! Eeewwww! As for Samson even his name couldn’t save him. I am remorseful about all the salamanders I left in a bucket on my great grandmothers back porch in Healdsburg. We used to catch them near the Russian River and bring them home. No, this regret never goes away!
It’s back to school time. I hope we get some rain after the rains grapes get picked up.
Stay well and strong.
Hey Carla! Good to hear from you! I don’t mind the scorpions but I have recently been introduced to a strange breed of desert ticks!! They love water, go figure, so I have to wash my dishes a few meters from my tent. The first time I encountered them I was shocked to find them crawling all over me in my sleeping bag!!
Jen thought you might like to read about Julian’s recent progress. So interesting! Hope your well. Think of you often.
with the amount of heat and the sun over there, have you ever consider biking at the dawn, sunset, and twilight? and take rest when it is at the hottest of the day, presumably 11 am – 2 pm?
That’s an idea but the roads are crazy at that time! Full of semi trucks and other intoxicated travelers.
Julian – sending positive energy. Your posts are the highlight of my day. Nancy G.
Thanks Nancy!! I will try to post more often then!!
We had loads of snow in Jordan and Palestine this winter! 😉
And that we did!
Buckets of rain!
We are still with you in spirit Julian. I admire your determination but worry about your dehydration. Remember the “middle way”. We recently had a hurricane come through Hawaii and people were out buying up all the bottled water in anticipation of the electricity going out and no access to drinking water. Many were selfishly hoarding and some stores were accused of jacking up their prices. I think of you offering a nomad one of your bottles of water when you aren’t even hydrated enough to pee…..such generosity. May you be healthy and safe Julian.
Juls. We’ll be in Almaty from the 1st Sep.
We will see each other in Kyrgyzstan!
nice seeing you dude, and nice to hear that you’re in uzbekistan.. btw, what happened to foiled bottle? 🙂 i should have given you the foil for your journey thru kazak roads… peace dude and stay cool
The foil bottle got caught in a conveyer belt at the Uzbek border!! I did come in handy though! But no matter how much insulation there really is no hiding from the intense sun. I am well and in Bukhara
We are still following your travels. I am in Austin visiting Aja (Nora is living in Ecuador) and we are reminiscing about your stay here last summer. You have lived many lives since then! We are with you in spirit and continue to be amazed by your positive attitude and determination.
Good to hear from you!! I often think of you and the family! I hope all is well in Texas and I look forward to my return with a big popcorn party!!
One more thought……have you considered putting your bicycle on one of those trucks passing by to get you across the desert? There is no shame in survival.
Thanks Buttons!! I did survive at least as far as Bukhara. The deserts should be over now… I hope.