Header image

Ernst's Velotouren

Bicycle tour 2008 - 2013
First stage Switzerland - Thailand
Part 5: Western Kazakhstan, July 2008
After a ride through the more than 70 km wide delta of the river Volga I have reached the russian-kazakh border. The formalities were finished within 30 minutes and then I was riding curious about the new country into the vast and deserted plains of the northern shore of the Caspain Sea, riding past some wide scattered camel herds and oil fields.
Picture: Camels in the steppe.
The few little towns on my way are hardly to outbid regarding their sleepiness. Unfortunately the little towns are marked with a high unemployment rate and missing perspectives for a better furture. Only the oil industry has some jobs to offer.
Picture: The center of Akkystau.
The first city on my way through Kazakhstan was a pleasant surprise. Since years the city experiences an economical boom, and today all international major oil companies are present. Remains the hope that also the country side of Kazakhstan can benefit from this boom.

With the crossing of the bridge over the river Ural (just 500 m away from my hotel) I have reached now Asia. A moving moment. Half of the city of Atyrau belongs to Asia and the other half to Europe.

I have reached this city after 10 hours riding, making my so far longest stage of this trip (194 km) in one single day. This was completely exaggerated considering the bad roads (but it is said that they are still the sort of the better ones in Kazakhstan), the heavy packed (45 kg luggage) bicycle and the strong head wind. So I rested in Atyrau again for one day.
Picture: The backside of the Hotel Ak Zahik in Atyrau.
Bild: The river Ural which forms together with the same named mountain-range the border between Asia and Europe. (The left river bank belongs to Asia, the right one to Europe).
For the next 100 km after Atyrau i found myself on a very good road. But the pleasure did not last for long and I had to ride the next 620 km until Aqtobe on incredible bad roads which made very high demands to both human being and material. Moreover the distances between little villages with shops with a very limited assortment had become 300 km and more!

Due to the poor road conditions many cars and trucks search a parallel side way through the desert. But after some rain those ways are also close to impassable and every kilometer becomes an endless battle against dirt and sticky mud.
Picture: On one of the two major highways which are linking Western Kazakhstan with the rest of the country.
So it happened that I was between Atyrau and Aqtobe 5 days out in the desert alone with myself. The endless and vast landscape has a very calming effect on the human nature and empties the mind from all active thoughts and feelings. That is the point where unexpected inner freedom and happiness is arising and taking over my entire existence.
Picture: The endless and vast landscape found its reflection in my mind.
Picture: The motor of Kazakhstan's economy is crude oil, and almost every job has something to do with it. Oil is making Kazakhstan the richest country in Central Asia.
Picture: Some pot holes are so big that a small car could easily fall into it.
To minimize the loss of water through breathing (I drink every day about 8 liters of water and feel still thirsty in the evening) I tie a big scarf around my face. The scarf also protects me from millions of little and very fast flies which love to land in the face.
Picture: Self-portrait
When I met Thomas from Berlin I enjoyed very much to speak with him in German language. Since several weeks I communicated with only some few Russian words, and I could order all the time only the same food and answer the same questions about the where from and where to. Thomas is touring with his motorbike through Russia, Kazakhstan and Mongolia and like to reach Vladivostok in the very east of Russia, just besides Japan.
Picture: Thomas from Berlin on the way to Vladivostok
It was always a welcome diversion from the monotony of the deserted steppe and to get in contanct with locals having a meal in one of the few "Chaikanas" (literally: Tee house) on my lonely way.
Picture: Edik with his sister and mother in front of the chaikana in Baiganin.
But unless those few encounters I was all those days alone with myself out in the endless steppe and always hoped that the common afternoon thunderstorms with their canonade of flashing lightnings would pass by. It might be dangerous to be out in this plains on a bicycle in a thunderstorm. But fortunately most storms passed me.
Picture: A huge thunderstorm over the vast steppe.
Everyday some car drivers curiously friendly requested me to stop, offered something to eat or drink and asked where I came from and where I was going to. So also Daniyar from Aqtobe who stopped me around the village Kandiagash invited me spontaneously to join a traditional dinner and a joyful party with his friends. It's always a great pleasure to experience this cordiality of the locals.
Picture: With Daniyar and Almaz, my hosts in Aqtobe, in front of a memorial of a female resistance fighter who had killed a huge quantity of german nazi-commanders during world war II.
From Aqtobe for about 250 km a very good paved road led to Karabutak, sometimes I had the chance to eat in a nice "chaikana" with good assorted dishes, and the temperatures were around pleasant 30°C to 35°C.
Picture: Karabutak, the last "bigger" place for the next 360 km. A "bigger place" means a village with maybe 100 inhabitants, a shop with a few articles, two or three "chaikanas" and some camels.
Picture: Through the loneliness of the deserted plain, about 50 km south of Karabutak, nobody to see near and far. In average I didn't come across more than two or three cars per hour. Apart from that I had the road for myself alone. But already a few kilometers later the paved road turned into a demanding off-road track for the next some hundred kilometers ...
For 500 Tenge (about 4 US$) in most of the "chaikanas" it's possible to sleep. But there is no bed available, the floor must be enough.

The "chaikanas" between Karabutak and Aral are very simply equipped and no one needs a menu. They simply serve "something to eat", and this is mostly a bowl of mutton, a huge piece of bread and a pot of tea. Since long time already I had buried my expectations of vegetarian food ...
Picture: Staff of a small "Chaikana" (father and his two sons, the mother is in the kitchen).
The further I got to the south the worse the road was. There was no more pavement for hundreds of kilometers. The few cars and trucks drove on parallel ways straight through the desert. But those ways are mostly completly silt up and impassable with a bicycle.

So there was no other choice than using the main road and to bump kilometer by kilometer towards the south. That was no problem as long as I did nothing else then riding bicycle, what means to keep my mind free of all active thoughts and emotions. To ride bicycle under such circumstances is easy, but to think about it would make it really very difficult. Doing like this I was able to enjoy even the hard sides of a cyclist's life.
Picture: On the national highway M32, the Aral-Highway (north of the village Irgiz).
The further I went to the south into the Aral-Caspi depression the hotter the climate became. Between 11 AM and 3 PM the temperatures rose up to 42° C. A shady place which could provide a little protection from the scorching heat was not available at all. Of course I had to drink a lot of water and in one of those days I really poured 12 liters down my throat - and still felt thirsty!
Pictures: Sometimes there was an old stretch of paved road, but the sun was so intense that the asphalt had become almost liquid!
Pictures: Sometimes truck drivers invited me to a watermelon what I never refused regarding the heat of over 40°C.
Roughly 100 km before Aral again I came across a paved road. The worst stretch through the desert was done! But also this raod had become soft in the heat of the intense sun.
Picture: Paved road before Aral.
Next page / Part 6: Southern Kazakhstan