Nothing and camels in Chevrolet country

The road was long. Hot. Straight. Deserted. And worth it.

The 2000 kilometers stretching between Astrakhan (Russia) and Samarkand (Uzbekistan), through Kazachstan and along the Caspian Sea were exactly that what I needed: nothing. Hours and hours, days of nothing. No people, no interesting sights, no thrilling experiences. Just nothing. After all the unsettling events over the past months, I was well up for some nothing. To digest, to switch back to traveling, to pick up my life again where I left it.

I left Harry behind in Russia with rain, wind and below-zero-temperatures; upon my return spring had arrived. The last riding days through Russian Dagestan and Chechnya had taken their toll – I needed to replace brake pads and give him a thorough cleaning once again. Waiting for a friend to arrive and join me through Kazachstan and Uzbekistan, I started off slowly.

The first night camping was a special one. As always. From my bed under the trees along the Wolga river, I watched the camp fire fade away through the rear wheel of my motorbike… What else could I wish for?

Leaving Russia for Kazachstan was like taking a deep breath of fresh air. – With the men appearing aggressive and the women arrogant (although the hand kiss from the lady where Harry spent a few weeks made up for a couple of unappealing encounters), Russia wasn’t my favorite country. In addition: very expensive. As soon as I crossed the border, the world was full of friendly, smiling faces again, and of thumbs-up out of the windows of cars passing by. 

The Russian temporary import paper (TIP) for the bike is accepted in Kazachstan, speeding up the border crossing. The first 300 km to Atyrau however, are a different story. Its like riding a big Emmentaler cheese: navigating between potholes, while avoiding clashes with cars and trucks abruptly changing direction attempting to save their cars’ suspension. Temperatures started to rise until 35 degrees, forcing me to reconsider my water intake and carriage. I’m playing cat and mouse with Peter, who’s trying to catch up with me from Austria but it’s taking too long for me to sit around and wait. So I drive slowly ahead, and he speeds up until we meet in Beyneu. By that time, I’ve come across a vast amount of camels, horses and … nothing. Plain, barren landscape as far as the eye can reach – not a single tree within a few hundred kilometers – but an increasing number of oil and gas drilling stations. I have to continue driving until just before sunset else it’s way too hot, then set up camp in the absolute middle of nowhere and be sparingly with the water I need to wash myself. Yes, it’s important to spend water on personal hygiene, when living like this for an extended periode of time. The cleaner I jump into my sleeping bag, the longer I can procrastinate washing it; in addition it decreases the number of mosquitoes nibbling on me. And, not less important, this brief refreshment at the end of the day mentally cleanses as well. The same goes for cooking: I try to cook a decent meal every day, regardless the extra effort and weight of carrying food. It’s a priority. There’s still a long way to go, and I’d like to achieve it in good health. The sun sets quickly. Hitting the ground in the middle of a deserted land, gazing at the immensely starred sky at night, is as humbling an experience as empowering. The breeze on my skin in the morning, before the heat kicks in, is a wonderful feeling.

In Beyneu, just before entering Uzbekistan, I wait another day for Peter and use the time to adjust some minor things on my luggage. Upon his arrival we change the oil on his bike, and prepare for joint take off in the morning.

Our bikes are thoroughly checked at the the Kazach-Uzbek-border, more out of curiosity than for security reasons; after the usual paperwork and insurance hurdle we’re good to go. Into Qaraqalpakstan, where 2 full days of long sweaty hours driving (we’re almost hitting 40 degrees in the shadow now) bring us to the first city: Nukus. Seeing back an Uzbek course mate after 8 years put a big smile on my face. Alpamis provides us great background information about his country and we share a karaoke-dinner together with his lovely family. Chevrolet holds a monopoly position in the car industry – since he told me that, indeed I saw hardly see any other car than Chevrolet. The (few) different models represent the differences in social status. Off course there are still some Sovjet-times-relics like Lada’s, but other cars require a 100% import taks. Another remarkable thing is the explosion of new neighborhoods being built. With the weak currency (1 euro = 10.000 Som), banks are willing to lend mortgages. People shop on instant loans: one call to the bank is enough for a purchase you can’t afford … many people are living on borrowed money while jobs are not widely available and not well paid … Since the current president was installed, many positive changes are noticeable, mostly improving political transparency. Uzbekistan is changing; it’s opening up. For travelers from several countries it’s a great advantage not needing a visa anymore (since early 2019).

Passing by Bukhara and Samarkand, 2 cities in the southeast, finally brings me to the realization that I’m actually on the Silk Road. Impressed like a little girl, I walk around the madrases as if I’d stepped into a fairy tale book. Everywhere I look there’s just one word in my mind: wow. Wow, wow, wow! The massive yet subtle buildings, beautiful ornaments, and the daily life that seems to take place around the historical and cultural monuments.

After an extensive chain cleaning session we are too late to make it to Samarkand and decide to set up camp in a field along the road. Within minutes, we’re discovered by a boy, who invites us to his house. A dynamic evening with children playing around, men and women coming and going, food being brought to the table and eaten bit by bit; plates are shared and tea cups endlessly refilled. A lovely time we had.

Women are cutting off the leafs from collected mulberry branches; they are then placed in a room. ‘What’s there?’ I ask. One of the women takes me inside … an enormous number of silkworms spread out over mulberry branches all around the large room. The air is damp; you can hear them eating. Wow, once again! After breakfast we saddle up one last great picture arises: two of the boys reach out to me with a cheeky smile on their beautiful faces, both holding a rose in their hand for me. I thank them by putting my right hand to the left side of my chest, and place the flowers at my handle bar.

Thank you for taking us in and be part of your family for a little while!

Time constraints of my temporary companion required me to skip visiting a lot of interesting places. But the expected highlights of my journey – Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and Mongolia are just around the corner now. Funny enough a fellow traveler whom I met a few times during his preparation phase last winter heard from 2 Germans that I’d spoken to on the road in Kazachstan, that I was making my way down to Samarkand where he just arrived before me. And so we met up, had a nice lunch together, and concluded once more: what a small world this is! Carlo is ridingforhappiness from Rome to Bhutan, on his Royal Enfield. Great to meet him ‘in the field’ – who knows we’ll be crossing roads again in Tajikistan?!