Having successfully gained visas for Uzbekistan, Marianne and Joules went ahead of us, with plans to meet again at the start of the Pamir Highway in Tajikistan. Wallis, David and I, meanwhile, took a trip to into Aktau in an attempt to register ourselves in the country. Many countries in Central Asia require tourists to register themselves within 3 days of arriving, if you fail to do so, you are at risk of either deportation or hefty fines on exiting the country. However, trying to establish where and how you can complete this task is one of the more frustrating challenges of travel here. On arrival at the port of Aktau, the British passport holders amongst us were quizzed as to why we did not have visas. Once we overcame this, we continued to be stopped by every uniformed man in Kazakhstan of whom demanded to see our passports and again, wanted to know where our visas were. It took us a total of 4 hours to locate the necessary office to complete our registration, in which time we stopped at police stations and asked police officers on duty in the street, all of whom, instead of helping us, wanted to know why we did not have a visa in our passport! Eventually we see the building we are after, along with a group of officers exiting the building. As we hit the car park, their car doors shut and they're gone..
The security guard explains that as it is Saturday, the office closes at 12.30pm and we would have to wait until Monday to register. Our trains leaves on Sunday.
"Is there any chance you can call one of the officers back? They only left one minute ago!".
Having put us on the phone to an English speaking official, we were again informed that it is only possible to register at the port of entry, i.e Aktau and if we left on the train before Monday, we would risk several hundred euros in fines.
"But we only have 15 days in the country and we have already purchased our train tickets for a 3,300Km journey!".
Deciding to risk it and deal with it later, we persuaded our security guard to write a note in Kazakh which stated the time and date we arrived at the office and our intention to register ourselves. David meanwhile filmed the discussions on GoPro. And then, in a sudden, unexplained moment of sense, our guard told us to wait and a registration officer would return to the office to complete the forms for us. Another 2 hours passed.
Eventually we were called in to the office, more than sure that the guy had been there the whole time and the formalities were dealt with. A total farce and a whole day wasted, but not the first or the last time that bureaucracy would kill the fun in Central Asia.
We have since come to realise why we had such trouble locating both the train station and the immigration office. Aktau uses a very unique method of addressing. There are no names and no street names, everything is instead, organised into blocks of numbers! Apparently, this is because the city had only ever been planned as a camp for the workers of the oil industry, but has since flourished into a fully developed city. For us, it was a bleak place. Oppressed by a looming cloud of Soviet occupancy. And a place where life has been forced to succeed in a harsh, uninhabitable corner of the world. Other than a mosque with polished, golden domes, the sites consisted of a few dull memorials and contributions to famous figureheads. This city is however all about productivity and is crucial to the production of oil, gas, plutonium and desalinated water.
I have already mentioned the gas pipes in the previous post, but I really felt it necessary to describe this atrocious feature in a little more detail. The first time we had seen this type of installation was in parts of Georgia, presumably a remnant of Soviet rule. They were narrow pipes that chased up either side of the residential streets, framing the entrances and exits into individual homes in the same way this massive pipe above fences in the houses behind. I am not saying that what we have previously seen blended in, but they had tried painting them and sometimes had greenery climbing and twisting around them to take the edge off. But, what you see in Aktau is on another level! I need not say anymore, the picture says it all!
With this, we decided to play ignorant tourists and take our bikes with us to the regular passenger train. Luckily, there was plenty of space between the carriage to stow them vertically and in our cabin we had storage for all our baggage. We settled in, sharing our cabin with one other Kazakh man and then watched out the windows as the train pulled away from the station.
After the porter came through to check all the tickets, he beckoned David and Wallis into one of the empty cabins, pulling the sliding door behind him. Anticipating that this would happen, neither of the boys were prepared to be bribed by this guy and it has been our principal from the very start of this trip that we would not hand over a cent of illegal payment. Unintimidated by the pot-bellied porter, David open the door and repeated the attendants demands loudly down the corridor, enough for the other passengers to realise what was happening and enough that our uniformed bully retreated on this occasion. The man had wanted an extra 100 US dollars from each of us!
More than 75% of the country consists of desert or semi-desert, where very little can survive and what exists has been forced to adapt to the harsh and arid conditions. When you have never seen such an expanse of barren land, there is something hypnotic and captivating about gazing into such emptiness. Like a pair of kids, David and I affixed ourselves to the windows. And as night fell, we lay belly down across the top bunks, heads jammed out the narrow window catching the stiff, chilly breeze and camel spotting under the full moon.
Geographically, Kazakhstan is perhaps famous for one of the largest ecoregion's in the world called the Kazakh Steppe, covering an area of more than 800,000 sq km's. Visually, when you approach this Steppe from the West, the formation of the land literally rises up like a giant step! More importantly, this natural environment has particular relevance to cyclists. Although once you have climbed up to the steppe from the lowlands of the Caspian Sea, of which interestingly expose the lowest elevations in the world at 132 meters below sea level, the terrain offers mostly flat cycling. However, this environment is largely dominated and characterised by its winds. And having caught up with other intrepid adventurers keen enough to venture along these formidable paths, it seems apparent that the winds have shaped their experience in this unforgiving corner of the Earth.
The journey took us to the far north-western regions of Kazakhstan, close to Russian border, where for a short time we were in fact travelling through forest and at night time the temperatures fell close to zero. And then the route descended south-west, passing through the former fishing port of Aralsk and close to the infamous Aral Sea. Disappointingly, we did not take the opportunity to jump off the train here, a decision we went with incase of further hassle getting the bikes back on the train. However, I can tell you a little bit about the area here.
Unfortunately, this city and inland sea has gained its reputation by cause of one of the biggest environmental disasters in history. Once a thriving fishing port, the shores of the Aral Sea no longer even reach this dilapidating city and the once lucrative fishing vessels, merely remain perched upon their keels with no hope of an incoming tide anytime soon. This is because the Aral Sea has all but dried up.
In the 1960's the Soviets implemented an extreme project which entailed diverting a large amount of water from the two rivers that feed the Aral Sea in order to irrigate their rapidly expanding cotton-growing industry. To begin with, the project proved a success, but as greed prevailed, they increased the area of the cotton fields and demand for water became paramount. On top of this, the system for transporting water saw a huge amount of water wastage through leakages or evaporation as it travelled the great distances in open canals. By the 1980's the rivers were at a mere 10% of their former volume and by the 1990's the sea itself had been reduced by 90%. Not only did this prove economically fatal, but the salinity levels of the water had increased to such severe levels that fish stocks were depleted and toxic residue left from evaporated water and fertilisers, have had catastrophic health effects on human life.
To bring a slightly positive end to this tragedy, steps were taken in 2005 in attempt to reverse the crisis in the Aral Sea, when a new project funded by the World Bank, helped with the construction of a dam in the Northern Lake. Sea levels in this area have since risen by approximately 30 meters and the distance between the north and south lakes have reduced substantially. There are also two fish processing plants with a third on its way, fish stocks are rejuvenating and other native wildlife has also began to return and flourish.
Most of the dishes included a variation on potatoes or stewed meat and you can either take your own bowl or the ladies will decant your portion into a plastic bag! Beyond the hot food on offer, thousands of melons were stacked on the ground and varying from station to station, buckets of fruits were also displayed for sale. Then there was also the stationary kiosks, stocked with pot noodles, biscuits, sweets, cigarettes and drinks. We had heard from other cyclists that they had struggled to find food whilst cycling through Kazakhstan. My advice would be; HEAD TO THE TRAIN STATIONS!!!
Life really was bustling around the stations and for us, opting to take the journey by train, we far from blasted from A to B, but instead weaved through a unique landscape, glimpsing the colourful culture of the Kazakh people.