In the past fortnight I have struggled with the toughest psychological battles of my journey so far.
I am in Khiva, the smallest and westernmost city of Uzbekistan’s Silk Road triumvirate, alongside Bukhara and Samarkand.
Exactly two weeks ago I disembarked the ‘Professor Gul’ cargo ferry at Kuryk, Kazakhstan. From Kuryk I was several days riding through Kazakhstan’s Mangystau Province to the Uzbek border. There I would ride south east through Uzbekistan’s Karakalpakstan Province towards its eastern cities. Both regions share the same desert landscape.
I would cycle to the border with Paul, from Scarborough, who I met while camping in the Azerbaijan ferry port. It is the instinct of long-distance cyclists to coagulate whenever possible. Being countrymen is a catalyst. I had finally found someone who wouldn't recoil in disgust at the marmite I have been carrying in my pannier since Dad brought it to Tbilisi.
Desert cycling is formerly a psychological battle, latterly a physical one. Company is certainly preferable. Paul and I entertained each other during days where we would not pass a single landmark of note. When we did occasion such landmarks, shared celebration was sweeter than the underwhelming feel of reaching a long sought-after destination alone.
After a particularly gruelling morning on our third day in Kazakhstan we staggered into a roadside cafe, dusty and wobbly legged. The menu was in Cyrillic and the barwoman with a full smile of gold teeth didn’t speak English. She brought out some frozen dumplings and we nodded hungrily, despite having no conception at all as to what they were or what was in them. She brought out eggs and the nodding became manic, our culinary fever increased to boiling point.
Literally moments later the feast was laid. We grinned at each other from ear to ear as five meat filled dumplings, four eggs, bread and mighty mugs of sugary tea were spread before us. Conversation was limited as we concentrated on remembering to breath between mouthfuls. That meal was the highlight of my day, and looking back, probably the highlight of my week.
At the Kazak border town of Beyneu Paul made the sensible decision to take the train across Karakalpakstan to Uzbekistan’s more populated eastern provinces. The difficulties of riding in the desert make it a popular alternative, three other riders I have personally met made the same choice.
Watching all my friends leave me to climb into trains and shared taxis wasn’t the confidence boost I had hoped for prior to crossing this particularly difficult section of road. Unfortunately I am stubborn and proud. Knowing that others had previously succeeded incited a desire for self-validation. I could take the pain, the isolation, the boredom.
The first day in Uzbekistan came close to falsifying my proud convictions as I set out east, alone. The landscape was as I had grown accustomed to. Pan flat, arid shrubland, featureless save the line of electricity pylons which tracked the parallel railroad two kilometres to the south.
The road east from the Kazakh border town of Beyneu was horrid and significantly worse than anything I had previously experienced. Most of the sunbaked road was unpaved. Parts that had once been paved were pitted, scarred and trenched to an almost unrideable degree by the incessant thundering of articulated lorries.
Drivers adopted one of two techniques for navigating this treacherous way. Half moved barely faster than myself, weaving left and right to avoid the cavernous potholes and gingerly caressing their vehicle through those which were unavoidable.
The other half drove like budding teenage rally drivers. They would hammer past in a furious spray of dust, dirt and sand, using speed and momentum to skim the vehicle over the tops of the potholes. These latter drivers were almost exclusively taxi drivers. Their driving was all the more terrifying when a thought was spared for the poor passengers and the vast mound of luggage which was haphazardly shrink wrapped to the roof with cling film.
Somewhere in the middle of the madness I struggled forward. A brutish head wind hammered me relentlessly. My legs were aching from grinding at 10 kilometres per hour in my smallest gear, my arms and upper body were aching from the constant juddering and the effort of controlling an overloaded bicycle in such a wind.
Come midday I had covered a meagre 20 kilometres, my mental and physical resilience waned. Frustration boiled as I pushed harder and harder to maintain the same pathetic pace. If I was struggling this badly at 20 kilometres, how would I make the full 1200 kilometres to Samarkand? Tears welled as my frustration and desperation came to a head. Rising out of the saddle I lurched forward and mindlessly screamed curses into the howling onslaught. Of course, the tempest entirely ignored me and howled on.
I struggled on in 10 kilometer efforts until light fell, and collapsed in the dust to sleep. One day at a time I thought as I lost consciousness, and that’s the first pin fallen.