The magnificent buildings in Samarkand and Bukhara visited for the second time in three years will now be added to our store of memories’ record in this blog as we head west again. From Bukhara we have a long haul to reach Aktau some 1,500 km or almost 1,000 ml away. Luckily the temperature is not expected to rise above the mid 30’s celsius. Last time we were here in 2014 it was the mid 40’s celsius, so we are lucky again. An early start from Bukhara, after loading another 28 litres of fuel onto Streak and Storm, sees us wrestle with avoiding potholes close to the city which does not always work as bottoming out the suspension on numerous occasions will testify. Anne has a theory on where the potholes come from, and we now have photographic evidence, they are stolen!
Drivers hoot, flash lights and wave as we slowly make our way slowly westwards of all the ‘Stans’, the people of Uzbekistan are the most enthusiastic towards motorbikes. We also pass a bad accident, one car wrecked on the road, another in the field nearby, probably a front-on looking at the damage, lots of people already stopped so as we move on we are reminded to stay alert.
While we have 14 litres of fuel each extra, headwinds and the fact we are using 80 octane fuel, albeit with a booster additive, means we cannot be too complacent about how fast we travel on the good stretches of road – some fuel we have purchased has sediment which looks like that found in old wine bottles, so do not decant it all into the tank. We do have enough to reach Nukus some 550 km away which we reach after a long day’s riding.
Nukus was once one of the most prosperous cities in Uzbekistan based on agricultural produce but over time diversions of water resources to other regions has reduced agricultural output, and wealth significantly. To the north lies the shrinking remains of the Aral Sea. This was caused by the diversion of water from the Syr Darya River and the Amu Darya River in the 1960’s to support the growth of Soviet cotton production. Work is being undertaken to reverse the damage but it will take decades to achieve. Nukus is a good jumping off point for tours up to the Aral sea bed. Our hotel reception procures more petrol/gasoline, “do you want 91 octane?”. I think they have done this before.
Our crossing back into Kazakhstan from Uzbekistan is relatively painless as borders go, paperwork at a minimum and only a couple of hours’ time. Makes one realise how good the systems we have in place are and the benefits of the EU Customs Union. If Brexit does not come up with an efficient Customs alternative the tailback will reach long past the M20 in Kent.
We had heard that the road on the Kazakhstan side was difficult and this proved to be true, it is mostly dirt, which in many ways is easier than pot-holed tar. We tend to be quicker than the cars across this surface, but we are always listening for a telltale rattle that something has come loose. We only have about 45 miles / 70 kilometres of this surface before we return to tar. It just confirms I am not a dirt rider, I will do it, but it gives me no pleasure.
We are some 20 ml/32 km from our final destination in Kazakhstan, the port of Aktau, where we will board a ship to take us across the Caspian Sea to Azerbaijan. I glance down at the GPS and see that it has turned into a depth gauge, we are already some 70 meters below sea level! I quickly hold by breath, check for oncoming water from the Caspian Sea that towers above us somewhere ahead at only 27 meters below sea level and try to remember any anecdotal diving information from a friend over long dinners and good red wine back in Manly. Reality returns to my befuddled brain and I I realise I do not need to add a snorkel or oxygen tanks to the fuel and water containers that festoon Streak and Storm, Phew! We are in or close to the Karagie Depression which reaches 132m / 433 ft. below sea level and is one of the lowest points in the world. The name translated from Kazakh is “black hollow”, although the landscape is white and yellow. There are also many reported UFO sightings in the area, although today I think we are the only aliens around.
We arrive in Aktau, the Caspian Sea now bars our way and we will need to seek passage on a ship to travel further westwards, but that’s for another blog entry.