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Central Asia's Thirstiest Miles: Cycling the Kazakh Desert

Posted by on Nov 9, 08:48 AM
Filed under , | Comment [2]

After a comfortable night at a company quarry a day’s ride from Aktau (arranged by our hosts there), we turned our handlebars into the rays of the rising sun and commited ourselves to the embrace of the desert. Our destination was the Uzbek frontier city of Kungrad via Kazakhstan’s Beyneu and Chetpe, the only towns to break up the brown monotony of the desert for hundreds of miles before the landscape flowers under the beneficient influence of the Syr Darya River in Uzbekistan.

As we whirred along over the unexpectedly smooth pavement and as the heat began to mount, a melon stand appeared suddenly around one of the buttes that dominate the landscape west of the Ustyurt Plateau. It might have been a mirage but for the test of our teeth: the melon was still cool from nest in the field below and sweet from the hot sun above; and we ate every bit before we were thoroughly satisfied of its substance… Several gourds of hot yerba maté then gave us an excuse to tarry with the charming Kyrgyz farmers (and improve my stuttering Russian) before we were up and off again, leaving the good things behind us.

We had joked about the high standards of the bicyclists who had reviewed Kazakhstan’s notoriously bad roads, for they had hence been quite good; but the truth was that we simply hadn’t reached the bad ones yet. Next day the road deteriorated into a bumpy dirt track, or rather something like an unpaved, unplanned desert superhighway: as many as six or seven parallel, interweaving tracks wound like braided rope across the empty plateau where lorry drivers had left the main track to blaze their own trails where the ground is often smoother, sending clouds of dust heavenward, clouds that lingered in the torrid air, to my fancy, like the smoke of sacrifice to implacable Apollo. It was quite a sight to see several of these trucks ploughing down the ‘highway’ at the same time.

We labored on under these conditions for several days, continuing on towards Beyneu by turns. It was hot: as it was, a couple of five-liter jugs was barely enough to get us between the Chaikhanas every 60 kilometers or so where tea and water could at least be had in plenty. Basic food (eggs, mutton soup, and sometimes bread) was also often available at these tiny oases, but we carried most of the necessary provisions just to be sure. As we climbed up to the Ustyurt Plateau, the buttes, tables, and low, jagged hills gave way completely, and we were left in a flat, featureless wilderness…

It’s easy to emphasize the harsh inhospitableness of the desert, but the truth is that I relish its barren and burning simplicity. Especially at night. The stars are brighter and the silence is deeper in the desert, and of all places it is the most appealing place to camp. At the end of a long day of riding, there is rest and peace in its quiet loneliness… And so it was with mixed feelings that we finally swept into Beyneu.


  1. “God bless the bikers,” the little ones still pray every morning and evening…as they follow you in their minds and hearts on your journey.

    — DJ and JDT in KS · Nov 9, 01:20 PM · #

  2. 2. The Blogs are wonderful. Wish I was experiencing some of your adventure first hand, but second will just have to do. The Melon Stand is precious! What a joy it must be to find in what appears almost a NO MANS LAND! Sorry to say, but that picture does much more for me than than the huge edifaces called churches and cathedrals. Maybe they ought to put a melon stand outside of every church or cathedral! Keep up the good work. May your trip down the Korakoram be gentle, smooth and safe.
    P.S. Just curious, the Prepping Something by the Tombs Picture has an alcohol stove in it, that cannot be one of the originals sent along on your original journy could it? Love Dad

    — Pa (Dad) · Nov 10, 04:36 PM · #

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