Get out

Aktau, 23.07.2019

Ants woke me up in the morning, running over my arms and legs looking for breakfast. After convincing them they were in the wrong spot, I went for breakfast myself. On the way I went to check on the car, now in full daylight, to assess the damage of the last night. The engine was OK, all liquids too. The airbag was a mess on the passenger seat. Then I checked the wheels, and realized I had not seen that two tyres were about to explode. In last night’s darkness that must have escaped my attention. The two front wheel tyres got hit. Fantastic! Adis, the guy from the reception, showed me the location of the car part district in town, close to an Uzbekneftgaz petrol station that supposedly had diesel. 15 mins to focus on the bright side, the breakfast in this lovely caravanserai, with one courtyard leading to the next, and the breakfast room up the stairs. It was one of the magic memories of Eurasia2013’s Uzbekistan speed crossing, this room with the original decorations on plaster and wood in this old house, still not renovated. I left the old town hoping to find a solution for the tyres. The car district was buzzing with people, shops, cars of course, and lots of dust as I drove by trying to find a proper tyre repair shop among the many shady shacks around here. One bigger building said “Chevrolet service”. Chevrolet meaning Daewoo in disguise, the official car band of 95% of all vehicles in Uzbekistan. I rolled into the service station’s gate and a friendly young guy immediately understood the job at hand when he checked the wheels. A few phone calls later it became clear I’d have to buy four new tyres, as they were not sold individually. Russian brand, the size I needed, and available in a few minutes. $160, more expensive than the new Bridgestone I had put on back in Barcelona. “OK, let’s do this.” Shortly after another guy came in with a hand cart with four brand new tyres on them. Two hours after I had left the hotel, I rolled out into the heat again. I was completely wet from the sweat running down my body in rivers. The Mini had four new tyres, and after buying cold drinks at a supermarket I hit the road.

Literally, as it turned out. The road on the first 80-100km after Bukhara towards Nukus was tricky. It seemed OK mostly, only to hit you with potholes and sudden stretches of destroyed road over and over again. As I drove very slowly through the heat, slalom through the potholes, after hitting one the car suddenly started to make a strange noise. As I was driving with the windows open I heard it immediately, and stopped. It came from the rear left wheel, and checking it it seemed the tyre was rubbing against some plastic. I tried to push it away, but didn’t succeed. Also, my front number plate had lost a screw and was hanging loose. After driving a few meters I realized I couldn’t continue like this. The next town was smaller than Bukhara and further away, so I decided to turn around and get back. The noise from the wheel got worse, and I drove at 10km/h. At this speed it would take hours to reach Bukhara. As I was getting desperate, I saw what looked like a car repair shop on the side of the road, in the middle of nowhere. I rolled into the shop, and two young guys came out of a backroom with some beds and action TV in Russian. The usual, they spoke no English and me no Russian. I should have finished that damned course back in NYC. Although, would I have learnt stuff like “can you fix my car’s wheels?” or “where is the next car repair shop?”. Anyway, they took off the back left wheel that had just been put back on with a brand new tyre and calibrated. “Ha!” the mechanic laughed, and from under the car pointed at a piece of metal connecting the wheel to the car. The right one was straight, the left one Z-shape. The last pothole had hit it so hard that the metal had deformed, the wheel now leaning several cm more to the right and scratching against the wheel cover of the vehicle. “No problem” he said, indicating a hammer. He took off the axle, took out an anvil that looked like a slice of a rail track, and started to work the hammer. About half an hour later the axle was kind of straight again, and he put it back on. I had to pay a lot of my remaining Uzbek Som. The tyres had drained my cash reserves in EUR, I had few USD left. Low on cash, no bankomat in range, a deformed axle, horrible roads ahead and about 1.500km from Baku, I got a bit anxious.

As I rolled out of the repair shop into the heat, I switched to survival mode. From now on there was only one goal: get out of here safe, to Baku, where a proper BMW service station hopefully would have been able to check the Mini properly. I decided to drive slow but steady towards Beyneu in Kazakhstan, skip all sights along the road, and drive as straight as possible. The next hour and a half was a torture, the road being very bad and me driving dead slow to not hit the car again in the slightest of ways. Finally I reached the perfect stretch of motorway along the border with Turkmenistan that I had driven on almost two weeks ago. Although the road was perfect, I was paranoid about the slightest pothole all the time. Temperatures hit 49C, and me, my t-shirt, the towel I had put on my seat, and the seat itself were wet from the sweat. I drank over 7l that day, as much as never in my life I guess. As the sun started its ascent for the day, I had gotten only as far as Turtkul. The next town with hopefully a decent hotel was Urgench, 12km off the main road. Google maps showed me a “casual hotel with a pool” on the main road. Casual? Driving by I found a huge, probably government run complex. I was probably the only guest. But the room was clean, had shower, aircon and WiFi. The friendly young man at the reception recommended a restaurant on the other side of the river. But I needed cash, and the bankomat at the hotel didn’t work. How strange, this never happened in Uzbekistan… Anyway, at the airport there was supposedly a working bankomat. I drove there through almost empty streets, over a huge road with a lot of representative buildings, street lights with colorful decorations. In between the few cars a guy on a white bike and a red horn was speeding like crazy, honking. He passed two girls on the sidewalk, and honked. I passed him, honked, and he honked back. At the airport the bankomat didn’t work, but at the money exchange two women got me USD for a fee on my credit card. “Passport!” “It’s in the hotel, but here’s my ID card.” “OK!”. I asked for small bills, and one of the women searched all their USD bills, mostly 100s, to find a few 20s and a 50. A VIP was ferried to the plane, his shiny black Chevrolet Malibu parked in front of the terminal as I had walked in, and his entourage incl. some dudes in uniform walking around him, carrying his bag, rushed past me as I was waiting for my cash. I drove back through the deserted city, crossed the river, and found the restaurant I was recommended. A shiny building with three storeys, lights all over, and a big car park full of white Chevrolets, all of the same two types. Inside, a festive atmosphere with Uzbek dance music, flatscreen TVs showing some entertainment program, and a steady flow of shashlik skewers from the grill welcomed me. The food was delicious, especially some giant samosas filled with minced meat, and they served alcohol. 1l of local beer completed my hydrating exercise for the day, before heading back to the hotel for a shower and instant sleep.

Several people had warned me the road to the border with Kazakhstan would be pretty rough. The bikers I had met in the yurt in Kirgizstan, the tourist guide in Khiva, and the Swiss and Dutch bikers in Bukhara a few weeks ago. Of this last group, three out of four bikes had broken a wheel on this stretch. Consequently, the next morning I got up early and quite tense. The 580km to the border and 100km to Beyneu were not far if the road was OK, but could have been an eternity otherwise. If the bikers had broken wheels on new bikes, how would I have fared with my already broken axle? I had enough diesel to get out of Uzbekistan and a full 20l tank with me, so I left Urgench quite early and without distractions. The A-380 highway led through some villages, and then about two hours to Nukus in very good conditions. First milestone, 2,5h, as per Google maps, check. The next town, Kungirot, was another 100km away. Perfect roads, 1,5h drive, check. I was getting ready to face the destroyed Uzbek roads any moment, but the highway was perfect as I kept driving on. Sometimes a short stretch of light potholes, but otherwise brand new tarred roads that would have allowed for 130-150km/h easily. I didn’t trust them though, and drove 80-100km/h all the time to take it easy on the Mini. Windows open, no aircon, to not overheat. Weather was not as hot, 35C in the morning felt almost chilly, and the wind through the open windows was fresh, not hot hairdryer. I kept driving and driving, and the disaster roads didn’t arrive. 100km from the border approx the tar got patchy, and I could see some potholes must have been covered very recently as they had shiny black fillings on the grey tar. Then about 60km from the border it finally came, the destroyed road. There was little traffic, mostly trucks. And I had to slow down significantly, driving mostly on the fringes of the road in the gravel. Every so often a pole marking the road would force me onto it. Some had been knocked down, and only metal bars sticking out of the road were left, each could have pierced a tyre easily. Passing trucks was painful, the dust and diesel fumes blowing through my open windows. At some point I saw an alternative track in the yellow sand off the road’s track, and tried it. The soft ground was much easier to drive on, and had no potholes at all, just a few occasional small stones to avoid. I drove steady 30km/h for over an hour and passed all trucks and cars easily. The Mini by now had a good layer of dust all over it on the inside. When the road suddenly got perfect again 10km from the border I couldn’t believe it. The tar was liquid, and I could see my tracks in the back mirror. At 17:30 I reached the border, 15 mins later than Google maps had predicted, check.

Crossing from Uzbekistan into Kazakhstan was super easy on the Uzbek side, they didn’t check my car and just registered my passport data. On the Kazakh side, I had to wait a bit in the heat. Once I passed passport control and registered my car, an officer told me to drive around the customs check for the cars and just leave. OK, that was a first at a border, but it worked. 50 mins and I was in Kazakhstan, where a perfect new highway with no cars on it welcomed me. I stopped to put fill the diesel from the spare tank into the Mini, wash my face and eat something, before getting back on the road. As I drove along I was waiting all the time to reach the bad stretch, the destroyed road, the pothole. But nothing happened, until 20km to Beyneu, where the road was still in construction. I had to get off, and here the dust was so strong that I had to close the windows and turn the aircon on. Now my eyes were alternating between the road and the engine temperature indicator. Overtaking trucks was trickier in the sand, and to pass them I had to drive blindly through the cloud of sand dust their tyres were blowing up. Reaching the outskirts of Beyney, the “road” changed into a range of tracks through the sand. The sand was deeper, and softer. I had to drive very slowly behind the trucks, and started to risk getting stuck in the sand. Driving through sand is easy if you have tyres with less pressure (mine were fully pressurized), can drive straight (I had to slalom) and fast (I was dead slow behind the trucks) and can keep the engine running in high gear (even in first gear I barely made it to 1500 rpm here). There was a point where the Mini almost turned on its own center in the sand, and I saw myself shovelling me out again in the heat and dust. But the Mini made it, and at 19:00 we rolled into Beyneu town, both covered in dust and sand. My hair was all sticky, my white towel on the passenger seat half black, the Mini light brown inside and outside.

I had found two hotels on booking.com in Beyneu that seemed somewhat decent on the pictures, and went to see them. Both were pretty run down, had no cars in front of them and no sign of life anywhere close. I found another few hotels, all gave the same desolate impression, and I didn’t feel like trying my chances there. The sun was going down, I maybe had two hours of light, and Aktau was 5h away, on unknown roads. I fuelled up, and left Beyneu. Driving out of town through perfect roads, I started to relax a bit. Somehow Kazakhstan felt easier than Uzbekistan. Normal cars on the roads, I paid for my diesel with credit card in a normal gas station, camels and horses were all around in the desert, infrastructure was good. Wondering if I’d make it to Aktau, I thought “why not camp somewhere around here tonight?” About 45 mins later I took off the main road on a track into one of the few hills in this vast, flat desert, and 5 mins later found a good spot to pitch my tent in the last light of the day. It was so hot, I ran around in my boxer shorts, sweating. I washed myself, the water I had in the car was very hot. And I opened a bottle of white wine from the fridge, that was surprisingly not hot, in the last light of the day. It was not easy to fall asleep in the tent. The heat kept me sweating, although I had both sides of the tent open and a good wind kept blowing through. At some point exhaustion kicked in and my eyes closed. I woke up several times during the night.

5:50 I got up, packed, made coffee, took a shower as the sun appeared on the horizon. I checked the Mini’s liquids before taking off. By 09:00 the sun was up high and by 10:00 the heat was back at 38C. On perfect roads I drove through a desert landscape, dotted with camels, horses roaming around. I passed the oil fields at Zhetybay, with many wells pumping black gold out of the desert. I thought about the CO2 debate back home in Europe, electric cars, and how this was the energy of the past, destroying our planet. All these pumps should have shut down right now, but they kept pumping as I drove past them. I reached Kuryk at about 11:30, after a short stretch of bad road after the oil fields. There were no road signs, and after trying to find the port along the main roads the village spit me out on the other end. Off the main highway there was finally a brand new road, and a poster advertising a new port. Italian energy company Eni had a depot here. As I drove by, over this brand new road, I thought about how my friends in Italy fuelling up were somehow paying to replace Soviet destroyed roads with brand new ones here in Kazakhstan, to build new homes, new gas stations, new shops, putting new Toyota Landcruisers and Hyundai sedans on the streets. And how all this was destroying out planet. The camels on the roadside were a reminder of the distant pre-combustion engine age, their CO2 impact probably being a lot lighter than any truck or Landcruiser.

The Kuryk port was just 22km from the main road. I passed a few treacherous marked and unmarked rail crossings, but otherwise the tar was fine. I had made it to the Caspian sea! At the brand new port, a lonely guy in an empty building with “passenger terminal” on it and a photoshop perfect green lawn in front of it somehow explained me that there was no ferry today or tomorrow, as the weather was bad. But there was a hotel a few buildings away. I drove there to check it out. It’s inside the port complex, I had to register with my passport to get in. The hotel was brand new too, rooms were immaculate, bathroom and shower too – but they had no WiFi. I asked several times, no chance. I drove to Aktau, about an hour away (90km). I was wondering if Google would suggest me another “casual hotel with pool”, but it suggested a “posh seafront hotel with spa”, that sounded a lot better than the “relaxed hotel with a restaurant and a pool” or the “low-key seafront hotel with dining”. Aktau was an industrial town, with oil-related factories everywhere, Soviet infrastructure, buildings, shops, parks. Along the waterfront there were a few new villas with big Landcruisers parked in front. The “posh seafront hotel” was indeed rather civilized, made me shower and shave properly, had a good lunch with local fish, and a huge bed that made me fall asleep in the blink of an eye.

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