As promised, yesterday evening the two Russian bikers, Max and Andrei, turned up in Beyneu. Mad Max is technically a Kazakhstani, hails from Uralsk in the far North West of Kazakhstan, but is a Russian. Speaking of Uralsk, its a city I went through 15 years ago and I remember it as its on the Ural river, the river that marks the border between Europe and Asia. In the North, its marked by the Ural mountains, further south its marked by the Ural River. Atyrau, which I passed through a few days ago, is another city that straddles the Ural river. Uralsk and Atyrau, both in Kazakhstan, are evidence that Istanbul’s claim to be the only city to span two continents, to be a Turkish fantasy. Both Aralsk and Atyrau have monuments to Europe and Asia on both sides of their bridges.
Max turned up on his 1995 vintage BMW G650 Funduro, and Andrei, a Russian from Samara, on a similar vintage BMW R1100GS. Max is a veteran of touring around central asia, and Alyosha assured me he knows all the good petrol stations, cafes, hotels etc en route. Petrol Stations?? Apparently yes. Both Max and Alyosha told me many Uzbek fuel stations (especially out in the sticks) dilute their fuel with anything from urine to straight water. After a dinner of plov and beer, Max, andrei and I deecided we would travel the 400 km to Kungrad (Konghirat in some transliterations) together and work it out form there. We were all going to Tashkent, but I wanted to go to the Karakalpak town of Muynak, on the former shore of the Aral Sea. But one thing was for sure, the route was the same for the first 400 km, so we will do that distance and think about it after that.
We left at 7:30 the next morning, topping all the fuel tanks in Beyneu, and the 10 litres of reserves each carried by both Max and Andrei. It was about 60km by gravel road to the last Kazakh town of Akjigit, where we would again top up the tanks (only 3 litres each) with 80 octane fuel. Uzbekistan is not flush with petrol like Russia, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan are. There would be no fuel for almost 400 km, at the Uzbek town of Kungrad. (Uzbekistan has ‘gas’ but no oil, and many cars, particularly in the north west, run on LPG … every fuel station has LPG or gasoline as they call it, but ‘benzin’ or proper petrol, is very hard to find in the north west. Bukhara, Samarkand, Tashkent etc fuel is no problem)
The border opens at 9am and we timed it such that we arrived at 5 mins past 9. The border was probably the most primative border crossing I have seen in years, and it was in the middle of nowhere, but the uzbek side was still full of money changers, chaikhanas and photocopy wagons (many doncuments need to be photocopied before they will be accepted by the Uzbek officials. I think we did well and were through by soon after 11 … a mere 2 hours. Max recommended a chaikhana that he always used when he crossed at this border and we were served chai by the Korean lady who ran it. Uzbekistan (and to a lesser extent Kazakhstan) has a huge Korean population. This goes back to Stalin’s times. To avoid any potential conflicts of interest, he moved the Korean population within the USSR’s borders from near the Korean border areas to Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan.
We also managed to buy some Uzbek currency, the Sum. Uzbekistan is a long way behind Kazakhstan in terms of economic development and bankomats are not at all common here. (I am told there is one in the country, in Tashkent.) In any case, we were 500 odd km from the nearest city and over 1000 from Tashkent. There are about 2500 Sum to the EUR, and the largest note is 1000 sum. Any money you carry is therefore effectively in 40 EUR cent pieces. I changed enough money to last me 4 days or so and felt I needed a backpack to carry it.
While it may lack in terms of economic development in comparison to old sparring partner Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan makes up for it in terms of culture. Khiva, Bukhara and Samarkand are old silk road cities with well preserved historical sections, and Uzbek food is both tasty and well known in the former USSR. There are hundreds of Uzbek restaurants in Moscow, but I have never seen a Kazakh restaurant there.
By the time we left the chaikhana it was midday. We still had well over 350 km to cover to get to the nearest fuel, over a boring straight flat road. We had decided over our chai that Andrei and Max would join me in going to Muynak, and I would stay with them till Tashkent. So first step was to get to Kungrad and Muynak. But not before the Uzbek police pulled us over at the first town to pay the Uzbek ecological tax!
60 km before Kungrad, Max spotted a possible shortcut to Muynak. It was not marked on any of our maps, but Max had a hunch that the side road would get us to Muynaq. We asked a passing uzbek motorcyclist if he could confirm any of this, but the guy just kept nodding. He was either illiterate, stupid or both. We had a vote. Max and I were in favour of giving it a go so we took the turn. 40 km later we came to the edge of the Ustyurt Plateau. All day we had been between 120 and 150 m above sea level on a completely flat plain hundreds of kilometers long, but once we hit the end of the plateau, it dropped like a cliff, 100 metres lower. this cliff extended as far as the eye could see in both directions. It was a really dramatic sight. Soon after the cliffs, the road petered out. We had to go in a different direction anyway and began looking for tracks. Muynak was 55 km away in a straight line and as the largest population centre within about 100 km, there had to be a track there.
Muynak is a Karakalpak town that was once on the edge of the Aral sea. The sea is now over 150 km away, thanks to a failed soviet development plan. The two great rivers that drain the Pamir and Tien Shan mountains, the Amy Darya and Syr Darya, (known to the ancients as the Oxus and the Jaxartes) fed the Aral sea with fresh water. The soviets diverted most of the water to develop a cotton industry in Uzbekistan and at times no fresh water reaches this sea in the middle of the desert. Not surprisingly, since about 1960, the sea has shrunk dramatically, the salt levels in the remaining water have become so salty that fish can no longer survive in it.
For centuries, the Karakalpaks have lived on the south shore of the Aral sea, fishing and living off the sea. Now that is all history and the Karakalpaks have become among the poorest people in Central Asia. The Karakalpaks (literally Black Hats) are notably more mongolic / oriental than the average Uzbeks, and despite having their own autonomous republic, they are a minority here – most of the people who live in Karakalpakia are Khoresmian Uzbeks. Karakalpaks are closer to the Kyrgyz and the Tuvans than they are to the Uzbeks. I wanted to see Muynak as it is a proper Karakalpak town and its also the home to the Aral Sea fishing fleet, now rusting ship hulks in the desert.
Max, using his central asian experience and intuition, found the track and we headed off for the 50 km thru a no-mans land that was once at the bottom of a sea (only 50 years ago). It was a challlenging track and Max’s chain came loose (as I have seen happen on F650s before – Andy P, diring the 2007 Pyreknees Up) jamming into his engine housing. A bit of brute force and the chain was back on, but his cheap chinese rear sprocket had a unpleasant kink in it that was constantly threatening to derail his chain again. We limped the last 25 km into Muynak, passing a few Karakalpak villages on the way before catching up with the rusting ships.
We had hoped to get to Khiva today, but the “special” stage across the wilds near Muynaq meant we had added a few hours to the day. The sun set as we made our way into Kungrad, and we headed for a simple place Max had stayed at before. It was the second water-less place we had stayed at in a row (Alyosha’s place in Beyneu had no running water). Mobile access has not really existed since we crossed into Uzbekistan. Foreign sim cards are mostly not working out here. Andrei and I are both considering buying Uzbek sim cards tomorrow to keep up with the world.