We stop at the roadside. Josh wants to put up the tent in order to get shade and respite from this searing sun, it’s a mark of how barren the landscape is. We haven’t seen shade in the last 20 miles at least and the chance of seeing it soon is minimal. We have been in the desert now for three days. We get out the tomatoes we bought yesterday, in the nearest village, and a pungent whiff of vinegar sours the nostrils, the sight of a mushy pink underbelly confirms that the fruits are on the wrong side of healthy. We look at what else we have as the sun still beats down on the rocks that surround us, the sand seems to soak up the heat as we sit on the gravel next to the road. I look over at Josh as he prepares his sandwich, ‘at least we’ve got chicken’ he says as he crumbles a stock cube on to a slice of bread.
For years I have wanted to see a desert. Ever since a child and seeing sand dunes of the Sahara wandered by brutal tribes and thirsty camels, and enhanced when reading Wifred Thesiger’s ‘Arabian Sands’. His unrivalled account of desert travel through the unchartered Empty Quarter of what is now Saudi Arabia, but in 1950 when he travelled the land was merely a white scrap on maps, a blank page of uninhabitable territory. The Karakum desert stretching from Turkmenistan up to Aktau in Kazakhstan and across to Uzbekistan was on our path to China and we would begin crossing it as soon as we left the oil town of Aktau, our first sight of Kazakhstan. As Thesiger describes a period of three day starvation in his book: “I would rather be here starving as I was than sitting in a chair, replete with food, listening to the wireless in safety in London.” Now we didn’t endure what the great man himself went through, but reading this did something to me and everyone else reading it, sparking images of clear star-swept skies and silhouetted camels straddling ridges of an imperceptibly distant horizon.
We came from an awesome host family in Baku to embark on a freight ship carrying mostly rail traffic across the Caspian Sea, leaving the oil capital of Azerbaijan. We had generously been invited on to the freight train carriage of some Georgians carrying mass chicken feet in to Kazakhstan. At the ripe hour of 11am we had been fed cha cha, a Georgian spirit at about 80%, each shot of which felt like a revisit to the rugby fields of my youth. This annihilation through drink was quick and we all woke up early enough to finish our 42 hour boat ride and enter customs and the Kazakh steppe.
Finally leaving another oil city, Aktau, and another brilliant host behind we head in to the desert with roughly ten litres of water stacked on our bikes each, enough rice for five days and enough vegetables for three.
As we leave the coastline the nodding donkeys synonymous with the oil industry dot the landscape; followed by the red and white strata of volcanic rock formations, then finally for the last 200km in to Beyneu the landscape becomes barren, nothing upon nothing until the horizon. We crest a hill and look down upon another vast plain, this time a lake shines it’s bright reflection like an enormous mirror.
At night we are tarnished by the sun. Tired. Thirsty. Sunburnt. Heads aching and salt stains on our clothes but we are on the road once more. As we cook dinner a shepherd trots past with a massive flock, a familiar sight on the trip. A less familiar sight is that of a motocross bike zooming on to the sand frantically beeping his horn pursuing a galloping herd of camels in a frenzy. As I lie in the tent outside the sand and small shrubs begin and continue for as far as I can see. The sun ducks behind a cloud on the horizon and electricity lines cut the tranquil white sky. On my fingers are the combined stains of charcoal, a newly emerged beetroot tattoo and the crusted salt of constant exercise. The air is now warm that blows inside the tent.
As we ride along a strip of tarmac through the sand a lorry runs alongside us, as it passes the sound of its trundling wheels echoes over this boundless scene. 50km of desert. The ground becomes less greener still, shrubberies sparser. Camels let us wander among them, snapping photos. Wild horses strut their forelegs in the muddy pool of a watering hole. The landscape has been remarkably stunning. Volcanic-like hills rise out of the sand in flat-topped ridges, sectioning the herds of wild horses and camels, both of which show mangled fur dripping from their backs and breast.
The road we’re on breaks down in to a succession of parallel but winding dirt tracks, rocky and bumpy to the point of pain, your eyes concentrating for hours on the next two metres, unable to take in the joys of what surrounds: endless open space interrupted occasionally by stunning striped rock formations on the landscape’s edge. It’s not as achingly hot as it was yesterday but that doesn’t stop the salt crusting on my t shirt from the sweat such that my shirt could stand-up on its own. Inside one of Josh’s canvas food bags melted slimy butter and biscuit crumbs have spilt at the bottom. The reminder that it is indeed a ‘buttery biscuit base’ only briefly amuses us as we look in to the congealed mess.
We stop in one of the tea houses set about every 40km. Black water runs down the plughole as I wash my hands. A ‘big town’ has become a small hut with access to clean water. So desolate. We ask to fill our bottles up and she brings out a bucket of water and a saucepan. The soup tastes heavenly, I don’t really know how good it is in the greater scheme of meals but it’s salt and vegetables are soaked in to my dry body as the fuel it needs. I contemplate tipping the salt shaker in to my mouth.
This portrait of a Soviet Russia is both new and old, its relevance to the picture in my mind resembles both incredible similarity and stark contrast. The harsh weather conditions, Ladas roaming the stretching landscape and transmission lines running in to eternity chime with that image; then there’s the contrast, oriental features of the people, the camels, the wild horses, the sand. And I’m reminded that for centuries Genghis Khan and his hordes conquered Russia and the political tug of war since.
But unlike Thesiger we are surrounded by some small hints of civilisation. As I sit in the tent I can hear electricity lines above us humming, another sign that although the remoteness of this place is palpable there is life and infrastructure beyond the next mountaintop. The boys in a school in the only isolated town on the 450km stretch of road quickly whip out smart phones to take selfies with us. The desert had been kind to us, but I wasn’t sure how pleased about that I was. 21st century remoteness is perhaps different to any other, as the oil and other natural resources in the untapped world are sought these remote places will become less and less so.