The New Synthetic Road
Our road now takes us north from Uzbekistan across the Kazak steppe and desert between the Aral and Caspian Seas and westward towards the Russian border near Astrakhan. Over the last 8 weeks we have followed the Silk Road from Xian in China (having first driven north from Shenzhen), around the Taklamakan Desert to Kashgar, and across Central Asia via Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan, the heart of the old trade route. From here, the major routes turned south west into modern day Iran, Turkey and the Middle East. However, other routes travelled south into India and Afghanistan, and north into Russia and on into Europe. Our branch of the Silk Road runs through the deserts of Western Kazakhstan, where ruins of former caravanserais and trade towns give witness to the area’s former activities.
Little remains today, unlike the wonderful cities of Kokand, Samarqand and Bukhara. Vast areas of desert are empty, save for small scattered villages, the odd larger town and one or two cities. Oil has become the new silk of the 21th century, with Kazakhstan, the 9th largest country in the world, in the top five nations for oil reserves. Huge oil fields are being developed under and around the Caspian Sea and await further expansion. Perhaps the route in this area should now be termed the Synthetic Road.
Back in NZ we had allotted 7 nights to Kazakhstan, believing that the journey through the desert would be very slow with just tracks through the sand. As it has turned out, the main road north is very good, taking only a day to travel. But we are unable to enter Russia any earlier because of the dates on our visas and hotels. Unlike Uzbekistan and Russia, Kazakhstan is comparatively freer and does not require pre-bookings for hotels.
So we decide to go west from Beyneu to the Caspian Sea for 3 nights and then back to Beyneu and north Atyrau for the trip across the border with Russia. Beyneu, north of the Uzbek border is a sad unfriendly little town, with poor hotel service (except for the Jasmine restaurant), best avoided if you can help it.
To get to the holiday resort and oil city of Aktay on the Caspian requires a journey of 470 kilometres – yes, Kazakhstan is a huge country – of which only just under half is tar sealed. The rest is a very rough road across the desert, alongside of which run various tracks through the scrubby sand, made by the many trucks that travel the route. The journey takes us 9 or 10 hours each time, at about 40 kph on the mud roads. Martin valiantly tries to find the smoothest track, while we rattle and shake slowly across the miles. Our coffee plunger is a casualty; one large jolt must have been too much for it, for next day we find it broken.
You might think the desert is dull and boring, but there is much of interest to see and even photograph. First there are the scattered domestic herds mainly near the infrequent villages – camels, cows, sheep, goats, horses. Some of the flocks would have numbered into the thousands, tendered by several locals on horseback. Once 2 children wanted to sell us some camel milk; I’m afraid we weren’t a good prospect.
Then there is the wildlife. The desert gophers (we don’t know their real name) sit up on their hind legs and peer at us before running for cover; a tortoise slowly crosses the road in front of the car and we encourage him into the herbs at the side of the road before he becomes road-kill. Birds sing in the undergrowth and once we come across a flock of colourful little birds taking great delight washing themselves in a puddle of water.
The town of Aktay on the Caspian Sea is a good place to blob out for two days from the rigours of travel. We walk and read and eat and sleep. Until Kazakhstan we have found food very cheap, but here prices are approaching NZ levels. Fuel, on the other hand, is inexpensive with a litre of diesel costing about $1NZ.
Our last stop in Kazakhstan is in the city of Atyrau straddling the Ural River, the official border between Asia and Europe. Martin and Maurice spend most of the day with the vehicles. Bilbo is causing a few concerns – more about that in the next blog – and the guys seek a diagnosis. Anne and I go site seeing with Australian Sally, whose husband works for Chevron in the oil industry. How did that come about, you ask. On the previous evening our restaurant table is next to an American with his son and we get talking to him, English being our common language. We tell of our trip and he speaks of his work for Chevron. It is he who provides a contact to discuss Bilbo’s problems and also a colleague in the Chevron village to take us around the city. A very propitious meeting at dinner.
A friend of ours has been following both Maurice’s blog and mine. He wrote recently saying that after reading our stories, if he didn’t know better, he would think that we were travelling in different countries; he also wondered that seeing Anne was called Flypaper, why I too wasn’t given a pseudonym - he suggested Flyswat! I think I will give that one a miss.