I woke up alone in the back of Sinan’s truck covered in some sort of an oily dust. There wasn’t anyone around and the sun was just rising so I took the time to clean my matress and sleeping bag. First Jehan showed up. He spent the night wandering around the customs zone climbing refinery towers. Isabel slept inside the truck and Recep was with Mehmet. Soon everyone gathered for breakfast. Thinking of the roads ahead, I decided to shorten my windscreen. It tends to crack when there’s too much vibration.

After breakfast, Recep asked the big question: “What is her decision?” We looked at Isabel. She made a pedalling gesture with her hands and said “Cycle!” That didn’t require much translation. He felt bad but didn’t say anything.

So it was down to the three of us. We would be leaving for Aktau as soon as the bikes cleared the customs. Isabel waited for us inside the truck watching a DVD and enjoying the AC as Jehan and I waited for the officials to show up. We were ready to leave in the afternoon.

We spent the first day in Aktau, having a decent lunch and trying to find the hotel suggested to Isabel by Paris. It wasn’t very easy. The city is divided into blocks called “Microrayon”. An address is composed of just two numbers. First is the number of the block, second is the number of the building. But the numbers aren’t displayed properly so we had to just wander around until we stumbled upon it. My attempts of parking in the street were rejected by local people. They were absolutely sure that the bike would disappear until the morning and showed me a paid parking nearby. Even Jehan, who normally doesn’t care one bit about security, was convinced to find a closed space behind the hotel.

By night, we went out to eat and found a nice garden where they were serving ‘shislik”, a local course similar to Turkish şşkebab. I had quite a lot of beer that night, but never got to being properly drunk. I wasn’t feeling comfortable. Having been warned zillion times about being out on the street at night in Kazakhstan, I felt too alert and couldn’t relax. As if this wasn’t enough, I now felt a silly responsibility towards Isabel and Jehan. Isabel was a source of attraction and Jehan lacked any sort of precaution. In case of trouble, I would probably be the one facing it.

The problem with precaution and exposure is not an easy one to solve. I think it needs to be rethought for each situation. People tend to go to both extremes to find permanent solutions. Being completely secure would require that we left the country immediately. On the other hand I also find it naive to assume that everything will always be fine. There is a balance there, but it’s hard to discuss it without falling into either end. I usually trust my senses. But I know I need to reset them for each culture and develop new ones.

We walked back to the hotel. The two went to bed but I preferred spending some more time outside. I sat on the stairs at the entrance of the hotel. A little later, a Kazakh man came and sat next to me. I couldn’t see his face because it was too dark. We could barely understand each other but the basics were OK. He suggested having a beer. I accepted. We walked to the bar nearby and I baught us two beers. It felt good and comforting to drink with a guy I didn’t know and couldn’t understand. But he obviously had more in his mind because he invited the two drunk prostitutes to our table. I watched the three of them awkwardly trying to follow a meaningless procedure. A huge distance grew inside me. This wasn’t what I wanted and there was no way of explaining it. Even if I did know Kazakh… I left the table, smoked one more cigarette outside and went to bed. Jehan was talking in his dream, but it was mostly French. In between, he said something like “Shit! Shit! Shit! It’s getting worse!”

Isabel was getting ready to leave in the morning when I woke up. We would be leaving a few hours later and Jehan was sleeping. Europeans are not required to do the passport registration in Kazakhstan but I had to take care of mine. I got a taxi to the police station but the registration office was closed on weekends. I thought I could do it in the next city so went back to the hotel to pack up. Jehan was still sleeping. It was early afternoon when we were finally ready to leave.

This part of Kazakhsan is actually a big desert left between the plains of the Caspian Sea and the Aral Sea. It’s called the Üstyurt Plateau. Most sections are below sea level and it’s extremely hot at this time of the year. The view is scarcely interrupted by minor movements of landscape and a few herds of camels and wild horses. The roads are in relatively good condition until Shetpe. Thereon the surface disintegrates up until Beyneu, which is the last Kazakh town before Uzbekistan.

We cathed up with Isabel near Zhetibay, 60 kms from Aktau. Exhausted by pedalling in the desert, she picked a hitch from a local driver. This man turned out to be our host for the night. He lives with his two sons and wife in a modest home which also serves as a restaurant for passerby’s. We had really good time at this place drinking vodka and doing an arm wrestling tournament with the boys. It’s needless to say who won… The last match was me with one boy in each arm! No problem. I got that one too… Jehan drank a little too much after being eliminated early on and started playing his harmonica for Isabel. At first he kept saying he loved Isabel, which is OK with me. But then he said he loved me too. That’s when we decided it was time for him to go to bed. I helped him throw up in the outhouse and put him to sleep with his groundhog sort of fur thingy… The boys gave me something they claimed to be opium. Everybody uses some sort of a natural drug here. They put the dust under their tangues and keep spitting around for hours. I don’t know what it was but it just gave me a mild mood. Our host, Jehan and I slept outside under the stars. I kept listening to a drunk French in love and a curious Kazakh until I fell into sleep. This was the best night I had here so far.

Next morning, Isabel got another headstart. Jehan and I moved on after a nice shower, which in the end proved to be useless because I had to push Jehan’s bike. There’s something wrong with his battery. We caught up once again with Isabel in a chayhane. After a long lunch, I decided to leave them behind to take care of my registration in Shetpe. I checked in the police station but they told me that I had to go back to Aktau to get my passport registration. It felt really bad to hear this. I couldn’t believe it.

This sort of arrangements really become a trouble when you travel in a group. Without registration, I had 3 days to leave Kazakhstan. I could easily do it but my Uzbek visa didn’t start until then. Isabel had given up the idea of crossing Üstyurt on a bicycle and was hoping to get a train from Shetpe. Provided that there are no problems with this plan, we could push it to Beyneu and I could get my registration there. We started looking for a hotel to stay in Shetpe. There was a lot to be done here.

The place we found was the only hotel in the town. A mother and daughter operated it. The price given to us was 4000 Tenges, which is more than twice what we paid for in Aktau. Luckily, the daughter, Aynagül spoke fluent Turkish and I bargained it down to 2000. Aynagül was a unique character who proved to be really helpful in our hopeless struggle to get things done in this “wild east” town Isabel rightfully renamed “Shitpe”. She spoke 4 languages and studied tourism in Antalya, Turkey. Shetpe is a really dusty and barren town where camels and trucks roam the streets. She walks in high heels, stretch jeans and wears Gucci sunglasses. It’s really absurd.

First I learned that I indeed had to go back to Aktau to get the registration done. In Kazakhstan, registration is only done at the ports of entry. Beyneu is not one. Aynagül was taking a shared taxi to Aktau in the morning so I decided to go with her. Isabel and Jehan was going to try to get a train ticket in the meantime. The taxi was going at 120 kmph on these bad roads. The little girl sitting next to me threw up three times. I was at the office before 10AM, but was told to wait until 3PM until the “patron” arrived. I slept on the cauch waiting for him. At around noon, my passport was stamped. I took another shared taxi but got the front seat this time. The driver kept listening to a psychadelic Kazakh pop session all the way back to Shetpe. That’s more than 3 hours.

Jehan and Isabel’s attempts at purchasing a ticket failed. The cashier, which was open only at certain times of the day, was rejecting all sorts of communication. She wouldn’t even look at the Europeans. Once again with Aynagül’s help we learned that it was actually impossible to purchase a ticket here because they didn’t have a computer connection. What that office stands for is still a mystery for everyone in this story. The only way to get on the train was to jump in it and pay some money to the conductors. This wasn’t going to be easy with a loaded bicycle but we had to try. Aynagül agreed to help us.

At around nine o’clock, we were at the train station ready to hijack it. It arrived twenty minutes later. Aynagül and I were running from wagon to wagon, asking if they would allow a poor tourist girl on a bicycle on board. The first four rejected. But the fifth one said 4000 tenges. Isabel knew there was no room for bargaining and paid right away. I grabbed the bike and stuffed it in the entrance. Soon we were waving goodbye to Isabel. Maybe we would see each other in Uzbekistan, maybe not…

On our way back to the hotel, Aynagül was telling us how she convinced the last conductor. Her grandfather was the chief of railway stations and all it took was to mention his name. Moments later a police car stopped us asking for passports and registration probably hoping to get some money out of it. Aynagül said something in Kazakh and they went away. I asked her what it was about and she said that her father used to be the chief of police. We had definately stumbled upon the right girl. In 15 minutes, she saved us from two hopeless situations. We decided to leave early in the morning before the cops woke up and packed the bikes for the trip.

Tired from the hassle of the previous day, Jehan and I could only wake up at around eight in the morning. We had lost two hours of valuable time. The roads were getting worse and we had more than 300 kms of it. One way of avoiding vibration on bad roads is to speed up on it. That’s what I was doing. I rode for one hour at above 60 kmph. Jehan was no longer visible in my mirrors so I decided to pull over at a shade and wait for him. That’s when I realised a terrible mishap. Something that could cost me weeks on this remote landscape. My rear suspension was leaking hydrolic oil. Lots of it.

I hopelessly watched the oil drain to the last drop. There was nothing to do. This sort of problem can only be solved in advanced workshops. And usually the solution is to replace the whole part. It was truly a hopeless situation. I had more than 200 kms to the next town on the map which was probably just another “Shitpe” and there was not a single soul to be seen on the road.

Jehan arrived shortly after. We talked about the issue. There was no way I could do more than 20 kmph on a bare spring so I suggested that he moved on. But he decided to stay with me for the rest of the road. This was a great courtesy on his part. I know it can get really boring to follow someone on a broken suspension because I had done the same thing for Burhan on our Baja trip.

The road to Beyneu, which was already challanging, suddenly became even more so for both of us. Even after arriving at Beyneu, the solution for me would probably be weeks ahead. It would involve dealing with he shipment of a new suspension. I didn’t want to imagine how it would be to deal with customs in a country where a simple thing such as buying a train ticket is almost impossible.

Needless to say, the road was painful. Every bump became three for me as I kept bouncing on the springs without any sort of dampening. When I increased my speed, the next bump usually hit the bike before the spring regained length and I bottommed out. The aluminum skid plate had proved useful many times on this road. I don’t remember pushing the bike so much for so long.

On the road, I had some time to think about what to do. Being the precautious type, I had upgraded the suspension on the bike for this trip. The original one was in Turkey, with Kutlu. He knew what to do in case I needed it. At the first chance I got a phone reception I sent an SMS to Evren, Kutlu and Damla, asking them to find the nearest DHL office and send the package over as soon as possible.

We arrived in Beyneu 10 hours later exactly at sunset. It didn’t look lke a very hospitable place to be at this time of the day. I was too tired to think of anything and we checked in the cheaper one of the two hotels.