“We’re sitting on a box full of money, on the train conductor’s bed, drinking a teacup of vodka, and minding bags of other peoples’ contraband,” Miranda observed as we sped across the Uzbekistan desert on the slow train to Samarkand. When we had realised, in Georgia, that we would have to throw our bikes on a series of trains in order to reach the Pamir Highway before the winter snows closed it, we worried we were taking the easy way out, missing out on the adventure and hardship that accompanied it. How very wrong we were.
Our time in Georgia drew to a close with a night in the single most terrifying place I have ever camped in, a complex of abandoned Soviet-era buildings near Gori that transpired to be a haunted children’s hospital. I made this discovery after a bout of ill-advised sunset urban exploring. “I don’t know what this used to be,” I shouted to Miranda from an upstairs window as the wind worried creaking doors behind me, “but I’ve found a piano and a load of smashed up desks.” “I’ve found a sort of memorial,” Miranda replied, from the garden. For totally unconnected reasons we turned in earlier than usual that night, after Miranda interrupted my pretence to nonchalantly wash my cycling shorts by asking: “can you hear those voices?” “It’s just the wind,” I said as I rolled into my tent and closed every zip I could lay my hands on. “Besides, who would stand in the darkness for ages behind our tents and then start talking to themselves?”
A short ride along the highway brought us to Tbilisi, where we indulged in the usual tourist activities: sightseeing, sampling the local wine, eating in feminist restaurants and queuing for hours in the Georgian revenue office to register as a taxpayer in order to collect a parcel that had been chasing us around the world.
On our penultimate night I stretched out in bed and looked forward to the long ride ahead of us, across Azerbaijan. It was 8 September.
But it was not to be. It transpired that on 5 September our precious visas for Uzbekistan had been delivered to Baku, 1000km away on the Caspian Sea coast. When we ordered the visas, we failed to register that the collection date did not follow the whimsical rules of Liz and Miranda’s travel schedule, and was, in fact, compulsory. We discovered this early the next morning, when an email from our fixer warned us: “You might have lost the visas. The only way to get them is to rush to Baku immediately and plead with the embassy.”
So plead we did, fresh off the night train from Tbilisi, with the Yoda-like Uzbekistan consul. We arrived at his office on a Friday, an hour before it was due to close, following a frantic taxiride zigzagging across the Azerbaijan capital between banks, currency exchange offices and passport photo booths, adjusting to the sudden and dramatic change of culture from lush Georgia to the arid oil fields, mosques and medinas of Asia. We left his office at 6pm with the precious visas stamped into our passports; with an encyclopedic knowledge of the lives of his grandchildren and the sage advice: “don’t drink water after eating watermelon.” As we settled into our dormroom in the beautiful sandy city’s old town, I said to Miranda: “At least we don’t have to unpack – we might be on a boat to Kazakhstan tomorrow!”
Five days, one headcold, seven hundred baklava and a surprising amount of Starbucks coffee later, the woman who ran our hostel woke us up with the news we had been waiting for: the Caspian Sea ferry was due into port that night.
The Caspian Sea ferry is an infamous but necessary leg of the Silk Route ride. Not a ferry per se, it describes any one of a series of battered Soviet-era cargo ships that ply the route between Baku in Azerbaijan and Aktau in Kazakhstan. Operating without a timetable and frequently held up in port due to wind, crowds, lively fish, leaves on the line etc., they take a handful of intrepid foot passengers across the Caspian – fewer nowadays as they have an alarming habit of sinking. A series of misadventures – despite having five days to sort ourselves out, we arrived at the itinerant ticket booth without enough dollars; then celebrated buying the tickets with a coffee break so lengthy we didn’t have enough time to cycle the 70km to the ferry port – found us careering into Alat terminal in a removals van that the staff of a private bank next to Starbucks had hired for us and our bicycles.
It was 9pm, bang on when we’d been told the boat would leave, when we braked next to a small encampment of hippies, motorcyclists and Tajik rally drivers at passport control. “There’s a broken boat in our dock,” Anita, a hitchhiker, told us. “So our ferry can’t get in.”
At 3am we were roused from our various stages of slumber and hurried through passport control onto the boat, where our group – now eight strong – sat forlornly in the saloon. At 6am we were allocated our cabins. “We’ve run out of 2-berth cabins,” the conductor said, mystifyingly, as no one else had boarded. “And outside cabins. And cabins with bathrooms.”
So it was that we settled in to our four-berth sauna and watched merry HGV drivers move into the two-berth cabins around us, flinging wide their portholes and doing laundry in their bathrooms. Two hours later, at breakfast, I wondered why the boat still hadn’t moved. “We’re waiting for petrol,” explained Alan, a veteran of the sailing having crossed from Kazakhstan to Azerbaijan the previous day, only to discover a problem with his Azerbaijan visa. You can apply for an Azerbaijani visa online, but there was no internet access in the port, so Alan was sailing back to Kazakhstan to find Wifi. Or so he thought. An hour later I was reclining in my berth watching the animal documentaries that two HGV drivers in the cabin opposite were inexplicably streaming live from YouTube when realisation dawned and I sat upright. “We can get Alan off this boat!” I shouted to Miranda, precipitating a shipwide battle with low bandwidth, credit card verification systems and Azerbaijan bureaucracy. As the vessel Professor Gul pulled away from Azerbaijan at noon, Alan was on his way to Baku.
We arrived in Kazakhstan refreshed. Cargo boat pros, we wined, dined and had a cha-cha fuelled Boyzone singalong with the HGV drivers that ended by midnight, then retired to the upper deck to watch the moonrise. A night in Aktau refuelled us, and dodging camels we cycled across the barren steppe towards the sleeper train to Nukus, in Uzbekistan, which we almost spectacularly failed to board after a misunderstanding about the timezone found us deliberating over pot noodle flavours for the journey as the engine rumbled to life. In the company of scores of friendly Uzbek families in third class we crossed out of Kazakhstan and into Uzbekistan, where we spent the night in a yurt in Nukus, absorbed the banned avant garde art of the Savitsky collection and bought tickets to Samarkand.
We boarded that train on the morning that the first reports of snow on the Pamir HIghway reached us from Kyrgystan, and thanks to a series of eyebrow raises, whispered conversations and wedges of currency somehow bribed our way out of the seperate third class wagons we’d bought tickets for and into the train guard’s own two-berth compartment. We sat, watching the desert roll by, eating grapes one passanger had brought us, sipping vodka from another, feeling full from the bean soup the conductor had bought us in the dining car. Aboard this train, which went from Volgograd in Russia to Tashkent in Uzbekistan, my luggage leaned against plastic bags of 20s era contraband like perfume and brandy, and stray desert moths battled against the hot drafts from the open window. “If we’d cycled this stretch,” Miranda said, “we’d have been quite isolated. We wouldn’t have met many people. But here -” she gestured to the motley crew of smugglers, soldiers, mothers, children and conductors gathered around our cabin, most of whose phones we were charging using Miranda’s solar panel – “I think this is its own adventure.”