Tajikistan: to Dushanbe

A parting

Feeling guilty about becoming complicit in my torture of myself, my bike computer abandoned me on the train to Samarkand. I wish it a long and happy life.

I have nothing to tell me how far I’ve come.
My speed is no longer measured and cannot be judged by ‘fast enough’ or ‘too slow’.

It’s interesting.


No man’s land

We arrive at the Uzbek-Tajik border and make our way to passport control – or face check. There’s a ‘queue’ already when we arrive but we are summoned to the front. I give the locals an apologetic smile but they don’t seem bothered.

Jamie hands over his passport and visa and is soon welcomed to the country with a new stamp in his passport.
I hand over mine.
He smiles at me
‘what is your name?’
”Maria ‘
‘Ah… Maria’ he’s almost flirting with me.
Something catches his eye, he looks serious. Checks the paperwork.
‘There’s a problem with your visa’, he tells me, not unkindly. ‘The passport number on the visa doesn’t match your passport.’

I take them from him, oh shit, he’s right. Somehow an extra digit has snuck in to the visa application, and he is the only one of us eagle-eyed enough to notice.
Someone else is being processed by now so I back out and have a little panic.

We have no mobile data.
We can’t go back to Uzbekistan, as our visa was single entry.
We are stuck in no-mans land.

Jamie and I descend briefly into outrage, it can’t have been us. We checked it, I know we checked it. But then I review my memory and admit that I triple checked my name and the dates, as these are details that have been wrong in previous applications, but the passport number, I don’t know.

Realising I was probably wrong I backtrack my outrage, there’s no use in assigning blame.

I find an official and ask him what to do. He says I need to make another application.

– I should explain here that you can apply for the tajik visa online, but that the website was incredibly buggy. Jamie got furious while making the original applications, which may partially explain the mistake. Once we’d make the application it took a couple of days to process.

Jamie and I reconvene and try to buy some local data, which we should be able to do on our international SIM. However the interface won’t load.

I go knocking on another door to ask if they have internet, but no. A kind man tries to help me by introducing me to a woman who is hanging about – I have no idea what for – she let’s me tether to her phone but the site just won’t load. Eventually she gets bored and wanders off.

I go back to the man in passport control. I explain my predicament. He tells me to wait, I’m not sure what for, but I do as I’m told.

Jamie and I start making backup plans.

We could call someone. Who? Someone who would be able to cope with the frustrating Tajik website, who reliably answers their phone, and would be up at this hour. (+5 GMT)…

Jamie could go into Tajikistan, buy a SIM card and make the application. I’m not thrilled by the prospect, but agree it’s an option.

A while later I pop back in to see the man. ‘Still no internet?’ He asks.
‘No…’ I wonder if that’s what I’m waiting for.
‘I’m just going to stay here forever’, pointing to the corner, sighing dramatically…
‘Just wait’, he tells me.

His colleague hands me a handful of Tajik sultanas. They are very good.

We go back to waiting.
Half a dozen Mongol rally cars come through. They have no data either.
One of them tries to console me by telling me he once got stuck for three days in no-man’s land. I’m not consoled.

Eventually my face-check man comes out and gives me his phone.
Obviously we’re not waiting for the unknown thing to happen anymore.

We find a browser that the website works on after a couple of tries. I fill in the application. I check the ‘I am not a robot’ checkbox and am faced with an image captcha, with the explanation in Russian.

Image captcha is a device used to weed out automated spam. Usually there is an image broken into a 4×4 grid, or a series of images. The instructions tell you to select all the images with a bus in them, or all the images with road signs. Usually images are purposefully low quality, to deter clever image recognition software. Usually solving one successful puzzle is enough, but not for the Tajik consulate.

Because it’s in Russian I’m pretty sure, but not convinced, I’m supposed to be selecting pictures of buses, but I don’t seem to be getting anywhere.

While trying to translate it the form times out…
Game over.

I have to start the whole thing again.

This time I’m ready, at the captcha moment I go find the man. He looks confused, but tries to play. I don’t think he knows how it works either.

Game over.
I start again.

This time I grab two teenagers. It takes them several minutes, in which time I’m pondering whether we actually we are robots, but they nail it. My humanity is restored.

Ok, now I need to upload my passport. From this guys phone. There’s no choice but to take a photo of it. I hit buttons randomly till I find the right one. Thank goodness I’m am IT professional.

Finally payment.

I brandish the successful payment screen to my man. He makes a call.
It all seems well but then there’s a problem. There’s now an error message on the screen, I don’t know what it says because it’s in Russian again, but I assume the payment failed.

I try to log in to my email for the confirmation email, but Google in its wisdom decides I need to verify it with a text to my phone number, which isn’t active. We swap SIMs but the text never comes.

We suddenly remember that we took a photo of the confirmation screen. We get it up and indeed it says the payment was successful. I show the man, he makes his phone call – I’m assuming to the place where they process the visa. We wait a little longer, and next time I pop in he smiles, ‘you have a visa!’.
Weirdly he then asks to see my visa. I’m confused. I give him my old one.

He stamps my passport.
‘Welcome to Tajikistan!’

We thank him profusely for his help. We wave goodbye to the teenagers, who have also been stuck due to their grandmother’s own visa problem. We get on our bikes and cycle off into the mountains of Tajikistan.

Days later I discover how lucky I am. Two motorcyclists, and separately another cyclist all had the same issue and had to spend the night there.

I can’t say no to apricots.

Seriously I tried.

We had decided to camp in an orchard near the road. First one, then two teenaged boys appeared shortly after we arrived and assured us in sign language it was fine to camp.

As we set up camp they ran off to chase off a goat and reappeared with a small bag of dried apricots. They were very tasty, so we snacked on a few before stashing them away aware that we are soon entering territory where it may be hard to find fruit and veg.

Much later, after dark, a light approached and we heard a man’s voice outside.
We tried, and failed, to communicate and he seemed to give up and leave. Shortly after he returned with a small bucket, which he offered to us. I realised it was brimming with dried apricots. I thanked him and took a handful. He shook his head and emptied the whole lot in the entrance to the tent.

Right. More apricots! We scooped them in to a bag and stashed them away.

The following morning as we were preparing to leave a woman wandered towards through the trees. She smiled gestured for us to stay put before running back to the house. She returned with a bowl full of dried apricots, offering them with a smile.

I tried to decline politely, I tried to gesture that we already had some. Her smile faded and I knew that she would be confused and offended if we refused. I opened up my pannier and found a spot to stash another half kilo of dried apricots.

With heartfelt thanks we jumped on our bikes and peddled away before we could meet another member of the generous apricot bearing family.


The tunnel of doom

We wake early, hoping to reach the summit of the 1100m climb we started yesterday before there’s much traffic on the road.

The afternoon before we’d ground up all but the last 6km. We’d discovered as we stopped for the evening that we were covered in a layer of coal dust; from grubby head to grimy toes. There had been a lot of trucks inching down the mountain brimming with coal, or hotfooting it back up to get refilled. Realising we couldn’t go to bed without a proper wash we braced ourselves and washed in the icy river, before climbing gratefully into bed.

The morning is cold, for the first time in a while. We dont get going till 6.30 despite our early alarm call. Sometimes waking up early defeats its purpose – too groggy to move efficiently.

The last few kilometres of the climb are lovely, and surprisingly inhabited.

We reach the peak, and come face to face with the tunnel which marks the beginning of the descent.

Dust, or fumes, are billowing out of the entrance. There’s a second tunnel being built, but not finished so traffic is two way and the tunnel isn’t very wide.

We make a makeshift face mask with a buff and a wet wipe and a few metres in I’m glad we took the precaution.

The tunnel is 5.5km long and barely lit. A single line of lights on the roof, enough to give a sense of direction but not to illuminate the road. We rely on our headlights, and that of passing cars, instead.

To begin with it’s a gentle downhill but a few kilometres in the gradient gets steeper, and the surface is rough.

The air is thick with dust and fumes. The only ventilation is occasional passages through to the second tunnel – and we’re glad enough of them. A breath of cooler, mildly fresher air.

Mercifully, at this time in the morning the traffic is light. Most of the trucks and cars are well behaved.

We both get a fright as a high vis jacket suddenly appears out of the darkness. Only as we pass do we realise it’s just hanging on something and not a human about to step in to our path.

The end of the tunnel is a welcome sight, and the view on the other side absolutely stunning. We pull off immediately.

We are filthy with grime and dust again. We spend a little time picking the dirt out of our eyes and washing our faces then continue the 75km descent to Dushanbe.

In the hostel that evening there’s a group of cyclists.

“You did what? Hey everyone, they cycled the tunnel!”

There was no need to specify which tunnel. Apparently no-one cycles that tunnel, most prefer to hitch a life from the bottom of mountain up and over to Dushanbe.

No one told us.

Riding the Kazakh desert

From the port of Aktau in Kazakhstan to the border of Uzbekistan there is one straight road through the desert. This road continues south east through Uzbekistan, passing through the tragedy that was once the Aral Sea.

Jamie and I left our friends in Aktau the morning after we disembarked and set out in to the desert. They’d decided to rest up for a day, but we were feeling restless after so much waiting.  We rode for 6 days to Beyneu, the town closest to the Uzbek border before deciding to board a train to Nukus in Uzbekistan. Deciding to take the train instead of riding was a difficult choice, but infinitely less difficult than our experience of riding it.

Predictably it was not easy. Unlike most other landscapes we’ve come across the desert was harder in reality than I had imagined. It wasn’t that we weren’t forewarned.

We knew it was going to be hot. It’s the desert and it was July and we’re not stupid. However I didn’t account for how much of the day would be unbearable for me. I tell myself that I’m Scottish and not made for this, we thrive in the damp and green, like fungi or mosquitoes. We would rise at dawn and by 11am I was ready to seek shade.

Once or twice we rode past midday, and regretted it. One day we foolishly attempted a hill in the midday sun, hoping to find the restaurant on the map at the top. Barely making it a third of the way up I pulled off to rest in the shade of what turned out to be someone’s house. Feeling queasy and with a worsening headache, and a bit delirious according to Jamie, I refused to move till the following morning.
People we met pleaded caution. They told us it’s been hotter than ever this year. They quoted temperatures that are hard to believe even having suffered through them. Upwards of 50°.

I knew there would be little shade. We saw occasional bus stops, a shop or restaurant once or twice a day. More often we’d stop in a well proportioned drainage tunnel under the road to hide from the midday sun. They were surprisingly comfortable, and we’d manage to spend a good few hours taking turns to rest on the curved concrete floor.

It was often only cool enough to ride again at 6pm at which point we’d try and get a few hours in before dark, edging closer to the next water source before we camped.

We’d fill up 12 litres of water at least at every stop we could find, and were always on the lookout for the next opportunity to refill. The map had restaurants and shops marked, but too often it was inaccurate or incorrect – we’d pass the spot marked and see nothing but dusty plain stretching to the horizons. We never ran out of water, thank goodness, but I won’t say we were never thirsty.

We knew there may be wind. With nothing to interfere its passage, the wind just keeps howling. The best, but rarest, is when it comes from behind. My next preference is from the right when you only need to brace yourself so as not to drift in to the road. When it comes from the left the passing traffic causes terrific eddies in the air buffeting you back and forth. Or worse still the endless headwind which steals away all your speed and leaves you grinding endlessly forward. These are not new experiences but in the desert the roads are so long and straight that you know as the wind decides it’s direction as the sun rises that it will not change its mind for many hours to come, and the road will not waiver from its present course for 70 – 80 – 100km.

And in the afternoon, to make it worse, the wind is hot like a hairdryer in your mouth, stealing the moisture from your lips. The precious water gone almost as soon as it was sipped.

We had been aware of all these factors before we set off but what I hadn’t accounted for was the boredom. That the long straight featureless dusty windy roads gave me nothing to distract me from how much more long straight featureless dusty windy road there was still to traverse. I would torture myself by staring at the mileage, watching each half kilometer tick over, agonising about how little we’d travelled since I last looked. That I would count pedal strokes to the next signpost, where I would create a reason to stop, just to alleviate the sameness. Just for a change.

Jamie had to keep cajoling me, persuading me to keep on going.
We’ve got to push on Maria.
Don’t stop for too long, it’s not going to go away.
I could see the strain it was putting our relationship under – Jamie doesn’t like having to bully me, and I react very badly to being told to do something I don’t want to do. Usually I can talk myself in to keeping going, but the desert wore my resolve thin.

In the relative cool of a drainage tunnel, or the occasional chaihanna we would revert immediately to our affectionate and amiable norm, and would strategize how to get through this. But in the heat of the road, my reason evaporated.

Interspersed with this there were of course hours and moments of joy and beauty and wonder.

The first camel sighting a few kilometres from aktau on the first day of our adventure. Many more camels came, the one and two humped ambling amicably along. That first camel reminded me with a jolt – as happens some days – just how far we’ve come.

Not long after a herd of wild horses grazing close to the road. Over the week we saw many herds, and always a joy to behold. In herds of ten or fifteen, with a few foals at the back, they’d watch with intelligence and curiosity as we would pedal respectfully by. Thin, but strong and glossy they looked healthy despite the inhospitable environment. One evening we watched them gallop on the horizon in the light of the setting sun, kicking up dust, looking for all the world like a romanticized scene from one’s imagination of the central Asian steppe.

One morning we rode at dawn through the mountainous stretch of the route. In the morning light the world seemed sketched in pencil, only the foreground painted in colour, in ochre – a name I only know from my long disused paintbox. The mountains were strange and wonderful rock formations, not dissimilar to some in cappadocia. Some striped pink and grey, some soft and pillowy. Cycling through them, as colour seeped back in to the world, I was full of gladness and gratitude to be exactly where I was at that moment.

The end of that valley contained some lovely shady caves that gave us a wonderful place to rest.
There were some bike tyre tracks leading to the caves. I asked Jamie whether he thought they were a bike tourist or a local, whether he recognised the tread. Schwalbe Marathons, he reckoned. I’m not sure whether he was joking or not, but I liked the idea that another bike tourist was just up ahead, passed this same way and stopped at this cave.

I remembered a poem, or the spectre of one. Something about chasing the beloved from fire pit to fire pit on the caravan trail across the desert. Never catching, but always being drawn on by the signs she’s left behind.

Another rest stop, this time at the house where I’m lieing on the concrete exhausted. A few meters away there is an open air mosque or pilgrimage site. All day long people stop and visit, staying so briefly that I conclude they come often. The closest town is 70km in either direction. They come as families, or in ones or twos. Some sit briefly outside, some do their prayers. Some come and talk briefly to the owner of the house, a couple stop and talk to us, but mostly they park and visit and go.

At the same stop we are befriended by a Russian truck driver who’s travelling as part of the 20 truck entourage for a gigantic piece of oil refinery machinery that is travelling to Uzbekistan, with a police escort. We’re invited in to his truck, which contains a fully equipped kitchen – we assume he’s the entourage cook. At another truck we are given a shower. They park up next to us all night, engines running. We quietly move our tent round the corner to protect ourselves from the noise.

Another afternoon in a drainage tunnel, this one close to the hunting ground of an owl. She swoops past the mouth of our cave as we watch transfixed. The small birds fall silent as she comes then start up their chattering a few moments after she’s gone. It hard to imagine the desert can support so much life.

Our last morning in the desert, I open the tent door to find an eagle perched a couple of feet away on a small mound. She’s surveying the landscape for breakfast I suspect. She sees me, pays me no mind. She allows me a couple of hasty photographs then lazily beats her wings and is off in search of a more private spot.

We meet friendly and supportive, if sometimes baffled, people on the way. Women in restaurants want selfies, they pat my head maternally, and sympathise about the heat. Men just hand us bottles of water, sometimes frozen, from the back of their cars where they sensibly stockpile it. In shops the shopkeeper and the customer get involved helping us decipher the produce. We have an entertaining evening in a restaurant with a group of celebrating friends, one of whom speaks animated English. He and his friends want to know everything about us, where we’ve been where we’ve come from.

And the desert itself, barren as it is, is beautiful in its way. Particularly in the sunrise and the sunset. I’m sorry I wasn’t able to engage with it more positively at the time. The best I could do most of the times was meet my internal complaints with the mantra “it is what it is”, trying to at least remove my internal objection to my circumstance – arguably a more difficult factor to contend with than all the others.

We made it across the first desert stage – 570km from Aktau to Beyneu. By day 4 I was very ready to abandon it, in fact I felt ready to abandon the whole trip I felt so weary , but we made it. We did decide to forego riding the Uzbek desert, and instead experience the delights of the train.

I still find myself in two minds about this decision.

There’s a part that feels like I let myself down. That I failed. That I should have just kept going through the pain, the boredom, the intense heat and that somehow the process would transform. That I would find that ideal tranquillity of mind that would never again allow the shadows of suffering or boredom to cloud its joyous appreciation of the world as it finds it.

Or something.

But, these are the musings of someone now sitting comfortably in a hotel, with air conditioning and access to as much water as I could need. I can still taste the despair and frustration when I think back to some of the worse moments. Because it’s all very well telling you and myself now that it was the heat and the wind and the dust, but in the moment it was impossible to rationalise like that. All I knew was that I was weak and struggling and I couldn’t believe how strong Jamie was, how he could just keep on going and going. I knew he was suffering too but you wouldn’t have know it to look at him. And even riding in his slipstream, letting him do more of the work, I’d lag behind.

I don’t like to admit that I’m weak, but the desert made it possible.

I’m glad we rode the Kazakh desert. I’m also glad we decided not to ride the Uzbek desert.

And I thank the universe that I have a Jamie, who offers his slipstream with unconditional generosity, who will badger me through the desert risking my wrath, and who will at the end of it all agree that our pride can withstand a couple of train rides all things considered.

Some highlights from six hard days riding through the Kazakh desert from Aktau to Beyneu. Too hot for me!

20 Likes, 6 Comments – Maria (@mariamazyoung) on Instagram: “Some highlights from six hard days riding through the Kazakh desert from Aktau to Beyneu. Too hot…”

Special thanks to my brother, the Mighty Ben, and this playlist which helped me through a few tough kilometres. Stay humble, mustn’t grumble.

Stay humble and dont grumble roots n dubwise selections by Mighty Ben

Ital sounds from the Mighty Oak!




Crossing the Caspian Sea: Baku to Aktau

The Uzbeki cycle tourist got here first. Apparently he’s been here for four days. We don’t know why he didn’t get on the last ferry with the other cyclists who left this morning.

Max and Vanessa arrived an hour before us. We arrived, invigorated by a 70km ride with an overenthusiatic tailwind and set up camp in the howling wind. A stunning view of the backs of a dozen shipping containers on one side and a razor wire fence on the other. We joke that we’ve finally found that perfect campspot that we searched high and low for through Georgia and Azerbaijan.

We’re at the port waiting for the ferry from Azerbaijan to Kazakhstan. When will it come? No-one knows. Maybe tomorrow, they say. Maybe being the operative word.

One of the shipping containers contains a man who agrees to give us a ticket for the boat. He is the one with all the maybes. He’s very nice, I don’t think he’s withholding information, he has just evolved a strategy with which he can cope with his job. He takes our names and sends us to another shipping container. There we can pay for our ticket. Back we go to the first and receive our piece of paper, with the official stamp bearing the word ‘Original’, apparently this is important.

There’s a shipping container with toilets – let’s just say fragrant – one with showers that I didn’t use, another with a surprisingly well stocked shop, and another a cafe.

The place is pretty new, but set up for long distance trucks, not for pedestrians or cyclists or even cars. You come and you sleep as you can – we’re lucky in this respect, we’re like snails – carrying our homes with us always.


The sun is blazing early, sleep is hard to find. I can’t stand the tent for long and am soon sitting outside on the concrete in the shade reading my book. A friendly Turkish trucker ambles over and starts chatting. He seems harmless enough until he tells me that he noticed that Jamie and I were sleeping scantily clad last night, a fact he must have gone out of his way to find out. Hmmm. Luckily he scarpers when he hears Jamie waking up inside the tent. I decide this probably warrants more clothing, however warm the night is.

Soon the others are up and we line up along the wall. Brewing coffee, eating breakfast, still hopeful that the wait could be short.

We’re here now, 70km south of Baku, because we’ve heard too many stories of people ringing up and being told there is no ferry today and then turning up to discover one just left. This suspicion is confirmed the when a Czech guy, Tomas, turns up absolutely furious – he’s been calling twice a day for a week and has been told each time, no ferry today. In that time three ferries have come and gone.

We sit and exchange stories as the sun gets higher and the shade smaller.

Two Germans turn up, they’re travelling in a  van together, heading for the Pamirs.

We chat to a trio of British TV producers doing a recce for a show.

Sue and Julia, our friends from the Uzbek embassy, appear around midday.

Some of us chance a trip out of the compound to go for a swim in the sea a little way up the road. It’s refreshing, and the intense heat had subsided by the time we return.

We disperse to cook our meals separately or in pairs, but someone brings out a guitar which allows us to reform and chat.
We’re told maybe a boat tomorrow.

I don’t sleep much. It’s too hot again. I’m sitting on the concrete again by 6. Slowly others crawl from their tents and join me, backs against the wall enjoying the relative cool the shade of the building provides.

We sit for another 14 hours or so. The time is punctuated by meals, a game of cards, a move round the building to sit in the shade on the other side. Small chores are spaced out through the day in order to break the monotony.

We propose a game of bike polo. We propose setting up a treasure hunt for the next boat load of cyclists. We don’t, it’s too hot.

Another cyclist turns up, a Scot called Luke, we encompass him in our midst.

From time to time a whisper would susserate along the line. I heard it’s today. Maybe after the game.

We debate whether to take our tents down, giving serious consideration to whether this will affect the outcome. Could the striking of a tent affect the passage of a ship across the sea? We don’t want to find out.

We hold off till 4pm when boredom drives us to it.

They teach me durak, a Russian card game. I’m not sure I like it. I loose a lot.

We instigate a bike skills competition between Jamie and Max. Track stands, a slow race, bunny hops. We laugh.

Then we sink in to the lethargy of waiting again.

More people turn up. Something is going to happen. But not for hours yet.

The famous port cat makes an appearance. It looks like someone has given her a bath recently. She befriends us, finds some people to play with, cuddle up on, fall asleep on.

Another couple arrive on bikes, a Kazak/German couple. They take out their guitarelele giving a little more life to our quiet group.

We all begin to try and get comfy on the concrete. Some take our their mattresses, others make do with a pillow or a bag to lean on. We sleep in fits and starts. The cat decides to practice pouncing on my ponytail, I leave her to it and she eventually gets bored and curls up on Jamie.

Sometime around two Max goes in search on an update. He wakes us gently. They say 10 minutes.

There’s a flurry of movement again as we pack up, and we cycle over to the gate. Here again nothing happens. One by one we stop straddling our bikes ready to go, and sit or lie down again in the middle of the road. We wait for the foot passengers ahead of us to go through.

Sometime later, I’m losing track of time now, we look up to see the last person going through. We’re beckoned over – a couple at a time. Jamie and I go first. They open a bag or two, they check our passports and wave us through. We cycle on, but there’s no-one to point us in the right direction. There’s at least two boats on port. We take a guess which one, and are already on board before we see someone to ask. He’s expecting us, we guessed right it seems.

We’re shown a cabin. We collapse in to bed. It’s past 4am.

Several hours later we wake, luckier than many we have a window so can get some air in the cabin. However we’ve missed breakfast. The boat is still in the port.

Luckily lunch is served early, being over tired makes me hungry. Lunch is good. Soup, pasta and chicken. Sometime during lunch we start moving. We are relieved, it’s been a long wait.

By 4pm or so we are at anchor again, Baku is still within sight. In fact we’re probably closer now than we would have been at the port. The wind has picked up so we need to stay put for now.

At 11pm there’s a rumour that we may be here for another three days.

The British TV chaps are outraged. I find this amusing.

Apart from us, 11 cycle tourists, there is one foot passager, 10 car passengers and the rest are big bellied truck drivers – the same the world over. Vests rolled up over their bellies, lounging around, snoring and talking loudly, smoking or playing durak in the lounge. They mostly give us a wide berth, not unfriendly but not sociable. We hear later that they get paid different amounts depending how quickly they can transport their goods and get home. From Ukraine to Almaty and back in a month they get €1000, €800 if they exceed it by a week. The delays are more costly to them than us.

At 5am the clanking of the anchor chains wake us up. We’re on the move again.

Another 16 hours pass. We read, eat, doze, read, eat, read, doze and eat again. We take a turn around the boat. We return to the cabin and have a nap. The word is now that we’ll arrive at 2am. I have no idea what we’ll do in Aktau at that time.

We will see I suppose.

It was the 17th July when took this picture…

2am – or 3 depending on when you change your clock – bang, bang, bang.
The tiny, stern looking woman is in the room motioning for us to get up. Bleary, we obey.

Movement is happening. We’re told we can take our bags down to our bikes, though when we get down it takes some time to find a path that we can weave through. The gaps get narrower and narrower. The refrigerated lorries have their engines running and the air is foul. Our bikes are there but there’s no way we’ll be able to load them so we leave our bags and head back up.

We return to the common area and sit back down on the floor. A bunch of officials march in and start looking through passengers bags. They don’t know what to do with us bike tourists, but eventually order us off the boat for ‘face check’.

We stumble off the boat and spend our first half hour on central Asian soil waiting for a stupidly small minibus to shuttle us to the very short distance to border control building, and then the next half hour waiting in the ‘queue’.

The tediousness continues but we – the group of 11 cycle tourists – find ourselves waiting together before the final barrier in the dawn. They leave us waiting, we get bored and try and pass through their final passport check, we get through but then cause a ruckus by going back round for our bikes. Apparently once you’re through you’re through. Clearly we’re a liability so they send us on our way, with our bikes.

We cycle on, a big strong bike gang, in search of breakfast.
We’re in Kazakhstan.

Thanks to this guy who wrote up the whole thing so well, it helped us immensely: https://www.madornomad.com/destination/westasia/caspian