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COPPERPOLISH IN THE STEPPE

Text by Herman Veldhuizen

an extract from a Norwegian cyclist’s travel notes

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I’m already in Kazakhstan, and the first city I come to, Uralsk, is my first stop, where I can enjoy the luxury of a hotel, a supermarket and some restaurants. Outside Uralsk I am confronted with a hard fact: Shymkent is the next city on my route, distance 2005 km. There’s a sign that says ’Good luck!’. I soon find out that, luckily, there isn’t much traffic.
Instead of the asphalt road via Aktobe I’m going to take the track via Karatobe, Emba and Chelkar. I have seen enough asphalt in my life. The track stops at Aktaisai. My maps show a track which goes south before this village, but the track doesn’t exist. Locals direct me to a path going south. It takes me to a river; the only way across is through it. Looking for the best place to cross, I come upon a small family living in a sort of a hut sunk half into the ground. This is something of a relief because not only can they point me in the right direction, they have drinking water and dogs, which warn when there are wolves around. Wolves roam the steppe at night.

The next day I carry my gear and bike through the river, knee-deep in June. There are no tracks any more and I bike through the steppe for an hour or so until I see some trees and a village on the horizon. There aren’t many hotels on my route. I use the few small rivers which I come across to wash the sweat out of my clothes and to cool my head. Kazakh people are curious and friendly. On the road to Aralsk a handful of cars stop every day to ask me where I’ve come from and where I’m going. Sometimes I get a bottle of water or some steppe snacks.
The track to Aralsk ranges from non-stop torture to ’who needs asphalt?’. There are some hills between Emba and Chelkar. These hills form the south end of the Ural mountain range. On my way up my chain breaks. My front tyre is damaged and is on the verge of exploding, so I change it.
Also my frame breaks again at the same place as before. The only thing holding the bike together is my own re-inforcement of the rear triangle. I experience a new style of riding: spaghetti riding. The back of my bike swings like a fashion model’s bottom. But I don’t see it, so it’s of little use to me.
After almost three months there is a sign that I am approaching a popular destination among long-distance cyclists, China. In a roadside cafe they tell me that I am already the third they’ve seen this year. ’Mnogo’, they say. Kazakhstan is a large country with few people. In its interior I am more likely to see a cow or horse at a bus stop than a human being.
I have to do the last bit to Aralsk. Everybody directs me to the asphalt road, not understanding why I want to take the track, which is apparently very sandy. Not knowing what to expect, I load 20 liters of water onto my poor bike. The frame holds and I am on my way. My first off-asphalt attempt fails: it’s too sandy. After a while I find a gravel road some 15 km down the asphalt road going north-east. But the gravel soon gives way to sand.
With my 28-inch wheels I have to push my bike for most of the first day and in the 40- to 45-degree heat I drink 13 liters of water. It’s a strange personal best. My shoes have some basic ventilation features; the sand which gets into them seems to have scraped off every dead skin cell. The following days I pass through some villages and the track gets easier. And where there are people there is water.
On my last day to Aralsk, a pound of sugar is all the food I have left. In my eagerness to reach the town I consume it and make no attempt to find a shop. Another tyre needs to be replaced, leaving me with no more spares. I reach Aralsk, for many tourists a kind of end of the world, exhausted. For me, Aralsk now means the luxury of a hotel, a shower, and some shops. The track from Chelkar to Aralsk was hard, but anything but boring.
But Aralsk is a hot place and when it is windy it is also a dusty place. The Aral Sea is nowhere to be seen. I am in a man-made ecological disaster area. It’s hard to believe that this town was a fishing village only a few decades ago. I visit the ship cemetery with Anders Brahn, the first tourist I’ve met in nearly three months. Camels and ships together in the same place  -  something is clearly wrong.
From Aralsk onwards there is asphalt again. Some days I have headwinds. I think about my tour, my life and… copper polish. Many times a day these two words come to me. Copper polish, copper polish, koperpoets, Kupferputz… It is totally useless but I cannot get it out of my head.
The steppe seems endless. Even a puncture is welcome because it’s a good excuse to stop. I like it when I come across some camels. Their heads turn in sync with my progress on the road. I usually stop for a while and try to entertain them by shouting at them and drinking water in front of them. But usually they walk away. Most of the steppe is now behind me. I will miss the emptiness of it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Discovery Kazakhstan
Travel guide#1/2008

Discovery Kyrgyzstan Travel guide #10/2008

 

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