Aktau - Beyneu - Nukus - Khiva - 681 miles
It was around midday by the time we arrived in Aktau - a soviet built town in the desert on the eastern shores of the Caspian after big uranium deposits were found in the fifties. Vast avenues of grey concrete block buildings. Our airbnb was in a ten floor block separated from the sea front by a seemingly abandoned amusement park - we saw the swing chairs going round just once in our three day stay. The entrance was rather foreboding, crumbling concrete steps into a dim concrete lobby. Our host came down to meet us, showing us through a heavy metal door to the corridor where her two flats were located on the fifth floor. We waited in the better one whilst she finished cleaning the cheaper one for us: a bedsitting room with separate tiny kitchen and bathroom, and a little balcony with sea views. She showed us how to use the washing machine and warned us not to hang it out if we were going out, because of Aktau's notoriously changeable weather.
We had booked for two nights and decided to go for a walk by the coast in the afternoon - but first to email Reinhart and ask if he was still up for sharing a tour tomorrow. His reply came quite swiftly - he had found out that the trains to Nukus were running only twice a week, on Tuesdays and Fridays - so he would forego the tour and leave tomorrow instead. We quickly decided to do the same, and set about looking into booking train tickets online. The Kazahk railway bookings site has an English version, but would not yield a connected journey; just the trains from Aktau to Beyneu - plenty to choose from - and onwards to Nukus just two a week. Jefris was all for going to the station - a half hour taxi ride away - to book our tickets there. I suggested holding fire until we heard back from Reinhart how he'd fared with bookings. After half an hour or so we got a reply - he had found exactly the same information as me and was pondering whether to try his luck at the station in the morning or head there soon - we decided to meet up as soon as possible and share a taxi today. It was 3.30ish by the time we met up, and walked with Reinhart back to his hotel where the receptionists called us a taxi with Yandex the most useful taxi app in this part of the world, sadly impossible for us to download. Our driver agreed to wait for us whilst we went to the ticket office and drive us back into town for the same price. After a little confusion at the ticket desk we were able to book three places - only third class top bunks were available - on the 'connecting' sleeper trains to Beyneu and Nukus - entailing a four hour midnight changeover at Beyneu.
Thus our only day in Aktau came and went, and dusk was falling as we returned to the 'centre' . We asked our driver if he could recommend anywhere good and reasonably priced to eat near our block, and he dropped us at a bar on one of the busy main roads. The food was so so but they had some nice cider and one of the barkeepers, a lovely Russian-Kazakh woman who'd just returned from a holiday in Bali was very friendly and helpful. Excited to hear about our trip, she phoned a friend who'd recently been to China in search of helpful information for us - apparently it's a very good idea to get hold of some yen before we enter the country.
We planned to get up early the next morning and at least go and dip our toes in the Caspian Sea, but woke to thick fog and by the time it cleared we were on our way again, off to board the train to Beyneu. Only third class coaches were available for our journey, and only top bunks left. The railways here are wide gauge, with sets of bunks facing each other widthways on one side of the aisle and lengthways all down the other. This first train was surprisingly clean and modern. Jefris helped one of our ' downstairs neighbours' hoist her huge bags up onto the luggage racks, and we soon discovered why all the bottom bunks sell out first when both occupants of our berth - settled down to sleep for the journey, leaving us with a choice of standing or climbing up into our bunks - a slightly tricky manoeuvre entailing slotting ourselves in backwards from the aisle end. Fortunately there were a couple of seats free a bit further back in the carriage so we were able to sit down, have our lunch and watch the endless desert rolling by. We met two more fellow travellers, German sisters Julia and Sina, taking a break after their undergrad and postgrad studies, and Jefris made an Uzbek friend, who was in the army, working in recruitment. Around 5pm the train made a 'rest stop' at a station with vendors lining the platform. Jefris tried his first 'manti' Uzbek stuffed dumplings. Kena encouraged hom to try the local horse milk which he would have done had it been available in smaller quantities than a litre. We both snoozed in the evening, knowing we had a four hour transfer ahead of us at Beyneu.
Arriving at 10.30, it was rather chilly on the platform. After a lingering farewell with Kena who was reluctant to say goodbye, Jefris had a kickabout with some local boys, and I taught Julia and Sina a few hoop moves, before donning my headphones and going 'off to hoopworld' to keep warm. You would think that might be of passing interest, but no one gave me a second glance - everyone was far too busy gawping at Jefris, and asking him to pose for photos with them. It seems most people in Central Asia have never seen anyone who looks like him. I'm not sure if it's the dark skin, the dreadlocks, the colourful clothing, or all three.
The hours seemed to pass quite quickly, and the station stayed quite busy until it was time to board the international train to Nukus, around 2.15am. We entered our carriage to find ourselves in a stuffy, gloomy much older and slightly pongy carriage, where most of the inhabitants were snoring already, not a seat in sight. As ever, I needed a pee before settling down in my bunk, but the loo on the train was locked and would remain so until our departure a couple of hours later. I went back out to use the station toilets, only to find them also locked. The whole station area was brightly lit and I didn't fancy wandering off into the shadows on my own, so went back to drag Jefris out of his bunk so he could chaperone me to a convenient corner of the dark car park. By the time we'd got back and slotted ourselves into our bunks we were both ready to drop off, but minutes later it was 'everybody up' for border control - well at least it was a chance to get on nodding and smiling terms with our neighbours, mostly a quite freindly bunch it seemed, apart from the surly guy next to us. First exit control, then a search of the train, then entry control for Uzbekistan. After all that was done, the bunk which had initially seemed so cramped and lumpy felt perfectly cosy and I had a lovely sleep until we were woken by the first of a never ending stream of sellers wandering up and down the aisles: hot milky tea in cloth wrapped bottles, various steamed dumplings in massive enamel pots draped with tea towels, sack loads of cheap plastic toys, shawls, jewellery, there was even a money changer. They really did come and go pretty much non stop for most of the day!
Eventually just after dark we finally arrived at Nukus. Reinhart was staying in the same place as us so we walked there together. thank heavens to find a reasonably spacious and comfy room in a family run guesthouse. In the kitchen we met a couple of Russians chatting - as it turned out they had just met one another, and found out that they hailed from the same district off the same town! Julia was travelling in Uzbekistan, and Ilya had been living and the guesthouse for a few months - another conscription exile, making his living as an online maths tutor.
Nukus is a strange place, a soviet city in the middle of the desert, it's main attraction the Art Museum named after its founder Igor Savitsly who fell in love with Uzbekistan and collected local artworks and paintings and sculpture by Russian artists who shared his fascination. The most poignant gallery was entitled 'Memories of Water' - paintings of the lost Aral Sea and the fishing communities that once thrived on its shores.. Formerly the fourth largest lake in the world, it was absolutely devastated by Soviet irrigation projects, and by 2006 had dried up to less than 10% of its original size.
On our second night in Nukus, we were wandering the endless vast avenues looking for somewhere to eat when we spotted through some big glass doors what looked like it might be a sound check for a gig. Someone spotted us peering in and beckoned us inside. It turned out to be a professional video recording studio, and the band, although it seemed like at least some of them could actually play their instruments, had been hired as a miming backing band for a local Uzbek singer's Narwiz Tlewov's video shoot. We hung about and watched for a little bit, and of course Jefris was nabbed to give a brief promo on camera. We asked for tips on where to eat and ended up in a very strange restaurant where DJs started playing midway through our meal, club / dance music so loud that we couldn't hear ourselves let alone each other and had to move to a different room.
On Friday we shared a taxi with Reinhard to Khiva, a three hour journey through the desert, stopping off to see some long abandoned Zoroastrian ruins - a sky burial site, a fire temple complex, and a fortified city. The last of the three was my favourite, reached by a twenty minute stomp across the desert, empty and startlingly silent but for the three of us and a few hornets.
In between sightseeing we stopped for food. As has been mostly usual here in Central Asia, the menu was only available in Russian. Google translate can be very helpful, but when it comes to menus it's not always especially illuminating. One dish was translated simply to 'Surprise'. As Jefris eats pretty much anything I dared him to try it. It turned out to be little semi circular egg stuffed dumplings, in a sour milky sauce - so all out of bounds for me, but quite pleasant apparently!
I've now fallen shockingly behind with this reporting, so I'll continue with some highlights from our Silk Road trip soon, I hope....
Lots of love to all our friends and fam & big hugs, we miss you! xxx