A week of cycling in southern Kazakhstan and it became clear – I was caught in the middle. Stuck between sticking to a schedule, and pouncing on unforeseen opportunities as they presented themselves. Between challenging myself, and making concessions for the things that challenged me. Between celebrating my accomplishments, and learning from and laughing at my oversights.
To figure that you will cycle northwest for about 1,000 kilometres over the span of a few weeks, before catching a train for the remainder is not a particularly firm plan to have at the outset of a month stay in Kazakhstan – this was fine with me. I knew that supposing much beyond that was futile – there were too many variables. But man, happenings diverged from the few expectations held, to the extent that I found myself surprised, bemused, and at times a little down on myself.
Pushing off on the asphalt enthusiastically early (for me) – maybe 7:30. Gulps of water and the dredges of a bag of cookies for breakfast, no want of cooked oats for fear of wasting those precious moments of the cool early morning. Gliding up and down the gentlest of Kazakhstan’s curves, all her flat southwestern steppe has to offer for topography. So confident that I’d reach my next goal before peak heat, I passed tempting chai hanas as they cropped up in passing villages. “I’ll make it,” I told myself, in time to wait out the high sun in Turkestan, the next big city. Midmorning saw my speed slowing and my breaks more frequent. Every five kilometres rolling off onto the gravel shoulder for want of shade and water devolved into every three…two…sometimes one kilometre. I was stuck in the middle – the slower I went, the hotter it would get before I reached Turkestan, an urban oasis of shade, food and water – which I was running low on. But the quicker I tried to defeat the distance, the sicker I felt.
If you had been driving into the city that day from the south, perhaps you’d have spotted me on its periphery, which welcomes traffic with rows of flowers planted in brightly painted highway medians. You would have had to look carefully to see me, because I had admitted defeat and passed out in a covered bus stop, hungry and humbled. It would be several hours from then before I actually made it into the centre of Turkestan.
The heat frying up Kazakhstan in July – its presence was anticipated. I didn’t check the weather forecast before embarking, knowing what it would report: ‘Gross.’ What surprised me was the fat slice of the day that the heat oppressed. Not all days were like the one described above, but in general – relatively comfortable (not to mention, safe) exposure on the open road was only to be had in the early morning, and the late evening. Beautiful, beautiful light.
And…I kind of wanted it. I wanted to be uncomfortable, for it to be hard, to push through it and to see my body and mind through the adjustment. But what’s enough? At what point would I be satisfied that I had rebalanced after a long, air-conditioned and sedentary rest in Uzbekistan? One day pushing, pushing through the heat? One week? One month? At what point would I pat myself on my grimy back and say ‘yeah, okay, I’m back in the game.’ Were my expectations of myself positive catalysts for seeking challenge, or were they just arbitrary and unreasonable, making me drained and dehydrated? Puttering along, I mulled over this and other existential questions. Those intrepid explorers of The Great Game, caravanning through the desolation of the Kazakh Steppe in the 1800s – would they have also rested at every covered bus stop?! I can only wonder.
Nothing like some deep thoughts from the saddle.
A few practical ways to have fun in the heat also appeared, zany as things in Central Asia commonly are. The aforementioned bus stops were always a welcome surprise on the horizon. All with broken glass, benches and sharp lines of Soviet design, when I didn’t have them to myself they were shared with a woman selling Kazakh yogourt, stray dogs, or cows. Let me clarify – the women have not taken to selling the dogs or cows. On some stretches, the way was lined with trees, awash with shade which perpetually tempted. Other stretches were nothing but grass and big sky, and if I found myself in such a landscape during the swelter, I learned to position my bike off the road such that my panniers laid out a little square of shade, sitting size.
Staying hydrated for me meant haphazardly strapping an extra five litres of water to the back rack amidst concerns that my bike, ‘Stan’ would be unhappy with the extra weight. Stan did okay. It also meant responding to the waves of watermelon saleswomen and men by sometimes pulling up, exchanging greetings, and motioning, please, for a big knife to slice my way into juicy ‘arbus’ delight – the whole melon for about $1.50.
Even when unhindered by extremes of hot or cold weather, where the cyclist lays their head at night may not be known until just before the spot, the home, the hotel is happened upon. When I was cycling, there was an added motivation to cover enough ground so that should a great sleeping spot present itself to me, I could snatch it. And come they did. Some at just when I hoped for them – the sun melting almost as low as it could go, and what appears – a perfect camping spot (now is that luck, or just perspective?). Other days, a shady respite at a friendly outdoor restaurant – great, but it’s the wrong time. I want to get back on the road but do not, because it’s already midmorning and I’m still licking my wounds. Not wanting to be caught again so soon at high noon, exposed under the endless, cloudless, remorseless sky. So I stay and I wait, and I wait and wait and I think it matters but it really doesn’t at all.
Some may say, and they’d have a great point, that in the first weeks of adjusting to cycling without my road buddy Ilona, the only goal I should have had was to just survive – to work towards being okay with being alone, regardless of what that manifested on the odometer. In that regard, there were moments where I really felt I was thriving. Drunk on freedom, I stayed the whole day at a Kazakh family’s house, swimming in the river with little Dilnaz and her friends, taking endless naps and being the subject of so many selfies, just because I could. Of this week, the first of over fifty upcoming, the triumph I am most proud of is not that I camped alone in the Kazakh wilds, but because I felt calm and confident while doing it. What a feeling.
Except that one night I camped too close to the road, that was noisy and gave me bizarre hallucinatory dreams.
The title of this post is Slow Leak, Slow Week. I think that the story of the slow leak sums up as good as anything how I felt squashed between success and ‘maybe next time.’
It came at 7:30 PM, the thunk thunk thunk. This time, no need to look down to diagnose – while with Ilona in Tajikistan I had had my first flat tire. And thank goodness for that. A few hundred metres ahead – a bus stop! The heat – on the wane! Immediately ahead – a restaurant with cold drinks! In my mind – Ilona’s detailed instructions on how to fix a flat! I was as ready as I could hope for.
In record time, because no record had yet been set, a new inner tube was in, pumped, and I was back on the road without even forgetting to reattach my brakes together. Elated. However, the next morning, I’m deflated from a poor sleep, and the tire is again deflated from the same offender. I had not been thorough searching for the offending metal bit, naively assuming it had fallen out when it failed to be spotted during a hasty inspection. Two flats, two days, the blame split between me and the road.
Even after the first tube was patched, I didn’t change it back in. It was a slow leak, slow enough to get through the week, but fast enough that I had to stop frequently to become an expert with my new pump. But Dear Reader if you’ve read this far, it will come as no surprise to hear that I was welcoming of any excuse to justify yet another break.
And what of me now. In the spirit of freedom, practicality and intuition, earlier than planned I accepted a ride with a friendly truck driver on a whim. The road trip and train trip that followed were both great adventures unto themselves, making me witness to parts of Kazakhstan I could never cycled to on a visa allotment. Having arrived in Aqtau a week earlier than planned, it’s Megan vs. Heat round two, as I go for a week of seaside pedalling on the Caspian. At least, that’s the plan…