As I woke up on my last day in Nukus, a wave of sadness came over me. I had made friends, integrated into the community and started to get comfortable. I knew I wouldn’t be back again, as is the case for almost all of the places I pass through. I didn’t think too much as I packed my bag, knowing that as soon as I got picked up, this city would be in the past.
As I followed the road beyond the city, the usual stream of traffic flew past; the staring locals who slowed down to have a good stare at the white, blonde tourist bearing the biggest bag they’ve ever seen, the small motorbikes with engines like hair clippers, and the occasional taxi driver or public minibus beeping for my attention.
As the sun began to fall, a small boy (left) ran up to me asking if I wanted to come for tea.
Why not? I thought.
He told me to take off my shoes and walk in, but I wasn’t so sure I’d be welcome – A strange, bearded man that your child has taken in? What would the adults think? I waited nervously at the door before the grandmother waved me in frantically, as if I was standing in the pouring rain.
She laid out some nuts, sweets and a pot of tea, with some small square pastry things which they call ‘ball sack’, with emphasis on the double ‘l’ and the ‘a’ pronounced like ‘ah’. I thought they were have a joke with me.
The rest of the family arrived one after the other, amazed to see a real English person not only in their house, but in their city. The father took a particular interest in me; I don’t think the smile left his face all evening. He and the son spent the our time together trying to give me items from their house which I took a slightly prolonged look at – Such things as a large, metal teapot, a frying pan and a wooden plate ornament were handed to me. They did give me a taxidermied wolf’s claw, to protect me against what they translated as ‘infiltration’.
The father showed me around the house, which evidenced that they were a richer-than-most family.
Despite its earlier days, Google Translate now works between English and Russian extremely well and we had a substantial conversation over the course of the evening. It did make a mistake though, at least I hope it did. As I was being shown around, the father leaned into a dark closet and the app said ‘I love you’. As this happened, he turned around with a glimmer in his eyes.
They are very hospitable people in this country; anything you need, even if you don’t know it yourself, they will give. When I needed the toilet, the son would take me by the arm like I was a blind man. I felt a bit uncomfortable during the evening because they were so far in my personal space, they were almost sitting on me.
If you ever visit Uzbekistan, know that it’s okay to leave food on your plate. In the UK it’s rude, but here it means you’re still hungry, and I was about one mouthful away from hospital.
This was the last family I met here and a great last memory. They even filled my backpack with food – sweets, pasta sauce, crisps and a big bag of ‘ballsack’.
Ahead of me now was a 400km stretch of dry, uninhabited emptiness that runs to the border with Kazakhstan. Beyond that would be more desert, until I reached the city of Aktua, the first and last in the country.
I was worried about hitchhiking through this, because traffic was very sparse and you have to put a lot of trust into your driver and their vehicle. Other hitchhikers have often taken the inexpensive train. But, as I was walking out of the city the following morning, a lone trucker was pulled in drinking his morning cup of tea. He saw me walking and called me over, without thinking it seemed.
‘Where are you going?’ he asked.
‘Kazakhstan’ I replied.
‘Come with me, then!’
And as easily as that, I had a lift to the border!
The long, straight, dry and lifeless road out of Uzbekistan seemed at first glance to have snow around it, but it was actually salt. The Caspian sea, which continues to dry daily, used to be three times the size it is now.
I didn’t have much of a conversation with the driver and the ride seemed to be over very quickly, probably because of the lack of stimuli around the road.
I crossed back into Kazakhstan and was picked up by a taxi driver who had already been paid for. He took me 200km to Beyneu – the junction that goes either to Aktau or to Russia. I was still in the middle of nothing, and very tired, so, with nothing and no one around me, except the occasional herd of horses kicking up sand or or group of camels nodding along, I decided to take a couple of days off.
It was a chilly couple of nights. Winter was definitely sweeping in and I was glad to be almost in Georgia. When I did wake up from the cold, I could hear no vehicles on the road. I experienced the best night sky I’ve ever seen, too.
The emptiness glistened, which I thought was strange seeing as it was all sand. On closer inspection, I found that parts of it were being used as a rubbish dump. Just as every negative has a positive attached, I found some wood to make a fire. This attracted the attention of two wild dogs. There was a different bark coming from them, one I had never heard before. The thunderous sound shook my bones and I realised that they were not simply warning me away from their land. They wanted to hurt me. But if I was to run, they would take me down, so all I could do was remain standing, make myself look big and fearless. I stood for about 30 minutes until their barks became hoarse before they gave up and walked off. The fire was what kept me safe that night. Without it, who knows what would’ve happened.
I took the this as a hint to leave. The next morning, another truck driver had pulled in to take a break and called me over to ask where I was going. I got taken all the way to Aktau.
There were four of them traveling in convoy with some kind of construction vehicle on the back. We went terribly slowly, and it took 3 days to make the 500km to Aktau.
For hundreds of kilometers, apart from the occasional shop and gas station, there were no buildings, not even small huts or shacks. I saw the world for what it really is; a huge round rock shaped by the winds of fate, with a few relatively recent, small and temporary clusters of concrete that we call cities.
This part of the world was undisturbed by us. It was still free. The wind had its own voice. Phone signal didn’t even reach out there! We are all so very temporary and we do not own this earth, we merely inhabit it.
We rolled in after dark and I found somewhere to camp on the outskirts. There was grass again, so I had no issues in putting my pegs in. I’d given up trying to hide my tent, because nobody seems to mind here.
As I got out of my lovely green home the following morning, a man was approaching me from the distance. ‘This is it’. I thought. ‘I’m going to die’. But as he got closer, I could see the neutrality and harmlessness of his facial expression; all he wanted to do was ask where I was from and where I was going. He was a perfectly friendly man and I gifted him with some instant coffee. He didn’t speak Russian, so we had to get by with hand movements. It was strange, finding a Kazakh who doesn’t speak Russian is like someone from the Netherlands not speaking English.
Aktau, the first and last city of Kazakhstan, was dead on the outside – like most people in the UK. There was an ominous end-of-the-world atmosphere as I walked in, with the heavy clouds looming menacingly overhead. The outskirts felt like a ghost town – the remains of Soviet times. But centrally, it was as full of life as a major European city. The city seemed to be like a plant that had been starved of water; once full of life, it had slowly receded into itself, leaving behind once healthy leaves to wither away.
My task was now to get across the Caspian sea to Baku in Azerbaijan, 200km away. From there I would get to Georgia, find a job over winter and get the visa to China. I wanted to try and hitchhike the boat across, but I’d spoken to hitchhikers and other travelers before arriving about getting across for free and they all seemed to believe it wasn’t possible.
I still gave it a go. I made it to the port and began asking truck drivers, one of whom agreed to take me. The only problem was the port authorities with their very strict security rules wouldn’t allow it.
The only other thing I came up with was to bribe my was past the ticket check, which kind of defeated the object of not paying for transport. I was very anxious to try this, but I got some cash out and proceeded to the waiting room. They asked to see my ticket there and then, in front of police officers and other travelers, so I took it as a sign and asked to buy one. They wouldn’t even let me buy a ticket, and a flight cost around the same, so I went for that option.
I was disappointed at the time, but I realized that I’m paying to go backwards, not forwards. Also, I’d return to the same spot in a few months, so I hadn’t broken my rules.
Just before leaving, I went to change my money into USD. I put my passport down in the bank as I waited and managed to leave it there. I walked away in a tired daze before checking my pockets. My backpack is heavy, but I managed to sprint.
Luckily, they had it waiting for me. It could’ve been the end of the adventure. After all I’d been through since leaving the UK, a few tears broke out when I realised I was able to continue. With this, I realised how much it meant to me and all of the doubts around whether or not I wanted to continue this journey disappeared.