Written by Tom Bruce
In 2011 I cycled around the world, every inch of the way. The hardest part of the trip was the desert crossing from Aktau to Beyneu in Kazakhstan, a forgotten part of the world. You join my trip in Caspian Sea port of Aktau, the city in the middle of nowhere. I’d just enjoyed a crazy cargo ferry crossing of the Caspian Sea and was preparing for the desert.
People looked at me in an odd sort of way as I cycled into the 1,000 kilometres of nothing surrounding Aktau – who rides a bike through a massive empty dessert? Why would you risk it and why bother? They had a point.
But I knew I had to continue. If I could pass this critical stage of the trip I was confident I could get round the world. I struggled at first because my already substantial luggage had increased by 23 kilograms of water. After much deliberation, I had
decided this was the right amount to take – probably overcautious, but far better than running out. I wobbled along at first, but amazingly, my bike carried the load. Apparently the road was good for the first 100 kilometres and by the time it deteriorated my load should be substantially lighter.
I passed a huge and spectacular domed Muslim burial ground, then 43 kilometres up the road, I turned east towards Shetpe, the next town. As I cycled away from the cool Caspian Sea, midday temperatures skyrocketed to over 45o Celsius. As I was stopped for lunch the next day, my tire deflated. Without the cooling air passing the wheel rim while I moved it had become so hot it melted a hole in the inner tube.
At Shetpe I restocked with bread, jam, and a new inner tube then left the town and slept on the desert floor with no tent. The stars were so bright after the vast desert sunsets and the desert was absolutely silent night. It was in this silence that it struck me just how far I had ridden. And while this was a special feeling it also made me feel very small. I suddenly realized I was in the middle of a barren landscape with endless horizons.
He shouted out his window, “Where are you going?”
“Beyneu,” I answered while trying to watch his truck and the road at the same time.
“Do you want to die out here? This road is like hell.” he shouted, before revving his engine and driving off.
“Great,” I thought, “thanks for that”
Soon after this encounter, the road deteriorated. There was still about 300 kilometres to Beyneu and I wasn’t expecting any improvement. I think if you tried your best to construct the World’s worst road it would be hard to make it as bad as the one I was traveling on. It was corrugated and covered in gravel. There were huge ruts, sharp stones, sand traps which knocked me off and no shade from the beating sun. Progress was slow, almost half my usual speed.
My daily target was 100 kilometres, which meant riding from before sunrise until after sunset. The physical side of this ride was tough but the mental torture was far harder. I didn’t have a conversation for days and only my own thoughts could push me on. Lorry drivers offered me lifts but I turned every one of them down in favour of my ambition to circumnavigate the world on an unbroken chain. I had to keep telling myself “you can’t give up now”, “you’ve come so far already” etcetera.
Sometimes I got too hot to continue and I had to take a break and get out of the sun. I slept in culverts under the road during the hottest part of the day – I was worried about heat stroke and drank more water than I ever thought possible. Once my speedometer had ticked over 100 kilometres I continued to the next culvert and slept there. The culverts were a lifesaver, an instant safe shelter.
The final day before Beyneu, a thunderstorm transformed the road into a quagmire. I was pushing through a three inch deep layer of gloop, which jammed my bike wheels every 100 meters. I strained my shoulders and arms, stopped to clear out the mud then continued. In two hours I covered two kilometres. I still had forty kilometres until Beyneu and was shattered. I considered hitching a lift.
Miraculously the tarmac started again after another kilometre, I couldn’t believe it. I whooped with delight and stopped at a Chaihana (tea shop) to celebrate with a pot of tea. A little boy gave me a note that two French cyclists had left for me. They had heard I was behind them and offered that we could cycle on together. I whizzed the final 40 kilometres into Beyneu along a good road and met up with Mark and Camille, it would be much easier to carry on with company. I look back on this part of the ride and realise how important it was. To push myself this hard and fling myself into the unknown was one of my greatest achievements.
To read more about Tom Bruce’s bike ride or to learn about SOS Children’s Village, the charity his ride benefitted, please visit www.tombrucecycling.com where you can download his 40,000-word blog about his experiences or make a donation to his charity. Tom will also be releasing his book about his adventures in the near future.