Across Continents

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Blazing saddles

Shade. I lay prostrate against the sloping concrete supports of a small bridge, exhausted. Five in the afternoon, temperature still in the thirties in the Kazakhstan Steppe. Contemplating the road to Bishkek, how best to deal with such fierce, draining heat. A wide brimmed sun hat and sunblock provide a modicum of protection. Settlements are infrequent, sometimes thirty or forty kilometres apart, the odd petrol station, but sufficient to replenish with water. And frequent donations from passing motorists.

Long road

Nothing moves during the middle of the day. Except the traffic on the main road south, and even that seems lighter. Livestock, goats and cattle mostly, the sheep content to wander, vie for shelter in the occasional concrete bus shelter. Lorries parked up, their drivers lying beneath their trailers. Temperature in the high thirties. The air tastes hot.

Attempt to ride much after eleven in the morning, and again before four or five in the afternoon, and progress is barely worth the effort. A few kilometres at a stretch, then the struggle to find shelter, to cool down. And, despite the odd passing vehicle, so very lonely, the landscape barren, arid, inhospitable. The elements harsh, unforgiving.

I’d found myself stopping in small family run cafes, flaked out across chairs or benches, sleeping, like many of the local people, during the hottest part of the day. Given generous bowls of mutton soup to revive me, payment refused. Every sinew of meat devoured. And small gifts of local chocolate to take with me, surprisingly resilient to the intense heat.

Water alone fails to satisfy. You crave cold fluids. With temperatures close to that of the body’s core, the cooling effect seems as vital as keeping properly hydrated. And the quantities you need to consume are quite staggering. Close on a litre an hour. Quite possible to down an entire bottle without pausing. Even the smallest village shops, often precious little on the shelves, have freezers brimming with a multitude of cool beverages. But not cold. Too much of a struggle for the refrigerators.

Driving south from Kyzylorda across the Steppe, progress on the first day had been a respectable eighty miles. But much of it achieved by riding late into the evening, pushing hard in the relative cool. But the next day, from Shieli towards the town of Turkistan, had been much tougher going, the road conditions generally poorer and the heat more intense. By five I’ve reached the outskirts of Zhangaqorghan, where I’d found some respite under the small bridge. Still almost fifty miles remaining to my intended stop in Turkistan.

Unsure what I’d find on the road ahead, I decided to stock up with more supplies and then continue on until dusk, before pitching my tent a discrete distance from the road. Rest, then back in the saddle at first light, riding hard until mid-morning, hoping by then to have reached Turkistan.

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