For the morning it continued to be grey and overcast, but by midday the sun had blasted all weather out of the sky and we were subjected to the full desert sun.
We fortunately came across a village, where as Kieran waited with the cart, Arjun got into a talk with a railway worker about the sale of his daughter. After kindly refusing the offer, Arjun then got him to find the owner of the ‘shop’ to come and open for us. The ‘shop’ was basically a mud room, full of expensive 1.5 litre water bottles and some crisps. With no choice and the next place still a long way away, we payed the hiked price and sat in the shade of the building for a while before continuing on.
On the road the surface got progressively worse, we met a German motorcyclist travelling to Mongolia (Merlin), saw a huge camel spider as we set up camp, suffered from strong winds, and got woken up one morning by gaspipe security who took photos of us posing with their guns on their phones. Nice guys, but it was one hell of a shock getting woken up by four guys with guns knocking on the tent!
We stumbled upon a village not marked on our map, and found a man to take us to the shop. We bought a jar of vegetable mulch and a loaf each and sat outside to eat, checking the expiry date on the jars about halfway through. January 2011…
On the way out of the village a trucker stopped to ask us for some water which we gave, and then came back along the road later and gave us some hot tea; kind of him, but the temperature was ridiculous as it was without drinking hot drinks as well. We saw the same trucker everyday until Shalkar, he let us sit in his air conditioned cabin for a bit, occasionally gave us more tea, and one morning pulled up and came to sit in our tent with us and have breakfast, sharing some hard boiled eggs as we shared our meat and bread.
Shalkar itself turned out to be alright. It took a lot of running between different shops to get everything, and Kieran got constantly approached by people wanting to talk and ask questions, but everyone was pleasant and friendly, and we managed to do everything we needed and head out without too much hassle. We sat in the concrete shell of some abandoned flats on the outskirts and tried to work out our route to Aral’sk. On our map there was a (minor) road marked from Shalkar, straight south to Aral’sk, a distance of near 200km without anything on it. If we couldn’t find that road, then it was a detour north -east up to the main road from Aktobe, and then south down to Aral’sk, a distance of near 400km, again, without anything on it.
We were adamant we would find the south road, and walked for the majority of the afternoon around the outskirts following directions off various people (most of which were guessing, admitting they had no idea what road it was supposed to be), until we came across some railway workers who explained what it was. They were surprised it was even marked on the map, let alone marked as an actual road. They pointed us to a sand track and said it was the only possible road it could be, that it followed the traintracks as marked on the map, but that no one drove on it as the sand was too deep. To note, it has to be said that desert sand is very different to beach sand, it’s much finer, loser, and as a result much deeper. Ignorant of this, we headed along it, and not even 50m in stopped to assess the situation. Taking turns to walk ahead in search of an improvement in the surface, we found nothing, and set up camp for the night, coming to terms with the fact that we would have to take the detour.
Whilst ranting, Arjun discovered a leak in one of his water bottles, we received phone calls warning about black widows, and the trains we were near ran all night.