The tarmac was ragged to the point of total destruction and now the buckled, sludgy and rutted track was snarled with a traffic chain of muddy road-weary haulage lorries stretching all the way to the horizon. It was time to take to the desert.
Switching all settings in the car to full off-road – maximum height, mud and ruts mode engaged, traction control removed – we left the truck at the back of the queue and the relative safety of the track to take our chances off-road through the surrounding wild and unmarked territory.
With the border crossing into Uzbekistan still miles away and rumours of it closing in an hour, it was our only option.
Plunging through the desert scrub as it switched from deep dry sand to soft wet bog and everything between, the fast-fading daylight made picking the best path increasingly tricky but also kept us alert. As did the stories we had heard from locals about the border taking up to an unthinkable three days to clear.
With 50 days of meticulously planned driving between Birmingham and Beijing, this incredible journey had a deadline – to deliver the one millionth Land Rover Discovery to China in time for the Beijing Motor Show. Border delays were factored in. But not three days of border delays.
The breadth of capability of our Land Rover Discoverys ensured our ‘break for the border’ was an astute move, and on the Kazakh side at least, we were despatched pretty quickly. But it seemed even the guards at this remote outpost were more than aware of the difficulties in crossing into their neighbour.
The hard core Soviet bureaucracy of old may be long gone since the country’s independence in 1991, but Uzbekistan is still not the easiest of places to enter. A heavy strictness to all dealings with authority remains deeply rooted.
The roughly painted sign above the exit from Kazakhstan read simply, ‘good luck’, while the guard stationed below waved us through flashing a wry smile as if to say, “you’re going to have a nightmare…”.
He had a point.
We were hardly inconspicuous, with a convoy of four UK-registered Discoverys, in expedition colours, a team of ten from three different countries, a hefty payload of spares, tools, radio gear and filming equipment, and a medic carrying enough prescription drugs to start a pharmacy (medical facilities are as non-existent as the roads so we needed to be prepared).
Sure enough, our progress soon ground to a halt. And it was not until some seven exhausting hours later, well into the small hours of the morning, we were finally through.
All things considered, this was a result.
On the other hand, it now meant we were heading into Uzbekistan in the pitch dark with a howling blizzard pulling visibility down to almost zero. Better still, we were supposed to be camping, as there are no hotels of any description in the Uzbek desert, and clearly we still not only had to set up camp, but we had to find one.
As we mentally prepared for a freezing night under frosted canvas, someone struck on the idea of knocking on a few doors.
They had travelled this region before, spoke enough of the language to be understood, and thought we stood a chance of finding a floor to sleep on thanks to the Uzbeks’ long tradition of great hospitality, especially in the country’s remoter corners.
An hour later we were inside a cracked and peeling brick-built shack with two dogs, three rooms and an incredible smell wafting from the kitchen as the occupants, a family of four, brought out the local vodka for the non-drivers and made tea and dinner for us. The building looked as desolate as could be from the outside in the bitter darkness, yet inside the warmth and welcome were beyond belief.
Waking a few short hours later and heading out to take in our surroundings, we could see the blizzard was still raging. But fortified with yet more hot tea, and comforted by the vehicle cabins in which we would be travelling, we were ready to crack on into the desert once more.
The trail, ruts and swamp that passed for the main road on which we spent the day were as random and testing as anything in Kazakhstan, more so at times, but as the snow wavered and then stopped to be replaced by the sun, the desert around emerged in all its glory as camels and goats dotted the roadside and the reddish brown dusty landscape warmed up.
By the evening we were at the Aral Sea. Once the fourth largest inland body of water in the world, the Aral Sea has seen the tide recede by forty kilometres and the sea itself shrink by over ninety percent.
Tragic yet beautiful, ships that once floated at shore now sit beached and rusting on what was previously the seabed. Camping here without a soul in sight for miles around as the sun set across this haunting and deeply moving place was a reminder if any were needed that the best things in life are often the hardest to reach.
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