Sidetracked Joint Editor, Jamie Bunchuk recently returned from Central Kazakhstan after a short but tough journey across the the Betpak Dala – ‘The Steppe of Misfortune’. Here’s how his trip went.
In the Autumn of 2014 I made a crossing of an uninhabited area of Kazakhstan almost as large of Scotland, whilst running over seven back-to-back marathons through it at the same time.
The journey was the first ever East to West crossing of the Betpak-Dala – literally the ‘Steppe of Misfortune’ – and I was aided by two locals, a supporting 4WD, and with expedition funding from the French underwear company HOM.
The region presented some bloody difficult challenges, but in the end I managed to cover around 190 miles running over broken and sandy terrain in just over a week. There was no medical back-up or support, nor even any music playing, and I ran for up to nine hours a day with just myself for company.
For the first few days I felt on top form but then the running really started to bite: my feet swelled so much from bruising on the rocky ground that I had to take the shoelaces out of my shoes, and despite super strength sunglasses I still suffered regularly from a little sand blindness from the powerful sun.’
Every single evening I felt like giving up. I’d be racked with violent shivering, nearly vomiting and in so much pain I could barely walk. But I’d set myself up to do this, for no other reason than to see if it could be done and I wasn’t going to give up, so every morning I would grit my teeth and get on with it again.’
Aside from the difficulties of running, our three man team also faced a whole host of unique incidents, including kicking about nosecones from surface to surface ballistic rockets and looking out for unexploded military ordnance as they explored a secret – now abandoned – Soviet weapons testing facility.
Monstrous off-road conditions, dwindling fuel supplies and tricky navigation also added to the challenge, with myself regularly navigating for the remnants of old military tracks – disused for well over 15 years, and incredibly concealed in the shrub – with GPS waypoints plugged into an iPhone.
It all turned out to be one Great British adventure in the end. But I think we were incredibly lucky to get through the Betpak-Dala without a hitch. One slip, one flash-flood on the muddy ground or a slightly taller sand dune and the story would have turned out completely different.
But then I guess that’s part and parcel of heading somewhere new, and I’m so proud to now be able to relate to my fellow countrymen and women a little something of what this previously unseen area of 75,000km2 is like… and how it feels to run across it!
Follow Jamie on Twitter @Bunchuk