Turkmenistan has to be one of the stranger countries to visit. Twenty years of autocratic repression make tourists somewhat of a novelty, and locals particularly astounded to see them. The place has about the political freedom of Burma, to give you an idea why tourists are so unfamiliar. Perhaps it’s the fact that locals are astounded to see people riding bicycles across the desert in the middle of July. Granted, it’s a bit of a stupid idea. What makes it only slightly stupider is the 5 day fixed visa and the 550km of desert to cover.
Most travelers wishing to get a visa for this country only receive a 5 day transit visa. If you wish to acquire a one month tourist visa, you must pay for a guide. I was quoted 100USD a day for a Turkmen guide, and told he could accompany me on the bicycle across the desert. That would be a comedy of epic proportion, but probably not worth it. So I opted for the 5 day transit visa, which I received in Mashhad.
When Sabine and I arrived at the Sarahks border crossing, the customs officers didn’t feel the obligation to work very quickly. Despite only a few of their own citizens coming back to the country, we still had to sit there for 3 hours and wait. The border crossing is in the middle of the desert, and the dust picked up in the area making it an unpleasant place to sit and wait for some 18 year old lackey to let you into the country. This young man kept getting my hopes up when he asked for our passports but it turned out it was the only english word he could parrot. It didn’t mean he’d actually do anything with it. So after we’d sat there for 3 hours in the +40C dust storm, we were finally admitted entry into this weird place.
The first Turkmen I became acquainted with was a rather portly police officer who found us napping in the park. Explaining that we’d just come from Iran, he returns to us with chips and beer! Probably the first and last police officer who will ever bring me beer and drink it with me in the park.
In Turkmenistan, there are a lot of long stretches with nothing. No water, no food, no buildings, no people, and best of all, very little traffic. There was a 100km stretch of desert after the border that we managed to cover in one evening and the following morning. In the evening the sun was setting as the moon was rising in perfect symmetry. In the early morning, we were treated to the opposite symmetry. I loved camping in the desert, it was strangely one of my favourite campsites. Nobody around for miles, and complete silence. There’s something wonderful about this champagne desolation.
Somewhere along that lonely stretch of road I clocked my 20,000km. Hard to believe it already. 10,000km ago, I was in Sicily! I never thought I would cover this distance, thinking perhaps I would get tired of riding my bike. No, I still love it. Even if it’s 40 above, the scenery is bland, and the food even worse.
The first large city was passed through was Mary. It was a dusty and dirty place, probably made worse by our chosen campsite in a cotton field. We discovered that they put the entrance monuments and signs 20km out of the city. The city itself seemed to be full of a lot of new buildings, but was completely deserted. Most of the cities in this country have an eerie empty feeling, constructed by a pretentious dictator out of touch with the needs of his population.
After Mary, there are some long stretches of desert. Despite the lack of variation in the scenery, there were still some highlights I will never forget. Riding into the rising sun at 5:30am and seeing camels cross the road ahead was something near a mirage. Running on 5 hours of sleep every day begins to make you a little more delusional. Yes, those camels were real.
Later along this road I found a young 12 year old Shepard in the middle of nowhere trying to hail a car down for water. It still blows my mind to think of this kid standing in the sand dunes all day in +45C heat, watching his sheep…. with no water. He didn’t even have a hat. I gave him all the water I could, and continued on wondering why he was there.
On our way to Turkmenabat, we got lucky and found a restaurant in the middle of the desert. They had an air conditioned yurt, which was like finding a diamond in the coal mine.
The kind lady at the restaurant let us sleep in there for 5 hours through the heat of the day. I think she must have been used to this routine of stupid foreign cyclists withering away in the heat.
While we slept at this truckstop, several locals turned up and were over enthusiastic to have their photo taken.
What strikes me most about Turkmenistan is the very noticeable change in the people. Turkmen tend to have distinct facial features that set them apart from their neighbours, with a wider and rounder face then their neighbours. If you still can’t tell, here is a checklist.
Are you dirt poor, but you’ve got a mouth full of gold teeth?
Do you live in a city with ridiculously opulent statues?
Do you have to frequently slow down for camels?
Are you strangely over enthusiastic of horses?
Does your national emblem look like something you might see in a wild opium trip in the desert?
One of the big concerns was obviously water. I was drinking somewhere between 7 and 10 litres a day. The water we found was questionable, well water brought up with a pail in the village well.
I drank this water for my 5 day stay in the country and was fine. Sabine wasn’t so lucky. Getting sick in the middle of the desert when you’ve got to leave the country in 2 days.. and it’s +45 above makes the ride a bit less fun. It’s harder yet when there’s nothing to see, and really nowhere to stop. The road is indeed a very long road.
Just as Sabine fell ill on the road, a young man pulled up in a truck and asked us if we needed any assistance. His timing couldn’t have been any more perfect. His name was Shakir, and he drives from Turkmenabat to Mary everyday to work in the gas fields. She hitched a ride with him into Turkmenabat, and I continued riding. I was going to meet her in the city, and we’d sort out a place to sleep in the evening. To my surprise, Shakir and his friends had waited with Sabine for a couple hours until my arrival. When I did arrive, they took us to the local bar for some shashlik and beer.
After having ridden across 550km of desert, I think that shashlik and beer was some of the best I’ve ever had. Beer has never tasted so good 🙂 The following morning we were off to the Uzbek border crossing, on the last day of our visa. The timing couldn’t have been any better. The Turkmen customs officers were pretty keen on searching our bags. I’ve discovered the strategic placing of dirty socks and underwear at the top of the panniers can have wonderful effects.
I will post our adventures in Uzbekistan in a second post as soon as I can. Apologies for being so tardy, I hadn’t seen an internet cafe in almost a month.