I’ve used this phrase twice before to describe sections of this trip but I am confident that I am once again using it honestly. The last 8 days, which included racing across the Karakum desert in Turkmenistan to stay within the confines of my 5 day transit visa, have been the toughest of my life. To counter this though I have smashed through the 5,000 mile marker in style!
If you are a cyclist who has reached this post looking for logistical info. for crossing Turkmenistan I will publish a dedicated blog which you can reach by clicking here.
I headed out of Mashhad, the second largest city in Iran, with the strictest section of this trip in front of me. Around 800km’s (500 miles) in 8 days with absolutely no leeway. I would cycle for two days to reach the Iran/Turkmenistan border, ride across the country in five days and then have one day riding to Bukhara, an ancient city in Uzbekistan.
The two days in Iran to the border were smooth and uneventful. I camped my first night just before the town of Mazdavand between a couple of ruts of dirt that are part of a new road project…
A slight problem with my choice of camp was dealing with a big climb up through the town first thing in the morning before my legs had warmed up but the view back down to the plain was reward enough…
I was rewarded further with a big downhill through the mountains to the soundtrack of ‘Bicycle Race’ by Queen playing in my headphones (Thanks Chris!) and spotted something in the middle of the road in the distance…
After carrying the turtle across the road, seemingly terrifying him in the process as I doubt he has experienced moving at human walking speed before, I treated myself to an ice cold Zam Zam cola in a road side seller…
Zam Zam was the top soft drink in Iran for many years as various sanctions had prevented Pepsi and Coca Cola from getting a foot hold. In recent years loopholes in the sanctions have led to Coca Cola being widely available almost eradicating Zam Zam but there is a certain charm to it’s old school ‘Coke bottle green’ glass bottles which you can’t even buy Coca Cola in anymore…
I also enjoy the Muslim-centric marketing for the drink. Zam Zam is the name of the holy well in Mecca, it seems slightly inappropriate to name a soft drink after it!
Just to make this section a bit tougher the road seemed to suffer from what seems to be a global problem. You’d think that the main points crossing from one country to another would be quality roads seeing as they serve as key avenues of trade between neighbours. In reality the closer you get to the border the roads rapidly deteriorate as though the road planners have an attitude of “Why on earth would we build good roads to leave the country?”
I shacked up in the Hotel Dootsky near to the border post on the Iranian side, a popular hotel for cyclists trying to have a last night of comfort before tackling Turkmenistan. Due to a miscommunication where I thought the owner was asking for £120 for the night I accidentally haggled a room down from £12 to £8 including breakfast, bargain! In the morning I spent the last of my Iranian Rials stocking up on water for the road ahead. I thought 9 litres would be overkill but I didn’t know how wrong I’d turn out to be…
I rode the kilometre to the Iranian customs arriving about a minute after they opened and submitted myself to confusing process that I have become accustomed too. Get waved through by security, take passport to window, immigration officer directs me back to security who look confused then randomly pick one of my bags to search. Then sit waiting for 30 minutes before my stamped passport being brought back to me and then being escorted out of the building through an unmarked side door rather than the main exit and pointed in the direction of the kilometre of No Mans land before the Turkmen entry point.
I had a lot of anxiety about crossing Turkmenistan due to a variety of factors. The root cause of the problem is due to Turkmenistans extremely closed nature getting a tourist visa requires you to go on an expensive tour and have a guide with you at all times. Due to the expense, and impracticality, of finding a guide willing to cycle across a desert with you the only feasible option is to utilise the countries fairly easy to obtain 5-day transit visa. Another complication with this visa is that it is for a fixed five day date window which is set in stone when you apply for the visa, in my case nearly a month prior in Iran.
The most popular route through the country I knew to be around 480km, an easy feat in five days in most conditions but Turkmenistan throws up a lot of variables. Firstly immigration can take a very long time, both exiting Iran and entering Turkmenistan, eating away at the first of your 5 days in country. They have been reports of waiting up to 8 hours all but removing the first day. In the end I was lucky. It took me 30 minutes to exit Iran and about an hour of immigration into Turkmenistan that was so confusing it made exiting Iran seem like a cake walk. I was moved back and forth from about 3 differant people, not even sure who actually stamped me into the country, and had my luggage searched thoroughly for the very first time on my trip.
Whilst clearing customs I ran into two French cyclists, Simon and Basil, who I had bumped into a couple of times in Iran, once in Tabriz and once in Mashhad. In Mashhad we realised our Turkmen visas were for the same dates so decided to ride together meeting in customs as we’d all be keen to enter the country as early as we could. After waiting 20 minutes for them to also clear customs we rode into a new country, and a new region of the world.
Immediately there was huge differance. Due to Turkmenistan being very closed, both to foreigners entering and locals being allowed to leave, you do not see a build up of Turkmen in Iran as you approach the border. In fact in the days approaching the border I only saw a single vehicle with Turkmen plates. Near virtually ever other border I have crossed there is a gradual shift.
Women were no longer in headscarves, they were all in a mix of brightly coloured traditional dresses or in modern western style jeans and t-shirts. We stopped to change money and eat food in Saraghs and found the Turkmen people were as friendly as the Iranians but in a much much more reserved away. Everyone that walked past would quietly walk over to us, shake our hands without saying a word and then walk off. As we ate one woman came out of her shop and tried to give us 5 manats (about $2)!
We made our way out of town with a few people stopping to make sure we knew exactly where we were going. As soon as the buildings of the town we were met by some of the flattest terrain we had ever seen…
The road continued in this exact same way although it varied in quality constantly. The wind picked up and we could see dust devils (little tornados) whipping up columns of sand an dancing across the road in the distance. Every now and again we saw some little lizards running along too…
As the wind got stronger it also got hotter blasting us in the face with sand that found it’s way into our eyes through any gap in our sunglasses and scarves. This hot arid air would dry out my nose and mouth in seconds after taking a mouthful of water offering very little respite. Eventually my water reached a very high temperature and become very unpleasant to drink. I commented to Simon and Basil that it was hot enough to make Tea with which I realised didn’t sound like too bad of an idea. I dumped a tea bag and some sugar into one of my bottles as an experiment and I have to say slightly cold sweet tea is far far more refreshing than hot water.
At points the winds and very bad road surface slowed us down to a mere 8kmph, walking speed. I was struggling a bit more than my riding partners due to my bike being more of a rugged road bike than their setups which are referred to as an “expedition” setup with a more relaxed riding position and smaller off-road wheels…
At 60km we crossed over an irrigation channel and in desperate search of refreshment dove in. We also collected some of the fairly dirty water from it for filtering later on in the day as we were getting through our stocks of water fairly fast…
After another 10km we called it a day. It made sense to spend our second night in Mary which was 110km or so away and from each of our experience in Iran we found that the winds tended to be much better in the morning. We hit the road before 7am and in the cool still air made decent progres. In some places the road was so bad trucks had worn much better paths through the shrubs away from the road…
We climbed a large old bridge which took us over the Karakum canal, one of the longest irrigation canals on earth at 1,375km in length, and gave us some intimidating views of the road we were following disappearing to the horizon through pure flat nothingness…
When we finally rejoined the main road I asked the first person I saw, a young boy on a bike, where the nearest shop was (My Russian once again becoming useful) and he pointed to a building just down the road over a bridge. We limped to it and were quickly knocking back ice cold Pepsis and our first can of beer each for 6 weeks despite it being 9am.
I noticed I had absolutely no appetite and really struggled to force any food down and pedalled off towards Mary after just a few oranges. I was feeling really weak on the bike and was relieved to stop in a cafe after 40km as there had been nowhere to stop in the shade before this in the boiling hot 40 degree plus sun.
We waited for two hours for the worst of the heat to pass and during this time my appetite did not improve despite being aware of my lack of energy. I managed to force myself to eat a litre of ice cold yoghurt and felt much better.
The rest of the road to Mary was a haze of me looking at the road and struggling to keep going, about 15km out I felt like my blood sugar was crashing worse than I have ever felt before and rolled into a shop. I downed a litre of Fanta and ate an ice cream which perked me right back up but quite rightly also made me feel really sick.
After 10km of energy filled riding my sugar levels crashed hard again and after stopping found I could barely stand and had to lay on the floor to let a wave of nausea and weakness pass. This wasn’t simply low blood sugar it felt like illness but nothing like I’ve ever had before. This did not bode well for crossing the country in 5 days.
I knew we were 5km from a hotel in the centre of Mary and I knew I needed to be there as fast as possible. I pulled myself back onto the bike, kept rolling, and the second we were outside the hotel I was on the ground again struggling to find the strength to standup and go through the check in process.
We got to our room, which seemed to take an eternity due to slow moving staff and a dodgy lift, and I was horrified when I looked in the mirror. My face looked like a skull, my cheeks and eyes had sunk into my head and there were massive black rings around my eyes. Every muscle was beginning to cramp, which indicates that this was all being caused be dehydration, but this didn’t make sense due to having drunk nearly 20 litres in the last 36 hours and consuming plenty of the required salts.
I knew I needed to eat if I stood a chance of recovering overnight but still had an incredible feeling of nausea. I had an unpleasant ice cold shower which exacerbated the cramping. The worst being when I bent over to pickup up the shower head from the floor of the bath all of my abdominal muscles went into cramp causing me to collapse in agony.
I lay in bed unable to nap and then headed out with Basil and Simon to try and eat. We found a place selling shashlik (Lamb skewers) and even though I found the first bite delicious I struggled to swallow. As soon as the food hit my stomach the nausea returned intensely.
I excused my self returning to the hotel with the rest of my dinner wrapped up and spent the best part of an hour forcing myself to eat it all before sleeping for 12 hours straight.
In the morning I looked and felt better but was still absolutely drained. Basil stepped onto the balcony and mercifully declared the wind was in our favour. I had decided in the night that there was no way I could make it if the wind was against me in my current state. The Hotel Sanjan in Mary is right next to the Train station and I knew it was my last chance to take the easy way out. If I continued by bike and had a problem I would have to rely on hitch-hiking to get out of the country on time. At least the hotel balcony gave a nice spot to appreciate the cities Communist architecture in all of it’s glory…
We went to change money in the bank but were instead shown into the back of a van which had been furnished as a compact office where we were given a better exchange rate than the banks had offered. We went in search of breakfast were I forced more food down myself. I’d found that oranges were still fairly palatable and ate them with bread to try and get some carbs in me.
Me made our way out of the city and caught a view of one of the countries many gold statues of it’s former President Niyazov. Niyazov was one of the last ‘great’ dictators in the vain of Saddam Hussein and Colonel Gaddafi. If you have seen the Sacha Baron Cohen film ‘The Dictator’, and found the joke were the fictitious dictator renames various things throughout his country after himself, you may be interested to find this actually happend in Turkmenistan…
Niyazov renamed numerous things after himself, his mother, his dog and also a book he wrote. His other eccentricities include banning smoking in the country when his doctor advised him that he needed to quit so that everyone had to give up with him. Strangely he also decided to rebrand gold teeth, a traditional status symbol in Turkmenistan, as unsightly. This led to many highly skilled people struggling to find work due to having what had until recently been a good indicator to their success and wealth. These days though you still see many men and women in the country proudly showing off their full sets of gold teeth, they used to one of the top wedding gifts for a newly married women.
After a glorious 30km being carried by the wind we stopped to force down more food, Basil and Simon were also struggling to eat but not as badly as I was. It was at this point I needed to decide if I wanted to do the 15km detour to see the ancient Silk Road city of Merv, once one of the worlds greatest cities and later the site of the worlds single largest execution. I went for it rationalising that I might as well at least see something in the country if I am struggling so hard, I was determined that I would still make it across by bike.
Quick History lesson, in 1221, Tolui, one of Genghis Khan’s sons was sent to punish the people of Merv for refusing to pay tax to the Mongols. The Khan Klan are renowned in history for their brutality and Tolui was considered the most brutal of Ghengis’ sons. He ordered his men to execute the entire population of the city in a single day, all 300,000 adults and children.
We had to ride into the wind to reach Merv and shocked by the entrance fees and the extra fees to take photos we snook a couple of photos of the Sultan Sanjar mausoleum…
And the large Kyz-Kala…
I headed back off to highway ahead of the other guys keen to ride at a slower pace for a longer time to make up the distance. On the way out of Bayramly I was shouted at by everyone to take a differant road. None of this made sense as the GPS on my phone showed I was on a direct road through the desert and their directions would force me south around the bypass adding distance. I decided enough people were insisting this so took their advice but was worried Basil and Simon may end up on a differant road so I put in my best effort to reach the point where the two routes re merged to that we would run into each.
The greenery fell away and sand dunes begun to emerge with greater winds. This was the real Karakum desert. The road we had hit before was just a warm up. Fortunately the wind was still mostly a help with a slight tailwind with a bit of crosswind that served to cool me down.
As I pushed on weakly to the rejoining of the roads I was happy to see Basil and Simons silhouettes in the distance a few km’s back behind me on the road I was on. I pressed on and when they caught up explained they had received the same treatment regarding road choice as I had. The locals concerns seemed to be valid when we finally reached the point where the roads should of re joined and found no site of the road we had planned to take.
We decided to take a break when we spotted a small farm nestled in some trees and asked the staff if they had any water to wash ourselves as we were covered in sand at this point. They escorted us to an irrigation channel and were initially confused when we declined their offer of a bucket and chose instead to strip to our cycling shorts and climb in.
After more food we pressed on and that’s when things got tough. The wind changed into a huge crosswind which got stronger and stronger. Initially it was quite beautiful, little fingers of golden dust dancing across the road…
But this quickly turned into hell as our skin was sand blasted and visibility began to drop. Basil’s GPS marked a town in 10km and we pressed on to find shelter. I was beginning to get seriously weak at this point and will be eternally grateful for Simon and Basil riding between me and the wind giving me the respite I needed to get the distance covered.
The town didn’t seem to exist but instead there was a small cafe. We asked if we could sleep on the floor and were told we were welcome until 11pm when they must lockup. I took this opportunity and then managed to eat a big bowl of Plov, a local rice dish with meat and potatoes, and we setup camp using the cafe as wind block.
In the morning I was finally starting to improve. I was still shattered but feeling much more like myself. I made instant noodles for breakfast and found that despite my lack of appetite I could happy eat heaps of the stuff, this was a very good discovery for me.
We rode on with anticipation as today was the start of a big desert stretch where we did not know if we could re-supply for 200km or so. We reached the final hut selling water and food by the arch marking the start of Lebap province…
You can just make out the hut to the left of the arch in the above photo. The lady running it proceeded to savagely rip as off as both she and we knew we had no choice. $2 for 1.5 litres of water really really stings when you buy 10 litres each. I can normally buy 10 packs of noodles for $1 but here had to fork out a dollar a pack. The lyric “This is capitalism in action…” sprung to mind from a song written by one of my friends, Richie Blitz.
We rode our heavy bikes into the desert. I won’t bore you with the details of riding 100km on a straight desert rode but it involved stopping and cooking noodles 3 times in one day to keep myself going. I discarded some stale bread only for a desert squirrel to emerge from nowhere and comically run off with it…
As we sat eating lunch on the surface of what had been the old road a solitary car appeared on the horizon who for some reason was choosing to drive on this mess rather than the fresh tarmac mere feet away. He could easily see us from 5km away but decide to slam his brakes on at the very last second nearly crashing into Simon’s bike and shouted in Russian that this was for Cars. Basil must not have been having a good day as he simply began shouting at the man in emphatic french and pointed to what was clearly the road.
We pressed on and to our surprise spotted a roadside cafe. Keen to get something more refreshing than our now hot bottled water we pulled up to find it was closed. A lone man squatting outside said he’d phone the owner and we deiced to wait and see what happend.
During our 30 minute wait we all took turns peering in the window fantasising about the refrigerator of ice cold drinks. We had all become big fans of Lipton’s ice tea and seeing it just mere feet away led Basil to say something I immediately resonated with. His choice of wording had more to do with how French translates to English but I still thought it was a great statement;
“It is impossible for me to continue without Lipton’s Ice Tea”
That could be a great marketing slogan. Finally the owner turned up, let us in, and we downed three cans of the stuff each. It’s not cheap out here at a dollar a can but we didn’t care. There was a genuine feeling of need despite the fact we could’ve easily continued without it.
We reached the days goal of 100km which would leave us 92km to the border for the following day. I reckoned I had some more left in me despite my ever increasing fatigue so led the way with a plan to stop when I felt I had too. I set a goal in my head of 115km and and when I rolled over a hill to spot a truck stop at 113.5km it felt like fate.
We ran in, downed more Lipton’s ice tea and then set about cooking some food outside. My appetite finally began to return and I managed to eat a huge dinner of pasta, tuna and a mystery pasta sauce I bought in Mary that turned out to be absolutely delicious. My spirits lifted with the food and I nipped inside buying a 1.5 litre bottle of Turkmen beer for us to share. At $2 the beer out here was cheaper than the water. The beer was a real surprise, a heavy brown beer not too far from Leffe Brun.
As we ate we were surprised to see a big group of cyclists turn up on an odd assortment of what did not look like touring bikes. With my basic Russian we conversed and they explained they were doing a circuit of Turkmenistan and began to ask what we were doing. I explained our route and the restrictions of our 5 day transit visa and at this point they all began to thanks us for coming to their country despite the restrictions. It was really nice to have a few experiences like this to make our short difficult time in the country worth the effort…
We setup camp in the dunes in the desert behind the truck stop only to be kept awake by a dog barking throughout the entire night. Simon had a Dazer which is a Dog Tazer which works by emitting a very high frequency sound then tends to confuse dogs and stop them attacking. This worked a treat and would give us relief for maybe an hour or so. On top of this I was constantly awoken during the night when I noticed what appeared to be rats running across the canopy of my tent. I later realised they were most likely squirrels like the one I saw early. I reflected on how my standards have dropped during this trip that I didn’t particularly care about the animals.
We had another early start keen to make it to the border which closed at 4pm. We road 35km of the remaining 72km in a single burst to the centre of Turkmenabat passing some lazy camels along the way. It took me a second for the significance to kick in. I’ve seen camels before so I thought nothing special but then… I’ve cycled far enough from home to see wild camels. Quite a moment and we stopped to watch them slowly plod across the road in front of us in perfect silence…
We stopped for lunch 15km shy of the border and as I was making noodles a car turned up saying the road would soon be closed so the President could drive through. Whilst this would’ve been interesting our need to leave the country was the pressing point so we carried on reaching the border complex around 2pm.
Just before the compound a money changer got our attention with a free bottle of ice cold water, a very shrewd marketing technique, and we decided to change enough cash to get us through a few days in Uzbekistan. This is where the craziness begins. Until recently the largest banknote in Uzbekistan was the 1,000 som note which is worth $0.35. A 5,000 note has been issued but is not in wide spread use. Uzbekistan is not a poor or cheap country so this leads to everyone carrying around insane wads of cash.
Our $100 was quickly turned into a 5 inch thick wedge of notes which we then spent the best part of ten minutes checking it only to find they had only given us $60 worth. When we pointed this out we were quickly given the rest with a cheeky gold toothed smile from lady vendor and an extra bottle of ice cold water.
Off we went into the border complex with a celebratory moment that we had done it, five tough days across Turkmenistan. Exiting the country went fairly smoothly except for the lengthy checking of all of our bags. The reality of our lives on the road sank as we saw the expressions on the customs officers faces as they dug through some of our particularly disgusting luagge. Desert clothes that hadn’t been washed for a long time combined with bags of garbage that have been forgotten about for a day or two in the heat got us some looks but Simons kitchen bag, having recently suffered some broken rotten eggs, was handed back with a covered mouth without being searched.
Whilst waiting in custom we also ran into some Russian motorcycle tourists who had overstayed their Transit visa and were in the process of being deported. One of them spoke English and decided to alleviate his boredom by helping us get through quickly. Our European manner of being respectful to border guards doesn’t seem effective here, but his Russian method of shouting at them in angry sounding Russian saw us stamped out of the country fast. I thanked him and wished him a “Good Deportation”.
Over no mans land and into Uzbek customs we were given a quick quick with a thermometer to make sure we weren’t ill and then given some forms to ill in… in Russian. One of the guards helped us through the forms, his translations of a question to “Do you have any bad things?” where the form probably asked you to declare weapons and drugs got a chuckle from me.
We were back on the road and greeted by the first road sign since Iran (there are none in Turkmenistan at all, I recommend a GPS!) giving us some scary distances to cities we would be heading too…
We asked some guys at a construction camp if it was a good area to camp and emphatically told no due to the high snake population in the area. Bugger. Basil’s GPS showed a town in 25km and we pressed on with my fatigue rearing its ugly head again.
After 15km we reached Otol, a town not on the map and went in desperate search of something refreshing to drink and were horrified to find that it is not standard practice to refrigerate soft drinks in shops in this area.
We walked into one store to see a solitary bottle of Pepsi in a fridge. The shop keeper was shocked by our whoops of delight only to be even more shocked as we flailed around in despair when we realised the bottle was boiling hot as the fridge was not switched on.
Simon and I stopped at a kiosk selling knock off watered down pepsi for $0.10 a pint whilst Basil rode off only to return moments later screaming that he’d found a bar with draught beer. We dashed in and gasped with refreshment as we took our first sips.
The evening summer weather was beautiful and before we knew it we’d gotten through 4 pints each as well as me ordering two large servings of Burek, the local dumplings, now that my appetite had returned full force. My double dinner and four pints came to the grand total of about $4 (£2.50) and we realised our mistake that it was now dark, we were quite drunk as our tolerance was gone, and we had nowhere to sleep.
We slapped all the lights on our bikes and headed off down the hard shoulder looking for the first suitable campsite. I had a “What the hell am I doing moment” when I realised I was cycling tipsy down an Uzbek highway at night with two Frenchman who were imitating the sounds of the occasionally passing cars (fortunately there was almost no traffic).
We took the first turning on the right and spotted a farmhouse with a big porch out front. The owner popped his head out and we asked if it be ok for the three of us to sleep in the dirt under the tin roof, we had no desire to fumble with our tents. After a hushed conversation inside he ushered us in and showered us to some traditional mattresses on a wooden platform we could sleep on in his courtyard. I had a quick conversation in Russian with the guy and it seemed he was quite well off as he owned a 70 hectare cotton plantation, a big industry in Uzbekistan.
We were awoken in the morning by a cooked breakfast, of some of the best fried eggs I’ve ever had, cooked by the farmers wife and it struck me how this scenario would go down in England. Three visibly dirty foreigners turn up on bicycles outside your house at 8pm and ask if they can sleep under your porch. We’d be lucky not to get chased down the street.
Fuelled by our big breakfast and the knowledge that the comforts of Bukhara were only 65km away we powered off into the cool morning air managing to sleep stream behind a tractor at 35kmph for about twenty minutes…
Sadly the driver was not going all the way but gave us a huge smile and wave as he took his turn off and we raced on all the way to city centre. We rolled into the centre of this ancient silk road city and as the bus loads of European tourists marvelled at the sights of this ancient city we gawped at the first coffee shop we’d seen in months. A large group of American tourists, who didn’t seem to interested in what their guide had to say, came over to find out about us and ended up taking more photos of us than they did of the cities famous Minarets!
I’m taking 3 whole days off in Bukhara, my first real rest in about 6 weeks. I’ve weighed myself to find I lost 6kg’s in Turkmenistan, a worrying amount! I’m sorting that right out with a healthy diet of burgers and beer which are thankfully in plentiful supply and feel justified as today is my 26th birthday :). I have a months worth of cycling through Central Asia lined up in front of me along the silk road and through beautiful mountains, I’m looking forward to it!
If you’ve enjoyed reading this then checkout my site 121degrees for more info and subscribe to this blog for more entries along the way!
I also want to divert the interest this trip generates towards helping out a charity that made a big differance to some friends of mine. Samuels Children Charity are a Lewes based charity providing support to families throughout the UK who are currently affected by childhood cancer. I hope to raise the sum of £5,000 from people who hear about this trip to help them continue their work, and to also keep me motivated throughout the challenges this trip will provide! If you’d like to see how the fundraising is going (or even better would like too donate!) then click here.