Through the Turkmenistan Desert

Distance: 312km (2744km in total)
Distance: 312km (2744km in total)

8 – 11 October, 2015 – After having passed our passports to the fourth Uzbek soldier the barrier opened and we were in No Man’s Land between Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan. One hurdle overcome, the next could wait until the following day, the start of our Turkmen visas. Suddenly we heard someone calling us, we turned and saw Lukas, a German cyclist we met for the first time on the Pamir-Highway and later on in Dushanbe and Bukhara. He was on his way home from China where he had studied the last three years. Lukas had been stuck in noman’s land for five days now due to visa issues and was hoping to be able to leave the coming day. When we met last we were joking exactly about this, as he was relying on an email from the Turkmen embassy who promised him that he would get his visa directly at the border. From French cyclists we met the day before we knew he was still there and had bought some food for him. Together we went to the café to catch up on his latest news. We ordered drinks but had no Sums left and the owner would by no means accept Dollars. Lukas offered us to pay for us but we refused when we learned that it would cost more than twice the usual price. A friendly Iranian trucker who had watched us for a while called the waiter back, gave him money and we got our two drinks. The famous Iranian hospitality doesn’t only start in Iran but hundreds of miles before! Later another Iranian trucker invited us to sleep in the back of his truck and together with Lukas and the two Iranians we enjoyed tea and fresh watermelon next to the truck. We learned that our drink donor had been stuck between the borders for 13 days now because the weight of his truck didn’t match the declared weight on his papers.

Making ourselves a bed even at the weirdest places - this time the empty inside of a truck
Making ourselves a bed even at the weirdest places – this time the empty inside of a truck

At 8am the following morning we stood in front of the closed Turkmen border barrier. The soldiers were still busy with cleaning and watering the road so we had to wait another 30 minutes before we were let in. Our passports got registered and we cycled to the customs building where we had to fill in a Turkmen form as they didn’t have any English forms. Nobody would really explain to us how to complete it so we filled in what we knew and moved on to the next hurdle. After having paid a 24-Dollar fee, three officers sitting behind a desk were waiting for us and our forms. Johan was first and one of the officers complained about the incomplete form and started to explain how to fill it in correctly. I went there as well to speed up the process but got told off harshly by the officer. Johan then had to explain to me what I needed to fill in. When it was my turn, the same officer looked at my form and started to complain heavily in Turkmen. First he asked about the third currency on my form – I had entered Turkmen Manat, but he asked if I had Spanish money with me. I looked a bit confused and answered that I had Euros with me, which is also the Spanish currency and which I had declared one line above. He looked back at me without saying anything and suddenly started angrily crossing out everything I had written on my form and yelling “wrong, wrong, fill in new”. I looked puzzled not understanding what had happened and he continued pointing at what I had written and what Johan had written until I got it: I had to fill in the form with a blue pen, not as I had done with a black pen. Once that issue was solved another young soldier started searching our luggage. We again had to open all panniers. While doing so, another soldier looked at my bike starting to touch everything including clicking through my bike computer. I got quite upset but kept putting on my fake smile until we were out of the building.

At 9.30am we finally got going. We were anxious to cover a lot of miles that day, our transit visas would only allow us to stay in Turkmenistan for five days. The wind was heavily blowing, for about 10km against, but then the road turned and we were flying with the wind. We would now cycle until Mary through the desert and we were told by other cyclists that there aren’t many tea houses to fill up our water bottles. Hence, we carried 21 liters of water together only to discover later that there was a tea house at least every 50km. Despite the late start we were able to cover over 120km and pitched our tent in the middle of the desert behind some sand dunes. The wind had stopped and we didn’t bother about the rain cover for our tent. Little did we know. Shortly before the alarm went off at 5am it started to rain. After the third bad night’s sleep – our mattresses would still deflate despite all our prayers – we quickly packed up our sleeping bags and prepared breakfast when the rain stopped only to begin much harder by the time we were packing up our remaining stuff. At 7am we were finally ready – heavily delayed by the rain. We pushed our bikes out of the sand, carried our panniers up the sand dunes, loaded our bikes, took off and stopped. Johan had his first puncture since our departure. Swearing, he fixed the problem and by 7.30am we finally got going to take on today’s challenge. The wind had changed and we were now pushing against a slight headwind. Right at lunch time we arrived at a fancy hotel in the middle of nowhere and lunched in a yurt while we dried our tent. We continued slowly on undulating roads through a desolate desert and covered almost 130km.

Desert cycling - there is not much to get distracted, it's a monotonous and strenuous effort
Desert cycling – there is not much to get distracted, it’s a monotonous and strenuous effort
Even though the gradients weren't steep the signs would always indicate 12%
Even though the gradients weren’t steep the signs would always indicate 12%
Tough surface to cycle on
Tough surface to cycle on
Reaching a settlement right before sunset
Reaching a settlement right before sunset
Yummy but far too expensive dinner
Yummy but far too expensive dinner

After another bad night for the same reasons, another puncture, this time at my bike, we reached Mary the next day where we would take the train to Ashgabat. It rained most of the morning – this year’s first rain and for the first time we cycled in full rain gear! We are really lucky with the elements. The nice lady at the train station who didn’t speak a word English would sell us two train tickets for the next train that day, but told us “no baggage”. “What, no baggage?” was Johan’s response, “of course we have baggage!” The lady had to make a few phone calls and in the meantime we were surrounded by curious Turkmens who tried to help us by translating things we already knew. Around 10 minutes later we got tickets for a train at midnight and our bikes were allowed to travel with us. It was only 2pm and we had a lot of time to kill. So we went to the local museum which was described by our travel guide as being excellent. We were the only two visitors that afternoon and all the time accompanied by a bored woman in a beautiful green dress who again didn’t speak a word English. Her job most likely was to make sure we wouldn’t take anything with us. The most amazing part of the exhibition was the first room we entered: approximately 100 photoshopped pictures showcasing the president on a horse, in his SUV, in front his 40-meter motor yacht, in a race car, on a tractor, playing tennis, football, polo, plucking cotton, reading a book, doing business, cycling and what have you.

Beautiful signs to indicate village names
Beautiful signs to indicate village names

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The guard at a horse race track
A golden horse for the horseman
A golden horse for the horseman
Arriving in Mary
Arriving in Mary
In Turkmenistan everything is big - in the back you see the golden statue of the former president that you can find everywhere in the country
In Turkmenistan everything is big – in the back you see the golden statue of the former president that you can find everywhere in the country
A huge mosque in Mary
A huge mosque in Mary
Students preparing for a party
Students preparing for a party and the president always at the forefront
Killing time before the train leaves
Killing time before the train leaves

2 thoughts on “Through the Turkmenistan Desert

  1. Why do I think of FedEx automation tools when reading about your forms?! Thank you so much for taking us on your trip and the amazing pictures.

    Like

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