12 – 13 October, 2015 – The train arrived almost on time. Our bikes had to be loaded into the luggage car at the back while our beds were at the very front in carriage 17, almost one kilometer away. By the time we had loaded our bikes almost all passengers had boarded and we were running along the train to reach our carriage. In the train we shared one compartment with 5 other people and once more slept badly. At around 9am the next morning we arrived in Ashgabat, the capital of Turkmenistan and the weirdest town we’ve ever been to. It is cleaner than Singapore and most buildings are from marble adorned with gold. As per the president’s order new cars have to be ordered in white. Shattered as we were we treated ourselves to the most delicious breakfast in weeks for 40$ together at the Sofitel hotel – we must have been the filthiest guests they’ve ever had, not having been able to shower let alone wash ourselves for the last five days. We even bothered to ask for a room at a discounted rate but the hotel was fully booked. Johan secretly took a few pictures of the Presidential Palace and the Parliament – which is forbidden and can get you in serious trouble – before we took off to look for another hotel. 30 minutes later we checked in at the 5-Star Grand Turkmen Hotel, another treat where they also wouldn’t give us any discount.
We couldn’t wait to take a shower but first things first: we hand-washed all our clothes, the laundry service with 5$ per piece was a bit over the top for us. It took us almost two hours to get ready for our own extensive cleanse, I had to shampoo my hair four times before it felt clean and dark black water kept running down my body. It took us much less time to make the room look like a complete mess, because we couldn’t dry our laundry on the balcony for there were no hooks to fasten the washline. By 4pm we were ready for a stroll through the center of town to take a few more forbidden photos of the ugliest and largest statues and buildings we have ever seen. What we liked though was their huge Russian market right next to our hotel. We could buy everything we were longing for: cheese, salami, olives, fresh fruit, the most delicious almonds and other nuts we’ve ever had and Johan even tried real Beluga caviar twice. The seller started to offer him the caviar at a price of 50$ per 100g and while Johan continued to decline she was down at 20$ within 30 seconds.
We had a few more jobs to do and went back to our hotel – without the caviar. Thanks to the bathtub Johan found the punctures in our mattresses and fixed them the same evening. I continued cleaning our panniers including content, repacked everything and by 9pm we went to bed exhausted from the last days’ events.
At exactly 6:30am we got our ordered breakfast: one cup of tea and one cup of coffee for the both of us, pancakes, rice porridge, omelette and cakes. Breakfast was served from 8am only but they offered room service to us as we wanted to leave early. However, we had to exactly order what we wanted without seeing a menu. We made clear that we needed a lot of food as we were cycling and with a big sigh and a very unhappy face she took our order. Service culture hasn’t arrived in Turkmenistan as yet. By 7.30am we were on our bikes as planned and cycled out of town in the direction of the border.
After around 15km we met Christian, the Frenchman, again and exchanged our border experiences. Only 2km later we surprisingly arrived at the first border crossing. An unfriendly soldier took our passports and told us to take the bus to the customs office 35km up the hill. We tried to convince him that we could cycle, but we weren’t allowed. About an hour later we arrived at the checkpoint, had to show our passports another four times and got stamped out of Turkmenistan.
Turkmenistan has been one of the weirdest experiences ever. People were either very shy or reserved towards us. The wealthy country is dominated by the huge Karakum desert and there are little sites to visit at least on the route we took. We were glad to leave and were looking forward to our fifth country – Iran, known for its unmatched hospitality and a favourite amongst a lot of touring cyclists.