July 26, 2013 Bukhoro, UZ, Uzbekistan

Turkmenistan

by Christian , published on November 25, 2013

distance: 741.06km
duration: 65h 16min

After the border

Ashgabat, the capital of Turkmenistan, greeted us with a perfect 6-lane highway, largely devoid of vehicles.

The road from Bajgiran border led us right onto the main boulevard to the center, pompous white marble residential buildings to the left, Archabil park with it's gigantomanic monuments to the right.

You probably already know the story of eccentric Saparmurat Niyazov, better known as "TurkmenbaĊŸy" - Self-appointed leader of the Turks.

He was the former dictator of Turkmenistan, widely know for his eccentric cult of personality with golden statues of himself spread all over Turkmenistan. Renaming weekdays and months after members of his family, his Book Ruhnama which was mandatory to read to get a driving license or score a government job(And if you read it 3 times, you would get into heaven, Niyazov claimed he had made a deal with god on this). All libraries outside of Ashgabat where closed, as he reasoned the only books Turkmen need to read are the Koran and Ruhnama.

In 2005 he closed all Hospitals outside of Ashgabat, the sick should come to the capital for treatment. There where a lot more crazy decrees during his presidency(Read the Wikipedia-article for more) - some of them have been revoked when Niyazov died in 2006.

Turkmenistan still is a totalitarian society, no opposition, no free elections or free press, posters of the "heroic" new president all over the city. Unfortunately we didn't have a chance to see television, we've been told the propaganda is very entertaining.

Every 50 meter where policemen with enormously large peaked caps, who asked us to move on when we stopped and to not eat in front of a supermarket(We ignored the orders of the little fellow in his ridiculous uniform and he got very mad at us, shouted and called his colleagues until we left after 5 minutes). When i tried to take a picture of the presidents palace, one of the guys immediately ran over to me and started to shout "No pictures, no pictures". I just smiled and told him i was just a tourist, but i was still to intimitated to take a proper image of the palace after that.

Not all buildings are covered in white marble

We had planned to take the train to Tejen and cycle for 2 nights in the desert to Mary, from where we wanted to continue by public transport.

Getting train schedule information at the station was next to impossible - there was no public announcement and the personnel at the ticket counters refused to help us(Now that was surprising for us, after the incredible hospitality we were used to from Iran). Even the few english speaking locals we asked could not get us a proper answer. After 2 hours we where lucky enough to talk with an english speaking policemen, who finally could tell us the train departure time the next morning.

It was already dark, so we tried to find a hotel. We visited 4 different hotels, but all of them pretended to be full. We could hardly believe that, but had no other choice to cycle to the outskirts of the town to set up our tent in a field.

Getting a ticket for Tejen the next morning was another adventure. There was a large crowd of people in front of the counter, i "queued" up at the end, but soon realized people where stepping in front of me. I ended up pushing with my elbows and body like everyone else to keep my position in the crowd. This was nuts!

Squeezed in between large, mature women in colourful dresses(But with a mean attitude), i successfully managed to get to the counter window, where a surprisingly friendly lady handed me two "lux"-tickets for the train(Extremely cheap, a few dollars for 200km).

The train was slow but fine. Together with us in our compartment was an elderly women with her 4 grandchildren - offering us watermelon and bread.

The heat in Tejen was like a furnace, we spent most of the afternoon in an airconditioned russian restaurant until it was bearable outside.

At dusk we started cycling towards Hauz-Han/Mary, the road of the transit-route to Uzbekistan was the opposite of what we had seen in Ashgabat - broken and bulged tarmac, ruts as deep as 20cm. Trucks and cars where merely creeping along(Which was good for us, as there was a lot of traffic), it was flat, but we couldn't go faster than 12km/h due to the extremely bad road.

We rode into the night, the temperature had dropped significantly from 45°C to below 30°C and we could even bypass a part of the bad road by going on the embankment of the unfinished new road next to it(Free of traffic).

The transit-route to Uzbekistan is very much alive at night - there was a night market where the farmers tried to sell mountains of melons. When we stopped at a farm building to ask for water, we found ourselves surrounded by a large group of young women(and a few men), who where very excited about our appearance and immediately summoned us for a group-photo session(Which was rather difficult in the barely lit courtyard).

Nightly melon-market

Asking for water at a farm resulted in an extended fotosession

We had setup our tent in the dust next to an empty farm-building and the next day, despite getting up before sunrise, we where far to generous with the time spent on our breakfast procedure and started cycling after 8:00.

Also we had underestimated the distance left till Hauz-Han, so we where still on the road in the blazing heat at 11:00.

In the morning i had put a full water bottle in my pannier but totally forgot about it, so we ended up running out of water, with still 15km to go. Our nerves where so frayed we even started a quarrel about the lack of water, but after a few angry arguments we concluded that we better stop fighting, as the effort to argue took too much of the little energy we had left.

Cycling at 50°C drains your energy very fast, that's a lesson we've learned the hard way.

We where close to collapsing when we finally arrived at the Hauz-Han. We spent the day trying to sleep in a Yurt at a restaurant, but it was impossible to doze off, with droves of flies eager to suck on our salty skin and our clothes sticking to our sweaty bodies.

We set off again after sunset, stocked up, fed and having had a refreshing bath in the irrigation canal near the huge artificial water reservoir of Hauz-Han.

Unfortunately the Somsa we had eaten didn't agree with Daniela and she soon complained about stomach cramps. But we had no other option but to go on and she bravely fought throughout the night. At 3am we where both finished, and we stopped near a pile of sand, which had been banked up every 50m on the new road to prevent cars and trucks from using it.

The sleep only lasted for 2 hours and trucks where blaring by on the old road, just 5 meters from our heads. But the air was cool and the tarmac had retained the heat of the day, warming our backs. And despite the exposed conditions i felt very safe, feeling protected by the pile of sand next to us.

It was a deep and refreshing sleep, the best i have had for a long time!

We reached Mary at 9:00 in the morning and spent most of the day waiting for the bus to Turkmenabat. When it arrived a half hour late at 15:30, the driver wouldn't take our bicycles. We where furious!

But we where lucky again, for 40$ we hired a minivan, large enough for our bikes, luggage and us. The remaining 270km of desert where spent in the comfort of cushioned seats in the airconditioned vehicle.

Through the Karakum Desert by car

Outskirts of Turkmenabat

Amu Darya, it's source is in the Pamir, Xinjiang and Afghanistan and it used to feed the Aral Lake. We would meet it again a month later on the Pamir Highway.

In Farab we where invited by farmers to set up our tent in their garden. It was quite a serene scene - they had chicken, turkey, rabbits, a cow and a donkey. It all seemed like a paradise to us, fresh food in abundance and so much green vegetation(We had just crossed the mighty Amu Darya and there's plenty of water in Farab). The family we stayed with appeared to be genuinely happy with their simple life.

It was the last day of our 5-day transit visa, so we had to leave despite their requests to stay for another night

Border procedures where quicker this time and we entered Uzbekistan at noon. We didn't get far though - both of us where exhausted, and having plenty of time on our Uzbekistan-visa, we decided to go for a swim with the locals in the nearby irrigation channel. In the end, we spend the night there, just 5km behind the Border.