Wednesday, 22 July 2015 07:01

Passing the border took just over an hour. There were many police, customs officers and other bored looking officials stood round waiting to pounce on an exotic tourist. Fortunately I crossed the border with some French guys so the officials had 2 other people who they could victimise by scrutinising every last item in their luggage. Some foreigners have even had all their photos (of Turkmenistan) deleted here, so I counted myself lucky that at least that didn't happen to me.

On the other side of the border area, the Uzbek customs demand that you write a list of all valuables which you bring into the country. If you have more than this when you exit, it may be confiscated. I noted all my electronics and only as an afterthought remembered the bike!

By the time I left the border the temperature was in the mid 40s and the sun beating down. The idea of spending the rest of the day here waiting for evening and cooler weather did not appeal. I was in need of some decent food and a good nights sleep. I therefore did not pass up the chance of a lift down to Bukhara.

Despite the suffering in the desert, Turkmenistan had been a great experience. For sure there is a certain 'show' given to the few tourists that venture here and there is no doubt that the Turkmen see a different side to life here and have many personal restrictions. Even exiting the country I was ushered to the front of the emigration line - nice for me but less so for the poor locals standing in the brutal heat. The people had been kind and inquisitive without being rude and were seemingly happy to see someone from the otherwise closed outside world in their country.

Wednesday, 22 July 2015 06:29

I left Mary soon after 5 and just before sunrise. The cycling was perfect with a quiet road and moderate temperatures. The UNESCO site of Merv was certainly worth visiting and as the buildings are somewhat spread out, it was ideal on a bike. At 7am there was also nobody around including ticket sellers!) and I had the place to myself. The road through the oasis is perfect asphalt and the lush greenery contrasts with the desert around it.

After a quick breakfast in Bayramly, It was time to continue. The main road is in reasonable condition and wide so the few passing cars and trucks were no issue.

The fun cycling experience however soon ended as I reached the desert again. A strong headwind kicked up which made the going really tough and by this time the sun was beating down intensely. I checked the Garmin and the temperature was reading 50.5C and it was still only 10:45. The wind could only be compared to a hot hair dryer and to make things more unpleasant, fine grains of sand were being blasted into me. My body was totally dry as any sweat was immediately being evaported. I had drunk over 2 liters of water in the last hour and still I was gulping continually more.

I took shelter with some watermelon sellers at the side of the road who offered me unlimited supplies of their wares. They told me the town I was aiming for was now just 5km away.

Being aware that it was not going to get any cooler, I headed off back into the wind. The next 7km (not the promised 5!) were some of the toughest I can remember and I needed 2 stops before I reached the sanctuary of an air conditioned truck stop. Above the restaurant were large rooms with mats and pillows on the floor where you could lie down. The air conditioners ran continuously which was typical here as people do not pay for their electricity. My hosts in Ashgabat had also continually left their lights on inside.

The break was perfect and the restaurant offered some decent soup, bread and melon. It was mid afternoon and I had 2 days left on my transit visa. The wind was still blowing and even to walk outside to the toilet was a painful experience. The family running the truck stop took me as a guest and we drank tea in their special super air conditioned room. Conversation was in russian thanks to my small travel dictionary. I assessed the options and realised that other than riding through the night, the remaining 250km were not going to be possible by bike in the remaining time in these conditions. The owner hooked me up with a truck and so my onward travel plans were now sorted.

I expected to the trip to Turkmenabat to be around 3 hours by truck, but the lift turned into an all night epic journey. I had the luxury of the bed behind the 2 drivers in the cab. Except for the lack of air conditioning and my sweaty body sticking to the mattress this was comfortable enough. We were fully loaded with bottles of coca cola which must have been too much for the truck. We drove at a maximum of 35km/hr and every few minutes the hazard warning lights were turned on and the co driver got out his torch to check the bulging sides to ensure no cargo was being lost. We then had a longer break due to collapsed suspension. "Machine broken" the Turmen driver told me. This was turning into quite a desert adventure but probably just daily business for these guys.

Finally after an hour or so of wrenching and a further few hours driving, we arrived in Turkmenabat just as the sun was rising. Turkmenabat is a fairly large (for Turkmenistan) city and spread out. After being refused to get a room at the hotel there, I jumped in a taxi (all Turkmen drivers are unofficial taxis) and headed to the border. The desert, wind and sand had really broken me. The sky was clear and it was setting up to be another baking hot day.

Wednesday, 22 July 2015 05:38

The trip to Turkmenistan was smooth, immigration fairly easily and the bike box turned up in perfect condition with only a few rips. The stories of being searched at the airport, asked for bribes and generally being given a hard time did not at least for me come true. As there seems to be no online booking system for hotels in Ashgabat, I stayed in a private room via airbnb.

My host met me at 4am after a short taxi ride from the airport and it was fun to talk to my first Turkmen person and learn about some of the crazy rules in the country. Ashgabat is known as the white city as practically every building is white. It is full of impressive architecture, statues and fountains, but outside of the immediate center it is like a ghost town - the huge boulevards are practically empty with just the occasional car passing. It is also one of the few cities in the world which makes Switzerland look dirty - everything in the city is immaculately clean and tidy and drivers can even be fined for having dirty cars.

As I only had a 5 day transit visa, I took the train to Mary which left punctually at 3pm. It turned out my ticket was for a 4 person compartment which I shared with 3 local guys. The bike was tucked up safely in the luggage wagon and my local travelling companions were fun, shared their food and passed hours flicking through pictures of Switzerland on my tablet. It was a pleasant way to travel and left a further good impression of Turkmenstan and its people.

In Mary I found some dump of a hotel near the station. It had a bed and wallpaper hanging of the walls. The lino flooring was ripped and curling up at the sides. It served its purpose though and within a few minutes of putting my sleeping bag on the bed I was probably snoring.

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