Category — Turkmenistan
daily distance: 124km
total distance: 8797km
riding time: 10h
When I set out from the construction crew trailer the wind was blowing as fiercely as it had the night before. This was just before 6am and it was not a pretty sign. I had hoped for some dying down, but that was not to be. It also meant another day of fighting wind, sand and traffic blowing the latter my way. Just as the night before the wind was blowing the sand towards me.
I had 25km to go to the next Kafe and so I tried to compartmentalize the distance, knowing that it would be the only way for me to make it manageable. This is of course all a head thing … The road was in decent shape, so that helped. But it also headed directly into the wind. The result was not pretty and made for slow progress throughout the day.
I was ready to bag it and get into a car several times. “You can somehow get through this” was something that a little voice kept telling me in the back of my head. And I am glad it won the day. Once at the Kafe I did some vile breakfast, fought off the screwing over that was about to happen and moved on (the usual triple the price and the like). Different predictions for how long it was to take didn’t help the mental game and it turned out to be longer than either prediction. But there was always something to keep things moving, I saw a landmark and went for that, did other mindgames, just to get my mind off of that damn wind.
Behind me …
and in front of me …
Turkmenabad greeted me with a giant factory which was visible very early on. Good thing that chimney. The road in was atrocious (full of holes one could say or the chicken finds a bit of asphalt would be another) and also fully into the wind. There wasn’t a whole lot to appeal to the senses and so I moved on after trying out some “cocktail” and the local version of soft drinks. Essentially some syrup over which the vendor pours sparkling water. A bit on the dangerous side for me, but I wanted to try what people had here. Good flavors once you get past the radioactive colors.
Here is how a construction worker explained the way out of Turkmenabad to me …
On my way to the border I met two motorcyclists from Iran on their way to Shanghai …
More wind fun was in the offing. The road zig-zagged like crazy, changed directions often and drove me nuts. Once going north, it went south and then all over the map. The final 10km were again fully into the wind. I decided that at this point I had paid my dues to the gods of wind. I can only hope things improve from here.
The border crossing was relatively easy. No one harassed me - apart from some searching on the Uzbek side. It is a bit more high-tech than the Turkmen one. They wanted to search all my bags. Go ahead, be my guest. They chose the clothes pannier and I happily showed all the worn biking shorts and the like. After a few items I was told to close the bag and they moved everything into an x-ray machine. Some pointing here and there (tent poles) and then it was over. Lots of paperwork to follow and I was out. Or so I thought. More checking of papers again - making little sense to except to keep some officials happy. Here is the nomansland between the two border posts.
Nothing had changed. Of course nothing would. The wind was still the same. The road slightly better though. And why should it. I left one country, heading for another. The man-made fences may be one thing, but nature has a different way of dealing with things.
After leaving the border post, I was checked again after only 1km - and someone asked for money. I refused. It was a bit of back and forth. You are military, fine. Then check my papers, but leave me alone. I was a bit angry and wasn’t too happy about the next unofficial checking coming up soon enough. Just said hello and moved on.
The wind still in my face, I covered another 20km on the Uzbek side becoming a stoic and after being refused to pitch (essentially they asked for $20), I found a wonderful place. The family is great, I am sleeping outside and feel privileged yet again.
Some may wonder why I didn’t use my five days on my Turkmen visa. I sort of ran through the country. I would have rather spent more time. The little glimpse I had was not enough, but the hospitality was wonderful and I was treated just as good if not better than in other places. They just need to get rid of this stupid rule of 5-days transit visas. Essentially, it came down to not wanting to be late. The wind could have really pinned me down in some place. I just didn’t want that to happen. And so it went. Had Turkmenabad been a bit more inviting, I would have stayed. But it wasn’t.
On the way out, I also was witness to how corruption works in this country. Very openly. At a checkpoint, people just give money to the police, are then free to move on and the money was split right before my eyes. Kind of interesting.
To end on a lighter note, here is some evening serenity …
August 11, 2008 No Comments
daily distance: 120km
total distance: 8673km
riding time: 9h
If you wonder about the Superman reference, please be patient. I shall explain. You will get to meet him.
I got up at 5am and moved out. Tested the wind beforehand. Yes, it’s still there. Darn. The first 20km were great though. I was riding before sunrise, Haendel’s Sarabande was in my ear phones as the sun went up (perfect shuffle effect there) and things seemed to be moving quite well.
Then the wind came back. It had died down over night, but came back with a vengeance. It was ghastly. It was right in my face, moving about 30 degrees, 15 one way, 15 the other. It didn’t take away the beauty of the first part, but put a damper on the second. It seemed to be full out war. I knew that I was getting into some serious territory, had expected heat and other nuisances and was quite apprehensive about it all. This wind was something different. Always in your face. Always. Compartmentalizing the distance was one way to go, but it only gets you so far when you don’t seem to be moving at all.
I was lucky though as Superman showed up. I was just thinking that it would be great to have superpowers and blow the wind away. Here he is …
I had seen a slow truck approaching from behind me as I was on good roads. Tried to draft and got right behind it. It worked quite well - as a matter of fact, it worked like a charm. Here is Superman now … forget that you ever thought he was red and blue, his colors are actually yellow and blue. It was pure delight - I just had to be careful not to slip out of the draft. If I did, I would have had little chance of catching up.
Superman needed to take a break and I moved on on my own. After some more grueling kms, the first station. A terrible place. What do people do here?
Some stand at the side of the side of the road, selling yoghurt, mostly kids … Not a fun place to be in the middle of the heat.
The lady in the Kafe was unfriendly. She overcharged by a triple and I moved on without buying anything. I guess the market sort of works here too. Another 15kms of extremely terrible road and I reached a checkpoint. What do you have that for? People won’t escape into this desert - you better not. Superman had overtaken me again, but this time I had no chance of getting behind. I realized his approach a little on the late side with the wind in my face and when he was beside me, it was too late to try to play catch up. I gave it a shot until my legs burned, but he moved away from me inch by inch. It was heart-breaking. You’re in the wind and you are sure that you are beaten like a dog (and have been), there is your savior for the moment and he moves off. It wouldn’t have done much good, the road on this stretch looked like this for the most part and I would have just ruined my bike without seeing where to go.
I gave in - the checkpoint came and went. It was 60km to the next station and I wasn’t sure how to get there in this kind of wind. I moved on and … saw Superman again. He had to take another rest and I spoke to the two drivers again, telling them that I would be trying to stay behind them. They laughed about this and said that I couldn’t, but that I should try. And so I did. I put some bread within reach and stayed behind the rig for over two hours. The speed was somewhere between 20km/h and 27km/h, which I could do. The only problem was that I could not see anything and that I was constantly expecting running into a pothole. There was a little hole in the center that allowed me to see the next 8m or so, not much of a warning though. And with the wind coming from the left front, there were gusts that were catching me all the time, but somehow I stayed behind Superman for over 50km until we reached the Kafe. Superman was my savior indeed - not sure how that day would have shaped up without him (the following pictures has some notes, click on it and hover your mouse over it and you’ll get some explanation).
By the time we reached the Kafe, it was 2pm and I was shot. It was getting hot and oppressively so. It was time to take a break. I ate something with the two drivers and stayed behind as they moved further towards Turkmenabad. The wind was picking up during the afternoon and all I could do was to stay where I was.
The owner was really interested in my mp3 player and sure enough wanted to listen to what was coming up - Bobby McFerrin’s “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” seemed to be a good one …
In the end, I wanted to give it a try and got out again. What a dumb idea. The ride was one of the worst ever. The sand coming at me like snakes again, I couldn’t see much as it was flying higher this time and with even more force. The whole sky was clear, but along the ground the sand was just like pinpricks. Not a whole lot of fun. I did this for about 5km and wanted to ditch things. But there wasn’t anything to ditch the bike at. It was just shrubs and sand. I decided that I would stop at the next possible stop, something had to be there. And then, I saw a construction trailer. I was received warmly, the guy manning it served me tea and we shared our cookies. The rest of the people working constrution here in the desert were to come later on and so we waited around for a while, sharing stories abotu this and that. He explained the whole road to Samarkand to me, including altitude changes and distances (and was right for the most part in hindsight).
The rest of the crew came just before nightfall, the stranger being the talk for the evening. But soon after having dinner, we all crawled into bed and over my protest I was given the boss’s bunk, which was in a two-person compartment, the remaining 10 people sharing the other room in the trailer.
I am glad I pulled through in the end and it was a good ride after all … thanks to Superman and the people of the construction crew.
August 10, 2008 No Comments
Day 138 (Turkmenistan): some barn 33km from Mary - nowhereland before the road crosses the railroad tracks (the desert beckons)
daily distance: 114km
total distance: 8553km
riding time: 6-7h
I set out from the barn early morning just as the sun came up over the horizon.
It was pure beauty … and it should remain OK until I reached Mary. I was a bit low on water, but could replenish easy enough there and took a look around before heading on. It was well worth it, leaving this aside and not taking it as a bad omen.
The city is nothing much to look at, but it was the people on the market that interested me the most. Take a look for yourself at colorful dresses and big smiles …
Bananas were welcome food for the treck into the desert. I left the watermelons where they were, too unwieldy and I should have some later on regardless.
And of course there were statutes of Turkmenbashi - the deceased “Father of all Turkmens”. They are all over the country, mainly of gold or something resembling it and appealing to no senses, but making him the true ueber-father of all things Turkmen.
You may wonder whether I didn’t visit the site that everyone would have expected me to visit, namely Merv - at one point the most populated city on earth. I didn’t. Given that I wanted to use the winds at the time (slightly pushing me), the heat and the distance from the city, I decided against it and left with a full load of water (well over 10l, some of it bought here).
Plus, I didn’t want to run into a time issue on the visa that was short as it was. Getting stuck in the desert would cost me time and if I had done Merv, it might have taken that precious time away. Let’s call it being risk-averse on that front. A Turkmen prison doesn’t sound very appealing. So, after some looking around, I moved on. It was now 11 am, usually the time to ditch the bike, put your feet up and hang loose for a few hours. But the wind was doing its work and I wanted to make use of it. And on the way I was accompanied by many people and other creatures …
Again, it sort of worked for a couple of hours. And then it didn’t any longer. Just as I was passing from the rather fertile oasis belt into the desert, the wind started to move as well. It was now full blast from the front and nowhere to duck behind. It’s a funny feeling. You want to move ahead, but you can’t. There is this force that - despite hard work from your legs - won’t let you move forward.
And then, there is this other strange thing … human interaction. I pedal along, try to orient myself in the landscape that no longer has any trees to offer ahead of me and where the grass is visibly thinning out. A head pops up to my right. It is hot at this point, over 50C and no shadow in sight. The head yells something. I am not very interested. Just want to move on. The head yells again. He is fully covered, I am in shorts and a T. He yanks a melon over his head - asks me whether I want to share it. Chodedad simply saw me coming and figured that it would be a good idea to share his melon with the stranger.
He tells me that he is Baloch (which I am not sure about as I thought they lived in Southern Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan; but I was to meet more people with the same background some time later) and we hang out for a while. For lack of another spot it is the middle of the road (well, off to the side a bit) and when we’re done we bid our farewells. This completely floored me … in a very pleasant way. And then nature takes over in its ever-efficient manner. Here is an ant carrying a much larger than itself watermelon seed.
That same pleasantness I witnessed again a few hours later. I was still cycling in the heat. There was nowhere to take shelter and I wanted nothing but to get out of this mess. Everything that could have worked was locked behind some fences. The wind came from the front blowing sand in my face and my eyes, which started to sting. Then, a small hut - well, a straw mat over to poles with a bunch of people behind it selling watermelon. More of that yummy stuff was offered, but I was still laboring on the other one that I had an hour before. The people tell me that it’s 5km to the next Kafe, which I am trying to put behind me ASAP. No sooner do I arrive when all around me all hell breaks loose. The wind I was facing before was child’s play compared to what was going on now. Luckily the place was well sheltered and after getting rid of some wholly annoying (and drunk) person, I was able to come down a bit. Then three Turkmen show up and we have a great chat for some hours until they take off through the desert to go back home. The fish at the Kafe is excellent and time goes by quickly.
I hear that there’s another Kafe 2km down the road and the wind having died down, I thought I would give that one a shot as well. What a fluke. As soon as I was in the wind, it was over. I didn’t stand a chance. Not even close. It took me 15 minutes to get there, biking hard, trying not to be blow off the road. When I got there, I was exhausted. I decided to call it a day there and then. The owners pack me into their place and give me tea and cookies and pretty much invite me in for the night. This is at 4pm - and they knew the wind wasn’t going to let off. I had some hope still and wanted to move on, but there was no chance that day any more.
Dida, the son of the owner, and I cook some dinner later on - have some more fish and pelmeni (a type of Russian-influenced Ravioli) and in the end, I sleep in the same room that the restaurant is in (so do Dida and his father). Thanks to both of them for putting up with me - they were amazing.
And I wasn’t the only one who was stranded there ever …
Tomorrow you will read about Superman, he is a bit different from what you imagine him to be …
August 9, 2008 1 Comment
Day 137 (Iran/Turkmenistan): Sarakhs - some barn 33km from Mary (leaving Iran - into the stans and the land of books)
daily distance: 132km
total distance: 8439km
riding time: 8h
So I am leaving Sarakhs and thus Iran. I will have to do some more writing about my impressions of Iran at some later point. The wind is in my back, though not for long. The whole day was a wind battle and I was almost beaten into submission. It was not pretty, I am shot and don’t like the whole thing right now. But things are looking up. Somehow. Somewhere. Sometime.
The border is almost a no-brainer. Except for the lone immigration officer who keeps looking at my visa. Then at my passport picture. Then at me. Back where he started. He does this - I am not joking - 10 times or so. I keep smiling sort of. Then he pulls out a book with the signatures of consuls I gather and compares my extension with what he sees. Something wrong? Shouldn’t be. Frau Lotfi seemed certain. Almost at the end he sees something that satisfies him. He does the tour again a couple of times. Then I am done with him. The customs guy I can convince not to bring the bike inside and can leave without a hitch.
I cross the bridge and I am in … Turkmenistan (I will put a film about it up as well …).
What a difference. The air-conditioned buildings in Iran are replaced by baracks of Soviet lore. The windows are low and small, you have to bow much deeper. It is also a lot less formal. The first checkpoint. Book number 1. All data is being logged. I pedal some 2km and get to the actual border station. Medical exam. Book number 2. Do I have any diseases? No. Book is closed. Thank you very much. Then a long wait. I seem to be the first person today. More waiting. Then I am allowed in. I have to pay more money, $10 for entering and $3 for having those $10 exchanged. I protest a bit, but this is of course not leading anywhere. It is also silly to charge more money when you enter. Slap it onto the visa bill for crying out loud. What would have happened if I hadn’t gotten the dollars back I wonder.
Then everything is checked, forms filled out twice, the head-honcho and only he turns the key and the low hum of an x-ray machine starts going. After everything is checked again and again, I am off to the races. But wait. A woman is in charge. What? A woman? And she is not wearing a chador!!! You can actually see some body shape. For someone who has been to Iran for too long this actually is a reminder of how things normally are. Back in the normal world. In the meantime books 3 and 4 have been filled. Book 5 follows when leaving the border area. Then I am there.
It is hot now, the wind is blowing strongly in my face and I have no choice but to move on. After some 90km I am done and exhausted. It is brutally warm and I decide to take a long break. I have seen camels and Chinese train engines, bad roads and more women doing what women usually do where I am from (meaning work and regular dresses - though slightly more colorful generally speaking).
Moving on, I stop again after some 20km and am very warmly welcomed by the cafe owner. He brings soup and salad and drinks right away … I am hungry actually and he hears of no payment in the end. I insist. Instead he invites me to stay. Tempting, but I move on some more and try to cover mileage. But check out the writing on the sign on the picture below.
I end up in a barn with a farm hand. The owner has no problem with me staying and we have some dinner together (it is soup again, the same type of soup, thin and without much taste; it strikes me as being quite cheap also and the emacicated figure of the boy speaks volumes).
Will move to on to Mary tomorrow and then beyond, trying to cover the country as quickly as I can. So far, so good. Desert still to come.
August 8, 2008 1 Comment