Tuesday, 29 April 2014

440 ÷ 5 = 88

welcome to Central Asia, hold your breath
Day Four  We're at the border bright-tailed and bushy-eyed well before it opens.  This is not too difficult as the Iranian officials have as much enthusiasm for starting work as we normally do.  Plenty of time for us to have breakfast, clean teeth, some last-minute shopping and overhaul all five bicycles, repack the panniers, count the days left to Christmas, recreate the famous 1966 World Cup final "was it a goal?" moment and plan the rest of our journey to Japan.  It was well worth waking early.  After some cursory customs checks and passport analysis we are stamped through.  The Turkmenistan border is another thing.  It's over twenty years since they shook off that Soviet yoke but still the beast that is Bureacracy roams free and wild in these parts.  Gayle and I have been here before in 2008 and not a single thing has changed.  There's first a check with the doctor.  "How are you? Feel okay? Chelsea?"  "Well doctor, I have this pain in my sides at night and I wondered if....." Gayle yanks me out of my seat.  Then there's the immigration booth. Empty.  We wait a while and some more.  A man takes our passports into a backroom.  Lots of passport details are being handwritten into old form books to be filed away into a dusty forgotten storeroom.  Once we get the passports stamped an hour or two later we have to complete a customs declaration and then unload our bikes and put everything through the x-ray machine.  Followed by a random bag inspection.  "Is that a random bag?" "Yes it is."  "Are these dirty clothes?" "Yes they are" "Chelsea!"
ships of the desert

We are quite pissed off when we emerge into the sunlight at 11.30.  We have a 5 day transit visa and 440km to cover, and almost half a day has been wasted.  There's nothing for it but to head into the town and have an early lunch.  We then spend the rest of the day cycling on an appalling back road that shaves 80km off the main road route. We have to cycle on average about 88km each day if our calculations are correct. 

before the road gets bad
It is hot, flat and a bit drab. And hard.  We are constantly trying to dodge potholes and washed-out sections of the road.  Washed-out? In a desert?  Ultimately it is like a terrible computer game where we try and stay on the few remaining strands of tarmac.  As your speed increases so do the size and frequency of the potholes.  It comes as a terrible shock to me - of all the accounts of cycling across Turkmenistan I hadn't realised tat the greatest obstacle was the poor state of the roads.  Unprepared, I feel quite demoralised.  A camel is the highlight of the afternoon.  Later on much of the land is being irrigated/ inundated so finding a place to camp looks a bit tricky, but as the sun sets we find a little corner of a far off field that will forever be Turkmenistan. The clouds of mosquitoes remind us we are close to a lake.

chewing tubes to relieve the frustration
Day Five   A slow start.  There's a bit of waiting around for Gabor but he is getting quicker at packing up.  As he justly observes, we can share the tasks that he must complete on his own.  However, he certainly does like to do things in just the right way, whereas Jona and Franzi and Gayle and I just get on with it.  
.....creates work for the team mechanic
Ultimately it is unfair on him - but it's always handy to have a scapegoat should things go awry.  After more pot-holed and washed-out road we arrive at a shop and teahouse where we can change money and buy fresh supplies. Buoyed up with some treats (that warm beer in my pannier sure looks inviting) we continue along the main road to Mary.  Mary isn't someone we know - just one of the two towns we will pass through on the crossing. It is built beside the ancient oasis of Merv.  At the end of the day we find a camping spot under trees bordering farmland.  The land by the roadside has been fairly green today - plenty of irrigation channels keeping everything growing.
mutton samsas - fuel for cycling
Day Six  Franzi has promised a 6am workshop on cycling, to be continued throughout the day.  She is full of whimsy, she is.  Jona is full of beans - always quick on his bike.  Gayle has been happy to ride out at the front ahead of us all.  The men have been carrying extra water for camping each day - 4 more kilos is a fair handicap I suppose.  We ride into Mary, stock up at a shop and Gabor buys us all ice-cream.  Bonus.  We need to get a big day in today to keep on schedule.  None of us are particularly happy about this, but we should be clocking up plenty of kilometres to make sure we reach the northern border in three days' time.  It's a scorching hot day and we are happy to find shade for lunch.  How much water can you drink before your stomach swells and you can drink no more?  We test the theory.  On this day we enter the real desert.  No more farming.  Very few settlements.  A lot of barren dusty sandscapes.  Tortoises risk everything crossing a road that is frequented by Turkish HGVs and rattling old Russian trucks.  The road is still patchy but we clock up over a 100km before happily camping amongst some scrubby bushes away from the road.

late afternoon 'knackered' time-out
Day Seven  We set off in good time but with the prospect of another long day in the desert.  However, after one hour's riding morale has sunk.  We have an awful headwind that has slowed us to an average speed of 10km per hour.  At this rate we will need to cycle for 10 hours.  After another half hour we accept defeat.  We will have to try and hitch a ride with a truck.  But there are five of us.  We decide to return to a village where there's a petrol station where trucks will fill up but we soon discover that no-one wants to take us.  The problem, it seems, is police check points.  But maybe our number is too high.  Over in the village is a train station on the railway to Turkmenabad so we go and investigate.  At first things seem promising - there's a train at 8pm.  But once we look serious about taking it we are told that there is a problem. The train stops for only 2 minutes.  And we need baggage tickets.  And none can be issued here. We should continue to the next station.  We feel like we are getting the bum's rush, but ultimately we have no choice.  We have delayed and had lunch in a cafe, but it's only another 20km so off we go.  The headwind continues to blow so at least we feel justified in taking the train.  In the village of Uch-Aly we ride up to the deserted train station and give the staff a surprise. Five foreigners on fully-loaded bikes looking for a train to Turkmenabad.  They seem fine about us, so we optimistically cook tea and wait for the train.  Closer to the time we ask about tickets.  None of us speak Russian but with some very limited Turkish we can deduce that here too we will only have 2 minutes to load our bikes and baggage and get on board.  What a joke.  Another train arrives and we are alarmed to discover that the platform is way too short.  This is starting to look a bit hairy.  Finally, at 8.58pm in rolls our train.  We load everything easily and quickly and ride with the staff in the baggage wagons.  After a brief chat about who we are and where we are going we agree a price for all of us and then fall asleep with relief.  The day has been tense, but at least we are back on schedule.  Arriving in Turkmenabad at midnight we alight and pitch camp in the station garden, beside the platforms. Very cheeky but what else to do? Sleep.
not the quietest spot, but very convenient
Day Eight  Awoken by a disgruntled station security man who probably feels embarrassed to find five cycle tourists taking liberties on his shift, we quickly pack up and set off along the winding road towards the border.  We stop outside the town for breakfast by a queue of trucks.  Two Turkish drivers kindly brew up for us and bring us coffee.  We then cycle across the most decrepit pontoon bridge which traverses the legendary Amu Darya river - the Oxus - the biggest river in Central Asia which rises in Afghanistan and used to feed the Aral Sea until some bright Russian spark decided to divert it to grow cotton in the desert of Uzbekistan.  (The Aral Sea is now almost gone.)  After a few more kilometres through lush green farmland irrigated from this river, the road peters out into a no-man's land of desert.  We have reached the border with Uzbekistan in time.  Relief.  


  1. Sorry, maybe I missed something.
    But what would happened if you didn't succed in time ?

    Great adventure, by the way !

  2. Ahh, Max. That's the question. We thought most likely a fine of some sort, but Ollie and Dan, two English guys who took the insane route up the west side of the country (860km) arrived at the border a day late. Their punishment was immediate deportation and a 2-year ban on re-entering!!!!