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Turkmenistan power-break

A mini-break in Turkmenistan

Ahhhhh HA HA HA!! A Turkmen woman with the standard set of gold knashers

The Turkmen Time-Trial or Turkmen Dash… two of the names for the five day bike ride across this mysterious and closed country of friendly folk, gold teeth, disco-dining, barren desert, blistering sunshine, ridiculously bad road surfaces, mosquitoes and melons. In reality this famous leg of the Silk Road is an 860 km journey over about eight days, including 200kms from Iran’s holy city of Mashhad to the Turkmenistan border. The meat of the ride is a 525km leg across the desert of Turkmenistan and a final push of 135kms from the Turkmenistan/ Uzbekistan border to the beautiful city of Bukhara…. where we chose to throw our budget to the headwind and checked into a plush hotel ($25 a night), ate loads of food, drunk a couple of beers and are now enjoying a few days off.

The scorpion saga Which one’s the lethal one?

Iran was for the most part a great experience. We enjoyed the famous welcoming friendliness of the Iranians and even made some new friends along the way. I feel lucky to have been able to learn a little about the contrasts of this ancient culture. At times both Mary and I felt a little guilty at being able to pass through Iran quite freely, observing from the luxurious distance of tourism. Many of the young people we met were either planning to or were already in the process of applying for visas to leave their country and head for Western Europe, Canada or Australia to establish new lives free from the authoritarian shackles of their own country. As with travel in any country we did encounter a few negative experiences: the tiresome police questioning and passport checks, momentarily thinking I was about to suffer a painful scorpion-sting induced death, the worst traffic pollution on the trip so far and hijab requiring Mary to wrap up nice and warm for the 35 °C desert bike riding.

Mary’s new clothes and dirty feet

Tobias and Marianne, a Swiss couple cycling to Hong Kong, who we’ve been cycling with for the last week or so, told us that until we joined forces they had had no encounters with the police throughout their whole time in Iran. We were quick to remedy this. On our last night we were escorted by several police on motorbikes, armed with machine guns, from the perfect park camp-spot to a Red Crescent station (the Iranian version of the Red Cross). Having been to a local hammam to wash away the day’s ride, we had setup our tents in a small park in the border town of Sarakhs a few hours before. As soon as we unloaded the bikes and began constructing camp we were approached by a policeman, who cheerfully welcomed us, checked which football teams we support (none) and let us know that camping here would be no problem. Luckily he was also carrying a machine gun so as to maintain peace and order within the chaos of this dangerous park full of threatening families enjoying their picnics and renegade children having fun. A few hours later, just as we’d zipped ourselves away from the mosquitoes and had begun our respective journeys to the land of nod, some bloody kid started throwing rocks at Tobias and Marianne’s tent… clearly objecting to this target practice, Tobias told the kid to stop. Within minutes we were surrounded by a large crowd of curious folk, all wanting to help. Like mosquitos to my tender and delicious flesh, the local boys green quickly turned up to see what was going down. Unable to convince the cops that we were fine and there was no problem they decided for our own ‘safety’ we had to pack up our stuff and move to a more secure place.

Desert camping, camels, Turkmen police (“No photo! no photo!”. “Yes photo! Yes photo!”)

Mary delighted to return to her namesake city in Turkmenistan

When the jobs-worth Iranian border control policeman finally blessed our passports with exit stamps and waved us goodbye there was an undeniable air of relief as we passed by the Iranian flag and received a smiling “welcome to Turkmenistan”. Although short lived, our trip across Turkmenistan was a pleasant surprise. With regards to arranging our five day Turkmenistan transit visa, we decided to go for the easy option and paid the friendly and slightly erratic Vali (who run’s Vali’s Home Stay in Mashhad) to apply for the letters of invitation and sort out the visas all for a bargain price of $10… not including the $85 cost of the actual visa. The Turkmen transit visa is expensive considering it allows for a very limited five days in the country, suggesting that the government isn’t at all keen on promoting tourism. Considering these are the major highways connecting the main cities of the country and support a constant flow of heavy trucks often passing from Turkey all the way to Kyrgyzstan, some of the road surfaces in Turkmenistan were unbelievably bad. Picture an enlarged asphalt cast of a particularly nasty patch of psoriasis with a few open knife wounds thrown in… probably a bit disgusting and confusing but you get the picture. They wouldn’t be much worse if they were made from chocolate or vaseline.

Escaping the heat for a few hours

We’d heard a few dodgy reports of theft, drink-driving and generally spending five days being hot and tired as you push your fully-loaded bike through the desert to make it into Uzbekistan before your time’s up and you get deported back to your own country with a goodbye present of minus $1000. A couple of weeks back we got an email from Erik, our Swedish pal, another cyclist making his way East, who had the pleasure of attending a Turkmen wedding. Suffering intense dehydration from a severe two day vodka hangover as his headache pounded him across the desert, Erik reached the border at 11.30pm (30 minutes left on his visa) only to be told that you need to leave the country by 4pm! It took several hours of convincing them that he had no cash, and was finally deported, although quite conveniently not to Sweden, but just over the border to Uzbekistan. Unlucky for Erik he won’t be taking a holiday to Turkmenistan any time in the next year. We got hot and we were tired, but we also met yet some friendly folk, enjoyed some beautiful and secluded desert camping and even went swimming a few times (in irrigation reservoirs. Cool and refreshing, but very brown, making very, very, very sure our mouths were as shut as they could be). In fact the water was more than a little like the chocolate rivers in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory / Pete and Tobias in the Dysentery Factory

Have a look at more Turkmenistan photos here


6 Responses to “Turkmenistan power-break”

  1. Hey … a city with your name on it Mouse even though it says Mary! How many of us can say that! After seeing you well and happy on skype just now I now trust myself to write on this exposed blog site thing again … those scary tales of Pete’s scorpion chum, police chases and you not well Mouse, did nothing to reassure me!!! The road to Samarkand sounds so romantic but possibly in reality, the actual road, potholes and all, won’t be! Love you xx mum jen


    Posted by Mum - Jen | June 30, 2012, 11:58 am
  2. hello pete and MARY.
    you are realy tired of cycling through hot deserts and also its problems like scorpion.at the momment you need translator who is called hamed(a Turkish guy)in uzbakestan becuase they are also speaking other accent of turkish language!!!you are seeing people with golden teeth which is very popular in soviet union please don’t tell them ”how much are thise teeth???”.i and my friend Alis hope you the best and cold weather in the next days.buy the way YOUR PASSPORTS PLEASE!!


    Posted by hamed | July 1, 2012, 3:07 pm
  3. Hi Mary and Pete! We are glad to see that all is going well. Thankyou for the reminder about the website renewal. That has been sorted. However we need another username and password to access the website to upload photos and information etc. If possible could you e-mail us those. Hope all continues to go well on your journey!


    Posted by Emilia Bianco | July 12, 2012, 7:50 am
  4. Hey Mary and Pete!

    Great Website!

    We’ve already made our way through Samarkand, Chiva and into Bukhara and are heading closer to Tajikistan tomorrow.

    Hope the bikes are treating you well! Have a safe trip!


    Posted by Ben and Mat! | July 13, 2012, 6:23 am
  5. Oh, mouse you don’t look to happy in your fetching new hijab. At lesat it will help with the tan lines. Sending you guys lots of love XXX


    Posted by Gems | July 17, 2012, 1:46 pm
  6. MARY, a city with your name on it! I like how the plynth had an extra space at the end so you could pose on it… they must have known you were coming.


    Posted by Jim | July 21, 2012, 1:02 am

Reply to Ben and Mat!