18th August 2014 40’C 390km
Mary – Ashgabat
Riding towards Ashgabat was probably the most boring place I’ve ever been. The road boring, the scenery, nothing. I can usually see some beauty in even the most plain desert, but in this case there was nothing. Complete and utterly boring.
At some point, I looked down and happened to notice that the shadow of the bike on the road, looked different to usual. It’s funny how such a small detail is noticeable after so many months looking at the same thing. I pulled over to find that the brace tube between the panniers, had snapped. The tube had been rubbing on the tyre, it was lucky I stopped when I did.
I jury-rigged it back in place using a strap for the time being, and need to find a welder to fix it, as a priority now.
Back on the bike, more of the same boring road. The temperature hit 40’C, as I barreled along. Despite this being not the most pleasant environment, I tried to see it symbolically, celebrating my 40th birthday, sitting in 40’C heat.
A cop tried to pull me over, yelling and waving his baton enthusiastically at me. I would never have ignored the direction of a police officer in Australia or Singapore, and I’m not sure how wise it was to do so in Turkmenistan, but I opened the throttle and fixed my gaze straight ahead, powering away at 130k/h.
I learnt in Tajikistan, if you make eye contact with the cop, he’s got you. So I made a habit of either hiding behind another car when I saw a cop, or simply turning my head, and looking backwards while riding forwards. It often worked. It was sort of like playing “you can’t see me!” with children, hiding behind your own hands. Crazy, but true.
I arrived in Ashgabat completely shattered. The heat had taken its toll on my body. I cut at least 3 laps of the city, trying to find a hotel, everything was booked out. Finally the Hotel Nissa agreed to take me in, at a rate of $145! But I figured, screw it. It’s my 40th, spent in the whacky country of Turkmenistan. The room is super lux, huge, with a stonking hot shower and it is one of the very few places in Turkmenistan that knows of the Internet. Everywhere else internet access is prohibited. Even here most sites are blocked. A VPN solved that little problem.
I headed out for what is probably the best shashlik of the trip to date. A few beers in the garden to celebrate. In just two days, I’ll be in Iran, and a completely new discovery of cultures and experiences. Not too far to Europe now.
17th August 2014 36’C 249km
Turkmenabat – Mary
It was a hot ride today. Hot & boring.
Riding along a flat, boring road, very low sand dunes on each side as I passed though the desert. I was still tired from arriving all late last night after all the border dramas. And in the heat, I was starting to doze off. I wanted to stop somewhere for a sleep, but being a desert, there was no shade to speak of anywhere. Finally I spotted an abandoned building by the side of the road, and it cast just enough shadow for me to park behind for some rest. I put the bike on the stand, stuffed my jacket on top of the bags as a pillow, and put my feet up on the bars. It is a surprisingly comfortable position to rest in, although doesn’t look that cosy.
I was just about to close my eyes when a guy appeared, admired the bike briefly, then proceeded to start massaging my neck and shoulders! Completely bizarre, but he was not bad. When he had done my shoulders, he began on my thighs, that’s when I told him “thanks, it’s good, but enough, I’ll sleep now”. He stepped away, and stood about 2M away, watching me. It was strangest thing.
I closed my eyes and waited to hear his footsteps on the stones, hopefully walking away. Five minutes later he did so, and I fell asleep. I woke up in a shock when my leg fell off the bars. Refreshed, I left my 2M of shade and headed back out onto the boring, but good road.
This morning outside the hotel, I’d met a group of three travellers on the Mongol Rally. I’d changed my remaining Uzbek Som with them, counting out the millions on the steps of the hotel.
They had warned me that this road I was traveling on was in terrible condition, the worst road they had experienced. From my perspective, this was a road in great condition! Boring, but reasonable. I feel for them, they are in for a shock as they go further East.
Stopping for petrol, and filled the tank, 14L for $3. Turkmenistan oil reserves mean petrol is the cheapest I’ve ever bought anywhere.
I pulled into the city of Mary at around 3pm, riding past the crazy new buildings that exist in every Turkmen city. Monuments to the mental dictator president of Turkmenistan. His picture is on every building, in Army fatigues, or posing. Sometimes clearly Photoshopped. It’s a bizarre place.
There is no Internet in Turkmenistan, presumably because if the people knew what was outside, they might not like knowing what they would find out about their country.
That said, even the most crazy countries with paranoid and confused leaders, still have normal citizens. All day, Turkmeni would beep their horns and wave. Sometimes a little reserved when meeting on the street, but warm & friendly.
16th August 2014 32’C 145km (14hrs)
Bukhara – Turkmenabat (Turkmenistan)
I left Bukhara late, after spending the early morning looking around the old town, at the madrassa & mosques. I could easily have stayed longer in Bukhara, with the exceptionally beautiful architecture and spaces, enhanced by the morning light, and there were cafes with real coffee!
I reached the Uzbek border post at 2pm, and waited for 20 minutes for it to reopen after the lunch break. The first passport check was cursory, and the guards friendly. It was then onto customs, where I had to fill in the usual customs declaration, and bike export, which took 10 minutes. I then moved to the immigration window. There was a family of 5 Turkmen citizens waiting in front of me, and I thought to myself “This shouldn’t take more than half an hour…”
I could not have been more wrong.
The officials claimed that the computer for passport checks was down, and it should be back up in 20 minutes. We waited. After twenty minutes, someone asked how much longer. The answer, 20 more minutes. This cycle went on for hours. About 30 of us waiting, now locked inside the secured area of the Uzbek border. No toilets, no food, no water.
There were a few families with kids, one girl in a wheelchair. Almost everyone was a Turkmen citizen, save 3 Turkish truck drivers, a family of Tajiks, and me.
Everyone was fairly calm, and it seemed as if this sort of situation was normal. No-one was too upset, there seemed to be a pool of patience everyone was swimming in.
I met a few families over the hours, everyone looking through my passport, admiring the visas and the design of the passport. When I pulled out my phone to attempt to write a blog update, half the group gathered around, insisting we look at photos. We looked through all 1300 photos together, then the remaining half of the group had their turn, with me describing each country.
I met a very nice tajik family, who spoke English, along with a very helpful Uzbek customs official, who wanted to practice English. He’d been working at this border for 9 years. I think he was over it.
These situations are interesting, where group of random people are in something tough together. The family with small kids, another family with a child in wheelchair. There is a real sense of camaraderie amongst strangers. I’d had nothing to eat since breakfast, and remembered I had some stale biscuits from Tajikistan (bought two countries & 1200km ago). I shared them with one of the families, to their kids delight.
At 8pm, when the border officially closed for the day, one of the ladies started arguing with the guards as they turned out the lights. I got the feeling she was saying, “Now what do we do? Sleep here? With our kids?” I’d already cased out some grass to put my tent down on, as I had a feeling this was coming.
They then started processing us, one by one. I’m not really sure if the computer was really down, or if they were just messing around. I think it was actually down, but it was strange that it suddenly came up at this hour and they started work.
The problem with this though, was now stamped out of Uzbekistan and released into no-mans-land between the two borders, the Turkmenistan border was already closed for the day.
On reaching the Turkmenistan fence, it was closed. A solider there indicating I should turn around and go back to Uzbekistan. A senior guy came due to the border, yelled for a bit, looked over my papers and yelled some more as he saw more people walking towards the gate. He was very angry. Eventually he let me go, telling me to hurry up. I rode the last 1km to immigration, where inside, another soldier was blowing his top, and the immigration guy looked like he wanted to rip everyone’s head off.
About 10 of us lined up at his desk. While waiting to be processed, at the back of the line, I started playing with some of the kids. They had been waiting for the last 7hrs along with the rest of us, and were in surprisingly good spirits for the circumstances. We were looking at pictures of Australian animals in my passport, acting out each animal. Kangaroo, Emu, Kookaburra, complete with sounds, when the immigration guy stood up and yelled at me. “MISTER!!! OUT!!” Uh oh. I guess the kids laughter had been too much for him, and now I’d been relegated to the room outside.
Once everyone else had been processed, the yell came out again “MISTER! HERE!!” I went in and had my papers reviewed again and was told to go back outside and wait.
I found out the “banker” had already gone home for the day. No-one else could take the visa money. They had called him to come back to work, but he didn’t pickup. The Tajik family and I waited for an hour. Eventually he appeared at 11pm. He’d driven back to the border from his home. I’d had a couple of stale biscuits since breakfast. I gave one of my bottles of water to Tajik family with kids as they had no water all day. They invited me to stay with them tonight, but the Turkmenistan border guards pointed out that it was illegal for them to host a foreigner.
There was so much paperwork, numerous forms & receipts for each transaction. I tried to have my exit border crossing changed, as the embassy had listed the wrong one, and you are only allowed to exit from the border stated in the visa. They agreed to change it to what I wanted, but when I got the actual visa, it was still wrong, although the bike documents listed the correct border crossing. Now the two documents conflict with each other. Maybe this will work to my advantage when I try to exit.
This whole process took from 9pm until midnight, with crazy situations like where one guy was yelling at me to give him my passport, but his colleague had my passport, then when I got it back and gave it to him, the original guy yelled at me to give HIM the passport back. I don’t know if I was just a pawn in their personal disagreement, or they were just messing with me, but it was annoying. Eventually I had all the paperwork done and went outside with the customs guy to inspect the bike. He asked me what was in each box, twice. Then asked me if I had any ” lady girl books”. He asked this question over and over, at least 8 times, in between other questions. “lady girls books?”. “Religious books? “lady girl books?” “books? Guns?”. ” lady girl books??”. “understand me? Lady girl books???!”
I told him I didn’t have any books, over and over. He finally said “ok! Go!”
It was midnight.
I’d arrived at the border at 2pm. It had been 10 hours of stuffing around, but I was finally in Turkmenistan.
I rode out from the border into the pitch dark desert for 40 mins to find a hotel. I was ripped off monumentally at the toll bridge, the guy asked me for $5, which quickly became $20 when his colleague arrived. I threw him $20 and gave him a massive dressing down while his colleague did my paperwork. I don’t know how many words he understood of my 5 minute spray, but the look on his face showed he understood some of the message. I was tired, worn out and he’d tried it on at the wrong time. “You should be ashamed! You are a complete, corrupt embarrassment to your country, Turkmenistan!…. Blah blah, blah”. He looked very sheepish, but kept the money of course.
Over the steel plate bridge, which had a slippery layer of dew on it, and I was in Turkmenabat. I pulled into the Hotel Turkmenabat at 1am, willing to pay whatever required for a room and a shower.
The room was $30 USD, and the room is so crap, the bed has no blanket, the bathroom no soap and no toilet paper. But I was shattered, and after a quick shower, laid down on the bed in my clothes and crashed.
A completely draining day, but ultimately a successful one. I’m in the bizzare dictatorship of Turkmenistan.