Serakhs (IR) – Samarkand (UZ) / 7490 km / 3.65 Million Turns / July 9th – July 19th, 2019
When people ask us how we experienced Turkmenistan, we normally begin with: “it was hot, and it was tough. And the road was boring. But the people were nice. And the sun was so hot. Did we mention it was hot? It was as if a hairdryer was constantly blowing on our faces. Even early in the morning, 35 degrees was quite normal, rising to 50 at noon. By the way, we did tell you it was hot, right? Before we forget to mention it…..”
But it was more than that of course. It was a challenge in many ways. Turkmenistan is a very secluded country, we read that Turkmenistan receives around 5 times less tourists than North Korea! Almost everything on the internet is blocked: news, all social media, VPNs, search engines. All kinds of interesting stories about the former and current president can be read on the internet, both of them clearly thought very high of themselves. Visa wise, it keeps its promise of being secluded: people who have filled out their application form exactly as requested can still randomly be refused. If you are one of the lucky ones who does obtain a transit visa, it gets even more interesting: you have to enter the country at a specific date and you then have 5 days to get through the country, over a specific route which you are not supposed to defer from. 5 days is not much. 5 days is actually really short if you are on a bicycle, and you have to cover 500km……with a lot of headwinds….on a shitty road through a desert (though our first proper desert on the ride, with wild camels to be seen!)…..with very little shade….very few shops…..and of course: in the heat!
After almost a month in intense but beautiful Iran, we arrived at the border town of Sarakhs, together with Dries and Manon, a Belgian couple we met in Mashhad and whom we decided to tackle the Turkmen desert with. A bit nervous we were at the border as early as possible, so that we could make the most use of our 5-day window through the country. Due to the heat we again planned to start really early, take a long break at the hottest hours and continue in the late afternoon/evening, just as in Azerbaijan and Iran. But for this day we were dependent on the opening hours of the border…
The border crossing was smooth, although on the Iranian side we all got a hearing about our time in Iran, they wanted to check our photos and they wanted to see our contact list to note down our Iranian friends. The government doesn’t want Iranians to host foreigners and via border interviews apparently tries to obtain some information about Iranians who regularly get in touch with foreigners. We had read about this before, so we had all our Iranian contacts hidden or removed from our phone, as we did not want to get all the great people who helped or hosted us in trouble.
When we finally got through the border and entered Turkmenistan, it was already 10:30 and 40 degrees. We quickly wanted to get cold (ice) water and exchange money in the first town. That became a little more complicated as we had trouble finding a shop and an exchange office. By the time we really started it was around noon, and boy was it hot. The town with the nearest hotel we wanted to get to that day was about 145 km away and there was a good headwind blowing already. We had checked on maps.me (an offline map app) where there were restaurants on the way so we could get some refreshments; only at about every other 40km. And so we started with our first day.
Although we were making kilometers, it quickly became clear this was not going to be an easy one with the heat and the headwinds. The water we carried in our water bottles turned into tea temperature within minutes. There was no way of cooling down our bodies like that. Dries and Manon luckily taught us how to keep water cool: wrap it in clothes, put it inside a pannier and not on top. Still we could not avoid three out of four getting symptoms of a heat stroke. We tried eating sugar, salt, ORS even. In the end what actually mostly helped were bottles with fruit juices. A lot of them! We cycled and we cycled that day. When at one point we noticed the sun had started to set, we still had to cover a 30km unpaved track and then another 35km to the first town with a hotel. While at first we had given up on the idea of getting to that town, it quickly became clear that camping would be horrible here: we were being eaten alive by mosquitoes, and the temperatures were not dropping. We all knew that a good sleep was vital when cycling so many kilometers. And so we decided to push on, even in dark. By the time it was completely dark, we still had 35 kilometers to get the nearest hotel. Half delirious we made a sprint for those last 35 kilometers. By 11:15 pm that night we arrived, riding 145 km from the border. We had a great big meal before getting to bed at 1 AM, and had the alarm set at 6 AM to start again. But the fact that we made it there on the first day also made us optimistic. We figured that Turkmenistan by bicycle is definitely also a mental challenge, the first day being a win-day.
The next few days were alike this first one: we got up really early, started cycling until – at a reasonable distance – we found a restaurant where we could eat and crash down for the afternoon. And crash down we did: as soon as we had finished lunch, we were all so tired that we easily fell asleep in the middle of the restaurant. Especially Tom and Manon were champion at lunchtime naps. In the late afternoon we would continue for a few more kilometers before we could find a place to sleep. We tried hotels mostly due to the hot nighttime temperature, but the second night there was simply no hotel around the distance we wanted to cover and so we camped at a trucker’s restaurant. The hotels here were a bit spooky; especially the one on the third night. Literally in the middle of nowhere (desert in all directions), an enormous Soviet-style building stood out with neon-letters Ak Yol Hotel written on it (with half of the letters were falling down). There was one lady at the desk who showed us our rooms at the end of a very very long hallway: all doors of the rooms open, all the rooms empty. Rooms the size of our whole apartment in Amsterdam! With golden bedsheets! We were so tired, that we parked our bicycles in the rooms and did not even bother to take our bags off the bike, there was plenty of space anyway.
Although there were not many encounters with local people, the ones we did have were great. We found them generally really curious, generous and talkative. Many would strike up a conversation, and we would ask questions about their life and country until an official would come up (there were a lot of officials in Turkmenistan!) and the conversation abruptly ended. One guy even picked up his guitar and played us some songs. The language had a lot of similarities with Turkish, which quickly had us brush up our Turkish words.
The fourth day we wanted to make it to Turkmenabat, 137km further, from where it was only about 30km to the border with Uzbekistan. We got up at 3:30 AM (Sabine is still very proud at Tom for this!), to leave at 4:30, at first light. Optimistic that we would make it through, after half an hour Tom had a flat tire. We quickly put a new tube in, leaving the patching for later and moved on. When at sundown, with beautiful golden light, we entered Turkmenabat, we felt dog-tired, relieved, and happy: we were going to make it! One last sleep in a random hotel (some sort of sanitorium), and we finished the last few kilometers to the Uzbek border!
Of course the heat and the desert did not just stop as we entered Uzbekistan, although that’s what our minds had made up: that it would all get better in Uzbekistan. What changed for the better was the lack of time pressure though. The first day in Uzbekistan we were so tired that we accidentally rode a few kilometers past our hotel. Now normally that’s not such an issue: now it meant cycling back uphill, with headwinds, in almost 50 degrees. Then the hotel manager told us they did not accept foreigners anymore and we had to cycle another 5km back. You can imagine our faces when we heard that! When we finally arrived in a hotel with an AC room, we just collapsed and lay down for the rest of the day.
A day later we got to Bukhara. After months of almost seeing no other tourists than cyclists, we were now again at the centre of the Silk Road. Bukhara was interesting, we definitely got the Silk Road feeling there, many ancient buildings and squares, but it was also very focused on tourists. The next few days we mostly lay in our AC room during the day and explored the city during the cooler morning and evening hours. We quickly decided that cycling from Bukhara to the other famous Silk Road city of Samarkand would be more of our experience in Turkmenistan, so we took a train. Unfortunately, they store these trains in the full burning sun, until they run, and only then the AC goes on. This meant we were being cooked like fish in a driving hammam. We cycled from the train station towards famous Registan Square, where we took the obligatory (but impressive) bicycle-in-front-of-the-square-photo (see above). We had another few relaxing days exploring old palaces, squares and tombs and meeting up with fellow cyclists we had met earlier on the road. By the end of our stay in Samarkand, we had caught up on our sleep and back on our normal energy levels. After months of cycling through heat, flattish areas, we felt more ready than ever to enter Tajikistan and start the Pamir Highway, the but-one highest highway in the world! More about that in our next blog!
Some stats we collected during our days in Turkmenistan:
- 145 km cycled in one calendar day
- 210 km cycled within 24 hours
- 2011 km cycled within a one-month timeframe (from Azerbaijan until Turkmenistan)
- 22 bottles of water (1.5L) bought with the four of us in one calendar day; supplemented with ~20 bottles of fruit juices.
- 30 eggs eaten in 4 days by Sabine (being a vegetarian here is a challenge!)
- 10 full minutes of tailwind in Turkmenistan (yes, that is more than average)
- 0 wild camels seen (a few domesticated ones though)
Talk to you soon,
Tom & Sabine