Time trial Turkmenistan (the country you cannot discover on a bike)
We knew it would have been a challenge – and it was – but we were ready. Given the fact that we crossed Turkmenistan on a 5 days transit visa we couldn’t learn much about it or experience its life and culture, but I guess that’s somehow what they want: you can get a tourist visa only if you book a guided tour (and that was not in our plans). For all the others it’s just transit, no matter the way you travel: bike, camping car, hitchhiking…
#1 It starts on our last night in Iran where everybody tries to help and somehow fails (but this is another story). We camp at about 300 meters from the border and at 8 am, opening time, we are waiting on the Iranian side. Bags scan, passports and camera check and out we go.
#2 Turkmeni side: everybody is friendly and nice, a few speak English. Doctor check (just the temperature), passport and visa check, payment (another 14 dollars each, which adds ups to the 55 dollars each for the visas), bag scan (they just took the time to check our medications). Easy, smooth and smiling. Looks like a good start.
#3 Informal money exchange right after the border. They offer 4 manats for 1 dollar, we laugh and we keep going. They come after us with the car, we stop again, we bargain: we can get 15 manats for each dollar (not the best, but good enough), we change 20 dollars and we also get rid of the rials we still have.
#4 Sarahs village. In a grocery store we buy food and water, under the surveillance of a soldier/policeman who also checks our passports and visas.
#5 From there the route choices to reach the M37 are P7, 30 km longer but in better conditions or P9, 30 km shorter but rough. What do you think we picked? Yes, the shorter and rougher! Fellow cyclists: do not take the P9 unless you really love cyclocross and you are riding with a light bikepacking set! On the good side: no cars, nice spring landscape, many turtles crossing the road and just one military checkpoint.
#6 We keep going, I (Roberto) feel a little stomach sick (too much cheese at lunch?), a car invites us to stop. Ok, let’s take this break. Three men come out with bread, a kind of super sweet lemonade, some stew in a plastic bag and arak (strong alcohol). They just speak Russian but words get through. We cannot say no to food and drinks, I try to explain that I do not feel very well but that doesn’t seem to matter: men drink arak. After 8 or 9 minutes I get up, walk a few meters and just vomit, drink some water, get back. Now it’s clear for everyone that my stomach is messed up! We laugh again, take pictures and say goodbye. A few hundred meters and a man stops us. He wants a picture with us, we take the photo, he then asks for paper and a pen and he writes his address in Cyrillic, “So you can send me the picture!”, sure man, like the old times! Is this digital copy ok? We don’t know. After some more riding I need to rest, I feel better but weak, we pitch the tent, some guys come to say hello with soft drinks and arak, I say thanks but no, I mime a nice vomiting action and they say goodbye. Very little dinner, but great sleep that night.
#7 Rough road again! And head wind! When we get on the M37 the road surface feels like heaven (it’s not). We push hard today: 135 km to our couchsurfer house. Cars honk at us, people wave hello and smile. Then a camping car honks at us from behind, it has a different license plate. We stop to meet this lovely Korean family (parents, two daughters and a son) who have been travelling Europe and Asia for 8 months (so far). They invite us for tea and nice chats. Unexpected and touching. They also tell us about Ashgabat, the capital: a city made of white and gold where you cannot drive a car of a color different than white. Clean and magnificent, with lots of surveillance cameras and nobody around. They also show the gps tracker the police gave them at the border to track their movements. We say goodbye, we keep going. We do not believe weather forecast anymore, because an unexpected rain catches us at the end of the afternoon but at least it gives us a wonderful rainbow, that stands as an arc de triomphe in front of us. Warm room, hot shower, nice chats and a great dinner is our reward for the night.
#8 Grocery store, Bayramali. We want to buy food for the next couple of days. The lady asks us 230 manats (about 13 dollars) which is obviously an over-inflated bill. We say it’s too much. She keeps insisting that 7+4 equals 20. We start taking what we picked back on the shelves, a man tells her something and, like magic, the price now is about 35 manats. We pay and get back on the bikes. We stop for some snack and when we are ready to go we see the Korean camping car again. This time they invite us for some noodles and tea and they offer us lots of chocolate! Lovely, again. And again we say goodbye, they have just one day left on the visa: as with the other travelers on our route, we will meet again, somewhere! Thank you!
#9 We’ve been riding more than 100 km per day, except the first one, when I was sick and the last one, because we’ve camped just 20 km from the border – in between a lake and a roundabout. We reach Turkmenabat on the second to last day on our transit visa and we look for grocery stores before sunset: in the first one we buy just water, a tomato, yogurt and cheese. The first bill is surprisingly 190 manats (more than 10 dollars). Too much, we say and it becomes 38 manats. Second shop, we buy a lot more, but same scene in the end: 300 manats, too much, 60 manats, acceptable (but still high, we think). The funny thing is that they just divided by 5 the first amount they tried to take us. We read somewhere on the internet that the hotels charge 5 times the normal price if you are a tourist so maybe that’s the rule they try to apply for foreigners… Anyway, we crossed the country in 4 days and a half with about 15 dollars, which is ok for us.
Not much about Turkmenistan in these lines, right? Anyway, we learnt that the night in an almost desert area can be really humid, we got better at bargaining for prices, our passports have been checked more than 10 times in 5 days (including borders) and we felt the pressure of state control, even if everybody was always nice and smiling. And if you are on a bike, do not cross the country in summer, if you can: too hot and nothing along the road (the M37 after Bayramali is again in very poor conditions).
So… that was our time trial through the country, not always fun but another adventure for sure!
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