Day: 1255Km Total: 9154Km
Before we get into our flight through Turkmenistan I think a brief history of the country is in order to create some perspective.
After gaining its independence from the USSR in 1991 it has been ruled by a megalomaniac who inspired a cultish following. Some of his more bizarre rulings being renaming the months of the year after himself and his mother, as well as banning opera, the circus and beards. His book, the Ruhnama is compulsory reading for school children and on top of that an exam must be sat on the contents of the book in order to obtain a drivers licence. Since 2007 his successor has loosened many of his laws but has still managed to win 2 five year terms in elections widely considered as undemocratic.
All this however does not detract in the slightest from the magical desert landscape it sits in and the almost legendary hospitality and friendliness of the local turkmen. If you can find any that is of course.
The first thing to greet us as we rode out of port was sand, endless expanses of sand with not a soul in sight. We were beginning to realise we were in new terrain altogether and Uzbekistan tomorrow wasn’t going to be an easy deadline to make. The heat was phenomenal. It shimmered across the road in shifting mirages whilst silent dunes stretched past the horizon. The only signs of life being the tenacious scrub valiantly defying the harsh land and the odd Camel eating said scrub for breakfast. We were well and truly in the desert. And it was Hot!
Despite the heat we were making rather good progress, much better than the camels steadfastly plodding along in our dust clouds anyway. And eventually, after a couple of hours of road that makes both the eyes and the mind wander, signs of life and civilisation began to appear. It was an odd scene however. Stark white government buildings dominated, schools seemed abundant but the newly built swings and playgrounds seemed deserted of the childish laughter that should have graced such a sight. If there’s one word I could use to describe it it would be sterile. Real village life has been hidden from sight of the main road and one really has to venture deep into town to find the smiles we’ve heard so much about.
Not soon after, when we were actually starting to think this whole desert in a day wasn’t such a big deal after all the first puncture, emphasis on first, came along. We’re still not entirely sure what happened to Bruce’s front wheel to make that poor front thing give up so rapidly but one minute we were happily trundling along and the next we were pulled over n the side of the road changing tubes whilst sneaking peaks at our first fiery desert sunset. This was also when we first tarted to experience the locals friendliness, almost every car pulled over to see what was wrong and we even got an offer to spend the night with one family and travel with them in the morning.
Unfortunately Uzbekistan waits for no man and so off we drove with our newly patched tyre. Eventually at around 21:30 we finally managed to stumble into Ashgabat, the Capital and just under the halfway mark through the country.
Ashgabat itself is truly surreal. White marble streets march through the pristine city. Fountains and gilded statues adorn every corner and imported trees from all over the world grace the boardwalks. However there’s no one enjoying the promenades, sitting on the park benches or dipping hot toes into the cooling fountains. Its an empty city. The only locals to be seen are the hordes of cleaners tirelessly slaving to keep the place pristine. whilst the apartments lie empty as no one can afford to live in them. Its only once you hit the outskirts at some imagined line that real life once again resumes and the ramshackle buildings or the poor are once again allowed to flourish. Unfortunately photos are also banned… Obvioulsy.
Trying to Leave Ashgabat was a nightmare in itself, bare in mind it was now 23:00. If there’s one piece of advice I can impart on anyone travelling through Turkmenistan it’s don’t take the road signs too literally. They are seriously optimistic. A signed 3 lane highway to Dashogouz dramatically turned into a 1 lane pothole nightmare to nowhere within minutes. Basically the signs are there to let you know its going to be really great someday when we have this road through here but in the mean time you’re seriously screwed…
Eventually, overly optimistic road signs and all we made it out and we were off again back into that vast expanse of nothingness that is the desert. We’d planned to stop by now to be honest but with all the delays, time was not on our side and both feeling rather chipper after our forced days of rest aboard the ferry we pressed on. Bathed in the light of the millions of stars that can only be seen in the desert and with temperatures at a much ore comfortable level we had smiles on our faces and were really enjoying the smooth roads. Until they weren’t so smooth.
Potholes started to develop. At first they were just your bog standard potholes, ones you could navigate around and if you did by chance hit them the suspension would do all the work and you’d feel a little bump nothing to worry about. Then they started to change. They became bloody mutant potholes! monsters that I’m sure whole trucks have disappeared into. Bruce managed to bend a rim, possibly destroy his bearings on the front wheel and I think the likelihood of either of us fathering children has been severely diminished. Suffice it to say we slowed down. A lot.
It was a long night of horrible roads and weary bodies intermingled with many roadside stops at the local fires for strong coffees and some smiles. We were also feeling rather downtrodden unfortunately after our failed attempts at finding the Dervaza Gas Crater in the dark. I mean its a big bloody whole in the ground thats been on fire for the last 50 years, you’d think it would be easy to find, alas not for 2 weary bikers.. It was then just as light was dawns first light was touching the horizon the desert gave us a little surprise to lift the spirits. A camel train with hundreds of camels straight-out of the pages of a story book was winding its way through the dunes with the only thing seeming to have changed in the last hundred years is the herders now ride motorcycles. It was a surreal sight in the early morning light and we just sat and watched transported back to another time.
After that it was unanimously decided by the fact of both of as tumbling off the bikes, in a rather synchronised and graceful fashion in some heavy sand I might add, that it was time for breakfast in the dunes. And so the we sat lounging on the cool morning sand sipping on some strong freshly brewed Italian coffee watching the sun crest the dunes with not a single sign of humanity anywhere to be seen besides the snaking road itself. It was beautiful.
Unfortunately our trials through Turkmenistan were’t quite over yet and once again our high was followed by another low, not long at all after breakfast Bruce’s front wheel blew.. Again… And so another hour of our precious time in the country was gobbled up changing tyres and fixing tubes. It wasn’t all doom and gloom however as the generosity of the Turkmen people shone through once again with every car, truck and donkey pulled over to offer aid or just say hi. The donkey did have someone on it. It wasn’t just a donkey offering to change our tyre although considering our lack of sleep it wouldn’t really have been surprising if there was.
It was now around 11:00 and we still had a fair bit of the way to go but luckily the roads started to improve slightly, contextually speaking that is, they were still a nightmare! So we were making decent time and only had one final hurdle to cross before the border. Running out of fuel. Yup thanks to all our shenanigans in the desert we were coasting along on vapours. The orange fuel light had been glaring at us ominously for the last 40km and it was too much for tired and mentally drained minds to take. Fortunately the universe thought we’d been put through enough recently and round the next corner out popped a fuel station. I could have kissed the fuel attendant.
So with fuel in the bikes and another 3 litres of water in each of us we finally made it to the border at around 3pm. 24 hours after leaving the ferry.
All in all we managed to transit the country without getting arrested, deported or our bikes impounded. We didn’t even have to spend a single bribe so I think we’ll call Turkmenistan a resounding success..