After my thorough questioning by the Iranian border staff, I cycled over to Turkmenistan. They didn’t seem to care that (having now switched back to my UK passport), it looked like I’d just magically arrived at the border with not a single other stamp in my passport. They had many more important things to do…
Like being idiots.
They really couldn’t work out what nationality I was. The first guy stared blankly at the text on my cover that reads: ‘United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland’. Fairly clear, no? He asked me ‘country?’ and I said UK, pointing at the passport. Another blank stare… ‘Ireland?’ ‘No… United Kindgdom’. Another blank stare… ‘Netherlands?’ What!? ‘No! England. Great Britain….’
Still nothing registering. I listed every description I could: ‘I’m English, British. Anglia, Inglalis, Britania’. Eventually he called his boss over who repeated something similar to one of the words I’d just used and he wrote it into a huge notebook.
Then I had to go and see the doctor. It took him a good moment to work out my country too. Eventually he figured out the riddle and slowly wrote all my details down in another huge notebook filled with millions of handwritten passport details. I wonder when they’ll discover computers and scanners in this country? He did have one fancy device though – this little gun-shaped thing that he pointed into my eye to check if I was sick (I assume). It seemed I was all clear and allowed to continue. I’d been worried I might have picked up Ebola somewhere on this trip – good to know any contagious diseases in the world can be checked at the click of this little gun (which someone told me is actually a temperature scanner).
Then over to another young soldier who struggled with my nationality as well. This time I just sighed, gave a tired nod and watched as he wrote my citizenship down as Ireland. Perhaps I’m just the first UK passport they’ve seen in a long time at this border. The only way Brits can get into Iran is with a guided tour and I doubt many of the few who do that continue into Turkmenistan where they would also need an expensive guide holding their hand the whole time unless they were just transiting.
I had to show my passport to another couple of people. It was getting silly now. To one I had to pay my ‘welcome to Turkmenistan’ tax of $12 (not a scam – everyone has to pay this), on top of my already extortionate transit visa fee. It’s now cost me $97 dollars to get into this country – outrageous. That’s nearly $20 a day. Guess how much I spent during my five days in Turkmenistan? About $20…
The final ‘passport checker’ stared intently at my photo and then looked me in the eyes. You know that awkward ‘checking-you-out’ stare that border staff do everywhere around the world? Then he did it again, and again, and again. Each time staring at my photo for 5 seconds and then at me for 5. I think my new beard is confusing them.
He asked me where I was staying. I tried to remember what I’d written on my application and replied ‘Hotel Mary’, despite not having any intention of staying there. ‘Booking?’ I pointed to my bag hoping he wouldn’t call my bluff.
He did – ‘show me’. ‘Ah…’ I pretended not to understand. ‘I don’t actually have it booked but that’s where I’m going’. He didn’t look too impressed and picked up his phone, dialed a number and walked off…. uh oh!
But he did come back after a few minutes, studied my face again and then stamped me into the country – hurrah!
There was one more check point though – security. After waiting around for a while a woman called me over – ‘hello mister!’ Blimey – that’s a very official position for a woman. Would I have seen that in Iran? She had her hair out, arms showing, make up on – I was back in the normal world.
She checked my bags and carefully eyed the writing on my painkiller packs before I was finally let through. There wasn’t a moment to loose, and the border had already wasted too much of my day. I had only one thing to do in Turkmenistan – cycle.
There was simply no time for anything else.
I changed some money with some dodgy-looking fellas lurking around the border (who were desperately trying to get me in a taxi to Mary – do they know what a bicycle is?) and very soon I was all on my own again, cycling into the desert. I knew I could make the distance within the 5 days on my transit visa – it was more than possible. But there were three things that could jeopardise everything: wind, illness and bike problems.
Fortunately the latter two weren’t an issue – but the wind? Of course it was out to get me. Just as it has been every bloody day for the last month.
It was an exhausting cycle. Pushing as hard as I could, screaming into the wind in frustration as I watched my speedometer hover around the 10km/h mark. I wasn’t sure I’d be able to make it across the country if this persisted.
But everything was new and exciting in Turkmenistan – and that made it fun to cycle.
I’m always amazed at the difference a border can make. This morning I woke up in the Middle East and now I’m in Central Asia. A different race of people (finally into the squinty eyed world), different religion (Sunni rather than Shia Muslim), different food (Soviet slob is back), different architecture (everything so square) and different landscape (for the first time in many months everything around me was flat – no mountains in sight).
I stopped in a village stop to buy some cold water – there are less opportunities for that here. Unfortunately they don’t sell frozen water anywhere (apparently they believe drinking water too cold for you is unhealthy). I stepped into this shop and realised it doubled up as bar (like so many places do here). There was a drunk guy mumbling something holding a beer and a cig who offered me a ‘pivo’. I declined, but boy was I tempted. I’ve been dreaming about my first beer for a month now. Actually not being allowed to drink in Iran didn’t bother me at all, but the forbidden fruit always becomes more sexy – doesn’t it? For me, that was the beer.
I cycled on and was stopped a few times for photos. These two women wanted a snap with me. Women posing on their own with me? Not in Iran! The ladies here all wear these gorgeous dresses that couldn’t be more contrasting to those black cloak chadors that were everywhere in Iran.
And look at those figure hugging dresses! You’d be arrested by the morality police within 5 minutes if you left your house looking like that in Iran. I’m starting to realise how silly loads of things were in Iran, only now that I’ve left. But this is the best thing – just being able to be more natural with women around. The girls at the market I stopped at were even flirty – asking me were I was from and waving ‘goodbye Jonathan!’ when I left.
I cycled as far as I could into the wind but eventually light stopped play. I’d only managed 80km in 7 hours of pedaling. Not enough.
I found a small village called ‘there is a village here too’ on the map and stopped when I saw a shop/bar by the road. They let me pitch my tent in their back yard and I could finally get the beer I’d been dreaming of.
It was a Friday night after all!
My first day cycling in Turkmenistan had been somewhat of a disaster, but I did have a reason to celebrate. The bike was now mine! Let me explain…
At the end of last December I was getting to within a fortnight of the leaving date I’d settled on. I’d barely sorted anything, including the most important thing I need to cycle round the world – a bicycle! I wanted to buy a good touring bike second hand – they cost a fortune new and I figured that, seeing as they’re built to last, a used one would be fine. I didn’t (and still don’t) have a clue about bikes but I’d written a few brands down, estimated a frame size and spent each night after work trawling through Ebay and Gumtree trying to find something.
I wanted to spend max £500 but I was running out of time. My poor old man had to listen to me whinging about how much they cost while I looked online every night. I’d found one that looked perfect but it was just outside my budget. Probably tired of having to listen to me complaining, he told me to wait until after Christmas before buying anything, so I did. Xmas came, and he showed me the boxed up bike that I’d been eyeing up. He told me that he wasn’t giving it to me, but rather that the bike was his and he’d loan it to me. For every 10 miles I cycled he’d minus £1 off the debt. Well – today I crossed the mark, and the bicycle (a Dawes Galaxy) is now mine.
So I deserved my beer and I sat with the guy working there who was about my age I think. He gave me a strange looking white ball that looked like one of those posh chocolate truffles and told me to eat it and then quickly drink my beer. I obliged and discovered it was a ball of very strong dry cheese – you needed the beer to get that down! I declined the second one offered…
He pointed to my pocked and asked to see my phone. Everyone always wants to see my phone all the time, I don’t get the obsession – I think they just want to see how rich I am. Usually I just show them my old Nokia and they look very dissapointed, but on this occasion my iPhone was in my pocket so I passed it over and he asked to see my pictures. Clearly bored by a zillion snaps of my bike on different roads he then switched to videos which were also clearly very boring. During one I’d filmed in a club he starting slightly humping the fridge he was sat on. I thought he was asking if I’d had sex with either of the girls in the video, but then he put the phone down so he could more explicitly poke his index finger throgh the circle he’d made with his other hand. I realised he was asking me if I had any porn on my phone! I laughed and apologised for not having any. Even if I did – I can’t think of anything more awkward than me and him sitting there watching through my porn collection!
I continued on to Mary the next day. The wind wasn’t as much of a nightmare, but it was still a very long day of more than 8 hours cycling. Even when there’s no wind it’s still impossible to cycle at any pace on these rubbish roads!
I arrived at the edge of town shortly before dark. An old guy walked past pushing his bike and giving me a ‘cylist-to-cyclist’ thumbs up. He pointed to his flat tire and I showed him I had a pump. He already had one, but mimed that the tube had a puncture. Finally I have a chance to help someone else for once on this trip! It would be getting dark soon, but I was happy to have the chance to actually do someone else a favor after drowning in generosity over the last month. As we repaired his tube a young guy walked over who spoke English. Amazing! No-one seems to speak a word of English in this country.
I asked him if he knew of anywhere around town I could camp or maybe find a cheap hotel. He said he wasn’t from town, but that his mate would be turning up any minute and he might be able to help me. His pal rocked up and also spoke perfect Englsih (they’d both studied in Istanbul). He invited me for dinner which I gladly accepted. I’d just planned on cycling and not wasn’t worrying about any cultural exploration in Turkmenistan, so to have met someone local who spoke such good English seemed a miracle. I think I’m starting to believe in karma!
We went to a nearby restaurant where everyone ate in private booths. My new mate hardly ate a bit but of course insisted on paying for everything. You could order individual cigarettes, which I found amusing. I learned that the president has basically given everyone a two year heads-up to quit smoking – in 2016 smoking anywhere in public will be illegal. And there are a lot of smokers here…
I tried to piece together an image of what Turkmenistan is all about, but all I ended up was an even stranger picture. Prior to arriving, I just knew that Turkmenistan is one of the hardest countries to get into as a foreigner – described in one place I saw as ‘the North Korea of Central Asia’. My new companion worked for a company that had arranged for an Italian guy to come over for work and even on a ‘business visa’ he wasn’t allowed to go anywhere outside of the town where he was stationed.
Some of the things I’d learnt from flicking through a Lonely Planet: The funny ex-president/dictator had renamed himself Turkmenbashi (leader of the Turkmen), he’d erected gold statues of himself all over the country, renamed months of the year (and other random things like bread) after his family members, banned ballet and listening to music in cars among other things. Weird, right?
Anyway, I learnt a lot over this meal – but most interesting was the fact that people don’t pay for their water, electricity and gas in this country. That one surprised me. I asked if their tax is high, but was then even more surprised to here that they don’t pay tax here! I thought it was impressive to see air conditioning units on all the village homes (and even those yurts I camped next to my first night [see above pic]) – but that makes a little more sense now.
It’s funny how it’s always the small things that interest me most. I told him that I couldn’t believe how pathetic the men’s handshakes are here. Honestly – the limpest things ever! I read an article a few years ago about job interviewers judging candidates immediately on the strength of their handshakes and if that’s the case none of these Turkmen would have much of a chance getting a job. Apparently it’s a respect thing. You shouldn’t give someone a good squeeze. Maybe an older man can give you a proper grip, but you should shake his hand with both of your hands to say ‘OK- your the boss, I respect you!’
I was invited to stay at his family home in a village nearby and the best part was getting a shower – I was in need of one! It was one of the fanciest showers I’ve ever seen – pipes coming out all over the place. I guess that’s what you do when water and electricity is free. I made sure I took a long time in there and then charged every electrical item I have – anything to get ‘my money’s worth’ from this government who’ve charged me almost $100 to get in!
Had such a good evening – thrilled to have experienced at least a small slice of life in Turkmenistan. But it came at a price, I only got 5 hours sleep in as I had to leave at the crack of dawn.
I was in invited for coffee in a tyre shop on the way out of Merve which I reluctantly accepted. They tried to get me to stay for lunch but there was no way I could part with any more time than a quick drink. ‘Have time, have time!’ they said. Time is the one thing I definitely don’t have in this country! I was given a packed lunch instead which I was very grateful for.
It was more than 200km through the desert to the next town, which took me two exhausting days to cross. Just the usual struggle in the heat and wind. Occasionally I’d find a bush to hide under for some shade or occasionally there’d be a roadside cafe with air conditioning.
Water was the main concern, and I constantly had liters and liters strapped to my bike. There were couple of villages in between Mary and Turkmenabaat. One had a shop but the second just a big well for water. Luckily a local guy found me ‘the bucket’ and I could fill up my many bottles again for the onward stretch.
I made to to about 70km from the border on my fourth day. Good – I didn’t want to be any further away than that. Just in case.
I stopped to check out the bazaar just before Turkmenabaat. Whereas I’d been drowning in fruit in Iran, in Turkmenistan none of the shops seemed to have anything more exotic than potatoes, onions and tomatoes. I assumed the bazaar would have a wider selection and I also figured that I should check it out considering as this was one of the five bazaar patterns that are pictured on the Turkmenistan flag (one for each town). But, it was super disappointing. In Iran I loved the bazaars but this one just felt very polished and sterile (like everything in the country and the only fruit I could find was apples).
Cycling through Turkmenabaat was very odd. I’d hardly seen any of Mary so this was my first glimpse of Turkmen town. It was how I imagined – huge futuristic white buildings bursting from the pavements either side of wide boulevards. I can’t really describe how strange it was. If you’ve watched The Hunger Games, then I’d say it reminded me of the capital in that. Ridiculously flashy and artificially imperial.
It was like one designer had created the whole city overnight. Everything had the same white & gold colour theme – from the dustbins, to the bus stops, government buildings and even the electricity stations!
I’d made it, all the way across the country within my five days. I turned north for the last section and the wind angled in to me as if to say ‘you might have made it, but I’m not quite done with you’. As I crawled at snails pace to the border, all I could think was – I’ve had enough now. It’s been fun, but this summer has been exhausting. I’m tired of the heat, the desert and the wind. I can’t wait to get up in the mountains again.
I exited the country in a similar manner to my arrival – half a dozen guys checking my passport and writing stuff down in their books. I had to show my camera and they looked through every bloody photo – luckily they weren’t offended by a zillion photos of me, my bike and my tent in the desert.
The guy with the stamp wasn’t convinced at all that I was the same person. I can probably forgive him for that – my hair has changed so much in my different photos that I look exactly like someone trying to hide their identity. He let me go after a lot of staring, but after I walked 5 meters away he called out and the soldier stopped me by the door. I turned around and he beckoned me over asking to see my passport. He did a lot of looking again, and then asked to see any other photos I had of myself. I showed him some on my camera, pointed to the permanent hole in my ear lobe and nose piercing on the pictures and that seemed to convince him. Finally I was out of Turkmenistan.
What a confusing experience that was…