The Race Across Turkmenistan


Since I could only get a 5 day transit visa to cross Turkmenistan, I needed to race across the 550km between Uzbekistan and Iran on the road that winds primarily through the arid Garagum desert at the east end of the country.I had thought that it would be plenty of time, since the road is mainly flat, and figured I could do it in 3 or 4 days. But I hadn’t figured on the wind.

I got to the Uzbek border having already raced from Samarquand and after underestimating some of the distances, I unfortunately arrived just as the guards were packing up for a 2 hour lunchbreak. I impatiently sat with the truckers in nomansland, as this hanging around time was eating into the first of my five days. By the time I got through customs it was late afternoon and a storm was on me so I had to battle trough the lashing rain and strong winds laden with sand. By nightfall, I had only managed to do 40km to the town of Turkmenabad.

I was up with the lark when the air was cold and crisp as the sun had not yet risen over the horizon. I stopped in the huge local market to get provisions – where I nearly got lost – and left after procuring 4 loaves of bread, a kilo of biscuits, coke and water. As I left the town, I wondered why I was  going so slowly, but when I looked at my trusty wind vane (my flag), I found that I was cycling into a headwind. Bollox, I thought; as the road was almost perfectly straight for 300km, so there was no chance of escaping the wind. I plodded along through the sandy desert, dotted with prickly bushes, tumbleweed and not much else. At a speed of only 19km/hr, the scenery passed slowly and I soon got very bored. As I came over the top of each rise to look upon the same bleak landscape, I joked to myself saying “change the channel, I’ve seen this one already, it’s crap” and by doing the clichéd Irish policeman impression – must be done in leprechaun accent –
“notting te see heare folks”. Yeah, bad jokes I know, but I had nothing else to keep me interested.

For the first couple of days I just ate bread for breakfast and lunch and pasta for dinner, though the bread I had wasn’t very filling or nourishing, as Rentboy said in the film Trainspotting: “for all the good it’ll do me, I may as well stick it up my arse”. The unrelenting headwind continued but sometimes it veered to the side, blowing odd whisps of sand across the road, like a kind of horizontal waterfall made of sand. The sand got everywhere, in my eyes and ears and crunched in my teeth every time I ate.

After one long tiring day I rolled off the road to find a campspot, but found that the whole of the sand crater I’d selected was undermined with burrows of some sort. I had heard that the Garagum desert is home to various poisonous snakes and spiders so I prudently chose a different campspot, though I didn’t move as far away as I should have as I hadn’t the energy to drag my laden bike through the deep soft sand. Following heavy rain one night, I found that my tent was surrounded by ankle deep mud. My tyres got completely clogged by 4 inches thick of the sticky goop and it took my around 20 minutes to wrestle my bike to the road. I looked a state too, my waterproofs were completely covered in crud, it looked as if someone had let the sh*t hit the fan, and pointed the fan at me!

On the last day, I still had 110km to cover to the border. The wind didn’t seem to want me to leave, being particularly strong, and direcly from the front. By then I had done over 1000km cycling non stop (since Samarquand) and the available power in my legs was diminishing. I had to push really hard to get to the border before it closed, and at times, I thought I wouldn’t make it. Even to keep a speed of 16km/hr on the flat, I had to pedal as if I was climbing in the Andes. FoIlowing one of the hardest days pedalling I’ve had, I finally reached th border at 4:10pm on the last day of my visa, but to be told: “sorry, the border shut at 4:00pm, you’re 10 minutes late”. My heart dropped like a stone!

I had been in the saddle for 7 hours a day for the last 8 days, my legs were aching, and my face was covered in a thick grime of sweat and mud, and to have some border guard dressed in military fatigues say with a cheerful face that you cannot pass, is bloody infuriating. I managed to get speaking to a friendly lady guard who spoke English and after explaining my situation, she kindly let me through.

My troubles weren’t over though, the muppets in the embassy in Tashkent had staated the wrong exit border on my visa (you need to select where you’ll enter and exit in advance) and the big burly guy behind the desk just kept saying “big problem, big problem”. All I needed was for him to stamp my passport – not a big deal – and I could carry on. They took me into a back room under the pretense that they would phone the guys in Asgabat. I knew he wanted a bribe, but I only had a $50 note in my wallet and some various smaller notes, I don’t think they give change. We stood in a standoff for some minutes, him just repeating “big problem” and me shrugging my shoulders like a Frenchman, but finally it ended when he said $10. “Ah, no problem” I said, as if I just realised he wanted money. We went outside, he stamped my passport – definately not a big problem – and once I had the passport in my hands, I gave the shyster some local currency and some crumbled
unusable dollars that I’ve had since Ecuador then sped across nomansland before he realised that I’d only given him around $6 in usable money.

After a long wait in Iran customs, where the guy seemed to think that both my passport and Iran visas were fake, and that I was mascarading as some other beardless version of myself (my passport photo being taken 3 years ago, when I had no beard), but finally I rolled outside into the border town of Serakhs. I never thought it would be with such relief that I would arrive in Iran.


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