tisdag 7 maj 2013

The Turkmen Race

I got up early last Tuesday morning to be at the border as soon as possible since I only had five days to get through Turkmenistan on my transit visa. I was there at 6:30 only to find out that the border doesn’t open until 7:00. So I waited outside with at least 50 truck drivers until the gates opened and everyone rushed in. Luckily the truck drivers where going to the commercial hall so I was the first one to get to customs. But it didn’t help much that I got up so early since I had to wait for a customs worker for about 1,5 hour. And after he had looked in one of my bags I could get a stamp in my passport and cycle over a bridge and 1,5 km through no man’s land to the Turkmenistan border. And after showing my passport to 3-4 different people and waited about one hour for some document I only had to show my passport to one more person before a was free to go. By then it was eleven a clock and I felt I had to hurry up so that I would get somewhere on my first of five days. I was also hungry and didn’t have any Turkmen money, but that sorted itself out when I met tree nice men working at a railway crossing who invited me in for lunch and also helped me to find someone who could change my Iranian Rials to Turkmen Manat. It wasn’t that easy since most only changed dollars, but we found someone and even if the exchange rate for my Rials to Manat probably wasn’t very good I was still happy to get it sorted out and start cycling.

Because I was cycling west I didn’t have to deal with the ruthless wind from the north on my first day. The only problem was the condition of the roads, and they were really bad. Most of the time I was cycling in the gravel by the side of the road since it was a smoother ride. Even if I started cycling late I still managed to do 114 km on the first day. When it was time to find somewhere to sleep I stopped and asked some people in a small village. They didn’t even hesitate and just waved me in. The dinner was already ready so I sat down with Murat, the father of the house and had a good dinner and since I was now in Turkmenistan vodka goes with every meal.

The next day I got my first taste of the northern wind. The roads continued being bad and the surroundings more sandy. Two times a small sand tornado formed in front of me, the first one I could avoid by stopping but the other one came right at me. But I knew crossing Turkmenistan was going to be hard and because of the time pressure there was no other thing to do but to keep pushing on. In the evening I arrived in a village just outside of the city Mari. At the first house I came to I met an old lady who invited me in to stay with her. She had a nice house by Turkmen standards and a big garden with geese, chickens, bunnies and a couple of dogs. She emptied her fridge with all that she had and put it in front of me. And after a long tough day I was really hungry. And when washing off before going to bed I noticed how dirty I was and that I could scrape of layers of sand from my face.

After passing Mari the road got better but the wind kept on being strong. The speed was really slow, but I had made good distance the two other days and felt confident that I could make it to the border on Saturday. By lunchtime I was lucky to get invited by some nice people having a little pasty in a garden. There I had a big lunch and of course some vodka and when I left they filled my bag with so much food that I couldn’t close it and had to leave some behind. After this point villages got further and further apart so I had to be careful and make sure I had enough water since it was really hot. And the landscape had become sandier with sand dunes right next to the road. And many times I passed by some camels who looked very surprised to see me.
That evening I arrived in a small village and met two guys who were working with mobile network in a house next to the road. They let me stay there for the night and we had a nice dinner and tried to talk a little even if it was really hard since they didn’t knew any English. But I’m used to that by this time and somehow it’s still possible to communicate.
Again I headed out into the hot desert and into the wind. My speed was about 14 km/, and many times when I had picked up a little speed holes appeared on the road and I had to brake. It was really frustrating at times and I was day dreaming that I was cycling along the sea and could just stop at any time for a swim to cool off. But then a big truck passed by throwing a gust of wind at me bringing me back to reality. I also had a flat tire which wasn’t much fun to stop and fix under the hot desert sun.
There weren’t many villages along the way and since I was drinking a lot of water I needed a place to fill up. I came by a small village and asked a man I met for water. He gave me a bucket and pointed towards a well. Taking water from a well was a first for me on this trip, but I really needed water and didn’t have any other choice. That evening I thought I would sleep in my tent out in the desert, but in the distance I saw a tower and pushed on in hope that there would be a village there. And there was one and when cycling in I met two friendly bee keepers and one of them invited me in to sleep in his house. He didn’t speak a word of English and when I parked my bike by his house and sat down outside he went away and didn’t come back until 1,5 hour later. So I was sitting there watching the village life. People getting water from the well, arriving with donkeys pulling there carriage and all the noise from the animals around. It was relaxing sitting there as the sun set.
Eventually the man came back with his family, his wife and four little boys. But after a we sat by the train station that was right next to their house they went away again and told me to wait for them. One of their neighbors came by and invited me in for tea. But a cup of tea turned into a dinner and when the other man came back I was in the middle of a meal. But since he was so kind to invite me to begin with I couldn’t just leave even if the neighbors wanted me to stay with them instead. We walked down to the place where they kept the bees where his two uncles where. And they had been drinking one to many vodkas and I think that even if I could speak Turkmen fluently I probably wouldn’t be able to understand what one of them was saying.
It was now Saturday and my last day in my transit visa. I had about 60 km left to Turkmenabat and after that a bit more to the border. Once I reached Turkmenabat I had to ask a couple of times for the right way since they don’t have that many signs in Turkmenistan, I saw just a few during my five days there. I was longer then I had thought to the border and by the time I was there I had cycled 100 km during the day. The Turkmenistan side was fairly quick even if there are many people who need to see our passport. Luckily there where one soldier who spoke a little English and could help me fill out the customs paper since they didn’t have it in English. At the Uzbek side it took longer and in a little warm house I had to fill out more customs papers and show my passport three different times before I could continue to the customs house which was packed with people. And everyone tried to get through the metal detector at one. Eventually a fight broke out and the soldiers had to break it up. By then I was just sitting on a chair watching the madness. But it has its advantages being a tourist and a customs worker came up to me, looked at my papers and let me go. It was a relief to be in Uzbekistan where I had a 30 days visa and didn’t have to hurry at all. But I was tired after cycling 100 km and crossing the border. But I still had a bit left to a town where I planned to find somewhere to stay.
When I arrived there the sun was setting and at the first places I asked at they just told me to continue on the road to a hotel. And some guy’s even wanted me to load by bike in their taxi and that they would drive me 80 km to Bakhara. I had to say no many times and eventually just cycle away since they didn’t seem to understand that I didn’t want to take a taxi to Bukhara. When I arrived in in the little town of Alat a man waved me down and invited me in for tea. It turned out to be a birthday party for his sister and we ate a great meal and they let me sleep there for the night. The next morning wasn’t so good and I woke up feeling ill, and after trying to eat a little breakfast last night’s dinner came back up. After that I felt better and after resting for two hours I thought I could continue on cycling. But I didn’t get very far and asked for a hotel in the next town. I was told there would be one a little further on and after a while I arrived at a motel. It looked like it was closed and when I stopped outside I was met by a man who told me that the place was under construction. I explained my situation and he was kind to let me stay in a little house next to the motel. It was a small warm room filled with flies, but I was happy to have a place to rest and access to a bathroom that would be used frequently. The guys there where really helpful and checked up on me and brought me water. And this time it was bottled water and not some water from a well out in the desert which probably was the cause for my stomach problem. And when thinking back at it I don’t know why I was so stupid to not use the water purifying pills that I have in my bag. A lesson learned for the next time I’m in that situation.
I could keep down a little dinner and some breakfast in the morning. So I felt like I could continue the 60 km to Bukhara to get a hotel room where I could really relax. So off into the wind again and I was going really slowly since I didn’t have that much energy in my legs. But after many breaks along the way I made it here and managed to get a good price on a room with air-condition and my own bathroom. My stomach is still not okay and I’m planning to stay here until I’m 100% and ready for the road again. And I’m really looking forward to going east to the mountains since I feel I have had enough of desert for a while. 

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