By our usual recent standards we had a bit of a lie in. The border doesn’t open until 8 and we only had 15 kilometres to go to reach it so there was no point in leaving too early. The couple who’s shelter we slept next to offered us breakfast so we ate, gave then the last of our Uzbek Som and then headed to the border.
It took us three hours to cross. An hour and a half to leave Uzbekistan. They x rayed and then searched our bags. Taking out my camera and laptop for inspection and seemingly everything else. Luckily they started with me and as usual my bags were in a state. Half eaten loaves of bread- well you never know when you might get hungry. Plastic bags filled with broken biscuits and herbs and spices. A spare chain and cassette. Inner tube. Insect repellent. About half way through I think they got bored of the chaos spread out in front of them and let us go and they only had a cursory glance through Kim’s stuff.
Then we cycled through no man’s land, past the lines of waiting trucks and into Turkmenistan and into the imposing border building. It was rather chaotic inside. A crowd of truck drivers paying their entrance tax and getting their paperwork sorted. The guy at the desk asked if we were tourists and then seemed rather taken aback when we said yes. He told us to wait while he spoke to his boss about what to do with us and then proceeded to do everything but talk to his boss. It was only afterwards that I realised we should have explained that we had a transit visa and not a tourist visa. To obtain a tourist visa you have to book a tour and have a guide take you everywhere. Eventually he worked out for himself that we weren’t in fact not tourists but transiters, explained we must take the direct route between the border crossings we specified, and stamped our passports after we’d paid $12 apiece for the entrance tax. After another check of our bags we were free to enter Turkmenistan and the clock was already ticking down on the five days and 480 km we had in which to cross the country.
By this time it was 11 am and already baking hot. The stiff wind that would be our almost constant companion over the next few days was already blowing. And fortunately it would be our friend, as it was blowing, as it nearly always does from the north east and we were heading south West. We got a small taster of what it must be like to come from the opposite direction as the road looped round back into itself around the town of Farab. It wasn’t pleasant. The thought of having to battle that for five days was not appealing and it was a relief when the road curved back once more.
We decided to head into Turkmenabad and take a break for lunch. It was another Soviet era industrial town. Rather dusty and grey and with no restaurants. At least not on the route we took. We had crossed virtually the whole city before we found a place and hungrily devoured some Russian food in the air-conditioned oasis of the cafe. Then retired to the oven like conditions in the courtyard for a nap on one of the topchans (bed like table thing). As we snoozed the wind grew even stronger blowing clouds of dust down the Street and over us.
We hit the road again at 3:30. In other places we’d been it had started to cool down at this time, but not Turkmenistan. It was still baking hot and with a tail wind we didn’t even have the usual movement of air you create while cycling to cool us down. We stocked up on some provisions at the market as this was the last settlement for almost 200 km and headed out of the city. By around 5:30 we had reached the first café on the road and we tumbled into its air-conditioned haven, ordering cold drinks and then dinner because I was too lazy to cook. The place was run by a woman and her two daughters and was excessively over-priced at least for our first few orders. Although the prices dropped after we got to know them. After we’d finished eating the owner asked us, using sign language, if we’d like to go swimming. Reflecting on the scrubby desert extending for miles all around with nary a puddle never mind a place to swim in we look back rather confusedly. But she mimed that we would drive there and a few minutes later they were locking up the café in preparation for our departure. Much to the displeasure of the driver who’d just turned up to find the only café within 50km was closed so that the owners could go for a swim!!!. We headed back the way we had come, covering the distances we’d sweated over for hours in a few minutes, all the way back to Turkmenabad. We pulled up to one of the wide, fast flowing irrigation canals that allows the desert to bloom in this arid country. The water was a muddy brown from all the silt suspended in it, but it was oh so refreshing when we plunged into it. It was great to let the waters wash away our sweaty toils. It was dark when we returned and retrieved our bikes from the café so we pitched our tent just behind.
In order to beat the heat we were up shortly after 3 am struggling to break camp in the pitch black night and on the road at 4. In hindsight that was a little early as it was dark for more than an hour and our torches weren’t the best. The road was wide with a shoulder but there were no markings and it was a little rough so it was a challenge avoiding the bumps and staying out of the gravel at the sides. It was wonderful seeing the stars fade and the horizon behind us lighten and then burst into colour as the sun popped up. And it was wonderfully wonderfully cool. But almost as soon as the sun appeared it began to warm up. After revising the starting time by half an hour it wold be a routine we would follow over the next few days.
The terrain wasn’t flat either but rather like a series of folds in a rug. Not high but with a bit of a pull to get to the top. The landscape was almost interesting with a series of low sand sculpted dunes covered in thick bushy scrub. And rounding a corner we came across a herd of camels grazing peacefully. They were nonplussed by our arrival allowing us up close without even breaking their chewing rhythm. As the sun rose higher so did the breeze which was barely noticeable when we started and by lunchtime it was blowing fiercely. So strong that it blew Kim’s bike over as we lunched under the arch welcoming us to the next province. The only patch of shade we’d seen all day. After lunch we pushed on planning to get some distance on before it got to hot but 20km later we succumbed to the lure of a sign saying Café / Hotel and the friendly staff were soon ushering us towards our own private yurt. It was hot outside. Perhaps the hottest we’d experienced so far on the trip. But inside an air conditioner was pumping out gloriously cool air. Filling the spacious interior and escaping out through the cracks in the door and walls and roof. Incredibly wasteful, but not something the owners probably cared about as electricity and gas is provided free by the authorities. Hardly an incentive to promote energy efficiency. Although this climate change activist was also past caring right at that moment. We stayed in that lovely bubble of coldness for around 3 hours and 30 km later bumped into our first cyclist coming the other way. She’d set off with a Swiss couple but the constant battle against the wind had got too much for them and they’d bailed at Mary and hopped on a train. She was remarkably cheery given how hard the wind was blowing and told us she had been trying to ride during the night both after the sunset and before sunrise as that was when the wind was lightest.
We camped in the middle of the desert and next day we rattled off the 100 km to Mary by lunchtime including a whistle-stop tour of the ancient city of Merv. It was once one of the most important cities on the Silk Road, it used to be the biggest city in the world and was thought at one stage to house over a million residents. Sacked by Genghis Khan only the crumbing ramparts of the city walls remain. The sheer expanse of the city is impressive enough though, it took us more than half an hour to circle the walls trying to imagine the once great city that had risen where now the Shepard and his flock kicked up smoky plumes from the dusty earth.
The contrast with the city of Mary was striking. The mud and dust gave way to white marble monuments to another central Asian dictatorship. Wide largely deserted boulevards and the gaudy white blocky monuments to bureaucratic excess. A Regime who were especially keen to erase the monuments to the Soviet past are as equally keen to erect monuments to their own brutal rule. Sadly they haven’t seen fit to remove the Hotel Sanjar which was constructed in 1985 and not much has been changed since including the level of service from the staff. Our grubby room was probably the height of fashion 30 years ago, at least in the Soviet Union anyway. It was easily the most expensive place we stayed in central Asia and the worst and to add insult to injury they insisted on being paid in dollars. I don’t think I’ve been anywhere in the world where they refuse to accept the local currency. And of course the service was terrible. The doorman didn’t help with any of our bags or bicycles but then insisted on following us around to check where we were putting our bikes and then our luggage. I now know why the dictatorship is so keen to discourage tourism it’s to save people the misfortune of having to stay in any of their hotels. And yet for all its faults it still beat having to camp in the desert for 5 nights straight. But only just.
After settling in I headed to the market to buy some fruit and veg . After selecting a few tasty looking items the woman typed the price into her calculator. 55 mmmm that’s odd $1 is 3.5 Manats and what I bought would normally only cost a couple of dollars she must mean 5.5. So I hand over a tenner, but she indicates she wants one more. Confused I give her another 1 Manat and she’s happy with that. But I’m not. How can 55 = 11 and why would you give someone who was obviously a stranger the price in a former currency and expect them to convert it. I wandered off with a perplexed look on my face pondering if that really happened or if four days of cycling one hundred kilometres in the blazing sun had started to twist my mind. Then the man at the next stall did the same thing. Four pears 29 on the calculator so I hold up 3 fingers he says yes and I count out 3 one Manat notes. Then he looks at me like I’m stupid and indicates that 2 pears would be 3 Manats, 4 pears would cost… Well I never did find out it was doing my head in so much. I took my 3 notes back and left the pears sitting on his scales. The woman at the stall next door weighed my pears, held up 7 fingers I handed over 7 Manat and that was the correct price. More expensive than next door but a lot less confusing.
When we return to our room after dinner there was a note pinned on the door from the Australian cyclists who were in the room next door but one so we headed over for a chat. They had been travelling by bike for the last couple of years and were on a last hurrah through Central Asia before returning to Australia. They were headed to Uzbekistan battling the wind. We’d arrived at around 1:30 while they’d got in at 8 having only covered 20 km more.
Next day the green irrigated farmland of Mary and surrounds continued for some time before getting drier. The morning was cloudy so it was pleasantly cool for riding. It was still relatively early when we encountered the most pleasant of the truck stops we’d seen. Situated in a shady grove of trees with comfy topchans on which to lie on. Kim was in her element and when one of the tastiest kebabs we’d had eaten turned up so was I. Reluctantly we left the glorious shade and pushed on to the collection of cafes where the old road to the border town of Serahs branches off. We chose a shady spot and settled down for some serious lounging around while we waited for the expected afternoon heat to arrive and dissipate. However it never really turned up. By mid-afternoon it had clouded over again and was threatening to rain. We still had 100 km to cover before the border so decided to hit the road. Having heard mixed reports about the road I was a little apprehensive as we turned off the main highway and onto the back road to the border. I needn’t have worried. It turned out to be the best part of the whole journey through Turkmenistan. The road was in poor condition in places with huge craters and an uneven surface, but in other parts it was reasonable. And definitely worth taking for the 30km it cuts off from taking the main road. There was virtually no traffic and we passed through some delightful scenery. Fertile green fields and marshy wetlands created by the irrigation waters which teemed with birdlife. It helped that it had just finished raining so was merely warm rather than sweltering. The sun was just dipping down to the flat horizon when we reached the 60km to go mark and pulled into a salt encrusted canal to camp. Testament to the salinisation problem which afflicts much of the region.
Turkmenistan is probably the central Asian country most at risk from climate change. Almost the whole country has a desert climate with less than 250 mm of rain per year and 80% lacks a constant source of surface water flow. In fact the country is heavily dependent on river and irrigation canal flows from Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. 90% of the countries water is used for irrigation and like it’s neighbours the sector is incredibly wasteful both from aging infrastructure and ancient techniques. This has already lead to the salinisation of many areas with as much as 10,000km2 of unusable salt flats being created in the past few decades. Just like Uzbekistan even small increases of temperature will pose serious problems for the country. Already Central Asia has the second largest rate of desertification in the world with between 8,000 to 10,000 km2 of new desert being created every year. With a greater rise in temperature the country will become uninhabitable and the country’s 5 million inhabitants forced to join the flood of refugees shifting northwards in search of cooler climes.
Next day was another early start and we’d rattled off the 60 km to the border by 10 am. It only took us 30 minutes to leave Turkmenistan. A quick glance and stamp of the passport. Did you travel on the Road to Mary? Yes. Do you have any antiquities? No. How much money do you have with you? Goodbye.
Getting into Iran however was a different matter. I was in trouble as soon as I arrived. An official indicating his displeasure at my shorts and signalling I must change into trousers before proceeding any further. So I quickly zipped on the bottoms of my convertible trousers and handed over my passport which was whisked away to another office and we were told to wait. Ten minutes later an official appeared. “Meester you were born in England?” Well Scotland but I’m not about to start arguing. “Meester you have England passport” Yes. “Give me passport” British citizens like their American counterparts are unable to travel independently within Iran. Related no doubt to their sordid history of overthrowing democratically elected governments and treating Iranian oil as their own. So I had applied using my Australian passport and neglected to inform them of my Britishness. I handed over the document and waited nervously while he disappeared back into his office. He returned a few minutes later and asked my occupation and our route through Iran. More waiting. Just as I was running through the options for deportation in my head he returned with my passport, handed it over and said “welcome to Iran”. The customs official who had fastidiously refused to allow the old ladies ahead of us to import more than the allowed number of carpets gave our belongings a cursory look over and then start to tell us about an unmissable Caravansary that we absolutely must see on our route to Mashad. And we were in Iran.