A race across the desert in Turkmenistan
1 April, 2011 14 Comments
After the luxury of having two whole months to cross Iran our next country was a slightly more time pressured affair as we only had a five-day transit visa to cycle the 500km across Turkmenistan. Plenty of cyclists have managed this in the past but we aren’t exactly the fastest pair of cyclists in the world so we ordered a nice tailwind to help us along.
Day one started badly – I got a puncture whilst still in Iran and then snapped the crucial spanner that removes our wheels. We dashed madly around the border town looking for a replacement while the time was ticking on our five day visa. Not a single shop sold spanners, but after a stressful hour a welder gave me his as a gift and refused to accept any money. We thanked our lucky stars at this final piece of Iranian generosity and legged it to the border.
Iranian passport control was an absolute shambles – getting an exit stamp involved putting our passports into a pile with about 50 others and then competing with crowds of truck drivers trying to persuade the guard to process their passport next. My Del-boy Farsi left us at a bit of a disadvantage here. I’m not the most patient person at the best of times, but knowing that every hour wasted in here was making our task more difficult meant I was pulling my hair out.
With a precious half day wasted at the border we were finally able to start cycling, but ominously the weather was cold and a stiff wind was blowing directly into our faces. For the first day and a half we took a shortcut away from the transit route used by the lorries. The road was little more than a bumpy gravel track at times and cuts through empty sandy desert. No cars passed us for two hours before we camped in a large ditch hidden from the road. It was spectacular being so alone in such a landscape, but the poor roads and strong headwind had taken their toll on our speed and we’d only managed a paltry 50km before dark.
We woke the next morning to a manically flapping tent which instantly told us the wind was still around. Which direction was it going? I stuck my head outside – ah yes, a headwind, obviously. We started cycling but a quick bit of maths told us that we were in serious danger of not being able to reach the border in time.
Days two, three and four were much the same. The headwind persisted and we set ourselves a brutal regime in order to give it our best shot. Each day we set the alarm for 5:30am, packed the tent in the dark, cycled all day with a constant headwind through sandy desert, then pitched the tent in the dark. After the tent was up and dinner eaten it was nine hours until we had to start cycling again so it was straight into the sleeping bags; our books and diaries stayed untouched in Turkmenistan.
My morale was at an all-time low on the morning of day three; we began cycling in the dark, we were miles behind schedule and the sodding headwind was blowing sleet into my face. The thought of having to cycle all day and into the night was appalling.
We stopped at a shop as we cycled through a town. Bottles of water were spaced out to fill the the shelves along one wall and we were offered meat from a plastic carrier bag sitting on the counter. After politely refusing, Bex bought 1.1kg of cookies before we got back on the bikes. The cookies were fully consumed within 48 hours and I don’t remember getting a look in.
I had no idea what to expect from the people in Turkmenistan but they seemed every bit as friendly as the Iranians we’d just left behind. Nearly everyone we passed gave us a wave and a big friendly smile, but tragically we had to blast straight past the many offers of tea and meals as our regime didn’t allow for that… We were already stretching our days into the dark at either end, a risky business on these abysmal potholed roads, and any extra stops would’ve meant more night cycling and less sleep.
We’d been automatically turning down regular offers of lifts from kind truck drivers for months, but now their big empty trailers just invited us to throw our bikes in. Suddenly it was torture as they drove away leaving us standing in the road with a sore arse, stiff legs and a long way to go. We realised we could be in Turkmenabat by evening, sipping a beer in a hotel with a day off tomorrow. Instead, we signed up for a few more days of nothing but cycling, eating and sleeping.
We set out to cycle from England to New Zealand without using other forms of transport. Obviously we have to take a boat or plane when we reach water, but from the start we’ve had the aim of an unbroken line of cycling from France to Singapore, one of the longest landmasses on Earth.
During those tough days in Turkmenistan I often thought about why we were insisting on making ourselves suffer. After all, what difference would it make if we hitched a lift for 300km of a 25,000km journey? We’d still see exactly the same roads but we could stop this horrible toil and use our spare time to meet some more Turkmen people and explore one of the cities. Plenty of people travel by bike but without worrying about hopping to different countries by train or plane, and I’m sure they have just as much fun as us (well, considerably more fun at the moment as they’d be sipping a beer in Turkmenabat!)
Unfortunately the actual physical challenge of cycling across the world is as important to me (and Bex, I think!) as exploring all the different countries along the way. I kept trying to remind myself that the hardest bits will be the most memorable and make the nice bits seem even better, but it all seemed like a futile waste of time as we flogged ourselves on those bumpy roads.
We found out later that two German cyclists that we met in Iran and again afterwards in Uzbekistan had crossed Turkmenistan the week before us. They’d had hot sun and a nice tailwind and gleefully told us how they’d made it across with 6 hour cycling days and got a decent suntan too. I’m glad I didn’t know that at the time!
It was make or break on day four – we had to get within striking distance of the border by night or we’d have to hitch a lift the following morning. We finally broke the back of the challenge with a colossal day and a crucial speedy two hours of night riding – the headwind died with the daylight and fuelled by adrenaline (and a bumper bottle of coke) we galloped into the dark.
We rolled to a stop at a roadside cafe, delighted with our day’s work, and asked if we could camp behind the building. Our luck was in as they had a spare room with a gas stove on full whack which they let us use for free, and then a Turkish lorry driver bought us a couple of kebabs. For the first time in Turkmenistan we could relax – barring major disasters we would make it across the border the following day.
We arrived at the border at 1pm, exactly 4 days after starting, and counted our leftover Turkmen currency ready to change. We laughed as we realised we’d spent less than £10 between us to cross Turkmenistan, the benefit of having nowhere and no time to spend money!
The border guards then decided it was time for a two hour lunch break before we could pass into Uzbekistan. I didn’t mind though as we could sit in a chair and relax…for the first time in a week we were no longer in a constant rush. I felt knackered but I also had a nice warm glow of satisfaction. We’d overcome the challenge, despite nature doing her best to make it tough for us, and we were about to start the next country and next adventure. Maybe it was worth the effort after all…
Also, thank you very much for the donations to Guide Dogs in response to our last post, our fundraising total is now steadily moving in the right direction. Our aim is to raise £1 for each mile we cycle, although that target may be harder than the actual cycling! The Turkmenistan desert was about 300 miles – if you enjoyed reading about our struggles how about donating 1p per mile for this section of the journey?