Turkmenistan in Stats

Total Distance Cycled: 477.5km 

Average distance per day: 119.4km over 4 days

Number of punctures: 0

Days of rain:

Number of nights wild camping: 2

Families who offered us a place to stay: 2

Warm Showers: 0

Total spent on hotels: £0.00

Days stopped due to illness or injury: 0

Units of water drank: 42L

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Turkmenistan – our four day dash across country no. 9!!!

After all the hype and worry about getting our visa for Turkmenistan it felt slightly surreal crossing the border and finding ourselves on the edge of the Karakum desert. We were both very revealed to be taking this route rather than taking a flight or crossing the Caspian by boat.

It took a while to convert our letter of invitation into a visa in our passport but having camped only 7km from the border the previous night we had plenty of time. We made a beeline to the rail-side market in Turkmenabat where we changed $50 into Turkmen Manat and stocked up on water and food for the four day journey. We had met a couple of cyclists on the road to Bukhara who had told us that there were cafes and restaurants every 40km so we didn’t bother carrying loads and loads of food.

Our first impressions of the Turkmen people were that they are very beautiful! People are incredibly friendly but slightly more chilled than in Uzbekistan, possibly because they’re not too used to tourists. Women wear long elegant dresses which are more shapely than the tunic/trouser conbo found in the other Central Asian countries although a lot still wear a tied head scarf. 

We spotted lots of young people walking home from school – the boys wearing white starched shirts and black ties and the girls in long green dresses with colourful hats and decorative fronts. They all wore their hair in long plaits which we guess is part of the uniform.
So we headed off into the desert. The road is very straight, flat and well maintained and that promised tailwind we had heard so much about was blowing us along nicely. 


At 6:30am we pulled off the road, snuck down into a sand dune and set up camp. 

Knowing it would be a hot day we get up at 5:45am and were able to get going by 7:30am. The wind helped a lot that morning and we zoomed along the road at 26km an hour. 


After stopping for a quick somsa and to stockup on water at a roadside cafe we get going again, but that tail wind has changed and it’s now not helping us quite so much. We also hit some small inclines and so our average speed dips to 22km/ph. 

We wanted to cover a lot of miles that day though, there was still a long way to go and we knew the road would be a lot worse for the last 100km to the border. Late in the afternoon we spot another cyclists in the distance. Annette had cycled all the way from Germany on her three wheel, reclined bicycle. We swapped news and tips before setting off again.


Darkness was closing in but Annette had told us about a restaurant 20km up the road and convinced us it would be a great place to stay. Trusting her advice we managed another 70mins on the bike bringing our total distance up to 140km – the longest distance we have done so far on the trip! This extra toil was well worth it however and not only did we get a good meal at the restaurant but the owner offered us a shower and sleeping space in a spare room all for free. Can you imagine this happening in the UK?! 

The next day saw us reach the city of Mary which is close to the archaeological site of the ancient city of Merv. Merv, along with Demascus, was once one of the great cities of the Islamic world, an important centre of learning and an important city along the Silk Rd. We didn’t have time to visit the site however.

We would also be missing out on visiting the capital Ashgabat which would have been a considerable detour north for us. It was a shame as it’s famous for being one of the strangest places on earth. A ‘showcase city’ full of golden statues, marble buildings and manicured parks all built to the lavish tastes of the current president and previous ‘Turkmenbashi’.


Cycling through Mary’s city centre did offer us a glimpse into this world of splendour however. There was a spectacular blue domed mosque with four matching minarets at each corner and a number of gold domed buildings, one of which had a fittingly ‘bling’ metal work exterior complete with a golden statue of Berdymukhamedov (current president) outside it. 


Paddy said it looked as if a handful of super yachts had just thrown up on the pavement which, I thought summed up the whole look pretty well. 

After Mary we carried on down the road completing another 100km day before turning off down a side track and camping in the sand dunes again. 

With two more days left on our visa and only 150km left to cover we were in pretty good shape. However, we knew the road would get much worse once we turned off south onto the smaller back road towards Saraghs and we also needed half a day to cross the border so we couldn’t relax too much.

After 40km we turned off the main highway and started to follow the potholed gravel road south towards the border which took us through the fertile plains, lush cotton fields flanking the road on either side – these plants looked much healthier than the ones we were used to seeing Uzbekistan. It’s a slow bumpy afternoon and we manage 96km before stopping at a group of buildings to ask if we can pitch our tent nearby. 

The buildings turn out to be seasonal living quarters for a large group of cotton pickers who are still out picking in the huge field beyond. The owners welcome us and invite us to walk out into the fields to see the picking in action.

Around 35 people, women mainly, are out in the field. Covered with white head scarfs to protect themselves from the beating sun they move through the plants plucking at the burst pods. The fields go on as far as the eye can see.


At dusk we all traipse back to the buildings and each bag is weighed and then added to a metal cage. Everyone goes off to wag and change and we’re shown where we can put up our tent. 


In a makeshift outdoor kitchen surrounded by bamboo/fern walls, a huge plov is being prepared.

We’re given a huge bowl and invited to eat with a group of women just as the sun disappears. They are a horrendous amount of mozzies and we both get attacked despite wearing log sleeves and lots of repellent. One particularly nasty one got me on my forehead and the sting swelled up into a huge lump! 


After dinner some very cool Asian drum and bass was blasted out and all the younger cotton pickers jumped up to pull some shapes. Everyone is really nice and we have a great time dancing and taking lots of pictures with them all. 


At 10.30pm we retire to our tent but the music continues to blast out for a good hour after we fall asleep. 

By 6.30am everyone is up and getting ready to get back into the field. We pack down too and after some cold plov get back on the bike to cycle the remaining 40km to the border. We leave Turkmenistan feeling sad that we only had 5 days here. The hospitality and the people have been amazing.

Applying and being granted your Turkmenistan visa 

First things first, there is A LOT of hype and speculation that exists amongst the travelling community about obtaining a Turkmenistan visa.

It’s true that independent travellers can only be granted a five day transit visa but from our experience at any rate, obtaining a visa really isn’t as hard as people might think. We met countless travellers who hadn’t even bothered applying because they couldn’t deal with ‘the hassle’ but almost everyone we met who had applied in both Bishkek and Dushanbe had been granted one in the end, even if they had to wait a few weeks. We have no experience of applying in cities on the other side but met lots of people who had successfully crossed from Iran. 

Here’s what we learnt about applying in Dushanbe

All the people that we met that applied for it here in Dushanbe got it! Both motorcyclists and cyclists. 

You don’t need to mention your mode of transport in your application

The visa mentions the port of entry and exit and apparently you can get into trouble for diverting off your transit journey but we haven’t heard of anyone getting into trouble for this…

We heard that most people who apply for the shortest route, from turkmenabad to Sarahks got the visa, while people who opted for the route through the desert towards Ashgabat got denied more often. We also heard that the Ashgabat border is currently (Sept 2016) closed to foreigners which might be why people got refused!! We took the shortest route but friends of ours took the Ashgabat crossing and also got the visa…

Applying 

You need COLOUR COPIES of your passport picture, Iran visa and the Uzbek visa. 

The application form is at the embassy and you can only fill it out when you are there.

When you are at the embassy you need to write a letter stating that you want a transit visa of 5 days from border x to border y (they have an example there for you to copy). We applied together on one letter.

You can keep your passport while you wait.

Go early and have your name put on a list by the guard

Letter of Invitation by email

When we applied for the visa we were told to wait for 5 working days and come back. Our visa was not ready after this week long period and we were told to come back the next day. After waiting another two days we gave an email address to the consulate and they told us they would send us an email with a letter of invitation if our visa was accepted. With that email we would be able to get the visa at other embassies or even just go to the border. 

We were sceptical… BUT 2 weeks later we received the email!! We printed it off in Bukhara (must do this) and took it to the border. It all worked very well and there was no problems. A friend applied in Dushanbe and picked up in Tashkent. That also worked.

Contradicting what people might think, the Turkmenistan border system is pretty high tech so even though your emailed LOI might say ‘valid until x date’ we were told you must cross the border on the dates you specified on your original visa application. 

Fees and Possible Corruption Scams

We were charged $50 dollars at the border for our visa and also had to pay two $3 fees (one for a ‘medical checkup’) and a $10 administration fee. $66 in total. 

When we exited at Saraghs we were asked for these slips and were then told we hadn’t paid enough at the previous border crossing. The story was that the Uzbek/Turkmen border guards had made a mistake and charged us the wrong amount. Paddy (Irish passport) had to pay an extra $5 and I (UK passport) had to pay an extra $35!!! 

It’s a feasible story so we’d be interested to know what other people paid and if they had the same issue… but we’re inclined to think that it was a well thought out scam… And if we did it again we wouldn’t have handed over our receipt slips so quickly. We tried every trick in the book to get off from paying it (including me turning on the waterworks) but they didn’t budge… It would have been interesting to see what they would have done if we’d refused to pay and just sat it out… Unfortunately we needed to get across Iranian customs that day too…

Please let us know your own experiences too and good luck!