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.