Border Crossing Battle Royale
After a simple enough process with a good early start on the Iranian side of the Sarakhs border, our new foursome of Marcel, Alena and the two Alleykats felt hopeful the process could well continue to be streamlined. We rode through no man’s land with the glare of one Iranian border guard burning his misogynist mark into Kat’s and Alena’s inappropriately dressed backs, but did we care? No! We were about to ride into abject freedom; we would soon literally be able to feel the wind in our hair!
The Turkmenistan border was a dry quagmire of dust and trucks; by 9:15am the temperature had risen above 40 degrees and the mercury was dancing its merry way ever higher. The foursome was only slightly uncomfortable; the idea of crossing and riding into the desert altogether was a cool breeze, gently buffeting our spirits and providing great relief. This coolness was about to be tested however as the Turkmenistan guards began to play their own game of thrones: The good doctor gave us a once over with his eyes and declared us fit to battle another day; if Roger Federer can do it he thought, surely his fellow countrymen can!
With barely a fleshwound on any of us, we dismounted and tied our trusty tandem steeds to awaiting tethers. The Turkmenistan guards were a uniformed mess: all heeding the orders of an absent master and answering instead to their own sense of justice and confusing regulations. In the first battle, our passports were taken hostage and hidden in the plain sight inside an office awaiting their punishment. The punishment instead was cruel and unusual; we could see them and we felt their necessity in the continuation of the warmongering but alas, they were left dangling; hung in suspense! What were the guards going to do with them? Were they going to be plucked of all their travelling evidence? Were they to be interrogated for hours, wrung dry of every drop of ink they possessed? An hour and a half passed and we felt the hairs in our heads starting to colour themselves grey – the imprisoned passports sat quietly, as confused as we about the state of affairs.
We twiddled out thumbs, surely the guards knew a five day transit visa doesn’t allow for much dilly-dallying when there are 500 kilometres to ride. They knew we didn’t have any cars hidden up our sleeves and we helped them remember that we needed to begin to ride preferably before the day hotted up over the manageable transit temperature. Another hour passed and in battle this should surely mean action! But alas, we were stuck in limbo; unsure what the heavily camouflaged Turkmens wanted us to do: fight them? Bribe them? Sing for them? But we did nothing, assuming they would give us some indication, any indication of the next step. We were happy, almost hungry, for some mild bloodshed if it meant the battle could be fought and won. To add to the confusion, an offering of potato somsas were presented to us and excuses were brought and laid at our feet like so many placating doormats… three and a half hours had passed and it was time for lunch! Rejoice! Food for all! Ah, well no, we munched into our meagre supplies of dried fruit, nuts and biscuits having come unprepared for a seriously long wait. Every sip of filtered water felt like a waste – we should be saving these 16 litres for the desert, not for anointing our minor war wounds!
The border guards were constantly distracted, but would not be distracted from their distractions: we couldn’t get them to focus on our case – on the mighty battle at hand, despite looming large, blocking doorways, demanding satisfaction and gently coaxing their one English speaking member. Instead they spent time laughing at an hour’s worth of entertainment provided by a driver-cum-jester who was apparently so drunk he couldn’t aim his broad wheel base accurately enough and drove into the awaiting inspection canal instead of over it. Along with the hilarity of the case of the drunk driver, it came to fruition that all we were waiting for was a phone call – apparently just a simple phone call to allow them to process us. There was nothing we could do but make plans for counter attacks, waste our water and time.
Finally, it was clear the Turkmens were going to win the war: after a six hour wait, sheer dumb insistence, stubbornness and meanness allowed them to summon us before them, dethroned and weak from waiting in the smouldering heat (totally normal for them, but 50 degrees is less manageable for us slim bike travellers!). We wetly followed every order, no matter how frustrating it was to haul our bikes up a metre and a half to the office, have our baggage neglectfully zapped through the x-ray machine. No matter how dehumanising it was have our passports inspected and questioned and laughed at by every member of the seemingly hundreds-strong staff. No matter how irritating it was to have almost every bag undone and its contents spewed out to be gawked at – including picking apart our first aid kit; every pill pack picked up and the word ‘NARKOTIK?!’ subsequently hurled at our faces accusingly (no, they’re antibiotics; no, they’re rehydration fizzers; no that’s spray bandage; no that’s pseudoephrine…).
Six and a half hours after entering, we exited – our flags at half mast, our battle faces smeared with sweat, our bike uniforms dusty with defeat. On the way out, every soldier, his little brother and their dog checked our passports, three times over before we could be let free. We felt lucky to have our passports intact and unharmed but otherwise rattled and frustrated that our first of the FIVE DAY TRANSIT VISA had been all but completely wasted by people in the same system. For more on the border crossing and visas for Turkmenistan, click HERE.
Potholes and playmates, tandem-style
We rode the long way around to the border town Sarahs, laughing at the roads and enjoying the foursome travelling troupe. We stopped to refuel and ended up luxuriating in front of a small shop, being given free fresh bread and using the facilities of the two utterly gobsmackigly gorgeous owners of the shop and the home behind. By 6:30pm, the 50 plus degrees had cooled off significantly and the 38 degrees replacement was a cool relief – perfect to tackle the laughable excuses for roads.
We pedalled little over fifty kilometres, including all the swerving around, over and through potholes sometimes doubly-deep than our wheels (we avoid the car-sized holes completely). The sun set and soft nighttime tickled our fancy. The two tandem bikes were clearly loving being ridden adventure-style, eating up the distances and we astride them enjoyed the company and the amusing pastime we have all chosen as our lives.
Camp the first night was in a recently ploughed field thankfully free from camel spiders but laced with everybody’s nemesis, those tiny stinging fairies: mosquitoes. The almost-dawn was sung to us by three enormous harvesters – from our low viewpoint we couldn’t tell if they were coming to unseeingly harvest our tents or whether they were walloping the road just near us… they bore down on us and we thanked our lucky stars they weren’t interested in tandem riders for breakfast.
A series of unfortunate events
We donned jumpers in the cool headwinds but before long were removing layers as the possible heat gathered momentum. Only 25 kilometres into the day Kat’s knee had given up and to complicate matters further she had somehow managed to contract a urinary tract infection – rendering her completely useless, in quite a lot of pain and needing to locate emergency rest-stops every few minutes. The crew stopped for the last one of these restless rest stops on the bike and while they waited, were entertained by an enormous truck stuffed to bursting with colourfully dressed, outrageously good-looking women. A car bearing four youths and suffering from some serious ‘issues’ (doubtless from hurtling over potholes at 100kilometres an hour) kindly accepted Kat in the right-side passenger door. The remaining three tandem troops were left to finish the twenty kilometres remaining to the next town without a feline contributor. The road ahead was pockmarked worse than the most pimply of teenagers, the sand sucked at their heavily loaded tyres and the sun sapped their energy… but slowly and surely and smilingly – they rode along and arrived happily in Huan Huez to the awaiting missing member. On her own, Kat had only just managed to avoid disaster: the Turkmen teenagers, although extremely kind, didn’t speak a word of English (and Kat isn’t known for her Russian nor Turkmen language) and sure enough the carload of people begun heading off in completely the wrong direction. Luckily Kat, although suffering at the hands of bumps the size of elephants, nursing a very uncomfortable UTI and knee, was still map-savvy enough to realise early on and the youths were extremely receptive to directions given in broken English and three words of Russian. The car arrived in Huan Huez somehow, and Kat eagerly awaited the arrival of the bike riding bunch.
Breaking up is never easy… but truck drivers always make it smoother
Once reunited, the foursome shared lunch at a strange hotel/restaurant and said a sad goodbye – Alena and Mark would be riding on, determined to ride as much of Turkmenistan as they could, blistering headwinds and temperatures or not. The next day, with the Swizzy’s spirits and strength in our hearts, we hopped into the first truck that stopped: hitching in Turkmenistan is definitely the way forward. Ardil was from Turkey and drove us to Mary after a quick (long) fishy lunch stop for he, Alex and his driving buddy, Mohammad. The truck stop in Mary was clearly for truck drivers only (we and Ardil were looked down on angrily – the inner sanctum was not happy!). Alleykat rode past a police checkpoint (much less inquisitive than the one we’d checked through when riding with Alena and Marcel) over a bridge 10 kilometres away and again, hopped into the first truck that stopped!
Turkish the Turkmen truck driver
Turkish the Turkmen truck driver spoke very limited English but that didn’t stop him talking! We had hours of conversation in the truck cabin and in restaurants along the way. Kat had to hide each time we drove through police checkpoints (there were a good number of them!) and Turkish held up his arms in an ‘X’ to indicate that he wasn’t carrying a load in his truck – he said he couldn’t be bothered with the police. Part way in, who did we see but our Swiss friends, making amazing hundreds of kilometres of headway into the cruel head winds and heat. Turkish offered them a ride too but they wanted to continue; they wanted to make it, damnit!
As is common for Alleykat, we charmed the heck out of Turkish who bough us dinner and asked us to stay with him overnight and come to his deliveries the next day. We figured ‘why the hell not?’ and spent a very cramped night in the cabin bunk beds. We saw yet another sunrise the next morning (waking at five has this effect) and began the drive to the delivery. His load consisted of scaffolding, more iron bars than you could shake a stick at and a couple of bits of very expensive-looking machinery. All were unloaded with the aid of a digger’s enormous shovel – men and material rode up and down in its yellow toothed mouth over and over until we were empty but for a big purple tandem bicycle and some dusty black panniers.
After a bit more of a drive around the Turkmen countryside and some lunch, Turkish dropped us rather unceremoniously at the outskirts of Turkmenabat and we parted ways, not quite as heavily indebted to him as a quick in-out ride would have required, we think he genuinely liked us!
Camping and vomiting
Turkmenabat didn’t look overly appealing to sleep in (the two hotels were more expensive than Amsterdam) and so after filling up on coke, food and water (and patting a gorgeous kitten) we headed along the wibbly-wobbly network of roads toward the border.
We asked a family if we could pop our tent in their yard and they welcomed us with open arms, lots of fresh fruit and vegetables, bread and water – wow! They brought us a carpet to drink chai on and invited us to sit with them after dinner. We spoke with a combination of twelve English words, fourteen Turkish words and a lot of hand gestures – for an hour or so until the conversation turned to religion, as it often does. We didn’t feel comfortable lying to them so we tried to explain best we could that we weren’t religious. This was clearly the wrong thing to have said, we think perhaps they would have preferred any religion over none at all. We became infidels, heathens who they were now stuck with in their back yard, sullying their home. None of them spoke another word to us that evening or as we left in the morning.
Alex awoke desperately sick, both ends, and spent a good amount of time waiting for it to relent long enough for us to ride on. We began riding after a few hours, but Alex was hit with fresh waves of nausea every few kilometres and soon enough his guts ejected themselves mouth-ways, along with any remaining energy he had inside him. The 40 kilometres to the border took us seven hours and were struggle-town for poor Alex (who happened to be the Mayor). The border crossing was all over on both sides within an hour (including toilet stops and riding between the gates). Alex was asked how he felt and the good doctor seemed to believe his false admission of ‘I’m fine’ despite being so unwell he couldn’t stand up straight and sat slumped and sick in the office while Kat filled out the Uzbek forms in triplicate. We bid the roads, the wind and the truck drivers of Turkmenistan goodbye.
Make sure you catch our film about Turkmenistan!
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Read all of our Central Asian Series!
⇒ Track 1: Western Turkey
⇒ Track 2: Turkey
⇒ Track 3: Black Sea Turkey
⇒ Track 4: Georgia
⇒ Track 5: Azerbaijan
⇒ Track 6: Caspian Iran
⇒ Track 7: Ancient Iran
⇒ Track 8: Iran’s Other Side
⇒ Track 9: Turkmenistan
⇒ Track 10: Uzbekistan
⇒ Track 11: Kyrgyzstan
⇒ Check out our European series HERE
⇒ Try out our Asian series HERE