You can spot a fellow tourist a mile off in this part of the world so we quickly realised we had company when six fair-skinned young men with musical instruments walked by our campsite. We were eager to find out what their story was so we hurried up with our packing and rushed off to meet them at the border gate. In this short time, they seemed to have disappeared but it didn’t take long for an excited truck driver to come up and tell us that some Germans had walked straight past the entrance and were now trekking unwittingly into the Iranian countryside.
“You go find them,” he said, or something like that in Russian. Friedel set off on her bike, only to be attacked by three ferocious dogs who tried to take a chunk out of her bags. Next it was Andrew’s turn, this time in a car with an Iranian who was equally curious. A few minutes later the group returned, crammed into the car with all their guitars. They turned out to be members of Germany’s version of the Scout movement, hitching all the way to Mongolia and singing German folk songs as they go.
We couldn’t resist interviewing them and recording a small performance, which we hope to post once we get to Uzbekistan.
It was only the start of what turned out to be a very interesting day. Crossing into new countries is always stimulating for the senses and Turkmenistan was no different. It took us about two hours to get through the border formalities, most of that on the Turkmenistan side. Immediately we noticed the number of women working in positions of authority. It seemed Turkmenistan’s public face at least was rather different from Iran.
A young man in a white coat was the first to greet us. He looked more like a doctor than a border guard as he wrote our names in a book and quizzed us on our choice of football team. “Ah, German. Bayern Munich?” he asked, looking at Friedel. Then his eyes moved to Andrew. “England. Stephen Gerrard!”
Next we had to fill out several forms and pay $10 entry fee plus a mysterious extra $3 for some unknown charge. Our first bribe in Central Asia? Every bag went through an airport scanner. Cash was counted. Valuables declared. Papers were stamped. Did we have a gun? No. How about drugs? No on that too. We were almost ready to go when the English textbook appeared. A small lesson followed with the group of ten or so officials before we finally rolled out the other side. If you’re crossing into Turkmenistan in a few months and they ask you to “please sign here”, that was our lesson!
Finally we were into Turkmenistan and stopped almost immediately by three money changers who offered us wildly different rates before we finally settled on the fourth – the man who runs the local paint shop. He pulled out a wad of notes so crisp we could barely separate them to count our cash and we wondered how we would know if he was giving us funny money or the real thing. Who really knows what a Turkmen Manat looks like? We tested it out at the small shop down the road and the woman there seemed happy to take it in exchange for some bread and a sausage so hard we could use it for self defence. Well, at least the bread was good.
By now it was close to midday and we had a lot of ground to cover so we set off into the desert at a good pace. The road started out surprisingly well paved but soon deteriorated into some patches with huge potholes and no asphalt. There is really nothing between the border and the main road leading from the capital to Uzbekistan so we just put our heads down and got on with it, waving to the occasional farmer and fuelling our pedalling with peanuts and bread smeared with chocolate spread.
It was nearing dark when we arrived at the main road and a long string of cafes. One offers simple rooms and was recommended to us by other cyclists so we stopped to check the price. “Ten dollars,” the man said. Was it for each person or the room? We weren’t sure and then, before we could think, someone else showed up. “Big price? Price too big? Okay, four dollars.” We didn’t even try to bargain and already the deal was getting better. By the time we had a couple beers each – our first in three months – and a huge plate of fish with salad we’d spent all of $20. Considering our feast, we felt it was a pretty good deal.
Now, showered and with a few litres of water filtered (we aren’t taking any chances in Central Asia, even though we had no problems in Iran), we’re ready for bed and then another long day tomorrow. We hope if we put in a couple long days we’ll have time to explore the wonders of the ruined city of Merv.