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88km Repetek to Turkmenabad

Posted April 5th, 2008

Turkmenistan’s cities are the most bizarre of our trip so far.

Today we arrived in Turkmenabad, the country’s second biggest city. When we reached Mary a few days earlier we found it oddly deserted so this time we were hoping for a bit of life on the streets. We cycled down a long boulevard, wide and reasonably modern with a string of government buildings in white, polished stone. A larger-than-life statue of Turkmenistan’s dearly departed dictator sat in front of each one. He died in late 2006 but so numerous are the pictures and sculptures of Niyazov, with no sign of Turkmenistan’s current president, you could be forgiven for wondering if he died at all.

After going several kilometers and never seeing a sign or more than a solitary shop, we started to wonder just where the centre was. We stopped to ask directions from a group of taxi drivers. “Centre?” we said, speaking first in English and then using broken Russian. “Da,” they replied, pointing to the ground beneath them. Here, right here, they seemed to be saying but all we saw running off the boulevard was a string of Soviet apartment blocks with flaking paint, sagging shutters, rusting satellite dishes and a few depressed citizens outside smoking cigarettes.

It turned out this was the centre and our hotel was in one of these vintage buildings. Not long afterwards a slim woman with streaks of red in her blond hair was showing us to our suite in Hotel Lebapgurlushyk. Yes, here in Turkmenistan $25 U.S. buys you a real three-room hotel suite. Before you get too jealous, it’s hardly the Ritz with fading, ripped wallpaper, flaking paint and dusty sofas. Still, it’s almost certainly the only suite we’ll be able to afford on our travels so we’ll just close our eyes and bask in our imagined glory. To be honest, we thought the price was inflated compared to what we’ve paid elsewhere in Turkmenistan, and at five times the going rate for Turkmen citizens, but our choices were limited. This hotel seems to be the only game in town at the moment and they seem to know that. Anyway, the shower was hot and after a few days in the desert that was all that really mattered.

Later, we set out once again to try to find some excitement in Turkmenabad. Every street was almost empty. Once in a while we’d stumble across a Turkmenbashi Bank on one block, a cafe a few hundred meters away, but you could hardly call it a lively atmosphere. Eating out is cheap here so we wandered into a dark restaurant for a meal that ran us all of $7 U.S for bread, a starter, main course, drinks and a tip. With Russian music videos booming away in the background, most of the tables empty and barely enough light to see what we were eating, our big night out in Turkmenistan felt just like the city of Turkmenabad itself; certainly memorable, easy on the wallet but more than a little strange!

106km Zahmet to Repetek

Posted April 4th, 2008

Andrew jumping on a sand duneIt’s a long haul through the desert that covers about ninety percent of Turkmenistan. We’re just on day four of our seven-day transit visa but already we’re a bit tired of the endless sand dunes and the wind that never quite seems to blow on our backs. The barren landscape is punctuated only by the occasional cafe or small village. You have to wonder just what people do for entertainment here in these remote outposts, where there’s quite literally nothing for at least 100km in any direction. We had our morning break at the sole cafe in our day’s path, enjoying a pot of tea and a bowl of mutton soup for Friedel. It may not sound too appealing but after Iran’s lack of cuisine, hearty soups with lots of flavour and a potato or two thrown in are a real culinary highlight! Who knows if we’ll still feel so loving towards mutton after three months in Central Asia but for now we’re enjoying the change immensely. Originally we thought we’d stop for the night at a cafe in Repetek but tales from other travellers of drunk truck drivers and dirty accomodation changed our mind. Instead we managed to drag our bikes behind a sand dune and pitched our tent in a dip in the landscape.

That evening we cooked supper using a Soviet sausage that was as hard as a rock. It was like that when we bought it on our first day in Turkmenistan and hadn’t changed since. Take a look at this hammer of a sausage:

70km Merv to Zahmet

Posted April 3rd, 2008

Meet Lee: he's been pedalling for 11 years!!We woke up this morning to the wonders of Merv, an ancient city ruined by Ghengis Khan, on our doorstep. Merv is spread over a huge area and we managed to burn up nearly 20km by the time we were done looking around and back on the main road towards Uzbekistan. Of course we couldn’t leave the site without bumping into a few Turkmen tour groups and two women in particular very kindly insisted on pushing money into our hands; the third time in less than a week this has happened to us! Once again we tried to protest but we were fighting a losing battle. We gave our thanks and left wondering, with all these people giving us money lately, if we’d started to look more down and out than usual?

As we headed out on the road, at first we thought the wind had changed direction in our favour (the breeze has been blowing against us ever since we left Mashhad) but soon it turned to gusts, whipping across the road, creating large clouds of sand and dust. It wasn’t really ideal cycling weather so when we saw a cafe just outside the town of Zahmet we decided to call it quits for the day. One of the great surprises of Turkmenistan has been the roadside cafes where you can eat and drink cheaply and often the owner will invite you to stay for the night. We weren’t even halfway through our first beer and bowl of mutton soup when we were offered a room.

Just as we were settling in a great surprise rolled up: a Chinese cyclist who’s been on the road constantly for the past 11 years! Lee saw our bikes as he was going by and came over to say hello, telling us stories of the incredible 91 countries he’s travelled through. His panniers looked as though they’d seen half the world, with most of the zippers splitting open. He’d just come from Afghanistan, where he was hassled by the police, and now he’s on to Iran, Europe and hopefully Canada over the next year so give him a warm welcome from us if you see him on the road.

Here you can see a video of our sandstorm in Turkmenistan:

114km Hauz Han to Merv

Posted April 2nd, 2008

Bajramali marketplaceThe mausoleum at MervOne of the best parts about our trip has been filling in the blanks on the world map for all those countries we had no real impression of. Who really knows what Turkmenistan is like? For us, aside from a few vague ideas about grand statues of a dictatorial president and natural gas, we certainly didn’t. Now we’re starting to get an image of a country where gold teeth are definitely in vogue along with dark tinted car windows and pleasant cafes. Government buildings are made of gleaming white stone and the towns are surprisingly green and reasonably pretty with many well-kept parks.

Sometimes, looking at the Ladas and old apartment blocks, you feel as if you’ve been put in a time warp 30 years back to the Soviet Union and then you turn a corner and are confronted with some very new kitsch. But if Turkmenistan is keen on building tributes to its dearly departed leader, they aren’t putting half as much focus on the roads. We’ve been shaken up, down and all around really as we navigate endless potholes and patchy tarmac and this is on the main artery going through the capital and linking one end of the country to the other! It’s perhaps the first and only country in the world where we could say the current fashion for owning an SUV is truly justified. On a bicycle, it’s just bone-rattling most of the time.

The poor roads have been more than made up for by the friendly people. We get the feeling that if the police weren’t everywhere, watching to make sure we don’t talk too long to any one person, the Turkmens might give the Iranians a run for their money in the hospitality business. One fellow stopped his car today to thrust some cash into our hands, pointing to the sky and saying Allah as he insisted we take his gift. We’ve received many a smile and “Welcome to Turkmenistan” as we wander through the markets and the few people who speak a bit of English are very curious to know more about us. The women in particular always have broad smiles and never seem to mind posing for a picture. When we joined them at a water tap today, they welcomed us with open arms as we waited in the queue to fill our bottles, although they seemed to think it funny that two Canadians would need to wait at the local water point.

Despite our initial fears, we haven’t yet felt like prices are being increased whenever we approach a shop. Quite the contrary. At less than $5 U.S. dollars, we thought our lunch of freshly fried chicken and a zingy carrot and garlic salsa with bread and a drink was well worth the money. Thank goodness for that because at the rate we’re going we’re going to need all the hearty lunches we can get. We’re hoping that we’ve made up enough time to allow us to see the great site of Merv tomorrow – a formerly glorious city ruined by Ghengis Khan – before carrying on to the next set of roadside cafes where we should be able to get a room for the night.

116km Sarakhs to Hauz Han

Posted April 1st, 2008

Welcome to Turkmenistan!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!” (more…)