The country offers its own quirky attraction in the form of an omnipresent dictator, Saparmyrat Niyazov, who ruled the country until he died in late 2006. Larger-than-life statues of Niyazov are everywhere along with photos and busts of him in businesses and on government buildings. His Ruhnama book which is required reading for all Turkmen citizens and displayed everywhere.
Since being granted independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, Turkmenistan has become one of the world’s most closed countries and is often compared with North Korea. It’s opened up a crack since Niyazov’s death but independent cyclists tend to travel through Turkmenistan on a transit visa since getting permission to visit as a tourist means hiring a costly guide. Only about 3,000 tourists travel to Turkmenistan each year.
Transit visas are only issued for 5 days so your trip through Turkmenistan will be rushed. The flat landscape helps and with luck you can cover the roughly 550km without much trouble. We had crosswinds and headwinds of varying strength and a short sandstorm but still managed to arrive in Turkmenabad on the afternoon of our fifth day. That included a rushed tour of the ancient city of Merv.
In a pinch, you can charter a taxi or put your bike on a bus. The train is painfully slow and will require some forward planning. Locals may offer you a lift, especially if a sandstorm appears out of nowhere. The 14 Degrees site has an account of Turkmenistan by train with a bicycle.
The friendly and smiling Turkmen people will be a highlight of your journey through Turkmenistan. You’ll find many curious onlookers when you stop for a break at one of the many roadside cafes. A surprising number of young people speak English but Russian is still much more widely used.
- Serahs to Farab: The main route covered by most cyclists, through the Turkmen desert.