Cycling Turkmenistan on a Transit Visa: A Bike Touring Route
For most, it’s a rushed trip because Turkmenistan does not issue tourist visas unless you take a guide so that leaves the option of a transit visa, usually for just 5 days. It’s doable but there’s no time to linger. Count on 120km/day if you want to cycle the whole thing and hope you don’t get any sandstorms!
People are the redeeming feature of Turkmenistan. They love to talk to foreigners, although quietly and only when the police aren’t around. As a cyclist, you’re fortunate to get a rare glimpse at a very closed country.
Duration: 5-7 days
Terrain: Mostly flat. The road bobs up and down a bit after Zahmet but it’s nothing strenuous.
Accommodation: Hotels in Hauz Han, Mary and Turkmenabat (Charjou). Many cafes along the way are likely to offer you a room for the night free of charge. Wild camping is always an option if you can get your bike through the sand dunes.
Highlights: The ancient city of Merv, food and beers at roadside cafes, smiling and curious Turkmen people.
Lowlights: The worst roads you’ve ever ridden on and a repetitive landscape. Sandstorms.
Tips: Bring lots of extra water for desolate stretches and consider carrying a water filter. Buying still water in smaller towns may not be possible. If you like milk, bring long-life cartons from Iran. We couldn’t find any in Turkmenistan for our morning coffee. Baby wipes are wonderful for cleaning away some of the desert dust at the end of a long day.
Section 1 – Iranian Border to Hauz Han (105km)
Your day begins by crossing the Iranian-Turkmen border at Sarakhs. The Iranian side can be quite quick as long as your papers are in order. This border crossing is open limited hours 8:00 till 17:00, even on holidays. A brief customs check, an exit stamp and you’re out the other side and over a short bridge where you find the first Turkmen post. Here they only look at your passport and make a note in the book and send you on to the main processing area – a simple wooden building – a couple kilometers further on through no man’s land.
It can take well over an hour to finish the Turkmen process. There are several forms to fill out, an airport scanner to xray all your bags and various officials who have to stamp your papers. You must declare all your money so try and count it beforehand and valuable belongings. must also be noted. We were asked to pay a $10 U.S. entry fee and a supplementary $3 U.S. The first charge has been standard for entry into Turkmenistan for some time and you will get a receipt. We didn’t get a proper explanation of the second cost or a receipt, which made us wonder if it was just an official trying to get some extra money or not. In any case, have some spare dollars ready.
While you wait, push your clocks 90 minutes ahead in the winter or a half hour forward during daylight savings time. Turkmenistan doesn’t adjust its clocks for daylight savings time, and therefore is always at +5 GMT.
Once out of customs, expect to pass at least three moneychangers as you make your way towards Sarkhs. They don’t always give the best rates so check carefully. The town of Sarkhs is a few kilometers away (turn right once over the railway tracks, at the first T-junction). If you haven’t changed money by the time you’re in the town, turn left at the President’s picture and stop at the last shop on the left, a paint and hardware store. We got the best rate in all of Turkmenistan here: $1 U.S bought 19,500 Manats.
The left turn at Niyazov’s picture puts you on the straight road to Hauz Han. After Sarkhs there is nothing for a good 95km except desert and the occasional farm. The only sign of life is a car passing once every half hour or so and one army checkpoint shortly after Sarkhs. Be careful when you reach the end of this road and junction with the main highway to head east for Mary and not the other way to Ashgabat. It’s not unknown for cyclists to turn the wrong way. There are very few road signs out here.
There’s a large string of cafes in Hauz Han. One of the last ones on the left, recognizable by huge Nescafe and TIR-Parking signs, has simple, clean rooms for about $5 U.S. per person and serves great fried fish. The owner speaks some English and is willing to bargain. The shared bathroom is basic but perfectly usable with a steamy shower that makes you feel like you’re in a Japanese onsen. A couple beers, food and a room should come to about 200,000 Manat or $10 U.S. per person.
If you are on a tight budget, it’s worth asking around the smaller cafes if they have a room or if you could pitch your tent on their grounds. As long as you eat there, they’re unlikely to charge you, although you may not get a shower.
Section 2 – Hauz Han to Mary (75km)
Leaving Hauz Han, there’s a cafe about 18km on and then nothing until you get to Mary. About 1km before Mary, when you can see the arch that marks the start of the city, there’s a cafe on the left. Here we ate a filling lunch of fried chicken, bread and a zingy carrot-garlic salsa plus a bottle of Coca-Cola for 85,000 Manat for two people.
Coming into Mary, stay on the main road until you see a sports centre in front of you. The road veers right here to Turkmenabat and if you turn left you’ll go past a large park with a statue of Mr. President in it, then you’ll see the train tracks with a war memorial to the left. A right turn at the intersection before the train tracks brings you to the main drag where you can find some food shops and the market with fresh fruits and vegetables. You can change money here too with the ladies selling jewellery in the market.
If you want to stay in Mary, there are plenty of options. Some cyclists have stayed at Motel Rahat just outside the town centre. It charges $35 U.S. for a double. We carried on.
Section 3 – Mary to Merv (30km)
From Mary, it’s a straight forward but bumpy ride to Merv, continuing on the main road until you reach the town centre of Bayramali (don’t take the bypass for Turkmenabat; stay on the main road). At the town centre, turn left by the marketplace on a road running north and you’ll see Merv on your right after about 4km. If you come in after dusk, it shouldn’t be a problem to camp here. Be respectful and take out what you bring in. Return to the gate in the morning to buy your entrance ticket. It’s 25,000 Manat per person and 37,500 Manat to use your camera. Taking the first road to the right upon entering the site, you will go past the small and large Kiz structures, then through a cemetery and finally to a mosque where there’s a well if you want to wash or filter water.
Section 4 – Merv to Zahmet (45km)
Once you’ve seen Merv, return to the marketplace in Bayramali. Turn right and then left immediately to go around the market and out of the town. Cross the railway tracks and take an immediate left for the road to Turkmenabat. The next cafe stop is in Zahmet, where there are two cafes. The one after the second police checkpoint, with a sign that reads Cafe Telegom, will give you a basic but perfectly acceptable room for free if you eat and drink there. Don’t worry about the dark windows that can make it look a little seedy from the outside. The owner is very friendly and it’s a nice place.
(Update: Cyclists going through in late 2008 report this cafe is closed but they still managed to camp behind it for the night. In July 2009, more cyclists reported it was open again.)
Section 5 – Zahmet to Repetek (110km)
It may surprise you to find a few hills in your path today! They could hardly be described as strenuous but there is a steady string of small climbs and descents as you head towards Turkmenabat. The only stop in this stretch is a cafe at Uch Adzhi (45km from Zahmet) where you can enjoy a pot of tea and a meal (dumplings or mutton soup) for about 30,000 Manat. There is a small shop near the back of the village but the cafe also sells things so ask there first as the shop is hard to find. The cafe can supply you with drinks, bread, jam, chocolate and tins of tuna and beef. No still bottled water was available here at the time we passed by, only water with gas.
Aside from a couple of clusters of houses, there isn’t anything between Uch Adzhi and Repetek and it’s hard to find shade to rest in, although a bus stop does crop up occasionally and around 75km there’s a war memorial with covered benches. There’s a cafe in Repetek where the owner may offer you a place for the night but another cyclist said the room was dirty when he visited. Drunk truck drivers may also be a problem. We camped in the sand dunes a few kilometers before the cafe instead. The cafe serves food and has a small shop where you can buy bread, eggs, bottled water and other basics.
Section 6 – Repetek to Turkmenabat (85km)
The undulating landscape continues most of the way to Turkmenabat, with a cafe popping up around 35km from Repetek and another just on the edge of Turkmenabat, around the 60km mark. We found this second cafe a little pricier for a beer than other places we’ve stopped for a drink and the staff weren’t very friendly. Better to wait until you’re a little further into Turkmenabat. There are plenty of cafes over the next few kilometers.
Coming into the city itself seems to take forever. After you pass under an arch, just past that second cafe and at the edge of an industrial estate, you have a good 25km to the city centre. Keep on the main road as it swings all the way around the factories, over railway tracks, past a bustling market, down a wide boulevard for what seems like forever and eventually over a small bridge and to a roundabout with a big statue in the middle. Turn left here.
The pricey Hotel Turkmenabat appears on your left almost immediately. Hike your bicycle up onto the pavement and walk directly behind Hotel Turkmenabat, you’ll find Hotel Lebapgurlushyk. The cost is 250,000 Manats per person, way over the top for the aging rooms – some say totally disgusting although that wasn’t our experience – and five times the price that Turkmen citizens pay. Staff are friendly enough and the water is hot but there isn’t much pressure and the flow sometimes dries to a trickle. You can pay in Dollars or Manats.
Hotel AmuDaria, in front of the train station, is another option. It’s newly renovated and cyclists passing through in late 2008 report double rooms going for $100 with bathroom or beds in a dorm for $20 each.
For a market, look just up the street from the Hotel Turkmenabat. You can buy produce, tinned goods and some prepared salads if you go to the other side of the roundabout and up one block.
There are a couple cafes in town if you want a meal out. Again, from Hotel Turkmenabat go left and walk down the road (away from the hotel), over the canal and then take the third street to your left. Taking your next right will put you on Shaidakov kocesi. There’s a humble cafe on the corner (we couldn’t eat there because it was booked for a banquet but it looked great) and further down the street another cafe, more like a restaurant, near Niyazov Square. Go in past the bar playing music videos to find the tables. Here we had bread, chicken soup, meat patties and a bottle of Coca-Cola. It came to 138,000 Manat, including a service charge. The menu is only in Russian but the staff helped us deciper some of it.
Section 7 – Turkmenabat to Uzbekistan Border (40km)
The road out of Turkmenabat and towards the border can be a bit elusive. The easiest way to find it is to head for the train station. Once you’re facing the station, turn right and cycle for a couple blocks until the road curves strongly to the right. If you look at the left at this point you’ll see the train tracks. Head in that direction and walk your bike across the tracks where many other pedestrians should also be crossing. Once over the tracks, get back on your bike and in a few meters you’ll see the main road. It could be hard to identify given its width and state of repair but the trucks on it should confirm your suspicions.
From here, keep to the main road, which zigs and zags its way towards a floating bridge to take you over the river. There is a toll for vehicles but as bicycles we didn’t pay anything. We had to briefly show our passports to a police officer.
There are a string of villages for the next stretch, which is good if you need to buy things and bad if you’re trying to free camp. We had some difficulty finding a place to put our tent for the night among all the cultivated fields. About 25km from Turkmenabat you pass a police checkpoint and the main road swings to the left (don’t go over the bridge). After this point, the potential for wild camping improves for a stretch before the border.
Just before the border many people ask you if you want to change your manats for Uzbek Som.
Once you get to the border, you have to take your bikes inside a small building where officers examine your various entry papers. We were told we were supposed to register after 5-days but the dispute was quickly dropped when we pointed out that our 7-day visa was still a transit visa and that the embassy in Tehran had told us we didn’t need to register with a transit visa. Within a few minutes we were out the other side and on our way to Uzbekistan border control, across 2km of no-man’s land. Turkmenistan officials did not want to search our bags but many cyclists have been searched so don’t be surprised if they have a look in your panniers. They did ask if we were carrying any guns, narcotics or carpets.