We'd left the city quite late, so it wasn't long before it was time to camp. We found a nice spot, set up the tent, ate dinner, spoke to a confused man on a horse, and then got our heads down for the night.
The road up to the mountain pass the next day was a long one. After 40km of nothing but uphill, we were at the top. We'd left the 27 degree warmth behind and were now back near the snowline, wearing our jackets. We then had a very fast 10km descent, allowing us to overtake car after car, weaving in and out of them. The road then joined a river, and much to our delight stuck alongside it for the next couple of days, cutting right through the mountain range and making life much easier than we'd expected.
We had about 5 more days ride to the border of Turkmenistan. The dates on the visas were fixed, so there was no point going too fast – we would only have to wait till our visa began. We also couldn't be late though because we needed every hour possible to try to get through Turkenistan in time on our 5 day Transit Visa. So we just ambled along each day, making sure we weren't going too fast, or too slow.
One day we met another English cyclist heading in the same direction. James was sat on a wall, feeling very ill from something he'd recently eaten, when we pulled up alongside him. He was also heading to Turkmenistan, but was heading to the border that everyone else crosses at and going the usual route through the country to Uzbekistan – the country we couldn't get a visa for. We asked him how he managed to get an Uzbek visa – he'd walked into the Embassy with only one of the two letters we were told that we needed (by the Embassy staff themselves), handed it over, and received a visa 30 minutes later??!! Too late now, we'd chosen our route, but why we were told something completely different, making us now have to do a massive detour, I don't know.
The next evening, after riding about 100km, we stopped to ask if we could camp in the carpark of a restaurant - Northern Iran is quite heavily populated, and there isn't a lot of camping options. The guys there didn't really understand us, but then two young guys turned up who spoke good English – Askhan and Hessam. They were friends with the Red Crescent guys next door to the restaurant, who were all outside playing volleyball as usual. We were looking pretty dirty, so they organised for us to use the Red Crescent showers. After scrubbing up, they asked if we'd like to stay at their house for the night. It was about 10km back the way we'd come from but they were cool guys and a bed for the night sounded nice.
After the best night's sleep I'd had in months, a nice cooked breakfast, and 6 movies & 3 seasons of 'Game Of Thrones' transferred onto my laptop, Ashkan and Hessam then took us for a little tour of their town and a nearby lake. Next on the agenda was finding an internet cafe...no problem, Ashkans' friends ran one, so he gave them a call, and they went to open it up just for us and didn't charge us. By 2pm it was time to leave and head for Gorgan, the last big town before Turkmenistan. We said goodbye to Ashkan and Hessam, who then gave us one last gift – written directions to their friends takeaway restaurant in Gorgan.
“is that a large gun?” I pondered to myself...BANG!!...”yep”.
One dead bird landed on the ground, and dinner for the family in the car had been chosen.
We'd cycled a bit too fast and arrived at the border town a couple of days early. It was the 20th of April, and our Turkmenistan visas didn't begin until the 22nd. We headed to the only shop this small town had and spent the last of our Iranian money. Then it was time to find somewhere to camp for a couple of nights while we waited and made sure we were prepared for what lay ahead.
We'd been warned about the roads in Turkmenistan. We hadn't crossed the border yet but the roads had already deteriorated massively. While looking for our camping spot, a spoke snapped on my rear wheel after going over one too many big bumps in the road. Not good considering the roads were due to get even worse,
We found a well hidden camping spot next to some trees, that would give us some shade to hide from the increasingly hot sun in the day, and then got preparing. We fixed a new spoke to my rear wheel the following day, Dan fixed his brakes that were rubbing, and we cooked up a big pot of tuna pasta each, that we could seal up and take with us for Turkmenistan - shops and food were going to be few and far between we'd been told.
Many cyclists hitchhike through Turkmenistan, as it's all a big rush on the 5 day transit visas, and that's going the main route which is 550km. On the cycle touring website – www.travellingtwo.com, they describe the roads there as “the worst roads you will ever cycle on”...we were going a very obscure route that was 800km on what we expected to be even worse roads. We knew it was a long shot, but we were going to give it our best go. Dan said to me as we made our way to the border that morning “I hope we are given just a slight chance at this”, and I knew what he meant – we've had problem after problem with the bikes recently, and the roads and weather can make a huge difference when cycling...what we both hoped for was simply no big problems, just a little bit of hope – average roads, average weather and the bikes holding up.
Turkmenistan - Day 1
We reached the border before it opened and were the first people there. When the gates opened, we were shown to a building where our passports were checked and some things typed into a couple of computers, and then we were free to exit Iran. We passed through another set of gates and cycled the 1km of no-mans land to the Turkmenistan custom controls, first ones there again. A soldier came out of the building to tell us they weren't open yet but should be in the next 2 hours roughly?! So one half of the border opens at 8am the other at around 10.30am, so everyone is just stuck for a couple hours inbetweeen countries.
We lay down outside and an hour later they decided to open. Inside the building there was lots of forms to fill out, fees to pay and things to sign. Then for the first time on the trip we had our bags searched, and they were very thorough. Everything got taken out and examined from every bag, and we were questioned about each item. They even turned my laptop on to check it and to check the usb stick they'd found.
The whole process took a long time and when they had finally finished we asked them for a little bit of help...we got our big map of Turkmenistan out and asked them which route we should take for the first part of the country. According to our big map, the little map in our Lonely Planet book and Google Maps, there were two roads we could take immediately after crossing the border - which then met up again. One of the soldiers spoke enough English to help us - he told us that one road was not great but had some asphalt, and that the other route was 100km shorter, but while pointing at it, said - “this isn't a road”. By this time it was 1pm, we'd already lost half a day before we'd even begun and any route that was shorter, just had to be taken we decided, no matter if we'd been told "it isn't a road”.
We walked through the final set of gates and into Turkmenistan. The rush had begun, it was 1.30pm and we hadn't cycled our 1st km yet. There was not one person at the border who we could change our dollars with either, which is a first, and a sign that we were in the middle of nowhere. Not a great start all round.
As is often the case when crossing borders, everything immediately looked different. It was drier and more desert-like, more sand, camels roaming around and the few people we saw all seemed to have a full set of gold teeth. We set off and had around 20 meters of asphalt before it stopped, then it was just bumpy sandy horribleness for as far as the eye could see.
Another guy pulled up alongside us on a motorbike. We were struggling to understand his directions so he gestured for me to get on the back and he would show me the way. So I climbed on the back of his motorbike, he turned to the left, and we rode off the road and headed across the desert. He stopped after a couple of minutes and then just pointed across the desert at apparently nothing, just like he had done minutes earlier and just like the other guy had done. So it was settled, this was our route - A desert bigger than the size of Cornwall, and the soldier back at the border hadn't lied either...the little white line on Google Maps, Lonely Planet's map & our Central Asia map, truly “wasn't a road”. Not even slightly.
Time was ticking, so we picked a line, left the asphalt road behind us and started cycling into the desert. It was slow going, and after a couple hours we'd only done about 15km. The sun had just set, and a lightning storm just begun on the horizon. We carried on for another hour in the dark, both of us loving it. At about 11pm we stopped and set up camp. We were nowhere near finished crossing the desert yet, as looking at our map we guessed that we still had about 100km to go, but that first part of the desert was one of the most amazing travelling experiences I've ever had and the most “off the beaten track” I have ever been...because there was no track. There was not a thing around us in every direction for as far as the eye could see, just desert, lightning and the stars.
We were gone before the sun had risen and carried on heading north. The surface was still the same - hard ground with sections of thick sand. Occasionally we'd see tire tracks and follow them for a bit. It seemed that other cars pointlessly liked to follow them too, as every now and then the tracks joined up and formed what almost looked like a real path...until it got lost in the sand or the tracks started going off in different directions again.
We saw two cars that morning also crossing the desert, going the same way. Both were choosing a different line though and were just dots in the distance. Sometimes I would look around and Dan would also be a dot, both of us daydreaming and both taking a slightly different line.
The cycling part definitely wasn't going to plan but it was pure adventure, and we were loving every minute. With the sun beating down on us and nobody around for miles and miles it was time for a quick photo...
After repairing it, we ask how far the next town is, and are told it's 30km, then we leave and get back on the ever worsening road. 10km later its starting to get dark and the road is horrendous, more potholes than there are flat parts. We see a policeman at a checkpoint and ask him how far the next town is now...30km he tells us...still.
We had no real plan on when we would stop and camp, we just had to do as much as possible. By the time it was completely dark though it was hopeless - we had our front lights on, but the road was just unbelievable. We were going slower than walking pace on average, and wrecking our bikes every minute when we would drop into a huge hole. We carried on like this hoping the road might change again soon, but by midnight it still hadn't. We stopped and set up camp right next to the road and set the alarm for 5am.
We awoke with the alarm, had a quick bite to eat and then was back on the road again. We passed the small town in the morning and then after that the road got much better, unfortunately though the wind started picking up and it was a side/head wind.
After a few hours riding, we asked a policeman how far Balkanabat(the first big town we would reach) was, he told us 45km. We cycled 20km and then asked another policeman...still 45km. Our two maps only had distances marked on the big roads, the ones we were on had nothing, so we were just relying on the locals helping us out, but they seemed to be really struggling with it.
It had taken us 4 hours to do 20km. Everything was going wrong. We were told by two people that we were only 10km from Balkanabat. 10 minutes later though the road did exactly what we were hoping it wouldn't...it turned left, making the side/head wind into a deafening full-on head wind. It was like hitting a wall, we literally couldn't turn the pedals. We got off and started pushing. Going forward was possible by pushing, but we were moving at crawling pace and using all of our energy to do so. At this rate it would take all night to do 10km. The sun hadn't even set, but going on was hopeless...we set up the tent, didn't eat dinner because it was too windy to cook and then began trying to get all the sand out of our eyes and ears...
There was still a headwind in the morning but nothing compared to the previous day. We reached Balkanabat 45 minutes later. We were low on food and money, but we only had big denominations of dollars on us, so there was no point changing $50 for one or two days. I decided I could scrape by on the food I had left, so spent the last of my money very wisely...I didn't have enough for a big Coke, but I did have enough for the holy grail of Cokes - a 250ml glass bottle. I popped the lid off and fed the addiction. I must have looked like I really enjoyed it, because the owner of the shop then gave me and Dan a free one each. I decided I would save that one, so put it in my front handlebar bag for later.
Just as we were heading out of the town, a guy pulled up in front of us. He spoke no English but offered us a cup of tea from his flask and some food, in the back of his car. Time was rapidly running out, but so was food and drink, so we lay the bikes down and jumped in the back...
The road was new, the tarmac perfect but the wind still in our faces. The whole day I was trying to do the maths of whether we could get to the border in time without getting transport. We left Balkanabat at 9am, and had to be at the border the following day before 6pm. That gave us 33 hours to do 300km...the only problem was, because of the headwind we were not doing more than 10kph and we knew that this good road would only last up to Turkmenbashi, after that it would be terrible again, which then meant at this pace we couldn't stop to sleep. Dan knew that we didn't have a chance and I was trying my hardest to pretend to myself we still did, so we carried on regardless.
We got through the food we'd been given pretty quickly and were soon on rations. My sandwiches I was now making when we had a food break, was simply raw onion with nothing else, not even butter. We were both in need of a good meal and a big stock-up but there was nothing we could do. The whole time I was being tormented by the thing poking out of my handlebar bag....the bottle of Coke. I was using all my will-power not to drink it and kept convincing myself I should save it until the early hours of the morning - that's when I'd need it most I thought.
At 7pm we had been on the road for 12 hours - It was time to dig into the bottom of my bag and pull out my emergency food. I'd carried a tin of pilchards all the way from Cornwall, as-well as two Cadbury's Fredo bars. I was only going to eat them if i ever ran out of food - I hadn't quite ran out at this point, I had another few onion sandwiches left, but now was the time for the pilchards. I still refused the Coke though (and the Fredos), and even told Dan how proud I was of myself that I hadn't drunk it.
We'd done about 130km by this point, very slow going, but it meant by our calculations - Turkmenbashi was 20km away and the border 170km. An hour later we could see the Caspian Sea, which meant the town was close...
- "How far is it to the border of Kazakhstan?"
- "F*%K OFF"
Three times we had asked distances of towns in Turkmenistan, and each time we never got any closer...the answer was always the same as the last person we had asked. We had been cycling for 13 hours and according to these guys we still weren't any closer to the border.
It was over. Even if they were wrong by 100km is still meant we didn't have time. We had given it our best shot, but our hope of average roads, average weather and no bike problems couldn't have been further from the reality, everything had gone against us. It was a race against the clock the second we'd crossed the border, and the clock had won.
The sun had gone down and the town was further away than we thought. After a couple of hours of riding in the dark we were almost there. We had been on the bikes for 16 hours by now and we were pretty tired, the road went bad again just as we was nearing the town. Then disaster struck...I dropped into a huge pothole and as I did so, a couple things went flying out of my handlebar bag. I slammed on the brakes and jumped off the bike. There was a line of cars behind me that started going around me as I searched for what had flown out. Then I saw it...in the middle of the road was my digital camera and past that, was a broken Coke bottle. In my tired, delirious state, I walked past my camera and went straight to the bottle. It wasn't even smashed, just had a small chip in the top, but all was lost. I turned around, got back on the bike, picked up my camera before someone ran it over, checked it still worked...it did, and then took a picture of the damage...
It turned out not to be such a great camping spot in the morning...we had camped on a road to a building site, but a small road. So this digger driver was pretty confused by us, and had to wait until we moved the tent before he could get past...
When we finally found the right road it was lunchtime, so we had about 5 hours to hitch to the border. The first guy we spoke to was very happy to give us a lift, and had the perfect vehicle to carry the bikes. Unfortunately he was only going about 20km, but it was a start...
We were running out of time and the policemen knew this, so we couldn't wait for a big vehicle anymore, we needed anything. So a guy in big Lexus gets flagged down...We obviously couldn't understand the conversation between the guy and the policemen, but i think it went something like this...
"Hi, you'll be giving these two foreigners a lift as far as you are going"
"And also their bicycles..."
"Hahaha! No way, look at the size of them!"
"Yes you will"
"I have no choice??"
So it was decided. We began dismantling our bikes and cramming them in the back of his car. Everything somehow managed to fit, except there was one thing stopping the boot from closing...the remaining half of my front pannier rack. The driver then made the great decision that he would start bending the rack to fit it in.
"No! Please don't do that your going to snap it!!"...Snap. Idiot. I now had no front pannier rack. Then the policeman explained that we would have to pay the driver for taking us. Awesome.
He drove us about 120km, we had to pay him $40 and he dropped us off at another police checkpoint on a tee junction. We asked him if he could take us all the way to the border, another 45km, he gestured that the road gets even worse and his car couldn't handle it.
We sat and waited for another car and after 30 minutes somebody turned up. He must have been told about us, because he knew exactly what we wanted straight away. People near borders are always out to make money though, and the very lowest we could get him was $50! We had no choice, time was running out and he knew that. We piled the bikes in the back, he had a 4x4 jeep so it was easy getting everything in this time. He tightened all of his wheels and then we sped off...
The three of us and the two bikes were getting thrown all over the place. Time was really ticking now, it was 5.30pm and the border closed at 6pm. He couldn't have been going any faster on that road though, so we just had to hope. 40 minutes later we skidded to a halt outside the border. We ran to the guards and asked if we could come through, they radioed through to someone to ask, and we get told..."No". Even with getting transport we still hadn't made it through the country in time. We would have to camp at the border and cross it in the morning, and just hope we wouldn't get in too much trouble.
We walked through the gates, one guy looked at our passports and visas...no problem. Into the building, another guy looked...still no problem. Then a guy behind a glass screen had a look and then he looked up at us..."big problem".
We were told to go into this room with a desk and chairs, and wait. Then the boss came in, a Major in the army. He told us to take a seat, and then started asking us why we had overrun our visas and told us how big a problem this was. After 10 minutes we were given the choice of two options -
1. Pay the $300 fine each
2. Get deported
Well we didn't have that amount of money and we were already at the border, so deportation sounded like a good option.
The Major turned out to be a great guy, he apologised for having to deport us and said we are guests in his country and he wishes he didn't have to do it, but had no choice. He gave us a cup of tea, then put a big slab of bread in the microwave to go with a load of salami and butter he had put on the desk for us. He helped us write a letter explaining that we were sorry about overstaying our visas and that we wouldn't do it again, and then we had to sign about 10 different forms.
We spent about 4 hours in his office in total and had a great laugh. He then told someone to go off and get us a load more food, water and fizzy drinks for the road. He handed us the big bag of food and drink along with our passports, that now had a stamp in it saying we couldn't return to Turkmenistan for 2 years. We walked outside with him to our bikes, shook his hand and then said goodbye.