We finally received our elusive Chinese visas in Tehran on the 1st of August. Our Iranian visas were due to expire just two days later and we were a long way from the border with Turkmenistan, leaving us no choice but to take a couple of buses all the way to the border. The journey took a total of around 16 hours and was quite exhausting so we were glad to get to the small border town of Bajgiran in the early afternoon of the 2nd August, in plenty of time to cross the border the next morning. There didn’t seem to be a hotel or anywhere obvious to camp, so we asked at the local police station and were invited to camp on their front lawn – an excellent spot with lovely soft grass and the security of our own police guard! Bajgiran is your archetypal wind-blown, run-down and dusty border town, not the sort of place you want to hang around in. Dean was also due to cross into Turkmenistan on the same day as us and we had an informal agreement to meet him in Bajgiran, which we did that evening.
The next morning we headed up to the border post, at the top of a big hill, in time for it to open at 8am. After some formalities and some hanging around we received all the requisite stamps in our passports, changed some money, and were ready to be off. Much to the amusement of the border guards, Christine was finally able to discard her Iranian outfit, changing from trousers, long-sleeved top and headscarf into shorts and t-shirt, much more appropriate for the weather! Just after leaving the border we had our first introduction to Central Asian paranoia when we tried to take some photos of the area around the border post (not that close – more than 500m away) which was spectacularly beautiful, but were swiftly told in no uncertain terms to put the camera away.It was at this point, as we were cycling away from the border post, that it became apparent that there was a problem with Pete’s bike – the rear hub was making a worrying sound and even more concerningly we realized that the rear derailleur was slightly bent, something that had presumably happened on one of the bumpier parts of the bus journey. This resulted in his chain becoming horribly bent, rendering the bike uncyclable. This was really bad luck – if we had realized the problem in Iran, we could have had it fixed without a problem – any bike shop in Iran would have stocked appropriate replacement parts. However, now we were in Turkmenistan, where bicycles and hence spare parts are much more basic. Thankfully it was downhill all the way to Acgabat, so we were able to limp in and head straight to the only bike shop in town. Unfortunately this place was very basic, and the owner pretty unknowledgeable about how to fix the wheel. We spent four hours at the shop, ending up doing most of the work ourselves. The shop was tiny so we had to work outside in the hot sunlight – not much fun. Unfortunately most bikes in Turkmenistan are single-gear, and so the bike shop did not possess a tool to remove the rear cassette, meaning our only option was a new wheel with a new cassette, but we had to keep the bent derailleur as they didn’t have any new ones in stock. The new wheel does not quite sit properly in the bike frame, and so the rear brakes cannot be used. All in all the bike was just about functional, but without rear brakes or functioning gears.
We were hot and fed-up by the time we left the bike shop, and then had the fun of trying to find a hotel. Turkmenistan is a weird country that was run for a long time by a megalomaniac who turned Acgabat into some sort of shrine towards himself, with numerous monuments dedicated to him and statues of himself – our favourite being a huge gold one that revolves so he is always facing the sun. All the buildings are white and gold, and the whole city is spookily quiet and tumble-weedy – it is like no-one actually lives there (they do, but mostly out in crappy apartments in the suburbs). It is great to cycle around though, as the roads are wide, good-quality and quiet, and everywhere you look there are good photo opportunities. So we didn’t mind that we had to spend an hour or more cycling around trying to find a hotel – another odd thing about Acgabat is that they seem to have done away with all the street name signs, making navigation damned near impossible even with a map. Everyone we asked for a hotel directed us to the 5 star Grand Turkmen – not exactly what we had in mind budget wise. But we were so hot and tired that eventually we decided to treat ourselves for one night and stay in the Grand Turkmen, as we had failed to find any other hotels (our justification was that it was a belated birthday treat for Christine and Dean, who had their birthdays on the same day in the back of beyond in Turkey). The three of us shared a room to make it less expensive and in fact we all agreed it was money well spent – after a month in Iran it was wonderful to be able to swim in the lovely outdoor pool, and sit on our balcony having a beer – we had a very pleasant evening!
The next day we spent a frustrating couple of hours on the internet ordering a new rear wheel for Pete, to be shipped out to Samarqand in Uzbekistan, where we expected to be in a couple of weeks. The internet was ridiculously slow – Christine spent almost an hour trying to open her email inbox without success! Thankfully we were able to successfully order the relevant bike parts. Following that we spent a couple of hours in the pool, and then checked out the Russian market before heading off on our bikes into the desert. Because of the heat it makes much more sense to cycle in the mornings and evenings, and we got some 60km done before the sun went down. It was great to be camping in the desert, in particular because of the amazing night sky. Pete’s bike seemed to be working ok and we set off before sunrise the next morning in hopeful anticipation of a long day’s cycling – we had a bit of a tailwind so we were hopeful of smashing our previous daily distance record (155 km). However, fate was once again not in our favour and we had done less than 5km when we realised there was another problem with Pete’s bike. The idiots at the bike shop in Acgabat had cheapskated us by using our old spoke ‘nipples’ with the new spokes, rather than using the spoke nipples that came with the new spokes. They didn’t realise that our old spokes were thicker than the new spokes, and so the nipples were too big, with the consequence that the spokes kept coming loose. We retightened them, but they came loose in less than 5km – we repeated the process again but swiftly concluded that cycling was not going to happen without a new set of spokes – we were gutted! Our hopes of cycling all the way across Turkmenistan in the 5 days allowed on our visa had already been greatly diminished by the time we spent in Acgabat – we would have had to cycle 4 consecutive 160 km days to complete the challenge – and now those hopes were completely dead. We had no choice but to stick out our thumbs for a lift to the next big town, Mary, where we hoped to find some new spokes. Thankfully we had no problems hitching – the first lorry that came along stopped and agreed to take us the 300km to Mary. Christine sat up front with the driver, but Pete had to lie down on the bed behind – legally the driver was only allowed to take one passenger, so Pete had to hide from view as we passed the many police checkpoints en route. The road was bumpy and the suspension on the lorry decrebit meaning we were bounced around all over the place (the bikes were secured in the back and were fine). The poor road quality meant it took 6 hours to get to Mary, although it felt like much longer. When we got there the lorry driver – who wouldn’t take any money for the trip – got some locals to show us the way to the market where there were some bicycle repair stands. The bike mechanics there were more proficient than those in Acgabat and were able to put new, thicker spokes into the wheel to fix the problem whilst we sat drinking tea and chatting to a friendly crowd of stallholders from the market, the visit to the market being so convivial that we were almost grateful for the bike having broken to have had the experience. We left Mary at around 5.30pm and cycled for around 40km until we spied a roadside restaurant that looked promising for some dinner and possibly a camping spot. We were just setting up when who pulls up but Dean – we had left him in Acgabat where he spent another night before bussing it to just beyond Mary (this had always been his plan as he wanted to spend more time in Acgabat) – and he saw us from the vehicle he was travelling in. So he rejoined us and we had dinner – lovely shashlyk (grilled lamb) and samosas. The restaurant had both daybeds for sitting on outside as well as a few private rooms for eating in, the restaurant owners kindly agreed to let us sleep in one of the rooms (which had air conditioning!) for a small fee, which was really nice as sleeping outside is difficult when it is so warm.
The next day we left early as always and headed out into the main part of the desert. We had 220km of desert to cross in 2 days, and were confident of achieving this. This part of Turkmenistan is quite remote, with just a few small settlements strung out along the road, so it was important that we planned carefully to make sure we had enough water etc to last between the settlements. Cycling into the desert in the morning was lovely and we really enjoyed the sense of wilderness, as well as seeing wildlife such as desert rats and foxes, and large birds of prey soaring above. However by 10am it became apparent just how tough the ride was going to be, as the temperature climbed to over 50c and the headwind picked up – the best analogy we can think of is cycling in a fan oven. The wind is completely dry and hot so there is no cooling breeze to help cool you down. On the first day we were able to buy cold water every 20km or so, but the water was horribly hot and therefore not very refreshing within half an hour or less. We subsequently learnt that a good trick is to cover your water bottle with a wet sock; the water evaporating from the sock actually cools the water in the bottle down to a bearable temperature. Unfortunately we didn’t know this at the time though! In no time at all we were all hallucinating about ice cold water and fanta (in our opinion icy fanta is the best thing in the world for desert cycling.) We stopped for lunch at a roadside cafe in the small village of Ravnina. After eating we asked if it was ok if we slept on our thermarests in a corner for a few hours – imagine doing that in a restaurant in the UK! After sleeping and loading up our bikes with as much water as we could carry we set off around 5pm and cycled another 40km before camping on the sand under the stars again – magical although still unpleasantly hot (around 35c at nighttime). The next day we knew we had around 100km to cover with just one roadside cafe in the middle of it, so we set off before sunrise and reached the cafe (at Repetek) by 8am. Our plan was to have a quick breakfast, load up with water, then cover the remaining distance to the next shelter by 11am or so. However our plans were thwarted by the fact that the cafe was not quite the desert oasis that we had hoped for. The only thing they had in the fridge was beer and vodka (which passing truck drivers were enthusiastically imbibing, even at that time of day), and the only food they could offer us was some stale bread which we forced down with the end of Dean’s jar of honey. We had to take water from a tank that had been sitting there for goodness knows how long (no running water in the desert) and purify it, which we did, but the water was warm to start with which wasn’t good. This awful cafe also wins the award for worst toilet of the trip so far – a lovely pit squatter without a door and which obviously hadn’t been emptied for a while…the pile of excrement underneath almost reached the top, and was covered in the most enormous dung beetles! Needless to say we all elected to pee behind a sand dune in the desert instead. After Repetek we pushed on but the wind had picked up, slowing us down, and by midday we still had around 30km to go. Given that our water was roasting hot and we knew there was nowhere to go to get out of the heat we decided the sensible thing to do was to hitch the last bit. It seemed a shame to give up so close to the finish, but 30km in that sort of heat and with no way of cooling down is asking for heatstroke. It took less than 2 mins to get a ride in a truck – it would be a heartless lorry driver that left 3 cyclists in the desert in the midday sun – to the outskirts of Turkmenabat. From there we were planning to cycle the remaining 10km into the city but as we were setting off a posh BMW drew up and the driver, a local businessmen, offered to drive us to a hotel in the city. Well, we had come that far by truck so we figured there was no harm going a bit further, especially as the BMW had air-con. Obviously our bikes couldn’t go in a car so the driver – who we assume is a local bigwig – pulled over a passing empty bus and commandeered it to take our bikes to the hotel while we went in the car! The downside was that the hotel the guy took us to was posher than what we would have normally gone for, but actually it wasn’t that expensive, and it was really nice to have air-con and a pool to recover from our days in the desert.
The next morning we set off for the border with Uzbekistan. According to our maps, it was only around 15km away. In reality it was actually over 50km so it was a good thing we set off early! At the border we encountered some Brits taking part in the Mongol Rally – in which competitors drive cheap cars or other vehicles such as ambulances to Mongolia, where the vehicles and everything inside them is donated to Mongolian charities. We have seen quite a few of these vehicles and have chatted to quite a few of the drivers, which has been nice. Certainly strange to see British numberplates here though! We’re not sure the Mongol ralliers are always that pleased to meet us – a number have commented that before meeting us they considered themselves to be quite adventurous, but now felt less so! One of the major hurdles that Mongol ralliers face is paperwork – it is a logistical nightmare taking a vehicle across all those countries. Indeed one group we spoke to had had a bad experience in Iran, where they had been initially detained because of an irregularity with some of their paperwork – they were subsequently searched and found to have a CB radio onboard, which resulted in them spending 4 days in police custody in Bajgiran while the authorities established that they weren’t spies. A number of other Mongol rally groups that we have seen are carrying satellite phones – something that seems crazy to us because that is classic spy equipment that will get you locked up in no time at all in this part of the world – it seems to us that the disadvantages far outweigh the benefits of carrying that sort of equipment. At the end of the day in poorer countries like this, if you have a problem, people will always stop and help you. Anyway, we exited Turkmenistan without a hitch and crossed no-mans land to the Uzbekistan border.