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Aka: Highway to hell
Aka: A brief history of human suffering
Aka: Max Max: Turkmen Road

August 5th, 2016 in Denov, Uzbekistan

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“Can you get motion sickness from playing on a 3DS? I know some people feel sick when watching 3D-movies…” That's what was going through Robin's head as he decided to stop playing and go to sleep. Even though he managed to fall asleep within minutes, his rest would not last. He woke up feeling worse. Realizing he was going to throw up he hurried to unzip the tent and got out in the open desert. Not only was this going to be a long night with almost no sleep, tomorrow was the last day before the Turkmen-dash. We really didn't have time to be sick right now… 

The Turkmen-dash is the nickname, given by cyclists, to an approximately 500 km stretch of desert road through Turkmenistan that connects Iran with Uzbekistan and the rest of Central Asia. The distance normally have to be covered in no more than five days due to visa restrictions and usually includes constant head winds, intense heat and really bad roads. 

500 km in five days is under normal circumstances not at all an impossible feat but the unbearable heat of the Turkmenistan desert forces you to hide out from noon to around five or six in the afternoon, not leaving many remaining hours of sunlight to cover the distance in. 

On top of that, three additional factors can jeopardise your travel time; sickness, bike problems and head-winds. Cycling the Turkmen-dash in the direction from Iran to Uzbekistan, you are more or less guaranteed to have head-winds. It is known. We consider ourselves lucky as our bikes didn't give us any major problems (except for a few flat tires) and we only occasionally had strong head-winds. But when it came to sickness, we were not as lucky… 

But we were not there yet! After spending the night puking his guts out, Robin were by no means the fastest cyclist under the sun. Afraid that it might have been the water that caused it, we purified some and set aim for the next “town”, some 25 km away, to replace the rest. When we got there, it turned out to be nothing more than workshops. By now, Robin was white as a sheet so one of the workshop owners insisted he'd come in, drink some tea and rest for a while. What we didn't realised until later was that he then also called for an ambulance. After a lot of negotiations with the paramedics (they wanted to take Robin to rest, we tried to explain that we didn't have time for such luxuries), they agreed to let us continue as long as we rested at the next restaurant.

What followed was a painfully slow (and also just painful) day towards the border, having to stop and rest more or less every hour. We finally made it to Sarakhs and the Red Crescent (Red Cross) two hours after dark. The Red Crescent is everywhere in Iran and the place by the border is well known for letting cyclists crash there. And after the day we just had, a shower and an air conditioned room was exactly what we needed. 

The next day we crossed the border to Turkmenistan. The Iranian side of the border went fairly smoothly, if a bit slow. The Turkmenistan side of the border was however full of confusion. Firstly, we were checked by a doctor who took Robin’s temperature, but not Ida's. After that, we were questioned by an officer with really poor English which meant that it took him at least 10 minutes just to figure out our nationality. Then the same officer tried to have us fill in some sort of paper but as everything was in Russian we had no idea how, so he eventually just let it slide. Lastly, they scanned all our bags and we were finally in Turkmenistan! 

As the whole morning had slipped away at the border we started by grabbing some lunch and rest for awhile while it cooled down a bit outside. But before we were able to leave, it was Ida's turn to be sick… Feeling the time slipping away from us, we optimistically attempt to continue in spite of Ida's nausea but only got 5-10 km before she had to puke again; and now the gazing sun made her feel even worse than at the restaurant… But in this darkest hour an Iranian truck driver stopped, insisting that Ida rested in his airconditioned truck for a couple of hours while he provided cold water and tea. Even when we are no longer in their country, the Iranians manage to help us out when we need it the most!

As we ended up only doing about 40 km the first day in Turkmenistan we were desperately behind schedule. So the next day we got up with the first light to make up for lost time. And with nothing but desert for the first 100 km we were forced to do so sooner rather than later. With almost a full day’s distance covered before lunch, we manage to cycle a record breaking 188 km that day which more than made up for the day before. Not at all bad considering the state of us!

Morning in desert
The days that followed all sort of merged into a haze of routine; wake up before the sun, cycle until around noon, rest until five or six and then cycle three of four hours more. The sickness and nausea followed us through the days and made it hard to eat. The lack of food had us tired and irritated but we didn't have any choice but to continue as we desperately needed to cross Turkmenistan before our visas ran out. According to our bike computers, temperatures would reach around 50 degrees Celsius in the middle of the day. Given, this was not temperatures in the shade as there rarely wasn't any shade to talk of. 

Cycling through Turkmenistan was exhausting and one of the worst thing we have ever done. And looking back, we can't really say we've experienced Turkmenistan as there was never any time to explore and we were obviously too tired and stressed to even try. What we did glimpse however was an odd country. 

Turkmenistan is the least-visited of Central Asia's countries due to the difficulties to obtain a visa. And if you go for a tourist visa you will need to be accompanied by a guide for the entire time making it both expansive and obviously annoying. The transit visa we were on does not require a guide but instead it is painfully too short to both cross the country and experience anything on bicycle. Therefore, cycling through we mostly just experience the road, the desert and our own misery. And off course the grime toilets… 

In the towns we did go through we glimpsed the pictures and statues of the odd last president (read dictator) who actually renamed himself Turkmenbashi, meaning leader or the Turkmen. About Turkmenbashi and the overall politics we only picked up a minimum of things. Like that gas, electricity and water is free of charge for everyone in Turkmenistan and that there is no independent or privately owned press. We kind of got to experienced the no independent press part as men in uniform kept saying we couldn't take photos of things and later the custom officers going through all our photos at the border, deleting every single one not painting Turkmenistan in a positive manner (hence not to many pictures in this post). 

On a more positive note we have the Turkmenistan women. After Iran, where the black chador was boringly common, (for obvious reasons) the women in Turkmenistan with their colorful dresses was a pleasant change. Their dresses was every color imagined with bold patterned. And sometimes they were figure hugging or even short! It was such a difference compared to Iran. Even the cleaning ladies were fabulous. And Ida was obviously happy to be out of the hijab! 

We reached the Uzbekistan border shortly after noon on the last day, quite pleased with the time we had made. With half a day to spare, we should have no problem getting to a hotel on the other side before the sun set...Or that's what we thought. The border crossing on this side made the Iranian side seem lighting fast. Not only were we forced to fill out the forms in Russian that we got out of filling out on the way in, we were then asked to empty all our bags…twice (once on the Turkmen side and then once again on the Uzbeki side).

Things didn't move along quicker when they found some spices that we had bought in Iran that looked like big chunk of hashish. There would have been five or six different officers smelling, tasing and trying to get us to confess for a good half hour before they let it go....

First beer

When we finally were allowed to continue into Uzbekistan we cycled to the first restaurant we could find ordered our first beers in over a month and celebrated that we had conquered the Turkmen-dash! The Central Asia chapter of our journey had now properly begun!