Long Way Home

Chapter 9

Newsletter 6

Never Drink Vodka With a Russian

The Wedding at the Monument to Independance, Ashgabat

Hi everyone,We’ve now reached Kyrgyzstan, in the heart of Central Asia and it’s certainly been an eventful few weeks since leaving Iran.
Crossing the border into Turkmenistan was pretty straightforward, apart from the official’s strange desire to have us wheel our bikes and trailers through the crowded ‘Immigration Office’ rather than along the road. It was a spectacular ride downhill into the capital city – Ashgabat. The city is initially quite appealing – modern with lots of leafy green parks and fountains everywhere. We pulled over at the outlandish “Monument to the Independence of Turkmenistan” and were captivated by the arrival of a wedding party, with musicians and guests dancing around the bridal couple.

After the bare brown mountains and black chadors of Iran, it was like the world had suddenly switched into Technicolour. Women were brightly clad in long dresses, lots of velvet with elaborate embroidery. It seems the more lurid the better and anything that glitters or shines is definitely the go. People’s faces also feature lots of sparkle – everywhere we go huge smiles reveal mouths full of gleaming gold teeth.
As we rode further into the city centre though things started to get a little weird ….. giant posters and photos of the President are plastered everywhere and the streets are littered with monsterous statues and monuments to his great achievements, particularly in the areas of ‘literature’ (at least half the books available in the country are written by the President) and ‘town planning’.The massively ugly ‘Arch of Neutrality’ tops it all off – especially the gold statue of the President on top, which rotates to follow the path of the sun.

Our hotel door, Ashgabat

We spent the night in a old Soviet hotel. The room smelt funny, possibly due to the hunk of decomposing meat left in the fridge, power points were blackened holes in the wall, stained curtains sagged from rails, the knob fell off the air conditioner when we tried to turn it on and the bathroom was a definite no-go zone. Thankfully asking got us a more habitable room upstairs (complete with portrait of the President!) but it wasn’t exactly an accommodation highlight.
We headed out early the next morning, planning a big day to knock over as many kilometres as possible (only four days and 650km to go). We cycled back out of town to where we’d seen signposts for the town of Mary on our way in. Turning up onto the highway we rode into a pile of rubble …… the road hadn’t actually been built, although the signage was excellent. Of course there are no signs at all to the existing route which we eventually found after asking repeatedly. It’s a comedy of errors which would have been funny except we wasted over an hour and pedalled an extra 20km which we really didn’t need.

A series of police checks added to the frustration, especially as it’s obvious that they couldn’t give a stuff about our passports and just wanted to poke at the bikes. As we rode on the wind picked up….. despite all our prayers it’s a headwind. When Ed got his second puncture we started to wonder what we’d done to upset the Gods. We camped when it was too dark to continue and fell into the tent.

Checkpoint guards

Next morning we set off before dawn. Although it’s unspoken, the threat of having to get a bus if we fail to make the distance hung over us. As we rode along I started thinking that this stretch had more in common with the Simpson Desert Cycle Challenge than it did with leisurely bike touring. It’s all so familiar – the same feeling of impending doom when the alarm goes off pre-dawn; the same feeling of despair when your average speed drops below the required level; and the same taste of lukewarm bidons of sugary drink….. And so we dubbed the next few days ‘R.A.T.s’ – the ‘Race Across Turkmenistan’.

Now that we’ve gotten serious about it we seem to speed up, or maybe it’s just that the wind has eased, and we managed 202km for the day. The road surface got steadily worse, and I spent a few kilometres mentally composing a letter to the Turkmenistan Government, suggesting that the citizens of Ashgabat probably wouldn’t miss a few gold statues of the President…..these could be melted down to provide funding to resurface the country’s roads, which resemble crazy paving with huge bike tyre gobbling fissures and potholes.

Crossing the desert

A few days later we reached the outskirts of Turkmenabat …. just short of the Uzbekistan border. We stopped at a cafe for a drink and are invited to join a group for lunch. It’s our introduction to the most obvious legacy from the Soviets – vodka. We toast everyone from the Queen to assorted offspring, munching on slices of sweet tomato to ease the fiery vodka burn. Finally we managed to make our escape, and, confident that we had time to spare, headed for the border.

Vodka for lunch, Turkmenebat

Unfortunately we couldn’t find the right way. We naively expected an international border crossing route to be reasonably obvious but instead the road meandered around dusty back streets, through a bazaar, and past several sleepy police checkpoints. It’s also 30km further than expected. We arrived dripping sweat and anxiety with less than an hour until closing (and expiry of our visas).