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Turkmenistan - a race against time!

Let’s get one thing straight right off: to cross Turkmenistan we only got a 5 day transit visa. It is more than other tourists received. Some didn’t even get a visa for Turkmenistan, others got it only for 3 days. Considering this we were lucky! Nevertheless, it gives us only 5 days to cross the 500km of desert! The weatherforecast is not in favour of us. It will be sunny all the time, which is good, but temperatures will be around 40°C together with strong headwinds! That’s going to be a challenge!

 

We arrive at the Iranian border of September 2nd at 8.00am, but the officials only start their duty ath 9.00am. We have to wait. Markus and I are a bit nervous, we would like to start our jouney. But we have to be patient, which is not really our strength.

 

Finally, the “gate “ opens, we can hand in our passports and receive the exit stamp. Following a bumpy dirtroad for about one km we arrive at the border of Turkmenistan. First of all we have to go through a helath check before we can start the entry procedure. Then the customs officer checks the correctness of our visa, he records all data in the system, takes a picture and our fingerprints. After that we have to go to the immigration counter to pay the entry fee. Once we got the receipt we go back to the first counter to get the entry stamp in our passport. Several times the officer informs us that we have to stick to the 5 days otherwise we would run into problems. Morover he wants to know which route we are going to take and where we will spend the night. But that is not all: now we have to go through the security check. In front of us is a lady with 7 huge boxes of shoes. Each and every pair of shoes is examined. Just imagine how long this takes. Finally it is our turn! We unpack our bicycles, each bike bag is scanned! Afterwards we have to open each bag, unpack it. Everything is checked. What they also are interested in is our medicine that we have taken with us. They check each tablet and pill. They even ask me, what the medicine is for. Luckily our doctor had been aware of this procedure. We haven’t any medicine with us that could be looked at as being a drug. Finally we got the o.k. to pack everything again and to enter Turkmenistan. The whole process took more time than we had expected – that leaves us with less time to do the 500km!

 

First we drive into the small town Sharakhs, we need to get the Turkmen Rial. We look desperately for a bank. It is the first time we use  our dictionary without  words (it contains only pictures). After asking different people we arrive in front of the bank, but no sign would identify it. It is closed due to the lunch break, but some of the waiting people changed us USD for a very good rate, what we realized only later. Happy to have the local currency we go to the next shop and buy cold water and ice cream, before we take off. After 20 km we already reach the first Checkpoint. After verification of passport and a check if we are on the specified route that we had mentioned we would take, we are allowed to continue.

 

The route on the side roads is rough, very bumpy, sometimes there is gravel, no tar combined with a lot of potholes. As if that would not be enough we have a strong headwind, more than 10-13 km/h is not possible. After 6 hrs and 70km we decide for a place to put up our tent. With exception of some sand flies we find the perfect spot. Quickly we have put up the tent and cook a soupe and some noodles. We enjoy the quietness under the stars. At 2100 we fall asleep.

 

The alarm clock rings at 0430, we want to start at sunrise. Like this we can enjoy the fresh morning with less headwinds. It is still cool; we are putting on long sleeves and trousers. Equipped with the headlamp we remove the tent and pack our things. Our breakfast is simple: hot coffee, cream cheese, cucumbers, honey and bread. Shortly after sunrise we are on the way. To our surprise there is no more desert but cottonfields. After 40km the bumpy side street joins into the main road, where we find a “restaurant” where we stop. In a big room with only one table an a huge TV screen we drink a bottle of cold water and buy 5 liter of water to refill our water reservoirs. Once more we realise how important it is to have water, even if it does not taste that good with a temp of 40°C.

We continue direction Mary; the headwind gets strong and stronger. The street condition is only marginally better than before, but now we have as well a lot of traffic that tries to get around all the wholes. It was more pleasant to ride on the side street.

In the late afternoon after 115km we arrive in Mary. We are overwhelmed by the dimensions of the roads, the pomp buildings, the immense horse racing tracks, we did not expect anything like this. A pity we do not have time to explore the city.

We just manage to do the shopping for the next 3 days before the bazar closes at 1900.  This night we enjoy the goodies of a 4 star hotel, the next nights we will sleep in the tent.

The next morning when leaving the hotelv Markus cannot find his sunglasses, this is definitely not good. We start anyway, as we want to visit Merv, a town of the miďdle age that belongs to the UNESCO world heritage. After the impressive visit we ride an extra 5km loop to the center of Bayramaly to by sunglasses for Markus. 

In the meantime the wind increased, we only manage 10-12 km/hr. This is not much when you want to ride 100km the whole day. We change the front positions every 15 minutes, so each of us can recover while biking in the wind shade of the other. Every hour we stop and even lay down to recover. Shortly before it gets dark we find a dune behind which we want to camp. We wait until no car or truck passé by and push our bikes through the sand in the hideaway. The first thing we do is to hang our water pocket on the saddle and wash off the dirt of the day, what a delight.

We still have 2 days for the remaining 180km, the toughest days. The wind increases, we can hear the noise of the wind still being in the tent and already before the sunrise, this is bad news. We push into the pedals and advance only slowly. In the afternoon Markus is fed up and thinks about stopping a truck to get a lift. He asks: Why do we do that? Do we need to proof something? But I do not want to give up, 1 1/2 days before our visa expires. I am too ambitious. We continue at a snail’s pace and 40°C, free peeling with sand included. 

 

Finally there is a shop where we stop. Markus orders one liter of coke that he finishes in no time. I have never seen him drinking that much coke at a time! Once more we mange the planned route but feel exhausted.

 

On the last day we start already in dawn, our red backlights are blinking. We want to be at the boarder in the afternoon before 1700. We bike without taking a break, we stop only for drinking. Markus realizes that he cannot shift into the 3rd gear in front. What is that? As if not enough the wind lashes the sand into our faces, the gauge shows only 7-8km/hr. Few kilometres before the boarder I think about giving up, I do not want to continue anymore! But we are a good team we can motivate each other, never give up! Far away we can see a que of trucks, a good sign, it looks that we are almost there. Shortly before 1400 we reach the border, we made it!

 

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