Between dictatorship and megalomania, some very friendly people

Publié le par Sylvie

Sarakhs - Turkmenabat ... 01/10-05/10

We present ourselves at 8am at the Iranian border but they only open an hour later. It’s bank holiday today, custom officers are probably having a late morning. We’ve been told the Iranian side of the border was quick compare to the Turkmen one but we’re stuck there for 2 hours! New comers are stacking their passport on top of ours. When it's finally our turn, the officer looks at us for a very long time and asks a lot of questions. Ben’s picture doesn’t help, he has very short hair and is shaved. Nothing to do with his long blond surfer type of hear and his beard! As we pass the bridge that separates the two countries Sylvie removes her scarf as soon as we pass the Iranian flag and shouts with triumph and relief, finally… On the Turkmen side, we are greeted by two young soldiers doing their military service. They are quite relaxed; and are playing with their sniffer dog that checks the trucks before crossing the border. The office is rudimentary, a room with dirty white walls and a concrete floor. You can easily imagine prisoners being tortured by the communists 50 years ago. Fortunately, we are only asked to sign a couple of papers, pay 13$ (we only get a receipt for 10$ though!), and put all our bags through the X-ray machine. It could take 15 minutes but the administrative stuff is very slow and we are released only 2 hours later. We can’t complain; it took some cyclists 6 hours, as they searched through their bags. Once outside, we find ourselves facing a large and arid plain ... Welcome to Turkmenistan! No road signs, but we manage to get to Sarakhs, the border town. Houses scattered in the middle of the desert, there is an impression of arbitrary: why a village here in the middle of nowhere? For those who have seen the movie “Central Station”, it is like the village at the end! Jean-Marc and Olivier are leaving us, they will attempt to cross Turkmenistan (550km) in 5 days including today and it’s already 14 PM. Unfortunately we cannot even try as Sylvie has hurt her knee on the road to Sarakhs so we will take a bus to Mary, 180km away, which leaves us with a 100km a day for the next 4 days. Easier said than done, there are only taxis! The drivers are optimistic "The bike will fit no problem." We don’t want to take two separate cars and even if we did the bikes wouldn’t fit. Finally, one of the drivers comes back with a friend of his that has a mini-van; now that’s better! But very expensive! We don’t really have time and they know we are stuck so the prices are very high, we have to pay 70$ (including 10$ that goes in the first driver’s pocket) but at least everything fits in, the bikes, the trailer, the bags and the 2 little cyclists. The road is in a very poor condition, the driver always has to avoid the holes! We pass many cotton fields; the intensive culture is responsible for drying out the Aral Sea. The hotel in Mary is very cheap (2$ a night) but very close to disgusting: no showers, there is no water in the toilets which are therefore stinking, the iron beds are distorted, the mattresses are just simple blankets, and the sheets are dirty, or at least what is left of them. Let’s not even talk about the food... Welcome to Turkmenistan! Fortunately, we met a very nice young Turkmen couple. They do not speak English but signs are enough to communicate. They offer us a large plate of sweets and biscuits. That lifts our spirits, especially Sylvie who was dreaming of a nice shower! Mary is a big city for Turkmenistan; the city is really strange, broad avenues nearly empty, 2 floors buildings quite spaced out... It looks like a city too big for its population. It feels like Disneyland, all the public buildings are massive, constructed in a combination of rococo and modern style, with loads of marble, glass window, gold etc. The theatre in particular is extravagant compared to the houses: white columns, marble staircase, an architecture that seems borrowed from another country, another era. But this is nothing compared to the capital Ashgabat. Women are walking in beautiful long and colourful traditional dresses. Some wear a scarf but more as a fashion accessory. We are relieved not to see these black veils again. We leave the next morning for our 4 day desert crossing adventure. We stop after 30 km in Bayram Ali. Cries of joy, we found a store... but virtually empty! Ben manages to find 2 cans of sardines, some spaghetti and two packs of pyrianiki (Russian type of biscuits). A little further, there is a bakery. There is a very long queue but a lady asks us how many bread we want, we say only one" She starts pushing everyone and here we are with a big hot bread before everyone else. When then cycle to the ancient city of Merv, capital of the Seldjouk empire, some people think it could have inspired the thousand and one nights tales. Unfortunately our picnic turns into a nightmare. Swarms of kids run towards us, touching the bikes, asking questions, shouting, and taking pictures. We decide to leave, Ben is holding the opened sardines’ tin in one hand, and the steering in the other. We end up eating on our bikes on the side of the road... Can’t wait to get back in the desert! There is not much left of Merv, a city once prosperous but often destroyed by jealous neighbours. It still remains a very beautiful and interesting site. As we stopped for water, an old man stops behind us. His truck is full of watermelons and insists on giving us one. We explain that it would be too heavy for our bicycles but far from being discouraged, he takes out his knife and cuts the watermelon so that we can all share the juicy melon! A little further on the road, a car slows down and a man gives Ben a large and warm bread, yummy... It’s often like this in Turkmenistan, people are very generous, and some cyclists have even reported people giving them money! We are finally in the desert, a scenery that will follow us during the next three days: sand dunes as far as the eye can see and small bushes desperately trying to cling to it. The combination of headwind and succession of climbs and descents means we only cycle at 15km/h. There are small villages every 40 to 60km but there are a bit off the road and we do not go through them. The railway runs along side the road and several freight trains pass during the day. We try to stop at a checkpoint thinking it would be safe to put up the tent there but the guard asked for 200$! It was hard not to laugh! We realise we cannot trust the police anymore like in Turkey or Iran. It’s a former USSR country after all. So we decide to stop in a small café on the side of the road, it’s a bit scruffy and there are only men, mainly truck drivers and workers, so Sylvie is a bit stressed out. But they are very nice and accept we put up the tent on their terrace. As we leave the next morning, we start to be in the mood, the monotonous landscape is relaxing. Here, nobody shouts at you, asks you to stop or to take a picture. There is no traffic, no pollution, but a beautiful blue sky, it’s so peaceful. It’s amazing how you mind can switch quickly to adapt to the environment... We stop in a small family run café for lunch. Three girls are doing the laundry, the mother is cooking and the son is serving. We did not see the father. We gobble up some delicious ravioli filled with meat and onions. We also take a lot of water as there is nothing before Repetek 60km away. As we start pedalling Sylvie realises that her rear derailleur cable is damaged. This morning, it was slightly damaged but not that much, and we did not think it would go that fast so Ben decides it is better to change it. Ben is very pissed off as we are on a very tight schedule to cross the country and we can’t go too fast because of Sylvie’s knee. Finally, he changes the cable very easily. It takes a bit more time because one of the strands remained stuck in the sheath. A truck driver gives us a little grease to put on the cable. In the meantime, Sylvie leaves a message in the guestbook. There are only messages from cyclists, who else would stop in the middle of the desert? They do not know what they are missing! In the evening we fall short by 7km (due to the cable of course :op), the sun is already too low. As it’s too dark, we decide to stop a truck, there’s loads of them working on the road. They look like the toy trucks we had when we were young. The driver is happy to help us. He climbs in his dumper (which is at least 3 meters high) and grabs the bikes, trailers and bags at arm's length. As soon as he starts driving, we look at each other very worried. It seems there’s no suspension on these trucks apart from the driver’s seat. Every time the truck falls into a hole we feel for the bikes, are they going to stay in one piece? We finally arrive at the café, it’s the same as usual, full of truck drivers and workers, it’s just twice as big and it looks like the boss knows how to deal with cyclists… As soon as he sees the bikes, he asks us to move them to the back to avoid the curious eyes of the thirty truckers. We sit on a small wooden platform, a little bit on the side, but that’s better for us. Some drunken guys still manage to bother us with loads of questions. Someone brings us two cups of coffee. Maybe to excuse the drunken guy who repeated at least 50 times that Turkmenabat is 60km east ... The boss offers us to sleep on the platform, it is rather comfortable. We wake up at 6 am with pop music blasting loud. It’s mostly Turkish and Iranian songs and the nostalgia puts us in good spirits. We get on the last part of the desert, we feel a little sad, it's already ending. We ride singing all the French songs we can remember. We actually decide to install mini-speakers on the bike as soon as we can! Getting into Turkmenabat takes 15 km. The road is in poor condition and the buildings of the suburbs are in poor condition with their dirty and decrepit façades. The choice of hotels is very limited and, as Ben puts it, it is an official scam. The receptionist shows us the tariffs (set by the government), a column for Turkmen people and one for foreigners: $ 5 against $ 20 for a bed in a 3-bed dorm. There are times when we really regret the locals are not travelling, they would know how it feels. After a tough negotiation, Ben manages to get us two beds in a brand new hotel. Sylvie would have slammed the door long ago! In the meantime, she keeps an eye on the bikes. A bunch of children come but these are different. The oldest make sure the little ones don’t touch the bicycles and explain them how these strange machines operate. Sylvie relaxes and starts chatting. The oldest two are thirteen and seem to symbolize the country's ethnic mix. Murat is tall with black hair and dark skin, while his friend Sergei, a little blond guy, is a real quicksilver. They ask all sorts of questions in a good English, they speak better than most Turkmens we met! They kindly help us to push the bikes in the hotel, if all children were like them! Bad luck, the water is not working in our room. We stay in a 3-bed dorm. Instead of giving us a double room for the same price, they open another room so that we can shower. Two dirty rooms but we assume they fear the government too much to deviate from the procedures. We leave a mountain of sand in the tub, this is the first time the water turns black when we shower ... 6 days without a shower, hum! And now, at last, a real meal! But prices are relatively high and they want to charge us even sugar! It's really because we needed a shower that we stopped. We leave without regrets the next morning. Fortunately, we met lots of nice people on the road and we have very good memories of Turkmenistan and Turkmen... It also pushed our boundaries. A year ago, crossing Turkmenistan was a big question mark, we even thought of taking the bus! A few months ago, we were anxious when there was more than 20 km between villages. But then, we discovered it was not so difficult to drive without a village in sight for 60 km ... Sylvie also discovered that she could manage without a shower for 6 days. But she finds it more difficult than carrying water for 60 km!

Publié dans Turkmenistan

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