In honour of World Toilet Day, I’m reposting my ‘France to China by toilet‘ blog post, which I posted on my other site last year during our France to China cycle tour. During the cycle trip I was raising money and awareness about the global sanitation crisis, through the charity, Wateraid.
In 2014, I was cycling to raise money and awareness for the global sanitation crisis, however it never really occurred to me that while cycling I would find myself face to face with some of the issues related to this global crisis, such as open deification, no running water and poor hygiene.
The countries I cycled through aren’t necessarily the world’s poorest countries, however many of the countries (Turkey, Iran,Uzbekistan,Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan and even China), are still developing and though many of the major cities in these countries have incredibly high tech, hygienic toilets with running water and soap available, this contrasted greatly with the more rural communities. The ‘average’ tourist that’s visits these countries are unlikely to see, experience or even be aware of some of the sanitation issues that the country is experiencing. I could even go as far as saying, most locals that live in the developed cities of these countries, in cities such as Almaty or Beijing, are unlikely to even be aware of the sanitation issues in their own countries. The extremes of toilet quality within one country is just unbelievable.
From France to Turkey, Iran, China and Australia, here is France to China by toilet.
We started our France to China by toilet journey in the French Alps. The standard Western toilet, clean, hygienic and private – they tick all the boxes on safe sanitation. My only complaint in Europe was, why do men always leave the toilet seat up? We also came across a ‘drop toilet’ on a hike in the French Alps. Though no running water, it still offers privacy and is in a much better condition than most the toilets I have used since.
After Europe our France to China by toilet journey took us through Turkey. This is where we started to notice a difference in toilet quality throughout the country. We also were introduced to the ‘squat toilet’. With sore legs, ‘squats’ aren’t really that great for cycle tourists. Turkey is also a country where you couldn’t always flush your toilet paper. Toilets ranged from ultimate hygienic, with toilet seat covers, soap, air fresheners (this includes public toilets), to absolutely disgusting squat toilets. I even have my suspicions that a lot of the gas stations (that are mostly run by men), only clean the bloke’s toilets. Turkey was also the first country where we would sometimes cycle for an entire day before coming across a toile. So open defication became more frequent (hence the landscape pic).
More ‘squats’! Some people believe it’s healthier to use a squat toilet. There might be some truth in that, but I still prefer the Western. My worse memory of going to the toilet in Iran was using a public toilet in a park. The ground in the toilet block was soaking wet and dirty. Each cubicle has a hose, as people tend to use a hose instead of toilet paper and unfortunately, someone left the hose running.
All toilets are private and most are clean and have soap and running water. The ‘hole in the ground’ toilet photo below, was actually in a house of a family near the Turkmenistan border. It was the first toilet I had ever seen like that (and this one was actually really clean), but it wasn’t the last. I discovered, though they are rare in Iran and Turkey, they were common in Central Asia.
CENTRAL ASIA (Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan):
It’s funny that I didn’t actually take any photos of the squat toilets. I feared I was going to accidentally drop my phone into the hole. The Western toilet was in a hotel (yes, most hotels that cater for Westerners), but the majority of toilets are ‘squats’. Similar to the ‘hole in the ground’ photo above, and usually in outhouses like the ones below. They usually don’t have a cubicle doors. I discovered this as I entered the shack below to find a girl staring at me, while squatting and ‘doing her business’. I screamed in shock, then retreated out of the toilet.
The lack of hygiene and privacy in these toilets actually meant I felt more comfortable ‘doing my business’ in the open. Strangely, this is now a issue in many of the slums in India where toilets have been installed. One thing that I always had that some people in these areas didn’t was hand sanitiser and toilet paper!
The country where there was the most extreme and noticeable difference in toilet quality. It was in China where I experienced the best toilet of my life and probably some of the worst. The fancy toilets, with heated toilet seat options and massage facilities, in contrast to the mould covered squat toilets. One thing about China is that there are plenty of public toilets. Probably more so than in any of the Western countries we cycled through. It was just the standard of toilet tended to vary largely. So, we made it from France to China by toilet, as well as by bike.
That sums up my toilet experience while cycling from France to China by toilet. One thing that I have gained from this experience is an appreciation of clean, private (and Western) toilets.
Find out how to get involved in World Toilet Day. Without access to a safe toilets, women and children (and even men) are forced to put themselves at risk of sexual abuse, disease and illness each and every day.
It’s been a while since my last post, so I thought it was about time I caught up on some blogging. Home Sweet Home, Australia! It’s good to be back! After finishing the cycle trip and leaving China it was finally time to return to ‘normality’. No more peeing outside, sleeping on the floor or worrying about where to get drinking water, or worrying about how the hell we were going to fund the rest of the trip. All the ‘little’, (though important) things that we usually took for granted.
It was time to live the ‘spoilt’ life and head back home – literally, back home to my parents’ house in Perth. Finally, I could relax and have someone look after me. Broke and tired, I arrived home… to an empty house! My parents decided to take a 3 week holiday in Vietnam the week of my return. So much for having someone look after me. Instead I spent 3 weeks trying to figure out how things worked in the house (I couldn’t even get the TV or heating working) and trying to find things that had been packed away in boxes (or thrown out).
I’ve always found it hard returning to normal life after travelling and this time was no different.
Well, that’s not entirely true, this time the feeling was magnified x100. I constantly felt like I should be doing something or going somewhere, and felt a bit… well lost! It took at least a month before I started to feel myself again… at first everything was just so overwhelming. Life was simple on a bike!
During the cycle trip we were so conscious about waste and keeping things until they literally fell apart and were unable to be fixed. It really shocked me seeing how wasteful people are. In my head Australia has always been mindful in things such as waste, recycling and the environment – which might be true in comparison to countries like China, however I forgot that this only went so far. You might not see someone throwing litter on the floor in Australia (which definitely is something I’m proud of) but people chucking out perfectly good TV’s on the bulk collection, seems to be the norm. It’s a kind of cultural shock I guess, and transition back to what we know as ‘normal life’ and it took some time to readjust.
Though completely irrational, it’s hard to not to subconsciously think that nothing has changed since being gone, that things are still going to be just as they were left. When my subconscious is reminded that life goes on, it’s hard to not feel out of place, like you no longer belong there. I’ve come and gone from Australia more times than I can count, so you would presume I wouldn’t feel like this anymore, but I still do.
One thing I was looking forward to was running again.
It had been almost a year since my last run. Anyone that knows me, would also know, I’m a bit of a running-addict. So, of course the first week being back, I went out for a 10km run, sprained my ankle and couldn’t run for 2 months. Apparently all the cycling had caused my feet to flatten out. I started cycling because I could not run, and now I could not run because I cycled! Eventually my ankle was on the mend, and though I still couldn’t run, I was able to get a job waitressing on Rottnest Island (just on the weekends).
I only had 3 months in Australia before I was due to leave again.
3 months to catch up with people. Prepare for the next trip and most importantly rest. Oh and earn some money. Time flew by and before I knew it I was on a plane and out of there. I wasn’t entirely sure that I was ready for the world of travel again so soon. I was sad to leave. If given the choice I would have stayed longer, but my visa entrance cut off date for Canada was growing closer. So the choice was to stay longer and miss out on Canada, or go, and start the next adventure. So, of course I choose to go.
Before heading off to Canada, Michael and I spent a week in Victoria. “The Wedding” that had influenced all our plans for the past 12 months had finally come around. It was because of this wedding that we cycled to China and even decided to work in France. It was hard to believe the day was finally here and it did not disappoint. The wedding was beautiful! It was also lovely spending time with Michael’s family for a change. After the wedding we drove down the Great Ocean Road with Michael’s parents and some of his family from the UK. My last chance to enjoy some of beautiful Australia for who knows how long.
It was then time to say “goodbye.”
Not only to Australia, but to Michael. I was leaving him in Australia for another 2 months, while I head off to Hawaii and then Canada. Michael had a difference entrance date for Canada than I. So he decided to stay in Perth and earn some more money before meeting me in Canada in a few months time. Ah, home sweet home Australia – I will miss you, but I will be back.
Excited for some solo travel adventures – it’s been a while! Aloha Hawaii!
One second we were cycle tourists, where the most important things in our lives were our bikes, our panniers, our camping stuff and food and water. The next second we were just backpackers. We no longer owned bikes and were throwing out our tattered panniers and old reused ziplock bags, something that once seemed so important to us. It was a strange feeling, like losing a limb. It all just felt so wrong and so surreal – the transition from cyclist to backpacker!
Rules are really just guidelines!
We reorganised our bags and made our way, via public bus, to the train station, to catch the 2 day train to Chengdu. The one place in China I’ve always wanted to visit. We didn’t have any problems with our bags during the entire cycle trip until we reached the train station at Urumqi. For those of you that don’t know, there was a terrorist attack at the train station in Urumqi about 2 years ago, so security there is quite high.
After going through several check points and security screenings we were asked to step aside and have our bags searched. This resulted in them removing our camping knives, my Swiss army knife, our bike multitools and our camp gas. They tried to explain to us in Chinese that these items could not be taken on the train and there was no check in luggage. I loudly protested in English, obviously drawing the attention of others and soon we had a crowd. Eventually we did come to an agreement. I got to keep the knives, they got to keep our camping gas. A fair, but rather strange agreement, which is just one example of the flexibility of laws and rules in China.
Riding the trains in China
We were in the economy sleeper, which had no door and slept 6 people. Unfortunately for us, (like in the whole of China) smoking was permitted, though admittedly only at the far end of the train. It didn’t take long for the smoke to whiff down the entire carriage.
After spending 7 months traveling and being ‘on show.’ Having limited privacy to people, whom think you are an ‘exotic species,’ you might think we would be used to all the attention by now, however, our patience had worn thin. We seemed to draw the attention of people wherever we went. We assumed this would stop after getting rid of the bikes, but we were wrong. It wasn’t long before we had people taking sneaky (or not so sneaky) photos and video of us. Not something you want when you’re trying to sleep. Overall people seemed quite friendly and attempted to make conversation with us. Though, all we really craved with some privacy and some normality.
The 2 days on the sleeper train dragged. We feasted on pot noodles (China knows how to do a really good pot noodle box) and snacks that we picked up from the supermarket before catching the train. A healthy assortment of packaged dry cakes, nuts and freeze wrapped foods – extremely healthy!
Chengdu: the transition from cyclist to backpacker, complete!
Finally we made it to Chengdu! Stinking like cigarette smoke and feeling more drained than after a week of solid cycling. Chengdu was a paradise compared to the polluted city of Urumqi. It was a modern, pretty and unpolluted (in Chinese standards) city. There were lots of parks, Western and even vegetarian restaurants and it was very easy to navigate around without the bikes. This was just what we needed.
I can honestly say, I loved Chengdu. We visited the pandas, explore the ancient towns, the markets and of course the restaurants. We also decided to visit the nearby Emei Shan National Park – a Buddhist monastery mountain/ jungle national park, which was extremely touristic and quite expensive (as was everything related to tourism in China). Finally, we got to do some hiking! Though hiking up ancient stairs for hours on end isn’t quite the same as hiking on a mountain trail. It was still an awesome place, which I definitely recommend. We were feeling happy for the transition from cyclist to backpacker, though we still felt a bit ‘lost.’
From Emei Shan we visited Leshan and the giant Buddha, before jumping back on another 2 night sleeper train to Beijing – our final destination.
Our final destination: Beijing!
I was happy to finally arrive in Beijing. We made our way to our hotel, and I couldn’t help but reflect on my life since the last time I was in China. 5 years has passed and a lot had happened since then. I definitely couldn’t have predicted any of it, but that’s life. Wouldn’t it be boring if you knew where you’d be in 5 or 10 years?
By chance, my brother, Michael (yes, another Michael), just happened to be in Beijing for work at the same time as us. If you know my brother then it wouldn’t surprise you that he just randomly turned up a day early at our hotel, unannounced and with no money to pay for the cab. Luckily for him (and he does tend to be quite lucky) we just happened to be at the hotel when he arrived.
We had a great few days catching up, eating lots of food and exploring the sites of Beijing and the surroundings. Though, I would be lying if I said I wasn’t tired. Really I was just looking forward to getting home and back to a ‘normal’ life.
The small things in life
Even after a few weeks of living as normal backpackers, we were still adjusting to the simple things in life, such as having access to toilets, and for that matter, western toilets, as well as having access to water, shops, food, internet, beds. We were slowly making the transition from cyclist to backpacker. All the things that most people take for granted in everyday life. Even meeting people that spoke English seemed strange, and even stranger was seeing other Western tourists. It was hard to believe that just over a week ago we were cycling in the middle of the desert. That life already seemed a million miles away.
On top of tha was returning to a world of materialism. After living with the essentials for so long. The ‘luxury’ items just seemed so pointless. The other thing that got me was the amount of waste. Waste itself is a ‘luxury’ item and we had been living in conditions that meant we limited our waste. Nothing from food, to plastic bags, to clothes was wasted. We made everything last (though admittedly packaging from food was still waste – except for our recycled bowls that were actually chocolate spread containers). We didn’t do all this to save money, but rather because we didn’t know when we could get more of something, or replace the old one. So just made do with what we had. I guess the transition from cyclist to backpacker is not an easy one, especially when factoring in the culture shock and readjustments.
Even as I try and explain how surreal the entire transition was. I’m a bit lost for words. Unless you experience first hand the transition from cyclist to backpacker, I don’t think someone can truly understand. The transition isn’t over yet. Returning to ‘normality’ aka Australian life is the next. step.
We cycled over 8,000km, from France to China by bicycle!!! WTF?!? It’s been over a week now, and I’m still in shock. It was a rather surreal, but extremely rewarding feeling when we crossed the border into China. We had finally made it. It just didn’t feel real. We had been working towards this goal for over 6 months. The longest marathon of my life, and we finally crossed the finish line.
I’d be lying if I said it was easy, or that I enjoyed the cycle tour the entire time. But, if I was to go back in time, I would make the same decision again (only maybe with better panniers).
We crossed at the Khorgas border crossing.
This is apparently the busiest border crossing between the 2 countries. For once we got lucky, and crossed both borders within 2 hours. We were even allowed to cycle the 5km of no-man’s land, which is not always possible.
The Chinese border town was extremely modern with skyscrapers, shopping centers, wide and flat roads. There were even bicycle lanes. We checked into a hotel, washed then headed to the shop to get some celebration beers!
After spending a couple of nights recovering at the border town, we headed off on the bikes to discover China by bicycle. Our aim was to make it to Urumqi (about 750km from the border), then catch the train to Beijing.
The roads in China are amazing.
The first couple of days on our route through China by bicycle, took us through a valley with beautiful scenery, and the occasional yurt. Despite this we just didn’t have the motivation to cycle. We made it to China, why are we still cycling? Our bodies were also objecting to cycling, or so we thought. It actually turned out we were gradually ascending up a mountain pass for the entire day, only we didn’t realize – possibly due to the smooth road that we weren’t used to?
We were making rather slow progress, which was slowed down even more when the road was closed for about an hour due to a rock fall. It was starting to get dark, and we were nowhere near the lake that we had planned to camp at. This is where we discovered we had been ascending the entire day (over a 1300m ascended and still climbing). We were surrounded by snow and couldn’t find anywhere suitable to set up camp. Lost for what to do, we came across an emergency outpost. Luckily the outpost was manned and we were welcomed to stay in one of the spare rooms, and even given tea and breakfast the following morning.
There was a mixture of different people living at the outpost, (Han) Chinese, Uhguir (the Turkic, nomad people that lived in the province), Kazakhs and Mongols. Though we couldn’t speak any Chinese, it turned out we could communicate (with everyone except the Chinese people) using some Turkish. Who would have guessed that Turkish would come in handy this far East? In fact, Michael had managed to communicate (somewhat) with Turkish, in every country we had been in, since we left Turkey – crazy ay!
The following morning the weather was terrible
It was freezing, foggy and rainy. We discovered we still had another 40km ascent, to reach the top of the pass at about 2200m, which meant a long, horrible day of cycling, and most likely, an icy night sleep. Already feeling fluey, we decided to do what most sane people would do. We hitchhiked over the pass! After 10 minutes, a truck stopped, we tied the bikes to the top of a truck. Michael lost his helmet, my pannier strap broke, but at least we didn’t have to suffer the cold.
We got off the truck after the pass, had lunch and set off on the bikes again. After the pass, the scenery became very bland. It almost looked like we were back in Uzbekistan again, only this time with good roads. The wind picked up, so we made very poor progress. Cycling in wind is like cycling up an invisible hill. What little motivation we had left, quickly disappeared. We just wanted to be in Urumqi. We didn’t want to be exploring China by bicycle!
After weighing up the pros and cons we decided to not cycle the whole way to Urumqi.
The scenery was boring (grey desert, cotton fields, rubbish, power plants), the air was polluted (yes, even this far out in the middle of nowhere) and we weren’t enjoying it anymore. We had reached our goal and now it just felt like we were wasting time – and for what? Just to say we cycled to Urumqi? It made no sense to us to continue when we could use that extra time to actually see some sights in China. So the following day we ended up hitchhiking the rest of the way to Urumqi.
8,500km cycled, through 14 countries, and in only 6.5 months. To celebrate we checked into a 5 star hotel. This turned out to be a great idea, as Urumqi was too polluted to explore by foot or bike, and we ended up spending a lot of time in the hotel room.
Our next mission was to get rid of the bikes, sort through our gear, try and fit everything into one backpack, then decide what we are going to do for the next 3 weeks.
Saying “goodbye” to the bikes. No more China by bicycle!
I had spent the past 3 weeks trying to contact charities and orphanages in China to see if they wanted a donation of 2 bicycles, without any success. Who would have guessed it would be so difficult to try and give away a couple of bikes for free? Apparently there is a lot of corruption in government charities, and other NGO’s have lots of red tape, including red tape on receiving donations – so maybe this is the reason I had no responses.
We decided we would try and sell the bikes, not thinking we would have much luck, and would end up having to leave them in the hotel lobby. Surprisingly, we actually sold them, one to a hotel guest and the other to the hotel security guard. We only got $80 for them, but hey, we were going to give them away for free anyway, and if we were try and take them on the train with us, it would have cost us $50-100 each.
It was a very strange feeling. The bicycles had been with us for so long, they were an extension of ourselves, a friend, a family member. They had been with us through thick and thin and now they were gone. Just like that, we were normal backpackers again.
We threw away my panniers, bags, ground sheets, extra tubes. Items that had seemed so important to us throughout the trip, we discarded as rubbish. It felt so wrong. One of Michael’s bike bags was actually a backpack, so we had to cram most of our remaining gear into the one bag, which was a bit like a puzzle.
Though we didn’t particularly enjoy exploring China by bicycle, I believe there are some really nice places in China to cycle. Just not where we were. It’s easy to forget how big China is, and that discovering China by bicycle takes A LOT of time and some planning!
Looking back, when I suggested the cycle trip to Michael, I didn’t think we would actually make it this far.
No experience. Shit equipment. Extremely tight budget. Buggered knee. People were questioning our sanity, and putting doubts in our heads. It’s true the odds were probably against us, yet we still made it! What did that prove? It proves that you can do anything you set your mind to. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. If someone doubts your ability to succeed, prove him or her wrong! You’re the only person preventing yourself from achieving your goals and dreams. We need to accept that there will always be someone questioning our life decisions: ‘The haters’ or ‘The worriers.’ Use that negative energy to fuel your determination to succeed, instead of doubting your decisions.
As I mentioned earlier, the odds were against us, and there were many ‘excuses’ not to attempt the cycle trip, but there will always be ‘excuses’ not to do something! I learnt this a few years ago, when I was living and working in the UK. I was constantly making excuses not to leave my job and go traveling, though I knew if I didn’t go, then later in life I would regret it.
Yes, it may be scary at first, but one day you will look back and wonder what you were so worried about.
Our France to China trip made us realise how awesome travelling by bicycle is. This has lead to our current trip, a world cycle tour. First starting in the Americas and then taking on the rest of the world.
Kazakhstan wasn’t a country we had originally planned to cycle thorough.
With the unpredictable closures of the borders from Kyrgyzstan to China, we decided to play it safe and decided cycling Kazakhstan would be the best option. It’s a country I didn’t know much about. A country I didn’t really give a second thought to, and a country, I admittedly didn’t have high expectations for. All I knew about Kazakhstan, was that it was once apart of the USSR (like most of Central Asia), it was also very flat and empty and some regions were still radioactive from Russian nuclear testing. Other than that, all I knew Kazakhstan to be famous for was “Borat”. I was excited to be cycling Kazakhstan!
No, we didn’t meet Borat.
Admittedly I was too scared to even mention ‘Borat’ to any locals – and honestly, it was a shit movie anyway. To my delight, we did see plenty of yurts. Unfortunately, we didn’t get to stay in yurt while in cycling Kazakhstan, so I still have that dream to fulfil.
Kazakhstan was a country where I thought things would be easy.
Flat, for easy cycling. Empty, for easy camping. And, well, we left the shit roads behind in Uzbekistan, didn’t we? I wasn’t entirely wrong about that. True, Kazakhstan is largely flat, except for the route we took! It’s also very empty, but also very freezing cold – despite being told October was a good month for hiking. The roads – the roads were terrible! Despite all that, cycling Kazakhstan exceeded my expectations, and is a country I would definitely consider returning to.
The cycle from Bishkek to Almaty, for the most part was quite enjoyable. Relatively good roads, with a stunning backdrop of the snow capped mountains in Kyrgyzstan. The people were also surprisingly friendly, and we had several people stop to give us bread and fruit.
Kazakhstan did however provide us with 2 new challenges.
Frozen tents and bicycles, and shorter days! We experienced the coldest nights of the trip so far, waking up to a frosty tent and frozen bikes. It was not only hard getting out of the sleeping bag in the morning. We also had the challenge of defrosting all our gear. This meant some days we weren’t able to start cycling until 10am, or even later. The morning is generally when we do the most mileage, but with the reduced cycle hours we were struggling to smash out even 30-40km before lunch.
We weren’t really geared up for the cold weather, and spent a fair few nights shivering away in the tent with an emergency blanket draped over us. I guess we never really thought we would make it as far as Kazakhstan, so didn’t even consider that we could end up cycling in such cold weather.
The other challenge was the progressively shorter days. Before we were cycling from 6am until sometime as late as 9pm, now we could only cycle between 9am and 5pm (and that was on a good day).
By the time we made it to Almaty we were very excited for a hot shower and a warm bed to sleep in.
I really liked Almaty, probably my favorite major city in Central Asia. It was very western and modern yet still with a post-soviet feel and lots of history. They even had cycle lanes in the city! It was exactly what we needed. We fulfilled Michael’s desire and went to a lunch buffet (twice in a row). I couldn’t really argue for only $9, including a drink – total bargain! Other than that we explored the city, by foot.
From Almaty we had another 400km of cycling Kazakhstan to reach the Chinese border. I thought it was going to be a piece of cake – so of course, that meant it wasn’t.
Head winds, continuous inclines, crap roads with a gravel hard shoulder (at the best of times) and some real bad drivers. Of course this is also around about the time when my body started falling to pieces – constant aches and pains all over. Our gear was also falling to pieces. Daily we had a new problem or breakage. Note to self: don’t buy the cheapest stuff off Ebay for future travels.
Missing being invisible.
On top of this, I was sick of people staring, grabbing my stuff, taking photos, whether you want them to or not. I constantly felt like an animal in a zoo, and though many people were just curious and meant well, the last thing you want when you’re exhausted and haven’t had a good nights sleep all week, is people poking and staring. This is something we constantly put up with since leaving Turkey, and it’s not something we had much more patience with. It’s like it doesn’t occur to some people that we can see them. That we are people as well, and we don’t like to be poked and prodded constantly. There is such a thing as space and there is such thing as respect, and unfortunately a lot of people don’t seem to understand this.
Honestly, all I could think about was home. I was finding it extremely hard to stay motivated and just wanted the whole trip done and dusty. However, I had signed up to do this for an amazing cause.2.5 billion people have no access to safe or hygienic sanitation and they have no choice in the matter. They risk abuse and illness daily. I reminded myself that I wasn’t cycling for me, I was cycling for them. So, I pushed on. If they don’t have a choice, then neither did I. My suffering was still only temporary and nothing compared to the risks they endured, each and every day. It also would have been such a shame, and regret if we gave up so close to reaching our goal.
The scenery was quite various, though the road remained poo.
We cycled through towns, gullies, deserts, mountains, canyons, forests and more towns before finally arriving at the border crossing. Every night we were cycling Kazakhstan, we wild camped. Finally I felt like I had somewhat overcome my fear of wild camping. It only took 6 months to get there. The best wild camping night was in the desert, about 500m off the main road. It looked like we were camping on the moon, with a strange mist that covered the land. Grey colours dominated everywhere, except for the star-filled sky and desolate environment just added to the eerie out-of-space feel.
Eventually we made it to the Chinese border. Bikes, bags and boyfriend. We all crossed the border intact. It took a few days for it to sink in, but we had made it! We cycled all the way from the French Alps to China!
The border crossing into Kyrgyzstan was one of the quietest border crossings I have ever been through. A little shack on the side of a road with an old car barrier across the road and 2 friendly guards that spoke no English, but were amused by Michael’s attempt of communicating using his Turkish. Other than Russian, the languages in the Stan’s were a form of Turkic so some words were the same. After 5 minutes our passports were stamped, and we were cycling Kyrgyzstan. I have never been happier to leave one country and enter another, to the point that though the week to come everything went against me, the fact I was no longer in Uzbekistan kept my spirits up.
As soon as we started cycling Kyrgyzstan the scenery changed – gorges, mountains, canyons, rivers, lakes welcomed us into the country. A nice change to the desolate and rather boring Uzbekistan deserts and cotton fields. The roads also changed for the better – no more potholes and no more gravel, instead we had a newly paved bitumen road. Even the weather seemed to change for the better. Since we left Tashkent, it rained and even stormed everyday. It was hard to believe that just a week earlier we were cycling in 35-40 degrees heat. The days were also getting shorter, as well as colder, which meant changing our daily cycle routine and no more 5am starts, or midday siestas. The day we crossed the border was actually the first sunny day for over a week.
Unfortunately, the driver’s attitude to cyclists also changed.
In Uzbekistan it was the roads that made me feel unsafe cycling. In Kyrgyzstan, the roads were great, it was the drivers I was scared of! We found that in most countries, a honk of the horn is a friendly gesture, usually followed by a wave or ‘thumbs up’. Not in Kyrgyzstan. In Kyrgyzstan a honk of the horn means, “Get the fuck out of the way or I’ll run you down” – and they mean it! I almost learnt this the hard way when coming into Bishkek.
Overall, I didn’t find the Kyrgyz people that friendly. Maybe that’s because I was coming from countries with unbelievable hospitality or maybe it is because Kyrgyz do have a chip on their shoulder, who knows? Admittedly, we didn’t have as much interaction with the locals as we had done in the other countries. At the same time, we weren’t given the same welcoming (friendly honks, waves, thumbs up, high-fives etc.) and the people we did have interaction with, either were rude, trying to rip us off, or had just ripped us off.
The exception to this was the old deaf couple in a rural village – they spent 10 minutes communicating with me through sign language, and no, I don’t know any sign language. This isn’t the first time on this trip that I’ve met some deaf people, and I actually find them easier to communicate with, as obviously, they use a lot of hand gestures, which is a lot easier to understand than someone just repeating the same thing over and over again, in a language you don’t understand.
We got off to a good start.
We crossed the border with no problems, the sun was out, the scenery was beautiful, the road was good, and we even bumped into another cyclist heading the same way. A rarity for us as we’d managed to avoid cyclists the entire trip. He gave us a few tips and cycled on. Cycling Kyrgyzstan involved several mountains passes to climb to get to Bishkek, including two mountain passes of 3100m plus, so it was great to get some tips from another cyclist. With the fast approaching winter, we wanted to get to the passes before the snow did. We really weren’t equipped for snow. A bit of a challenge, but we were feeling confident we could do it. Overall, things were looking good and we were on a high. That was probably where our luck turned, well my luck anyway.
Rocks falling from the skies.
After enjoying an afternoon of cycling we started to look for a camping spot. Just as the road narrowed and we started to climb a mountain, leaving us with very few options. We ended up camping in a very rocky gully, where we discovered Michael’s tyre was completely wrecked, and needed to be changed. A job for the morning we decided. At about 7pm the storm started and went on until about 10am the following day, so we stayed in the tent for most of the morning.
When the rain did stop, while packing up, a huge rock fell right onto my bare foot, my foot instantly swelled up and bruised. Obviously, a foot injury isn’t ideal while cycling. Anyway, despite this, I soldiered on for another 200km (which took about another 5 days) with the swollen foot. Cycling on flat ground didn’t seem to be an issue, but uphill, was not good, and with the approaching mountain passes I was worried. Then gastro returned and my dodgy knee started playing up, and that was it for me. No more cycling Kyrgyzstan!
Mini bus to Bishkek it was!
Just before the start of the pass climb, we caught an overpriced mini bus to Bishkek (about 200km). Bikes, bags, boyfriend and all. The driver was crazy, and almost made me regret taking the mini bus all together. Flying along narrow, icy roads. I was on edge the entire time.
The highest pass (3600m) already had a tonne of snow on. It was also snowing very heavy while we were up there. The wind was very strong and it was extremely cold. We would have frozen! That’s if we even made it that far!
I would be lying if I said I wasn’t disappointed. While cycling Kyrgyzstan we got to see some of the most beautiful cycling scenery, and the views and wild camping were awesome. I also felt bad for Michael, as it was clear that he was disappointed in missing out on the stupidly high mountain passes. Sometimes however you have to face the music. I was not making it up that hill in the condition I was in, and honestly, after seeing the actual pass I think it was for the best. Sometimes things happen for a reason, even if the reason isn’t apparent at the time!
We finally got to Bishkek and I could breath again!
Eventually we got a place sorted out for a few nights, and I could rest my foot properly. The following day the weather was horrible, it snowed, it rained and it snowed some more. The temperature also dropped by about 10 degrees. I dread to think what it would have been like cycling up the pass in a snowstorm. The weather finally started to clear up the day we left, though it was still freezing! So much for a late autumn in Kyrgyzstan. Winter had arrived early!
We didn’t do a whole lot in Bishkek, just chilled out, recovered, cleaned, and caught up with people via the internet. One morning, we did go for a wander when the weather wasn’t too bad. After Bishkek, we had planned to head to Issyk Lake and cross the border into Kazakhstan from there, but it turned out that border crossing was already closed for the season. This meant we had to cross into Kazakhstan from the nearest border crossing, which was only 20km from the city. So, when it was time to leave Bishkek, it was also time to say goodbye to Kyrgyzstan, and hello to the next country, Kazakhstan!
We spent just over a week cycling Kyrgyzstan, and to be honest I feel like we didn’t see much of the country. Though I didn’t find the people particularly friendly, I would like go back one day. Though next time we visit it won’t be in autumn/winter.
Cycling Uzbekistan was probably the most mental and physically exhausting segment of our cycle trip. That being said, it is still a country worth visiting – just don’t do it on a bicycle!
It could have been the 5 consecutive months on a bicycle, it could have been that I was still recovering from gastro, it could have been the terrible roads, or it could have been the tight tourist restrictions. Most likely it was a combination of all these things plus more, but either way I felt broken and don’t quite know how I managed to cycle out of the country.
Let’s start with the first hurdle – tourist visa restrictions.
When applying for our visa we were given a whole list of rules we were supposed to abide by while cycling Uzbekistan. This included, having to register with the government, through a licenced hotel, every night (apparently, every third night is also acceptable, though technically not legal). Licenced hotels only exist in tourist areas, which meant we had to bust out at least 300km on the bicycle in just 2.5 days, each time we travel from one city to the other. Our hardest cycle section being a 340km stint, with a 2200m mountain pass from Tashkent to the border town, Uch-kurgan.
On top of this camping is technically illegal, as is couchsurfing. This also includes staying with ANY local that invite you into stay with them (something that no one in Uzbekistan seems to be aware of). These rules obviously made cycling Uzbekistan a bit of a challenge! We did try and abide by these rules, as much as possible – honest! My argument is, if you don’t want people cycling through the country, then don’t approve visas for cyclists, luckily I never actually had to put this argument into use.
We spent the entire time in Uzbekistan, racing from one town to another.
We were attempting to cycle around about 120-130km per day on absolutely terrible, dusty roads (or dirt tracks). One thing we learnt early on, never stray far from the major roads, even if you see a shorter route. The shorter road is barely a road at all and will end up taking you twice the time. Not only were the roads terrible and very dusty, the scenery is repetitive and quite boring. There is also limited water available on route. As well as so many rules and restrictions, there were also lots of road kill dogs, including many puppies. It was quite heart breaking, and unsurprisingly to those that know me and know how much I love animals, Uzbekistan is my least favourite country for cycling so far.
One little puppy, about 10km from the Turkmenistan border broke my heart.
We stopped for a water break and this little puppy bounced out of the bush with a broken leg. She was wagging her tail and super happy to see us. We fed her, gave her some water and I unsuccessfully searched for her mother. Not knowing what else to do, we sadly had to leave her. She chased after our bikes for about 15 minutes, and it brought tears to my eyes, knowing there wasn’t much more we could do for her. Later in Bukhara I tried to contact some animal shelters, but I could only one in the whole of Uzbekistan. It was in Tashkent, and they only worked locally in Tashkent (or so they told me).
Though the roads and cycle conditions in Uzbekistan were horrible, the people were unexpectedly super nice. We had people constantly waving, plenty of gold-toothed smiles, people following us on their bicycle, kids running out of their houses to wave or give us a high-five, plus people pulling over in their cars to give us fruit. We even had a restaurant owner cook us a special veggie, Uzbek feast for free – it was delicious! This was after he agreed to let us camp at his restaurant. At the bazaar in Tashkent, a stall owner even gave me a beanie as a present – AMAZING! It is also a country where people whistle and make strange noises as we cycled past – a bit like spectators at a marathon or sports match.
People always seemed curious to know where we were from. The first Russian word I learnt was “Atkuda?” which means, “where are you from?” I never knew how many words, Australia, could sound like. The convo went a bit like this;
Me: Kangaroos followed by me mimicing some strange jumping creature.
Local: stares at me in confusion
Me: Tim Cahill? Kangaroo? Owww…stray…la…ya
Local: Oh, Australia.
I used to think Australians always traveled.
Australians travel, but I think most of them just all go to the same ‘Australian-friendly’ spots, like Thailand, Western Europe, Canada, USA etc. In Central Asia however, Australians are apparently much more rare. A couple of Australians cycling Uzbekistan on 2 bicycles was as rare as you could get. We were told more than once, that we were ‘exotic’ – a funny thing to think of Australians as being exotic. Most people seemed delighted to know that Uzbekistan had some visitors from Australia. If I ever return to Central Asia, one thing I’ll definitely do, is bring some Australian memorabilia. I may even go all out and fly an Aussie flag from the back of my bike – so no one will have to ask me where I’m from.
In Bukhara Michael got gastro really bad. We ended up staying an extra couple of nights. Bukhara was a nice city, extremely touristy – probably the most touristic place we had been to since Cappadocia in Turkey. The majority of the tourists were Russian and German, there was even a Germany bakery in the town.
After a few days recovery, Michael was feeling a little better, though not 100%. He also ‘kindly’ shared his gastro with me so I ended up sick again – thanks Michael. Anyway, time was ticking, so we decided to attempt to cycle the to the next city, Samarkand – another 300km+ stint. So we continued our journey cycling Uzbekistan!
The cycle to Samarkand was pretty uneventful.
We passed lots of cotton fields that are owned by the government – apparently people in rural areas are made to shut up shop for the cotton season, and work the cotton fields, picking cotton. 1kg of cotton = 200 som (or about 10 cents). Other than that and the pot holes, there were plenty of donkeys, sheep, and cars loaded up with what looked like, the entire contents of a house, or overflowing with melons, or some other local fruit.
Samarkand was nice, very touristic, but still quite beautiful. The thing I liked the most was actually our guesthouse, and originally I was going to write that the staff in Samarkand are probably the most trust worthy workers I have met, but since then I’ve discovered they gave me a $20US bill that I can’t change anywhere. They still had the best value dinners available – $3 for a huge Uzbek feast with tea.
Onwards to Tashkent
The next city after Samarkand was Tashkent. To sum up our cycle to Tashkent; 5 punctures, 1 destroyed tyre, 1 broken brake cable, 1 loose wheel, a load of shitty, dusty roads and one broken Kelly. This cycle stint is probably the worst 3 days of the trip for me. I cried, I yelled, I swore, I cried some more, then yelled some more and poor Michael had to put up with all of it. I was almost ready to call off the entire trip by the time we got to Tashkent.
After arriving in Tashkent and resting for a few days, the last thing I wanted to do was get back on the bikes, and be cycling Uzbekistan for another 3 or 4 days. I cannot emphasize this more, I would have rather pulled my toe nails off with plyers then continued cycling Uzbekistan, however I felt guilty. Michael wanted to keep going, and I had committed to this charity cycle trip. We had already gotten so far so, somehow (and I really don’t know how), I managed to get back on the bikes.
** Right, so, I’m probably going to go on about the little puppy we found in Tashkent for quite a bit. It’s quite sad, and I’ve made people cry telling this story. So feel free to skip this part if you wish.**
We were on the bikes, and ready to hit the horrendous Uzbek roads, once again. 3km from our guesthouse I spotted what at first looked like roadkill (dead dog) lying in the road. Sadly, this is not uncommon in Uzbekistan. I suddenly noticed the dog was looking up and moving his head as cars whizzed passed, missing the dog by centimetres. The dog must have just been hit, and was clearly still alive.
Michael ran out to pick the dog up and bring him to the side of the road. He was clearly in pain, and at first we thought he was dying and had no idea what to do other than try and comfort the poor thing. Locals were walking past, giving us odd looks but no one gave two shits about the poor puppy. We had no idea what to do, but I had already discovered an ‘animal shelter’, that existed in Tashkent, from our previous attempt at rescuing a puppy.
They told me they could help stray dogs in Tashkent.
So I cycled back to the hostel in hope to contact someone that might help. Michael stayed with the puppy. Honestly I thought the puppy would probably pass away during this time I was gone. When I left he could barely move. Either way, I thought I could do something to help. Turned out it wasn’t as simple as I first thought.
We ended up spending 2 more nights in Tashkent, trying to find someone to look after the puppy. We even snuck him into our hotel room. It was heartbreaking and it felt like no one gave a shit. We were just crazy tourists that didn’t know better. It made me so angry and frustrated! I don’t care what anyone thinks of people back in Australia or my second home, the UK – if a dog got hit by a car and was still alive, 95% of people would pull over to help it!
Unfortunately, it turned out the animal shelter, wasn’t actually an animal shelter.
No animal shelter existed in Tashkent and we couldn’t find anyone to look after the poor thing. We had to put him back on the streets, with some food and water. After I left Tashkent, the ‘animal shelter’ gave me the link to a Russian facebook page of people in Tashkent that help animals (a bit late!!!). So, I posted something on this site, with maps of where we left the puppy, and surprisingly people on this site actually went out searching for him, but with no luck. They told me they did rescue a dying cat in the search, so at least some good came of it.
It upset me even more that we discovered people in Tashkent that were willing to help the poor puppy, but after it was too late. And I keep questioning whether we should have done more. The only thing that made me feel better was knowing that there were people in Tashkent that cared enough about animals and were trying to help them. I can image there are lots of restrictions they have to deal with in doing this, so though their impact is small, it’s still amazing!
** And back to cycling Uzbekistan **
So we finally left Tashkent. At this point I wanted nothing more than to leave the country. I was even more mentally and physically exhausted than when we first arrived in Tashkent and I was greatly missing home comforts. The last thing I wanted to do was head back on the pothole covered roads, and climb some 2200m mountain pass in the rain – but that is what I did.
We cycled through one town, Angren – a sterotypical soviet town. It had a grimy and dirty vibe to it. Surrounded by nuclear power plants, people living in what appeared to be abandoned buildings, burnt out cars – and this is where we were meant to spend the night! Luckily on the outskirts of town we found a small (closed) garage, with a friendly owner that let us camp there. The strange thing we notice while cycling Uzbekistan, is that everyone drives, a lot, but fuel is so rare, most of the gas stations are closed down. Gas trucks are protected by armoured vehicles and people sell gasoline by the litre on the side of the road (from empty coke bottles).
The killer mountain pass!
Due to registration restrictions we were meant to cycle 120km for the next 3 days, which includes a mountain pass climb that went from 500m to 2200m across 60km, in one day – very bloody steep! There were road works the entire way, the road was extremely busy, cars drove fast, it rained, it stormed, there was wind, there was sun, there was so much air pollution from cars and the nearby power plants and the scenery was not at all motivating. We finally made it to the top. Just before the storm.
That night we spent in an old cafe next to some 24 hour shops on the side of the road – it seemed like a good set up (as it was still raining), until the drunk guys showed up. It wasnt too bad, he just tried to force feed us vodka and beer – not really a great idea when you’re already dehydrated and on a tight schedule. Eventually they got the hint and we were left in peace. The following morning we hit the incredibly horrendous road again, but at least there was no rain!
We had planned to make it to Namangan, find a hotel and register.
This however seemed to be mission impossible – we spent 3 hours cycling around the city looking for a hotel – no luck! There was no way we were making it to the border. So we had no choice but to head out of town, camp and hope we have no issues at the border crossing the following day. On the way out of town we met some Uzbek ladies – an English teacher and her mum. It was fate! They invited us back to their house for dinner and to stay the night – we accepted!
We had a great night, a good rest and met some lovely people. They also had a pet dog, so they were definitely awesome people in my mind. The following day we were refreshed and in a positive frame of mind! We had a good cycle to the border crossing (once we actually found it), and had no issues crossing the border! Within the hour we were no longer cycling Uzbekistan and into the next country, Kyrgyzstan.
Overall, I had a really hard time cycling Uzbekistan.
I felt exhausted from the day I arrived until the day I left. I never felt safe actually cycling on the roads, and all the rules just made it too much. It’s not a country I recommend visiting on a bicycle! For me, the people were the best thing about the country and I am happy I got to leave the country on a positive note.
* On the off-chance that someone is reading this because they found an animal in Tashkent that needs help (which is likely while cycling Uzbekistan)*
So despite what you might find on the internet, there is no animal shelter in Tashkent or in Uzbekistan. There is however a facebook group that can probably help. It’s all in Russian, but some people on there will be able to help and translate for you. You need to join the group to post anything, but they are very quick to respond. I’m not sure whether they just operate in Tashkent or in the whole of Uzbekistan, but either way they are your best beat. I’ve also started a post listing all the animal shelters or contacts in countries around the world.
What is the Turkmen Dash? Well basically, Turkmen government doesn’t really like tourists. So, they only issue transit visas to visitors. This is unless you want to fork out a couple of hundred dollars per day for a guide, which we didn’t. The longest transit visa is only for 5 days – 4 days if you minus half a day stuck at each border crossing. The Turkmen Dash is the challenge where tourists cross from Iran to Uzbekistan, through the Turkmen desert in just a few days. If you fail (which a lot of people do), you are issued with a heavy fine and deported from the country.
There are 2 ways to transit through Turkmenistan from Iran, either via Ashgabat, or via some crap (but more direct) road. It’s a difference of about 150km. As we like to do things the hard way, we choose the longer route, via Ashgabat.
Let the challenge begin
We entered Turkmenistan, both of us recovering from a bad case of diarrhoea and with newly developed colds. This along with being a bit out of the swing of cycling everyday due to having 3.5 weeks off the bikes. The Turkmen Dash was going to be a challenge!
The border crossing from Iran to Turkmenistan, was surprisingly quite straight forward. A few questions, a quick bag check, and a lot of queuing. 3 hours later and we were in Turkmenistan and ready to descend down the mountain pass that we spent the last 2 days cycling up. We were about to head off when we were stopped by a military guard. “Sir, sir, taxi, taxi, no cycle.” It turned out we weren’t allowed to cycle down the hill. According to the guards, tigers would attack us if we did, though in truth I think it was just some secret military base.
So, we had to pay for an overpriced taxi, to take us 15km down the mountain. 4 people, 2 bicycles and a load of bags, made for a cozy trip. As we pulled into the car park at the bottom of the mountain, a ‘herd’ of overweight, local Turkmen women came running at the taxi. Literally, they were throwing themselves into the path of the moving taxi. It was nuts. These women were trying to squeeze into the taxi as we were trying to unload. They didn’t quite grasp the concept that we need to get out before they can get in.
Once rearranging our bikes, we were finally off. Cycling into Ashgabat was like cycling into a deserted move set. Good roads, white modern building, lots of statues and fountains… and not that many people, besides the workers sweeping the roads, and scrubbing the pavement on their hands-and-knees. It has to be one of the strangest cities I have ever been to.
Less than 100 years ago, Ashgabat was completely destroyed by an earthquake, killing about a third of the Turkmenistan population. This means the entire city has been rebuilt. The former president, Niyazov (who renamed himself, Turkmenbashi – “leader of the Turkmens”) was just a little egotistic. He ordered the construction of hundreds of gold statues of himself around the city, as well as around the country. Niyazov, also preferred modern, clean cities, to traditional ones, hence Ashgabat’s ‘artificial/ modern’ look.
Once, while he was traveling in Turkmenistan, ‘Turkmenbashi’ passed through a small, poor village. He didn’t like the look of this village, so he ordered the village to be destroyed. The residents were ordered to move to nearby towns, but weren’t given any compensation for the lose of their homes. These residents became completely homeless and lost everything they had. This is just one example of the hundreds of human rights violations that have taken place in Turkmenistan.
Why doesn’t the international community get involved and stand up against any of these human rights violations? Well, because the Turkmen government and country, basically poses no threat to the international world (unlike North Korea with their nuclear missiles). So the international community just leaves Turkmenistan to it – maybe this is the same reason why the international community hasn’t done anything about the human rights violations regarding “the boat people” in Australia?
Eventually Niyazov died in 2006. His vice president won the election with 97% of the vote (he must be really liked by the people, right?). From what I could tell, the country and the living conditions of the people have improved since the death of Niyazov, though I guess unless you live there, it would be hard to really know.
Cheating with a train trip
From Ashgabat we decided to take the train to Mary (about 250km), as there was no way we were going to make it to the border in time if we cycled and complete the Turkmen Dash. We had planned to take the night train, but they wouldn’t let us take the bikes on that train, so we had to catch the earlier train. Everything seemed quite straightforward; we bought our tickets, got some food, explored the city, and were ready to go – that was until we had to put the bikes on the train. The guys working in the train baggage compartment were complete jerks, and wanted to charge us, again, for the bikes. The problem was we didn’t have enough money on us to pay the inflated rate. We were told the bikes were already paid for so this was clearly some kind of bribe.
To keep the story short, an amazing local Turkmen women, ended up paying for us to put the bikes on the train. This whole ordeal took an hour and we only just made it on the train. When we finally got on the train and found our compartment, the train attendant started asking us for more money. We had nada, so couldn’t pay, but luckily they didn’t kick us off the train.
The train ride was ok. A bit cramped. We lost our assigned beds, somehow, so ended up having to share a bed in a completely different compartment. Finally we arrived into Mary. Next we had to find a hotel room, as it was about 10.30pm. Apparently, there is a 11pm curfew in Turkmenistan, however we didn’t really see this enforced, perhaps an example of how the government has become less strict since the death of Turkmenbashi.
Being a tourist in Turkmenistan
As it turns out, hotels in Turkmenistan are shit – and extremely overpriced (for tourists). We checked into a ‘intourist’ government hotel – the middle star rating of hotels in Turkmenistan. It was bit run down, but did have wifi, a hot shower and included breakfast. The receptionist was friendly and spoke a bit of English, which was super impressive.
This hotel was the most expensive hotel of the trip so far, bearing in mind we started the trip in France. We discovered that tourists have to pay 500% more than locals for a hotel room (that figure is not an exaggeration). Basically we forked out our entire Turkmenistan budget, for one night at a shitty hotel. The fridge didn’t work, the water filter didn’t work and the internet only worked on the laptop – when I pointed this out to the receptionist, she shrugged and said, “This is Turkmenistan.” I guess she had a point!
The Turkmen desert
The following day, we both still felt run down. We ended up making a late start and headed off into the desert at the hottest part of the day, but not before enjoying a lunch time beer at the park in Mary – we’re pretty smart like that.
Back on the bikes and ready to keep going with the Turkmen Dash. Only 3 days to go and 320km until the border. The roads soon turned crap. There were lots of pot holes, gravel, roads works, sand, dust, wind and to top it off, we both still had the shits and colds. We still decided to make a detour to the ancient city of Merv, and then continued into the desert.
One thing I love about cycling is getting the chance to meet the locals. This is when we discovered how nice the Turkmen people really are. People were constantly waving, smiling, honking and offering help. We even had one car suddenly pull over in front of us. 2 men jumped out, loaded Michael up with several loafs of bread, plus a bottle of frozen water, then jump back in their car and were gone before we could even give our thanks. I heard that locals in Turkmenistan weren’t supposed to speak to tourists. Turkmenistan is the third most oppressed country in the world – the North Korea of Central Asia. So maybe this was the reason for the drivers quick departure.
We cycled, what seemed like forever through the desert. This was the first harsh desert we had cycled in – no shade, no water, no buildings, no nothing. We spent the night wild camping in the desert, and headed off early in the morning, to rack up the kilometers before it got too hot. We did this for 2 days and hit the 6000km mark! It turned out the hardest thing about the Turkmen dash, wasn’t the time limit, it was the heat and lack of water.
Time was ticking and the kilometers were slowly adding up. It wasn’t so much a Turkmen Dash, as a Turkmen struggle. We had 1 day left to reach the border and only 100 km to go. It was about 1pm, we were still in the desert, there was no shade, or any sign of, anything. The road was getting continuously worse, our water was getting low and we were already dehydrated from cycling as well as being sick. So about 40km from Turkmenabat, we caved. We decided to hitchhike. After about an hour, we managed to get a lift with some local Turkmen truck drivers.
Little did we know at the time, but there are some issues with hitchhiking in Turkmenistan. The truck drivers can actually get in trouble for having too many people in the truck, and for having a woman ride with them. There was 5 of us in the truck and for whatever reason the truck driver told me to sit in front – maybe out of courtesy? We got a lift for not even 40km, and within that time the truck got stopped 3 times by the police, and the truck driver had to pay a bribe each time – at the time, we didn’t know why. What was even more strange was that the Turkmen truckies, wanted us to stay in the truck until we reached Bukhara in Uzbekistan– we however declined and jumped out at Turkmenabat.
The last leg of the Turkmen Dash
After stocking up on food and water, we headed for the border to set up camp. Usually I wouldn’t even consider camping at a border crossing, however on the Silk Road the border crossings are usually grid locked with trucks. Truck drivers can sometimes get stuck at a border crossing for several days. The cycle to the border was pleasant. The police only stopped us 3 times, but no bribes were needed – maybe that’s only reserved for truck drivers? When we finally arrived it was already dark, the border was closed and there was a long queue of trucks waiting for the border to reopen. As we cycled passed we had several truck drivers stop us, to tell us they seen us hitchhiking earlier. This is when we learnt about all the issues with the police in Turkmenistan. Apparently even smoking cigarettes is illegal, though people still do it.
Truck drivers on the Silk Road are usually quite friendly and often stop to offer us help if needed. I think most of them felt a bit bad for leaving us on the side of a desert road, and soon we have several invitations for tea, melon, food and coffee.
The next morning we were up early to cross the border. It eventually opened – an hour late. After 3 hours of bag checks, filling out forms and queuing, we made it to Uzbekistan. We had completely the Turkmen Dash! And, like usually, we ended up cycling at the hottest part of the day.
Thank you, Turkmen people
We started off on the wrong foot in Turkmenistan. Our first impressions weren’t great, however by the time we left Turkmenistan we had met so many lovely people whom went out of their way to help us that it completely changed our impression of the country. This is something we didn’t expect from an ex-soviet country, and especially from a country that has so may human rights issues and that is so heavily oppressed. It’s refreshing to experience so much positivity from people, especially when ‘the world’ tends to focus on all the negative aspects. Sure there are bad things going on, but for every bad thing/person/event, there are 100 goods things happening. That’t what we should be focusing on!
So, we completed the Turkmen Dash and made it to Uzbekistan. The road doesn’t get any easier from here. With only 2 months to go, we still have another 3800km to go! Wish us luck!