Cycling through a country on a transit visa.
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.
A mini history lesson – sorry!
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 to find some help.
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!
Want to see what gear we took on this France to China trip – check out our gear list!