There is a saying in this part of the world, one that we suspect holds equally true in many other places – “be wary of the fat policeman”. The thinking is that the chubbier the official, the more corrupt he is likely to be. With this in mind, you can imagine the sense of trepidation as we entered the inner sanctum of the customs and immigration terminal at Saraghs, our first port of call in Turkmenistan and caught sight of a Jabba The Hut squished into the one seat of prominence in the airless hall – sweat already (at 8am) collecting in pools on his military shirt. Our buoyant mood, after the ceremonial tearing-off-of –the–headscarf after we had wheeled past our first Turkmen soldier in no-man’s land between Iran and Turkmenistan, was momentarily stayed.
But the anticipated patter that invariably precedes the demand for a “facilitation fee” never came. Do not, however, misunderstand the daily workings of this border post. Corruption is alive and well and was very much in full-swing. We were in fact treated to front-row seats as long-distance truck drivers pressed clammy wads of Turkmen Manat resignedly into the awaiting over-sized palms of Jabba. Those same packets of cash then, without ceremony or even the barest coy turn-of-the-back, were enveloped into the folds of flesh and uniform. Ah yes, sweet Soviet corruption is still greasing the wheels of this bizarre former USSR republic.
After two hours of needless bureaucracy we were finally unleashed on the wilds of Turkmenistan. Our requisite mad sprint across the interminable sands of the Karakum desert in Turkmenistan was not by choice. A result of the wacky bureaucratic constraints imposed on all impoverished tourers through this former Soviet republic that is so deeply wary of foreigners rumbling about. So much so that the only financially feasible visa to traverse this ‘stan was the transit visa. This allows for a whole 5 days (actually 4 days and 9 hours, when you take into account the lackadaisical openings hours of the border posts) to cross the 500km desolate stretch of desert to the border with Uzbekistan.
Turkmenistan, the next country on our route eastwards must surely be one of the most despotically dotty places on planet earth, a veritable Disneyland dictatorship that one can barely struggle to imagine. Awash with oil and gas riches (the price of fuel hovers around a mighty 10 cents a litre, with gas actually given away free – resulting in the ludicrous situation of locals leaving lamps burning 24/7 to save on the cost of matchsticks!), the basics of life are provided to the populace at a minimal cost by the state but “social mobility” is not a phrase that holds much, if any, traction here and indeed the country and people we met were permeated with a depressing sense of stagnancy.
The current dictator (Mr Berdymukhamedov – “Birdy”) has followed a very similar tack to his predecessor, Turkmenbashi (Father of all the Turkmen) Niyazov, to whom he was apparently the personal dentist (and possibly the illegitimate love-child!), and continues to exert a suffocating grip on all things political. Such a state of affairs has resulted in a crushed population that understandably finds little room to laugh at the absurdity of a country where the ‘father of their nation’ went about re-naming the word for “bread” and “Monday” after his mum. This is also the country where mini-speakers are secreted in city parks so that their benign former leader could twitter to his people each evening and talk about his latest ridiculous creation, such as the Melon Holiday where Melons were annually purloined from the rural population to gift the city-dwellers.
Depressingly, vast natural resource wealth has been absorbed by rampant corruption and funnelled towards the insanity of building huge shiny new buildings in the capital, Ashgabat. They remain entirely empty and are simply there for show, alongside the golden statues of Turkmenbashi, which ludicrously rotate throughout the day to follow the sun. Ah, the joys of being an omnipotent dictator with too much time on your hands and with so many whims to indulge.
This was not, however, a country under whose skin we can claim to have crawled. Such limited time and a clammed up, fearful populace meant little opportunity to hear from the locals about life here, save for one taxi driver who fatalistically lamented the complete absence of democracy or even a glimpse of a progressive way forward. He wanted to get out, but without huge sums of cash or the right connections (or more likely both), it is not possible to leave.
What we can talk about in depth, however, is how we took on our second desert (having swatted aside the Sinai in Egypt during cool April days) and wrestled with the sticky melting asphalt (where there was asphalt!), which wilted in the face of daily temperatures nudging 50°C (in the shade). With each passing kilometre the landscape changed as little as did the head-on wind that infuriatingly, stubbornly and hotly persisted each day in slowing our progress and sucking on our energy reserves.
But we had learnt our lessons from the heat of north–eastern Iran and we accordingly tinkered with our body clocks to rise two hours before sun-up (around 3:30am) each day, packing up our tent under sequined skies absolutely bulging with fulminating stars and kissing the thankfully cool highway that had generously chilled to around 30°C. By 9:30am the bulk of our day’s cycling was over and we would seek out shelter (a cow shed if we were lucky) from the relentless heat that desiccated our bones. Turkmenistan apparently has the lowest incidence rate of rheumatism as a result of this vertiginous dry heat. Now, there’s a perk! At each truck stop where we would grumble about the intolerable temperatures, we were often met with refrain of, “you should visit in December, its only 40°C then”.
The real insight we were given by the nature of our travel was into the long-distance trucking community; those ploughing their way from Turkey, Iran and further west, via our Turkmen transit track to the rest of Central Asia, Russia, China and beyond. One comical Iranian who bought us food, bottles of cold coke and drowned us in more and more Iranian tea, told us tales of the heady profits to be gleaned from transporting Iranian watermelons to Vladivostok. He also showed us another side of Iranians, a side that we certainly hadn’t seen in Iran. Iranian truckers, as you can imagine, tend to let their hair down as soon as they cross from the Islamic Republic into lands of beer and vodka and buxom, blond post-soviet beauties. So curious to observe after five weeks in Iran.
Eventually after five painful days, the 50 degree heat and 500km of desert were behind us. We crossed triumphantly into the green plains of Uzbekistan knowing now that the fabled Silk Road cities of Samarkand and Bukhara lay not far to the North and East. Tales from the next in our line of former Soviet Republics will hopefully follow shortly.
In the meantime you can take a look at the latest rash of photos that we have painstakingly (maddening internet connection speeds in Dushanbe) uploaded on the blog for Turkey, Iran and Turkmenistan.
And the other big news is that we are moving. We mean in cyberspace. In anticipation of wordpress being blocked in China we will hope that you will be able to find us at www.odycycle.com but give us a little time to get it set up. If we are not accessible there we should be at the old address of www.odycycle.wordpress.com