I stayed so long in Tehran, that it almost became physically impossible to reach the border of Turkmenistan before my visa expired. The solution: a 150-km-a-day-schedule, which gave me one day off in Mashhad, the second biggest, and most holy city of the country. The third, torchless night, I curved the bike accurately around a pole. Distorted forks. Half an hour of hammering couldn’t avoid a bus ride.
This incident gave some extra days in Mashhad, to visit the shrine of emam Reza, and prepare for the famous race through the Turkmen desert. Five hundred kilometres in five days, on potholed roads, and if you’re unlucky, with a hellish headwind. At my host Behzads place, I met Tieme, a Dutch cyclist, and we decided to take the challenge together. A day later Will, a young Brit, who I’d met in Esfahan, rolled in. He’d only been issued a three-day transit-visa, which made us wrongfully think that we had time enough to relax.
We tried very hard to fail, and almost succeeded. After three – more or less – sober months in Iran, we smashed a bit too enthusiastically into the cold beers they were selling at the first restaurant we passed by. Half a day down the drain, and a nice headache to start the second with. Combined with the notorious Turkmen headwind, we thought we’d lost the battle. Day three and four we cycled like maniacs to undo our fooleries. We suffered, it got colder, and I got a slight fever. But the wind had turned, and blew us high pace through the desert. Day five, things looked bright again. By noon, we’d reached Turkmenabat, thirtyish km from the Uzbek border. Time enough to stroll around the bazaar, and why not, to drink another beer. Surprisingly, the Germans cartographers were wrong, and the border was 15 km further than expected. My pedal also decided to break during this stretch, and it can be called a miracle, that we made it in time. The barrier got closed a minute after we’d crossed. Overstaying one days in Turkmenistan, means getting deported to your home country, and paying a big fine.
Turkmenistan, the North Korea of the Middle East, ran by ‘president’ Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow, successor of the lunatic dictator Niyazov. Banning smoking in public, after having to quit himself due to medical reasons, is one of the many absurd laws he imposed. Unless you’re up to pay for a guided tour, a transit-visa is the way to go. They don’t want any independent travellers nosing around. People were very curious and welcoming, but clearly scared of the government. There is no lack of huge portraits of the president, showing how to behave: harvesting the field, or praying in front of a mosque.
Although five days wasn’t much, it was enough to notice the many borders we’d crossed. Women in colourful dresses, who’d even talk to us! Empty roads – another big contrast with Iran. The scarce traffic consisted of relatively new, Asian cars. Black tea, one of my newer addictions, became green tea. Only mutton dishes on the menu, Asian faces, etc… . A new chapter had begun. Central Asia!