Saturday, 2 June 2012

Turkmenistan: Watermelons and Dictators

Watermelon. I was hallucinating watermelons, no mirages of ancient Silk Road cities for me. Simply watermelon. It never changed size, it never got any closer - it was always there some 50 metres in front of me sitting proud and plump on the opposite side of the never-ending road in the barren landscape of the Karakum desert. I stopped and leant over my handlebars, parched, exhausted then reached for my waterbottle. My mind was addled. I'd recited my times tables, counted backwards from 1000, recited poetry, sang musicals and practised my square roots, everything and anything to stop me from falling asleep or off my bike.  I looked behind me, where was Lee*? I looked down at my map, and sighed, yep it was just one long straight road. 550km- in searing heat with a buffeting head wind- to cover in 5 days.

A beige landcruiser drew alongside me, window wound down,
"Hello!!" an excited male face. "Where are you going?"
"That way" I replied pointing ahead of me stifling the urge to say which way do you think I'm going. I'm facing this way. It's one road, I'm in the middle of one of the world's hottest deserts on a highway that is melting. I mean just look at it, this road looks like it has been furrowed! I've had 2 days of headwind, I have to get out of this country in 3 days due to stupid visa restrictions, I'd never even heard of Turkmenistan until I planned my route.  I'm tired, I'm thirsty..
Yet I remembered my manners..
"Hello! Where are you from?" I beamed back. 
"Ashgabat!" he replied proudly. "We need to give you something "
With that he jumped out of the car, his wife removed two pug dogs from her knee and joined him. They opened the boot. Here take some water - I clutched the bottle. It was cold. I went to open it to pour into my water bottle,' no no take take' as I was given another two 1.5 litre bottles. "We need to give you more" and with that my arms were laden with tins of condensed milk, bread, apples and a tin of beef stew. A moan and I looked behind: Lee: face flushed and expressionless. You ok? I mouthed. He nodded and leant over his handlebars. I said goodbye to my food suppliers " Welcome to Turkmenistan" he shouted as his face slowly disappeared behind a polarised window to the sanctuary of airconditioning.

I shook my head bewildered and dazed by this hospitality then turned to Lee
"You ok?" I repeated.
Lee nodded. 
"What happened to you? I wondered where you'd gone"
"I fell off"
I was just so bored.  I fell off. I just want the road to bend.
I chuckled.

Turkmenistan. The obscure oil-rich 80% desert country of Turkmenistan. the president was the former president's dentist. The former president had called himself "President for Life" named the days of the week and months of the year after his family (I was born on an Uncle Hugh in the month of Great Aunt Mildred), and amongst other bizarre rulings banned gold crowns on teeth though this seems to have been nullified by dictator no.2 - being a dentist and all that. It was a country of Mad Max meets the Truman Show, vodka was cheaper than water, soul destroying stretches of desert were interspersed with sitcom sounding towns of Mary and Merv where perfect streets housed vast glitzy equestrian centres due to the current president's obsession with horses - holding presidential beauty competitions for horses -, immense gold statues of  former Him had been replaced by current Him and stood to attention outside palatial buildings due to the president's obsession with himself. His head was photo-shopped onto the svelter bodies of sportsmen in calendars. Children whose school years had now been reinstated from 9 to 10 with the death of dictator no.1 were picture perfect: school girls in long green gowns matching the national flag, plaited hair adorned with bows of white netting. young boys in colourful skull caps and jackets of nationalistic rule. Yet even the plaits were mandatory.

The first day in Turkmenistan we'd covered 120km including a farcical and Yossarian border crossing  (I didn't have the $12 in change for the entry tax so they told me to go to the bank. The bank however was across the border and I got stopped and sent back as I hadn't paid the $12 entry tax..) and a relentless head wind. We found a 'bed' or tapchan outside a truck stop which was simply a raised platform where you sat crossed legged and ate your dinner. I'd awoken in the night unable to stretch out only to find the restaurant owner curled up in the crook of my knee. The following night 3 bank security guards had invited us off another tapchan and into a yurt where food and vodka lay before us. They'd mimed their jobs to us and patted their pockets with a wink and a knowing nod.. so now we have money for Vodka. Vodka. Central Asia. Vodka. In addition to declaring your belongings on a customs form before entering the country it is worth noting down how many brain cells you had when entering and how few you have on exit. We toasted our mothers, our fathers, their narcissistic despot leaders both current and former, we toasted our cycling, our health, our demise and their fortunate jobs. Another bottle appeared, emitting a mysterious green glow, more toasting, I believe there was a third. Lee began to dribble, I had no legs. 

By day 3 and with the worst hangover in history we were both obsessed by watermelons: me still hallucinating and Lee confused as he'd read there were 300 different types of watermelon in Turkmenistan and we had yet to see one. There were to be no towns just desert and camels for 124km

Yet as the landscape no longer resembled my attempt at looking after potplants and became more storybook desert it was time to take some photos

our abode for the night (the patch of concrete to the left)
With only 4 km of camels to go we could physically go no further and saw a police checkpoint. I mimed the usual "sleep" and pointed to the concrete patch outside their hut. The policeman nodded. Lee and I got out our sleeping bags while fighting a battle with the flies that thirstily swarmed towards our eyeballs trying to suck out the only source of moisture left on us. It was then we spied the watermelon by the policeman.. Go on.. I urged. Lee walked over and I watched the mime. He came back shaking his head. Nah costs too much. I looked up and saw the policeman walking towards us with my hallucination in his hands. Entranced I watched as he laid it before us, smiled and went back to his checkpoint.

The final push to Turkmenabat and we struggled to keep awake on the excruciating straight road. A gold toothed Uzbek truck driver in a string vest offered us water which we gratefully accepted, coca cola which we nearly kissed him for and then asked us to join him in a vodka session. With 60km to go to the border town we graciously declined. We stopped for samsas in a desolate town. Young boys gathered round me as I showed them a map of their country. They were chased away by an elder yet not before two of the boys insisted I take a photo of them and their bikes.

We reached the town at dusk and went in search of somewhere to stay. An encounter with an english speaking man in his 20's led us to a small shop where we purchased water. Freshly baked dumplings of sweetcorn were popped into our mouths by the gaggle of old ladies who worked there. Before long we had an offer of a bed and wheeled our bikes into a huge garage where we were told we could spend the night. A young boy brought us steaming bowls of plov. His father appeared, staggering and gaunt, grey skinned and in his pyjamas. He ordered the young boy out. He looked at us and flicked his neck with his thumb and forefinger. Ouch I thought. He flicked it again 'vodka' he said as the young boy returned clutching bottles of the white spirit. So the last night in possibly the strangest, one of the most bizarrely enjoyable countries of my trip to date with hospitable people in an inhospitable landscape ended with the neighbour being ill in the garden, me being ill in the garden, the father being ill in the garden, the son being sent back to the shop for more and more of this vicious spirit. At midnight when Lee and I were picking up the father who had fallen asleep wearing just his underpants in an oil puddle in the garage Lee looked at me and said "for goodness sake, I don't get paid for this you know" and we laughed as we put him into the recovery position

The 9 year old son got up and cooked us chicken legs for breakfast and we said our farewells to him (his father was still unconscious where we'd dragged him to) and set off on our route to the incredibly hard to find border crossing which involved the help of a bus driver cutting short his break to jump into his bus and beckon us to follow him. He was replaced by 2 men on motorbikes who stood in the road and waved and pointed to the right (Turkmenistan incidentally has no road signs apart from one saying camels 124 km and another saying "5km" - to where I have no idea). It was then I looked down at the road and wondered if maybe, just maybe these road markings had been made after a neck-flicking cheaper than water vodka session

*Lee of The Ephemeral Project. We'd met in Iran and had been cycling together just 2 days before we entered Turkmenistan. A person who made me laugh (and that's important on a trip like this!) and I wish him and Liz all the very best for their new life in New Zealand.

This is a belated post! I am now in Thailand, one day away from the Malaysian border..


  1. Excellent blog from an amazing trip.

    Hope to see something from Thailand soon. I was living in Bangkok for a year and really loved it. Certainly one of my favourite countries I have been to. Please keep us posted.

  2. ahhhh. what an inspirationn

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