|May 26, 2008|
Turkmenistan- Part Two
We survived the night, and the following four in Turkmenistan, with only a small scorpion at the bottom of Ryan's tent to trouble us (I forgot to mention other possible local killers-tarantulas and black widows).
Turkmenistan was really bizarre with only three towns/cities along our route of 600 km: Mary, Merv and Turkmenebat. The rest of the terrain was remote, uninhabited land, mostly desert. This meant we'd to carry as much rice, pasta and water as possible. The maximum I had on-board was seven litres of water, and I probably drank six litres on average a day. It is second only to North Korea in terms of press restrictions, and if you want a proper tourist visa you need to have a guide with you at all times. The old President Turkmenbasi, now thankfully no longer with us, still dominates proceedings with his portrait hanging everywhere: shops, restaurants, government buildings, roadside signs and on vehicles (even our tractor). He was the guy who re-named the months of the year after his family members, and who ordered a massive gold statue of himself to be built, that constantly revolved so that it always faced the sun. I think he was the one that gave the order to build the largest artificial lake in the world at a cost of eight billion dollars, despite the fact the vast majority of the population is in abject poverty. This will no doubt cause environmental catastrophe, similar to the building of the world's longest irrigation canal (1370km), which resulted in the drying up of the Aral Sea. We crossed this canal a few times during our dash, and our best meal in Turkmenistan was deep-fried fish straight from the canal. No chips though. Other meals could only be obtained from grimy, depressing truck stops where our hobby was to count the number of flies present. A mutton soup was particularly rank, as was a fly found on the bottom of Ryan's fried egg.
Petrol here costs two cents a litre and gas is free, in an attempt to keep the population happy. But matches are not free, so the rumour is that stoves are kept lit 24 hrs a day.
The cars in the country disguised the fact Turkmenistan was a poor country. Japanese saloon and sports cars were everywhere and seemed to come across the border in their thousands, loaded onto transporters, like we saw at the Iranian border. Every car was dented, some with just minor dents, and I suspect there is a huge insurance scam in place.
Mary was our first experience of civilisation, and we drained the bazaar of beer, water and bridies. The women were well dressed, wearing long, formal, multi-coloured dresses and hair adornments. The men wore old-fashioned shirts, ties and black leather shoes. The young Russian element still evident in town wore outrageously risque outfits, and the Iranian in me went 'tsk tsk' and almost asked them to cover up. After the chadors of Iran, my sunglasses were steaming up, and this was not because of the steaming bridies.
Onto Merv then, 30 kms down the road, and we cycled into the ancient ruins of Merv just before sunset. Camels roamed everywhere, including cute baby ones. No-one was around so we camped inside the ruins themselves. What a fantastic place! Overall the sight included five ancient cities, the oldest one dating back to the 5th Century BC. There was a mixture of mauseleums, forts, mosques and city walls, and we had the place to ourselves. In the 13th Century the city was invaded by Jenghiz Khan's son, and the entire population of 300,000 were slaughtered.
At the end of one particularly tough day, running low on water and out of food, I spotted a lady by the roadside selling apricots. Excellent, I thought! But just then a car pulled up alongside her and bought every single apricot before I had the chance to recollect the Turkmenistan phrase for half a kg, please!
On another day, during our siesta, two very rough men and a woman came up to us in their trailer pulled by a donkey. Three mangy dogs followed. We were offered their home-brew wine, and spent the next fifteen mins passing round the bottle and wondering what disease we'd catch. They were great people, despite looking so rough, and genuinely wanted to give us one of their dogs as a present, when saying farewell.
Two other memories from Turkmenistan were the dust twisters, and the swarms of huge locusts.
At the end of our fourth day we camped in the dunes again, amongst the camels, and estimated we had 160 kms still to go to reach the border. With our guide book saying the border crossing closed at 5pm, we were in for a very challenging day...