The lazy cyclists' ride through Turkmenistan

Posted on 2019-06-09

Tourist visas for Turkmenistan are expensive - you need to book a tour through a tour company, and it can cost over a hundred dollars a day. Most independent travellers to Turkmenistan thus only visit the country on a transit visa, usually issued for 5 days, requiring you to enter from one country and leave to another. From Iran to Uzbekistan, the distance across Turkmenistan is about 550km. Many cyclists, at least those whose blogs we found, decide to challenge themselves and tackle the distance in 5 non-stop days of cycling. But we are not hardcore cyclists. We average about 60-70km/day, and have exceeded 100km on only one day so far. We rarely camp two or more nights in a row, and find all sorts of excuses not to camp - too hot, too cold, too rainy, too high risk of thunderstorms, too mountainous, too flat, too close to people. We also wanted to have more time to explore the country, and not just spend our entire 5 days in the saddle. So our initial plan was to take 2.5 days to cycle to Bayramaly, about 230km from the Iranian border, and then spend some time exploring the ruins of the ancient city of Merv nearby. After that, we planned to take a bus or train to Turkmenabat, from where it is just 30km to the Uzbekistan border.

There is little information about travelling in Turkmenistan that can be found online. Our most useful resource was the Caravanistan forum, where we could read reports from people who had travelled through the country. The impression we got was of a closed and isolated country, ruled by crazy presidents, where many things are restricted - locals are not supposed to interact with foreigners (which is why Couchsurfing is illegal, and you can get your host into serious trouble if found out), most websites are blocked, and you're not supposed to take any photos of government infrastructure and public buildings. We also read that border controls are strict, taking up to 2h due to detailed checks and other formalities. However, our first impression of the country was quite different. In contrast to the Iranian side of the border, where we were interrogated at length when leaving the country, we were ushered into the Turkmenistan side by friendly officers, who directed us to the different stations (doctor, passport control, entrance tax payment, customs check) in an orderly manner, and everything was completed quite efficiently. In 45 minutes, we were out of customs and in Turkmenistan!

Due to exchange rate limits set by the government, a black market for exchange rate exists, that is about 5 times as high as the government-set rate. This we thankfully already knew before entering the country, so we could negotiate a good rate with the money changers who were hanging out just outside the last customs checkpoint, shouting "change money" at us as our passports were being checked (so much for the black market being highly illegal). What we didn't know was that this is the "new manat", that replaced the "old manat" in 2009 at a rate of 5000 old manat to 1 new manat, and that sometimes vendors still quote their prices in old manat. The first time we encountered this was in a restaurant where they had prices listed in their menu, but when the bill came, all the numbers had been multiplied by a factor of 5. We were shocked and thought the guy was trying to rip us off, but he quickly corrected himself after we asked for the menu, so all was good. This happened a few more times, including once when we paid 50 manat for food that cost (we thought) 32 manat, and the vendor started giving us a mountain of change. We took 20 manat in change and refused the rest, and only later realised that the mountain of change added up to the food costing 6.4 manat - the same factor of 5. Once, a vendor even typed the cost in new manat into her calculator, multiplied it by 5, and then showed us the result (which we of course had to divide by 5 again to know what to pay her). We don't know why vendors still quote their prices in old manat 10 years after the change of currency.

The cycling itself also didn't go as expected. On our first day in the country, we had strong headwinds and were crawling along at about 10km/h. Factoring in a late start and time spent at the border crossing, by evening, we had barely gone 50km and were ready to call it a day. Another 180km in 1.5 days, with more headwind? Forget about it. We set up camp and decided that we would just cycle to Tejen, the closest station on the main train line from Ashgabat to Turkmenabat, the next day, and take the train from there to Bayramaly.

We had strong headwinds on our way from Sarahs to Tejen and were progressing only slowly, so we were happy when a local offered to take us for a few kilometres on his cargo motor tricycle.

We had strong headwinds on our way from Sarahs to Tejen and were progressing only slowly, so we were happy when a local offered to take us for a few kilometres on his cargo motor tricycle.

To our surprise, we saw a distant thunderstorm in the evening, and it also rained in the middle of the night. In fact, it rained almost every day we were in Turkmenistan, including a thunderstorm on our last night when we were in Turkmenabat. The deserts were green and the canals were full, but such weather is definitely not normal for June. Climate change is real!

Crossing a surprisingly big river on the way from Sarahs to Tejen. The whole area was greener than we expected.

Crossing a surprisingly big river on the way from Sarahs to Tejen. The whole area was greener than we expected.

The next day, after another monotonous ride along the straight desert road, we reached Tejen and tried to buy a ticket at the train station, only to be shouted at by the old man behind the counter (he seemed to be shouting at everyone else trying to buy a ticket, too). Thankfully, we found someone who could help us with understanding the old man, and he said that we could board the train without a ticket. He then introduced us to a police officer at the station, who said that he would help us when the train arrived. When the train arrived, the police officer led us to the cargo carriage, where we loaded our bicycles - and then he told us to go up to the carriage as well. So this is where we rode the train, as stowaways!

Dinner and tea in the cargo carriage of the train from Tejen to Bayramaly

Dinner and tea in the cargo carriage of the train from Tejen to Bayramaly

In Bayramaly, we stayed with a Couchsurfing host, one of the few active hosts in the country and the only one in the region (don't tell the authorities). We spent half a day exploring the ancient city of Merv, an area that was settled by humans from 3000 BC up until the 18th century. Throughout its history, the city changed hands repeatedly, being successively ruled by the Achaemenid Empire, successors of Alexander the Great, Arabs, Turks, and the Safavid Dynasty, and was one of the largest cities in the world during the 12th and 13th centuries. In 1221, the city was destroyed by an invading Mongol tribe, and never regained its full former prosperity. Today, the large archaeological site consists of a few discrete walled cities very close to each other, with only a few remains of buildings within each of them.

Local tourists climbing down the remains of the walls of the Erk Gala, the oldest part of ancient Merv, dating from the 7th century BC. Most of the women we saw in the country wear the traditional dress and headdress similar to the women in this photo.

Local tourists climbing down the remains of the walls of the Erk Gala, the oldest part of ancient Merv, dating from the 7th century BC. Most of the women we saw in the country wear the traditional dress and headdress similar to the women in this photo.

From Bayramaly, the train timings to Turkmenabat were all unfavourable, either leaving or arriving at an ungodly hour in the middle of the night, so we decided to take a bus instead. Even at 90km/h, the landscape was still terribly monotonous, and we are glad we chose to fast foward this section. Arriving in Turkmenabat, we checked into the cheapest hotel in town for $10/person. We had read other people's reports that Turkmenistan was one of their most expensive countries, mainly because of accommodation, as foreigners have to pay several times as much as locals for the same hotel, and there is no way around this. Nevertheless, our hotel in Turkmenabat seemed like a reasonable deal, and after paying for it, we were still left with too much non-convertible manat that we had to spend before leaving the country the next day. We ended up spending a couple of hours at the bazaar stocking up on food items and eating cake.

Roofs of Türkmenabat. White walls and green roofs appear to be the most popular colour combination for buildings in Turkmenistan.

Roofs of Türkmenabat. White walls and green roofs appear to be the most popular colour combination for buildings in Turkmenistan.

All things considered, we enjoyed our brief stay in Turkmenistan, with its friendly and relaxed people, a welcome change from intense Iran. Although we only cycled about a third of the distance across the country, this gave us time (or in fact, forced us) to meet and interact with more people, take in more of the sights, and perhaps learn just a bit more about the country.

With the crazy ethnic Russian neighbours of our Couchsurfing host in Bayramaly. When we asked to borrow their mobile phone to contact our host, they invited us into their house and stuffed us with mashed potatoes, cake, tea and vodka.

With the crazy ethnic Russian neighbours of our Couchsurfing host in Bayramaly. When we asked to borrow their mobile phone to contact our host, they invited us into their house and stuffed us with mashed potatoes, cake, tea and vodka.