** Please accept our apologies, we were hacked by Turkmen cyber pirates yesterday trying to prevent the story from going live. They couldn’t handle the truth but it is our duty to deliver **
Turkmenistan is one of the most mysterious countries in the world. It’s up there with Sao Tome and Principe, Niue and Belgium. Loaded with oil and gas, the country has developed paranoia towards all things foreign and a great love of marble. The initial fun for us started with getting the Turkmen visa in Dushanbe – one week of waiting only once we had received the onward Iranian visa which we had to present at the Consulate as a colour photo, wrapped in a pink handkerchief , at 2.33pm on a specified day. Turkmen authorities will only grant visas for three or five days with no logic as to which one is granted. Our friend Eric (aka Fruitbat, see post) got three days and, thankfully we (both) got five. A consequence of this rule was that nobody we met on the road were in Turkmenistan for more than this specified time and nearly all had taken a train in order to get across in time (pah! Not Team RoS!). As such, our intelligence was sketchy at best and in many cases plain wrong. But for you, dear reader, we intend now to dispel all myths and deliver you nothing but pure, unequivocal, awesome fact.
Road of Smiles presents: Turkmenistan, The Inconvenient Truth.
Myth: Turkmenistan is Stalin’s USSR meets North Korea meets Ali Baba
Partly true. Our experience with the Turkmen police started at the border. The customs officer asked us for a detailed schedule of all the hotels we were going to stay at while in Turkmenistan. When we stated we intended to camp, he looked at us in disbelief and warned us against ‘dinosaurs’ roaming in the Turkmen desert. This ‘joke’ delivered with the straightest of faces big laugh continued with the 16 year-old kids dressed in military gear who in charge of conducting a thorough search of our bags whilst giggling like little girls and not paying any attention to our grenade launcher, massive ‘film’ collection or the Borat thong (considered worse than a WMD in these parts). Yes, there are portraits of the President everywhere, but not as much as in Takijistan. Yes, we saw the same guy more than once in the same day by “pure coincidence”, but he seemed like a really nice chap. We couldn’t help think that whilst Turkmenistan was trying to be the USSR it didn’t quite have it in its soul. On our first day we were having lunch when the Chief of Police for Turkmenabat (biggest city in the North) came up to us with a bottle of vodka in his hand and made us drink with him while he sang a rendition of Beatles’ “Yesterday” (albeit just singing this one word and then stopping). By the third offering (did we mention it was lunchtime?) Oli tried to escape to buy ice cream and he threatened to arrest us saying “You. Drrrrink. One morrrre. No? Arrest, arrest hahahahahaha”.
Myth: Turkmen people are unfriendly
False. Almost every traveller we had met told us this but our experience could not have been further from the truth. Although perhaps not up to Tajik standards we were nevertheless treated on more than one occasion to amazing hospitality and lots of smiles.
Myth: Turkmen girls are beautiful
True. We were told this by an over excited Spanish cyclist who we met just before the Turkmen border in Uzbekistan (he also told us he had an infected mosquito bite on his chocolate star-fish – TMI!). We laughed this off assuming that after one month in Iran just seeing a girl would be enough to send this red-blooded muchacho into full body spasms but he weren’t half wrong! Compared to Tajikistan and Uzbekistan where the average twenty year old looks more like a middle aged truck driver than a middle aged truck driver, there was definitely something in the Turkmen water having a positive effect that inadvertently caught Matthieu’s attention (Oli was, of course, too busy buying presents for his beloved).
Myth: The roads are rubbish
False. Putting two and two together we concluded that everyone who had told us this had taken the train or had not yet cycled the Pamirs.
Myth: “Oh, you’ll be fine going North to South, you’ll have tail winds the whole way”
False. As above or the curse simply continues
Myth: The desert is too hot for anything to survive
Partly true. There were a few days when we felt like a boil-in-the-bag ready meal. The hottest temperature we recorded was 45 degrees. This people, is not fun to cycle in. Deciding against our initial plan to sleep through the day and cycle at night we nonetheless woke with the rising sun at 5am every morning, took three hours to eat/sleep in a trucker café through the worst of the heat, then did a few more hours riding in the late afternoon. However, having not seeing much wildlife so far on the trip, much to our disappointment, we were spoiled rotten in Turkmenistan. We saw one fox in a graveyard, about 12 dromedaries (camels with one hump) and three gerbils. Yeah, awesome right?
So did we like Turkmenistan? Well, yes we did. It was not what we expected but as with most things in life something new is something to be savoured. Would we want to go back there? No, probably not but then again who wants to go back to anywhere they’ve already been? Was The Dictator really based around this mysterious country? Yes, we think it probably was. With its huge marble buildings, a statue in the capital of the country’s founding father Turkmenbashi, whose body rotates to always face the sun, and its laughable attempts at officialdom, we have no doubt that Sasha Baron-Cohen got the five-day visa. Are we going to get Turkmenistan maps tattooed onto our left bottom cheek at the first Iranian tattoo parlour we come across? Of course we are!!