Shattered, just shattered

10 days in a row, and over 1,000km, across hot dry deserts, in temperatures over 35 is apparently my limit. I’m just absolutely shattered, feeling worse than I ever have before, barely capable of any speech, let alone coherent thought. I’m rolling into Bukhara, Uzbekistan, and it’s a beautiful city, but I’m just completely beyond taking it in, unable to think or concentrate. The last bottle of Gazly Su I had in Turkmenabat has upset my digestion big time, and I haven’t eaten anything all day, and I’ve just been too long on the bike without a rest. What am I doing to myself?

I woke up in Merv, feeling like crap. Normally when you wake up like that, you should have a rest. Instead, I decided to do the obvious thing, and ride for 160km across the desert. Hey, why not? Long hot dry riding, long way between any sort of towns, and even then they were just a few dusty houses. I get water, and move on, seeking camp in the desert.

And so, when I woke up the next morning, feeling even worse, and barely functioning, I was very slow at loading up the bike. Doing my last task of rolling up the tent, I just about have it done, when a sand-coloured scorpion comes running out from under the tent, and shocks me into life. Yikes! And then I couldn’t see where it went, as it is well-camouflaged. Finally I see it move, a couple of metres away, so I relax a bit, get the tent finished, and move off. I try not to think about A) the thinness of my tent floor, and how easily it could have pierced it, or B) that I was too lazy to put on any footwear when I got up and went to the toilet first thing that morning. Must be more careful.

Limp into Turkmenabat, luckily not too far, only 80km. Outskirts of town go on for ages, and it seems to be market days – TVs, fridges, live sheep, all sorts being loaded onto vehicles. Find a massive ripoff hotel, but I’m just too tired to argue, and settle for it. Then the bitch doesn’t like my $50 note, since it’s got a tiny rip. If you travel in this part of the world, make sure your US dollar notes are in immaculate condition, no marks at all.

Last day, takes forever to get to the border, then finally get through and into Uzbekistan. Wasn’t going to push all the way to Bukhara, but there weren’t really any decent campsites, and I was in a bad way, and really wanted a nice bed. Limped along, and finally, near dark, made it to Bukhara, and found Sasha and Sons which is just outstanding, the best place I’ve stayed in. Fantastic fitout, modern bathroom, clean soft proper bed…I almost shed a tear when I turned on the TV to find BBC World, the first time I can recall watching English language TV in months.

Just perfect, just what I needed, and I spent most of a day in bed, recovering. Starting to come right now, going to move to a cheaper homestay tonight, maybe stay here a few more days, maybe push on along the Golden Road to Samarqand – will see how I feel.

Turkmenistan continued

This is the second in the Turkmenistan series, all published around the same time. You may wish to read the first part if you haven’t already.

Long hot days crossing Turkmenistan means on the road around sunrise, ride until the heat gets too much, then seek shelter for the hottest part of the day, before doing a few hours later in the afternoon. I’m now drinking huge amounts of water, including the “Gazly Su” that is sold everywhere – carbonated water with a shot of syrup, around $0.20 for a 1.5L bottle. Unfortunately drinking this will come back to haunt me in a few days…

Leaving Ashgabat, I was pretty grumpy with the police, especially after being harassed for wandering around at 11:30, after the pub closed. Seems they didn’t like that. But as the day goes on, and I meet more local people, I’m much happier. Late in the day, a car pulls over ahead of me, and the driver jumps out with a fresh loaf of bread, hands it to me, and leaves. Doesn’t even want to stop for a chat, just wanted me to have the food. Getting water at Kaka everyone is nice, and offers me a place to sleep, but I want to push on a little. Stop in a field, the local shepherd comes over on his donkey for a chat, and to watch me cook dinner. He then leaves me alone with the spiders, which are now around the size of my palm. Yikes.

The following day I stop at Tejen for lunch, at a cafe/bar. I get invited over to another table, where a few men are having some food and drink. Suddenly there are shots of vodka being poured, and toasts to Turkmenistan. A few more shots, and I am everyone’s best friend. A few more shots, and I realise I really need to get out of here. Finally they let me go, and I wobble off on my bike, off into the blazing sun. No way I should have been out in that, and 20km down the road, at a police checkpoint, they grab me, and tell me to sleep in the room they’ve got. Not sure if they knew I was drunk, or if they thought I was suffering heatstroke, but it works out very well.

Normally if you get picked up by the police you’re in trouble, but in this case it would have been the other way around. There are no towns for another 50km or so, so stopping with them was great. Later that night, after I’ve slept for the afternoon, and feel much better, they wake me up for a communal meal with them by the side of the road. Really nice guys, and they made me feel better about the Turkmen police.

Then push on towards Mary, and Merv. Tried riding around Merv by myself, but it was just a big pile of mudbricks, and it takes quite a bit of that to get me excited these days. Think I needed to have a guide. The abandoned factories on the edges of a World Heritage Site are a particularly nice Soviet touch. Found a nice family who let me camp on their property – suddenly Dad was out levelling a patch of land, the kids were out – sweeties for them worked well, Mum was offering food, all very nice. We were being eaten alive by mosquitoes, and I got out some DEET – they’d never seen anything like it, and were extremely impressed. Guess you can’t get that here.

Feeling tired, the driest 250km to the last town near the border coming up…

Turkmenistan parte the firste

The arrivals hall door to the Turkmenistan customs post is locked, and it seems no-one can find the keys. Just classic – this is one of the most reclusive states in the world, getting up there with North Korea, and they can’t let me in, because the door is locked and no-one seems able to open it.

I’m standing in no-man’s land, between Iran and Turkmenistan, trying to make a start on my 7-day transit visa. I’ve got a lot of miles to cover, but luckily today I only need to go to Ashgabat, around 50km away, pretty much downhill all the way. So I go for my usual policy when I have to wait for various police, customs and petty officials – I sit down and go to sleep. I don’t fully understand it, but this is a remarkably effective way of getting some action. If you sit there looking frustrated, they make you wait even longer, but it annoys them when you go to sleep, so they process you. And sure enough, after a little while, someone comes out, and leads me around through the departures hall, down a dark “officials only” corridor, and into the arrivals hall.

This continues a theme already started on the Iranian side – I got there early, around 6:45, but they weren’t ready until around 7:30 or so. I was still the only non-official there then, so they took me backwards through Iranian customs, as they couldn’t be bothered opening the other door. Quick and easy, stamp from one officer, signature from another, see you later.

Turkmenistan proved a bit different though. After leaving my bike in the customs area, I went to the passport control part. My bike was clearly a great source of amusement, and I would periodically hear the bell go “ding ding” as another customs official came along to play with it. Went through the medical inspection “say aaah – OK you’re healthy,” paid my $12US, then after a myriad of form filling in (not by me), I moved to the customs area.

As I was still the only one there, I had everyone gathered around – probably about 10 people. Random questions about how much foreign currency I had, how much the bike cost, and then they tried to get me to give them $100 for bringing the bike in. I just played dumb on that one, and they gave up. Cursory look in the top of a couple of panniers, and then I was free to go – but not before one of them went for a quick spin around the compound. Not being used to the weight, he was wobbling all over the place.

And then down into Ashgabat – suddenly women everywhere, dressed in hooker chic. Nearly crashed my bike at the shock of it, after a month in Iran and a month in Turkey. Teams of women sweeping the roads/tending to the gardens, huge fountains and monuments everywhere, enormous white buildings doing goodness knows what. Police everywhere – almost every street corner it seems. Crazy. Very nice, clean, new-looking place though. Go to the bazaar, shocking amounts/variety of food available, making a very pleasant change to dusty little corner stores like I normally frequent.

Did the walk around, go up Turkmenbashi’s monument thing – the statue that rotates to face the sun. That’s not very quick though, you don’t see it moving. One of the craziest things was that I couldn’t take pictures of a lot of things I wanted to – military people stopped you. I wasn’t even allowed to stop and look at some statues, I was told to keep moving. What’s the point in building monuments if tourists can’t take pictures, or even stop and look at them? Soviet mindset.

This being my first time back in a country with alcohol for a month, I thought it was time for a beer. I will have you know that I waited until 4:00 though, as per the rules. Good thing clocks went forward 90 minutes when I crossed the border…Found a couple of nice places, including one with a live Russian band, singing quite a few English songs. A bit weird.

First beers in a month meant first sore head for a while as I rolled out of Ashgabat the next morning. Police seemed to be at every little intersection for miles out of Ashgabat. The road started well, dual carriageway swept every 10 metres…but quickly descended to a pretty poor road, with some roadworks nearby, that seemed to have stopped some time ago. Guess Turkmenbashi spent all the money on statues of himself (because the people demanded it, apparently), and that didn’t leave any for roads. I think maybe he mostly travelled by helicopter.

Long hot days ahead crossing Turkmenistan…more posts to come

Last report from Iran

I’m currently in Mashhad, eastern Iran, and this will be my last report from Iran. Tomorrow I am going to head northwest (i.e. completely the wrong direction), to the Turkmenistan border, near Ashgabat. I’ll take this leg easy, over 3 days, to rest before some longer days in Turkmenistan – will be over a week on the bike, 100km per day.

After getting an overnight bus from Shiraz to Tehran, I spent a few days getting my Turkmenistan visa. Note to future applicants – make sure your US dollar notes are absolutely immaculate, with absolutely no marks or exchange dealers stamps on them. I had a real problem with this, as I had some OK notes, but they had small stamps on them. Eventually used one of my crisp $100 bills – this actually worked out well, as I got some small change back, that should be useful over the next few weeks. Be prepared to wait too – we were told to come back at 15:00, but it wasn’t until around 18:00 they were ready. Apparently this is because it’s supposed to take 3 days, but the local consul tries to get Ashgabat to rush their end, to issue them the same day – sometimes it’s a bit of a rush.

But anyway, I now have that stamp, and since I need to enter Turkmenistan on the 29th, I got another overnight bus, from Tehran to Mashhad. This is a very holy city to Shiites, with Imam Reza buried here. As a result of this, it feels different to the likes of Tehran, Tabriz and Shiraz. It feels the most Islamic of all the cities I have been to in Iran, with nearly all women wearing the chador, and far more men in traditional dress. More turban-wearers too, which doesn’t exactly thrill me, given the opinion that most of the population I’ve met seems to have of them.

While on the bus here, I was chatting to Ejaz, sitting next to me. On finding out I was going to Mashhad, he took the prayer beads off from around his neck, and gave them to me. He also gave me another set he had, specifically to bring them to Mashhad. Very touching really, and now perhaps I will fit in that tiny bit more, walking along, swinging my prayer beads.

Sometimes when you are looking for a specific hotel, you will be told that it has been knocked down, or has burnt down, or something. However in this case, it seems that the Tous Hotel actually has been knocked down, as there is a large construction site there. But no problem, I found another place, reasonably priced. The room is below ground level, and doesn’t get much natural light – suits me well though, since sunrise is around 4:15 here – now I can actually sleep in. Apparently daylight savings time is no longer used in Iran – most guidebooks are out of date on this detail.

So, a few thoughts on modern Iran are in order. Firstly, the popular image of terrorists, and nutters running around beating up women because they display a stray lock of hair, is largely wrong. Most Iranians are normal people, looking to get on with their lives, concerned about the normal things – jobs, family, getting married, etc. Iran feels much more developed than other countries in this region, although poverty is certainly there. But the infrastructure in cities is quite reasonable, and I’m not expecting to see much better before getting to China.

But yes, the political rhetoric is certainly there – e.g. the enormous billboard covering the side of a building in Tehran, of the Stars and Stripes represented by falling bombs and skulls, with “Down With USA” written across it. But this is peeling and fading, and no-one seems to take much notice. I didn’t see much in the way of posters outside of Tehran – apparently this is where the army is strongest. Similarly the news is full of it – seen today: “US Congress approves war funding bill giving, Bush a blank check to pursue adventurism in MidEast” – but no-one seems to take much notice of that, they’re all watching their satellite TV (which is banned, but everyone seems to have it).

People think of women in this region, and they think of the headscarf. Yes it is compulsory, and yes I think it is wrong, and about oppression, not religion. But it’s interesting to see how it is worn – for many women, the headscarf sits a very long way back on the forehead. No doubt there is a direct correlation between how much hair is shown, and how much power the mullahs are wielding at that time. The women here are strong, opinionated, and well-educated. In Turkey it is extremely rare to talk to women, but here it is quite common.

The real shame is the way the government has stuffed the economy – a major concern of nearly all Iranians I spoke to is the lack of jobs, especially for the young. Sure, it’s fine when diesel only costs you $0.02 per litre, but if you don’t have jobs for people you get problems. This is where the drugs problem is coming from – it’s easier to get heroin in Tehran than a beer. The government prefers to take the stance they do, and effectively discourage foreign investment, than try and look for a future beyond oil. On the news they celebrate Iran-Turkey trade of $6B, and foreign direct investment of $1B. But when you consider the size of the population, these numbers are a pittance.

And people here know it – they know there are problems, but they have the knife to the throat, and there is a limit to what they can do about. One of the most depressing elements is that almost every English-speaking Iranian I have met wants to emigrate. A country cannot advance with that sort of brain drain, and it will have massive repercussions on Iran for years.

It’s all a pity really, as Iran is a great country to travel in, and I highly recommend it to anyone who has the chance. Doesn’t have to be by bike, either. The people are welcoming, intelligent, and generally too ready to help. I just couldn’t live in a non-free country, that’s all.

Oh and whatever you may have heard about the Iranian drivers is true. I have decided that they are indeed the worst I have ever seen, worse than Libya and Egypt. Just no cultural driving education, and everyone does whatever he wants on the road, leading to mayhem. They can’t see that their actions make things worse, they don’t help them get anywhere faster. How I haven’t seen (or been involved in) more accidents is completely beyond me. The accidents certainly happen though – over 20,000 deaths per year I’ve heard. Can’t say I have a lot of sympathy for them.