Other stuff
Contact Me

Reports @

9) july 15th, Uzbekistan - through the Karakum Desert, and into Bukhara

An arthritic knee, epsiodes of throwing-up, a 41 degree fever, and a mysterious stomach bug that doesn't seem to be leaving very soon... my poor body has really been put through the mill.

Turkmenistan was a welcome change. The first few days with the guide, and then the group of Swiss cyclists really pulled me back from the brink of insanity! I was surprised at how well-off "the North Korea of Central Asia" seemed. Sure, the president might be a bit mad, but people seem to get along okay. But just don't critise him too loudly, as the walls do have ears (well, microphones...).

Now in Bukhara, Uzbekistan. The Swiss have moved on, while I take one more day to recover from my ailments. I might catch up with them in Samarkand or Tashkent, but in any case I'm back on my own again, and have to rely on myself - getting to grips with the language, food, customs, roads, accomodation, etc of a whole new region. Again.

27 june, Mon: Still in Baku. A wasted morning looking for somewhere to change traveller's cheques, by which point my left knee was really hurting - this had been bugging me over the last few days, and I had just put it down to tripping over potholes in Baku's unlit streets. But as the ferry was leaving tomorrow, I decided to go see a doctor.
With a bit of miming, my symptons were described, and I was sent off to another hospital for X-rays. This was my afternoon. Back to the doctor for a consultation in the evening. He showed me the X-rays: I had osteoposis - arthritis - in my knee.
The doctor recommended I remain in Baku for a 10-day course of physiotherapy, acupuncture, massage and oil-bath (a swim in the sea?). This sounded like a resort holiday to me, but was unrealistic given my visas and arrangements already made for Turkmenistan. As a temporary measure he loaded me up with syringes and vials to take with me (still remaining unused at the bottom of my bag, unsurprizingly) and recommended I stop somewhere on-route for 10 days of physio...

28 june, Tue: Ferry leaves tonight! And not a minute too soon... Baku is a great city but I am glad to be finally getting out of that hotel - several days worth of several people's turds had piled up in the single shared toilet and I just couldn't face it anymore.
Had dinner by a pleasant restaurant by the ferry port, and was invited over to a table to help two guys polish off their second bottle of vodka. I declined the vodka (I'd just had two mighty injections in the bum), but he called his secretary to interpret - he was the director of a major Azerbaijan construction company, and when he heard of my trip he wanted me to stay for a while in one of his 5-star hotels as his guest! Oh damm that Turkmenistan visa...

The ferry, now finally leaving (creaking horribly) after it's last consignment of large pipes has been loaded, isn't too bad. Had to slip a dollar to the deckhand to "look after" my bike ("just a little to get drunk", he indicated as they do round here, by flicking his finger at his throat). Got a 4-berth cabin to myself, not too dirty, no obvious wildlife. Earlier in the day I'd read a report on the internet from one traveller about how bad it was. Obviously he hasn't been staying in the same hotels as I have ...

29 june, Wed: Turkmenbashi, TURKMENISTAN! Arrived, finally, late afternoon, and the red-tape to get me through immigration took 2.5 hours. All the officials were very nice though. Approaching the port all I could see was a large range of craggy yellow rock, and a few buildings gathered near the water. This really looked like the end of the earth, I thought...
Dima, my Russian guide - somewhat like a Slavic version of Crocodile Dundee - met me through Customs. He'll be guiding me to Ashgabat, the capital, with a mix of mainly cycling and some driving. An ex-Soviet decathlon champion, a nice albeit impatient bloke, who gets very animated whenever the conversation moves onto hunting.
Staying in a so-called "resort hotel" tonight, about 20km further on from Turkmenbashi. Had a swim in the Caspian sea, and back to the hotel for a meal of sturgeon, and a sleepness night listening to really, really loud Europop being piped throughout the complex.
But it is nice at last to leave the logistics to someone else for a while. At least until Uzbekistan, anyway.

30 june, Thu: A pre-dawn start. This is to get finished by late morning before it gets impossibly hot. Nice, cycling in the semi-dark. By 6:30am I'd reached Turkmenbashi - two policemen drew alongside in their policecar and invited me (by the now familiar throat-flicking action) for a few shots of vodka! I politely declined, but it took a while before they finally gave up. Dima was always close by in the car and I was thinking it would be nice to have a bit of freedom. At the 35km point, after the checkpoint, he said "right - see you 60km down the road". Eeeek, I thought, all alone again...
The landscape was rock - just rock - and there was a hot climb to a plateau. Then arid scrubland for miles and miles. Met up with Dima about 10:30am - it was boiling hot by now, and the cycling day was over. Celebrated by a couple shots of cold vodka.
Drove a couple hundred km and then stopped the afternoon & night at his friend's house along the way. In the afternoon all you can do is sit still and perspire. "Plov" and camel's milk for dinner.
Distance: 96km (+200km by car). Overnight somewhere in TURKMENISTAN.

1st july, Fri: Drank a litre of water through the night and another before setting off. This place is hot. Dima mentioned that gas, water and electricity is free for all Turkmen citizens, and the people here have a reasonably high standard of living (thanks to the massive gas and oil reserves under the Karakum desert). Petrol costs a dollar for 60 litres. So people can buy cars with big engines and drive real fast (despite the terrible state of some of the roads). The quality of the television is dire - 4 state-controlled channels with continuous programs (in 8 languages) on the greatness of Turkmenistan and it's president (all visiting dignataries caught fawning over him due to some clever editing!).
Today's route was along a long straight road. With no craggy cliffs and nearby rocky outcrops I was able to clearly see the dawn - the coolness of the early morning, me and my bike, no traffic, and the sun rising over the desert to my left - quite beautiful. Enjoyable cycling, the road becoming a little greener with some agriculture on the left... and a massive mountain range on the right.
The locals are a little reticinent to talk to me compared to other countries - maybe they're concerned as to who might be watching (the many statues and bilboards of the president??) - but a couple of friendly blokes on a motorbike drew aside me for a while for a chat.
The last 20km were tough - hungry and the start of cramps (having sweated so much salt away). It was nice to get into Dima's air-conditioned car - tonight we're staying at his place and he has BBC World. Civilisation at last!
Distance: 120km.

2 july, sat: Sometimes I have to stop and remind myself - I'm actually cycling through Turkmenistan, my 12th country on this trip! And I haven't seen the inside of an office for over 4 months.
The road continued parallel with the mountain range to the south, but in some places - oasis towns - it became greener. I passed the biggest mosque in Asia, and after another hot period in the desert (and even hotter climb), I was approaching Ashgabat.
The road leading into Ashgabat over the last day is so clean and spotless. There are teams of women, covered head to toe, to protect them from the sun, with only a slit for their eyes. They are continually dusting the roads with brooms, tending the plants, painting and re-painting the verge...
Entering from the south (passing various massive pictures of Our Dear Leader) - Berzengi district - there was a pristine 6-lane highway, clear signs, big green grassy verges and a central reservation the width of a half a football field... and practically no cars. The few people actually on the streets were cleaning or painting the roads, watering the plants.... Dozens of beautiful marble-plated high-rise hotels on the edge of the desert, but by the looks of things, no guests! Clinically clean and souless.

From Ashgabat to Uzbekistan, I was to join three Swiss cyclists. Alex, Pascal and Evo soon arrived and we headed into town. They're a good laugh, and it was so nice at long last to meet some people on a similar wavelength to myself.
After stopping a Lada (which seem to be so out of place in this futuristic city!) and getting a ride into town, we were greeted with more clear wide boulevards, manicured lawns and parks - but almost no people! We also got a taste of the hobby that the president has of building monuments to himself. Gaudy with a touch of Lavish - a strange giant toilet-plunger shaped marble building (lit up with alternating flourescent green/pink/blue at night), the marble "Olympic Stadium" (pristine condition, but not a single person in the vicinity). It was difficult to take photos - as soon as you got your camera out, a soldier or policeman would demand you put it away - "no photos". Even outside the hotel, in the middle of nowhere, while waiting for a taxi, a car stopped and the guy inside (a policeman) told us to stop taking pictures of the hotels.
Arriving at the "Arch of Neutrality" (a tower with a gold-plated statue of the president perched on the top - which rotates with the sun!), the temperature was now 45 degrees in the shade. The view from the top of the Arch really brought it home that yes, this is a city built right in the middle of the desert.

Later, a couple of cool beers, a meal in a surprizingly good and bustling outdoor cafe - dancing, singing, a mixture of native Turkmen (the women in colourful simple one-piece dresses) and Russians (tight skirts, big hair).
Distance: 111km. Overnight in Ashgabat (Turkmenistan)

3 july, sun - rest day in ashgabat: The market in the desert on the outskirts of Ashgabat and a completely different scene. Not the Brave New World of the capital, but a busy, chaotic, sprawling, dusty maze of a market on a gigantic scale - this was Asia.
Hundreds of cars, trucks & buses - for sale, leading the way to the bazaars proper. Past the sweet stalls, chay shops, vegetable vendors, trinket shops and through the wall into the main area. Wow, it was hot. You could find anything here (but downgrade your expectations). Foods, clothes, carpets, cosmetics, watches, Lada parts (a lot of these)... I was disappointed to not see many camels and it was only afterwards we found out that the animal market was also here, but we didn't find it.
Back to the clinical precision of the show-house city centre, and a ride in a souped up Lada (leather seats, tinted windows, massively loud sound-system blasting out rap - which the driver switched temporarily to Turkmen music whenever we passed a policeman). Arrived in Landmark Park. A long long park with hundreds of fountains, green lawns, and the ubeqious monuments. After 8pm the temperature was bearable, and it was quite a pleasant walk.

4 july, mon: Oh boy oh boy oh boy. I am constantly finding out new definitions of hot. The representative of the agency that arranged the guide had popped by the hotel and had told us that no one travels in Turkmenistan during the summer. And especially no one cycles. Although we can escape the heat of the day by cycling from 5am to 10am, what do we do between 10am and nightfall, when temperatures reach 50 degress in the SHADE ?!
Today, we found a disused concrete bus shelter next to the road (in the middle of nowhere!), and sheltered under there from the sun, planning to sleep and set up camp later in the evening.
It was impossible to sleep - even the breeze felt like someone had opened an oven door in your face. Ridiculous. A few hours later the guide returned in his car with a couple of locals from the next village 10km away. Apparently they couldn't believe that anyone, nevermind tourists, would stay outside in this oppressive heat. They brought us coke, ice-cream and cold beer and were very insistant that we stay in an air-conditioned room they had in the village.
And that's where we stayed - at 35 degrees it was still warm, but a damm sight cooler than outside! The owner - a renowned local hunter - treated us to vodka and boar liver. "The vodka is good for your body", said Dima, the guide, after the 4th or 5th toast, "it's an antiseptic for the stomach". And we all drank to that.
Distance: 105km. Overnight in hunter's lodge (Turkmenistan)

5 july, tue: After another hot day we stopped at a tea-shop by a bridge, planning to camp under the shade of the bridge. Even under the shade, and with the breeze from the canal, it's unbearably hot at 11am. So we spent the next 9 hours in the tea-shop, in a cycle of sweating and drinking fanta. How on earth do people handle it here ?! Nighttime, however, despite the mosquitos, was quite pleasantly un-boiling-hot. Used the nice inside toilet next to the restaurant. The outdoor pit-toilet was a dark mass of loud, rustling movement.
Distance: 96km. Overnight under a bridge (Turkmenistan)

6 july, wed: Really, it's just too hot to write anything. As usual the first couple of hours were quite pleasant, even passing boughs of trees, before the furnace began. Instead of plumbing for an attractive camp-spot under the trees by a river (ooooh that would be hot very soon) we opted for a nearby tea-shop, a single fan and a fuzzy video of Dolf Lungren in Red Dragon, all the better for being dubbed into Russian.

The guide killed a "faranga" - the poisonous yellow spider native to Turkmenistan - which has been lurking in the corner of the room.
In the end we camped outside the tea-shop. The cheap corregated-iron and plasterboard construction had retained just enough heat to bake bread.
Distance: 78km. Overnight somewhere hot (Turkmenistan).

7 july, thu: I wish for a world without insects. I have moskito bites, ant-bites, bed-bug bites, mite-bites and various other blood-suckingn insect bites. And probably fleas as well. oh, and the number of flies here... as Pascal said, you feel like a horse with a ring of flies around your eye and in the corners of your mouth.
Set off with my stomach feeling a lot better than the day before - no doubt thanks to the antiseptic qualities of the vodka drank yesterday afternoon. Eating and drinking is not done in the most hygenic of conditions - a greasy mat to put most of the food on, vegetables washed in the nearby canal, etc - so it takes time for the body to adapt.
We covered 101km to Mary, passing small trees, scrubs, and the odd herd of camels. Tonight we're staying at the salubrious Sanjar Hotel - an Intourist special. Rooms a bit grubby (come on you bugs) but it does have air-conditioning. And a discoteque on the 2nd floor.
Distance: 101km. Overnight in Mary (Turkmenistan).

8 july, fri - Day off to visit Merv: Saw the ancient cities of Merv. Dima is very knowledgable about the history of the area, having accompanied so many archaeologicial expeditions, and he had some interesting points. The cradle of civilisation is taken as being Mesopotania, as established thinking goes. However, sites uncovered here, over 5000 years old, have shown signs of domesticated horses, carts, and some incredibly intricate golden vases, which may hold very important clues in their markings. However, excavations are dreadfully funded, and anything valuable is locked away - orders of the president - before any proper analysis can be done.
Only a few large walls, a mausoleum and the ruins of a few houses remain now - everything else destroyed by Mongols in the 15th century. The interest is in the details - symbols of Islam, Zoatraism, Buddism, Christian, and Jewish symbols all appear in nominally Islamic structures, showing how all religions had prospered here once.

In the afternoon I broke, and finally bought an English copy of "Rukhnama" - the book written by the president, apparently extorting Turkmen values, history and the semi-mystical life of the president himself. It's compulsory teaching in all schools, two lessons a week, and you have to pass a test on it to enter University. I won't comment anymore...
The evening: discoteque, Soviet style. A single white strobe, a few randomly placed loud speakers, a roof and four walls. The bare essentials. And a fair number of young ladies. Whether they were regular guests or "working girls" we couldn't figure out. (The next day our guide put us right on this: "of course they are working. $10 for the night. $15 for a good one...".

9 july, sat: Staying one of the only two tea-houses in the stretch of desert between Mary and Turkmenabat. A long day - 11:30 when we arrived here, the last 60km through complete desert; interesting change of landscape - sandy dunes, shrub, and some areas covered with stringy trees (their roots are 40m deep apparently). And an undulating road.
We rented an air-conditioner from the village for the room. As soon as it was installed three village boys rushed in, threw themselves on the floor, and immediately fell asleep.
Distance: 120km. Overnight in tea house (Turkmenistan).

10 july, sun: The combination of 2 bottles of vodka, a couple of "Baltika No 7" beers, a late-night, early start, strong headwind and nothing but desert does not make for swift enjoyable cycling.
It was slow-going and very very tough, with the strongest headwind I've encountered since Azerbaijan. At 60km, Pascal and myself stopped at the teahouse (the only one for 140km), and decided to look for a lift. There was no alternative - at this rate we would arrive in Turkmenabat mid-afternoon, the time when even camels curl up and die in these conditions. There was only one car going our way, but apparently, we would first have to drink a huge amount of vodka with the driver. It was 10am.
Reluctantly we set off on our bikes, with the intention of getting a lift on the road. 15km later we got picked up by a truck. It was an old truck, and the driver had to yank the steering wheel hard to the left and then hard to the right just to keep it in a straight line. Oh, but it was nice to see the desert fly by at 60km/h rather than 15... we covered 50km by truck before being let off a few miles before the police checkpoint. Our guide was not happy.
Distance: 90km (plus 50km by truck). Overnight in Turkmenabat.


11 july, mon: UZBEKISTAN!
Another ridiculously strong headwind again today. After crossing a dodgy army-built floating bridge (with sections at different heights to each other) and a ride to the border-post, and a couple of hours there, we were finally in Uzbekistan!

First impressions were not great - the howling wind, the derelict frames of buildings and arid landscape for miles shouted "desolation". But made it to the first town, Alat, and convinced a friendly tea-shop owner to let us have a room above the restaurant. This would be a relaxing afternoon, one for recuperation.... Or so I thought.
In reality, this was the prelude to My Day of Hell. After the afternoon nap, I woke up feeling funny, and was immediately violently sick infront of the restaurant (I don't think the owner could have been too happy about that..). Then behind it. And then the usual rushed visits to the communal village toilet. Miserable.
Distance: 63km. Overnight in Alat (UZBEKISTAN).

12 july, tue:
Most of today was a painful dizzy haze culminating in me reaching a 41 degree fever and a rushed bedside visit by a doctor.

I had woken up feeling rough and not really recovered from last night, but thought I could push on as far as Bukhara with the Swiss and properly recover there. But after 10km it really hit me and I could barely stay on the bike. I caught up with the rest of the guys 15km later at a petrol stand, and then got a "taxi" the rest of the way. Just lifting the bike into the car took a supreme effort. The car swerved madly across all lanes narrowly avoiding donkeys, carts, pedestrians and other vehicles, while the driver kept barking questions at me in Russian, and occasionally skidding to a sudden halt when it looked like I might throw up.
Somehow made it to the hotel, collapsed on the bed and woke up with my body boiling hot to the touch. I crawled out and begged for a doctor before collapsing...
Distance: 25km (plus 50km by taxi). Overnight in Bukhara (Uzbekistan).

13 july, wed: That was pretty fightening yesterday, and not something I plan to repeat. The doctor checked up on me again this morning - I was much better and even ventured outside later in the afternoon. The hotel is in the pretty "old town" part of the city, near the Lyabi Hauz - a central pool of water surrounded by mulberry trees and waterside restaurants, with a grand old blue tiled medress on either side. Lots of old brick buildings, covered bazaars, old mosques and a minaret with good views over the city (everything the colour of sand). This was once used to push people to their death.
It's a very pleasant place to spend a few days. Spotted a group of Japanese pulling around a guitar and amplifier on a cart. I bet it's related to some Japanese TV program. Maybe I can get myself featured ??..

Return to top of page To next page