Turkmenistan is one of those countries that most people know almost nothing about and probably couldn’t place on a map and that was certainly true for us, but it’s also a super important country for long distance cyclists because it’s the only reasonable gateway to Central Asia and the Pamir Highway (sorry Afghanistan but you really need to sort yourself out before cyclists decide to go your way!) and so a must go if you want to avoid planes or boats.
In this entry we’ll be sharing with you our thoughts on this controversial country from a cycling point of view and at the bottom we’ll also include heaps of technical and practical information aimed at those who are considering the trip across from Sarakhs to Turkmenabat.
Years ago, while preparing this trip, we already knew that if we wanted to cycle through Iran and along The Pamir, we would undoubtedly have to undertake the strenuous challenge of crossing Turkmenistan; 500 kilometres of gray desert (that’s the really boring kind by the way!) with very few or no villages about and strong headwinds. The greatest thing about it all? In the best case scenario you only get a 5 days transit Visa!
You see, Turkmenistan’s government doesn’t really like its people to mingle with others, if you know what I mean, and is, in fact, the second “most closed” country after North Korea which results in a pretty unique destination, as we will describe a little later.
So, of course, the first challenge is to get the Visa. There is an embassy in Tehran and a consular office in Mashhad. The former is well known for being less than friendly with anyone who moves and/or breathes so we decided to go for the latter. It was actually easy to get ours over there but apparently it’s a lottery with up to 50% of applicants being rejected.
Entering the country is quite simple, you just show up at the border, get all your bags scanned, have a not very effective medical examination, pay additional entry fees because you’re a foreigner (isn’t that included in the 75$ we paid for the Visa?) and that’s it!
In the first hour of being there we got checked again twice and then we discovered the first reality of this land; it’s empty. Apart from a few villages here and there and two small cities (more on those later) we saw nothing. Oh, camels, we bumped into some of those too.
Just across the border there’s a small town. Cycling through it we quickly realised that 3 months of Iran were over and we had just entered a totally different world! Everything was so different, refreshing actually, and soon some friendly guys asked us if we wanted a drink! Alcohol! But being responsible, grown cyclists we refused; it was already 12 and we had done only 10 kilometres (Iranian officials held us up for over 2 hours and then there’s the time change…)
The first 50 kilometres were a blast! We cycled along a small road with zero traffic and green pastures with little yellow and purple flowers everywhere, and then it happened; mud! It had rained heavily the night before and deep, sticky mud invaded our wheels and the mudguards made our lives impossible. We lost a lot of time and night fell upon us.
The problem with having only 4 days to cycle 500 kilometres in adverse conditions is that you don’t have time to do anything else but cycle. We’re sure that’s the reason why they only issue 5 days Visa. This result, of course, is that there is absolutely no sightseeing, no local food tasting and definitely no people meeting going on.
But that first night, cycling in pitch dark conditions and focusing on the fact that we still had about 2 hours of pedaling to do if we wanted to reach our objective, a car pulled up next to us and we managed (thanks to Jakob and his Polish inheritance) to get an invitation to a Turkmen’s house!
After reading our blog entry about Iran (did you???), this might seem trivial but actually, after having spent countless hours researching this country from a cycling point of view, it’s the first time we hear someone being hosted by a local so you can imagine how thrilled we were!
A few days later, by the way, while standing at 10pm outside a mosque in Turkmenabat, we would understand why locals don’t usually host. Please stay tuned…
The farmer in question lived just a few hundred metres away and we gladly pulled into his drive, washed our hands and faces, as it is custom, and made ourselves comfortable on the floor of his small living room (and future bedroom),but not before ridding our bikes of the built up mud.
We spent a great evening in company of fabulous people and had alcohol for the first time in almost 4 months; locally distilled Turkmen vodka!
Amazingly enough, next day we managed to have a another great encounter with locals; the owner of a restaurant where we had a quick dinner. She tried to help us find a cheap place to stay that night and eventually ended up inviting us to her house where she treated us like royalty and where we discovered Central Asia showers for the first time, and loved it!
The following two days were pretty boring in the sense that we just pedaled 120 kilometres daily, ate, and wondered how can a great road quickly become a huge pile of crap.
Our arrival to Turkmenabat took place on a Friday night, so everyone was driving under the influence of alcohol (ok not everyone, just 99%), and we struggled to find a place to sleep. We tried the mosque but found Turkmen Islamic hospitality is massively crippled by their strict political leaders whose policies aim at reducing the contact between foreigners and locals.
Never mind, we’re resourceful people right? We decided that asking the police for a safe place to camp was a good strategy and, astonishingly, it worked! In a turn of events which left us gobsmacked, they checked us in a hotel for free!
Something that we learned while there is that, similarly to Mary (a city in the centre of the country), downtown Turkmenabat is just a façade city to show the outside world that this is a rich and modern world; pharaonic but empty and disused buildings line the immaculate boulevards and everything is well lit while in the rural areas there are power shortages which last for days …
All that was left was to do was reach the border at the other side of the river (here the road became as smooth as silk once again) and get stamped out!
Our overall experience was a very positive one. Apart from the mud disaster of day one, everything went smoothly and, as always, we had the chance to meet friendly and warm-hearted local people.
It’s a pity that we never got the chance to spend more time in Turkmenistan, I’m sure that we would have met a lot more great people, got a chance to taste local food and culture and would have left with a tiny bit of all of that in our hearts.
For those who are considering taking this exact same itinerary or are just interested in what happened to us in more details, here’s a more detailed picture of what happened while there;
Day 1; 6th March 2019 – 84.8kms, 5:26 Hours (15.59 km/h average speed).
Arrival at the border on the Iranian side at 7am sharp but they tell us “in 1 hour”. Great. We take the time to do some bike maintenance. At 08:15 we are invited inside and after a while an English-speaking worker asks us to remove all bags and pass them through the scanner. At around 9 we are interrogated by a Customs official and his translator. They do not speak to Aurelie and ask me questions about her instead. It seems that they cannot speak to her. A Swede who is travelling with us lets out that he has made many friends and they quickly jump on that horse and spend over an hour interrogating him about this and want to know their telephone numbers and Instagram accounts. He doesn’t give them any but they do go through his phone. A good strategy to avoid this is to say that in your phone you have pictures of your girlfriend or female relatives and they cannot see them.
Turkmen side, we were asked to remove all bags again (both times the frame bag containing tools and spare parts goes unnoticed), undergo a “medical examination”; our temperature is taken electronically and names of football players from our countries are called out, pictures taken, paid a 10$ tax each for being foreigners (I’m sure that’s what the Visa is for) and another 4$ each for unknown reasons. We tried to debate both these taxes but no way around them. Fun fact; we used the receipt from these two taxes to wipe our butts and then sent the picture to Turkmenistan’s Foreign Affairs Ministry…
Just outside the building a group of friendly currency changers approached us and tried to sell us some Turkmen Manat at the official rate but we had previously checked the black market rate online and negotiated a deal with them. We changed 20$ which was enough for the whole crossing for 4 people (we had lots of food in our panniers that we bought in Iran).
A car stopped us 1 kilometres from the border and we got our documents checked again. We turned right at the first crossroad (it’s also possible to take a shortcut through the train station, there’s a little path and a crossing) and headed towards the P-9. A few kilometres after Karaman there is a roadblock (there’s one at the border with every different regional jurisdiction) and they kept us waiting until we got tired and asked for our passports back which they simply handed over.
We noticed a few little shops in Karaman, people selling fish out of their car trunks and a couple of small restaurants.
There is absolutely nothing on this road and at km 50 the tarmac deteriorated and became a big sea of mud because it had rained heavily during the night. We lost lots of time because of this and realised we wouldn’t make it to Hanhowuz, where we planned to spend the first night, and started scouting for a place to pitch the tent. By this time it was pitch dark though and the ground on either side of the road is agricultural i.e. muddy. Luckily a farmer invited us in, fed us and even gave us a taste of Vodka.
This was about 3kms before the bridge which crosses the Qaraqum Canal. Just before the bridge there is also a small shop selling bread and very little more.
Day 2; 7th March 2019 – 123 Kms, 7:41 Hours (16.04 km/h average speed).
Next morning we set off at sunrise, had bad road again until the crossroad with the M37 and from there to Bayramaly the tarmac is immaculate.
Side note about Hanhowuz; we saw a small roadside shop and nothing else. Shouldn’t be relied on for getting serious supplies.
Side note about this road; although we got unlucky with the mud, if I had to go back I would still choose the same way! Apart from being a lot shorter than the main road, the total lack of cars was just amazing and we also got some sneak peaks of country life in Turkmenistan.
Mary is a big centre with many shops and even a couple of supermarkets but we just had a short break next to some huge, empty looking buildings (even the locals don’t know what they are), snacked while meeting some locals and left for Bayramaly where we found a big supermarket next to a very nice and cheap Turkish restaurant whose owner (the friendliest lady ever) even speaks good English and found us a place to stay.
Day 3; 8th March 2019 – 103 Kms, 6:33 Hours (15.81km/h average speed).
Next morning we set off early again, went back to the main road and found it in terrible condition. The asphalt is old and worn with many pot holes but we were able to maintain a reasonable average speed.
Apart from a couple of very convenient petrol stations with small shops there is nothing on this stretch until Turkmenabat so it’s important to stock up in Mary or Bayramaly because those are a tough couple of hundred kilometres. Supposedly, in summer it’s possible to find cold water in these but we wouldn’t rely on that with my life! We managed to find a camping spot in someone’s garden in a village called Razyezd N°57. We asked a lady who was just hanging outside her house, we waited 2 minutes for her husband to return, he agreed and that was it. We never saw them again. We were actually hoping to spend some time with them but the plan failed.
Day 4; 9th March 2019 – 125 Kms, 8:07 Hours (15.40 km/h average speed).
We set off just after sunrise hoping that the road would improve as we got closer to Turkmenabat and it did, literally 5 kilometres before the city, near the airport.
Good news is that there is a huge chunk of unfinished highway, closed to traffic, which is great because, frankly, everyone in Turkmenistan drives way over the speed limit and not everyone knows about safety distances. We even had a few drivers coming the other way getting way too close for no apparent reason! The tarmac there wasn’t better than on its parallel counterpart but, as we previously mentioned, at least we were the only ones…
We arrived to Turkmenabat after sunset and tried to find a room in one of many B&Bs found on maps.me but never managed to find any of them ! Having spent 3 months in Iran we decided to try our luck at the huge mosque just next to the stadium but a young guy who offered his house was quickly taken away by some other guys and when he came back he told us that he was informed that he couldn’t host foreigners and left. We tried to convince the Imam to let us camp in their huge garden or parking lot but he refused; it’s impossible to camp anywhere on federal grounds.
We decided to head out of the city to some camping spot near the big bridge over the river Amu Daria that we saw on iOverlander but on our way there we saw a big police road block, decided to take our chances and asked them about a place where we could camp near the city.
Their initial reaction was to point towards a hotel. In Turkmenabat the minimum price is 20$ per person so we told them that we don’t have enough money. They then proposed escorting us to the border, about 30 kilometres away, where we could camp without any issue but we refused saying that it was already almost 11 at night and we had already cycled 125 kilometres. They started talking to each other and radioing someone so we waited. After a few minutes they told us to follow them so we did. We went to the end of the town and stopped outside Turkmenabat Hotel.
Initially we were told by the police that we could camp in their garden but once inside the manager refused. We explained the situation and after almost an hour, and several phone calls later, we were kindly offered a room for free.
We finally went to bed at around 1am, tired, but still gobsmacked at what had just happened, and we unanimously decided to set a late alarm for next morning.
Day 5; 10th March 2019 – 30 Kms, 2 Hours (15km/h average speed (up to the border)).
The border is only 31 kilometres away on the main road but we decided to take a short-cut through some villages. Not so much for the slightly shorter way but more for the change of scenery; we were a bit sick of the main road.
Arrived at 2 p.m. during the guards lunch break but soon after we were led through. Once inside a form was filled, bags were scanned (again no-one paid attention to our frame bag), a picture was taken and the passport was stamped. There was a Turkmen guide with some foreigners whose English was pretty good so, using his help, I tried to find out what those famous extra 4$ were for and if there was any way of getting them back but no chance, the guards played stupid and the guide advise me to forget about it (and actually gave me the idea of wiping my bum with the slip).
If you enjoyed reading about Turkmenistan and would like to watch a great video about our time spent there. Here’s a link you should definitely click on; https://youtu.be/AUkOYaHXiF8
Apart from that, we also have an amazing YouTube channel with lots of different videos (in lots of different styles) from the road; 421adventure on YouTube
And please don’t forget that part of our adventure consists of fundraising and raising awareness for two incredible NGOs so please help us to spread the word and, of course, if you’re feeling generous, donate here; DONATE