Stranded. Millions of stars are above my head. Many more than the German night sky wanted me to believe. The milky way is clearly visible - it's stunning! Two shepherds have settled next to my tent on the otherwise desolate field. The kettle is boiling tea in the open fire while one of the men is lighting up his Tariak (sort of opium as far as I'm concernced). An approaching predator suddenly interrupts the perfect silence. The sheep get nervous as they see the cat-like animal coming closer. The men jump onto their feet and chase the predator away. That's when I decide to call it a night and start walking back to my tent. The entry is already filled with sand as I enter. Thus ends my last night in Iran.
Only that this wasn't the last night. When I tried to enter into Turkmenistan the next morning, there seemed to be a problem at the border. After waiting for two hours I got told that the Turkmen government had closed the Bajgiran border crossing. The reason: Irani and Turkmen soldiers are re-building the road? Bullshit! Anyway, in the meantime three Australians participating in the Mongol Ralley (a car challenge from London to Mongolia, to be done with a tiny car), had arrived and we decided to try another border post together. So we loaded my bicycle onto the roof of the Fiat Panda and went directly to Loftabad - just to find out that this border got also closed a few hours ago.
This way I already lost one day of my five-day transit-visa for Turkmenistan. We got stranded at the border post for the night and with us were five other British cars from the Mongol-Ralley as well as hundreds of trucks. The time passed by, playing cricket and watching robots fight each other on the laptop. A Turkish truck driver told us: 'It's only an adventure when you look back on it' - he was right. At that moment we were all pissed of by the Turkmen government. But in retrospect it truly was an adventure to get stuck at an international border. And there were many more adventures to come.
The next morning, Turkmenistan decided to open the border again. But since the Loftabad-crossing was normally just for trucks, nobody had a real idea what to do with all the foreigners in their cars and on their bicycle. It took me three hours to get through all the controls. And it seemed like every person working at the border had a look at my passport - even the janitor. At one point I was taken into a tiny room and before I even realized what was going on, a man pointed a machine looking like a gun onto my forehead and pulled the trigger! - my body temperature was at 36 degrees. Normal.
Afterwards I was free to enter the desert, that is Turkmenistan, during the midday-heat. Since four days are way too less to cycle the 700Km across the desert, I took a shared taxi to the city of Mary. Looking through the car window, I saw camels moving through oasis. In the distance hundreds of small sandstorms were raising dust into the air like fountains. The scenery looked like another planet and suddenly I felt the need of cycling in this wasteland.
It was clear from the beginning that I will only get a short transit visa for Turkmenistan. And that's how I always thought of that country - as a transit state with nothing much to see. But I was wrong. This hardly known half-dictatorship in the Karakum-desert is a truly fascinating country with lovely people always with a smile on their lips. Once again it was just the stupid government that pissed me off at the border - the common people are great! Even the border personnel and the military was always friendly and helpful.
The men of Turkmenistan won my heart with their black humour and the women won my heart through their sheer beauty. With their colorful traditional dresses and headscarfs I felt like being on a never-ending Reggae-Festival. The whole country also won my heart through its rich history. Cycling through the ancient town of Merv ( a 4,000-year old oasis!) was one of the best things of this journey so far. Arriving their at sunset I had the whole deserted area all for myself. It felt unbelievably great. (Plus, it was the third time after Cappadocia and Armenian stonehenge that I camped inside an historic area).
I guess the only negative experience I had in this country was, when that drunken Turkmen guy was licking my eyeball. WHAT? Okay, maybe I should explain this story to you: After arriving in Turkmenabat, a grain of sand was blown into my left eye and stayed there for about 20 hours where it was giving me horrible pain. Later that day, I met two friendly men in a bar. With my eyesight at just 50% I couldn't really see how drunk they were as they offered me help with the sand grain. Well, the help consisted of firing half a bottle of eye drops into my left eye. For one whole minute I was experiencing extraordinary pain and when I could finally open my eyes again it was too late to realize that one of the guys tongue was moving directly towards my eyeball. I don't know what he was thinking but the next second was probably the most disgusting second in my whole life. I had to push him aside, shout 'What the Fuck!' and run to the sink to wash my eyeball for the next 30 minutes, all while trying hard not to vomit. The next morning, I could hardly open my eye at all (see the pictures down below).
The Turkmen-Uzbek border was another pain in the ass. My bags got checked several times, including a closer look at my literature, medicaments and personal things like pictures I have taken. One military guy even tried to get a bribe from me but his tactic was so bad that it was very easy for me to turn him down. It was more like begging. He said: 'Do you have a present for me? Like 10 manat?' So I asked him: 'What for?' He answered: 'Because you don't have a Turkmen exit stamp in your passport.' Me, pointing at the clearly visible exit stamp: 'Here it is.' After an awkward moment of silence he was apologizing to me and let me pass.
To reach the historic Silkroad-city Bukhara, it was another 100Km of desert. The continuous headwind was blowing the sand constantly into my face. Several layers of dirt have accumulated on my skin after 8 days without a possibility to take a shower. The temperature once again hit 45 degrees in the shade. It's interesting to what your body can get accostumed to. Cycling in these temperatures in Germany would have killed me - after one month in this heat in the Middle East and in Central Asia it is kind of normal to me. When it finally cools down to 37 degrees after 7pm, it feels like heaven.
Due to some bad planning I ran out of money shortly after the border crossing. No big deal - I invested my last S'om in five liters of water and cycled the last day to Bukhara without eating. Arriving in this touristy place I would get fresh money out of the ATM and have a big feast. At least that was the plan. Reality was much worse. All the ATMs in town are just working with Visa-Cards. There is only one bank in the whole city that can give me money from my Mastercard. But I forgot my PIN-code for that card since I actually only used my Bank-card until now. How did I even get so far without knowing the PIN-Code of my credit card? Doesn't matter. I had to call my father in Germany to unlock the credit card. Until then the bank in Uzbekistan had already closed.
Shit. I am in Uzbekistan without money, without food and without water. Without knowing a single person in this town. But somehow I managed to survive: I had to trade my pocket-knife for a dinner and could sleep at a family's home by promising them to pay them the next day. They even bathed me and combed my hair (something I didn't do for the last 10 years or so).
What I just described may have been the craziest week in my entire life. Central Asia is unpredictable. Anything can happen at any time, you never know. But I like it here.
In my next article I will write about the unbelievable beauty and the historical value of Bukhara and Samarkand. There will be pictures as well so stay tuned.