A Travellerspoint blog

Crossing the desert

sunny 38 °C

So the first part of the "real" Silk Road from ancient Merw onwards passes the Garagum desert perpendicularly to reach Turkmenabat and the Amuderya river plain. We crossed the 180km desert stretch in two days and it required some guesswork from the map and a good provision of water bottles to get from one supply point to the next. To make things a little more complicated, some of the settlements didn't have a shop, other supply points were closed and yet others had practically nothing to sell. The only companions are the frequent Iranian trucks carrying cars to Uzbekistan, speedy (and dangerous) cars on the straight road, the railway line in the distance and plenty of insects on and above the ground. The Repetek natural reserve about at about half way preserves the zemzem, a threatened desert crocodile feeding on snakes, but luckily we encountered neither.
And because the the supply points (called Kafe) didn't really offer much of a choice for eating and drinking, I managed to spoil my stomach on the last day in Turkmenistan with a portion of manty, the Asian ravioli, here prepared with goat meat that I have found fairly difficult to digest for a while already. The goat meat is present in all of the common meat dishes (besides manty also the meat pies called somsa, soup corba and the omnipresent shashlyk). Hot vegetable dishes are practically non-existent and the salads contain their own health risks caused by poor hygiene. Anyway, it will take me some time to regain my appetite for meat, and leaving Turkmenistan after 16 days and 1300 km of cycling let's me hope for better times.
About eating, there is a simple dilemma: if you can't understand the menu of the day for linguistic reasons, you have to go into the kitchen of the facility (to call these places restaurants just doesn't meet the common definition of the word) and check what they have. Both smell and sight destroy your appetite immediately but of course you have to agree to an emergency solution, because cyclists need quite a bit of energy...
One way to relief problems with food hygiene is vodka but the effect is possibly more mental than physical. Unlike some of the truck drivers we met we stick to the rule:

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Courtesy 9C, Kulosaari Secondary School, Helsinki

When getting to the Uzbek border after Turkmenabat, it is saying good bye to a weird country, plastered with gilded statues of nation-builder president [i]Niyazov, his Ruhnama quotations on all roadsides (of course I couldn't read them but their display did nothing to raise my interest in the Turkmen language) oversized images of his successor, backward technology, rapidly devaluating already nearly worthless money coming in huge bundles and hopefully to excessive heat and poor food...

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Getting drink and making our contribution to the irrigation of the desert

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Camels and barchan dunes in the evening sun

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Money doesn't fit into wallet. For 50 dollars US you become a millionaire in Turkmenistan

GPS track and photos of the desert between Merw and Turkmenabat: http://www.everytrail.com/view_trip.php?trip_id=25360

Track of entire route through Turkmenistan (1461 km): http://www.everytrail.com/view_trip.php?trip_id=26826

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Posted by Lent 07:06 Archived in Turkmenistan Comments (1)

Merw

sunny 41 °C
View Route Olympia - China on Lent's travel map.

The ruins of Merw are a bit tricky to make sense of because unlike Troy the different historical layers are not peeled off like an onion but rather form a network of clusters next to each other. This makes the entire site a huge area that is impossible to explore on foot, but on a guided bicycle tour over more than 10 kilometres the remains starting from the first millennium BC easily come to life. When Alexander the Great conquered the city in the 4th century he already found a prosperous trading place and it is easy to coolect potsherds and even entire coins from the oldest part of the site, the Erg Kala, a circular complex, surrounded by a fortification 100 metres strong at its base.

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Potsherds in Erg Kala

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The entire complex is quite well visible in Google Maps. Track and photos of the sightseeing tour: http://www.everytrail.com/view_trip.php?trip_id=20402

Posted by Lent 06:39 Archived in Turkmenistan Comments (0)

Hotter

sunny 42 °C
View Route Olympia - China on Lent's travel map.

In Mary, SW-Turkmenistan, I managed to slip into an Internet-Cafe to cover the unbearably hot afternoon hours. Internet is a fairly recent arrival in Turkmenistan (most people don't even understand the word) and public access is only possible in official "Kafes" that exist in connection with post offices in the larger towns. Control is exercised furthermore through passport deposit and dubious filters that are activated upon e.g. uploading picture files. Temperature since Ashgabat is now rising over 40 degrees every day and even local people find this a little hot for the season.
So during the eventless last four days we try to get on to the road as early as possible and cover as many kilometres as possible to find a good cayhana (teahouse and restaurant) to have lunch and then a long and refreshing nap in one of these eating and sleeping ancoves.

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This truck with a Coca-Cola and Fanta load did not stop because of thirsty cyclists but because of a breakdown. This is a common view along roadsides in Turkmenistan.

Before Mary we touched the Iranian border and slowly the Kopet Dag mountains receded and gave way to the more fertile plain of the Murgap river flowing down from Afghanistan and fading away in the desert sands. From here the road distance to Afghanistan would be appr. 300 km and from the same southern direction practically all of the water is received that is now used to irrigate the wheat and cotton fields in the area.In Mary we join the actual Silk Road which is a collective term for a number of routes leading from the Mediterranean to China. One main branch started in Syria, crossed Mesopotamia and the Highlands of Iran and then entered the desert in the old oasis town of Merw preceding the modern city of Mary 30 km to the west of the present day ruins.

So from here 30 more kilometres to ancient Merv that bears so much archeological evidence of the once prosperous overland trade relationships.

Check the GPS track and a couple of photos on http://www.everytrail.com/view_trip.php?trip_id=20277

Posted by Lent 03:35 Archived in Turkmenistan Comments (0)

Hot

sunny 35 °C
View Route Olympia - China on Lent's travel map.

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Moving further southeastwards along the Kopet Dag mountains, clouds and rain have now definitely gone away and made room for temperatures far over 30 degrees. Somehow against my expectations also the nighttime temperatures are quite warm despite a clear sky. Camping in the desert is an experience!
Approaching the capital city of Ashgabat, agriculture becomes more diverse: besides irrigated cereal crops there are now also orchards for growing grapes. The nearby mountains contain some sulphurous springs (in Kow-Ata we could swim in an underground thermal lake) and so the presidential summer residence was built next to a health resort in Arcman. Interestingly, after Arcman the road changes into a wide motorway turning also our cycling into a presidential (if not royal) event becauce biking on an almost empty motorway beats everything you can ever experience on the most developed cycle track networks in countries like the Netherlands or Germany.

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Closer to Ashgabat it is possible to visit the national symbols of the Turkmens ancient and modern. Goekdepe is the site of the defeat against the Russians in the 19th century and has therefore been chosen as the spot for a gigantic modern Mosque in memory of the president's pilgrimage (Haj) to Mekka in 1992. But unlike the manifestation of religious revival in Georgia (see entry More sightseeing in Tblisi) the building doesn't seem to be designed for people. At least there was nobody around except a policemen guiding us to the entrance of this huge structure....

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Under the independence tower in Ashgabat

For GPS track Turkmenbashy to Ashgabat with a few more photos: http://www.everytrail.com/view_trip.php?trip_id=19274

P.S.: Roaming with my mobile phone is not possible in Turkmenistan. I hope that this will change in Uzbekistan after May 2. Next update of this blog very likely not before Buchara. It is very difficult to find Internet places around here.

Posted by Lent 22:09 Archived in Turkmenistan Comments (0)

Garagum

Aridity and water

semi-overcast 25 °C
View Route Olympia - China on Lent's travel map.

While the first three days in the Garagum ("black sands") were desert experience pure with a mostly yellowish (though hazy because of the weather) wide-stretching horizon and occasional camels on and some very basic service facilities (Cayhana) for supply of tea and pies stuffed with minced goat meat, the scenery changes eastwards of Gazanjyk where the Garagum Canal ends that diverts water from the Amu Darya river for a thousand kilometres along the Kopet Dag mountains and is used for irrigation and drinking water supply (which in Turkmenistan is free of charge).
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An interesting sight on the way was the Paraw Bibi Shrine, a popular sanctuary in honor of a virtuous young women that lived in the 11th century. Certainly we're in a muslim country, but the shrine seems only superficially islamized and the merchandise sold to the pilgrims at is really quite similar to some of the European Catholic Mary shrines. With the Iranian border just over the hill top one can see that life in Turkmenistan is affected, but surely not determined by Islam. This is also true in comparison with Turkey, a country that appears as the main sponsor for the now independent Turkmen nation in economic, religious and cultural matters. There is a mosque here and there, but no prayer calls are to be heard anywhere and unlike in Turkey women dress in a colorful way.

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School kids in Gazanjyk

Posted by Lent 22:09 Archived in Turkmenistan Comments (2)

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