Where are we? Right, we’re in a tent just southwest of Dargaz, northeastern Iran. Yesterday we failed to cross the border to Turkmenistan in time. Then, after a long search, we found a pretty good camping spot just off a mountain road.
A sound very close to my head has woken me up. It seems that some animal is scrunching on plants. It’s still dark and with the reassuring thought that the animal must be a herbivore and we are not plants, I try to fall asleep again. But aren’t bears…? Nah… Zzzz.
We wake up again at 6:30am when a car drives up the steep path past our tent. We’re left alone again, so that’s good. Because there are no trees around and we had to set up tent quickly yesterday, we’ve got a prime spot in the morning sun, burning us out of our tent sooner than we want. Breakfast with porridge, bread, jam and tea. Packing takes long. By the time we reach Dargaz again to get some more provisions, it’s quite late already.
Thankfully, the border crossing is not far. Then again, every border crossing is really two border crossings with formalities on both sides. We don’t know how long this one is going to take but it helps to expect it to last all day, so we can only be pleasantly surprised if it doesn’t. Anyway, with enough food and water we’re prepared in case it does take all day.
A group of fixers is already waiting at the Iranian side of the border. They have probably decided unanimously that it’s the turn of the skinny wrinkled chain smoker with only two lower front teeth left in his mouth. We’ve improved on ignoring people like him but when he sees our Carnets de Passages he starts minding our business. Petra shoos him away for some added humiliation but it seems that he hasn’t given up yet. We take our valuables off the motorcycles and walk to the counter in the outside wall of the first building.
With our passports, vehicle paper and the Carnets in hand, all goes quite quickly. Ratface is still standing around, trying to get our attention. With him on my right side and Petra on my left I make a quarter turn toward her so he is hit by my well-filled backpack. Smack! Ooh, this is fun!
The officer on duty asks us to bring the bikes onto the customs’ compound, so he can compare the frame numbers with our Carnets. While waiting for some more formalities at the ridiculously small and low window, we’re still bothered by the rodent. He is still on my right side but has learned quickly to keep bit of distance, just in case I decide to make another quarter turn. Then I make another quarter turn and “miss” him. That’s solved easily by taking a firm step backwards. With another backpack on his whiskers he’s got the message and scampers off to his buddies. In less than ten minutes and using only few words. Not bad.
The officer hops on his own motorcycle now and takes us to the actual Carnet Man over a very dusty unpaved road through a huddle of parked trucks. Carnet Man says we need to get exit stamps in our passports first. So we visit Stamp Man who is 100m away in a sort of trailer with a counter on one side. He asks us where we’re from. Mentally, I quickly go through the possible answers:
a pasture in the mountains
the Big Bang
Not knowing the official’s mood, sense of humor and affinity with physics I opt for “the Netherlands”. We give him our passports and then his colleague asks us where the other 22 Dutch are. We don’t know what on earth he is talking about so I answer “It’s just me and my wife, not the entire football team!” That is good for a laugh and two exit stamps. Carnet Man takes fifteen minutes to process our paperwork and we’re free to go on that same dusty road to our first ‘Stan.
After a quick passport check by military in green camouflage dress and matching hat, we arrive at the Turkmen customs building. Another soldier of barely 20 years old asks where we’re from and I choose the same answer as before. He welcomes us and shakes my hand. Things are really speeding up now. With our papers in hand, he visits several counters for different formalities, each time moving the crowd of locals aside for our high priority case. We simply follow him around, a bit baffled to be honest. We’re either just very lucky to find someone this service-oriented or he’s a very well prepared fixer.
We’ve got transit visa, allowing us to cross Turkmenistan in five days of which there are four days left because we lost yesterday. We’re not sure how strict they are with the dates. Upon asking, our green assistant says we have five days to cross. Our visa will expire in four days, so we’re not taking any chances. I wouldn’t feel like a long chat at the country’s exit to explain why we over-staid our visa and/or having to bribe our way out.
The route that we’re allowed to take is marked on a map that we need to carry with the rest of our papers. We’re not supposed to stray from this route. It’s all quite easy because there is only one major transit road across the country, from the Caspian Sea to Türkmenabat. The capital Aşgabat would have been on our original route, but we’re almost one-hundred km (60 mi) east of it already at this alternative border crossing. We explain that we’d like to go west to Aşgabat tonight and follow the transit route east tomorrow so we can rest in a comfortable hotel and don’t need to ride another 275km (170mi) east to the city of Mary in the dark tonight. The officer is susceptible to our arguments and extends our route to Aşgabat (for free).
We also need to pay for vehicle insurance and a fuel surcharge based on today’s temperature and wind direction, probably. At some point our aide disappears behind the counters for a while and we’re left with his colleague for some chatting about our travels. Meanwhile, Petra is asked by a tour guide whether we are The Dutch. Well, we’re Dutch but probably not the ones he’s waiting for. It all becomes clear who The Dutch are and what the Iranians meant by “the other 22 Dutch” when twenty-three Dutch students and a camera man enter the building.
The group is the Storm Wave Team from Eindhoven University of Technology where I got my master’s degree! What a coincidence that we get to meet here today on this border! They are on an 80-days-around-the-world tour with the prototype of an electrical touring motorcycle they’ve developed. Their tour is thoroughly planned and customs and immigration officials have been notified beforehand. We also understand why we got the privileged treatment from the customs officer.
Instead of dropping us like a brick now that the real Dutch have arrived, the officer sticks to our case until we’re done with our paperwork and we progress to the luggage check. Thankfully we don’t need to take our luggage through the X-ray scanner. A group of six uniformed twenty-year-olds gather around our bikes. They find the bikes much more interesting than our luggage and play with buttons and switches. One of them is disappointed that none of the buttons do anything, so he asks Petra to switches on the ignition, which she does. Then, of all buttons he could press, he presses the one of the Horn of Plenty.
In one synchronized movement, all six of them jump back involuntarily. Startled excitement and laughter.
They’ve had enough of checking, it seems. That is, until their boss comes to see what the noise is all about. He tells them to check our luggage. We open a topcase and a side bag, say “clothing” and “for washing” and we’re done. The student team has a lot more work with their six vans full of luggage, tools, spare parts and two motorcycles to be checked by customs. We chat a bit with them before we go. This new country opens up the possibility to have a beer or two with them tonight. They don’t know which hotel their Turkmen guide has arranged for them, so we say goodbye with a feeling that we’ll probably meet on the transit route to Uzbekistan.
Where the Streets Have No Name (that we can pronounce)
We take the somewhat wavy and bumpy highway toward Aşgabat. The scenery is impressive with the mountains of Iran to our left and the plains of Turkmenistan to our right in the light of a setting sun. It takes the better part of a U2 album playing in my helmet until we reach the outskirts of the capital. We immediately notice differences with northeastern Iran. The traffic is rather civilized, the infrastructure is intact and everything seems less worn. Women wear colorful dresses and no headscarfs.
The city makes a strange impression on us. It has many white marble buildings with gold-colored lettering on them, which could be real gold for all we know. Our Turkmen is a bit rusty but these seem to be ministries of all kinds. They might even have a Ministry of Melons. You might think I’m not serious, but who else would be in charge of organizing the recent official holiday Melon Day?
Something else we notice is that the streets are very wide, but there isn’t much traffic. Perhaps everyone is at home already? Then why are there so many buildings with the lights off, Sherlock? It can’t be a lack of energy because the country has fourth largest reserves of natural gas in the world. One perpetually burning gas crater isn’t going to change that any time soon.
Downloading and Uploading
We find a hotel that is exactly one thousand times more luxurious than last night’s camping spot, but also approximately infinitely more expensive. It’s large but there are almost no other guests. We park among less than ten cars at the parking lot. Before dinner it’s laundry time in the large bath tub. That’s probably a first in this hotel.
Dinner is really good, and we celebrate our arrival in yet another new country with a cold Zip beer and a red wine. It’s not that we’ve missed drinking alcohol in eastern Turkey and Iran so much — in fact we hardly thought about it — but we really appreciate it as a reward for an adventurous month.
Unsurprisingly, messaging app WhatsApp doesn’t work here, but the internet speed is actually quite high. My laptop is working overtime and manages to clear the upload backlog of 6GB of photos overnight.
August 31st, 2016
We sleep in and arrive late at breakfast, where we see only one other guest. We enjoy our food with a view of a building that is shaped like a telescope including some sort of huge glass lens on the roof. It probably isn’t a real lens because it’d be really annoying having to rebuild the building after the annual inexplicable inferno of June 21st.
When loading the bikes in the parking lot, we talk to an Armenian immigrant who works here. He explains to us what the best route out of town is, tells us that the road to today’s destination isn’t great, and complains about the price of cigarettes, which is US$ 18 (€ 16) per pack. The Turkmen leadership aims the country to be smoke-free by 2025. If anyone ever asks you for an advantage of modern autocracies…
White Marble and Green Fairies
We’d like to cover the 350km (230mi) to Mary today. We can’t afford to relax for another day because we need to be out of this country in 3 days from now and that includes the day of our departure to Uzbekistan. Packed with clean and dry clothes, we leave at 2pm.
Despite the instructions of the smoking Armenian, I manage to take a wrong turn that leads us in the opposite direction of where we want to go. I notice almost immediately, but we have no choice but to continue on a 4-lane highway until we get an opportunity to turn around. We don’t want to find out what the punishment is for plowing the flower bed that separates us from the lanes in the right direction.
Not that anyone would have noticed, because there is no one here. On this street lined with marble buildings, there is no other traffic, not a single car. No pedestrians to gawk at a globe with a stylish gold inlay of Turkmenistan on top of a high building. Nobody entering or exiting other structures of which the architect must have been hooked on the Soviet alternative for absinthe. It’s just us, doing 90km/h (55mph) in the wrong direction while being slightly distracted by a building that looks like a huge gong. We get to enjoy this surreal scene again on our way back.
There is a bit more traffic on our way eastward. Except for the waves and bumps that we’ve already ridden over yesterday, we’re making good progress. That changes as soon as we pass Artyk, where we came from Iran yesterday. There is a lot of road repair work going on. The bit that we can ride on, now shared with the traffic in the opposite direction, has deep potholes and treacherous ruts in the asphalt. We are thoroughly shaken about on our bikes. We don’t want to go so fast that we’ll be launched over a big bump and not so slow that we’ll arrive late. The ideal speed seems to be 80km/h (50mph).
We also get to enjoy the fuel prices in Turkmenistan, which are as low and as constant as they are in Iran (if we don’t count the surcharge that we paid yesterday). The people we meet are not as exuberant as the Iranians but still very friendly. We get the casual honk, wave of thumbs-up from other drivers, and coffee from a fuel station attendant.
About 60km (40mi) before Mary, we encounter a convoy that we’ve already seen. It’s the students with their electrical touring bike! We’re happy to meet again. They’re having a short break to change riders and batteries. It seems that their bike is not set up for comfort. Roan, the rider being replaced has been standing up while riding since the road works started more than 200km (120mi) ago. Respect.
Before we ride off, we participate in a short video interview with their cameraman Brian. The result is here:
Yes, I manage to mix up Turkmenistan and Türkmenabat, which I explain by two neurons having been smashed together in my brain during the relentless beating we received on this bad road. I think we only need to worry when I start calling Petra “Bob”.
As we haven’t bothered to find any accommodation for tonight, we join the convoy and see where their government-appointed guide takes us. For the occasion we take the Storm Wave in a two-wheeled petrochemical sandwich. We end up at the Mary Hotel. It must have more than a hundred rooms, but guess what? There are no guests except us. We could have pitched our tent in the middle of one of the corridors and nobody would have noticed. Except maybe the students who start ripping open the electric meter cabinets in their hunger for power. Before long, many of the hotel’s corridors have big zooming battery chargers in them.
We enjoy the company of the students over dinner and drinks. The riders have most time to spend with us because they have seem to have fewer technical responsibilities. Other students are with the bikes to solve the latest problems. Thankfully they have two prototypes of which one always serves as a backup so they increase their chances of making it all the way around the world while keeping a very tight schedule. The team knows where they’ll be almost every night from now until they arrive back home in November. They’ve prearranged all charging points, and also all places where they will present their project at universities and companies.
It will take a while before we will be able to roam the world autonomously on electrical motorcycles, I think. There are still too many places with unreliable or insufficient electrical power. Unfolding your solar panels every few hundred kilometers isn’t a solution yet either. Nevertheless, we think it’s a really cool project and a very ambitious tour.
Here’s their account of today: Day 17 – August 31, 2016. Yes, you’ve read that correctly. Day 17. Petra and I are on day 89. That’s 9 days longer than they’ll take to circle the world.
September 1st, 2016
Operation Desert Storm
Mary, the receptionist of the Mary Hotel in Mary says they only accept cash payments in US$ instead of the national currency Manat. That’s complete bullsh*t, of course. The students’ government guide explains it as “it’s complicated”. Although that’s not meant to be convincing, we pay in dollars anyway. We do still need some cash for food and fuel on the road.
The students leave earlier than we do, mostly because stowing their luggage is a only matter of seconds. We buy fruit, bread and water at the local bazaar and fill our tanks to the brim because we expect that on our way to Türkmenabat places where we can get these will be few and far between.
Soon after leaving Mary and the neighboring town of Baýramaly, the landscape becomes very arid and vegetation more sparse. We see an occasional sand dune and the mandatory camel. To avoid the sand from blowing onto the road, vertical mats of reed have been put into place.
This is probably our hottest day yet. We notice from the wind blowing through our jackets and the hot air entering our helmet vents that the temperature must be close to 45°C (113°F). We think of our sweltering rides in Greece to keep cool.
Sip & Zip
We have our visors closed and only open them briefly to drink through the tubes of our hydration packs. It is key to keep on drinking and riding in this furnace. A friendly driver has the same idea and holds a chilled bottle of water out of his windows for us to grab as we overtake him. My free hand is on the other side, so we pass on his offer and thank him with all positive gestures we can think of. We sincerely hope they mean the same in his culture.
We stop twice, including lunch in the shade of a fuel station but otherwise keep going. There isn’t much interesting to see anyway. Flat and hot. Tip: don’t play Highway to Hell in your helmet in these circumstances. It’s not helping. No points for guessing who grew up in the eighties here.
The road surface is better than yesterday’s, but we do need to pay attention. Damaging the bikes could range from being very annoying to outright dangerous out here.
We reach Türkmenabat (250km, 150mi) in the late afternoon. It’s a ride to forget quickly. We know in which hotel Storm is going to charge their batteries. They seem to have arrived recently and their guide has already arranged a room for us. Now there is no way to tell whether we would’ve gotten a better rate, but it’s too late now anyway.
We know that we also could have gotten a worse rate, when the lady at the reception blatantly tries to increase the price to US$ 15 (€ 13,50) above the amount we were told by the guide. FAIL! We just tell her “NO!” with unmistakable volume and body language. That seems to work for now. We were stupid enough to park behind the fence of which they have the key. Hmmm… Let’s see what the bill says tomorrow. Otherwise the food is not bad and the staff is friendly.
The amount of dirt in the air conditioner in our room is larger than our desire to cool down, although it is still very hot in there. We’ve kept the windows closed to keep the exhaust fumes out. Unexpectedly, the hotel does have an actual cinema room. We join Storm to watch part of Mission Impossible and have a look at the videos that Brian has made of the events of the past days. Cool stuff. Well done.
We didn’t expect too much of our quick Turkmenistan transit, to be honest. We’re glad to have met the Storm team. It’s been fun! Good luck, guys & girls!
Uzbekistan tomorrow. We’re curious what that will be like!