Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan
Our last days in Iran were spent with anticipation for Turkmenistan. The country is one of the most closed off countries in the world, under the rule of crazy dictators. The last one renamed the months after himself and his family members, and the new one banned black color cars in Ashgabat (the capital), just because he considers white lucky. They control every aspect of life in the country, ranking among the lowest in press freedom and human rights consecutively. We didn’t really experience much of this of course, because we were mostly on the desert roads and small cafes in the middle of nowhere. The only thing we saw that all of their roads (the few existing ones) had checkpoints and cameras, making it easy for the rulers to monitor everyone.
Grinding through the desert
It is very expensive to get it, but thankfully nowadays the transit visa, especially for cyclist, is rarely declined (it was a toss in the past). It doesn’t mean you will have an easy time, because they only give you 5 days to cross around 500 km through the desert, on horrible roads where cars still go with over a 100 km (it is more loud than dangerous though, there’s plenty of space). There is also the added joy of a strong headwind, driving from the West, which is the more common choice for travelers. So you can imagine that we were seriously thinking about taking the train or hitchhiking with a truck, but when picking up our visa in Mashad, we met another cyclist girl, Liezbeth from Belgium. She was planning to cross the same day, and we decided to go with her, as with company, the boring desert is much easier to bear, and it was a good opportunity to test ourselves and our limits.
I think we found it, in times when we were sick from some bad water and barely ate anything during the next day, or when every bump on the broken asphalt road felt like shooting pain up our asses. The heat was surprisingly not that hard to endure, because even though it was 40+ degrees during the day with no shade, it is a really dry, arid climate, so you don’t feel it that much. We just carried a lot of water and sprayed it on ourselves to cool down. The toughest part for me was the last day, where my stomach was acting up. No kidding, it was from a piece of bread, but if you ever ate bread in the country, you can understand. I could only eat some fruit and drink a bit of juice to manage more than a 100km, and when we finally reached the border half an hour before closing time, everything came out. I felt like crying and smiling at the same time. 😀
Discovering the countries
We had some contact with locals and saw a bit of the country during our short visit, and luckily their language is so close to Turkish that it is practically the same (also kids learn it in school), so communication was easier than usual. The first thing we noticed was how beautifully the women dressed here. Almost all of them wear super colorful long and elegant dresses with matching headpiece (but the latter was not always present), which was only resembling a headscarf as it didn’t cover their necks. It was a privilege to get invited in on the third night (we didn’t even mind the 10km setback), and see a Turkmen family in their home. I can conclude that they are kind, hospitable people, like the majority of the population in the countries more East, but as alcohol is allowed here, they have a big fondness of vodka. 😀
Once we were through the border on the Uzbek side, we figured the challenge is over, and we didn’t bother ourselves with more boring hot rides through the plains of long stretched fields. Instead, we quickly hitchhiked through the country to reach the cooler mountain areas of Tajikistan, only stopping and playing tourist in Bukhara and Samarkand, both famous silkroad cities. We had no idea what to expect in Uzbekistan (usually read about a country on Wikipedia just a few days prior to entering, but of course we had no internet in Turkmenistan), and was stunned by the beautiful ancient architecture in Bukhara. Like most countries in this region, it was run by a dictator, but luckily he dies last year and things are loosening up. From this year it is visa free to stay in the country for 30 days for Europeans.
Into the heart of Central Asia
From this country on, we were entering countries previously under Soviet occupation, and the cultural mix is fascinating to see. Most people are still Muslims, the language is Turkic or Farsi (in Tajikistan’s case), but their alphabet is Cyrillic and they have very mixed traditions and mindset in general. Uzbekistan is really trying to open up and be a bit more westernized, and I think the Russian heritage shows a lot. If you speak Russian, you will have a super easy time in Central Asia, that I can tell you for sure. Still, even with a language barrier, there’s no need to worry, people are welcoming, super friendly and of course curios as hell, but thankfully not to the extremes of Iran. Tourism is only affecting the bigger cities as of yet luckily, there’s still a lot of untouched nature and rural feeling in the countryside, which I seriously hope stay that way.
I know this post was shorter than usual, but it also only covered a two week stretch, and I can’t say we immersed ourselves too much in these countries. So I let some of the pictures speak for our impressions instead, I hope you enjoy them. 🙂 They also gave us the first taste of Central Asia, and we dived right into it, when we entered Tajikistan in the north in late June.