Wednesday, 17 November 2010

Central Asia I: Turkmenistan

13.11.2010 This morning we finally made it through the Iranian border and into Turkmenistan. It's never been so hard to leave a country. The Irani officials just did not want to let us go. We spent a long time waiting around, repeatedly approaching the booth only to see our passports gathering dust on the captain's desk, asking and being shooed away. After over one hour the unlikeable bureaucrat deigned himself to smudge a red exit stamp on our visas. Finally we were let through the barrier. Less than 10 meters away, still in sight of the first official and just before crossing a bridge over a garbage strewn river which acted as the border between the two countries, a puny little lieutenant, too young to even grow a proper moustache, checked our passports once again and decided that something was amiss. We had to wait another ½ hour for yet some other insignificant minutiae to be checked over. These human beings whose only capacity is creating difficulties for other human beings I cannot stand. The tragedy with authority is that the posturing of these idiotic monkeys would be simply pitiful if behind it it did not have the might of a State to make it so damn dangerous.

Well, that and the guns...

We finally crossed into Turkmenistan at Haus Han where we were presented with a such a very welcome culture shock. Ladies wearing dazzling bright colours with scarves tied high on their heads or in many cases no headscarf at all. Below their khol rimmed eyes glinted confident gold filled smiles.

Oh, and the first cool Efes (turkish beer) in 2 months!


The landscape of Turkmenistan is utterly flat, with roads made of more holes than tarmac. The country is a piecing together of several deserts. Black sands, red sands, white sands. And no, they don't meet in the middle to make dark pink sands. These deserts are criss crossed by man-made canals which feed the huge cotton industry that is slowly draining the ever receding waters of the Aral sea. The Aral sea turning to fluff, gargantuan mountains of soft white fluff.

Above us, eagles fly low eyeing up their next catch of des(s)ert rat.




On day 3 (15.11.2010) we woke up early in the middle of Merv, glorious silk road city. The days were getting shorter and we had to pedal every available daylight hour to meet our target of 600 km in 5 days. Our time in Turkmenistan was severely limited by a not extendible transit visa. A tourist visa for this country involves a compulsory state approved guide that will follow you everywhere at the modicum sum of 200 US$ per day. We decided the 5 days allowed on the transit visa was plenty enough. So we watched the sun rise out of the ruins, the red light of dawn chasing away the ghosts of old. Ancient walls softened by time, crumbling, mud bricks going back to the golden sands. The wind hadn't picked up yet, the morning was calm and beautiful. Our imaginations in quiet rapture, dreaming of what must have been. The landscape evoked stories long forgotten.







Towards the evening, after having battled with a fierce headwind that laughed our intended 130km for that day into a disheartening 60, we were approaching exhaustion. A stomach bug which we had been carrying since Iran (or possibly the end of Turkey) was not helping with energy levels. I had spent the night before several times having to drag myself of out of the tent into the frosty darkness, with severe nausea and stomach cramps. The stars were nice though. Still pushing hard on our pedals, our knees creaking, we looked at the long road ahead dipping and slowly and inexorably lifting into shallow but infinite uphills. Far in the distance we saw a truck swerving and honking its horn. A small animal, possibly a cat, too terrified to escape to the sides, was running back and forth in the middle of the road. Before we reached it we saw the scene repeating. At least two other cars and a truck, beeping, swerving, trying to avoid the animal. When we finally reached it we realized it was not a cat, but a small puppy. We picked it up, deposited it on the side of the road. Carried on a little. Stopped. Looked back.




The terrified thing was whining, trembling, sitting in the dust in the middle of a vast scrubby desert, with nowhere to go and no chance to survive. So we went back. We cut the bottom of a plastic bottle found on the side of the road and gave it some water, it was obviously thirsty. We broke bits of our bread and gave it some food. It was obviously hungry. We tried to carry on and it wobbled after us. Slowly, dejected, sometimes falling over. About 500 meters ahead we had seen a track going towards a few houses. We tried to coax the puppy to follow, but it seemed too tired too keep up with us pushing our bikes. So we carried it, hoping to hand it to someone at one of the houses we were about to reach. When we finally got to the farm Isla tried to explain what happened to a lady in a bright scarf. She seemed to sort of understand but was utterly uninterested in the puppy. Apparently, for what we could gather, they grow up into some big nasty beast. And they had cats. So we carried on, at this point pushing the bikes through sand, towards another farm further on. We thought that nobody was going to take in our small friend, so maybe we could just deposit it at the edge of a farm, where it could try its luck. It was sad to leave it behind a mound of dry straw, but we could not take it with us. We would have liked too, but it was just not possible, we would not have been able to cross any border with a dog and we had at least another 6 in front of us. By this point it was getting dark, we pushed our bikes over a few dunes, looking for a discreet camp for the night. Behind us the puppy was whining, but it did not try to follow. With heavy hearts we moved on.

The morning after we pushed the bikes to the road. Pedalling on sand fully loaded it's just not possible and pushing is no fun either. The wheels dig in, refuse to roll and it's like dragging 50kg across, uphill, against. When we reached the road I heard Isla calling. “Pietro, look!”

I did not want to turn. I heard from her tone that, really, I did not want to look. It took me a long time to actually do it. I was imaging our little friend splattered, tire marks over its cute little muzzle. I wanted to keep pretending it was going to be OK, the puppy was going to find its happy way in the world. I really did not want any confirmation of the opposite. When I turned and focussed on what Isla was pointing at, I think I smiled. There, on the side of the road, alive but lonely, forlorn and abandoned, there were another two puppies.



17.11.2010 In the end we failed in our challenge of crossing this country by bike in five days, too many things against us. Broken up roads, a headwind in combination with Pietro having another bout of our gastro virus and very few day light hours made progress painfully slow.

On the last day here we had to catch a lift in a jankety ol' truck full of Iranian oranges. Together we bounced all the way to Turkmenabat. ЗИЛ (Zil) are soviet relics which look beautifully rugged. The atonal roar of the ancient machines is normally a warning of a thick cloud of filthy black smoke soon to envelope us (and the cursed stuff lingers above the road for ages after they are through). This time around, the base clunking was a greeting and welcome relief from a road going nowhere fast.




We must have looked very lost once in the city because we were very quickly invited by a Turkmen lady called Maral to stay the night with her and her family. Here we were given bowls of green tea, apricot kernels, and a hot shower. We were taken out to a nightclub for dinner. This was an odd combination of people eating at tables and jumping up and have a good stomp if a tune moved them. Wow what a contrast to Iran, women free to show much skin and shake it on the dance floor. Great. While we were out Maral's beautiful mother had washed all our clothes and laid out a bed for us in the living room. We felt embraced and very much looked after by Maral and her mother who had taken in two total strangers into their home and made us feel like one of the family. After a teary farewell the following morning we pedalled off into the weak sunshine over frozen earth across the border into Uzbekistan.

As we were leaving an old man nodded knowingly to us and murmured: “dervish”. We left Turkmenistan with heads held up high, honoured, savouring the freedom of the road.





Friday, 12 November 2010

Giggly Wools


Travelling around Iran can sometimes give you an idea of what it must be like to be a superstar. Everybody looks at us, people take pictures as we cycle by, they chase us in their cars to talk to us, they invite us to their house and sometimes even gently elbow each other out of the way for the privilege of having us as guests. It's a surprising and novel experience, but I'm glad I'm not famous as sometimes I quite enjoy keeping a low profile.


Apart from our cozy tent we find ourselves staying in some pretty weird and wonderful places. We spent a couple of nights in a homestay in Tudeshk, a mud village on the edge of the Dasht-e-Kavir. This was a unique experience we both craved, a peep into village life in a traditional home where all rooms faced a central courtyard and the delicious vegetarian meals were served on a plastic table cloth on the floor. Another night was spent in the Iranian version of a roadside diner. A large room full of raised platforms covered in carpets and cushions. The owner invited us to stay the night and plied us all evening with pistachios and pomegranates from his garden. The only catch was we had to stay awake and wait for all the truckies (and a random half Iranian half Hackney geezer) to eat their kebabs and tuck themselves up in their truck cabins for the night.



Kashmar was just a name on the map until as we were cycling towards it a man called Sam pulled up alongside us on a scooter. He asked if we were planning to stay in town and then invited us to stay with him. Incredibly, that day we had had at least three other offers, but for some reason we had no hesitation in saying “yes” to his. Five days later we were still at his house, partly because we both came down with some gastro virus fun but mostly due to the fact we felt utterly relaxed and fascinated by our new friend. We spent our time learning about his past, meeting his friends, joining in on his English classes, witnessing the start of the saffron harvest, eating kilos of pomegranates and raisins, watching eagles soar, holding down tears while listening to harrowing tales and smiling deep into brown eyes when words were missing.


Meeting Sam was very special to us. He is a man of contradictions with a very colourful past. His stories were often so out there as to border unreality and yet we never failed to believe him. From many years at war as an officer in the Iranian army to becoming a spiritual seeker and devotee in India, his is a story of transformation. We think of him often and are looking forward to the happy occasion of our next meeting. Thanks to Sam we also met other very special people. Hassan and Narges totally embraced us and welcomed us into their home in Mashhad. Their help in many practical matters made it possible to carry on our trip with ease and a light heart (as well as the warmest sleeping bags).




One night, while still in Kashmar, Isla, Hassan and I went for a little food shopping. When I added a carton of milk to our food basket Hassan shook his head vigorously and placed the milk back in the fridge. By this point we were getting quite used to being carted around the place without really understanding what's going on, where we are going or why we are doing things in a certain way, so even though I did not know why I could or should not buy the milk in this shop I avoided questioning his reasons. A great part of the Iranian experience is letting go of the need to control how things happen. Decisions are taken in an organic sort of a way, by the entire group around us, never with any hint of urgency or hurry, and generally for rather than with us. So I sat back and let Hassan drive us back to Sam's house. On the way back to the small village where he lives, we took a different turn from usual and started driving down dark country lanes (think dust, tall mud walls and raisins, rather than leafy hedges). Hassan reassured us that we were going to get milk.

A few minutes later we approached a big iron gate and behind it (of course!) a dairy farm. Mohammad grabbed a cow, squeezed a litre of steamy creamy and milk into a pale blue plastic bucket and handed it to us with a big smile. We joined him and Mina, his young daughter for the obligatory cup of çay and sat on the floor of the small bare room to share some delicious anar (pomegranate). This was an evening of total simplicity and yet vivid in texture and subtle meaning. Forgetting the velvety nights of Zendejan will not be possible.


Leaving these splendid people and with them Iran was not easy, as their offer, renewed time and again to overwinter in the small languid village was casually seductive. On the other hand our nomadic blood was boiling and the call of the wild too strong to resist.