After about four trees felled due to printing a thousand forms, three embassy visits in two countries and an HIV test (required for the application), our Turkmenistan visa response has arrived …
And the verdict is… rejected.
We weren’t holding out a huge amount of hope. The Turkmenistan transit visa is notoriously hard to get. According to visa agency Caravanistan, only 25% of applicants are successful.
There are never reasons given, but according to their anecdotal research, things like having stubble or a beard can be enough to get you a rejection.
The reason we were declined we’ll never know, but from a country that banned opera and the circus for being “insufficiently Turkmen”, there likely there wasn’t a great deal of logic behind the decision.
It’s a shame as it would have been an interesting place to visit.
Little known Turkmenistan is one of the most oppressive countries in the world, ranking only below North Korea and Eritrea in the worst press freedoms league table.
Surprisigly for a Central Asian country, it's ruled by an eccentric dictator.
In 2002 he renamed the months of the year after things like his mother, whose name became the new word for April, and his adopted nickname, which became the new word for January.
It’s not all bad... Turkmenistan has the world’s fourth largest reserves of natural gas, and since 1993 citizens have received government provided electricity, water and natural gas free of charge.
So it was annoying to not get to visit, but we moved swiftly on.
On a positive note, we definitely don’t have HIV…
This did throw a slight spanner in the works however and would require a route change.
Instead of going south through Turkmenistan, we’d need to go north through Kazakhstan, and across the Caspian Sea into Azerbaijan.
The new route added on some significant distance, and also meant a longer ferry crossing, on a less frequent and less reliable ferry.
Ordinarily we’d suck up the extra miles and cycle it, but we’re up against a bit of a deadline at the moment. We need to be in Athens by the start of July, which if we’re to cycle the whole way is already a huge ask, let alone with the addition of extra miles.
We did some maths on our day off in Bukhara (yellow dot in map below) and decided to take a train across some of the extra distance through the Uzbekistan desert (blue dots).
Even with this decision made, we still had an enormous amount of distance to cover in a short space of time, so without further ado we set off!
We purposefully try to avoid talking too much about cycling stats in these blogs, but it’s unavoidable for the last week, as we’ve just covered so much ground.
In the last seven days we’ve covered 1,131kms on the bikes, plus one day off on the train. It’s been a monumental effort, averaging 162km/day – 101 miles/day - for seven days.
The first mini section was from Bukhara (yellow dot) to Nukus (pink dot). A four day 641km stretch through the Uzbek desert.
Riding in the desert, the days blur together.
It’s a mixture of heat, dust and wind with varying degrees of severity, and often all combined.
The focus is on keeping the sun off our skin, getting enough food and water onboard and trying to keep on moving.
We made a flying start on day one, cruising with the wind in our sails down the sand swept roads, stopping at the truck stops to fuel up and hide from the sun.
By the end we’d made a 200km dent in our distance.
When it was getting dark and we couldn’t go much further, we swerved off the road and found a spot to set up camp.
With only some inquisitive meerkat type animals for company and the occasional truck passing on the distant road, it was a serene place to cook food and fall asleep as the stars were coming out.
The next day we were thankful we’d made such a strong start: The wind had flipped 180 degrees and we took an absolute beating.
It’s key on days like that to work together. We took it in turns to take the front, the other person tucking in behind. This is called drafting and means the person at the front takes the majority of the wind in their face, allowing the person behind to rest.
Some people think cycling is a solo, or lonely sport which it can be, but days when you’re in an environment that resembles a dusty fan oven, it requires as much teamwork as anything I can think of.
We were able to make up some distance that evening as the wind dropped, so kept ourselves in the game. We slept at a truck stop after calling it quits after 130km.
The landscape was desolate, the buildings made of brick and mud.
It looked like somewhere on Tattoine in Star Wars.
The wind was calmer in the mornings, so to try and avoid the worst of it we set off at 0600 and made for Khiva.
Khiva was a slight detour for us but it’s an important, supposedly beautiful, stop on the Silk Road so we wanted to check it out.
It was allegedly founded by Shem, a son of Noah, who had dug a well in the desert. When travellers drank from the well they exclaimed “khey-vakh” – meaning “sweet water”, hence the name Khiva.
The city has been destroyed and rebuilt many times over the centuries, but is currently home to 54 historical and architectural monuments throughout the city including these moques and minarets. It's a cool place.
The final day to Nukus was the hardest of the four.
Bone rattling roads, throat drying heat, close flying traffic.
We’d made steady progress getting out of Khiva, and had done the bulk of the distance by late afternoon. We could see Nukus appearing on the horizon, rearing out of the desert as these towns do.
We’d be arriving in the early evening, and our mission for that night was to book ourselves a train ticket to Beyneu (black dot on map above) for the next day and find somewhere to stay.
On our approach into town we were hailed down by a group of cyclists at the side of the road.
We pulled up for a chat, and found it was a group of kids on nifty road bikes. This was amazing in itself, as we’d only seen a handful of road bikes since leaving New Zealand – let alone in Central Asia – and here was a whole squad of kids on them!
The second amazing thing was trying to comprehend how anyone could actually ride a road bike in Uzbekistan – the roads are so rough.
There is the occasional great road as below, but more often than not they are riddled with potholes, or even just rubble.
We had a broken English/Russian conversation with Vatir who was the coach. Turned out it was the Nukus cycling team and they were just heading back into town, so we rode with them.
The kids were very excited, and of course wanted to race – which Ewan was happy to accept.
The racing had to be called off however as it was getting to dangerous… too many cars… not wide enough roads… prefer to cruise anyway…
Nothing at all to do with the fact the kids were unexpectedly fast…
We asked Vatir if he knew any cheap hotels we could stay. The response:
“Niet – menya dom” – “no, my house”
“Amazing – thank you so much.”
We explained about the train tickets, and so waved good bye to the kids, and headed for the ticket office.
Vatir accompanied Ewan inside and explained it was 91,000 Uzbek som each.
Uzbekistan currency is bizarre. There are two exchange rates: the official bank rate, and the black market rate.
For every one dollar you change, at the official bank rate you get roughly 3,000 som, however if you change it on the “black market” (basically anyone in any shop, hostel or market stall), you’ll get 7,800 som.
This article on Economics 21 called “Uzbekistan has the world’s craziest currency regime” explains the reason for the system. It’s basically down to government mismanagement by (another) crazy Central Asian dictator – it’s an interesting read if you’re interested in currency. Here’s another article.
Worth noting that this article was written in September 2016 and gives the black market rate as 6,000 som to the dollar. Last week it was 7,800/dollar so the inflation is obviously getting worse – rapidly.
By far the most common note is the 1,000 som bill. This mean you need to carry massive wads of cash around, each one worth around 13 US cents.
Ewan put the two wads of 91,000 (in 1,000 notes) on the table to pay for the two train tickets. The lady took the first to count and placed the second next to her.
As she was counting, the fan caught the other wad, and blew it up into the air and all around her little office. It was like the final challenge on crystal maze as she tried to recover all the notes.
Tickets purchased, we headed for Vatir’s. As we were coming into town, the wind got up.
It’s incredible how fast the weather changes in these open expanses. One minute it’s fine, the next you’re in the middle of a dust/electrical storm, with sand flying everywhere and thunder and lightning cracking all around you.
It’s like in Hunger Games when they flick the "increase storm and rain button" and it happens instantaneously.
We were thankful to reach Vaitir’s, and enjoyed a lovely evening with his mother and father.
Vatir’s father got the photo album out, and took great pride in showing us his cycling photos – and trophy cabinet.
He had no English, but through Google translate we gathered that between 1975 and 1977 he was the Cycling Sports Master for the USSR.
We’re not sure exactly what this means, but we think that back in the 70’s he was the road biking champion of the Soviet Union. He certainly had a lot of trophies – we nabbed one for the photo. The old master is on the right, Vatir on the left.
The next morning he donned the old tracksuit once again, and escorted us to the train station to see us off.
It was cool to have our final cycle in Uzbekistan with a guy who back in his day was the Bradley Wiggins of the Soviet Union – maybe.
The train ride was uneventful and we unloaded 12 hours later in Kazakhstan, well rested and ready for the next onslaught of (self-inflicted) punishment.
From the train station in Beyneu (black dot), it was 478km to Aktau (green dot), which we were aiming to cover in three days.
Between us and the Caspian Sea was a vast expanse of steppe – and nothing else.
It’s hard to do justice to the scale of the landscape in words or pictures. The sky was pure blue, the air crystal clear and the ground dead flat. This was taken from a rare bridge over a railway.
It’s not the sort of beautiful like Kyrgyzstan or Tajikistan where you would put it on a postcard, but it has its own beauty. The scale of it is enough to take your breath away.
The scenery is so big you lose perspective on how close or far away things are.
A village on the horizon looks to be a good place to stop for food. 40km later and you are still pedaling towards it.
Camels wander around munching, horses gallop freely, and birds soar overhead.
At the end of our first day it was a beautiful clear warm night and we considered sleeping on or mats out in the open.
A sizeable snake spotted milling by the roadside soon killed that idea...
We were looking for somewhere hidden from the road to camp, but there was not the slightest hill or mound for hundreds of miles all around.
We were working out what to do, when we stumbled across an unlikely but brilliant camp spot.
Invisible from the road, sheltered from the wind, on concrete so easy to spot unwelcome visitors (snakes) and with great views.
It was… a giant tunnel .. under the road!
The tunnels are presumably to allow water to pass under the road, or cattle through. Either way, they were big enough for an adult to walk down, clean, totally invisible to drivers and generally something a bit different.
We set up our tent, and watched the sun set from our little porch before cooking up some dinner.
Usually getting out a tent in the middle of the night to pee is a dreaded task, but that night it was a pleasure.
The sky was as big as anywhere in the world, the nearest light pollution was hundreds of miles away and there was not a cloud to be seen.
The stars that night were like nothing else. Millions and millions of them all looking down.
Some twinkling, some shooting, some staring.
There can’t be many places better to watch stars than the Kazakh steppe.
We were up at 5am in the morning, power breakfast of porridge.
We started riding… and kept riding… and kept riding.
With only breaks for food and drink, we cracked on. With no shops, people and hardly any traffic to distract us, we covered a record 210km to put is a good position to reach our goal of Aktau the following day.
Sure enough next day, we had our power porridge breakfast (with added Twix for extra power) and competed the final 125km into Aktau on the shores of the Caspian Sea.
It’s incredible to think that only a month ago we were in Almaty.
Before we arrived in Central Asia, we had next to no knowledge of the region and had lumped this leg together as “The Stans”.
Since then we’ve covered so much ground, and learned so much.
It’s probably in hindsight not really fair to use “The Stans” as a sweeping term for these countries.
Although yes they all share the suffix Stan, and do share much common culture, there are huge variations between the desert of Uzbekistan, the mountains of Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, the steppe of Kazakhstan. Not even to mention Pakistan and Afghanistan which we didn’t visit.
Each country has their similarities, but also their own culture, differences, problems – and beauty.
Reaching the Caspian Sea was a big moment as it concludes our Central Asian section, and leg six of our journey.
Here are the stats from this leg:
Total leg six distance: 3,367km
Total leg six climbing: 18,859m
Total leg six riding days: 26
Total trip distance: 15,690km
The next challenge is to negotiate our way onto a ferry across the Caspian, into Azerbaijan.
Here we are celebrating arriving on the beach, wearing our Kyrgyzstan hats as a tribute to our favourite Central Asian country.
We’re on the doorstep of Europe now, and we’re very excited to be here!