Next morning my fellow motorcyclists and I had a frank discussion with the hotel clerk about the bill and the exchange rate. He couldn’t have cared less.
So after repacking the bike I bade farewell to the Spanish couple, Jose and Pilar, and a young English woman, Fern as they continued their long journey east to the Chinese border. I headed off in the opposite direction. Our time at the Hotel Jeyhun, we all agreed, had been decidely odd.
According to my map, there was only one major road leaving Turkmenabad on the southern side – the highway to Mary (where I was heading) with a minor road coming off that to the left that eventually lead to a remote border crossing to Afghanistan several hundred kilometres away.
As I reached the large roundabout on the southern outskirts of town, the “main” road continued straight ahead with minor roads coming off left and right. Even in the absence of any road signs everything seemed so straightforward (no pun intended) that I didn’t bother to stop to check with the locals as I normally would.
You would think I would have learnt my lesson after my navigational faux pas with the Pamir Highway back in Kyrgyzstan. Just because a road looks like a highway, it doesn’t mean it is a highway. And just because a road looks like a goat track doesn’t mean it’s not a highway.
So off I trundled down the “main road” enjoying the surprising good bitumen and lack of traffic.
Lack of traffic? Hang on a minute! The road to Mary is the one and only road across Turkmenistan! It should be full of cars and trucks and buses. I stopped at the next little village and found a local riding an ancient Russian Ural sidecar outfit. He spoke no English and my Turkmen was even less, but through the magic of maps and mime and pointed sticks we quickly established that, yep, I was heading for Afghanistan! Fortunately, I had only gone about 50km from Turkmenabad. But it still meant that I would have to retrace my path all the way back to Turkmenabad as there were no shortcuts across the Sirsutur sandhills of the Karakum Desert.
It also meant I would have to refill the tank as I had just wasted about 100km worth of fuel. It was about 250km from Turkmenabad to Mary straight across the Karakum Desert with virtually nothing in between – a bit like Central Australia really – and I wanted to do it with a full tank. As I rode back into Turkmenabad I tried to find where my navigation had gone wrong. At the large roundabout I searched for any sign or clue that I may have missed. I couldn’t find a single thing.
Frustrated, I rode back into the city to a large petrol station to fill up. By this time it was about 11am and already the day was threatening to be blisteringly hot. I still had 250km of the Karakum Desert to cross to get to Mary and I had lost any advantage of travelling in the relative cool of the morning.
The petrol sation was crowded as the locals filled up with their free petrol. Yes, free petrol! All Turkmen citizens are entitled to 120L of free petrol per month. As the bowser nobby filled my tank I watched as the level neared the top and signalled for him to stop. He kept filling and again I signalled and told him to stop. He still kept filling until the fuel began spewing down the side of the tank. “Stop, Stop!”, I shouted. Instead of stopping the bowser he simply took the nozzle out of the tank and continued pouring litres of petrol all over the hot engine and concrete. “Stop, you fuckwit!”, I yelled at him in frustration as we both stood in a pool of flammable liquid. Eventually he finally gave up on his plan for our joint immolation.
The day had not started well, but it was at this point that my bad day took a turn for the better.
A well-dressed woman in a car waiting to get petrol came over and asked, in very good English, if there was a problem and if she could help. I explained that the bowser nobby had managed to pour several litres of fuel all over the hot engine and could have sent me, the bike and everybody else within 50m to meet their maker.
After the situation calmed down the woman, Bahar, asked me if I would like to join her family for lunch. I was more than happy to accept her generous hospitality as, so far, my time in Turkmenistan had gone from the wonderfully weird to the downright dangerous. I thought, after a quick lunch in Turkmenabad I would still be able to make it to Mary before dark.
When my new friend motioned for me to follow her (and her elderly parents) I asked her where she lived. My heart sank when she said, “Not far away. In Sayat.” Sayat! Sayat was the little town where my good samaritan in the Cossack had turned me around. Now I would be heading back down the same road to the very town that I had just escaped from.
The time had come for an executive decision. Do I honour my acceptance of the lunch invitation or not? If I did, it would take me another 100km roundtrip out of my way. Also, it meant that it was unlikely that I would still be able to make it to Mary before dark. But I could afford to “lose” one day in my 5-day transit visa. If I didn’t, given the events of the day so far, I reasoned I would probably continue to have a bad day. I came to see Bahar’s lunch invitation as a much-needed circuit-breaker.
In the split second between turning the ignition key and pressing the starter button I had made my decision. I would follow Bahar and her parents back to Sayat on the road to Afghanistan.
And it was the best thing I did in Turkmenistan!