From Mary to the border post at Sarahs was about 270km if I stuck to the main bitumen road. There was a shortcut past the Hanhowuz Reservoir which was much shorter but I had been told the dirt road was in pretty bad condition. I had seen enough bad dirt roads in my travels and this one travelled through a particularly remote corner of Turkmenistan. With the prospect of another 40 degree day I reasoned that the bitumen may be longer in distance but probably not that much longer in time. And I didn’t fancy the idea of turning up at the Iran border completely knackered from riding 2-3 hours across the desert.
I said a fond farewell to friendly folk at the Yrsgal Hotel and set off to ride the 70km to the little town of Hanhowuz where I would have to make my final decision about my route. The landscape along the way was a continuation of yesterday’s desert dunes.
On the outskirts of Hanhowuz I stopped beside a police car and asked them about the shortcut. They told me it was closed and not to go that way. No problem. I didn’t really want to go that way anyway but I thought I should at least make a token effort and ask. Now I knew for certain I only had about 2-3 hours of riding to the border at Sarahs.
And I was glad I chose the easy option because after about 70 km, at the turn-off just outside Tejen, I would have missed a rare sight – the first roadsign since the border crossing at Farap on the other side of the country! From the turn-off it was about 130km to dusty little border town of Sarahs. In less than 2hrs I would be at the Iran border and my travels and travails in Turkmenistan would be over.
Exiting Turkmenistan proved to be much simpler than entering Turkmenistan. There was the usual administrivia but I was amused when the immigration officer pointed to the exit date on my visa and then to today’s date on his desk calendar, recognising that I was leaving on the fourth day – a day early. He gave me a big smile and a thumbs-up!
That just about summed up my impression of the Turkmenistan officialdom. They just don’t want you in their country. Which is quite sad really because that is not the real Turkmenistan. The real Turkmenistan is the ordinary people of Turkmenistan who were some of the friendliest people I had met in my travels so far.
But today was not just about escaping the parallel universe where Turkmenistan is normal. Far more importantly it was about entering Iran. No other country in my travels had provoked such mixed responses from people as Iran. Everything from “paradise on earth” (hardly) to “full of terrorists” (unlikely). The truth, of course, is somewhere between the two extremes.
And I was about to find out for myself.