A day in the life of the real Turkmenistan

As I rode back down the road I had just ridden up not more than 30min ago, I began to wonder just what the consequences of my split-second decision would really be. If nothing else it would answer my question about what were the ordinary people of Turkmenistan like.

To be honest, the little town of Sayat could only be described as “nondescript”. It was a small market town for the surrounding area with no outstanding physical attractions. But, as in all such places around the world, the generosity of spirit of its people more than make up for any perceived lack of beauty.

At Bahar’s home I was welcomed like a long-lost relative. The family home was full as there was to be a wedding in two days’ time. Initially I was unsure about intruding on such an important family occasion but everyone assured me that “the more, the merrier” was the case and I was immediately made to feel at ease. Shortly after arriving the endless lunch began and every family member went out of their way to make sure I was fed, watered and comfortable. This was a family that did not know me one hour ago!  Continue reading

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Sayat – on the road to Afghanistan

The Hotel Jeyhun in Turkmenabad – another palatial, but empty, mausoleum. This one designed to extract as many US dollars as possible from the handful of Western tourists staying there.

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.

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Turkmenistan? Are you serious?

Throughout my trip I had met a few people who had crossed Turkmenistan by various routes during their 5-day transit visa. And I had listened in astonishment as each of them used almost identical words to describe the country. Words such as odd, weird, different, strange, bizarre. After all the time and energy I had spent getting my Turkmen transit visa in Dushanbe I hoped that it wouldn’t be a complete waste of time .

What was it about Turkmenistan that elicited such an unusual response in people? I was about to find out. All too soon!

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Day 2 in Bukhara: just too damn hot!

The traditional courtyard of Zuxro’s guesthouse

My second day in Bukhara did not start well. After a leisurely and late breakfast Zuxro told me that it was already 35 degrees and wasn’t even 9 o’clock yet!

I had two options – try to do all my sightseeing before the planet burst into flames at lunchtime or take advantage of the suprisingly good aircon unit in my room. I chose the latter. And so did everybody else at the guest house. It seemed that the endless days of 40+ degree heat in southern Uzbekistan was sapping everyone’s energy.

Throughout the day, the courtyard of Zuxro’s guesthouse became the defacto lounge room as we all emerged at various times from our little icy-cool redoubts to try to pass the time in some constructive manner until the late afternoon when the temperature became bearable again.

So I took the opportunity to chat with my fellow guests. There were no other motorcyclists but there quite a few overland bicyclists. How they had survived riding 100-150km, day after day, in that heat is beyond me.

With nothing better to do with my time I decided that I should sort through the many hundreds of photos I had taken and cull the garbage and try to make something worthwhile from the rest. So below is a selection of photos of Uzbekistan that didn’t make it into the blog so far.

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On to Bukhara

A rare piece of shade in the 35-40 degree heat, but it was still good to be on the move again.

The sights of Samarkand had been  spectacular  but Bukhara beckoned.

It always felt good to be back on the bike and feel the kilometres pass under the wheels again. The road was reasonable bitumen with little traffic. The weather was fine but it was another 35-40 degree day crossing the dry, semi-desert plains of southern Uzbekistan. But it was only about 270km to Bukhara so it made for an easy, if hot, day’s ride.

By mid-afternoon I had found the guesthouse that had been recommended to me by the flood of travellers surging eastward – mostly Europeans on their summer holidays. On my trip so far I had met very few people travelling westward.

No room at the inn, sleeping near the animals. No more Brian and messiah jokes!

Unfortunately when I arrived at the Rustam-Zuxro Guesthouse, there was no room at the inn so Zuxro asked me if I would be prepared to sleep out the back for one night until a room became available. I said this was not a problem so I ended up spending a night in a room next to the goats! However, Zuxro made sure I got a very good room at a very good price the next day.

During my time in Bukhara, Zuxro and her husband, Rustam, proved to be  very  accomplished hosts. Even though they spoke little English they made sure that all guests were well catered for – not only meals, but help with money-changing, organising taxis to airports or just general tourist advice.

For me, tomorrow would bring the opportunity to explore the fabled old city of Bukhara.

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Lazy days in Samarkand

After the sensory overload of the Registan the rest of Samarkand seemed a bit of an anticlimax. But there were a number of historically significant sights to I wanted to see. Top of the list was Gur-e Amir mausoleum. It was originally intended for Timur’s favourite grandson and heir-apparent, Muhammad Sultan who died unexpectedly. After Timur’s death in battle he was also buried here. The mausoleum eventually became the final resting place for the entire Timurid dynasty including Ulugh Beg who finished the  construction.

Gur-e Amir mausoleum: more important historically than the Registan as it is the final resting place of Timur.

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Samarkand: modern, yet ancient

Modern-day Samarkand is just that – modern. It has all the accoutrements of a sophisticated 21st century city: high-rise buildings, electricity that doesn’t go off everytime you need it, petrol stations with petrol AND bowsers to deliver said petrol, ATMs that work, public transport that doesn’t smell like vomit or chook poo. All-in-all, a very pleasant and civilised place to be. It seemed light-years away from Tajikistan in every respect and yet I had only travelled a few hundred kilometres.

Modern it may be but at Samarkand’s heart, both literally and metaphorically, lies the Registan. What can I say about the Registan that hasn’t already been said a thousand times before – and probably more eloquently. No other building (or buildings – there are three separate buildings in the complex) exemplifies Samarkand majestic past than the architectural masterpiece of the Registan.

Samarkand has an immense history. It can rightly claim, along with Rome and Istanbul, to be one of the truly great cities of human civilisation. In 2007, it celebrated its 2750th birthday!

Happy 2750th birthday, Samarkand.

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Categories: 07. Uzbekistan | Tags: | 2 Comments

Sweet to ride forth….

As I rode out of the driveway of the Shakhrizabs Hotel, it suddenly dawned on me that today I was about to fulfil a long-held dream – a dream that began with a chance literary encounter.

The road to Samarkand – maybe not golden or silent anymore but a rare moment of solitude and time to reflect on a dream realised.

More years ago than I care to remember, I had read a novel that contained a short excerpt of a poem that captured my imagination for some reason. To this day I don’t remember the name of the novel but I eventually tracked down the poem. (This was in the pre-Google days, pre-computer days in fact, when you actually had to go to a library and search through the author index card system for a Dewey Decimal call number and then physically search the shelves for the elusive text).  The poem was  “The Golden Journey to Samarkand” by James Flecker (1913). A poet of some merit, Flecker served in the British Diplomatic Service in Istanbul and Beirut where he developed a love of the exotic world of Asia – far removed from his  days at Oxford and Cambridge. He died at the very young age of 30 from tuberculosis. There is no record that he ever visited Samarkand.

After reading Flecker’s poem in full I dreamed that, one day, I too would travel on the golden road to Samarkand. And now, several decades later, that day had finally arrived.

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A bit of a detour…

Denov was a pleasant little town but, for me, it was just a hotel stop on the way to one of my major goals in Uzbekistan, the ancient city of Samarkand.

But Samarkand was still a long way off yet.

Up until a few years ago the main route to Samarkand from Dushanbe went directly north through the Anzob Tunnel in the Fan Mountains to Ayni, then west to Penjikent, the border and on to Samarkand. However some years ago this border was closed – apparently due to massive landslides in the area obliterating the road. Consequently, all vehicles now took the route directly west from Dushanbe to  Denov, then detoured south to Boysun and finally northwest to Guzar. From Guzar the road swung north back up to Shakhrizabs. Unfortunately this route is many hundreds of kilometres longer than the original Penjikent route.

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Categories: 07. Uzbekistan | 1 Comment

A new day, a new country, a new start!

Crossing into Uzbekistan was like a breath of fresh air. The miasma that had overcome me in Dushanbe had lifted completely. Even though the ride to the border was only 70km, it was great just to be on the move again.

The Uzbek border post wasn’t much to look at but it was like a breath of fresh air to me.

The Uzbek border guards must have been bored when I arrived from Tajikistan because all five of them gave up on the 20-30 trucks waiting to cross the border and decided I needed special attention. All of them were friendly except for one. He asked me to unpack the entire bike on the ground. I was a bit surprised when he asked me to unpack my shaving kit completely. After inspecting every item, he grunted “Viagra”. I told him I didn’t have any Viagra. “Viagra!” he grunted again but more stridently this time. I repeated that I didn’t have any Viagra. “Viagra good!” he grunted a third time. At last I twigged. He wanted to confiscate any Viagra for his own personal use. I got the distinct impression that he was already suffering the side-effects of too much Viagra. Continue reading

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