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No. 19 – Turkmenistan – visa stress and a lot of sand

May 20, 2014 | Asia, Blog, Turkmenistan


In the morning, I rode in the direction of the border and was curious about what I should expect. Since the Turkmen are only willing to issue a transit visa (instead a tourist visa) for tourists travelling alone, I was only allowed five days in the country.

I hoped that I would even be able to travel the distance in the allowed time, because to make it, I would be forced to travel more than 100 km every day. My biggest worry was the wind, because every single day it was blowing from the wrong direction.

Luckily, on the Iranian side, the border formalities were completed very quickly. I said goodbye with a touch of nostalgia about a really charming country and, with joy, I gave the first truck driver I saw my headscarf and also my two maps of Iran.

When I crossed over the bridge at the border, I was surrounded by dozens of uniformed men, who were all just standing around and doing nothing. Before I reached the official border crossing point,
I had to show my passport dozens of times.

The way in was a really sloppy muddy lane with no trace of asphalt. Many trucks from Turkey were in a long queue and the poor truck drivers had to wait forever.

First, I had to go to the health administration office. A uniformed official, who was chewing on a chicken bone, asked for my passport. I asked him if he could first wash his fingers, and he waved his hand in the air and said “no problem.” “But, that is a problem” I replied.

Feeling pressured, he wiped his fingers indolently on a completely scruffy-looking towel and then took my passport. Afterward, he immortalized my name in a huge notebook.

At the next stop, there were 10 uniformed personnel that appeared somehow to be all controlling one another. Then one of the border guards disappeared with my passport for 15 minutes behind a door
– who knows the reason why.

Afterwards, I had to pay a 12-dollar entrance fee for another unknown reason. The fact that I had already paid $55 for the 5-day transit visa impressed no one. All 10 watched as I fumbled the $12 out of my pocket and that signed the form that was written in Russian. Customs also wanted information about all the cash I had on me, the weight of my equipment, my itinerary and much more.

My luggage was x-rayed and all the papers which I now received as a copy were then signed again by dozens of people and, most importantly, stamped. Then I received my passport back again with a raised stamp and, after about an hour, I was allowed to continue on.

I entered the 80th country in my lifetime.

The border town received me with happy men and women dressed in colorful clothing. Many of the ladies were not even wearing scarves. It was a feast of colors for me after seeing practically nothing but black in Iran.

You could buy alcohol everywhere and I saw dozens of people smoking. Somehow I had the impression that no one here had anything to do with Islam anymore. The facades came down quite quickly as I noticed one pothole after another in the road, and the president beamed at me from everywhere in this town, much as Honecker in the German Democratic Republic many years ago. The signs with the photographs had the same green background.


I exchanged money in a painter’s shop, but I didn’t quite understand the exchange rate, because there was an old currency and a new currency. Some of the goods were marked for sale in the old currency,
others in the new. It was quite confusing.

Nonetheless, I was finally on the road and I had no time to lose. There lay many miles ahead of me and the day had already long begun.

In less than 10 km I was in no man’s land – no traffic, peace and solitude. Birds were singing all around me and turtles crossed the road ahead.

I saw foxes and mice, birds of prey and cranes. I saw more wild animals in one day than I had seen since the beginning of the tour. It was wonderful.

Later in the day, the trail went along a canal and I heard frogs croaking incessantly; birds were building their nests and water birds were splashing in the water.

Although the road was very bad and I had to dodge one pothole after another, I gladly accepted it, because it was such an exciting experience of natural beauty.

Now and then a truck would appear on the road, but they couldn’t go any faster than I was pedaling.
The potholes were simply too deep for them and I was able to drive around them.

I arrived just before sunset in the town of Hauz Han and stayed overnight for $5 in a guesthouse. The first 110 km were already behind me. In the kitchen, the cook prepared delicious ravioli for me and served tea. From then on, there was also green tea to choose from, which is not as strong as the daily black tea which was beginning to run out of my ears. The tea was still called “chai”.

I often dreamed about drinking a glass of good, cold apple soda juice, but outside of Germany, unfortunately, that search has been in vain. The women in the kitchen were all in a good mood, all colorfully dressed with no headscarves; they were light-hearted and relaxed when dealing with the men and I saw for the first time in a long time that the women and men touched each other and even exchanged caresses.

I was back in another world again, a world that resembled my own world more closely.

I continued the next morning, unfortunately, on the main road. On top of that, I had to ride into a strong headwind. You really have to be seriously motivated to want to continue under conditions like that. Sometimes, there was nothing more for me to think about. So, many hours I would just sit on the bicycle and ride.

When that happens, you simply stop thinking about anything at all and the body continues on its own like a machine.

As I rode, people would greet me in a friendly way; they honked, waved to me and sometimes, they invited me for tea.

Unfortunately, there was really no time for anything, because I was in a 5-day race against time.

It was right in front of a shop, in the middle of nowhere, that I reached 15,000 kilometers on this cycling tour. I was quite proud and also surprised about myself. I caught myself again and again having the thought “you’re really crazy, you’ve actually managed to ride to Central Asia. That is really awesome.

Then again, I would say to myself, “Oh nonsense, anyone could do that if they wanted.” But, if I’m really honest with myself, I have to admit that not everyone could do it, because it has really been the most difficult challenge of my life.

It has forced me to reach the end of my limits – over and over again – both physically and mentally.
Usually, I’ve played down my talents and abilities and made them seem like small achievements, but in this case I have to say for the first time in my life, it has been a significant accomplishment and I’m proud of it.

In the many hours of dealing with the loneliness, one feels as though one is struggling like an illiterate deaf-mute to cycle through the various countries – wind and weather, cold and heat, bureaucracy and people that stress you to the limit, sleepless nights, boring tasting food and much more.

But I would not do it if it were not for the other side of the journey – the many meaningful hours with very nice people, all the fascinating landscapes and vistas, the different cultures, the magnificent buildings and the many new things I’ve learned. Not to mention the incredible feeling of freedom that I’ve experienced.

Sometimes I think back about the time when I was still in Europe; it seems as if it were decades ago. So much has happened in the last 15,000 km.

This 15,000 km were filled with sweat, longing, experiences, homesickness and wanderlust, joy and fun, sorrow and even a bit of fear, curiosity and the willingness to continue on; but they are also the most important and greatest kilometers I’ve ever traveled in my entire life.

I’m glad I started this journey and I hope I will still be able to finish it – wherever the end of the journey will eventually be. In the end, it is not the country that will be the reason; no, when it is over, it will be because I say “That’s enough; I don’t want to continue any longer.” This trip has been a gift for me and I’m trying to understand it as exactly that.

But sometimes I also wonder whether it is still a journey or if it has become my life. Is there an end to this journey at all? And if so, what comes next?

I don’t know anyone out there, absolutely nobody. I am a stranger every day, no matter where I go,
every day I’m alone and every day I say goodbye again. I’m lucky that all the people are super nice to me, that everyone welcomes me so warmly. I am eternally grateful to them, because it makes everything for me so much easier.

It is an unending up and down. Sometimes, I could embrace the world and shout loudly that life is beautiful, and then the next day or maybe even 5 minutes later, I ask myself again, what am I doing here?

That happens especially when I try to say something to someone or to ask them something and we can’t understand each other. Actually, that’s the most difficult part of the whole trip for me. I can’t really carry on a conversation, I can’t really discuss my experiences with anyone, and often I don’t meet anyone for weeks who speaks my two languages.

It’s always the same superficial communication, but over the long haul, that’s not enough to satisfy me.


The day was long, the wind was strong, and the scenery was no longer exhilarating. Unfortunately, the natural beauty disappeared and the noise of the cars eradicated any sound of the birds singing.
Sometimes I downright hate the cars.

I passed through Mary, a city full of magnificent buildings, where on each façade the president was looking down at his people.

After many more kilometers and shortly before dark, I arrived at the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Merv totaling another 110 kilometers for the day.

It was pitch dark as I was cycling along a street and I was wondering at which house I should knock on the door. It always makes you a bit nervous, wondering whether you’ve made the right choice or not.
Where dogs bark, I usually never knock on the door.

I was lucky this time, and as is usually the case, a family gladly invited me in. They served me supper in a neighboring house and fixed breakfast for me the next morning. I was allowed to take a shower and they gave me a place where I could sleep alone.

Again and again I was treated wonderfully and it was also very enjoyable.

Not only did the green background of the presidential portraits and the potholes in the road remind me of former East Germany; even the toilet paper awakened childhood memories in me. Visiting my aunt in the Eastern Zone there was always this same grey, stiff toilet paper.

Even that is different here, because in the Islamic countries before, no one used toilet paper –only water. When I went to the toilet there, I always took my own paper with me.

That’s no longer necessary, but the toilets are much more primitive here.

The third day began with a flat tire, but I was able to repair it quickly. Oh lovely, a man came along and asked if I needed help. “No, thanks!” I said, he was satisfied with the answer and went on his way.
Friendly but not pushy, very pleasant indeed.

Again, it was windy and my legs were already pretty tired. The traffic was much less now, but I found myself surrounded with nothing but lifeless, boring desert.

After 112 km, I reached Peski, a small village built straddling the railroad. In order to go to the outhouse, the inhabitants of the whole village had to walk to the other side of the tracks.

In the morning I saw the villagers all standing in a queue at the little toilet hut. I camped out in front of one of the homes, because I needed my sleep and didn’t want to spend the night with all the others on the floor in a hot building.

Unfortunately, the train roared past near my tent and every time, the ground vibrated violently.

After a meal, which we all shared together, for the first time there was noodle soup. Oh, how delicious that was!

Everyone formed their hands into a trough and then, with the inside of their palms, they wiped them over their faces. It was the way they said “Thank you” to Allah for the food.

Two small children lived in the house. But I didn’t see any toys, no book to read, no ball to play with – nothing.

Day 4 continued as Day 3 ended – desert, wind and a continual struggle to make it through the day.
A family stopped me and gave me something similar to hot dumplings and tea.

Eventually I reached Turkmenabad and was visibly relieved that I didn’t have much further to go.
I rode out of the city and was glad that people invited me to dinner. There was fresh fish. The men had just returned from fishing. The house was big enough and I even had a room for myself where I could sleep.

In the morning, I still about 25 km to go to make it to the border. A sandstorm swept over the countryside and the headwind was absolutely brutal.

Again, dozens of uniformed customs officials looked at my passport, but this time it went much faster.

I had made it; I got the stamp in my passport and drove over the border into Uzbekistan.


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