Wednesday afternoon I rolled in to the Half Crescent station (that’s the local Red Cross) all rested and mentally ready. Mentally, as I haven’t cycled a proper day in the last 5 weeks, and ahead I had the most difficult kilometres of this journey so far. But I always considered rest an important part of training… so what could go wrong?
I’ve heard about theHalf Crescent station from other travellers, and true enough, they welcome every single traveller with open arms. Purely out of curiosity, they asked me to fill out a form: where I’m coming from and where I’m heading, what’s my blog address, my religion… and led me to a back room, where I can sleep.
Two people were already eagerly awaiting the gate-opening next day: Leonie and Philipp, a german couple, who are following a similar route as I do.
I was glad to see that I won’t be doing this alone, and after a quick chat, it turned out they’ll help me to get rid of a bit of excess weight as well. I got a kilo of Nutella from Zsolt for my birthday, which’d take me at least a week to consume, with two other always hungry cyclists we’ll be done in a few days.
The plan was shaping up quickly, the pancake dough was in the mix, meanwhile everyone was getting ready, taking a shower, repacking bags and sharing stories.
We were all excited to leave Iran, which was amazing, but just enough by now.
We were ready to get to bed at eleven already, to get a proper rest before the task ahead of us. But we were all knackered in the morning, as the carpet on the floor was full of other inhabitants who were doing some trail running on our bodies throughout the night. By the morning we were covered by small bites everywhere.
No problem at all – we thought – we’ll sleep in the afternoon, then.
We said goodbye to our hosts and started rolling towards East to get to the border opening at 9.
The Turkmenistan Challenge
Turmenistan is the holy grail / boogeyman of cyclists, with it’s 465 kms. Especially if you get there in summer, approaching from the South-West, as we did.
My competitive self was looking forward to this since the beginning of the trip. Now I can really prove myself! Because cycling through Turkmenistan is a real prestige amongst cyclist, and challenges like this always motivated me.
But what’s so special about it?
The distance itself is not a big deal and we had 5, or more like 4.5 days to complete it, as the border is open between 9am and 6pm. Which is not a massive challenge, really, if you’d do it in Spring in let’s say Serbia, but here, you have to push through the desert, in scorching heat, constant headwind, where you can barely keep a 15kph speed. The oncoming traffic is filling your eyes and mouth with sand and dust, and you need to take a day’s water with you as you don’t always have adequate stops on the way. But the worst is the road surface, which will shake the sh*t out of you. The ‘road’ which is just a pile of rubble basically, stretches for hundreds of kilometres, filled with potholes and concrete blocks, or if you’ve got tarmac surface, then it’s everything but even, makes it borderline impossible to keep the bicycle upright.
That’s what we were expected and Turkmenistan didn’t disappoint us.
DAY#1 | Thursday
Crossing the border was easy. The whole thing was done in 90 minutes, they checked our bags on both sides. Leonie and Philipp seemed to attract more attention, they checked most of their bags, purely out of curiosity. They asked for their camera as well, went through their pictures and had a little chat about their experiences in Iran. As for me, they were only interested in my medicine bag, but nothing else.
On the Turkmen side I got more attention, as a single girl. The young border guards were eager to test their charm and English knowledge on me. They didn’t bother with any of my luggage, just wanted to know if I’m taken and if not, would I consider marrying one of them.
All this was done in neat and temperature controlled offices and as we all knew it will take a while, we were completely zen about it.
At 11:30am, we were rolling out into Turkmenistan with the new country grin, the “God, I made it to this country as well!” grin. I was glad to see the same smile on my German companions.
Our path led to the first village: to exchange money, and buy some water.
Here we had the first chance to cast eyes on Turkmen women, who just look stunning as they’re walking about all tall, in their long, colourful, tight dresses complemented with a kind of turban. With their proud posture they were a real contrast compared to the Iranian women, and even the men looked small and boring next to them.
In the same town, we had the honour to meet with the local guards of the infamous Turkmen bureaucracy. The representatives of the government asked various questions about our presence for 15 minutes: Why didn’t change money at the border? We didn’t know you can do that. Why didn’t we pick the big bank at the crossing? We didn’t see it, we can’t read Turkmen. How did we find the small bank? It’s on my map. What map? Show me! Where are you headed? Where are you coming from? Why are you here, in the middle of the Summer? … But at the end of the aggressive questioning, it became clear, that they’re just as curious as everyone else, with the added extra of authority and they’re not afraid to use it as obviously it makes them feel better. 20 minutes later, they said goodbye with a smile, a pat on the back, handshakes and waves. But then we had 20 minutes less to sleep.
A few kilometres later, we stopped at the first available shadow to wait for the sunset and to get some sleep. The sun was gradually getting ready to lie down, but we got no sleep at all as in the 45 degrees celsius heat, hot wind was blowing, not just air but sand as well. We were just lying on the ground, trying to get a rest, but couldn’t sleep a bit.
And we had big plans for the day.
In the cold building at the border crossing earlier, we (okay, I) had the great plan to have a proper sleep in the afternoon and cycle through the night, when the wind is not blowing that much and the temperature gets more acceptable. We’ll be a 180 kms away by the morning! We’ll make Turkmenistan in three days! (Yes, you read it right, THREE! Not five, three!)
It’s so easy to plan sitting in a nice cool room…
At 5:30pm, we concluded that we can sweat just as well on the bicycle, so as tired and dirty we were, we hopped on the bikes and started rolling North-East. The wind was still blowing, but we started to feel soon that it’s losing it’s power as the sun was going down. We covered an extra 100K after the initial 30 that night, on the unbelievable surface of the Turkmen roads, where we needed all the lights to discover a clear path. A photo from Eni and Balazs, who were there 2 months before us of the road. I was glad to survive, there was no way I would take pictures.)
At one in the morning, we gave up and set camp. Leonie wanted to sleep and I was glad to hear that, because I didn’t have the courage to ask to stop, even though I fall down twice in the potholes, as my attention and focus decreased due to exhaustion.
It was about this time when I realised that these little birds come from a totally different league.
They didn’t rest and eat they way through the last six weeks in Iran, but have been cycling, in the heat, sometimes 150-170 kilometres, and fast. I could barely keep up with them, and the only thing I can say to my defence is that they have better bikes and less stuff per bike… But still, the main difference was due to my lack of training, and I felt ashamed. The night started to break me and Leonie stomped her feet on the ground just in time: she doesn’t care if we want to cycle till morning, she needs sleep. Bless her, inside I was cheering.
We pitched the tents and my last memory is of the million stars on the sky as I look up… then blackout.
DAY#2 | Friday
We woke 3 hours later, at 4.30; total zombies. But the rest helped a bit, I was feeling better. It was still dark when we packed up the bikes and had our breakfast.
I really enjoy to see how other people do this cycle touring thing. The stuff they carry, the things they find important. Like this time. If it was up to me, I would have eaten anything I can find and eat fast, then start cycling. But Philipp and Leonie cooked porridge with four kinds of dried fruit and different nuts chopped into it, honey on top. It was the most delicious breakfast I had in 5 months. In the middle of the Turkmen nothingness, at 5AM. These kids have style!
We watched the sunrise from the saddle and I realised how few sunrises I’ve seen on this trip. Or in my life ever! What a shame! It’s amazing to watch how nature reacts to the rising of the Sun, flock of birds dancing in the air. It was a glorious morning, cool and clean, these hours worth the whole struggle – or so I thought then.
My legs warmed up in an hour, and we soon reached the main road with a slightly better surface.
But by this time the sun was up and the wind was blowing, and I lined up behind Philipp and Leonie, trying to keep up. Head down, music in the ears, theresnothingtoseeanyway. It’s just road and endless empty fields of sand. I lasted two hours then I was done. We’ve only done 50K by that time and 40 left until our midday stop in Mary, but I completed these 50 kilometres way out of my comfort zone. Philipp and Leonie pedalled their cruising speed, and I was out of breath behind them, spending more time standing out of the saddle than in it. They pulled me along for another two hours, then we decided to part ways. By this time the Sun was high up the sky, toasting all of us. There was no reason to keep them out of the shade longer than needed. We agreed on a meeting-point and they sped ahead, disappearing from the horizon in a few minutes, and I switched back to a comfortable speed, now without my wind-blockers.
I arrived an hour after them to Mary and after some lunch we fall asleep instantly in the cool grass. We managed just about two hours, when a bunch of locals wake us up, taking pictures of us. That’s it then.
The city of Mary (or Merv) must be really cool, BTW. I’m genuinely sorry that I didn’t see more of it, because it used to be an important city in the Silkroad. But in the state we were in, there was no chance of sightseeing.
At eight in the evening, as the sun set down, we started moving again, knowing that we only did 90 that day, and we have the whole night ahead of us. The more distance we cover at night, the less amount of time we need to spend out in the sun.
During the 55 kilometres that followed, I hit one wall after the other.
As the day before, the first few hours of the darkness were the most difficult ones. Full of fear, anxiety, self doubt… That’s when you get the first I-can’t-do-this-alones, what-am-I-doing-heres and this-is-too-muches, and I needed every inch of my mental strength, to get over them, to know that it’ll be over at some point, I just need to stick it out. Head down, pedal, pedal, pedal, must not think, must not think. You’re allowed to sob and cry, to feel worried, but you’ve got to keep the legs moving. And just as the day before, after 90 minutes I was over it, and by half nine I could keep up with the others, even enjoying the speed and the cooling air.
55 kilometres later, at 11 in the evening, we stopped to make camp.
I was really grateful for Leonie, again, for her determination to sleep, so that I didn’t have to be the one to ask for and early stop. Of course, this was a compromise, as everything between the three of us: this one wants to go slower, but longer, that one quicker, to get more sleep, while the third one quicker and longer, to minimise the the time spent on the bike during the heat of the day. Almost impossible to get solution that fits all, especially when all parties concerned are getting exhausted and on the edge. But we managed.
DAY#3 | Saturday
Five hours later, my phone’s alarm was going off at four in the morning. I was just about to hit snooze, but in the neighbouring tent Philipp and Leonie were already packing, so I didn’t dare to. I was amazed by their discipline. (Later on they did admit that an English couple, whom they’ve travelled with in Turkey, called them German Machine. That explained a lot.)
Another breakfast consumed in the dark, another sunrise, another departure on brain and soul shaking dirt road.
The first hour of pain came, with aching knees and considerable pain in my bum, which was red like a rose already. No wonder, Lady Brooks had her revenge for neglecting her for six weeks.
But I was getting better now. I realised that being in the middle is the easiest and Leonie let me ride behind Philipp. This way I’m not just pulled forward by him, but have no option to slow down. I also managed to find the perfect music for this road – from now in if I ever hear a Bloes Brother remix, my legs will start moving automatically.
We were gliding through the cold morning air, to put as many kilometres in as possible, while the weather conditions are acceptable The Germans were keeping the cadence and the regular stops up. Every 90-120 minutes, not sooner. If you’ve got to drink or eat, do so whilst riding, without compromising speed. I hated it. And at the same time, I was grateful, because I knew that this is the only way to get through, no matter how hard it is. Without them, I wouldn’t have been able to get even near this level of performance.
And the stops were wonderful! We were entertaining each other with the different twerking moves, that helped us to release tension from our stiff bums. And we even managed a smile or two between us.
Even though we made good progress in the morning, I was still out of my comfort zone, and again, by 10AM I used up all my energy. Knees aching, thigh muscles burning and the skin was tearing apart on my bottom with every single pedalling move. I slowed down a bit agan and let them fly forwards, so I got to that day’s resting place 30 minutes later they did.
We had less and less options to stop for rest, as food and water was sparse, one stop about every 50-70 kilometres, so we had to have a proper plan.
When getting to the “coffee shop”, I was nearly in tears whilst getting of the bike. This was too much. My knees were barely able to hold me: they didn’t suffer any damage, they were just exhausted. I got used to this feeling after marathons, but then I didn’t get back onto the saddle afterwards to ride 6 more hours. (I can see an IM forming slowly!)
I limped into the shop, where we spent the next 8 hours. By pointing at items, we ordered eggs and salad, and meat-filled dumplings for Philipp. But the rest barely helped me, and I set of with shaking legs.
This was the night when I was closest to giving up.
Twenty kilometres later, when we still had 50 till the end of the day, I told Philipp and Leonie to go ahead, I’ll continue alone, and we can meet up in Bukhara, Uzbekistan. That also meant that I won’t make it in three days, I wouldn’t have been able to cycle alone through the night. But just a while after they’ve left me, there was an elderly cycle tourist couple coming up ahead: the Frenchman and his Russian wife met 6 years ago in Africa, obviously whilst cycle touring, and they’ve been ramping up miles and countries together ever since. They stopped to have a chat with Philipp and held them up while I managed to catch up. I joined in and 20 minutes later, as we stared off again, I was ready to continue.
To be honest, I was more afraid from spending the night totally by myself, rather than I was in pain from the last 3 days. I got to the standard evening-scared-nightmareish-alone part, having doubts, and I knew that if I stay alone, I’ll jump in the tent and sleep forever. Luckily that didn’t happen, I joined again, and was struggling, but managed to keep up with them, eagerly waiting for the hours to pass. 20 minutes later, I was on ‘the other side’ again, started to enjoy the whole thing, including the night slowly embracing us like two rows of trees at the side of the road. I haven’t seen the moon for days, the roads were lit only by our lights, behind us the Milky Way with it’s millions of stars.
We stopped after midnight to set up camp amidst the dunes of the desert
We had 115 kilometres left till the border for the next day, which closes at 6 in the evening. But, you can’t cycle in the afternoon due to the scorching heat. So, you either cover that in the morning or will spend another night in Turkmenistan.
The Finish Line
Sunday. Four hours later, my alarm was going off. I was extremely exhausted by now and I whispered to the tent next to me, asking if we really want to get to the border, because if we don’t then we could sleep a bit more. Leonie agreed instantly, but I’ve head that Philipp opened the valve of his mattress – a trick that I used occasionally with Zsolt as well. There’s not much to do, you’ve got to get up. We’re going to the border.
Another portion of 5 star oatmeal breakfast consumed with the added extra topping of sand, nevertheless, it gave us energy. At 5:30am, I was staring at the road, running underneath the wheels, constantly checking out Philipp’s bumper sticker as well. By now, I know every single inch of that mudguard…
The forenoon was pleasant, but as the weather got more increasingly warmer and the wind picked up, we got slower and slower. We knew that we’ll make it, but not within 72 hours. The only question was, how long we’ll have to endure this heat.
The last 40 was proper suffering. Lined with sand, dirt road, gravel, everything that can slow yu down. 20.. 10.. and suddenly a stop where we saw a well with a tap. Suddenly we transformed into kids, splashing the water about, locals watching and laughing at us. We spent the last few turkmen Manats of ours and set off towards the border.
Then the known finish line feeling came about as well: there isn’t much left, and suddenly you feel proper joy inside, I made it, here it is!! I remembered A old saying, that I am a real racehorse, only pushing it when the prize is guaranteed at the end: a medal at the finish, but in this case a stamp in the passport. How true!
We crossed the line at 13:30. We cycled through Turkmenistan, in three days and two hours!!
We rolled into the cool building at the border, hoping that the administration part will take at least 2 hours.
That was pretty much the case. The iron gates (literally) of Uzbekistan opened after 90 minutes of paper-pushing, bag checking (not mine).
After crossing the border, we had 100 kilometres ahead of us till Bukhara, where bed and shower was awaiting us. Why not – we thought, we’ll keep pedaling. We made 35 kms more, woke up again at 4 in the morning, another early morning and forenoon and cycling was on our plates. We were at the accomodation at noon the very next day.
How I managed to get there, is just a bad dreamnow.. Uzbekistan was even harder than Turkmenistan, I was extremely tired, more than I ever was in my life. My knees and legs were constanly aching, the high dew temperature and terrible roads were making cycling even harder. By the time we got to the city limits, I was destroyed. But then, I laid my eyes upon the beautiful buildings covered in stunning blue mosaics, I completely forgot about tiredness. So did the other two. We didn’t even expect how the Silk Road’s ancient and breathtaking city will welcome us. After five months, we were amazed, again.
The effects of the last four days were only visible from the outside: as we got to the accomodation, the neat, tidy and friendly receptionist lady looked at us three and asked:
Video entries on the road
Saraksh – Bukhara: 580 kilometres, 96 hours, 1 kg Nutella.
No wonder that some of you may ask – why did we do this? We had five days, why push it
Honestly, it felt like a good idea..
Most probably, only those of you will understand who has a similarly deep connection to mindless challeges, and has this sort of need to prove something or over-perform, or whatever you call it. Philipp was a partner in this, and Leonie was also convinceable, but not because of this. They were motivated because they just simply wanted to get through the desert and the constand headwind. As I said, at the cold border crossing, it was really easy to plan ahead…
As usual, after three days, I am looking back with joy, and nothing else. We achieved something, even if it means a lot only for the three of us. I am extremely proud of the 74 hours, even thought I am a bit on the edge that we didn’t make it in 72, maybe next time!
The stats and the GPS data is here on my Strava profile.