Stories from my diary is a series of articles from my cycling journey from Rotterdam to Singapore. In this series I share stories from my diary that I kept daily. I was on the road for a year from 2 February 2015 to 30 January 2016. In addition to stories from this diary, I also share personal awareness of the impact that this cycling journey have had on me. Today #3 in which I will take you to Turkmenistan. A desert country. A dictatorship. After North Korea the most isolated country in the world. I was allowed to be there for five days with a transit visa.
July 8 – 53km (7529km)
I wake up at the side of the road between the Iranian town of Quchan and the border village Bājgirān. In Bājgirān I will cross the border tomorrow to Turkmenistan.
The last few days have been extremely hot. With daytime temperatures above 40 degrees Celsius. Yesterday I ended the day with a flat tire. This morning I have to repair the inner tire before I can continue. My tube of glue has dried completely. I decide to go back to Quchan and inflate my tire a few times along the way. In Quchan I find new glue with which I can also repair my spare flat tire. Just outside the city it gets flat again. I decide to change the inner tire with the repaired spare inner tire. Fortunately the tire stays finally inflated.
After cycling for a couple of hours I meet a small group of young people who invite me to drink homemade beer along the road. One glass shouldn’t be a problem. It turns out to be really cozy. We take some pictures together. The group consists of a lady named Homa and four other guys. Homa speaks best English of them all. They help me a little up the mountain. I’m holding on to the car. Little dangerous though. The guy in the passenger seat in the car tries to help me by holding my steering wheel. Good intentions but not a smart move. It goes wrong big time. I lose my balance and crash on the asfalth road. Everyone is in shock. I got a big scrap on my arm and my rear wheel is totally out of balance.
Two guys from the group stay with my bicycle and the others bring me to Quchan to repair my rear wheel. They all feel very guilty. It’s Friday and most stores are closed. After a long ride and phoning a few people we find someone who can make the wheel. I also get a new blouse because my blouse is completely damaged from the fall. It will be a long day in which I receive lots of food. I’m treated very well. My bike and things have already been brought to the Turkmen border by the others. Homa and her friend, along with the repaired wheel, eventually bring me to Bājgirān. We arrive there at 11pm in the evening.
What a day, my arm is in pain. I find a place to sleep somewhere in incentive forests. Tomorrow at 8am I’ll cross the border.
July 9 – 77km (7616km)
My phone alarm rings at 7:30am. I have breakfast in a small park in Bājgirān. At 8am I directly go to the border post.
The man at the Iranian custom is very nice. He asks what it was like in Iran and if I have experienced Iran as a nice country. I tell him a versatile story about hospitality. No idea if he understands everything but he nods very friendly. The Turkmen border crossing is very complicated. I have to indicate where exactly I will spend the night in hotels and in which villages or towns that will be. I didn’t think about that. During the 30 minutes check I have to pay $12,- for no apparent reason. I’m left with only $23,- in my pocket.
The road from Bājgirān to Asjchabad is approximately 35 kilometers. I jump enthusiastically on my bicycle but am stopped directly by a soldier. He takes me to a van where I have to load my bike in. The van appears to be a taxi. The border area is forbidden access. The driver explains with hand gestures that the ride cost $25,-. I’m trying to negotiate the price into $20,-. I actually only have $23,-. We drive to Ashgabat, a route through beautiful mountains. We cross a village with many soldiers.
When we arrive the driver asks for the $25,- I don’t have. I give him $20,-. He gets very angry and starts calling out to me in Turkmen. The long day before, the fall, the extremely difficult border crossing. Something breaks inside of me. I lose my calm attitude and get angry with the driver. I call, shout and point in all directions. Then I walk to my bike and want to continue cycling. He runs after me and tries to take a bag from my bike. Fortunately, he don’t succeed with that and I cycle away.
What a hassle. I now have $3,-. What can I do with $3,-?
I directly start looking for a bank to withdraw some money. I don’t believe what I see. Large white marble buildings surround me. It seems like an economic center. Impressive. There are only very few people in sight. Around the buildings people work on perfectly kept gardens. In my ride to a building with a bank I even see someone mopping the asphalt roads.
It is difficult to see which building is a bank. I manage to find a bank but have no luck with money. A friendly person explains that since a few months only VISA cards are accepted I. Turkmenistan. My card is a Mastercard. That means no money for today.
Without any luck whatsoever I start cycling to Tejen, which is about 120 kilometers. I meet with Ritzo at 8pm in the evening. Ritzo is a Dutch guy who is cycling around the world on some Dutch original wooden clogs. I met him at the Turkmen embassy in Tehran and we decided to cycle together for the five days in Turkmenistan. I was only assigned a different border crossing than Ritzo so we agreed on meeting somewhere inside Turkmenistan. Ritzo has no phone so we can’t communicate.
I feel very stressed. I’m not sharp anymore. I forgot my sun hat at the border. My sunglasses are broken. I almost forget my camera along the way. It’s very hot. I stop cycling to go hitchhiking. My whole energy has been drown by all things that happened today and yesterday. I stand beside the road for about two hours before someone stops and wants to take me. Turns out to be a taxi driver. I can’t pay him. A very nice man, whom I feel I have ripped off right now. Fortunately, after a complicated discussion, he lets me go.
At the time agreed with Ritzo I arrive at the train station in Tejen. No Ritzo. My water has also run out. A few local police officers help me fill bottles of water somewhere in a backyard. They are very sweet and kind to me. No idea if the water is drinkable. I have no other choice. I very much hope that Ritzo will come otherwise I have to ask people for food and drink. Ritzo is my last hope. It is getting dark and just when I really give up hope I arrives with a big smile.
What an incredible relief.
Ritzo not only has clogs but also dollars for emergency. I borrow a few from him. We find a camping spot close to a river. There are many mosquitoes. The immigration police arrive around midnight and we have to pack our tents and stuff again. Camping in Turkmenistan is prohibited. We get an escort to a hotel. We stay outside at the hotel. We explain that we will continue cycling to the city of Mary and get into a hotel over there. A difficult discussion follows. Ritzo is tenacious and so am I. We don’t just let ourselves be put in an expensive hotel. Eventually they take us to the main road that goes to Mary. The only road we officially are allowed to cross with our transit visa.
After a few kilometers of cycling we arrive at a checkpoint of the traffic police. There is a cop sitting at a table along the road. He stops cars and trucks that then approach him, give money and continue. Ritzo and the officer know each other from when Ritzo was on his way to meet me. The officer offers us a place to sleep on the roof at the office of this checkpoint. The officer asks if we fancy girls for entertainment. I wonder if he makes a joke or not.
July 10 – 110km (7726km)
At 6am we are woken up and we have to leave. The officer work shift is over. In the afternoon we go swimming in a lake one kilometer off the main road. We just dive into the cool lake, when a officer come to us and threaten to call the immigration police if we don’t go back to the main road. We are being monitored everywhere in one way or another.
The next three days we will have to cycle 310 kilometers in only desert. It is very hot during the day. It cools off to almost freezing temperatures during the night.
July 11 – 120km (7846km)
A relaxing day with six hours of cycling. To Mary. Ritzo takes a picture of some government building in Mary and immediately someone comes running outside. The guy is nice. Ritzo must immediately remove the photo from his camera. It is forbidden to take photos of government buildings or propaganda advertisements of the president, the man explains to us.
July 12 – 112km (7958km)
At 5am we wake up. Finally out at 7am. A tough and hot day. Invited to Peshi when we were hiding from the sun in the heat of the day at a train station. Ritzo almost did not pull it, his energy has run out. I’m still ok as it feels very heavy. Tomorrow we will have to do 80 to 100 kilometers to the border with Uzbekistan. We decide to get up at 4am to cycle in the coolness of the night. Every time we cycle away too late, making it too hot and kind of unbearable to keep cycling. The incredibly dry mouth that I have all the time is perhaps the worst.
Today we were in real desert and even saw a herd of wild camels. It really is quite an experience to be here. The world here really feels different from where I come from. Local people are selling watermelons along the road. We are often called and given a piece.
July 13 – 112km (8070km)
The last day in Turkmenistan. It is also the last day on our visa so we have to arrive on time at the border to leave the country. In the afternoon we cycle straight through Türkmenabat. The border crossing goes without many problems. I long for peace, meditation and just recharging from this intense days of the past week. I miss my phone (which got stolen in Iran), I miss editing photos and videos (which I did on that phone). I need some rest, I’m pretty exhausted. I miss Lisa, very much, especially in the desert and when I think about it I get tears in my eyes. When so many things are happening and being unable to contact home for days is difficult, very difficult. This week was perhaps the toughest of the entire journey until now.
A big lesson from these adventures is that happiness, or the pursuit of happiness in its essence, has no meaning. And I will explain you how I came to this insight.
These days I felt bad. I became a victim of my own naivety. At first, nothing seemed like a challenge to me, I felt like a prince on my bicycle. Until the moment that a number of things went pretty wrong. The crash. The continuous confrontation with authorities. The heat. Exhaustion made me more and more vulnerable. I learned in this way that traveling by bike is not all rainbow and sunshine. But strangely enough, these experiences were the most memorable of the entire journey.
I came across this quote: “The desire for positive experiences is a negative experience. Accepting negative experiences is a positive experience.” And let me give Mark Manson credits for this quote.
By this I don’t mean to say that we must ignore distraction, rest and the search for better, finer experiences. If I had a few more days like this you’d probably have to pick me up in a million pieces, as well as Ritzo. I think that overcoming a challenge and thus overcoming the emotions that come from achieving a challenging goal make us a stronger person.
An in average happier person.