20 Dec Stan
Five days for 500 kilometres. Vast desert distances with no water. The last ATM until Tashkent, over 1000km away. The whirlwind of propagandistic information absorbed approaching a new country, normally also entailing a somewhat exaggerated tale of the primitive savages that inhabit the next land… But instead of shaking my ass, I stand in a moment of bemusement. I snap out of the stare and realise that my eyes have been fixed on a shapely woman in a vivid green velvet dress filling her car at a petrol station I hadn’t realised until that moment how absorbed I had become in Iranian culture and my acceptance of a new ‘normal’. How bizarre to see a woman filling her own car! And wearing green! I was in Central Asia.
Dolly was loaded with supplies and bread of biblical proportions and we were on our way like Fred Flintstone with his dinosaur ribs. After a few kilometres, passport details are noted at a checkpoint and I’m ushered into the desert. Where maps have been steadily unravelling from the knotted roads and junctions of Europe to the parallel paths of Iran, now the paper is traversed by a single line, the one road crossing Eastern Turkmenistan.
The land is levelled, steady undulations of white and yellow sands punctuated by scrub under a cloudless sky. Canals that drain life from the Aral Sea resurrect it in these irrigated expanses, bringing food and jobs. I am stuck in a moral conundrum of what is right. ‘The Stans’ of Central Asia have begun and I race across the desert of Turkmenistan, putting in long days through beautiful desert. My mind wanders to the story of the Thistlelulu bird. A bird that flies round and round in ever decreasing circles until it flies up its own arse and disappears. It has been about 160 days since I started riding, the duration of the world record for cycling around the world and as I put in my own race against time, I wonder if society will ever stop our elitist pursuit of faster, richer, bigger and realise the pleasures of slow pace and simplicity.
Sleeping in Mud huts of cotton pickers, camping between the dunes under the clearest starry skies lit by enormous shooting stars, eagles and camels and a world full of dust. Turkmenistan amazed me with its natural beauty and hospitality and with its strange soviet cities that sit difficultly in this country of previously nomadic people but before I knew it I’d crossed the border into Uzbekistan.
The repetitive scrub of the Steppe made the Silk Road Oases of Bukhara and Samarkand all the more incredible. Like taking your granny away from her knitting and throwing her into a wrestling ring, cycling out of cold unrelenting cotton fields and into these historical wonders of ancient societies and global centres of education punched me with the fist of culture. Arches and the wondrous architecture of Medressas and Bazaars cloaked towns in swoops of domes coated in deep blue tile and faded dry dirt. I was Indiana Jones as I strolled through the spice markets and unrecognisable instruments. Cloth and fabrics of the richest colours and jewellery with perfect blue stones lined the stalls of the boutique artisans, serenity perfectly juxtaposed by the chaos of the farmers markets sheltered under prefabricated corrugated iron.
In these towns I found peace, time to truly relax in a space of near silence. I could sit and read in the fading warmth of late Autumn before eating home cooked meals and tucking myself in for a cosy night in deserted hostels. The tourist season was over and as my water began to freeze in the tent at night, I realised why.