Day 28. Hotel Asiya, Ashgabat, Turkmenistan. A morning off, before an afternoon ride north into the desert. Peculiar breakfast, then flag down a random car in the street for a ride into town. Seems they don’t do taxis here. Town is wierd. Loads of big buildings, sculpture, fountains, but seemingly empty. Very strange place. Then back to the air conditioned cool of the hotel to fight another bout of food poisoning. At 2 we’re waiting for our guides, in the hottest part of the day, and they arrive 15 minutes late. Then dave’s bike won’t start, and we spend more time in the sun fixing it. Then a 170 mile ride north to the gas crater. It’s pretty much a straight road but we’re leaning to the left the whole way because of the wind, which is blowing sand across the road and scouring my neck. It’s a very harsh environment, the heat is extreme. Dave has his day of hell with the food poisoning. Our guides stop at a small town to buy water and drink fermented camel milk. Dave and i dare not try it with our food poisoning. Another 4×4 arrives, carrying another guide and two slovak doctors on vacation, they join the convoy. The locals are more interested in our bikes, the tourists in the camels. Leaving the town our guides unexpectedly lead up over a sand dune, in which we almost have accidents and get stuck. In the blazing heat we have to unstick the bikes, several times and retreat the way we came in. Turns out they were just taking a short cut anyway. It really didn’t do us any favours. With a hurt back, a stubbed toe, more heat exhaustion, and the realisation that we will not be able to ride to the crater on road tyres, we continue for a while before leaving the bikes at a railroad guard hut and transfering to the guides 4×4 for a white knuckle, stomach churning ride over 7km of sand dunes courtesy of Oleg, who seems to know how to drive on sand but also seems to be a bit crazy and shakes a lot, probably from too much vodka. Arriving at the gas crater is like arriving at the mouth of hell. Intense heat, flames licking around all sides of this huge crater, an orange glow even in daylight. It’s hard to describe, even harder to photograph. We set up camp, our guides set up for a feast of food and vodka, and the drinking and non-stop talking in russian go on till about 3 am. Unfortunately instead of joining in, dave retires to his tent to recover from the illness, while i spend a night suffering with violent vomiting and diarrhea in the desert, with the heat making it so much worse.
Today i have seen: 350 miles of desert. Camels. A man carrying a sheep while riding a motorbike. Temperatures in the 40s. Russian dumplings and "turkmen cola". The world’s biggest flagpole. And Ashgabat, a totally insane collection of pristine white tower blocks, like a life size plaster cast of new york dumped in the desert. The buildings are intricate and elaborate, the architecture totally bonkers. Baku was a shock, and totally at odds with the rest of azerbaijan, but turkmenistan is even emptier and ashgabat is even odder.
We spend another day waiting on the ferry. Running out of food, running out of water. Running out of patience. Why is nothing happening? Finally at 6 the engines start, anchors are pulled in, and we head for port. At about 1mph. It takes forever to dock, even slower than the baku end, which would have seemed impossible 2 days ago. Then we’re called to an upper deck room where a russian in a nurses uniform copies passport details and makes us sign. No idea why. We go to the cargo deck and unstrap the bikes, dwarfed by the freight rail carriages. Suddenly there seems to be a dozen other passengers on the boat that we never saw before, all sitting calmly waiting. Two uniformed guards patrol the ramp, ensuring noone disembarks. They are about 12 years old, armed with hip flasks. Reminds me of the guard at baku, wearing camouflage gear and school shoes, with a sniffer dog that couldn’t jump up onto a lorry trailer. We stand around for an hour while nothing happens. It’s 9ish but still so hot, mossies everywhere. Eventually, a gesture to leave. We fire up the bikes and enjoy about 3 seconds riding before being directed to stop near the customs house. We don’t notice that our parking spot is the wrong side of the rail tracks. I can’t possibly describe the next 3 hours of customs procedures, i’ll fill it in later. Enough to say that it involves about 14 pieces of paper, the world’s slowest writer who makes me want to slap his hand away and fill in the form for him, a form with a map showing our permitted route from which we must not deviate, another pathetic attempt to extract a bribe, which we ignore long enough for it to go away, visits to 7 different booths for stamps, about 20 signatures, and a $110 payment. Without our local guide, Maksat, being on hand, we would be lost. After the most agonisingly slow process, we are told to retrieve our bikes for customs inspection and then we will be able to leave. Relieved, we head out to the bikes, only to find our way blocked by the train loading up the next ferry. The engine is running full tilt, but the wheels are just spinning, sparks flying, it can’t push the wagons up the ramp. It takes forever, and the first half chance we get, we dash across the tracks, fire up the bikes and race across, before the train can come back. A quick customs inspection and we’re free, out into turkmenistan at about half past midnight, three days and two nights after arriving at baku ferry port. We make it to the hotel at 1 in the morning. It’s a bizarre tower in the desert, but it looks quite posh. We’re are so dehydrated, tired and dirty that it looks like heaven. First action is to take a shower, but there’s no water from the taps. I call reception. Sorry, no water between 1pm and 6am. So, to bed, still tired and dirty. What a day.
Now at anchor off the coast of Turkmenistan. A long day, spent mostly trying to sleep in a very uncomfortable bunk. The boat isn’t going to dock today. We spend a whole day conserving food and water. It feels a bit like being adrift. I think of robinson crueso.
Checking out of the Red Lion involved a moment of concern when the bill was announced as $700. After paying a much more reasonable but still more than planned $342, we took a 5 minute terror ride (in a taxi) to the ferry port. Relieved to see bikes still present and unmolested, we went to the ticket office (a man in a hut). The ferry is here, but can’t dock because of high wind (it’s a little breezy). Come back 2 (2 hours? 2 o’clock?). An american couple on bicycles arrive to see if the Aktau ferry is here. It isn’t. They’ve been cycling for 9 months. 2 hours later, same story. This time the man gets his daughter on the phone to translate. She tells us what he managed to say last time, the only difference being 5 instead of 2. We kill time till 5. Try a cafe where it takes 2 hours for the waitress to fail to serve us. Back to the ferry. Still no boat, more waiting. Trying to sleep on the bike. Eventually, get sold ticket. Dude makes big deal of reducing the price, even gives up back $10 "for vodka". Of course he’s probably charged us way over the real rate and pocketed the difference. $190 each doesn’t seem to bad. More waiting. The ferry appears, docks, and nothing happens for what seems like 3 days. Then some fat idiot extracts another $10 from us for who knows what, says port over and over. Then suddenly a customs check. They tell us to take luggage off and put it through the scanner. We take about a third. Idiot thinks my gps is a radio and for a minute it looks like trouble, then nothing. The train finishes loading. We roll on, tie down the bikes, captain takes passports, annoying. Discover we have cabin. It is gross. Mad woman shows us the toilet. It is like a horror film. Still waiting for boat to move. Now after 2 am. This doesn’t even begin to describe much waiting and bureaucracy we’ve endured today.