We set off and I pop in a little Willie Nelson on the headset to get the day started. As I understand, I am limited from taking photos of government buildings, people, cities, general buildings, and or various other historical artifacts (pretty much everything). I’ve read blogs online where the military has taken entire photo cards due to a couple of “restricted” photos. With this in mind, I decide not to risk it and will need to resort to some Internet stock photos.
The road is a long, straight shot through the desert with some areas of dunes, dried up grassland, and small towns or villages. About 5 miles outside of Turkmenbashi, the sky is much darker and the view very limited. It doesn’t take long and we’re in a full-blown sandstorm. The wind is howling, my bike feels like it’s at a 45 deg angle to the ground leaning into the wind – brutal. The road quickly starts drifting over with sand and it’s down to one lane in many areas. I have sand blowing up into my helmet making it hard to see anything; it reminds me of a Montana snow storm, only hot and the sand stings when it hits my face.
Wind can be punishing. It’s not at all like driving a car in the wind. On a bike with high wind conditions, one has to constantly and physically controlling the bike. Let down your guard for a moment and you could be thrown into the ditch, another vehicle, guardrail, etc. It’s the gusts of wind that toss me around; I’ll be leaning into it and a truck passes that adds another 40 mph to the existing and I get flung to one side or the other. Your neck and back muscles start to ache as you head is constantly being pushed over at an odd angle and your helmet is being pulled up, pulled to the side as well as pulled off. I think it can be one of the most challenging and physically draining conditions one can ride through. Today was absolutely punishing with the wind and the stinging sand on top of it.
We stop in a small village where the Sand People live, for a quick bite. I’m served a bowl of boiled sheep meet, bread, and a salad consisting of 1 quartered tomato, a few sticks of cucumber, and a scoop of fresh goats cheese on the top; simple meal, but tastes great. As much as I didn’t want to, I turn down a jug of fresh camel milk as I don’t think my stomach can handle it. I certainly don’t need an accident on the road.
I’ve ready horror stories of Turkmenistan, but so far it’s a typical goat and sheep herding country. As we approach Ashgabat, I’m reminded to pull over so we can wash the car and bike before entering the city. Apparently there are strict vehicle cleanliness laws for the city, and it shows. This place is mind blowing! Fueled by natural gas money, the city is spectacular. There aren’t any high-rise structures like Dubai, or flashy showpieces as Baku or Vegas, but real solid looking buildings all done in a color-coordinated fashion of off white and gold. The buildings look substantial, well grounded and very well done. I am absolutely blown away at the amount of large white government, business and housing structures; each complimenting the next in a very out of this world look. With such limited access to foreigners, Ashgabat isn’t a name that I’ve ever heard rank with the most amazing cities in the word, but it’s certainly a feast for the eyes. I feel as if I’m in some futuristic government controlled town where everything looks the same – oh wait, I am.
After checking into my hotel, I head down one of the main streets looking for an ATM, food, and Internet. I spend the next couple of hours at the State Department Store, which has everything I need. State Dept. Stores as they’re commonly known in Asia are basically open department stores with a host of items; you can usually get about everything you need at these facilities. Other than this one being extremely nice, it reminds me of the State Building in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia. It’s always a great stop for travelers.
I’m sure their here somewhere, but I don’t notice any foreigners and I certainly capture the eye of almost everyone. The people have been very friendly, but expectantly a little standoffish until approached. I’m back to an area of pretty solid Russian dialect, so communicating is again much easier than in the “Russian Slang” countries I’ve just passed through. I get caught up on my business at hand and head back to my roach hotel.