At the border with Turkmenistan, I met a German cyclist who gave me a shirt with a big ‘I (love heart) ASHGABHAT’, very similar to the ‘I (love heart) NY’ t-shirts. He’d met some pro tennis players in Ashgabhat who happened to acquire a lot of mechandise they had no need for. He didn’t have need for any extra shirts either. It was a choice between that and a Nike shirt and, besides, this one was in a deep forest green!
I was all ready for my five-day sprint through Turkmenistan. Loaded up with food, snacks, fuel and having rested in Bukhara, I was sure I could easily cover the 450km to Iran. The road wasn’t too bad; the sun not so hot in the desert and, to be honest, the winds were kind. The officials at the border were curious and friendly, something I wasn’t expecting, and they welcomed me to the home.
I rode on through the desert, sleeping by the side of the road, usually hidden from view. There were the occasional respite areas, the odd checkpoint where I could get water, and so the journey was much easier than I was expecting. One sunny afternoon I saw a large storm approaching. It wasn’t like other storms;it looked different. It seemed black and began blocking out the afternoon sun. I tried at first to outrun it. It was late in the day, blue skies on the left, dark skies on the right. I rode for as long as I could but it was travelling faster than I could cycle. When it arrived it hit with a force I was expecting and I began swerving over the road. I thought it might help propel me along at first until after some time the road changed direction and it came with a full force on my right hand side. I found no rain. This was a sandstorm; after all I was in the desert!
At first I thought it was fun – a sandstorm – I’d never in my whole life been in one of those! It became dark all around, whisps of sand snaked over the road. I geared up with my waterproof clothes and was covered feet to head. But when I had to pull out the balaclava to cover my face and the sand started getting in my eyes so I could no longer see clearly, it soon dawned on me that this wasn’t fun at all. For about two hours I battled cycling in the storm. The sand and dirt got everywhere. It got into my gears; I got it in my hair, my shoes, in my eyes and in my mouth. It started becoming hard to breathe despite fully covering my face in two layers of bandanas. That’s when I knew if I didn’t find shelter soon I was in trouble.
The longer I stayed out in the storm, the harder it became to breathe. After perhaps three hours cycling in the dust, being pelted by coarse particles of sand and flying debris, I found a small railway outpost. It served as a signal station and it looked like there might be a few inhabited huts a few kilometers off the road. I pounded on the outside of one hut and pulled open this heavy outer wooden door against the full force of the wind. By this stage I was pretty desperate to get out of the storm and, by the look on my face, I would have taken any shelter they had. Some kind people showed me to an adjacent hut where I could stay the night. They fed me; I got a bath in dirty water and, most importantly, while the storm raged outside it was calm inside. By the late afternoon the storm had passed; the air was still; the sky blue again as if nothing had happened. The earth seamed to say, what was all that fuss about.
One policeman parked on the side of the road in the desert asked me for money to which I said I had none and he simply shrugged. Okay, easy I thought. Camels lined the side of the road and I liked the way the desert played with the edges. Once I reached some trading outposts the cycling became much easier. I went to the markets to buy some fresh dates, nuts and herbs and I was only one day from reaching Iran. I had plenty of time on my hands so I stopped in a park for the afternoon and had a herb and jam sandwich. Something so incredibly refreshing, I still remember it as one of the nicest sandwiches I’ve ever had. Perhaps it was because of the hard cycling across the desert that I’d earned a nice meal. Perhaps it was the amazingly fresh herbs, perhaps the nice people at the market or just the fact I was in the ancient city of Merv on the Silk Road. Whatever it was, I remember how good that sandwich and fresh fruit were. Leaving Turkmenistan I stopped to watched a cloud of sparrows following my path along the road. It was a group of perhaps thousands dancing together, diving across the road, seemingly following my bicycle for perhaps half and hour. They danced between the small trees and soared high in the air before swooping low right in front of my bicycle. It was a dance so dynamic, so fluid that it left me in awe. I was the only one there to see it.