Cycling the Silk Road

"One Nation, One Man, Turkmenbashi!"
Notes from different corners of the world.
Feb. 14 2007 7:22 AM

Cycling the Silk Road

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The lunacy of Turkmenistan in the days of Turkmenbashi.

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Cycling's great, but nothing beats the comfort of a long bus ride through the winding roads of eastern Turkey. Turkmenistan's visa is as hard to get as Madonna tickets: We dropped our application off in Ankara after being told in Istanbul that a visa wasn't possible. For days afterward we called the embassy and heard, "Maybe Monday." On the fourth of those Mondays, I called and was told they were ready. It took two days, but I made it to Ankara and found the embassy.

Inside was a man who seemed like he couldn't even be interested in solitaire. He told me to come back in an hour for the visas. When I did, he told me to return at 5 or 6 in the evening, by which time I was pretty sure the embassy would be closed. "No," I told him, and I sat down. Fifteen minutes later, I had our visas. And then it was back on the buses.

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I met up with Mikey and Cam, and we biked through Georgia to the capital of Azerbaijan, the port city of Baku. (While I'd been gone, they'd spent the night in a Georgian jail for not being in possession of their passports, which I had. But that's another story.) We sailed out of the oil-rig-littered harbor aboard one of those rusting Soviet-era cargo ferries that you see in the news when something goes wrong. We were 14 hours behind schedule.

That was nothing. We sailed through the night, and as morning broke, we eagerly climbed out on deck to watch as the port city of Turkmenbashi, named after the president, came into focus. And then we stopped, the anchor was dropped, and there we stayed. For two days. The best explanation anyone could give us for our extended stay aboard this freighter was that Turkmenbashi—the president this time—was in some oil-related dispute with Azerbaijan, and so he was making things difficult for Azeri ships. (Turkmenbashi, or Saparmurat Niyazov, succumbed to a massive heart attack on Dec. 21, 2006.)

With two days eaten out of our five-day transit visa, biking was out of the question. We had to book it down to Ashgabat, the capital. Unfortunately, that afternoon's $2 state-subsidized flight was booked, so we had to fall back on the 50-cent state-subsidized overnight hard-bench train.

In the center of Ashgabat, there stands an enormous earthquake memorial. A tremendous bull crouches with a broken and shattered Earth balanced on his horns. Out of a crack in the Earth, a woman kneels, holding up a golden child above the destroyed world. That golden child is Turkmenbashi, Turkmenistan's recently deceased egomaniacal dictator.

We came to Turkmenistan because it is mysterious and closed off to the rest of the world—and to experience the wild and wacky antics of Turkmenbashi. In the capital, there is a several-hundred-foot tall statue of him, which rotates, following the sun throughout the day. The entire city is covered in his plush new palaces. His face is everywhere, always watching. We were wandering through some barren hills in the desert in the middle of nowhere one day and saw that his favorite slogan—"One Nation, One Man, Turkmenbashi!"—was etched into the hillside with huge rocks. There are few street signs but many posters advertising his book. In order to go to college in Turkmenistan, you have to excel at a test on his book. It is as if there were no past or present in the country—only Turkmenbashi.

To show that he was a man of the people, he insisted on driving his own car, a black Mercedes given to him as a gift from the automaker. Never mind that he had the roads shut down twice a day when he drove to and from his new palace in the middle of the city.

Taking a page from Peter the Great, Turkmenbashi once donned a fake beard so that he could ask people on the street what they thought of him. Emerging from his presidential vehicle, he was not surprised by what he heard: Everybody loved him. Outside the sterile capital, things are not so clear. Just before we left, as we rested in a small town close to the Uzbek border, an old, beat-up Lada pulled up. Two guys jumped out, ran to a shop window, chugged beers, and raced back to their car. Then they spotted us. A very drunken, grizzled man gave me a vicelike handshake, smiling toothlessly. He promptly pulled out a manat bill with Turkmenbashi's face on it and slurred, "Fud Turkmenbashi." Noticing our puzzled faces, he repeated louder, "Fud Turkmenbashi!"—this time with his middle finger prominently raised.

We laughed, "Oh, fuck Turkmenbashi." He nodded and shouted, "Fuck Turkmenbashi!" wiping the bill with Turkmenbashi's face up and down the back of his pants.

The men hopped in their car and peeled out. We asked the ones who remained at the shop the way to Uzbekistan. They responded with fingers pointing in three different directions and quoting distances from 12 to 100 miles. We smiled, picked a road at random, and asked again a minute down the road, "Is this the way to Uzbekistan?" "No, Afghanistan." Glad we asked. The last miles of the Turkmen desert were tough because of our beards, which, we discovered, Turkmenbashi sporadically banned. We grew them in a blind attempt to fit in, but they had the opposite effect. We were constantly mistaken for Iranians, Chechens, and Afghans. You're almost better off being mistaken for an American.

The Uzbek border guards were friendly and spoke English well. They don't ask for any "bicycle fees" or outright bribes; there was even a nest filled with baby birds in the immigration building. But the desert of Uzbekistan is no more fun to ride through than that of Turkmenistan. The sun is blazing, the only water available is hot and salty, and there was a constant, fierce wind blowing sand in our eyes.

From three or four miles away, I spotted the tall, turquoise domes of Bukhara shining through 100 degrees of desert haze. A thousand years ago, Bukhara was an important stop on the Silk Road. Today, it's impossible to walk 100 feet without coming across a mosque, madrassah, or mausoleum. Intricately carved wooden doors open onto the courtyards of mud-brick houses, with beautifully cultivated grape vines. The thousand-year-old minaret from which the emir used to throw criminals is still standing. From the top, you can see the entire city. "The Ark" is the most imposing structure on the horizon—a steeply walled castle with rooms designated for enemies of the emir to suffer such indignities as being beaten while stuffed in a sack full of cats to being locked in a pit of bugs for years and beheaded upon release.

The descendants of such vicious rulers have calmed down since then: Bukhara is now a tourist attraction. The mosques and madrassahs serve dual functions—sometimes for prayer, always for profit. Rather than Uzbeks receiving Islamic education inside the madrassahs, you'll find German tourists buying plates, silk rugs, weavings, camel's wool socks, and Muslim hats. In one mosque, there was a tall piece of plywood, painted with life-sized figures dressed for the desert. Where their faces should be, there was a hole for tourists to put theirs. I walked into one madrassah, for which I was charged an entrance fee, and there was a tightrope set up in the middle of the school. In and around all these historic buildings was the ubiquitous soft-serve ice cream dispenser. At roughly 10 cents a cone, every male and female from 1 to 100 indulges daily.

Uzbekistan is fairly liberal. There were women in headdresses and burqas, but most women were dressed in styles that wouldn't seem out of place in the United States. The women have freedom in what they wear, but men still offered them to us like cups of tea. One afternoon we were offered our Russian waitress. She didn't seem to mind and merely waited for a response. I declined for two reasons: general revulsion at the idea of prostitution and the thick unibrow, which is totally in vogue in Uzbekistan.

The Ferghana Valley, our next stop, boasts the most fertile soil and is the most densely populated of all areas in Central Asia. It is also the most fundamentally religious, and consequently is the birthplace of most of the Islamic extremist groups in the area. The valley is shared by Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan. We cycled to the top of the pass that formed the rim of the valley. I started downhill and within minutes was being followed by a van. I slowed down to see what they wanted, hoping it wasn't my head. For the next 10 minutes, I coasted downhill and chatted in Russian as the passengers fed me cold slices of watermelon through the window.

We always made a point to reveal our nationality and were never beheaded or berated by any Islamic extremists for being Americans. The Uzbeks we met were extreme in only two respects: growing and giving apricots. We cycled through miles of orchards, some trees so heavily laden with apricots that their branches were breaking under the weight. If we were seen, we were invited into people's homes. Upon hearing where we were from, some farmers even filled our panniers with as many apricots as could fit.

Sometimes we were given nasty looks. But, as I learned from the drunken Georgians, the best thing to do when someone looks like they want to murder you is to approach him. At one of our first restaurant stops in the Ferghana Valley, there were six men out front, all wearing Muslim caps. I picked one who was giving me the evil eye, looked straight at him, smiled, and held out my hand. When he shook it, I touched my heart and said, "Salaam aleikum." They were immediately disarmed.

This approach worked almost every time, but when it didn't, all I had to do was ask the dude if he agrees with everything his government does.

Mike Church contributed to this piece.

Greg Grim lives in Washington, D.C., and builds bogs and does carpentry in Annapolis, Md.Mike Church lives and works in Annapolis, Md., where he builds bogs and does carpentry. The third cyclist, Campbell Moore, is serving in the Peace Corps in Gambia.