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How to cycle through Turkmenistan in five days

Kieran Rowley's picture
Downhillfromhere in Turkmenistan. Cycle Traveller

The 'Desert Dash' is a notorious route through Turkmenistan that involves cycling 500km's in five days through the Karakum (or Black Sand) Desert.

It exists because super secretive Turkmenistan (the North Korea of Central Asia) will only give you a five-day transit visa unless you hire an expensive guide, and if you are cycling from Iran into Central Asia, it is the only overland route.

On paper the route itself is not that difficult as it is completely flat. However, add in the infamously strong headwinds that blow from North to South and the pot-holed sorry excuse for the 'road' (singular), and you end up with a route to make you cry softly into your non-alcoholic malt beverage beer while planning the trip in Iran.

Pushing through the desert, Turkmenistan. Cycle TravellerSo we apprehensively turned up at 8am sharp at the border crossing. Every hour was crucial now. We nervously waited as the teenage border guards (presumably on their first day of work experience) painstakingly picked their way through our passports, bags and a pile of paperwork. Watching the clock and hoping that someone senior would soon come and rubber stamp our passports.

They eventually let us depart at 10am (which is pretty good going since we had heard of cyclists left twiddling their thumbs until well past midday) and we headed out on our 500km odyssey. The first thing we did was cheat. We had heard about a short-cut that would reduce the route by 40km's, the only problem was that we had no idea what the road (or lack thereof) was going to be like, but luckily it was almost tarmac and the potholes were so big we could easily avoid them.

As can probably be guessed, the next five days were spent with early pre-dawn wake ups and spending the afternoon desperately trying to get out of the sun. The worst part of the desert dash is that you do not have time to explore or connect with the places you pass by and the people you see. We caught glimpses of women in beautiful long dresses and interesting buildings, but we still had another 80km's to do that day, so a smile and a wave was the best we could do.

On the fifth and final day we cycled into Turkmenabat. The road was lined with spotless white marble buildings and the entire place looked empty, but if you looked behind the new buildings you could sometimes glimpse a real mud brick house, children playing in the street, or women preparing the evening meal.

Natasha with locall girls in traditional dress. Cycle TravellerJust when we thought we were almost at the border, the road turned left and we were back in the desert! It was another 

50km from Turkmenabat to the border, but we had plenty of time, despite our usual 4 hour siesta. We had done it, we had completed the Desert Dash without being arrested or deported or worse. But we had seen nothing of the country but the desert, had only a few fleeting conversations with the locals and ultimately feel like we know less about Turkmenistan that when we entered.

But we do consider ourselves lucky, we didn't meet that famous desert headwind!

For the full story see our blog.

Kieran Rowley and Natasha von Memerty are currently cycling from England to South East Asia, you can follow their adventure here:

Images from top: 1. Three people jumping: Kieran, Natasha and an Italian cyclist Mauro on completion of the desert dash. 2. Pushing our bikes out of camp. 3. The beautiful dresses the Turkmen ladies wear.

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Crazy, I had no idea about the visa restrictions in Turkmenistan. Must have been strange to "dash" through it so fast. Great story, thanks for telling it.

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