We learnt today, 17 August, of the passing in Brisbane of our good friend Keith. We have known Keith and Olivia since we moved to Brisbane in 1989, by frequenting the Oriental Bangkok Thai Restaurant in Spring Hill. Keith and Olivia enhanced our limited knowledge of Thai cuisine and Australian red wine in those early days in Australia. A friendship grew from those days and has continued ever since. Keith, we will miss your stories, your humour and the twinkle in your eye. To Olivia, Kelly and Kim, our heartfelt condolences, and our thoughts are with you in this difficult time.
It is hard being away from loved ones when they have been ill, or in hospital… We continue our discoveries with a heavy heart…
(Post updated 19/9/14 with photos)
Khiva was a complete surprise to me. I had done no research, leaving that to Anne, so was initially under the false assumption that we were to see a city of ruins. What a wonderful revelation. As we walked the paved streets, among the buildings and walls, the sellers of sunglasses, toys, food and souvenirs made me realise that nothing had changed here in hundreds of years, only the products being sold. We would like to stay longer but we are already a day into our five day Turkmenistan transit visa, so we need to move on.
We now had to reach the Turkmenistan border some 70-80 kms away. The crossing we had selected was less frequented so we hoped for a quicker crossing with less traffic. An hour later, following the GPS route, we are looking at an earth barrier across the road, and surrounded by Uzbekistan soldiers from the adjacent army border post. No sign of customs or immigration here! Wrong Way Go Back? Err no!! We are now caught up in some army admin. process and cannot leave – they speak no English, so we must wait. We manage to hold onto our passports at first, but when lunchtime comes, the soldiers realise that if they take our passports, they do not need to leave anyone outside. It is never good to be separated from your passport – the power to leave has transferred to someone else and you are now dependent on their actions.
We spend time watching kids play, sheep eating, and soldiers wandering in and out to look at the bikes. All attempts at communication are met with sign language we take to mean just five minutes more. We give the children some Australia kangaroo stickers, and later they return with lovely fresh tomatoes for us.
The arrival of a policeman means we can leave with him and the resulting army paperwork and our passports which he holds onto to find an government interpreter back in the last village. We know we have done nothing wrong, but still have no idea why we had to wait for three hours. We are then told by the interpreter, ‘no problems, we have done nothing wrong and we can go’, once again in German, our strange language of communication which seems to pop up in places on this trip. Many German speakers were displaced after the Second World War in this region and their children today still have the language.
We think that all this waiting was a process that needed to be followed by all concerned once it had started. No point in getting frustrated as this is part and parcel of travelling. We have lost three hours so today’s travel plan is history. We need to backtrack and find the open crossing some 10km further north. As we ride on, we are feeling that we do not want this pointless delay to affect our view of the Uzbekistan people, we stop to check directions and a man comes from his house with a bottle of cold water for us. Confirmation of the wonderful nature of the Uzbek people and their generosity. I now understand why Uzbekistan requires visitors to prove they have stayed in hotels every night of their stay as without this, the Uzbek people would probably invite all the tourists home and the hotels would be empty!
The real border crossing between Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan is discovered and crossed in the usual four hours, two per side – see border crossings for more details of this process.
We travel as far as Dasoguz, where both the Turkmen border officials and the GPS indicate only one hotel in the city, which seems a little strange for a city of that size, but we find it ok. However no room for us, they are full. We can however stay at the annex, which is three buildings and one street away, an odd building with our room containing six beds, formally a function room with a shower and giant spar bath down the hall. Our first night in Turkmenistan.
Riding from Dasoguz we are heading for the Darvaza Crater, more commonly known as the “Door to Hell” en route to Ashkabat. This crater was created in 1971 when a Soviet drilling rig collapsed into an underground cavern releasing natural gas. The engineers at the time decided to burn off the resultant escaping gas for health reasons, the result of which is still burning some 43 years later, even longer than I have known Anne, with no sign of it, or us, ever ending.
The road south has four lanes, except 2 are unused and appear to have been so for some time. These lanes are used for overnight parking and from time to time disappear completely. Our two lanes vary from quite reasonable to heavily potholed. At one point as my suspension bottoms out again, I end up swinging onto the dirt, with my handlebars moving side to side, not quite a tank-slapper, but the ground starts to look awfully close at times, bit more power and out of trouble I get, I am lucky. (Anne says she did not enjoy seeing that, but did remember to shout “relax the shoulders” which helps).
Each day has been hotter than the last with the mercury creeping past 40 degrees Celsius. We stock up on water and now have over 17 litres between us. As we ride closer to our destination, the temperature rises, we pass 43 degrees Celsius and peak at 45 degrees. Water is going down fast, but not fast enough for us to spot a leak in a water bottle that has become damaged on the rough road. This combines with a damaged tin of fish to create a small pond in our wonderfully water tight Jesse aluminium motorcycle top-box. The water then flowed into my documents, money, my iPad mini and various assorted pieces of equipment. Sadly Water and iPad do not mix well, especially when you move the iPad and see water running on the inside of the screen. I had been wondering how to get rid of the petrol smell in my top-box from an earlier refuelling exercise from additional fuel storage, problem now solved, the smell of fishy water replacing the petrol smell.
The GPS had indicated some sort of Park entrance for the Davarza crater, however that information was long out of date and Anne’s research indicted 10km of dirt and deep sand, way beyond our off-road capabilities. We found a local ‘fixer’ who arranged for a 4 wheel drive (4WD) to take us to the crater. Another couple arranged for us to stay with a local road construction crew camp who were established on the hillside near the almost invisible track to the crater. Going up the first sandy hill, reminding us of soft beach sand driving in Queensland, validated that we had made the right decision of hiring a 4WD. Sliding from side to side, up and down we moved closer to the crater. I had not seen pictures so had no idea what to expect. We crest a rise and below is a brown barren visa with a 70 meter diameter crater holding centre stage with flames burning all along the far side. Quite spectacular. We approach closer on foot and see dozens and dozens of separate gas fuelled flames burning, we can feel the heat but are wary of getting too close to the edge in case of overhangs.
We spend time, watching and reflecting on nature’s power from a hilltop as the sun goes down and Anne taking an amazing variety of photographs. This is a remote unique out of the way place, but a must, if you pass this way. Off to our road camp for a night’s sleep in our tent and 5am start to get on the road by 7am before the heat builds up.
While we have avoided the early morning heat, we now have to contend the morning commuter rush of sheep, goat and camel herds moving out to graze. Sheep and goats at least have the decency to stay close together as they cross the road, camels do not and will cross in their time, not yours. Still, adds to the riding fun!
Garmin, our GPS maker, do not produce or sell detailed maps of the Asian regions, so we rely on free maps downloaded from third party websites. Some of these maps do not support route planning in all areas as we found when we approached Ashgabat, the capital of Turkmenistan in search of our preferred hotel, the Nisa (or Nusay), in the centre of town. As we have only one night, a central location makes sense.
My navigation is based on using a target pin on the GPS map and navigating right and left down the streets reducing the distance to destination; I am sure there is a better way, but this works for us. We started to see massive gold painted statues of the former President from time to time – while he died some eight years ago, his presence is still around for all to see.
We wend our way towards the GPS target pin, around one way streets then suddenly we were alongside the President’s Palace! We had heard that the structures were lavish in the centre, but I had not seen pictures: something to behold. I tried to think of what they reminded me of, British Palaces, French Chateaux – neither seemed to fit. Then it came to me, those old Hollywood movies that featured the buildings of Imperial Rome with all their grandeur, designed to impress those of us from the colonies. A roundabout with the column topped by a three headed eagle is the centre piece, with our selected hotel on one corner, looking like a Government building across from the Ministry of Defence and the Presidential Palace. What a location!
We check in and ask for a room overlooking the President’s Palace, but are given a room on the other side instead – must be because we look like dirty unwashed bikers who have been sleeping in the desert. We explore the hotel and find a passage way with a great view of the palace and a perfect photo location. On a nearby wall is a floor plan, which shows that no room overlooks the Presidential Palace, all have windows angled away or look into internal spaces. At least we can see out.
We walk up the road between our hotel and the Ministry of Defence, past giant gates, fountains and trees, air conditioned bus stops and cameras on every lamppost. No photos allowed of Government buildings or our hotel and reportedly if you take one you will be made to delete it, or worse, loose your memory card. At the shopping centre entrance, I am given a flyer for iPads: great, we go to the store and one hour later I am back in business with a new iPad mini, same as before and on which this blog entry was written. I thought I would have to wait until Dubai to replace the waterlogged model.
As night falls, we take our last photos of the Presidential Palace and the street outside, which a local referred to as “the dead road”. You may have noticed in the previous photos no traffic, as this video confirms:
In addition, at night, the painted lines reveal they are lights. A single policeman and a small no entry sign are the only deterrents to travelling up this street, but they really work, given the volume of traffic: no one, including us, want to find out what awaits on the “Dead Road”. We will leave that to braver souls than ourselves.
PS. Photos and Videos have proved impossible to load in Iran, we have tried for a week, so to keep you all updated we will go to text only and add the photos when we get to Dubai.