Day 19: Eshqabad to Quchon
After buying an armful of bread, jam and cartons of fruit juices for breakfast we left our community accommodation and wound around a couple of roundabouts painted in white and sky blue. The sun was already mid way up and the wind across the plain was from the west and blowing so strongly we were all riding on the left edge of our tyres. A weather front lay to the east, rolling down the mountains covering us with specs of rain. Mac took the lead and kept the speed high as spots of sunlight shone through the thick low lying cloud. By 9.30am we reached Doruneh and once again were stopped at a police check point whilst our passports were interrogated as we hung around in the blustery wind. "Shiny Dyson..." and Shayne was called forward to collect his passport, "Iron Mgoo..." for Iain MacGregor and then pointing at one of the riders heads he suddenly shouted "Gonads..." We were not sure who he was referring to or whether he thought a bald head with a bit of bum fluff looked like a testicle, but another passport was handed out.
Looking out over the plains a thick mist hung on the ground, presumably the moisture feeding the miserable looking plant life wrapped around strips of wind strewn plastic bags. "Andrews Greenon...how old?" And as he stepped forward he said he couldn't believe he was only 42!" And so another hour of our riding day was based on hanging around having our names read out, and ages broadcast to everyone. Trucks pulled up and were let through whilst slowly the sun continued to shine ever more brightly so starting to burn away the mist. Michael Burt had a sex change and became "Michelle Beret..." continuing the tradition of how a mal functioning voice recognition system translates into what was evidently a style of humour completely by-passing the Iranians. "Givin MacOnion...?" and so he read through the group until everyone became acquainted with their new name.
Slightly to the west of here, through the dull haze, salt pans of unimaginable proportions spread like a kind of geographical wound that could never heal. Part of the Dasht-e Kavir, literally ‘desert of salt-marsh’ and also known as the Great Salt Desert, lay in the middle of the Iranian plateau. Sitting below the window of the border post the riders continued to wait for their names to be called, each collecting their passports. As a child I read Wilfred Thesiger’s ‘Arabian Sands’ and in one of his descriptions of life in the desert he wrote, “passing generations have left fire-blackened stones at camping sites, a few faint tracks polished on the gravel plains. Elsewhere the winds wipe out their footprints. Men live there because it is the world into which they were born; the life they lead is the life their forefathers led before them; they accept hardships and privations; they know no other way. Lawrence wrote in Seven Pillars of Wisdom, "bedouin ways were hard, even for those brought up in them and for strangers terrible: a death in life." No man can live this life and emerge unchanged. He will carry, however faint, the imprint of the desert…”
This was in fact a prophetic thing Thesiger said. Several riders were now sitting on their saddles with clenched buttocks, not because the Iranians had squandered their official duties by buggering us all with their truncheons, but because of something they had probably eaten.
The run from the police post to Sabzevar crossed a treeless plain and having anticipated more police waiting for us at the outskirts of town I made them work for their paranoia by suggesting they escort us to a restaurant for light lunch. Decorated crudely with a spectrum of styles randomly picked from psychedelic to baroque, this hotel was clearly the select place in town. Packets of napkins and key rings were handed out as gifts whilst the choice of food was chicken kebabs or not eat. We fueled as always expecting not to see gas stations other than near main centres of populations. Sometimes you see ‘Integrated Service Stations’ on four lane highways in the middle of the country but not out in the boonies where a trip to the cinema must include a migration across a sizeable chunk of Persia. In Central Asia, frivolities like popcorn and usherettes are not quite part of the overall plan. Several notable sized towns on the map did not appear to exist at ground level but then the speed of the group had begun to exceed normal parametres. Considering we were heading towards the centre of the earth in terms of geographical landmass, we were arguably an extraordinarily long way from a place where you can have pins put in your bones to hold them together. Scott the pipe smoker from Fife was hanging onto his handlebars as if his life depended on it as the wind whipped increasingly into a frenzy, I knew, like all of us, he hoped not to be the only person to be blown in a field.
Everyone was bolted down to their seats as the lightness of the bikes and heaviness of their loads created alarming shifts of line. As the road narrowed to two lanes each the width of a truck, oncoming vehicles appeared larger and more frequently and the chance of being thrown into their path was not an idle threat. Bikes rattled and were strewn; physically pushed and grabbed at by turbulence and eddies, some of which must have started hundreds of miles away. In terms of size, the concept of Central Asia is unimaginably huge and like blips on a radar screen seen from space we could be seen edging imperceptibly closer to its middle.
Robbie came out of the garage with four iced lollies and instead of offering me one he simply said it was for his team and this gave me an idea. So purchasing 20 and handing them to the police officers and army personal who were about to escort us to that nights temporary lodgings, a joined up feeling began to trade between us and them. Some of the riders begrudged the controlling aspect of their involvement, immutably corralled by the Iranian Secret Service. Arguably after everything these people have read, the last thing they’re going to apologise for is their paranoia and the Iranian police have, for two days been complicit in providing us with what we thought was unnecessary security for the past 48 hours. In actual fact it was nothing of the sort except that to have a foreigner have a problem on their patch would by western media be turned into an incident. At the entry points of each major town and city, a green banded patrol car had been assigned to lead us safely through a series of conurbations. We didn’t see any danger, suffering only the extreme friendliness of Iranian people which is beyond explanation, but very beautiful. Perhaps as in all countries there is an underbelly of criminality which would be naive of us to ignore, but it hadn’t touched us yet, neither here nor anywhere else on route. 80 kilometres from the border of Turkmenistan, exotic tales of smuggled goods are part of local folklore; stories of opiates and arms drawn across mountainous borders by pack haul masters, pulled along narrow ridges by armies of donkey trains.
The police released us beside a football pitch next to a well-appointed government building. Instead of anchoring our tents to what looked like an excellent piece of grass, we were instead invited inside this rather robust edifice that doubled as a hotel for teachers wanting a cheap holiday. Four to a room but at $2 a bed it was a splendid alternative to wild camping in a muddy desert surrounded by wild animals and bandits.
Badjiran to nr Ashgabat
Exiting Iran was fairly quick, polite and efficient. Entering Turkmenistan was polite, brusk, not as charming yet perfectly correct. Passports were handed in through a counter to a wide cheeked chap wearing a peaked hat after which the hatch was slammed shut. There was no explanation about procedure so we sat in the quite tidy marble floored hall waiting for Goddo, in a manner of speaking.
In an adjoining room $85 was paid for the visa to a lady wearing what looked like a padded turban or even something on which you might rest your legs whilst watching the tele. Her wide head seemed comfortable supporting what looked like a considerable weight when she demanded a further $10 for the immigration permit, also essential for being allowed entry into the country. In fact, it wasn’t complicated to proceed but due process was followed in the way I imagined a clockwork country would tick. It was purely supposition but with a president called Berdymuk, commands came from the top with no questioning in between.
Next was the insurance office followed by quarantine – more stamps and signatures and a different pose of the president framed and hung in each room. In one, signing a treaty with a brand new pen, in another a smile to show his benevolence and in yet another in full military attire with map and walkie talkie (or it could have been an oil can) presiding over matters of state. I was looking for the one where he was picking cotton – the national crop – but this was not to be seen.
The next office was beyond my understanding but the chap there smiled, asked if we had guns or were carrying contraband and continued to stamp, shuffle, staple and fold papers until you imagined his fingers bled. Gavin’s Mohican haircut had attracted the attention of the guards and through the window we could see them dismantling his bike. Except for removing his handlebars and exhaust pipes his baggage was stripped clean and the caps of his toothpaste removed as a security measure. Back in the Office of Human Migration, deep bins overflowed with shredded paper until, as the sun had descended not quite to the horizon, we were all eventually allowed to go.
To be truthful, the road out of the capital city was extraordinary. A beautifully laid six lane highway penetrated the first 50 miles into the Turkmen countryside with a parade of brand new Armco and a central reservation lighting system straight out of some kind of modern Versailles. For the first few minutes, after the basic reality of the Republic of Iran, you were in some fantastical comic book taken from ‘My Little Pony.’ It was the most extraordinary exclamation of ostentatious wealth outside of the Las Vegas strip I had ever seen. A few kilometres on route Andy the Brummie waved us, the last of the group to have been released from the Turkmen border post and said he’d found four air-conditioned yurts, cold beer and as if it was any interest to any of us two hookers for $100 with the possibility of a discount if you take them both. Already I was missing the call to prayer because there you knew where you stood, or kneeled and if you didn’t there was always a sticker pointing the way to Mecca in every hotel room. In ‘My Pony Land,’ things were about to get more confused. The boss who owned the joint got so pissed he went to bed and his manager who had a stick-on haircut spoke on Russian and after ten vodkas couldn’t even do that. Nevertheless, Irish Paul and Mr. Burt were in need of a good nights sleep and the whole event was suitable for purpose.
Nr Ashgabat to Bukhara
This has been the hardest day on the trip so far. 500 miles in temperatures approaching 40 degrees centigrade across the Turkmen desert on roads with potholes so big you might lose a bike. Actually that’s not fair as you could fit in the support vehicle – a Ford Ranger – as well. The desert crossing with Mac leading the way was hot and the ride was fast. The skills of the riders had adjusted to the extreme nature of the expedition and without doubt everyone rode their hearts out to get to the Uzbekistan border. John Dawson from Lincolnshire, the man with five generations of the same family having lived in the same village in Lincolnshire had hit a pothole so hard he cracked the aluminium-boxed frame of his Suzuki V-Strom. This came to light the following morning and he was resigned to leaving the project and let his son Shayne carry on the good family name. Aziz, the manager of the hotel knew a mate of a mate who could do a mean TIG weld and an hour later it was patched up and ready to go. To be continued