Saturday, May 30, 2009
GOODBYE TO IRAN
After 4000KMs we finally made from Istanbul across Turkey and Iran to within sight of Turkmenistan. Tomorrow is the last day of my Iranian visa and I'm presently camped in the border compound. It has been incredibly hard going. Since leaving Istanbul 46 days ago, I've only had 2 rest days; 1 in Erzurum, Turkey and 1 in Tabriz, Iran. And these rest days were spent fixing the bike, updating this blog etc. And so tomorrow we leave Iran and (hopefully) cross over into Turkmenistan. So what do we know about Turkmenistan? Lets talk about the visa situation first. Now this is where it gets complicated. Without doubt, the Turkmen Visa has been the single biggest headache of this adventure and I have been researching how to get this visa long before I left Naas. No tourist it seems can get anything more than a 5 day visa unless they join a designated tour. I don't want to join a tour. I want to pedal around the world. But my dream for many years, has been to go to the capital city, Ashgabat, and continue on the road north, directly through the centre of the Karakum desert. But there is no way I could do this in 5 days and either way the Turkmenistan embassy in Istanbul wouldn't give me a visa. The door was firmly shut here. I heard from other cyclists in Turkey that the Turkmenistan embassies in Ankara, Turkey and Mashad, Iran were giving out 5 day visas. Both these cities would add a few hundred KMs onto my bike ride and I was already so strapped for time due to my late departure from Istanbul. And either way, its back to square 1. I would never complete the dream route through Ashgabat and the desert in 5 days.So it seemed like I had 2 choices, neither of which I was happy about;OPTION 1: Strap the bike onto the roof of the bus and do a tour through Ashgabat and the desert. Getting a visa is relativity easy if you join a tour.OPTION 2: Strap the bike onto the roof of the bus and detour through either Ankara or Mashad. Hopefully get a visa here and cycle across Turkmenistan through the shorter southern route.But one thing I have always loved about Asia it that "Where there is a will, there is a way" and a way can be greatly powered by dollars. I got in touch with http://www.stantours.com/. This company is highly regarded in sorting out Central Asian visa problems. I learned that a 'tour' doesn't technically need to involve getting on a 'tour bus'. It just means that you are in the company of a 'tour guide'. So with that in mind, all you need to find is a tour guide willing to cycle through the heart of the Karakum desert. And guess what, Stantours found one. Its the first time this company has done a bicycle tour and most important to me is that the tour continues on my preferred route without any planes, trains or tour buses. I just hope some ambitious young lad in a Raleigh chopper with a flat back tyre doesn't greet me at the border tomorrow.So that's the story with the visa. Now what about the country itself. To be honest I don't know too much about the country but what I do know both fascinates yet confuses me. The country is 7 times bigger than Ireland, yet it has roughly the same population number. The reason for this is because Turkmenistan is 95% desert (but yet it has the worlds biggest fountain). Much of the eccentricity of this country is due to its former president , Turkmenbashi. This chap has a 12M high golden revolving statute of himself in central Ashgabat. His face is on every banknote and every central square and public building is named after him. According to him, if you read his book 7 times in a row, you're guaranteed a place in heaven. He had his own soap opera, 'Turkmanbashi, My leader'. He once sacked one of his ministers on live TV. Although most Turkmen live well below the poverty line, he has spent billions on his palace and yet the country sits on the world's fourth largest natural gas reserves after the U.S, Canada and Russia. Even when a meteor hit Turkmenistan a decade ago, it was called the 'Turkmenbashi meteor'. More than anyone else, this man has made Turkmenistan what it is today. And so tonight I say goodbye to Iran and tomorrow we'll get to face into Turkmenistan.