Wednesday, June 10, 2009
THE KARAKUM DESERT
If it was easy it wouldn't be worth doing and it wouln't be worth building this blog and besides you don't expect cycling across a desert in the last week of May to be easy. It was 5 days that I am glad are behind me. The thermometer hit 44`C in the mid afternoon of the second day. I'm thankful the wind was generally behind us. Luckily there were a few tea houses scattered along the route. I was drinking about 8 litres of fluids a day. Its hard to describe it all. The Karakum is as real as a desert can be with rolling sand dunes, wandering camels and stifling heat. Although the most common animal we saw was hardy goats, we got to see snakes and lizards. I was amazed at how they stand their ground and put on an aggressive show towards us. And it was just hilarious to watch the dung beetles as they frantically run around, rolling lumps of camel dung in front of themselves. There is a great thrill when you catch sight of that first camel, but after a while they become as common as sheep in the curragh. Turkmenistan is adventure travel and the Karakum is certainly adventure. We learned from the locals that they have seen a few cyclists crossing the desert down through the years. I found it hard to relax until about day 3 into the desert. I found I was constantly counting and recounting our water and food supplies. The fear of running out of supplies just plagued my mind. It wasn't till we got more than half way through it that I realised that we were more likely to succeed than to fail and then I enjoyed it all so much more. We had long days of carrying a lot of stuff. I left Ashgabat with 3 litres of water in me and another 11 on the bike. This along with the weight of the food puts a great strain on both the bikes and the cyclists. Our longest day was 159KMs. Thats the longest distance I've covered since leaving Ireland. Turkmenistan was definitely the most difficult country to get into when it came to visas. The max visa I could get was 5 days unless I had a guide and this is how I came to find Vitaly, a former professional cyclist with the Soviet Union. He is now Vice President of the cycling federation of Turkmenistan and it has always been a wish of his to attempt to cross the Karakum by bicycle. Vitaly was excellent as a guide and good company too. One of the best moments was when he caught sight of a train coming along the rail track running parallel to the road. A station was approaching and he raced on to met the train. It must have been the thoughts of that drinks trolley being pushed through the carriages that gave him such acceleration. The passengers looked out completely bewildered at the sight of two salt encrusted cyclists laughing hysterically with bottles of beer in hand. The tour ended in the town of Konye Urgench. Although the 13th century Mongol leader, Jenghiz Khan, did his best to level this city (and everything else in Central Asia) there are still some fantastic monuments here, including Central Asia's highest minaret. Of the 550KMs we pedalled to cross the Karakum, there wasn't one easy kilometre but there is a great sense of achievement and relief its now behind me. The fact that no matter what Mother Nature throws at me, I'm heading east till I arrive from the west. I left Ireland in mid November to make the mountains in eastern Turkey just as the snows were melting and the roads were opening. Then it was a case of racing across the Iran before the summer furnace started in the Karakum. We made it. I'm delighted. Everyday is an adventure. Everyday throws up obstacles. And we have a few coming our way, but the next big obstacle is facing into China as the winter approaches. I'm more than one third of my way around the world and now its time to work on the next big obstacle. China is 130 times the size of Ireland. That should prove to be a big obstacle.