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    A trip to Central Asia, packed with unpredictable events, unique charms and makeshift camps

    By Jef Le Saltimbanque | 02 May 2022 | 1 min
    Motorcycle: BMW R100 GS - 1991 named Utopia
    Mileage: 900 km
    Difficulty: Medium, I rode both on tarmac and off-road. It can be tough for a novice or easy for an expert
    Duration: 9 days
    Time of the year: November
    Weather: variable
    Temperatures: around 0°C
    Essential equipment: winter motorbike outfit, waterproof gear, off-road boots, winter underwear
    Jef bio

    Jef Le Saltimbanque

    The author


    My name is Jean-Jacques, but when I travel I use the nickname Jef, in reference to writer-journalist Joseph Kessel, whose books fueled my imagination when I was a teenager, and since a nomadic life is a real lifestyle for me, I’ve decided to be Jef Le Saltimbanque. My father was an expat and I grew up traveling, in Turkey and in Portugal. During my lifetime, I’ve had several passions in turn – skiing, diving, underground diving, hot air balloons and, especially, horse riding. In 2003-2004, I took my first 16-month motorcycle journey through Africa. I wrote my first book about this adventure (The blue bandana: tales of a promise under the pen-name of Jean-Jacques Aneyota). In 2018, I returned to Asia for 16 months, and now I’m planning a trip around the world without any time limits. My role model is Hubert, who spent the last 14 years of his life traveling. And... Oh yes... I’m about to turn 60.

     

    Outside, the cold seems to have stilled all life. The motorcycle doesn’t start, the battery is out of order. I had to remove it and warm it up in my room. Yesterday morning it’d almost left me stranded in the Uzbek countryside – everything was frozen, even the water in my canteen. Miraculously, the engine started at the first try, but I was fully aware that the battery didn’t have enough power for a second attempt, if needed. Winter is coming. Tourists have been deserting the austere climate of this country for several months now, and I’m about to do the same, heading south to Iran via Turkmenistan. 

    Why am I still here? I left home several months ago and I should be miles away already, but I’m a slow traveler. I love to take things slowly. It took me six months to ride a distance that other riders cover in just two or three weeks. Then again, our pace is different: They’re on vacation, while I’m traveling.  

     

    The true meaning of travel 

    We ride on the same roads, we face the same issues, we break down alike, we pretty much share the same fears and joys. They’re traveling, sure, but they’re not “on a journey”. I believe that in my native language, French, there’s no word to describe long distance travel. Some call it an “expedition”, but I find this a bit too much. Someone like Jean-Louis Étienne, for instance, goes on expeditions. But when you go away for several months or even years, you’re simply on a journey. And, to me, this means traveling at a slow pace. Those who take a plane or the car are cheating: It’s too easy, too quick. A real journey is made on foot, by bike, by motorcycle or on horseback. Real travel should be like crawling – only by crawling do you go slowly enough to appreciate what distance is, as well as the diversity of this world. Going slowly gives us the chance to look people in the eyes and share a smile. Going slowly means experiencing things more intensely and meeting people.  

     

    Still, a slow pace is affected by two key factors – first, the length of one’s visa; second, the climate. And this time, I have to admit, I underestimated the latter. I couldn’t travel through Tajikistan, there was too much snow already, so now I’m the only foreigner – almost, I just met a senator on an official trip – in a country where only a few people speak English, as most speak Russian here. And I must admit that not only do I feel the biting cold, but also a certain tiredness brought on by loneliness, as I usually love chatting and talking. So, I’m finding myself lonely and a bit disheartened in this room, waiting for the battery to warm up. 

     

    Adventures at customs 

    After an hour, the heat has restored a tiny amount of power to the battery. I can leave. Crossing the border is a simple but time-consuming formality. Still, getting the transit visa, which only lasts five days, has been a real ordeal. This type of visa is issued at random, according to a completely irrational, haphazard scheme. I even read about a family where all members but one got it, which meant that they could not all cross the border together.   

    Nobody speaks English at customs – it’s only Turkmen or Russian. One of the attendants hands me a piece of paper while shouting “Ten days” in a thunderous voice. I reply, “No, five,” but the man insists, “NO! TEN!” I take the piece of paper without even trying to understand what’s going on. A little further on, another attendant has me pay various taxes. One in particular catches my attention: It’s a GPS rental invoice. To be fair, I had been warned about this. Turkmen authorities install a tracker on passing foreign vehicles, to make sure they don’t stray from their set route – it’s a transit visa, so you’re not supposed to behave like a tourist. In any case, I leave customs without a GPS – again I don’t bother trying to figure that out, I’m just so relieved to be getting away. I made it! Hallelujah! 

    I stop in the first city I encounter to change a few dollars into the local currency. I need to eat but, among these Soviet-style buildings, I can’t see any restaurants. I ask some passers-by if there is a restaurant around there – oddly, many of them seem afraid to talk to me. I had already encountered this kind of attitude in the 1970s, in countries behind the Iron Curtain. Indeed, some call Turkmenistan the “North Korea of Central Asia” and I’m beginning to understand why. A brave man, however, beckons me to follow and leads me to a windowless building with steel doors. Is that a restaurant? At his urging, I decide to open the door and inside, surprisingly, I find a large room, with diffuse lighting, tables and chairs.  

     

    A few minutes later, while I’m eating an unidentified dish, a man sits down at my table. It looks like he wants to tell me something important, but I don’t speak Turkmen or Russian, and he doesn’t speak English. Desperate, he tells me to wait, someone will come. Intrigued, I nod. I’m not in a hurry, in any case. Often, in this kind of situation, I prefer to flee and avoid any trouble, but the man looks really worried. He’s making me curious. 

    A moment later, a couple appears at the door. I immediately recognize the woman: She’s the one who charged me those various taxes at customs. Her companion speaks English and he starts explaining that she had made a mistake. She charged me for the GPS tracker, but I didn’t get one. He wants to give me the money back and reclaim the relevant piece of paper. What strikes me most is the woman’s attitude – she really looks worried, as if this simple mistake could have dramatic consequences. I notice how relieved she is when I give her the document back. Shortly after, I go back on the road. The feeling of fear I’m sensing in most of the people I’ve spoken to since I arrived alarms me. I’m no longer in a tourist country, that’s for sure, and I’ll have to be careful. 

     

    Darvaza, the Gates of Hell 

    I had planned to stop in Darvaza, just over 250 km away, but the road is basically just a long trail of mud and my poorly treaded tires are not really suitable for this type of terrain. When I arrive it’s dark already, and I’ve only had one fall. The place is easy to find. The fires of the Gates of Hell light up the sky and the site can be seen from very far away. I wanted to camp, but the cold soon persuaded me to accept the offer made by two young people and sleep in their warm yurt. 

    After some hot soup, I decide to go to the crater rim. This place is famous, known by all those who travel across this country – it’s a real attraction. In the early 1970s, Russian geologists caused the land to collapse while drilling in search of a mineral deposit. The resulting hole, 70 m wide and more than 20 m deep, released large amounts of methane into the atmosphere. Fearing an environmental disaster, the geologists decided to set it on fire, thinking that all the gas would burn out in a few weeks. Instead – and environmental issues notwithstanding – it’s been burning continuously for 50 years. During the day there’s not much to see, just a huge hole in the middle of the desert from which hot air smelling of burnt methane escapes, but at night it’s a magnificent spectacle, an abyss lighting up the sky. I stay for two nights, both to enjoy this unique spectacle, and also because my battery is once more too weak to start the motorcycle. So, I remove it again, to warm it up by the small wood stove in the yurt. 

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    Ashgabat and visit by the secret services 

    I arrive in Ashgabat in the evening, on the third day out of the five granted by my visa. I decide to stay in one of the buildings in the city a friend had told me about – all made of white marble, it’s one of the most luxurious buildings he’d ever seen. As he was a senior executive working for the Sofitel hotel chain, I decide to trust him, and it was the right decision. The hotel has 14 suites, of 300 m2 each. Bas-reliefs depicting traditional Turkmen life embellish the monumental entrance. However, I don’t see any guests – apart from the large number of staff, the hotel seems empty. 

    The next day, at breakfast, I meet the few guests staying there, some French people who work for a well-known construction company. They’re the ones who built this hotel and most of the buildings in this majestic city, all in white marble and all complying with the highest seismic standards in the world. Everything is white here, the cars, too, except official ones, which are black. They tell me you can be fined if you drive a dirty vehicle. 

    Going back to my room, I glimpse, through the open door, a cleaning lady leaning on her broom. She seems to be alerting someone from a corner where I’ve left all my gear to charge – camcorder, camera, phone and computer. A man appears and hurriedly greets me, passing me by. He disappears so quickly that I don’t even manage to address him. Something’s clear, however: He doesn’t work at the hotel. Young, with short hair and an athletic build, he reminded me of a soldier. A few hours later, I’m recounting the incident to one of the French people I met at breakfast, who confirms my hunch: It was the secret services. They came to check my identity and the equipment I was using.  

    Despite – or perhaps because of – this, I decide to take my time in visiting the city. It’s impressive. All in white marble, with avenues 6-12 lanes wide and state-of-the-art urban furnishing. I’ve never seen such an opulent display. But the most amazing thing is the population, or, rather, the almost total absence of it. I see a few cars, but the only pedestrians are often police officers who don’t actually seem to care how awfully dirty my motorcycle is. I ride along the “avenue of ministries”, 2 km long and 12 lanes wide, flanked by buildings each of which houses a ministry and departmental offices, and I decide to stop and take some photos.  

     

    I look around to make sure there are no cops to see me – as in many other countries, taking photos of official buildings is not allowed. I usually comply, but here I simply can’t resist. These buildings are too amazing. The Ministry of Culture, for example, looks like an open book. The place is deserted, it’s too good an opportunity to miss, the temptation is too strong. I stop and take out the camera hidden in the tank bag. I barely have time to snap a picture when I hear a voice behind me. I turn abruptly and see about thirty armed soldiers. Where the hell did they come from? They’re not hostile, actually quite polite, but they tell me in no uncertain terms that I have to leave as stopping along this avenue is not permitted. 

     

    The legendary Turkmen golden horses 

    I obey without question and leave. Tomorrow is, supposedly, my last day in Turkmenistan, but there’s one thing that, as a horseman, I absolutely must see before leaving – the famous Turkmen horses, the golden horses, the Akhal-Teke –  especially since I know that the president of the Turkmen Republic is an enthusiast and has built stables that I imagine as majestic as the city. Apparently, there are also horse statues in solid gold. But two things worry me. First, this will mean straying from my authorized itinerary. Second, my visa will be expired. I decide not to think too much about it. After all, I have that document that says “10 days”! After a few moments of thought, I decide to try my luck and look for the famous stables. The only problem is that although I know where they are, I don’t have a precise position. To hell with it, let’s see how it goes. 

    Unfortunately, a few kilometers out of Ashgabat, a police car passes me. Through the window, I see the officer’s incredulous face. They signal me to stop. Once more, the language barrier prevents us from properly understanding each other, but I don’t doubt that they’re asking what am I doing here? I simply reply,  “Akhal-Teke.” A broad smile lights up the police officer’s stern face. That was the magic word, the “open sesame” used by Ali Babà and his 40 thieves! The police officer happily points me in the right direction.  

    I go on and after a few kilometers I turn left – I think that’s the right direction. The road unwinds through the mountains, it’s deserted, except for a few women sweeping it here and there. Yes, they’re sweeping the road! With a broom! The myth of Sisyphus comes to mind. For several kilometers, I travel through a kind of urban area equipped with all the amenities – children’s playgrounds, waterparks with slides – but they all seem completely deserted to me. There are barely any cars and after a while I have to face the truth: I’m lost. And, even more annoyingly, I’m probably not too far from the border with Iran, so, potentially, I’m also in a sensitive area. Moreover, I’ve been encountering various small bands of soldiers, all armed, although they didn’t stop me. I decide to ask them for directions. Once again, that word works like magic – the Akhal-Teke horses seem to inspire true national pride, and with good reason. This little-known horse breed is probably the only one that can compete with Arabian thoroughbred horses in terms of endurance. They truly “race with the wind”, tirelessly running through the steppes. Evening comes, but I still haven’t managed to find the famous stables. I find shelter in a corner of a forest, away from prying eyes. 

     

    When I get up the next day, I’m in a very good mood. Today is my sixth day in Turkmenistan and I know that I’ll finally see these celebrated horses. I drink my coffee and leave. In the morning, it takes me 30 minutes at most to pack things up: I take down the tent, stow away mattress and duvet, and load everything on the motorcycle. 

    This time, I have no problem finding the stables. But, alas, nobody’s there. There’s just a monumental gate – shut, obviously. Did I come all this way for nothing? For a while, I just stand there, trying to figure out how to get in, then a car arrives and parks next to me. I approach the driver. Once more, the language barrier prevents us from communicating well, but I manage to make him understand that I would like to see the Akhal-Teke horses and show him some photos of a Lusitano horse that I have on my phone. This piques his interest and he asks me, “Trainer?” I answer in the affirmative. Happy, he tells me he’s a trainer, too. He thinks for a moment, then calls someone on his cell phone. It looks like he’s asking permission to let me in but alas, the permission is denied and, regretful, the man comes back to me.   

    We keep on trying to communicate then, suddenly, he beckons me to follow him. We go around the area. He’s in the car, I’m on my motorcycle, and we reach what seems to be a back entrance. So, I spend the afternoon visiting this huge estate, the stables, the racecourse and the horses. Much to my regret, I don’t have the pleasure of seeing the horses train as, unfortunately, I came on a public holiday. 

     

    Visas and glitches 

    We leave in the late afternoon. That night, I sleep concealed in a ditch on the side of the road not far from the border, the motorcycle hidden under a tarpaulin, and on my seventh day I actually reach the border. Here, tragedy strikes. I’ve overstayed my leave, I’ve exceeded the expiry date on my visa. I try to show my “10 days” document, but it doesn’t help: I’m not allowed to leave. I’ll have to go back to Ashgabat and obtain permission to leave the country from the relevant administrative body, but I don’t even know which one or have an address! 

    Disappointed, I return to the capital and, with some difficulty, I manage to find out which administrative body I should contact, but when I get there it’s too late. The offices are closed. I have to come back the next day. 

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    I leave the city and, again, I sleep not far from the road, hidden by some shrubs. The next day, worried, I show up at the immigration buildings. I immediately feel like a hot potato passed from hand to hand: Nobody seems to be willing to tackle the issue. After several unsuccessful attempts, a man welcomes me into his office. I show him my “10 days” document again. He explains that the 10-day permit is... for the motorcycle. Amused, I reply that in this case I have to leave while the motorcycle can stay behind and join me a few days later. What nonsense! The man is friendly and seems willing to help me. He leaves for a few moments and comes back with a regretful look – There’s nothing he can do today, I have to come back tomorrow. So, I go back to my ditch for the night, but to cheer me up, I decide to have a nice meal at a restaurant first. 

    The next day, back at the office, the man who was helping me takes me to his boss. There’s an interpreter, who tells me that I committed a serious offense and that the fine is $200 a day. I calmly object, reiterating that the document mentioning the 10 days is only written in Turkmen and Russian, and that no one at customs spoke English. This seems to work, I can feel they’re annoyed. In the end, the interpreter explains to me that I can obtain an exit permit without paying the fine, provided that I write a letter explaining the situation and asking the authorities for a pardon. In that case, however, I’ll be banned from staying in Turkmenistan. I accept without arguing. 

    Once I’m done, I go back to the counter where the visas are issued. The man asks me how long I want to stay. I try not to laugh and tell him that another three days will be enough. At the exit, the attendant – who now recognizes me – gives me a military salute, with a big smile. 

     

    The next day I’m back at customs, and this time there are no problems. In front of me is a stretch of no-man’s land, and then Iranian customs where I fear that another equally thorny issue awaits me: For some time now, I’ve heard rumors that the Iranian authorities refuse to let motorcycles over 250 cc into the country... 

    Essential equipment

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    Adventure helmet

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    Gore-Tex® Jacket

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    Gore-Tex® pants

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    Waterproof boots

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    Technical jersey

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    Technical long underwear

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