A sleepless night. How can i be so wide awake when i’ve barely slept for 4 nights? By morning i feel much better, cooled by the aircon, and with only one trip to the bathroom in the night, instead of the 20 or so of previous nights. Dave wakes at 8.30 and we go for breakfast, guided by another woman who is also nothing but smiles. I haven’t seen so much smiling, ie a fairly normal amount, since leaving greece. Breakfast is in a spectacular room with old hand painted decoration. We sit down to a table full of food that looks so nice i actually have an appetite. Tea and coffee. A glass of drinking yoghurt, which is delicious and must surely help my stomach recover. We are brought a bowl of freshly made creamy rice pudding, which we have with some of the plummy jam. There’s bread, cakey biscuity things, little apples and delicious plums. Pancakes. Meat and cheese that we don’t dare risk, that i couldn’t stomach anyway. Butter. Clean plates and cutlery. Classical music. It’s heaven, and although i only eat a small amount, it’s a big improvement over via packet of crisps and a fried egg that is all i’ve had in the last 4 days. Recovery is in sight, and dave seems happy enough to agree to staying another day, to recover and to give the bike some attention. And hopefully a bit of sight seeing, which i’m not up to today, and although dave is doing better than me, he also seems disinclined to be out in the heat. My peanutbutter sandwich craving has given way to wanting more of the delicious, digestion-restoring yoghurt drink. While dave does his blog on my laptop, i do some laundry, being very generous with my short supply of detergent, hoping to get rid of the smell of Hotel Nukus. I feel much better after breakfast, which has so far stayed in. I don’t see how i can be so wide awake after so little sleep, but it’s a huge relief to feel relatively normal after feeling so rotten. In the afternoon we have a short stroll round the old town, and it is certainly spectacular, and old. Also very quiet, not many people braving the high temperatures of low season. It doesn’t take long to wear out both myself and my camera battery. I do manage to find a postcard, first since istanbul (the ones pinched from the baku hotel room don’t count), though i haven’t seen a post office since then either, then escape to the cool of the hotel room. Now, feeling much better and looking forward to trying the italian restaurant down the road, i’m taking advantage of another of the ever more infrequent opportunities to get online.
Still feeling horrendous but sick of Hotel Nukus, we get on the bikes and head into the desert. It’s incredibly hot, high 40’s, and harsh. Riding along thinking nothing but "please don’t break down". We manage to find enough chances for cold water and places to rest in the shade. We get hassled by a couple of the silly police checkpoints they seem to like over here, but only a short delay. Everywhere we stop, crowds gather. I buy water watched intently by half a dozen locals as if they’ve never seen a man buy water before. We’d planned a fairly short ride and hoped to be able to find a camping spot near the river shown on the map, but widowe get there it’s clearly not suitable for camping. It’s more harsh, sandy terrain, with a puddle of water a few hundred yards across the sand. So we take the only option of continuing to Bukhara, another 170 miles. There’s no sense stopping out in the open in 40 degree heat. By late afternoon i’m really struggling, feeling like death. It’s all i can do to ride in a straight line, and that not very well. I’m riding without jacket or gloves because i’m so hot, and i’m too unwell to notice the sunburn i’m inflicting on my hands. It’s nothing but endurance, with no real certainty of making it through or finding a place to stay. Passing through a small town a dog on the other side of the road pricks up it’s ears, spots me, and starts galloping towards me. At 60mph, with no protective gear on, this could be very ugly. I veer away, as i mentally extrapolate the paths of the dog, closing fast, and the car coming the other way, thinking i might get lucky. Just as dog reaches road, car reaches dog, and a split second later the aftermath is fortunately out of my sight as i continue, relieved, and not at all sorry about the loss of one more motorbike chasing dog. The desert does not abate, nor does my thirst, fatigue, cramp, discomfort. Grin and bear it. Left wing mirror has gone floppy and spins about uselessly. The road gets rougher and I whack into some big potholes at speed, that i would normally have avoided but alert is the last thing i am today. Will need to check spoke tension soon. The bike seems to labour in the heat, and i know how it feels. I ease off to give it half a chance of getting me out of this horrendous place. Eventually, scenery gets greener. I almost get wiped out when i encounter a woman washing a carpet on the road, on a bend, with a big bus coming the other way. And then, Bukhara. Hope soars. We ride around looking for a hotel, doing a full lap and exhausting every likely looking avenue without success. It’s getting late and Dave’s headlight isn’t working. Hope fades, as does the light. Returning to the junction where we started, there’s one last road to try and we head along. It looks like another no hoper, until i see a hotel sign, but no way into the hotel on the bike. Then another sign, then "Amelia Boutique Hotel – All The Comforts Of Home!". A woman greets us in the street, looks like she works here. Turns out she’s called Martha. All smiles. She puts me on the phone with an english speaker and soon we have a really nice room, with air con and a fridge, a big clean bathroom with a superb shower, and after a tricky ride through a doorway and along a corridor, our bikes are safe inside the courtyard. I feel better already. English tv news channel has someone describing somewhere as "The Crucible Of Terror", and i assume he’s talking about where we’ve just been.
There’s no way i can ride the bike today, i feel like i’m not far short of needing to go to hospital. In desperation i ask the hotel if they have a better room, and remarkably they do, with air conditioning and without the godawful stench. I wish we’d been in it from the start, instead of the fetid squalour of the room we have been in. The air con starts to cool me down and rescues me from what was probably quite severe heat stroke brought on by the food poisoning. I catch sight of myself in the mirror and am shocked to see that with the beard and the effects of 3 days vomiting and diarrhea i’m so gaunt i look like i’ve just come out of a prisoner of war camp. Everything i drink, so far i haven’t eaten, still just pours straight through, but if i can sleep tonight there’s a good chance i can get back on the bike and head off through the desert towards Bukhara tomorrow. I’m hoping that the terrain isn’t so harsh as what we’ve just come through, and that the river on the map actually has water in it and might offer a chance to cool down if i start overheating again. God knows what i’ve eaten to put me in such a bad state, or how the locals tolerate it. I hope this doesn’t happen again. As i lie here watching the same songs loop round on an italian music tv channel, which is slightly more watchable than any of the russian or uzbek stuff, I find myself craving a peanutbutter sandwich. The only food we could find locally that wasn’t left out in the open, unrefrigerated and with flies buzzing around, was pretty much limited to a packet of crisps. The italian music channel selects james blunt as the next track, and suddenly i’d rather be watching the bad russian soap.
The hotel is grim, but i’m mostly just lying on the bed, swatting away flies and trying to keep cool. The plan had been to ride up to the aral sea, but with dave ill, of very ill, and realising how hard it is to ride in this heat in the desert, we scrap the plan in favour of trying to get well. Dave gets bitten by a thousand insects, i seem to escape. I exchange a few left over euros at the bank and end up with 134000 of the local currency. Apart from feeling pretty rotten, the day slips by without much happening. That night, the illness kicks in again, and i spend a dreadful night, burning up, permanently on the loo, unable to keep anything down or in, and pouring cold water from the shower over myself trying to keep cool. By morning i feel worse than ever.
By morning i’m shattered and feel like death, i certainly can’t ride a bike in this condition. So i ride in the car while a local rides my bike to the border, for a fee. Dave gets stung by a scorpion. By the time we get to the border crossing i’m still shattered and weak, dehydrated and barely able to stand. I have to get on the bike, and try to stay upright while we endure the endless rigmarole of the turkmen exit and uzbek entry procedures. Somehow i get through it, and we manage to find the only hotel in nukus and get a room. It’s a huge relief to be able to lie down and have a toilet close by, even if it’s an utterly disgusting, decaying soviet abomination.
Day 28. Hotel Asiya, Ashgabat, Turkmenistan. A morning off, before an afternoon ride north into the desert. Peculiar breakfast, then flag down a random car in the street for a ride into town. Seems they don’t do taxis here. Town is wierd. Loads of big buildings, sculpture, fountains, but seemingly empty. Very strange place. Then back to the air conditioned cool of the hotel to fight another bout of food poisoning. At 2 we’re waiting for our guides, in the hottest part of the day, and they arrive 15 minutes late. Then dave’s bike won’t start, and we spend more time in the sun fixing it. Then a 170 mile ride north to the gas crater. It’s pretty much a straight road but we’re leaning to the left the whole way because of the wind, which is blowing sand across the road and scouring my neck. It’s a very harsh environment, the heat is extreme. Dave has his day of hell with the food poisoning. Our guides stop at a small town to buy water and drink fermented camel milk. Dave and i dare not try it with our food poisoning. Another 4×4 arrives, carrying another guide and two slovak doctors on vacation, they join the convoy. The locals are more interested in our bikes, the tourists in the camels. Leaving the town our guides unexpectedly lead up over a sand dune, in which we almost have accidents and get stuck. In the blazing heat we have to unstick the bikes, several times and retreat the way we came in. Turns out they were just taking a short cut anyway. It really didn’t do us any favours. With a hurt back, a stubbed toe, more heat exhaustion, and the realisation that we will not be able to ride to the crater on road tyres, we continue for a while before leaving the bikes at a railroad guard hut and transfering to the guides 4×4 for a white knuckle, stomach churning ride over 7km of sand dunes courtesy of Oleg, who seems to know how to drive on sand but also seems to be a bit crazy and shakes a lot, probably from too much vodka. Arriving at the gas crater is like arriving at the mouth of hell. Intense heat, flames licking around all sides of this huge crater, an orange glow even in daylight. It’s hard to describe, even harder to photograph. We set up camp, our guides set up for a feast of food and vodka, and the drinking and non-stop talking in russian go on till about 3 am. Unfortunately instead of joining in, dave retires to his tent to recover from the illness, while i spend a night suffering with violent vomiting and diarrhea in the desert, with the heat making it so much worse.
Today i have seen: 350 miles of desert. Camels. A man carrying a sheep while riding a motorbike. Temperatures in the 40s. Russian dumplings and "turkmen cola". The world’s biggest flagpole. And Ashgabat, a totally insane collection of pristine white tower blocks, like a life size plaster cast of new york dumped in the desert. The buildings are intricate and elaborate, the architecture totally bonkers. Baku was a shock, and totally at odds with the rest of azerbaijan, but turkmenistan is even emptier and ashgabat is even odder.
We spend another day waiting on the ferry. Running out of food, running out of water. Running out of patience. Why is nothing happening? Finally at 6 the engines start, anchors are pulled in, and we head for port. At about 1mph. It takes forever to dock, even slower than the baku end, which would have seemed impossible 2 days ago. Then we’re called to an upper deck room where a russian in a nurses uniform copies passport details and makes us sign. No idea why. We go to the cargo deck and unstrap the bikes, dwarfed by the freight rail carriages. Suddenly there seems to be a dozen other passengers on the boat that we never saw before, all sitting calmly waiting. Two uniformed guards patrol the ramp, ensuring noone disembarks. They are about 12 years old, armed with hip flasks. Reminds me of the guard at baku, wearing camouflage gear and school shoes, with a sniffer dog that couldn’t jump up onto a lorry trailer. We stand around for an hour while nothing happens. It’s 9ish but still so hot, mossies everywhere. Eventually, a gesture to leave. We fire up the bikes and enjoy about 3 seconds riding before being directed to stop near the customs house. We don’t notice that our parking spot is the wrong side of the rail tracks. I can’t possibly describe the next 3 hours of customs procedures, i’ll fill it in later. Enough to say that it involves about 14 pieces of paper, the world’s slowest writer who makes me want to slap his hand away and fill in the form for him, a form with a map showing our permitted route from which we must not deviate, another pathetic attempt to extract a bribe, which we ignore long enough for it to go away, visits to 7 different booths for stamps, about 20 signatures, and a $110 payment. Without our local guide, Maksat, being on hand, we would be lost. After the most agonisingly slow process, we are told to retrieve our bikes for customs inspection and then we will be able to leave. Relieved, we head out to the bikes, only to find our way blocked by the train loading up the next ferry. The engine is running full tilt, but the wheels are just spinning, sparks flying, it can’t push the wagons up the ramp. It takes forever, and the first half chance we get, we dash across the tracks, fire up the bikes and race across, before the train can come back. A quick customs inspection and we’re free, out into turkmenistan at about half past midnight, three days and two nights after arriving at baku ferry port. We make it to the hotel at 1 in the morning. It’s a bizarre tower in the desert, but it looks quite posh. We’re are so dehydrated, tired and dirty that it looks like heaven. First action is to take a shower, but there’s no water from the taps. I call reception. Sorry, no water between 1pm and 6am. So, to bed, still tired and dirty. What a day.
Now at anchor off the coast of Turkmenistan. A long day, spent mostly trying to sleep in a very uncomfortable bunk. The boat isn’t going to dock today. We spend a whole day conserving food and water. It feels a bit like being adrift. I think of robinson crueso.
Checking out of the Red Lion involved a moment of concern when the bill was announced as $700. After paying a much more reasonable but still more than planned $342, we took a 5 minute terror ride (in a taxi) to the ferry port. Relieved to see bikes still present and unmolested, we went to the ticket office (a man in a hut). The ferry is here, but can’t dock because of high wind (it’s a little breezy). Come back 2 (2 hours? 2 o’clock?). An american couple on bicycles arrive to see if the Aktau ferry is here. It isn’t. They’ve been cycling for 9 months. 2 hours later, same story. This time the man gets his daughter on the phone to translate. She tells us what he managed to say last time, the only difference being 5 instead of 2. We kill time till 5. Try a cafe where it takes 2 hours for the waitress to fail to serve us. Back to the ferry. Still no boat, more waiting. Trying to sleep on the bike. Eventually, get sold ticket. Dude makes big deal of reducing the price, even gives up back $10 "for vodka". Of course he’s probably charged us way over the real rate and pocketed the difference. $190 each doesn’t seem to bad. More waiting. The ferry appears, docks, and nothing happens for what seems like 3 days. Then some fat idiot extracts another $10 from us for who knows what, says port over and over. Then suddenly a customs check. They tell us to take luggage off and put it through the scanner. We take about a third. Idiot thinks my gps is a radio and for a minute it looks like trouble, then nothing. The train finishes loading. We roll on, tie down the bikes, captain takes passports, annoying. Discover we have cabin. It is gross. Mad woman shows us the toilet. It is like a horror film. Still waiting for boat to move. Now after 2 am. This doesn’t even begin to describe much waiting and bureaucracy we’ve endured today.