The main goal of the expedition was acquaintance
with nature of deserts in Western Turkmenia. Besides, we planned to see
the Karagie hollow, Kara-Bogaz-Gol Bay and western ridges of Kopetdag.
We also had an interest in people life in the former republics of
Soviet Union since they became independent.
Books said that best time for expeditions in
the region was April. It caused us some problems getting ready for the
expedition as weather in March in St. Petersburg was not suitable for
bicycle riding. We still did it a few times and other kinds of sport
(like cross country skiing) kept us in good shape. We expected that the
first part of the route would be waterless and almost uninhabited. We
also suspected that there would be problems with availability of food
products in Turkmenistan. Thus the second part of getting ready
included some studies on how much water and food we need for one day
and how much we should carry for each part of the route between the
inhabited areas. Our bicycles needed repair and modification that
included numerous holds for water bottles.
Our trip started from Mangyshlak railway
station in the suburbs of Aktau. Mangyshlak is situated on a plane
between Caspian sea and Mangyshlak plateau. There are absolutely no
places of interest there, so we filled all our reservoirs with water
and took a good asphalt road towards Uzen. The landscape was absolutely
flat until the Karagie hollow. Absolutely dry bushes of 20 cm height
appeared on both sides of the road from time to time. Natives said that
the last time they had snow in December. The soil was dry and cracked.
Strong eastern wind blew in our faces. We moved wheel to wheel at a
speed of 12-13 k.p.h. Finally a sign read: The deepest hollow
Karagie. A sculpture of two saigaks marked the place. Further we
passed a uranium mine that worked for Mangyshlak atomic power station.
I should say that atomic power does not only
give light to the area but also the drinking water that is obtained by
desalting sea water. Filling the bottles with water from street valves
you risk to get non-drinking water, but if you ask people at any house
they will let you use their drinking water supplies (though now the
volume of drinking water for each person is limited). We usually
carried water supply for two days. It was 7.5 liter per person. However
it was due to rather cold weather (10-12 degrees Celsius during the day
and far below zero at night). For hotter weather we would suggest 9
liters per person per two days.
hollow is the bottom of former sea. It stretches from north to south
for more than 100 kilometers. At the place where the road passed, it
was only 15 kilometers wide. The soil there was sandy and clouds of
sand blown by the wind caused extra discomfort. At the bottom of the
hollow (-116 meters from sea level) there was a salty stream of water.
Camel herds grazed there. The eastern side of the hollow was high with
a lot of ravines where we hoped to hide from wind at night. The wind in
these places calmed down for two hours in the evening but after sunset
(approximately at 8 p.m.) started again.
The place of our camp was easy to find. On the
road just 500 meters before ascent to the hollow edge there was a sign
Prohlada spring (Coolness spring). The spring happened to be warm
(about 25°C) and smelled hydrogen sulfide. Piles of camel manure were
around thus eliminating any wish to try the water. We went up the
canyon and put a tent up before wind started. To secure it for night we
pressed it down with plenty of stones. The advantage of this place was
firewood that allowed us to cook supper on open fire. I should say that
though firewood is hard to find in these places we still managed to
cook on open fire almost each day.
In the morning of April, 2 we progressed
further towards Uzen. After we ascended the edge of Karagie hollow we
surprisingly saw the same absolutely flat landscape as the day before.
We renewed the water supplies at Zhetybay and 7 kilometers later turned
on a ground road that went by an oil rig. Soon we crossed the railroad
and got to the area where a military division was formerly housed. The
radio-rangers and barracks were derelict. Parallel to the railroad
stretched a narrow asphalt road. It brought us to the next checkpoint —
the Tasbulat Mortuary, where we slept the next night. The mortuary was
five meters high six-corner building with a dome on top. In an
absolutely flat desert where it was extremely cold at night it was
pleasant to lean the tent to the wall thus hiding it at least from
ground roads went in southern direction from the tomb. They were rigid
with rare bowls of dust and it was possible to move rather fast.
Besides we turned sideways to the wind. We planned to make about 75
kilometers across Mangyshlak plateau to Kazakh bay and get to Fetisovo
village where we could get drinking water. The roads were always
splitting and intersecting with each other. There were almost no
checkpoints — just another mortuary 20 kilometers away from Tasbulat
and two oil rigs. Climbing the first oil rig we spotted the next one
approximately 30 km southeast. Past 10 km we could already see it from
the ground. A sign of near by village were camel herds that started to
appear approximately 20 km before it.
Surprisingly we came exactly to Fetisovo
village. The shore of Caspian sea suddenly droped 100 meters down here
and then stretched for at least a kilometer to the water. Fetisovo was
almost uninhabited. Formerly there had been a small resort there. The
drinking water was brought in tanks. It was best to get the water from
a tank at the customs on the intersection of Fetisovo and Uzen –
Bekdash roads. We found a place for the camp on the right side of the
road (if looking towards Uzen) by salty stream of water that we used
for washing. There was almost no wind and plenty of bushes for firewood
The next day we took a good asphalt road that
began from the customs control. Asphalt was over in about 40 kilometers
and gravel road started. It was almost impossible to ride and even the
cars prefered to move on numerous ground roads that went along it.
Further on many maps a village of Aksu is shown — it is uninhabited
now. The night that we spent on the plain was the coldest of all: there
was no firewood or any cover from the wind. The water in bottles turned
into solid ice by the morning.
On the fifth of April the air could not get
warm for a long time and we continued our way south in warm pants and
coats. Gradually landscape became hilly and soil obtained reddish
color. The Kazakhstan – Turkmenistan boarder was not marked in any way.
Fifteen kilometers before Bekdash the plateau suddenly droped. From
high terrace we observed the sea and separate hills that stood down in
the valley. Some of them were absolutely black. The most noticeable
Table hill has a flat summit when observed on one side and a peak
when observed on the other. By evening we finished 135 kilometers from
Fetisovo to Bekdash. At the city entrance there was another customs
where we showed our passports (no visas were necessary). From the
customs post one road went to Bekdash center and the other to lake No
6 salt mine. Few kilometers to the center of Bekdash produced a
striking impression. The level of Caspian sea had risen and it flooded
the industrial regions of the city. To the right and left of the road
there was water and buildings that rose straight out of it. The living
quarters were safe.
In the town there was one hotel where we
decided to stop and take a shower. One bad thing about deserts is that
there is no water for washing there. However there was no hot water at
the hotel either. At the market we met Ivan Ephimovich and his wife who
were so hospitable that invited us to their house at once. They treated
us with wild duck that Ivan Ephimovich had shot over Kara-Bogaz-Gol bay
and allowed to use their installation for heating sea water that they
used for washing. There were problems with sweet water in the town.
In Soviet times Bekdash was a rich and green
city. It still produced good impression though many things had come to
collapse. All food was sold according to special cards, currency
exchange was forbidden. We could still buy some food at the market and
carefully exchange our rubles to local currency there. The prices were
The morning of April, 6 we started being clean.
This fact was registered by a photograph in front of the hotel with
Turkmenbashi saying over the door. At the southern end of the city
there was a salt pond. This is a vast area that is flooded with water
from Kara-Bogaz-Gol bay, then the canal is closed, the water evaporates
and a thick layer of salt stays on the bottom. The salt is collected
and next cycle begins. When we came to the lake there was already a
layer of salt on the bottom with some water over it. Volodya dipped his
hand in the water and got ulcers by the evening.
Kara-Bogaz-Gol bay is separated from the sea by
sandy spit. The asphalt road of medium quality stretched over it all
the way from Bekdash to Krasnovodsk (now Turkmenbashi). The road was
sometimes crossed by sand dunes. The fauna was more various on the spit
— Kolya caught a snake, we saw crayfish and numerous birds. In the
narrowest place the spit is only 500 meters wide. There we came up to
the bay. The water in it was very different from Caspian sea. It was
oily due to high level of miniralisation and had intensive green color.
The bay connected with the sea by a rather fast salty river only 60
meters wide at the place of the bridge. In its waters we caught shrimp
with our hands. Near the bridge there was a police station and lived a
man called Tuvak, who was famous in the region for catching and selling
sea crayfish. There was a water tank with gross but drinking water.
This was the last drinking water till Krasnovodsk (125 km).
spent a night on the shore of Caspian sea. Sands were covered with
bushes there that could be used for firewood, but their species
remained unknown as there were no leaves. Hare tracks were all around
but we didn’t see them alive. The night due to proximity of sea was
rather warm, even the water did not freeze.
One hundred kilometers through Oktumkum desert
brought us to Krasnovodsk bay. Maps showed some villages in that area
but we just noticed two barracks to the left of the road. There were
camels around so we figured out that there were people near by and may
be even water. Closer to Krasnovodsk where the road from Kuuli-Mayaki
village crossed the mainroad these was another police station. In
Turkmenia the police like to check passports at each control station so
it is better not to keep them on the bottom of your bags.
Finally we reached the southern edge of
Krasnovodsk plateau. The road became hilly and more picturesque. To the
left of the road on a hill there was a cemetery and the view from its
top gave panorama of Krasnovodsk bay. Besides the bay framed in
mountains we saw two huge plants with numerous chimneys and a garbage
dump under the hill. On the cemetery there was water in a building that
reminded of tea-house. The best place for the tent was to the east from
the cemetery on top of the hill. Down the hill where we slept the smoke
from plant chimneys was too obvious.
April, 8 we entered the city of Turkmenbashi
(former Krasnovodsk). This beautiful city lies in the mountain valley
and reminds of Caucuses rather than Middle East. Due to new born
totalitarian regime the trains from Turkmenbashi to the other countries
(like Uzbekistan) were cancelled. We were afraid that it was a
situation around the country and decided to change our route and go to
Kizyl-Arvat by train thus shortening the trip to Kopetdag mountains. In
Turkmenbashi we did some sightseeing in the center (where a monument to
Turkmenbashi — the leader of Turkmen people was situated) and at the
market (where Volodya tried almost everything) and boarded the
Turkmenbashi – Ashkhabad train. This was the only time we got into a
train with no problems.
At night we left the train in Kizyl-Arvat and
found the road to Kizyl-Atrek. We passed through this town and stopped
behind the bridge. Volodya felt poisoned by that time. We fed him with
pills and cooked supper for ourselves. In the morning we all, except
for Volodya, found that the place was rather picturesque. There was a
stream of water in the canyon, caves near by and piles of lamb sculls
all around. Mountains began right behind the tent and the sky was
finally covered with clouds. It was pleasant to our sunburnt faces. The
morning was devoted to ascending the nameless mountain pass. The wind
was extremely strong. When we rarely turned our back to it on road
curves it practically pushed us up itself. We did not pay attention to
secondary roads that called us right or left and moved along
Kizyl-Arvat — Kizyl-Atrek mainroad. There were troubles with water
there also. On Hodzhagala crossing there was water at the small
roadside cafe. The water in a well ten kilometers south from Hodzhakui
crossing was salty. We went ten kilometers more past it and put the
tent up under the bridge.
the morning we found that it was raining. Everything was wet except for
our tent. Somehow in the evening we suspected rain and put it not on
the dry riverbed but a little higher. Half of the day we spent in
leisure. Anton and Kolya brought tortoises, but did not allow me to
make soup out of them. Finally we mounted the bikes and went 20
kilometers to Kara-Kala crossing. There was a boarder control station
there and the guard did not let us through. To go further we had to
write down in our official route-book that we wanted to take exactly
this road or that we wanted to get to Kara-Kala. Thus we refilled our
reservoirs with water there and went back.
The next morning (April, 11) we turned off the
mainroad, went round Hodzhakala, crossed the Adzhidere river by ford
near the broken bridge and went east. Through little villages of Ymarat
and Kaytuli we came to a wonderful canyon and put up our camp by a
stream. The water was drinking in its upper part, but needed boiling.
The further we moved east the closer the mountains came up. The next
night we slept in a place where the road turned south and the mountain
ranges that formed the valley finally met.
April, 12 we continued to go east. In little villages there was no food
but monuments to Turkmenbashi. The food was available only at the
markets of large cities. We carried our supplies from Krasnovodsk. The
canyon ended with 1905 m summit, a ground road went over it to Desht
village. There was still snow up on top and a checkpoint — the dome of
derelict communist military base. To the left was a beautiful waterfall
and to the right — a minaret with a blue dome. From the top one could
see the Iran mountains in the south and Karakum desert in the north.
Five kilometers down there was a wonderful camp place with wood, water
and a canyon.
Next day we continued our descend past water
reservoir. There we made a mistake and turned left approximately 300
meters before it. This road was soon over and we had to struggle
through fields until we got back on the mainroad. Down in the valley
lay kishlak (mountain village) Nohur. This ancient place seemed
squeezed by mountains on all sides and had a lot of old buildings like
waterways, minarets and stone hedges to see. There began an asphalt
road down to Krasnovodsk – Ashkhabad highway. We got on the highway at
Archman village and followed it to Baharden. There was a post office
there where we tried to remind your relatives of your existence.
However telegrams did not reach St. Petersburg. Fifteen kilometers from
Baharden towards Ashkhabad there was Kov-Ata cave with a warm lake
inside. Road sign pointed the way there. There was a hotel and a
restaurant by the cave and swimming in the lake was very pleasant.
We left the cave and ten kilometers later
turned to Karakums, crossed the Karakum canal and slept on its bank.
That day we made 112 km which was a maximum for this expedition.
The next day was the end of the trip. We rode
65 kilometers along the highway decorated with Turkmenbashi sayings and
portraits to Ashkhabad. The bicycle part of our trip was over at the
Going back home from Ashkhabad was not easy, it
took us six days. First the owners of the railway station sold us
tickets to Chardzhow (three trains a day). From Chardzhow there were
two uzbek trains to Tashkent (Nukus – Tashkent and Urgench – Tashkent).
From Tashkent there were two trains a day to Moscow and Kuibyshev.