The Turkmenistan Blues by Helen Watson
The Karakum desert blisters under a virtual sun on my computer screen. These days my life is all too full of challenges that don't involve breaking a sweat and the figure of myself cycling towards the horizon along a road flanked by sand and scrub is waylaid by a band of desktop icons belonging to documents that I have been too lazy to file: "Employ_satisfact_survey.doc", "Conference_reg_Nov2013.pdf" etcetera. Sometimes I think that they are closing ranks to block my former self out of the picture.
The wind blew as a hot wall against us, drying eyeballs and tongue and singeing cheeks smeared with four days of factor forty. Ed, my husband of two years and nine months, was behind me and I, pedalling hard, counted the strokes until I could drop back and tuck into his slipstream. An ache radiated through my legs and the dust-caked teat of my frame-mounted water bottle was a constant reminder to be thirsty. Ed would lead for twenty minutes after my ten – efficiency left no room for pride – and then as the afternoon winds strengthened against us we'd switch round and round for hours. Chains rattling.
In the nine months since our overladen start from Glasgow this journey had forged us into a single machine. When we set up camp now, pegs were placed and dinner cooked without the need for detailed discussion. There were 130 of the 547km to the border left and only 24 hours on our five-day transit visa – the only sort issued to the unaccompanied traveller by the Turkmen government. We both thought this crossing would be the greatest challenge of the journey to China.
"Time's up." Ed said. I fell back.
The pain eased and I took a swig from the bottle, washing warm water and grit past my teeth. I focused on the turning tyres and the asphalt disappearing.
We caught only glimpses of this land: Further south there had been villages next to canals of brown water lined with rustling poplars. Cotton plants wilted in fields of baked clay. A group of women, waiting for a bus, crowded around gifting us a bag of spiced gingerbread. Their paisley scarves in greens, gold and maroon swept hair back from Turkic cheek bones. In the town of Mary, state buildings of marble and glass rose from pavements swept by old women with bundles of twigs. School girls walked by in uniforms of emerald silk, the colour of the national flag. Two farmers with labour-worn faces let us camp on their land one night. Sharing no language, we cracked sunflower seeds between our teeth and laughed at their donkey together. Truck stops sold mutton stew and green tea. Once we reached the true desert, cars would occasionally slow next to us, an arm stretching from the windows to offer a swig of water or vodka. Nomads touted plastic bottles of fizzing yoghurt under the fierce sun and camels plodded the verge.
"Time's up." I said. Ed fell back.
We cycled until the sand dunes were dark silhouettes against a navy sky and set up camp in a hollow. I tore pieces from a wheel of dry bread and soaked it in hot stock for dinner as Ed rolled out camping mats. We drank our ration of water as tea and lay together on a billion grains of sand, watching a billion stars. We held hands, too salt-encrusted and sore of body to entertain more than that. The Uzbek border was 89km away.
"I think we'll make it." I said.
Ed kissed my cheek in the darkness.
Beyond lay Uzbekistan. In two nights time we would be in Bukhara, eating double portions of noodles in a café set under mulberry trees, skin tingling after a scrubbing in the banya. Then we'd traverse the plains to Samarkand and curve away to the jagged teeth of the Wakhan, the Pamir and, finally, into China.
Further ahead still, there was returning. There was finding employment in a recession and, even four years later, the adjustment to a stationary routine. Hardest of all, with the parallel tracks of our lives forced increasingly apart by work, there was protecting enough time together for the old adventures.
It's 20:03 in the evening and the Karakum desert blisters on the computer screen as I close the door to my office. I can taste that grit. I can almost feel the hot wind cracking my lips, but now it's the simplicity of the two of us and the desert road heading out to the horizon that tortures.