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Wishing A Starry Night In Turkmenistan

Fearghal O'Nuallain

I wish I could see the warm orange glow of Sarakhs, the border town I was headed for and the little glowing clusters of far off towns and villages visible across the vast flat expanse.
Travel writing is all about dreaming. It is about imagining you are someone, or somewhere else. You’ve got to allow your mind wander away from where you are to where you might be, and forget yourself and embrace who you might be. I’m sitting at my desk and typing this as the bright light of the morning sun shines outside. I’m indoors and dreaming out. As my fingertips unconsciously tattoo the keys of my computer my mind goes walkabout, slowly loosing itself, floating beyond the computer screen, out of my room and up into the blue sky outside. At an ever increasing speed, it is doing laps of this find blue and white planet, travelling through space and time before zooming in and coming back to earth in Turkmenistan on a clear and cold Saturday night in early December 2009.

I’m wishing and imagining I was back there, in the blue of the night in Turkmenistan. I wish I was dog tired and wearing the same greasy clothes I’d been wearing since leaving Tashkent in Uzbekistan 1,000km and 7 days North. I wish I’d been cycling into a headwind all day, and I wish I could still taste the mutton shashlik I’d eaten with flat bread and washed down with tea from a bowl at a tea house hours earlier; while reclining awkwardly on a hand woven rug, my stiff legs ill equipped for sitting without a chair.

I wish I still had sand stuck in my beard and salt encrusted eyebrows. I wish I was cycling by the cool light of the moon because I couldn’t find any batteries for my head torch in the small shops that sold a little of everything but nothing that I wanted. I wish I was cycling blind, with my ears cocked for the Ladas and blacked out BMWs that bounced regardless along the lumpy road and had come dangerously close to hitting me earlier.

I wish I was alone and together with everything. I wish I felt like I’d pierced a void. I wish that I once again understood what was crystal clear to me then as I stood beneath a black velvet dome richly studded with diamanté stars. I wish I could see the warm orange glow of Sarakhs- the border town I was heading for- on the horizon across the vast flat expanse. I wish I was taking a rest beneath an elaborate Soviet bus shelter and listening to the sounds of the social wafting over a fence, catching the Russian pop music of a party that came and went with the opening of a back door as I sat like a lonely flanuer hidden in the darkness warming my numb fingers and drinking hot tea from my flask. I wish I could hear the drunken banter of the party-goers- spoken in the universal language of jocular youth- as I ate a full packet of cheap chocolate biscuits. I wish I was eating those biscuits with a hunger that a day’s cycling brings; jamming them into my mouth with grubby fingers and softening them with rude gulps of hot tea.

I wish I could catch a glimpse of the living everyday through lace curtained windows. I wish saw; a family lit by the ghostly light of a television set, a woman stoically eating dinner alone, a man falling from his car to his front door after too much vodka. I wish I could understand the fullness of the whole that I glimpsed in those slices of life. I wish it was possible to preserve the ephemeral world of universal truth contained in each little snapshot. I wish I had held on to the singular truth visible only to an outsider riding quietly past alone in the dark that night in December.

I wish I was rolling quietly out of the dark night into a military check point, startling young sleepy eyed soldiers in ill fitted trench coats and clumsy boots who took my passport to the chief for inspection. I wish I was stamping my feet to keep warm while I waited in commune with the young soldiers as we nodded recognition to the other’s unintelligible mumblings and shared the warm kinship of biting cold. I wish my heart sank as I was called to halt as I begin to push off only to swell again when a hunk of naan was pressed into my hand by the brick faced officer with the warm eyes of a grandmother who left the warmth of his hut to see the fool who owned the exotic passport and rode a heavy bike through the desert in the dark. I wish I could see desert foxes and rabbits startling into the scrub as I approached the town’s gates; gates that for millennia had welcomed traveller’s more virtuous than me as their caravans travelled the old silk road. I wish I could look up and see an airplane scud across the silver face of the full moon ferrying sleeping passengers from point to point above a world they’ll never really know and can’t hope to understand.

I wish I had arrived at the border just before midnight and I was hopefully asking a guy filling his car with cheap petrol at a pastel green petrol station for directions to a kaфe. I wish I was squeezing the last joules from my limpid legs chasing the two glowing red tail-lights of his Lada as he insisted on showing me. I wish my speedometer read 204km. I wish I was being led into a muddy courtyard to a hot meal, a floor in a warm prayer room, a steaming bowl of borscht, stout handshakes and vodka toasts with gregarious and generous truck drivers. I wish I was having the first hot shower in a week, and relishing it with a pleasure usually derived from other less innocent carnal activities. I wish I was sleeping a deep and dreamless sleep my aching body knowing the relative value and virtue of tiredness and discomfort after four days chasing across a country I will probably never go back to, but always fondly remember.

This sunny morning in Dublin, I wish I was out there on a starry night in Turkmenistan…

I wish I could see desert foxes and rabbits startling into the scrub as I approached the town’s gates. Gates that for millennia had welcomed traveller’s more virtuous than me as their caravans travelled the silk road.

Fearghal O'Nuallain

Fearghal uses human powered journeys to explore the world.

He is one half of the first Irish team to circumnavigate the globe by bike after 18 months cycling west for 31,000km across 30 countries with Simon Evans. In 2011 he walked across Rwanda to explore development for his MSc thesis.

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