Entering Abu Dhabi, everything was dressed up: the superlative shining Sheikh Zayed Mosque (90000T white Macedonian marble, largest hand-knotted carpet, largest marble mosaic and third largest chandelier (11T) in the world), the shopping mall in front and the crowds of tourists in shorts or miniskirts. After two weeks on the dusty road, these were unfamiliar views.

We were much more overwhelmed by our Warmshowers hosts in Abu Dhabi! On the 42nd floor of a tower block we were welcome to feel at home by Anthea & Tom, enjoyed their company as well as the exciting conversations over good food and wine (after two months without alcohol😉). The center of Abu Dhabi with its multicultural atmosphere and exciting architecture was an unexpected highlight too.
After a hike together to an uninhabited mountain village, we left the city of Abu Dhabi with many beautiful memories a few days later than intended😊. Thank you so much, Anthea & Tom!

Our journey continued to Al Ain, where we visited the authentic local camel market. The Sudanese guest workers were happy to show us as the only tourists and me as the only woman in the market area the (baby) camels😊.
For the next two days, we drove through well-kept oasis villages via Oman back to the UAE, where we pitched our tent for a while in Hatta. In the outdoor amusement park “Hatta Wadi Hub” with affiliated bike store, we were warmly welcomed as touring cyclists. As it slowly became too hot and humid on the Arabian Peninsula, we planned our onward journey here.

If we wanted to reach Central Asia and Japan by land, we had the following options:

  1. from Dubai by ferry to Iran, from there via Turkmenistan to Central Asia. Since Covid-19 it is not possible to enter Turkmenistan, but it was very difficult to get a transit visa even before the pandemic.
  2. from Dubai by ferry to Iran, from there via Azerbaijan and the Caspian Sea to Central Asia. Since Covid-19 the country borders into Azerbaijan are closed, the reopening was announced for March 1st, 2023.
  3. from Dubai by ferry to Iran, from there via Armenia, Georgia and Russia to Central Asia. After calculating the distances, the detour via Russia turned out to be too far for us in order to reach Japan before next winter. Therefore, this option was dropped.

For months we had prepared ourselves for the entry to Iran by avoiding or covering all (digital) traces of our stay in Israel. We had the entry stamps of Israel and Jordan put on a separate supplementary sheet. Our alternative reality would have been to stay in Cyprus for two months and fly to Jordan from there. As proof, we had bought a fake airline ticket on the internet with correct flight dates to Jordan😉.
The adjusted blog entries, statistics and routes we had prepared and all references to Israel on the cell phone / laptop were deleted.
From reports of other cyclists we knew that the trip through Iran is possible despite the protests in the fall and the difficult economic situation. The invitation letter, which we needed for the new Iran visa, we had requested in the beginning of February.

What good news we received when on February 13 the announcement circulated that Turkmenistan wanted to open its borders on March 1, 2023! On February 23, there was a setback when Azerbaijan postponed the opening of the country’s borders for the 9th time in a row for May 1st, 2023.
We wanted to do everything possible to realize the remaining option of continuing the journey by land.

Two days we spend preparing all necessary documents to apply for the Turkmen transit visa: cover letter including exact itinerary, application form, questionnaire, visa (guarantee) from Iran and Uzbekistan, passport photos, passport copy, confirmation of health insurance explicitly for Turkmenistan, copy of the marriage certificate. With all the documents in our backpacks, we went on a pilgrimage by bus from Hatta to the Turkmen Consulate in Dubai on March 1st. In front of the consulate we met the cleaning team waiting for the arrival of the consul: “Nobody here sir, maybe in one hour”. Patiently we waited until the consul showed up ½ hour before closing time, luckily. He answered our question about a transit visa on the doorstep: he could not issue us a transit visa, the application for the Letter-Of-Invitation (LOI) had to come from a travel agency.

We immediately contacted several Turkmen travel agencies and the Globetrotter visa service in Switzerland. All of them confirmed that for a transit visa, no LOI from a tour operator was necessary and that a tourist visa is only available together with a booked tour. BUT: Despite the encouraging announcements, the Turkmen borders are still closed. When the borders will open or if it will be possible to enter the country by plane only is currently unclear.

Empty handed, we returned to Hatta, where we needed a few more days to make our decision… Should we continue towards Iran and hope to get a Turkmen visa in Tehran? And if this is not possible, fly from Tehran to Baku, Dubai, Moscow or Istanbul? Because of the Western sanctions, these have become the few feasible international flight connections.

After much consideration, we decided to fly directly from Dubai to Baku. Although we are no longer circumnavigating the globe by land, Azerbaijan is a very interesting destination and a valuable travel experience awaits us with the crossing of the Caspian Sea😊. The decision was so difficult for us that we did not want to think any longer and now immediately got down to business. We booked the flight to Baku and applied for e-visas for Azerbaijan – a mere routine matter…😊

When news came a week later that Turkmenistan was opening its borders effective immediately, we stuck with the decision we had made. As it turned out, this was just another announcement. The borders with Turkmenistan are still closed.

(Due to technical difficulties at MapBox, the map sometimes does not load completely).
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We had two weeks until the flight, which we used for a tour through the UAE. We climbed the highest mountain by bicycle (up to the military base at 1770m😉), hiked to another mountain village, pushed our bikes for three hours over sand tracks and walked on the largest sand dune in the Dubai region. What we really wanted to see in the UAE was a camel race. Therefore, we arrived at a camel race track on the weekend and were at exactly the right place at the right time. A very nice Emirati and owner of racing camels, invited us to rest, eat and spend the night. The next morning we were allowed to watch the race of his camel from the car. A robot jockey sits on the camels during the race with a whip and walkie-talkie. The camel owner and trainer drive alongside in the car (usually a white 4×4 Toyota Landcruiser V8), control the whip and give commands via walkie-talkie😀 (see this short movie on Youtube). Unfortunately, “our” camel was the last to arrive at the finish line.

For the days before departure, we found affordable accommodation in Sharjah, the emirate neighboring Dubai. From here we visited the Mall of Emirates, where we were amused by seeing the few skiers. At the Mall of Dubai, we gazed at the world’s tallest tower only from down below. For us, the view from a height of 585m was not worth the entrance fee of 190.- Fr. per person.

We were also surprised again and again about the striking price differences when eating. While in the western café a (bad) cappuccino costs 5.- Fr, we treated ourselves at the Indian for the same price to 20 Karak teas, 3 freshly squeezed mango juices or a fine dinner for 2 people😊.

This morning we cycled to Dubai airport, where we packed the bikes in boxes and wrapped the bags with cling film. After a lengthy and chaotic check-in, we hoped that our luggage would survive the flight well. Five hours later in Baku we received our undamaged bikes and bags with great relief! Now we are curious what awaits us in Azerbaijan… 😊