From Turkmen Hell to Turkmen Heaven

‘Only the insane or deeply unfortunate find themselves in Ashgabat in July and August’. I don’t know who once said this, but we have to disagree. Maybe that’s because I’m writing this in the shade beside a large swimming pool in the city centre of Turkmenistan’s capital, zipping from a $5 bottle of Tuborg beer, while ‘enjoying’ nearby speakers blast pumping dance tracks into the air and watching Ashgabat’s jet set making fun in the pool, by repeatedly making ‘bommetjes’. The 42 degrees Celsius or plus temperatures in the past might have been a challenge for travellers that found themselves stuck in Ashgabat, but times have clearly changed.

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We’re staying in what I guess has to be Ashgabat’s top end hotel, The Grand Turkmen Hotel. It’s expensive, but we happily put down the dollars for it, after days of camping and guesthouses, to enjoy some well deserved luxury. Maybe it’s because we just wouldn’t have expected to find such a place in Turkmenistan, that we’re enjoying it extra.

We left Khiva last Saturday and headed for the border with Turkmenistan, the big unknown country for us. It’s been compared to North Korea, because of the personality cult surrounding its leaders and because it’s not that tourism friendly, to say the least, so we were anxious to experience this country ourselves. We opted for the Transit Visum, for which one doesn’t need a letter of invitation and which is cheaper than a regular Tourism Visa. The downside is you have to stick to a given route (in our case the fastest route to get from the Uzbekistan border to the one with Iran) and you are not allowed to deviate. The visa is only vallid for three to five days, while the Tourist Visa gets you 30 days. But the downside of the Tourist Visa is you have to have a guide with you at all times.

We applied for the Transit Visa in Dushanbe and were told we would receive a code in one week with which we could go to the border. Our visa would then be waiting for us there. This of course was an extremely risky option, but it saved us the trouble of waiting for the visa in Dushanbe or Tashkent, so we went for it. Of course, after one week, just one day before we wanted to enter Turkmenistan and two days before our visa in Uzbekistan would expire, we still hadn’t receive a code.

After some phone calls we finally received the code by email Friday night at about 8 pm, less then a day before we wanted to get into Turkmenistan. We were so happy.

So the next day we drove to the border, expecting to be searched extensively again at the Uzbek-border. But that didn’t happen to our surprise. They didn’t even searched our car AT ALL this time. They did make us pay about 7,50 euros for an insurance we didn’t have, but apparently should have bought at the entry border. We don’t know if this was a scam, but we paid it.

Then we entered the Turkmenistan-border area. We were first welcomed by two young border guards, who – in perfect English – warmly welcomed us to Turkmenistan. We then proceeded to the actual border post, where we got our visa and were I estimate around 60 forms were filled out to get us finally into Turkmenistan. The whole process took hours and was extremely slow. People were friendly, but in a strange kind of way. We never got a feeling whether it was just for show or actually friendliness. Our car was searched extensively and we had to tell them our route, which was to Ashgabat and then onwards to Iran. The border official drew the route for us and told us twenty times not to deviate from it. That’s not allowed.

After paying all kinds of fees, including a fuel compensation charge for the dirt cheap diesel in this country (we had to start our car to prove it was diesel powered), we were finally let go into Turkmenistan.

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It turned out the roads were much better than in Uzbekistan, so we decided to drive towards Ashgabat straight away and see if we could find one of the weirdest sites in Central Asia: ‘The door to Hell’, an ever burning gas crater in the desert, just of the main road to Ashgabat. With help of our Garmin-gps we found the track to the crater, where we arrived just before darkness set in. What a site it was. It is by far the weirdest site we’ve ever camped. The crater is about 70 meters wide and tens of meters deep and completely unprotected. No tourist stalls, no fences, nothing. You can just walk to the edge or drive your car to it. Especially at night the fire is spectacular. The Russians apparently screwed up in the seventies when extracting gas after which the crater was left burning. It’s apparently hard to stop it from burning.

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After camping next to the crater – well, a couple of hundred meters away because of the fumes and gasses – we rose early and completed the rest of the journey to Ashgabat.

It’s such a strange city. Marble and white buildings define the scenery here and according to the Lonely Planet it’s mandatory to wash your car before entering the city. President Berdymukhamedov likes his city clean. We didn’t wash our car and weren’t stopped so far, so we don’t know if it’s indeed a rule or law, but we have to say that we only saw clean cars. Even the traffic lights in this city are shining chrome, instead of the plastic ones we’re used to in The Netherlands.

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This is what makes Turkmenistan so strange. It’s a rich country because of it’s gas and oil reserves, but its leaders seem to spend the money especially on vanity projects. The former president even build statues of himself that would turn with the sun, so he would always be facing the sun. That kind of weirdness has gone, but the current president also has some of this narcism left. Everywhere are huge posters an billboards of the guy: in as well as outside buildings. He’s so full of himself, it makes you wonder how this country gets going.

Apparently by just ignoring his strange laws. Smoking for example is not allowed in this country. Yet, at the swimming pool of our hotel people are smoking anyway. Even the last border guard who let us into Turkmenistan asked us secretly if we had a sigaret for him. Too bad for him that Mirian is managing ‘not smoking’ pretty well.

On some of the streets in Ashgabat we are not allowed to walk, just as taking pictures of some buildings is off limits. It’s hard to describe Turkmenistan. To me it sometimes feels like I’m living in  a comic book. I cannot help but feel pity for some of the soldiers and officials here who probably truly believe in the strange rules they have to enforce.

Tomorrow we’re leaving this country behind us and enter Iran, a country where we very much look forward to visiting and seeing. The stories about Iran’s hospitality and kind people and its beautiful cities have raised great expectations with us!

3 Responses to From Turkmen Hell to Turkmen Heaven

  1. Wietze en Rita

    Wat weer geweldig allemaal. Die krater!!!! Zijn zo benieuwd hoe jullie Iran gaan beleven.

  2. Diederik

    Zwaar jaloers op jullie geweldige trip. Keep those adventures comin’!

  3. Youri

    Wow, die krater, lijkt wel cgi! Heel vet allemaal!

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