The arrivals hall door to the Turkmenistan customs post is locked, and it seems no-one can find the keys. Just classic – this is one of the most reclusive states in the world, getting up there with North Korea, and they can’t let me in, because the door is locked and no-one seems able to open it.
I’m standing in no-man’s land, between Iran and Turkmenistan, trying to make a start on my 7-day transit visa. I’ve got a lot of miles to cover, but luckily today I only need to go to Ashgabat, around 50km away, pretty much downhill all the way. So I go for my usual policy when I have to wait for various police, customs and petty officials – I sit down and go to sleep. I don’t fully understand it, but this is a remarkably effective way of getting some action. If you sit there looking frustrated, they make you wait even longer, but it annoys them when you go to sleep, so they process you. And sure enough, after a little while, someone comes out, and leads me around through the departures hall, down a dark “officials only” corridor, and into the arrivals hall.
This continues a theme already started on the Iranian side – I got there early, around 6:45, but they weren’t ready until around 7:30 or so. I was still the only non-official there then, so they took me backwards through Iranian customs, as they couldn’t be bothered opening the other door. Quick and easy, stamp from one officer, signature from another, see you later.
Turkmenistan proved a bit different though. After leaving my bike in the customs area, I went to the passport control part. My bike was clearly a great source of amusement, and I would periodically hear the bell go “ding ding” as another customs official came along to play with it. Went through the medical inspection “say aaah – OK you’re healthy,” paid my $12US, then after a myriad of form filling in (not by me), I moved to the customs area.
As I was still the only one there, I had everyone gathered around – probably about 10 people. Random questions about how much foreign currency I had, how much the bike cost, and then they tried to get me to give them $100 for bringing the bike in. I just played dumb on that one, and they gave up. Cursory look in the top of a couple of panniers, and then I was free to go – but not before one of them went for a quick spin around the compound. Not being used to the weight, he was wobbling all over the place.
And then down into Ashgabat – suddenly women everywhere, dressed in hooker chic. Nearly crashed my bike at the shock of it, after a month in Iran and a month in Turkey. Teams of women sweeping the roads/tending to the gardens, huge fountains and monuments everywhere, enormous white buildings doing goodness knows what. Police everywhere – almost every street corner it seems. Crazy. Very nice, clean, new-looking place though. Go to the bazaar, shocking amounts/variety of food available, making a very pleasant change to dusty little corner stores like I normally frequent.
Did the walk around, go up Turkmenbashi’s monument thing – the statue that rotates to face the sun. That’s not very quick though, you don’t see it moving. One of the craziest things was that I couldn’t take pictures of a lot of things I wanted to – military people stopped you. I wasn’t even allowed to stop and look at some statues, I was told to keep moving. What’s the point in building monuments if tourists can’t take pictures, or even stop and look at them? Soviet mindset.
This being my first time back in a country with alcohol for a month, I thought it was time for a beer. I will have you know that I waited until 4:00 though, as per the rules. Good thing clocks went forward 90 minutes when I crossed the border…Found a couple of nice places, including one with a live Russian band, singing quite a few English songs. A bit weird.
First beers in a month meant first sore head for a while as I rolled out of Ashgabat the next morning. Police seemed to be at every little intersection for miles out of Ashgabat. The road started well, dual carriageway swept every 10 metres…but quickly descended to a pretty poor road, with some roadworks nearby, that seemed to have stopped some time ago. Guess Turkmenbashi spent all the money on statues of himself (because the people demanded it, apparently), and that didn’t leave any for roads. I think maybe he mostly travelled by helicopter.
Long hot days ahead crossing Turkmenistan…more posts to come