The trip across the Caspian was un-eventful. You could barely tell that the ferry was moving the water was totally flat. No wind or waves, so we slept very well indeed. We got up in the morning and we were still quite a way out, it would be after lunch time by the time we got there. All good things must come to an end and sure enough, eventually we docked and were asked to vacate our cabin, which we did. We were then told to wait upstairs after we got our bikes out of the way and packed, which we also did. In a while a lady comes on-board and we were told to go for a medical check! Ok, so we stand in front of the door while the only other passenger, a local Turkmen goes through the check and then it is our turn. I go first, she asks a couple of questions, where are we from, where have I traveled, and I get my temperature checked, that was it. The rest get the same questions, and she just copies my temperature on their charts and that was that.
Next comes the immigration. They took all our passports, and in 30 minutes or so come back and say that Massimo and Matthew can go off the ship, we have to wait for the consul to come from Turkmenbashi, as we had no visas, and it would be issued here, but only the consul could do it. Ok, no problem, we settle in for a nice wait, while we watch our companions disembark.We wait. We wait some more, and some more. After more than an hour and a half, we are told to go to the immigration building, so we finally get to disembark. We ride the 100 meters to the parking lot and park our bikes next to Massimo's bike which is still here! Not a good sign.
Once inside the building, we are told to first pay the "Entry fee", 12 dollars each, ok, no problem. I stand in front of this window, the lady takes the passports and writes out a receipt in triplicate and then duplicates the work for Cecilia's. We both sign our names on each of the three copies of our receipt, pay the $24.00 and go back to the immigration officer. As we were doing this our guide, Dima walks up and introduces himself. He has just finished with Matthew, who is now safely ensconced in the auto in the parking lot. He informs us, that the reason we had to wait so long was that the consul had car problems and another car had to be sent to town to pick him up!
The immigration officer takes the receipt and our passports and starts filling out some form. When suddenly he stops and starts to talk to Dima about something, Dima turns to us and tells us that the printer is out of ink, and they have to send someone into town to pick up a new cartridge so we have to wait some more! Ok, no problem. In the meanwhile we do manage to get through customs, with Dima's help. He helps the officer fill out the customs form, and basically offers all the standard answers. We don't even have to show the bikes, or our luggage as Dima tells them that it is all affixed to the bike and can't be taken off.
After about 40 minutes the cartridge is here, and the process can continue. Now we sign the form that they managed to print with the new cartridge. We are then told to go and pay $51 each for the visa, so back to the bank counter, and wait for the lady to write out a receipt in triplicate and of course twice. Not to mention that we ended up paying $106.00 (51x2=102, plus 2x2 handling charge!) By the way, that also explained the $24 entry fee, the fee is $10 and $2 for the bank charge. Dima also informed me that the exchange rate on the black market is around 23,000.00 manat to the dollar. The official rate, and the rate at which everything was being charge (the receipts were for manat converted from US dollars at the official rate) is 5200 manat to the dollar. Too bad we couldn't pay anything in the local currency!! It would have cost virtually nothing. Dima told me later that for a lot of their travels they can purchase air plane tickets for manat converted at the official rate making travel ridiculous cheap. (Subsidized by the government obviously).
Ok, we were now past immigration. All in all not too bad. There was virtually no-one else there, as by now all the passengers leaving had been processed, and we were the only ones arriving. Next was the customs papers for the motorcycle. First though, Dima had to straighten out a problem with the visa. On the visa the areas to be visited had to be entered and apparently they had forgotten two places we were to visit, and it took Dima a half hour with the official and a number of phone calls to sort that out!!
Back to the bikes. First, to an official who fills out an official route document. This document is used to calculate the road tax, insurance and various other miscellaneous charges (disinfections for example, which wasn't done but stamped as done on the document!, oh, and charged, $1). With this document we visit various officials which put their stamp on it and passed us on to the next post. After it had all the requisite stamps, we then had to pay said document, after a last stop at the insurance booth, where they also fill out an additional document as proof of insurance. We paid this (yes, another receipt filled out in triplicate, by hand, twice!). The cost was $182 for the two of us, so $91 each. The various charges added up to $89, and of course the $2 bank charge.
For the overview, check out Formalities: Turkmenistan
By the way, gasoline in Turkmenistan is $0.017 a liter, and the road tax is apparently intended to recover some of this subsidized fuel. In the end Massimo calculated that we paid a total of $0.25 a liter for the gas we used while covering the country, not bad. These calculations are based on the black market exchange rate of course!.
We were then waved to the customs where they entered the bike data in a big book, then they sent me with another document to a different lady who put a stamp on it, no idea what that was. Then I was sent me to the police who also entered the motorcycle data in a book, put another stamp on another piece of paper, and with that we were through. Well, almost.
As soon as we got to the door, before we could walk back out the bike, we were told that we had to pay the port authority a port tax! What a relief, this was almost too easy. Anyway, this is also were we caught up with Massimo, he was almost to his bike, when they also called him back and together we went to the port authority office, where they filled out a paper. Sent us to a cashier who gave us a different piece of paper and then incredibly asked if it was ok, if she put both charges (Cecilia's and mine) on a single invoice! With this invoice, I was sent back inside to pay the port tax at the bank window, yes, you guessed it, another receipt in triplicate, but this time only one copy and therefore only one bank charge. The port tax was $10.00 per bike. So the charge was $22.00, by now we just wanted to get out of here, without killing anyone.
The whole ordeal from the time the ship docked to the time we rode out of the port was a little over 6 hours! Poor Matthew had to wait the better part of 4 hours in the car, well, not too bad actually, the car was running with the air-con going the whole time!!
Once outside we followed Dima's car to the hotel in town, which was only a couple of kilometers away. Here we unloaded our stuff into the car and only took what we need upstairs to our room.The hotel Hazar was our accommodation for the night. This turned out to be our first experience with the Russian "intourist" class of hotels. Basically, huge hotels (generally ugly concrete blocks), with a very unpleasant and penetrating odor, lousy rooms, bad service, just generally nasty, but serviceable. The shower worked, paint peeling and rust everywhere, but to everyone's surprise there was water, and even hot water. I am not going to get into the cockroaches and other nasties crawling around, but you get the idea. We stowed the bikes around the corner at some company lot.
We then went down the block to a restaurant where we had our first meal in Turkmenistan. Sturgeon grilled on coal fire. Excellent. Dima and the driver indulged in a bottle of vodka, which apparently is the standard drink around here. All the while regaling us with a propaganda speech of how great the country is, and how well everyone is being taken care of by their great leader. He even mentioned that one of the major worries is what will happen when the great leader is no longer around. Sounded something like I would expect in North Korea. Very interesting and bizarre at the same time. But he seemed to believe it and was very earnest about it so we just listened intently and asked some polite questions
The following day we took of in the direction of Ashgabat, but not before changing some money at the market, for $20, I got 470,000 manat! We then went an filled up our gas tanks. The gas station itself was hard to find, if you didn't know where it was, no sign anywhere, just a couple of pumps, and a little house with huge bars over a little window where you could pass money in. The way it works, is that you have to tell the attendant how many liters you want and and pay. The pump only shows the amount of liters to the nearest 5 liter. We got 30 liters and paid 12,000 manat! The problem which we were to have from here on until we got to China, was that the pumps don't stop. Once started they issued the amount purchased, or until the attendant shuts them off, by which time everything is drenched in gasoline. With a few exceptions there aren't any modern electronic pumps anywhere. So you need to make sure you know how many liters your bike takes.
Massimo had joined our party at least for a while as he was also headed the same direction. The western part of Turkmenistan is very barren and we felt right at home after being in North Africa so long. In Parou we stopped at a mosque which was the site of a "miracle", where some persecuted woman put her hands on a rock and prayed for deliverance and suddenly a cave opened which gave her shelter and hid her from her followers? Pilgrims from all over Turkmenistan come here and pray. Dima explained the story and showed us the various religious spots. Pretty interesting.
We continued to Nokhur, a mountain village just across the border to Iran. The road was really bad, but the country beautiful, and it was nice and cool up in the mountain. Here we stayed in a nice little resort village, which we were all very surprised to see here. We were in the middle of nowhere! The reason for coming up here was the village which is a home to a group of people descended from Alexander The Greats army, who prefer to marry among themselves and keep many of the traditions of the past alive, such as decorating each grave with the horns of a mountain goat which is sacred to them. Men wear traditional fur hats, and speak in a dialect which is very different to the Turkmen language.
We had a nice stay at the resort hotel. We were served a traditional dinner of dumplings and a way bread which is very hard an keeps forever (practically). Very interesting.The following day we saw the men, the cemetery, and wandered around the village, in which there isn't much to see. In particular it is a bit strange, as there is absolutely nothing touristy about the place, and if anything you feel really out of place. Nevertheless it was an interesting experience.
After that we drove through more of this desolate desert landscape, passing a few dust covered villages in the middle of nowhere. We suddenly turned and went a couple of kilometers from the main road, and stopped at a place called Köw Ata, which turned out to be an underground lake with water around 38°C. So we went swimming. A very surreal experience. First you walk down a 170 or so stairs, as soon as you step onto the first staircase the sulfur and heat hits you. At the bottom there is a platform where they have a change room and snack bar! You walk a few more steps down and there is the water. Everything is pretty dark as there are only a few lights down here. You step into the water and it is wonderful. As you swim back the light disappear and you are in complete darkness, very spooky. You keep wondering what could be below you? Other than the small platform where you stepped in there is no where to stand up so you thread water in the dark and listen to the bats flying around you. Excellent.
Eventually you get out and you are totally drained, you can barely make it to the changing room, and there are still those 170 or so steps to the top! Someone has conveniently placed a number of benches on the way up so you can take a rest, and then when you hit the outside you are freezing. Pretty strange considering it is 40°C in the sun!! A great experience
After our quick dip in Köw Ata we got back on the road and headed to the largest mosque in central Asia which is just outside of Ashgabat. An incredible site, the minarets are visible for miles around, and as everything is dripping with gold you are nearly blinded when looking at it in full daylight! It was midday and there were only a couple of three people in the whole place!! Nevertheless, it is an impressive sight, if very surreal. After a quick visit here we continued on to Ashgabat. A few kilometers from the city we got on a fantastical 8 lane superhighway leading into town. An 8 lane highway is not all that special, they have them in most major cities in the world, if not larger. Well, what was special here is that there were no or practically no traffic!! A huge highway in the middle of the day leading into the major city of a country with no traffic? Pretty much par for the course in this country. (an Americanisms for "normal").
The highway comes into an area of Ashgabat called Berzengi where there are a lot of hotels and many fantastic buildings, most of which look and are empty or nearly so. The next thing you notice is that there is a lot of construction going on everywhere you look. OK, lets review, lots of empty buildings, huge highways, and still more constructions going on?? Pretty strange. Apparently Turkmenbashi (actually named Saparmyat Niyazov) has and is in the process of totally reconstructing and modernizing this city.
All of the old Soviet style government buildings have disappeared and have been replaced with ever more pompous and grand buildings. Additionally he has added huge monuments (mostly to himself) and parks everywhere you look. If this isn't enough, how about the slogan seen everywhere, 'Halk, Watan, Turkmenbashi' (People, nation, me). Which he adopted at the same time he took the title of Turkmenbashi (leader of the turk-men).
All of the construction and design is driven and approved by him, and carried out by a French construction company. It is really the most incredible, unbelievable, and strange city I have ever seen. One thing that I found very interesting is how proud everyone I met is of their city. You also see many local tourist everywhere you turn. In all it is fascinating and just plain weird. We walked around the town in a couple of days and it struck me that just outside the center there is a number of housing areas which are in the process of being replaced with more buildings, and industrial parks. What happens to the people? The same in town, there are a number of apartment blocks which are in the process of being razed to make way for more buildings. The only housing that we saw, were a lot of apartment towers in the process of being built, I doubt they are meant as a replacement for the housing which has been eliminated!!
Our stay in Ashgabat was highlighted by two incidents, the first we went into town one day to do some sightseeing, and after walking around for hours, we finally decided that it was time to go up on the Victory Arch (not really and Arch, more like a tripod, with a statue on top). This is where the statue (golden of course) of Turkmenbashi turns to follow the sun. Unfortunately we showed up pretty late. There were a couple of guys hanging around the elevator which took you to the middle section, but it looked pretty closed. They waved us over and together we waited for an attendant. When he showed up they talked him into opening the place up and letting us up. So together with these local tourists we went up to the middle part, took a second elevator to the top, and enjoyed a beautiful view of the bombastic buildings, and huge parks. Then on the way back they paid the attendant for having let us up, and refused to take any money from us. They were just really proud that they had gotten a chance to show their beautiful city to two tourists. We thought that was really great.
The second was, my mobile phone was stolen, from my bike. Since I don't carry a plug-in charging device, I charge my mobile phone straight from the bike. I lock the mobile phone in the tank case and hide the cabling. All to no avail, somewhere between 1:00 and 8:00 in the morning someone broke into the bike and stole the mobile, but left all the cabling!! In the morning I showed it (the broken tank case) to the security guard, he reported it to the front desk, she reported it to the manager. I then went to speak to the manager, who didn't speak any English, German, French, Spanish, or anything else I could make sense of. He then got a hold of a guide who happened to be in the hotel picking up a couple of tourists, and we managed to communicate through him. He was of course very sorry that it had happened, but basically I should not have left it outside! OK, but I had locked it away, and there is a security guard on duty, and the bike was parked right in front of the entrance! So basically we agreed, that he would speak with the guard on duty last night, and I said I would file a police report. He asked me to wait until he had spoken to the guard and I agreed, and that was that.
After running some errands I returned to the hotel to find the representative of our travel agency there, she informs me that she and the manager had come to an "arrangement" and if that would be OK with me. The arrangement being; I don't file a police report, and the manager provides me with an identical phone. So in the end I got a new phone. I sent an e-mail to Swisscom and had them cancel my SMS card, and issue me another one, and that was that. I was also informed that if I filed a police report it would take a minimum of two weeks to resolve (filing the report, and subsequent investigation). So I guess this was the best way. Not to mention that most of these hotels are owned by the government, and the manager certainly didn't want anything to happen which might look bad for the hotel.
After a couple of days in Ashgabat we continued on to Mary where we spent the night. The following day we got up very early and where met by a local guide who was to show us around Merv, the only UNESCO site in Turkmenistan. Merv is the remains of an ancient very large city of about 1.1 million which had been razed to the ground by one of Genghis Khans sons (Tolui) because they had refused to pay tribute to the great Khan. During its heyday it ranked with Baghdad as one of the greatest cities of the islamic world. According to the story, the mayor of the city killed the tax collector the Khan had sent (apparently the Khan had demanded grain, and a pick of the cities most beautiful women), and three years later a large army of Mongols showed up. Each warrior had been told to behead at least 200 to 300 people, which they then proceeded to do. I neglect to mention that the city had surrendered, not that it actually mattered. The army then leaves after razing the city to the ground. The survivors return to town, and the army returns to kill them also, and so ended one of the greatest cities of its age. There wasn't much left, as the building material is mud, but you easily get a feel for the scale of the city, as well as some of the fascinating architecture, by what remains. A rebuilt Mausoleum, some castle walls, part of the city walls, and a few excavations. One can spend a few days just getting a feel for this place, we unfortunately only had a few hours so we only saw a couple of the more interesting things.
After Merv, we continued to the border of Uzbekistan. Where after numerous checkpoints we eventually arrived. As soon as you stop, you are assaulted from all sides by numerous women shoving Uzbekistan banknotes at you. As the Turkmenistan Manat is not convertible it is necessary to get rid of any leftovers here, and there is of course no "official" way of doing it. (The banks are only interested in selling you the local currency for "hard" currency). It is a very chaotic situation, which the women take full advantage of to give you the worst possible rate; if not cheat you outright. The best strategy is to just say no, wait, let the crowd dissipate and then ask one or two separately for the current rate. After getting a few Soms (the Uzbekistan) currency. We said goodbye to our guide, Angela and the driver and headed to the immigration and customs. The exit formalities where thankfully only half as bad as the entry formalities and we were through in around 1 hour. This is pretty bad, but considering that this is Turkmenistan we considered ourselves lucky, and so concluded our stay in this very fascinating and "strange" country. Despite the bureaucratic problems, and costs, we enjoyed our stay. One day it might be interesting to return and see what has become of Turkmenbashi's "legacy".
As a post note, in Kazakhstan we heard that in late August the government of Turkmenistan decided to cancel all tourist visas for the month of October. This unusual step was taken as there is a national holiday and they didn't want to deal with any tourist! So basically the country was closed to foreigners for the month of October!
In late December 2006, Turkmenbashi (Saparmyat Niyazov) died suddenly, and instead of being replaced by the successor named in the constitution, there was a short power struggle and another "leading" politician assumed the reins. An so it starts.
All Material is ©2010 by Khim Rojas and Fernweh Adventures