Day 33 –Monday, May 27th 2013
After rolling off the ferry that we had been trapped on for the last day or so (in sight of the shoreline) we made our way into the customs / excise / bureaucratic nightmare area and fortunately found our guide for this section of the trip waiting for us to lend a hand – even though we had previously been told they would be after the customs fun and games.
It is worth noting at this point that the powers that be, under the control of their insanely paranoid dictator, insist that any one travelling on a tourist visa is accompanied by a government approved guide at all times, and that whenever in an area of population stays in an approved (and frequently bugged) hotel. Nutters, the lot of them.
Still, it was a good job the guide arrived when they did since there are no less than 10 offices that one must visit when bringing a vehicle into the country , none of which have any signs on the doors, or any indication of the order in which they must be visited. Each of these offices contains at least one stamp wielding official, but in some cases three, and one computer which is not switched on throughout the whole proceedings. Each uniformed member of staff will go through the paperwork and scrawl a seemingly random selection of the information into a notebook, before writing another selection of it on a form and waving you away in search of someone to give that sheet of paper an elusive blue stamp that means you can move on to the next stage of nonsense.
With our vehicle, passports, and pre-determined itinerary all signed off, and our wallet a good few hundred dollars lighter we were able to go outside and start the customs bit of the proceedings. This involved a thorough search of everything in the truck – and the pleasure of emptying most of the contents out onto the concrete outside in our first real taste of the Turkmen sun – it was a windless 35 degrees and is not an experience either of us which to go through again anytime soon.
Finally with everything loaded back into place we made our way to the hotel and went out for dinner with our guide (Yuri), as well as one of the guys who would be joining our China crossing and coincidentally shared our itinerary for Turkmenistan (Clive), and his guide (Deema). We sampled some of the local wine, which ranged from the delicious to disgusting. Clive picked the “lovely salad”, which turned out to be chicken, French fries, peas, and mayonnaise – and seemed to be something more likely to come from the north of England than Central Asia. The rest was more in line with what we had come to expect – Shashlik, rice, and tomato / cucumber salads.
Knowing that we had a long day on our hands we went to bed in a hotel for the first time in a good few weeks and slept well, but it was strange to be leaving the truck that was increasingly feeling like home.
Day 34 –Tuesday, May 28th 2013
600km lay ahead of us today, 300 of which we had been assured were on an absolutely terrible road – we are aware this is a glass-half-empty approach of saying it, but good roads don’t break trucks, so we can ignore them for the moment.
We started the day with a fuel stop and had a nice surprise when it came to the bill – the best part of 90 litres costing us only 15 dollars. Sitting on bigger reserves than the government even knows what to do with, fuel here is heavily subsidised – to the point where it is somehow even cheaper than the crude oil from which it is distilled. Unknowingly, one of the payments we had made on entry to the country was to equal some of this subsidisation out – but we were still up on the deal for sure.
Through the last few countries we had become used to livestock wandering about on the roads; to coming round any given bend in the road to find a herd of cows, goats or whatever blocking our path. The passenger would continuously be on wildlife watch. We had not yet encountered camels though, it was exciting to see them for the first time strolling through the desert, but it was not long before we were swerving and braking to avoid them on the tarmac. They were faster moving, less predictable, and (most significantly) quite a lot larger than the animals we had become used to – Yuri told us this was even worse at winter and at night when they seek out the heat of the tarmac, and many crashes occur when a car collides with a humped beast that has fallen asleep.
Some 200km into the day Yuri turned to us and asked, with a cheeky look on his face, “Do you like horse riding?”. When he only received puzzled looks in reply, his mime, by means of explanation, was that of a rodeo jockey trying to keep stay up on his steed. Sure enough within a matter of minutes we had hit the bad road, and Ivor was prancing around over the undulations and broken tarmac that form the main road between Turkmenbashi and their capital Ashgabat. It was hard going, and a slow drive – at times down to 30kph, weaving around trying to avoid the very worst of what was without doubt the most degraded tarmac of the trip so far.
Despite taking so long to make the journey we still had just enough time to make a quick stop into the ruins of Goek-Tepe. In the words of our guide “I don’t know why they put it in the tour, there’s not much to look at”. Had we known at the time that it was in fact that its violent occupation by the Russians in the late 1800’s was one of the factors that so nearly brought the super power into war with Britain during the climatic stages of the Central Asian great game, our visit to this tiny village on the southern edge of the Karakum desert would have perhaps been more significant, however we were only to learn this sometime later – and as it was even this short visit was due to be cut down further by a swarm of its current inhabitants, the locusts, taking to the air and forcing us out.
We made another quick stop to see a gleaming mosque on the outskirts of town before heading in to find our hotel. Yuri hurried off since had learned at one of the many police checks that the President (Dictator) was going to be on the move that evening, and they shut all of the roads in the area when he does that, just to make sufficient room for his ego it would seem.
In the 1990’s the previous President, in his desire to be at the head of a grand capital city like those he had visited around the globe, had created an insane complex of 35 hotels on the outskirts of town. Nobody stays there now, since the area has very little else to offer, and the town receives very few visitors anyway.
It was in this area that we now found ourselves, and despite having more staff than guests the hotel could still not manage to provide us with dinner. It seems that there is no need for them to keep supplies of food in, when they do not normally have any people staying there. We did manage to squeeze some directions to another hotel with an open restaurant though, and were relieved when it turned out to be a good one, despite being nearly empty.
Day 35 –Wednesday, May 29th 2013
The hotel staff had left us some processed cheese and meat along with some stale bread and thankfully some yogurt for breakfast. We ate what we could and waited in our room since we were due to have a meeting with the woman running our tour so that we could hand over yet more hard earned dollars.
While in the capital city it is not necessary for tourists to be accompanied by a guide, so we set off on a walking tour of the area on our own, with the aim of finding a shop just for something to do as much as anything. The President, as mentioned previously, had commanded this whole section of town to be built as a motion of self flattery – but they had unarguably done a very good job. We strolled past ornate buildings, and the grand gardens which contain the worlds’ largest fountains – a string of over 15km. Even the array of statues and pictures of the man himself are suitably impressive, but it is impossible to avoid the feeling of bitter irony over the bold displays of flowing water, in a country where large portions of the population have no running water of their own. There was another thing missing, beyond reason or justification for these lavish constructions; the people. Even at the mock Olympic villiage, complete with a full size stadium all bearing the famous 5 ring symbol, there was nearly no-one to be seen bar a few ground workers. A very bizarre city indeed.
We did manage to track down some genuine Turkmen people at the shopping mall a little further into town, where we stopped to stock up on supplies and check the heavily censored internet. Emails and skype are allowed at least, but anything amounting to social media – our blog, Facebook etc were totally inaccessible.
That night after a futile attempt by the hotel staff to charge us 120 USD for a bag of laundry (we settled for the more reasonable, and pre-agreed, 10 bucks), we caught a bus into the centre of town to explore a little and search out some dinner. Our guide had warned us that taking photos of government buildings was not permitted, and would lead to the immediate confiscation of camera equipment should you be caught – so we gave that a miss. But unfortunately that formed quite a large proportion of the downtown area, and we thought it best not to try our luck with those buildings we were not sure about. We saw the presidential palaces (yes, there are 2 – one for the former president and one for the current), and several state buildings, gleaming white Italian marble and gold leaf domes were common place.
The President had again decided that it was time to move around the city, so the roads were to be in shut down, and both the police and military were out in force. Though as pedestrians it did not interfere with our ambling around in the slightest. The guide book we had for the city was only 2 years old but was already out of date. Of the first two restaurants that we tried to find one had shut down and the entire hotel building that used to contain the other had been demolished. The third try proved to be lucky though, unaided by the strict planning permissions which prevent establishments from putting up obvious signs to show what the buildings contain, we eventually arrive at a sports bar serving good beer and tasty food.
Day 36 –Thursday, May 30th 2013
We were due to set off at 11, but again the pesky President was on the move, this time to open a university; one of his latest grandiose creations not far from our hotel. It only held us up by an hour in the end. Today we were due to travel 300km north, to bring us to a point in the middle of the infamous Karakum desert, where there is a crater that constantly burns as natural gas comes to the surface of the earth, and we could set up camp for the night.
The desert was once described by the viceroy of India, back in 1888 as “the sorriest waste that ever met the human eye”. After a build up like that, how could we possibly miss it out? It is known locally as the “Black Desert”, we were a little disappointed to see that this was a metaphorical name rather than a descriptive one but when the sun was beaming raising the temperature up to 40 deg C, to find traditional yellow sand rather than black stuff was a relief. We had actually got lucky with both our timing and the weather – one month later and the normal day time temperature would have been 65 deg C, and it would only drop to 40 at night.
We stopped off at a tiny village, the last before the desert started in earnest, for some freshly grilled shashlik and to see some how some genuine Turkmen people lived. It was a strange sight; the typical yurts and homes of the region complete with camels grazing outside, but with a satellite dish on nearly every one. The people there were friendly, and we picked up some last minute supplies for that evening.
It was in this village that we had a play with Ivor in some deep sand for the first time, just to test whether we would be able to make it to the campsite or not. After digging him out once, and having to back out a second time we decided that we had neither the experience nor the power to make it through the dunes to the gas crater. With only 100 horse power to pull 4 tons of truck and narrow, mud biased tyres, it was quickly obvious that if he lost momentum he would just sink up to the axles without the necessary oomph to pull him through. This would just mean that we would have to leave the truck on the road, pack a tent, and catch a lift into the crater in the other guide Deemas’ more nimble 4×4.
On the way we had a small mishap in that the bad roads had shaken loose some bolts holding one of the rear water tanks and and the opposite side rear lights onto the chassis. The first we know of this was an infrequent banging noise as the light cluster bounced off the road, and at the same moment the driver of a passing truck was pointing frantically at the back of ours. We stopped immediately to check out the damage. We managed to force the water tank bracket back into shape using a bottle jack, and the lights could be strapped in place. Somehow none of the light bulbs had even broken so we were back on our way very quickly, we would just have to stop and put some permanent fixes in place when we next stopped for a day or so in a town – this would come in Uzbekistan once we had stopped paying the daily rate for a guide!
On the way to the gas crater we went to see the most lame tourist attraction of the trip so far – a crater, not far from the main road which turned out to be a test drill site where the soviets had been looking for natural gas. The remaining hole had turned into a well, where the water was of a surprising high level, but the surface of which was largely covered with old water bottles that had been discarded in it. Needless to say we didn’t stay there for long, in fact just long enough to take this photo.
We parked Ivor at one of the only houses that we had seen in the whole desert crossing so far. The occupant agreed to look after him for the evening in exchange for a few Turkmen Manat. We loaded a few camping essentials into the 4×4 and set out across the dunes in search of the gas crater.
The crater itself was huge, and although the flames were not particularly high, the heat was immense. When the wind slightly changed direction standing close to the edge was only just bearable, but fortunately the updrafts did not last long. The origins of the crater are unknown, but the most likely explanation is that an accident occurred during the Soviet occupation of the area while extracting the gas, all traces for this have of course been hushed up in the history books so the details will probably never be known for sure, but one of the pipes sticking into the edge of the crater is a tell-tale sign.
As night was beginning to fall we set up camp, and Deema prepared a delicious stew on an open fire for us, which we tucked into gratefully and set about making a dent in the vodka supplies that he had also brought. Deema was from the old school of soviets, who insisted that the vodka was good for you and would keep us safe from any of the digestive troubles all too common with travelers – as such he would charge our glasses at any opportunity.
The darker the surroundings became the more the glow from the crater was visible, until a rich red orb of light could be seen all around it – this made for some good photo taking opportunities.
We sat around talking with Deema and Yuri, and a guide from the only other group in the area that had come over late into the night. It was only then, while in the middle of the desert safely away from any prying eyes, and with their palettes suitably lubricated with vodka, that they were prepared to talk a little more honestly about how they felt about the country, its’ leaders, and some of the injustices that were inflicted on its people. The misuse of money clearly troubled them all, but with other guides around they were still being careful about what they let slip – though each had stories about the latest grand creations that were not needed, or wanted by the majority of the people – when they were so badly lacking other infrastructure.
Day 37 –Friday, May 31st 2013
An early sunrise and a quick breakfast before hitting the road once more, this would be our last day in Turkmenistan before crossing the border into Uzbekistan. Although the distance to cover was only about 350km, the roads were to be so bad that we would only make it to the border with a couple of hours to spare. In one 80km section that was particularly bad we were driving along farmers tracks on the edge of the road in places, since they were in better condition. We have spoken to many travelers who have done tours all over the world from Africa to South America, and the only person who says they were using worse roads than those in Turkmenistan had discovered them in Tajikistan and Afghanistan – and later confessed that his route had avoided this troublesome 80km in particular!
Although this blog post may have made it seem that we have despised our time in the country, it has not been the case – It is true to say that it has been hard going with the roads, and the freshly developed capital city did not seem reasonable given the state of the rest of the country. But it has been interesting for us both throughout; we have never seen a country like this – still growing out of the shadow of Soviet rule and with a wealth of natural resources at their disposal they seem to have more money than a sense of direction. It is unlikely that we will be hurrying back to visit as long as the bureaucracy surrounding the country makes it so complicated, but the people that we met were generally a friendly bunch – and the geography of the place is incredibly varied, and there were certainly sites that we wish we had been able to make the time to visit.
We just had to give Ivor his strip search, and collect some precious blues stamps on our paperwork and we were free to head towards the Uzbek border – It felt good to be travelling without a guide again – No reflection on Yuri, but a sense of freedom was immediately apparent for both of us. The China deadline was looming only 20 days from here, and although the distance to cover was coming down, the pressure was still very much on with one vast desert and several significant mountain ranges yet to cross.