I have been writing, just not posting due to terrible internet connections and adventure mode in Tadzjikistan.
After waking up near the border of Turkmenistan I exchanged some money and nervously drive to the Iranian checkpoint. The time spent on the Iranian part of the border crossing was rather lengthy. Lots of forms, going from counter to counter and people trying to help me out with some more forms that I didn’t know the function of. The strange thing is that they didn’t even really look at my hyper expensive Carnet de Passage. They just stamped it and that was done. After about 2.5 hours I was finally allowed to exit the country and drive to the Turkmenistan part of the border. Things here were completely different. Different people, procedures, building styles, etc. There were a shitload of documents to fill in and the whole shabang costed me $107 extra. Also I was told I had to drive through the country in 1 or 2 days in stead of the 5 that were on my visa. I refused this and made up a bullshit story that I needed car to be repaired in Ashgabat. After a 15 minute debate I was finally allowed to travel the full 5 days. However, they decided that I had to install a GPS tracker in my car to make sure that I wouldn’t visit any other place than my itinerary specified. And they wanted to make me pay another $10 for the GPS but I told them I had no more dollars. So finally I got a receipt without paying anything. They took my passport for one final check (that took 1.5 hours) and I was free to go!
I drove straight to Ashgabat as specified on the itinerary form. Traffic was suddenly very reasonable and the average car brand went from Saipa to Toyota. People were still surprised to see me and some of them waved, but it was more like 20% in stead of 80. Entering Ashgabat was interesting. Massive 5 lane motorways with nearly nobody using them. Enormous roundabouts with Dubai style artwork in the middle and slowly all white buildings started to appear. The city is completely white and appears perfectly finished. There are almost more fountains than buildings. When I entered the first hotel that I found in the Lonely planet they told me they only accepted dollars and no cards. For that I had to go to the Grand Turkmen Hotel, so I went there. A simple room there is $80 and I decided that I had earned that for 1 night, since in Iran I had spent only 3 nights in accommodation. The girl at the reception showed me a nice place to have some food and a beer. It was amazing to simply order a beer again. Rather soon I had a conversation with Ahmet, who had been drinking with a couple of buddies. He had lived in England for a while so conversation went smoothly. There was live music and because it was their national day of independence the national song was performed a couple of times. Two of his also friends joined a bit later (one of them hilariously drunk). In the end Ahmet wouldn’t let me pay for any of the beers and food that I ordered because he wanted to show me Turkmen hospitality and they even dropped me off at the hotel again. My first day in Turkmenistan was a success!
The next day I checked out after breakfast and asked if I could spend the next night in my car on the parking near the hotel. No problem, and I could even use the sauna and shower (and as it turned out free breakfast the next day)! I went to check out the Russian bazar. There, a guy asked me in Russian where I am from. He spoke no english but made clear that he would like to drink a beer because he was waiting for a bus ride to Balkanabat. So we sat down and had a beer, trying to communicate. After that he showed me the bazar and tried to help me to find new shoes (because my last pair was nicked in Iran). I for got to mention that Ashgabat is a very hot place. The temperature in the middle of day is about 40, so walking around is quite a task. I managed to do a few kilometers and took some pictures of the desolate parks. That evening I had dinner and a beer with Jennet, the girl from the hotel reception. We had interesting conversations about life in Turkmenistan, and how it isn’t all that cracked up to be. Wages are low and life is quite expensive. Traditional values are still in place and there are a lot of every day restrictions. A pack of cigarettes is about 9 dollars because the president is also a physician and he doesn’t like it. While you are allowed to smoke in bars, you will be fined heavily if you do it on the streets. While costs are relatively high, people don’t earn the according paycheck.
Sleeping in the car that night was pure hell. The temperature didn’t go down a lot and when I opened the car windows an armada of mosquitos entered the car to pester me through the night. So the free breakfast was a real treat. Before heading off to the burning crater in the middle of the country, I had lunch with Jennet and she had even bought me some birthday presents! We met at the largest mall in town. The building looked insanely luxurious and it was good to see there were some people there. After that we said goodbye and I headed off to the north, to the desert. The road to the north slowly deteriorates into a broken up slab of tarmac with increasingly more massive potholes that can potentially take off a wheel. Because I left quite late, I wasn’t sure if I would make it to sunset. I read that it is the best time to be at the crater. But after a grueling 4 hour drive I made it just in time! There were some other people near the crater but they all seemed rather uncommunicative so I celebrated my birthday alone with a few brewskis, some loud music and a beautiful clear sky. The crater at nighttime is absolutely awesome. It really simply looks like a massive door to hell.
Different road types to the crater
The night temperature was quite alright but when the sun came up it quickly started to rise. So I packed up, made a few more pictures and left for the border near Konye-Urgench. The road to Konye-Urgench is even more car-destroying than the road to hell. There were paths next to the road because people didn’t want to drive on the rubble. And when those paths became too bad, there were new paths next to the paths next to the road. I really felt like this would be the end of Brutus, but he pulled through like a champ. Near Konye-Urgench I finally found a gas station to fill up on diesel. Before entering the town from the south, there is a museum complex with a bunch of mosques, shrines and a huge defense tower. I decided to spend some of my last manats (Turkmenistan currency) here. In town there is a bazar that looks quite different than the one in the marble tiled capital. Tiny marked stands, friendly locals trying to make a buck, and a ton of dust swerved up by hot winds.
I spent the night in the car near the border. It was a rural environment and quite relaxing and cool. After watching some series I had a good night sleep before heading to the border to exit the country again. My time in Turkmenistan was really quite good, apparently unlike other people that I met who transited the country. Goodbye strange and paradoxical Turkmenistan!