Kazakhstan introduced us to Central Asia, Kirghizstan showed us its wildest trails, Tadjikistan made us respond to the rhythm of Dushanbe, Uzbekistan taught us to make haste and to take care of ourselves… Turkmenistan is hell-bent on playing on our nerves, putting us under pressure with a new psychological challenge: how to go cover the 1500km to Turkmenbashi and catch a boat to cross the Caspian Sea to Azerbaijan. All this in five days before our transit visas expire.
Fortunately, there are Iranians!
On June 9th, the three of us are together at the border once again. It is a laborious process, long, disorganized and trying. There are birds nesting above the customs’ desks, veiled women waiting in the heat of the building which has no air-conditioning, and whether the staff are actually working or just pretending to makes little difference. Turkmens scan all our stuff; tell us to switch on our computers to check our photographs and videos. No, no, not pictures of our trip; they are looking for something else… One of the officers, a woman tired of searching the computers, eventually asks:
- Do you have any porn pictures?
- Thanks. You can switch off your computer.
After three hours of customs formalities, we cycle 30km to reach the first big city. It doesn’t take long to discover that we can forget about the train. No seats for four or five days… What’s more, we can’t get change money and we need to keep our dollars for the boat…
We quickly decide to leave the city and hitchhike to the capital 600km south west of us, where the banks should accept our credit cards. From there, we reckon we will be able to catch a train. Eventually .a five-truck convoy of Iranians pulls to a stop at the sight ot three guys drying themselves by the roadside. Each of us in a different truck, we learn a bit more about Iran and its inhabitants. We must definitely go there one day!
A Few Iranian hours
We drive for hours on a shattered road like a minefield after the mines have exploded. For kilometres, there is nothing to see.
Morgan to Sadir : « There is not much to see in this country »
Sadir, in English: « There is only one interesting thing in Turkmenistan, my friend: the women »
Without getting into a big debate and trying not to over-generalise, the fact is that the more we travel in countries where women are hidden away the more the men are obsessed by fantasies about them instead of sharing their day-to-day lives with them. It would be interesting to go to Afghanistan and talk to people living there. Sadir explains that Iran is more relaxed. Women can show their faces there, adding that in Afghanistan, you can barely see their eyes…
Around 10.30pm, they stop in an improvised parking area, spread a rug on the ground and make tea while waiting for a bite to eat, already on its way. We spend the night with our five new friends, sharing their food and drink. There are two small berths in each truck, behind the driving seat. We are invited to sleep in them, and take to the road again next day around 6am.
Brian observes: « We lost a half day at the border, what with the checks on both sides, we can’t get any reliable information about trains, nobody speaks English and it’s a real struggle to communicate with anybody. We are under constant pressure and the entire atmosphere of the place is stressful. I try to step back for a second : here we are in the middle of the Turkmen desert sharing a meal with a really fabulous group of Iranian truck drivers! These guys, appearing from nowhere and offering to share their hospitality on these broken roads, make me think: somewhere in all misadventures, there is a happy moment lurking. Our trip has taught me patience to trust in providence, and we enjoy the moment all the more for the difficulties that precede it.”
A Closed Country, a Capital City without a Soul
We have 4 days left before our visas expire and we have only covered 300km by truck and 50km by bike. The trucks drop us off in the middle of the desert. They are going to Iran and we need to head west. There is nothing here. We wait, try waving down trucks, cycle a bit, wait, cycle, wait, cycle… Turkmens are not disposed to help us and in the end an Uzbek truck stops fort us. But It doesn’t have enough space to take us all and the driver tells us to go to the police at the next checkpoint (they are everywhere) to explain our situation. We don’t like dealing with the authorities but we decide to take a chance, a bit daunted by the long hours under a very hot sun. Their verdict is fast and final. After studying our passports from every angle, they order us to move on and be quick about it!.
Not so easy to keep the spirits up in this hostile environment, under pressure from the clock, with very little money and treated with contempt by the guys with the épaulettes. Fortunately, patience pays off and finally a van picks us up. We do 250km clandestinely and hide ourselves at each police checkpoint, the three of us sharing two seats in front. The police in these parts don’t go in for jokes.
It’s 3pm when we reach Ashgabat (go to the “link” to see what this city is like} and we hurry to the station to catch the first available train. Brian manages to buy three tickets to Turkmenbashi, departure at 7pm! Siphay and Morgan have less success. They scour the city, banks and hotels alike, without managing to get any dollars. Luckily the train tickets only cost €2.5 each.
Morgan : « I am sitting on some steps facing the station, eating bread. A policeman yells at me, pointing to a small piece of bread on the ground by my bicycle. I pretend not to understand. In something resembling English, he tells me to pick up my litter I react instinctively and start to do as he says. As I am about to pick it up, I wonder whether to throw it in his face or just sit down again calmly … I finally opt to show him the same contempt as his colleagues showed us earlier in the day and, keeping the piece of bread in my hand, go back to my seat without looking at him, I try to act as if he doesn’t exist and I have picked up the bread on my own volition. When he turns to go, I can’t resist a gesture to show my contempt. He does not notice, and his colleagues have not seen me, but nonetheless my “litter” is now back in its original place. I don’t like the atmosphere of this country and I can’t wait to get out “
14 hours of train later, we arrive in Turkmenbashi at 9am on June 12th. Our visas expire on the night of the 14th. Every minute count sand we don’t want to leave anything to chance. To save precious time we go straight to the harbour on empty stomachs to inquire about boats going to Azerbaijan. A German couple has already been waiting there for more than 24 hours and they have all the necessary information. They are travelling with a guide and know much more than we do about how, where and, when… the “why” often remaining an unanswered question in Turkmenistan. It is compulsory to have a guide to travel in this country except when you are, like us, in transit…
We get our names put on the waiting list. Nobody knows when the next boat is leaving but we are relieved that there seem to be departures at least every two days. Our main worry now is about money as we still have not managed to get our hands on any dollars and we know the price of the boat ticket: $100 per person, which means $300 for the team. We only have $295. We reckon we will be able to make up the extra five somehow but we don’t know if there are other charges as well. Will they ask us to pay an exit fee on leaving the country? When we reach Baku, will they expect us to pay something under the counter? It is difficult to anticipate these extras so we choose not to spend any more money before leaving. We eat bread and drink water.
People have settled on benches, making and drinking tea, sleeping, and making telephone calls. We sit on the ground facing them, watching them, reading and sleeping.
Twenty-four hours later, they let 32 people board including the two Germans. Unfortunately, we are numbers 34, 35 and 36 on the list. We will have to wait for the next departure…. A few hours later Morgan sees a group next to a nearby building. Out of curiosity he goes over to have a look. It seems another boat is about to sail and the poor woman selling tickets is doing her best to keep to the order on the waiting list. People heave and shove, women shout at each other, one shows a little girl in her arms to attract the ticket seller’s pity while her other one bursts into tears. We hold back, quietly watching the show. For us, this is an exceptional event, for them, part of everyday life. Unlike these women, we have chosen to be here, so we can’t complain. After more than 30 hours, we are fortunate to board a huge Azerbaijani boat that opens the doors of Europe to us. Our $295 have proved to be enough and we are obliged to the Azeris (the inhabitants of Azerbaijan) for doing us the service of enabling us to leave a country where we have not felt welcome.
Siphay reflects: “Throughout our stay in Turkmenistan, the guys complained just a little bit too much for my liking about the poor welcome we received. With my head in the clouds and seeing life a bit overmuch on the rosy side at times, I thought they were exaggerating and tried to remember any pleasant encounters we had. Up until now, we have always found in the end that there are nice people everywhere. But with the benefit of hindsight, I can compare Turkmenistan more accurately with the other countries we visited. No, it was not just the stress or the frustration over the shortage of time that made us give it the thumbs down. On this occasion I was naïve. Turkmenistan has a real problem. Already closed to tourism; the atmosphere is indeed heavy and oppressive. I would not recommend anyone to go there on holiday in the near future, and I was not surprised to read later that it is a dictatorship.“