Transit through Turkmenistan

All travel has its advantages. If the passenger visits better countries, he may learn to improve his own. And if fortune carries him to worse, he may learn to enjoy it.  Samuel Johnson

Although I had four days left to cross Turkmenistan, it only took me 48 hours to get through the country and to exit it towards Uzbekistan. One might ask why such a hurry …

It’s simple: I had the overall impression I was not very welcome here. It all started with the visa application. To obtain a 5 day transit visa is not easy and sometimes you will only get it if you book a guide who led you through the country. This will cost you of course a decent amount of money. Once again I was lucky and had the chance to travel independently and without a guide. However, a transit visa for me meant to pre-define my route.

My departure from Iran went pretty smoothly but on the Turkmen side I wasn’t exactly welcomed with open arms and big smiles. It already started when I parked my bike in front of the border offices, less than 50 meters away from the Iranian side. A soldier carefully  watched me park and when I was off the bike he was so kind to instruct me to park the bike long side instead of frontal to the building … ??  There was nothing, it was just a huge square with no signs on the ground and I was apparently the only one with a vehicle. It simple didn’t make any difference … but you don’t argue those things with a  border guard. No matter if it makes sence or not, you better just do it. This was the appetizer to a long and bureaucratic procedure of several hours.

During my migration process, the guys wanted to know my hotel for the first night, which I hadn’t booked yet. After long discussions, I took the hotel “Ashgabat”, in hope that it would also provide a safe place for the motorcycle. Then the first 12 USD were due and I was sent to the bank (just an office next door) where a “charming” lady issued the bill. When I told her I would like to pay in Euro, she didn’t even look at me and just said “Then go back to Iran. By, by!”

I would have loved to go back to Iran, but first did I not have a visa for multiple entries to Iran and second would this not solve my problem to go to Uzbekistan. Anyway, it was rather clear that Euro would not be accepted at this little place with it’s administrative and stubborn processes. Flexibility is something else but unknown by Turkmen border guards. Good for me that I had changed my Iranian Real in Turkmen Sol and so I offered her local currency, which she surprisingly accepted.

Soon after I was asked to pay more hard currency for a vet (don’t ask me why), an insurance for my motorcycle, a kind of compensation for the low fuel prices (according to my route through the country) and for some administrative expenses. At the end a lot of handwritten paperwork was produced and I was relieved by about 90 USD. In each office everybody asked me pretty much the same questions and invented the wheel once again from scratch. When I thought the bureaucratic marathon was over, several customs officers started to search my luggage. I had to interfere and to ask them to check one part of my luggage after another instead of opening everything at the same time. Even the sleeping bag and pad had to be unpacked … but eventually the welcoming exercise was completed and I was allowed to enter this lovely police state, looking forward to my stay over in Ashgabat.

Turkmenistan, rich of oil and gas reserves, is dominated by a totalitarian system. Internet is regulated and English is hardly spoken and probably only very little promoted. On the other hand, until 2006 this little-known desert republic was led by a narcissistic dictator named Niyazov, who expected his people to call him “Turkmenbashi” (leader of the Turkmen). He ruled the country in his own way and decorated the cities with golden statues of himself. Even though his successor might be slightly different, pictures of the current president will be found in various poses everywhere – in poorly equipped border offices as well as at the outside of pompous architecture in Ashgabat.

With its white buildings, golden ornaments, artificial parks and partly mirror-smooth roads, Ashgabat appears as a mixture of Las Vegas and Disney World. However, this was of no use when I tried to find a place to watch the Champions League Final around midnight and due to the lack of internet I only learned the next evening in Mary, who actually won the game.

It was supposed to be a nice Sunday ride since the distance between Ashgabat and Mary was only 360 kilometers but in the end I was more than happy that the bike arrived in one piece. After more than 9,000 kilometers on the road, this Sunday afternoon at 36 degrees turned out to be a physical torture for man and machine. Although the road was paved – which doesn’t say anything about it’s quality – the condition was so catastrophic that the bike behaved for hours like a wild horse galloping over thousands of holes, dents and asphalt fragments. I was forced to drive much of the distance standing. When I arrived in Mary fortunately in one piece, I tried to find my hotel, had a meager meal at a truck stop and was shortly after in bed.

Thus, this Sunday made impressively clear that from now on the condition of the road instead of the distance will define my daily milage. However, next day at noon, I was at the northern border of Turkmenistan. I passed customs and migration but when I was about to leave the country, the soldier at the final border gate returned me once more to a former checkpoint I had apparently missed.

Then the gate opened and I was in Uzbekistan, where the border guards were more welcoming and helpful to master another bureaucratic entry-procedure. Besides their willingness to communicate, a sign at the wall raised my hope for better times: “Welcome to Uzbekistan.”