The border crossing into Turkmenistan was the most drawn out yet. It took over an hour to get through with 7 full passport checks (and then a bonus check 30km later). They charged an extra $10 at one of the stops ramping the total for a 5 day transit visa up to $95. A truck driver offered me a ride to Ashgabat insisting it was very hilly. According to my map it wasn’t that bad, plus it felt like I had had enough rides recently so I politely declined. After about an hour of mostly downhill Ashgabat came into view. I could make out some of the grandiose architecture including, I thought, the Thunderbirds 3 statue which I recognised from a poster-board outside the embassy back in Tehran.
When I actually arrived somewhat near the city it wasn’t at all obvious where to go. After a little cross country over an extended building site I got more or less back on the right track. At a roundabout I asked a police officer which direction to town centre. He was on the blower at the time and when he got off it he tried filming me discreetly with his video phone which was all a bit pathetic. I said to him ‘What are you doing?’, and he then played me back the video he just made! I couldn’t tell if it was for his own amusement, or for reasons of state security, but either way he needed some filming lessons. Despite following the signs, I soon found out from speaking to people that there is in fact no city centre in Ashgabat, but rather “many centres”. Great. So which way to the best centre? And where the hell is everybody? I thought this was supposed to be a city of one million people?
I found a woman who spoke French who directed me to some sort of supermarket/cash exchange/restaurant/boutique/entertainment suite/internet café megaplex.A Spanish and Italian couple who were taking part in some sort of Olympic style opening ceremony warned me by about the 11pm curfew in Ashgabat. After 11pm, I was told, the police would stop you and you had to provide evidence that you were making your way back to your hotel, otherwise you risked spending the night in the cell. I was also warned not to try my luck with the local girls. Apparently if you were seen outside on the street holding hands and getting friendly, then you risked instant deportation. Both sounded a bit much and I imagine they were given worst case scenarios by their employers in order to avoid trouble. Indeed I was out on the street well after 11 and didn’t experience any beef.
I tried changing my Rials but was told it was not possible. The guy gave me directions to the “Economical Bank”, or State Economic bank of Turkmenistan as I later found out it was called. I tried another bank en route, but neither were able to change my Rials for me. What? So what the hell was I supposed to do with my couple hundred squidz worth of unspent Rials? I asked the cashier what Turkmen people do when they travel to Iran and need Rials, and she replied that they change their money to dollars, and then change again upon arrival in Iran. I was shocked that a country didn’t even stock the currency of its neighbouring country, but then again this wasn’t the first time I had experienced this on this trip. It’s all about the dollars in the international currency exchange game – for now at least.
At the bank I met a pair of Norwegians who were making a documentary about the Mongo Rally for Norwegian TV. I had seen their fire truck parked up outside the security guard’s house the previous night. They were treating themselves to the most expensive hotel of their journey yet staying at a hotel for $135 pp. We traded thoughts on our experiences of Ashgabat thus far. They said it looks like the fantasyland creation of Hitler and Michael Jackson. Couldn’t have put it better myself. They also said that the woman in their hotel said that there were in fact only 40000 people living in Ashgabat. Definitely felt about right. Huge empty Troika style streets with no honking your horn signs and imposing Soviet style architecture formed the majority of the cityscape. 18-20 year old soldiers, who must have been doing this as part of military service, guarded all of the stately buildings. They might have looked fairly impressive but none of it was being lived, and so the net effect was repulsion. In Iran I was treated to some spectacular murals of the Grand Ayatollah and his sidekick flexing their military might. Michelangelo would be rolling in his grave. In Turkmenistan it was Mr-Big-Balls President who was the mainshow – no matter where I went there was no escaping the hilarious posters of this dude.
According to the Reporters Without Borders’ “internet enemy list”, Turkmenistan is one of about a dozen states which engages in pervasive internet censorship. Unlike in Iran, I had to hand over my passport in order to use teh web. I had to do the same in Rome 3 years ago. And for the café I was in at least, it felt like the very suggestion of the concept ‘V.P.N.’ would be akin to treason. Internet was definitely more restricted than in Iran, with even Google News banned. And man were things slow -more or less a hark back to mid 90’s dial-up speeds with things capped at 64kpbs. Just what exactly is the government so afraid of that they insist on keeping their population in the information dark ages?
I tried finding a hotel for the evening. The one place I had been recommendedwas fully booked and the ‘only other hotel the woman behind the desk knew of’ cost $130. I tried two other places which were also fully booked, and then returned to another which had quoted me $40 – cheapest I was gonna find. At midnight I saw one of those street clock/thermometer signs state that it was 29°C. By the time I got there at about 1am the woman at reception had gone to bed, and in the end one of the night staff let me sleep on the floor in back room for a fiver, but I had to leave at 6am…
6 came round far too fast. The night guard guy seemed to think the underground lake Kowata was only 40km or so away. My map disagreed. My original plan was to get some form of public out there to give the ol’ knees a break, but if it was only 40km or so then what the hell. 94km, and one 10km van ride later I finally got there in the early afternoon heat. En route I saw camels, and a very unique Turkmen cow. I haggled the guy down from 40menat to 20. I had been looking forward to checking out this cave for months. A steep set of stairs wound its way down to a badly lit lake at the bottom. The cave was easily the biggest I have been in. I brought my headtorch with so I could have a proper explore. There were about 20 people swimming and frolicking in the waters. The first thing I noticed was how much hotter this place was compared to the thermal underground lake back in Hungary. At around body temperate, it was a bit like taking a bath. I donned the headtorch to go see what this 75 metre long lake place had to offer, the majority of which was not lit up in any way. There was a reason for that. After maybe swimming about 30 metres round a corner I noticed a film of something pungent floating on the surface. A glance upwards to the ceiling confirmed my suspicions: Bat turd. Great fertiliser apparently. I swam to the back of the cave and found a nice little rock to dive off. The water was pretty clear. Would’ve been good to have a mask and proper underwater torch. Hundreds of largish bats were going beserk so I left them in peace and returned to the shallower waters. I cycled back 30km and slept in a roadside café and finished the long day on a high by stepping in camel shit.
Next morning it was back to Ashgabat and straight to the train station. It was the 20th so I had 3 days left on my transit visa to figure out a way of getting the 500+km to Uzbekistan. Were there not a train, then I would have explored bus options and failing that I would have had to hitch a lift with all my kit somehow. Thankfully there was a train. It was a Saturday so it felt a bit of a shame to be leaving the capital city which I am sure had more to offer, butit felt like it the right thing to do to make my way to the border with enough time for things to go wrong, and I didn’t want a repeat of hotel saga a few nights back. For about £4, I got a sleeper all the way to Turkmenabad. It was a hassle loading the bike into luggage carriage and I nearly missed the train because of it.The train left at about 5. I asked a woman in my carriage how long to Turkmenabad and she said about 6 or 7 hours. This seemed fair enough: around 700km in 7 hours = 100kph – yea that seemed plausible. After a short snooze I thought I would double check. ‘So what time did you say it arrived?’, ‘As I said, about 6 or 7am’ ‘A.M.???’ Man, it was gonna be a long one..
…After fixing two punctures at a carwash with the help of 15 people, I made my way to the internet café in Turkmenabat. ‘Hiya can I can use the internet please?’ ‘No sorry no internet on a Sunday’ ‘Are you taking the proverbial?’ What do you mean no internet on a Sunday? !’Something about “broadband” being down apparently.I took a seat, not ‘cos I was starting a sit-in protest, but because it was roasting outside and I was knackered. About 15 minutes later a girl got off a computer which looked like it had a web browser open. I enquired again and this time they logged me on to another computer where “broadband” was working fine. So what was all that about no internet on a Sunday??? Nevertheless it was yet another painful websurfingexperience: literally 15minutes to successfully log on and open an email in Hotmail, and 5 full minutes to load any single Reuters page.
I spent two nights in a cheap hotel in Turkmenabad. I witnessed what I had had said to me – that people tend to leave the gas on here pretty much constantly – even if nothing is being cooked. Matches are more expensive then gas so I’m told but that’s surely an exaggeration. I also heard that petrol is free for locals which seems a bit farfetched, but great way to keep the masses quiet if you’ve got the reserves. I would later learn from some English people driving through that diesel costs 20p per litre here. I would have liked to check out the one of Turkmenistan’s star attractions, – the Derweze “door of hell” – a cavern filled with gas which collapsed when drilled, and was then set on fire in the hope it would use up all of the fuel, but it is still burning after 40 years. Next time, eh?
I picked up some odds and sods at the bazaar, tried resting the knee, and then on the 23rd I was up relatively early to make my way to the border…..