We arrive in Turkmenistan, a country described by many as the “North Korea of Central Asia”. As a traveller it is one of the most difficult countries to travel freely in; you either need a transit visa, or a tourist visa which requires you to have a compulsory guide. Whichever visa you choose on arrival, the officials will agree with you a route, and the dates which you must not deviate from.
Throughout the country, at every town and major highway there are police checkpoints which you must register at so that they can track your progress. In addition to this, each hotel must register you with local authorities.
Travelling alone in the country is difficult, as you also need a special travel pass just to spend a couple of days in the capital without a guide.
With its vast natural resources (4th largest in the world,) the government is very paranoid about all foreign visitors.
Turkmenbashi 14 October
After spending a couple of hours waiting in the customs compound, our guide Bilbil arrives. Without her we are unable to enter the country. She takes us through the various customs procedures; visas, road tax, insurance and temporary importation of our vehicle. We are then taken to another office where we must agree a route with the authorities. This route is fixed, and we are expected to keep to the dates stipulated.
The same officers also spot that our car is right hand drive. They inform our guide that it is illegal to drive the car in the country, and if we do not want any “problems” we would have to pay an extra $50, which they would not be able to give us a receipt for!!
We finally leave the port 10 hours after first arriving. We head straight to our hotel with the guide, briefly stopping to register with the local police. Our guide takes us into town for dinner. I had mentioned to her earlier that Nicole likes discotheques, which I think she may have misinterpreted, as our venue for dinner was a restaurant / loud discotheque. We could barely hear each other speaking over the loud music! The food was good; we had a mixture of various kebabs and salad. The local dancing was also quite entertaining.
After dinner we drive to the new part of town, a multibillion dollar building project on the Caspian coast, comprised of about 60 hotels, beautiful fountains and gardens.
On the way we are stopped by police. Both the guide and I had left our papers in the hotel so we have to drive back and grab them, luckily escaping a fine or a bribe.
The area feels like a ghost town, so much yet so little, as there were few people around to create any sort of atmosphere. So much money has been poured into the project; with two more stages to complete, we wonder if they will ever get a return on their investment!
Turkmenbashi to Ashgabat 15 October
We wake up early to drive the 600km to the capital, Ashgabat. On the way we stop off at a petrol station to fill up; it costs less than $10 for 120L of diesel!
On the way out of town we again register with the police and check the speed limits. We are told between towns, the limit is 110 and in town 60. However, within an hour of driving we are stopped by police for speeding at 105. They explain the actual limit is 90 and that you could only drive 110 in Ashgabat on the motorway. Our guide pleads with the officers to let us go as she was told by the previous police that 110 was ok. She even tries to bribe them with 10 manat, which they don’t accept. After about 20 min of pleading, they let us go without paying a fine or bribe.
Our drive takes us through the Karakum desert, which encompasses 90% of the country, the majority of the population living around its edges. We drive for many hours without stopping, through a desolate landscape dotted with camels and small villages.
Our guide tells us stories of a tribe of people living in the hills, with blue eyes, who are thought to be the descendants of Alexander the Great.
We finally reach our first stop, the mausoleum of Parau Bibi. Folklore tells the story of a young woman who flees from Barbarian invaders to the mountains, where she is apparently swallowed up by the mountain. Locals have honoured her memory with a fertility shine, where people believe that if you pray, your wishes of fertility will come true. There are various spots on the mountains, which local people believe are sacred, i.e. the spot where she slept, her hand print in the stone etc. In the mosque, Nicole is given a gift of a scarf by an old ex German army officer who is now the Imam of the mosque.
We continue our drive towards Ashgabat; the road slowly gets worse becoming very bumpy and pot holed. With such distance to cover, we try and keep our speed above 50mph (80), which is difficult at times.
We stop briefly at a local roadside café for a late lunch. We chat to the guide about local politics, and history. Our guide is very pro the current president and it seems that he can do no wrong.
We finally reach Ashgabat around 9pm in the evening, where we are taken straight to our hotel. Unfortunately the hotel provided does not meet our expectations; it is very dirty, run down, and even had rats running around the second floor. We complained to our agency and they moved us the next day.
Ashgabat 16 October
The city is a huge construction site, with newly built hotels and apartments. The government is trying to build utopia, where fuel, gas and water is practically free to all citizens. In addition, there are interest free mortgages for everyone in the grand newly built apartments. We wonder whether the country will be able to create enough domestic and international demand to create a city that is not just living on the intoxicating supply of money from the country’s vast natural resources. Will the country make something of itself or will it slowly burn out?
With a meeting of 5 presidents from central Asia and Russia over the next few days the city is swamped by extra police and security.
We are told by our guide that it is forbidden to enter the city with a dirty car. Considering ours is completely caked in dirt, it is essential we have it cleaned asap, to avoid a $100 fine!
With Nicole feeling ill and spending the day in bed, the agency and I go on the hunt for a car wash. We spend a couple of hours for looking one; we are told locals don’t use car washes and normally wash their own. At the Grand Turkmen hotel, a local car cleaner refuses to wash the car because it is too dirty! We drive around for another 30min with no luck and return to the Grand Turkmen where the guide persuades the boy to clean it.
In the evening we venture out of the hotel to a shopping complex, where we grab a bite to eat.
Karakum desert & Darvaza Gas Crater 17 October
After stocking up on supplies, we leave Ashgabat heading towards the Karakum desert, where we plan to camp for the evening next to a giant burning gas crater.
We have a new guide for this part of journey called Angela. She seems very experienced and has even guided several rally groups and participants of the Mongol rally. On the way out of town our first stop is a small roadside market to obtain some vodka for this evening!
We drive about 300Km on good roads, through the vast desert. The desert road runs through sand dunes, small villages and is parallel to a train track most of the way. The road across the desert from Ashgabat to the next main town of Konye-Urgench is 600Km long, with little habitation on the way apart from a few small yurts (tea houses).
Along the route we see many soaring eagles and small shrews.
Our first stop on the way is a deserted village. We drive off road and explore the remains briefly before heading back on the road.
We reach the 3 craters. The first is a large hole in the ground with bubbling water, and a strong gassy smell. The next crater is more like a bubbling mud bath.
We turn off the main road onto a sand track that leads a few miles into the desert to the main burning gas crater. The road turns from a compact sand track to fairly deep sand so in an attempt to avoid getting stuck in the sand we let our tyres down.
Once we reach the crater, we join another couple, two Americans travelling overland from Beijing to Iran.
We make camp, and visit the massive burning crater. The crater has been burning for nearly 60 years, since an old gas mine collapsed. The locals in the area called the place hell, due to the continually burning fires. The burning crater is a great sight during the day and night, with an orange burning glow in the background.
With little supplies I make up some pasta and soup, which I find so bad, I don’t eat any. However our guide has taken a liking to it, and after some vodka, polishes off the rest!
We have dinner accompanied by several bottles of vodka, under the stars. Another guide tells us of his dream “to cook a cow in the crater by hanging it by a cable”!!
Drive to Uzbekistan 18 October
In the morning we awake early for breakfast. Once packed, we head back to the main road to continue our drive to Uzbekistan.
It takes us a few hours to reach the town of Koyne-Urgench, where we visit the remains of the vast 12th century Turabeg Complex.
We continue our journey to the Turkmenistan / Uzbekistan border where our guide helps us through the border.
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Martin & Nicole