So I guess this is the closest you can probably get to North Korea; it’s the Turkmenistan Blog Round-up! Launch Day +14 to Launch Day +16!
First off, as always, some quick video! Unfortunately this only shows our trip north from Ashgabat through the Karakum Desert and towards the Door to Hell, as we could not really film stuff in Ashgabat in the car without risking a massive bribe or some other form of police/military annoyance. So you’ll just have to believe our word for it! Anyways, video time!
Now that was all pretty awesome, but if I were to tell you it were in the Sahara you’d probably believe it too. By far the most interesting part though, obviously, was the absurd and over the top marble and gold creation that is the capital: Ashgabat, just across the border from Iran.
Before we got into Turkmenistan though, we got to drive this scenic road in Iran towards the border.
Not bad huh?
And then… the border. We arrived around 4:30ish, and as we were doing our Iran exit paperwork and arranging all the stamps for the car, the guy working there told us we had to hurry as the border would close within 15 minutes. After some sprints back and forth between booths booths and even more booths, the very helpful customs officers got us out of Iran just in time and into the Turkmen section of the border crossing. And that’s where it got interesting…
As soon as we got in, the first thing we noticed is that all their military personnel, which were a lot and most of them not older than 20, all wore ridiculously high cowboy hats of sorts in a camouflage color. Utterly ridiculous and not very intimidating. Oh, and we were the only ones at the entire border crossing. Not a good omen.
Then a guy in a white button-down, a crooked hooknose and multiple filthy gold teeth (true story) walked up to us and in broken English informed us that we would have to pay a fee for the car. We told him we just had to pay visas, which would already amount to roughly 70 dollars each, but the guy wanted none of it. He then literally came up with a fee from the top of his head right on the spot, and said it would cost us 115 (!!!!) dollars to enter our car into Turkmenistan. We clearly denied and hoped we could get out of that place without paying such a ridiculous bribe.
Next we were welcomed by a Turkmen woman in a colorful and traditional dress, who waved us over to the passport booth. The customs officers already started their scare/intimidation tactics straight away by making us wait over 20 minutes for absolutely nothing before they would eventually check our passports. The guy at the booth told us it would cost 160 dollars, which he simply wrote down by hand on a note.. Sounds very legit doesn’t it? He stamped in our passports, and we walked into the next room for the payment. We were greeted once again by the traditionally-dressed lady, who told us we were paying 138 dollars. It saved us 20 dollars I guess, but we immediately knew that anything that happened in this place was entirely decided by the mood of the customs officers and that the entire border post was one big façade.
Then, the fun started. They split up Luca and I; such a text-book police series tactic that I almost had to respect it. They probably show CSI Miami to their border patrol recruits to teach them the tricks of the trade. Obviously it was to try and get a bribe from either of us without us being able to communicate. Luckily I left all my money in the car so they couldn’t do much in the first place. Luca went inside with them to arrange our “car fee” while I had to park the car in one of the customs lanes. Some 8 military guys came up to the car, basically threw everything out, made a mess of all our bags, and then simply told me they “were done” while leaving everything on the ground within a 10 meter radius of the car. Oh, and they all at various points walked up to me and muttered the words “drugs, weapons”… as if I would suddenly say yes the sixth time they asked me.
I tried to emanate a totally relaxed feeling and slowly and steadily rearranged everything and put all the stuff back in. But yea, clearly I was pissed as hell by these annoying and power-abusing suckers. Not that it was unexpected, but it was a clear signal of intimidation by the Turkmen state. It really gave us the feeling that we would have to adhere to anything these ridiculously-looking fellows would tell us while we were in their oh so glorious country. And listening to guys in weird cowboy hats just doesn’t feel right.
The police state that it is we also had to state our exact route through Turkmenistan, including our planned overnight stays. They also needed the name of the hotel we’d be staying at in Ashgabat or arrange one with them right there on the spot, where I bluffed that we had a reservation, but that I didn’t know the name from the top of my head and that we had all documents in the car. The bought it. Clearly we didn’t have anything. So that was lucky.
After asking our point of exit 10 times (there literally are like 3 exits into Uzbekistan, this shouldn’t be so difficult), they drew our route on the map and we’d only be allowed to travel on that route.
FYI, Ashgabat is in the south, the route north is all the Karakum Desert until you reach Dashoguz near the border, with the Darvaza Gas Crater right in the middle between the two cities.
When I was done, I still had to wait for Luca. I didn’t really know where he was; I had to go through some building on the right while the thief-y looking guy took him over to some building on the left side of customs. In short, they made us pay a hefty sum for the car. Luca basically tried everything: he intimidated them, insisted on an official transaction with card, tried to scare them by bluffing as he said: “have you ever tried to solicit a bribe from the wrong person?” (#thuglife) and eventually told them that he was calling the Italian embassy as this was malpractice. The gold-teethed thief-y looking scumbag then informed him he was allowed to, but that it would mean we would have to stay the night as the border was almost closing… So yea, what are you gonna do? I mean they basically wrote in sums of money we had to pay by hand, put a stamp on it, and called it “a receipt”. It’s almost funny if it hadn’t cost us so much money.
After some shouting and insulting we left that horrible place behind and set off for Ashgabat, some 30km away. We drove in on this ridiculous 8 lane highway with marble statues everywhere and lantern posts every 5 meters or so. The speed limit? At some places 40, some places 60. Kilometers per hour. WTF. Oh and there was no one on the road. A bizarre scene.
The first hotel we tried turned us down. The board behind the lady still showed 2/3 of the keys there, but she said “full”. Weird I guess, so we went to another one. On the way there, a guy next to us at a stoplight started chatting us up in good English and said he could take us to a restaurant. We politely declined and told him we had to find a hotel first. At the next really Soviet-looking hotel I walked up to an old lady behind the counter and asked for a room for two. Similar situation, three-quarters of the keys still on the board, and she said no. I insisted that we really really needed a room. It was already getting dark, we were tired, and we were so done with this total farce of a country. She then scribbled 60 dollars on a sheet and gave it to me. Quite steep for a shit hotel. I walked back to the car only to find Luca and our friend we met at the stoplight. He initially guided us to a hotel he knew for a way better price, but when he found out we were only staying one night, he immediately said we could sleep in his apartment instead. He just had to wait for an about an hour for the key as his little brother still had it, and in the meantime he would take us to a restaurant. Not a bad deal.
Once we had a drink and started talking, we found out he was actually the owner of the restaurant. He was 19 years old. We immediately realized he must know some important people in important places in this country, and were eager to find out how this country operates. For those who have never been, it’s a typical dictatorship with a huge cult of personality surrounding their main leader. Photos of the guy are everywhere, there are only 6 state TV channels, and the two newspapers all very much endorse everything the president happens to breathe on. Our friend, Arslan, told us that in Turkmen they simply referred to President Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow (great name by the way) as “the greatest”. Pretty nice title to have as a dictator.
The dinner itself was an absolute feast. As a sign of hospitality Arslan seemed to offer us all the dishes that the restaurant offered, which really relieved our hunger and general annoyance with the first impression of the country.
Like I said we didn’t photograph anything because you’d need police permission, so doing it while driving around would’ve been a sure way to get in trouble. But yea, Ashgabat, I’d say google it. Huuuge boulevards, marble ministry buildings 400m long with golden doors (not joking), and huge golden statues of the president and other important figures. Oh, and at least one police or military officer on every single block. It really felt like a North Korea with some money made from natural resources (lots of natural gas in Turkmenistan).
While we were having dinner we obviously still needed to get the key for the apartment. Arslan made a quick phonecall, and told us that “his driver” would go pick up the key. Arslan is 19 years old, and he has a driver. I am 23 years old and I have 5-years old bicycle.
We set out for the apartment, dumped our stuff, and he then offered to drive us to a mountain overlooking the city for some cool nighttime views. The rules didn’t seem to apply for him, as he raced 150-160 km/h over the big roads throughout the city. We asked him what usually happens in Turkmenistan if you get in trouble with police or other public officials, and he told us that he just “makes some phonecalls”. He told us that he knew a lot of people, and that knowing people with important positions basically determines your social status in Turkmenistan. We even got the sense that all the Turkmen from outside Ashgabat were looked down upon and he referred to them as “his workers”.
When we asked him why the Turkmen president was so powerful, he simply answered: “Because he is the greatest”. So yea… how do you come back from that? We also heard that “he really loves his Turkmen people,” so I guess the cult of personality thing is working well.
He was a student, but when we asked him what he studies he told us that he didn’t know. He then told us that all students have to be in class at 8 in the morning everyday, but that when you knew some people… it wasn’t a problem. He was also surprised that we were allowed to travel abroad while we were studying, as apparently that is not allowed in Turkmenistan. Really letting their students develop themselves personally and academically it sounds like.
Arslan also told us that Turkmenistan issues roughly 3000 visas per year. Just 3000. Of which 5-600 are Mongol Rally participants. He told us some of his friends from Europe took about a year to get their Letter of Invitation reply. Most of them rejected. So in a weird way we were very lucky to see this place as not many people can.
At the top of the mountain they had this beautiful piece of architecture that serves as the TV broadcasting place and studio for the state channels.
We even mixed in a low quality selfie
Ashgabat by night. The view of all those Las Vegas meets North Korea buildings was actually pretty cool. Worth seeing I’d say.
We had a great time with Arslan, had some laughs, and were so intrigued by the whole political make-up of the country. So incredibly nice of him to host us, show us around, and offer us a place to crash! We weren’t really looking forward to an overpriced lame Soviet hotel anyway!
After we got to spend the night in Arslan’s spare apartment (he only used it occasionally himself), we set off north in the morning towards the Karakum Desert and the Door to Hell. As we tried to leave Ashgabat, and we really wanted to leave Ashgabat, we found the first 3 or 4 main roads north and out of the city to be all closed due to “road works”. Really annoying, and the way this country is run, it wouldn’t surprise me one bit if it is done on purpose by the government to create a feeling of Ashgabat over everything else. Oh, and once again, they had speed limits of 40 on big highways. Like what the hell. And stoplights every 3-400m. They really wanted you to feel the state every single second of the day.
At a gas station we wanted to fill one of our spare fuel tanks, since we’d by driving 600km through the desert in two days and we had no clue whether there’d be gas stations there. The employee at the gas station said no, then we said we’d pay extra, he still said no, we didn’t understand, and then he pointed at a surveillance camera and put his hand on his shoulder. International sign language for police. Or in other words, we’re being watched and I’m not allowed to do it. This country is so paranoid that even gas station employees fear that they are being watched at every second by the government. Crazy
And then we got to the desert, and it got really hot. Really really hot. And we don’t have A/C in the car. Great combination.
We had to drive about 300km to the Gas Crater on paved roads, although with a lot of holes at some point, in what we heard was 45-50 degree heat. I think I drank 6-8 liters of water that day and still felt dehydrated.
The Gas Crater wasn’t right next to the main road. An offroad track of 10-15km through the dunes would take you there. We tried the first sandy hill in our car ourselves, but with the 2WD drive, we couldn’t fully reach the top and reversed on down. Then 4 local Turkmen guys on motorbikes showed up and said they’d know how to drive our car across, that they knew the route, and that they would pick us up again in the morning after we spent the night there. Before we could really say yes or no they were already deflating our tyres for the sandy surface and we decided to go for it. I got to sit in the car next to our Turkmen race driver, while Luca got to sit on the back of a motorbike on the way to the crater. Just check out the video up top for the footage!
One other Mongol Rally team also spent the night camping at the crater, but as their car was rather low, they were dropped off instead by local guides in a Jeep with all their stuff.
The burning crater itself is man-made. The crater sits on top of a gas field, and is simply lit on fire. Due to the gas that keeps coming up, the fire keeps burning. As you may imagine, standing next to it was really really hot due to the burned gas coming up.
Photo of the car at the crater
Dear Fiat, sponsor us please? We’re pretty much making one the best commercials you could possibly imagine for free anyway? Call us.
The crater looked even more impressive in the dark, and you could see the glow from kilometers away.
Selfie at the fire!
The next morning our guides picked us up at 6am and drove us back to the main road. Here are the guides refilling our tyres to make it roadworthy again
We set of north towards Uzbekistan afterward, and luckily we had some clouds to spare us from the sun. Not a geologist but I really don’t understand why there were clouds in the desert. Not complaining though.
On the way north we were pulled over by a police officer who wanted to see our legal document with our route. We were literally on the one and only road north through the desert, we told him Dashoguz, only one of two possible cities north of the desert, but it still took him 5 minutes to understand. They don’t select the brightest boys to serve in the desert area it appears, what a surprise.
A new recurring feature! Since we’re now coming across countries most of you have never been or may never ever go to, we’re going to hand out travel advice! For free! Lonely Planet we’re coming for that market share! Our travel advice is indexed by 1-5 Shakira’s: 1 being the lowest score, whereas 5 means that you should go Whenever, wherever! (Get it?). We mix in some advice on the when’s (think temperature, tourism seasons etc) as well as the where’s, and we index it all with Shakira’s!
First off I should say that this is my grade and not Luca’s, as I think Luca would’ve given the place roughly two Shakira’s. He hated the border (and rightfully so), thought it was way too hot (he has a point), and didn’t like the weird paranoid vibe of the entire place. I agree with him on all those points, but… I’m going to give it 3.5 Shakira’s anyway!
If you want to have a relaxing vacation this really isn’t the place. To me it was utterly fascinating, but a very weird and paranoid place that led you to be on edge all the time. If you’re eager to experience something that weird, just go any time really if you can get your legal paperwork approved, which honestly could take forever. Ours cost about 4 months and that was still relatively quick if Arslan’s story can be believed. Definitely make sure to go before this dictator guy is ousted (you never know, it could happen) to see all the ridiculous golden statues and photos of him, and if you can, avoid summer. Like 70% of the country is desert and reaaaally hot. Or just get a car with A/C unlike us. Just do that instead really and you should be fine.
Ashgabat. Must-see. By far the strangest place you’ll ever see I think. Sorry I can’t persuade you with photos, but google it and get psyched! The Door to Hell was really cool too, although I’d advice to avoid the desert at all other times. Way too hot, crappy roads etc. Door to Hell though, really really impressive. As good as advertised. The rest of the country outside of Ashgabat sounds piss poor and not worth visiting if other Mongol Rally teams can be believed. Oh and the borders were plain horrible, like really really annoying. A true nuisance that really deflates the vacation feeling and experience.
All in all, a truly memorable experience and a country I’ll never forget for it’s paranoid weirdness. So that’s it for this essay. Not a lot of pictures and quite the story. Sorry if this made it feel like you were back in school again. Right now we’re having breakfast in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, as we decided to travel from Uzbekistan to Kyrgyzstan rather than to Kazakhstan directly. For our own sake, we were so sick and tired of the heat and desert that we sought refuge in the mountains. A gorgeous country really, and we’ll update you on that soon. But first, you’ll have to wait for our Uzbekistan coverage!
Shakira, take us out!
Luca & Abel