July 30, Ashgabat, Turkmenistan
When we arrived at the customs building it was rainy and cool. A cloud had settled over the mountain so we pulled in under a shelter and cooked up some breakfast while we waited for customs to open. Soon after, 3 other teams all from Spain arrived. This was the first time we had run into any other teams since the Iranian border. It took us only 45 minutes to clear the Iranian side of the border and we were permitted to enter the Turkmenistan side.
Clearing the border on this side was a bit more of a task. We ended up shuffling our paperwork through a total of 6 offices and 2 banks over the next 2 hours. It cost us $231 USD in total for visas, insurance and other unknown charges. To give you and example, I went into one office with three guys at their desks. I gave my papers to the first guy; he told me to sit down, looked at the paperwork and told me to take it to the second guy. The second guy wrote down my information in a big book, issued me yet another form, stamped everything and pointed me to the next office. The third guy was playing video games on his computer, the only one in the room. We were quite happy and a little relieved to clear customs and immigration and enter Turkmenistan.
20 Kilometres later we entered the capital, Ashgabat. What an unusual sight this was. The capital is a monument to the first president since the fall of communism, Turmenbashi, or leader of the Turks. There are huge marble buildings, fountains, monoliths and golden statues all over the city and all bearing the resemblance of Turkmenbashi. The scope of it is almost too much to take in. We drove north through the city to the Tulkuchka Bazaar a huge sprawling mass of steel shipping containers turned into market stalls. I’m sure you could buy anything in the world in this market from electronics to Persian carpets to spices to camels. It was fascinating to walk around and see the variety of goods for sale. The people were so much different that the people of Iran. Much more of an Asian influence in the faces and dress of the people and obvious Russian influences as well. It was quite an experience to just wander around and take it all in.
Afterwards we checked in to the Ashgabat hotel and made our way to our room. I was really looking forward to a shower after a night spent on the roof of the car and hours walking in the 50 degree heat. I went into the bathroom and lifted the lid on the toilet and it came off in my hand, it wasn’t attached in any way. I tried to hang a towel on the towel rack and it crashed to the floor. I turned on the tap at the sink and water streamed from the drain onto the floor. And when I turned on the shower a trickle of water came out so slow it would take all day just to fill the tub. I just had to laugh, what we are used to is nothing like our present reality.
After a nap Calen and I went out and explored the city and parks. Calen was driving when he was signalled by a police officer at the side of the road to pull over. Of course we don’t speak Turkic or Russian so we don’t know why he pulled us over but after he looked at our documents it became pretty clear. He pulled out a note pad and wrote $15 on it. We still pleaded ignorance and I guess we outlasted him because after a while he told us to move along. We decided that we had made a mistake in the first place just by pulling over so the next time one of those officers at the side of the road tried to flag us down we smiled and waved as if he were waving hello. Later we had a great supper at a Chinese restaurant. This morning we head east for Mary about 400 kilometres from here. From what our guide book tells us we expect to run into police checks every 50 – 100 kilometres so it should be an interesting day.