For sheer WTF value Turkmenistan is off the charts! The border should have been a warning for us. 5 hours through here for what was essentially a big show with no real substance. I changed some money into the local currency and the mono-browed angry, clenched woman behind the desk wouldn’t accept any of my US dollars if they were even slightly torn or worn.
This should have set sirens going off for all of us. We caught up with some other teams and the border guards lumped us all together demanding $65 each to get in and over $100 for the car. Most of the actual guards were friendly enough but the woman at the bank apparently also took all payments and we had to go through all of our combined cash to find enough money to pay for it all in nice, new, crisp, clean, ironed, fresh off the press, American notes. With cries of “Mister Mister” and a tap on the wrist for time she went through each note, discarding those she didn’t like. “Why are you being such a bitch?” I asked conversationally just to see how much English she knew. But no reaction and no stepping down from the creased broken money. After what seemed ages we finally pieced together the fee and were allowed into the country. Next time IM in Turkmenistan Im going to give her back the cash she gives me saying “No Good.”
We are the first people ever to be allowed into Turkmenistan without a guide, ever, and we were only allowed to do this by giving a map of where we were going and promising to stick with the plan. The $1000 fine helped us keep to the plan. With a sigh we drove towards Ashgabat past a massive valley and recent truck crash, a car carrier spraying cars across a rocky field and into Ashgabat. You have to see this place to believe it. Huge marble structures, amazing parklands, gold and silver, perfect roads, lights and colour, and street ninjas. Yep, street ninjas. Small, agile, covered people, with slits to see from their multi-coloured outfits are constantly on guard to clean anything that gets dirty. They are so fast and so good that they can clean up before you make it dirty. The roads are so clean constantly polished that it sounds like a 70’s tv show car chase just pulling away at the lights and parking the car. Police are also every 500 meters to watch for mess, yell at you not to take photos, and fine you if your car is dirty. About 4 years ago the President there decided to design a massive showcase city, and wasn’t terribly worried about the cost. The streets get closed down when he wants to go for a drive. I mean, he is the president. Even the market exchange office wouldn’t take anything but perfect money, but we managed to get some dinner and also found some other teams in an expensive English style Pub.
Here we met Erash (like a Turkmen Hugh Heffner, he knew everybody and they knew him) and he helped us with accommodation and after 2 hours a locksmith finally got us into our accommodation and we drank good cheap vodka and talked before sleeping in this crazy, fairytale, lego city.
Erash was a great guide. He helped me changed my wads of Iranian money, took us to breakfast, petrol and sent us on our way north and into the desert. We couldn’t get any ice in Ashgabat but about 200 km north in the middle of nowhere was a small kid with a fridge and we bought ice from him. Go figure. We also stopped at an “oasis” town on the way. No palm trees just camels and grayed, sun-bleached wood, a sea of plastic bottles and a bunch of cute kids posing for photos. The town would be a good set for a Mad Max movie. With Camels. We were heading for the fire crater. Apparently in the 60’s, Russian gas exploration had found a small deposit of gas in the deserts out here. Thinking it would burn out in a few weeks and not worth their while, they set fire to it. 40 years later it’s still burning. We found the turn off for the crater, a sandy, steep road into the desert foothills and Josh managed to get the ambulance up and he and Erron disappeared into the desert. The rest of us got a lift, 10 people in a hilux 4wd, with our gear, was very close. There may have been inappropriate touching. Unfortunate but couldn’t be helped.
But then we saw the crater: 80 meters across and 40 deep, roughly circular and burning like the gates to hell. Its hard not to throw in references to the devil when you see this thing. The heat can be felt from about 20 meters away, and you can crisp your eyebrows looking into the pit. Its hard to believe its real. This massive, burning, glorious, scarily beautiful mistake. Everyone stared and listened to its angry rumble, hypnotized by its dancing beauty. Staring into the pit flames leap from the ground and just burn. The orange glow giving everything an eerily horror movie feel.
We sat down to a great dinner and vodka, chatting to Lukasz and a Russian submariner, explaining our journey and laughing and listening to some great stories and dodging the odd desert spider and slept under a sky filled with tiny reflections of the crater not 200 meters away.
The next morning we said our goodbyes and headed north through the changing scenery: from desert to greener lands, with interesting houses and historical mosques. A great lunch with the school bus team and we hit the Uzbekistan border. 5 hours. Friendly but thorough, all our gear removed from the car and checked, but we have nothing to hide and we finally got through. On our way to Qiva we met a few other teams and they were struggling to find their way: so we mongvoyed to Qiva. The roads were unbelievably bad and without our help they wouldn’t have managed to find entry into this beautiful walled city. The other teams went and stayed at some locals house and we found them under house arrest the next morning. The law says you must stay at a registered hotel. Hope they got out!
We wandered around this beautiful sandstone and mud city admiring its warm beauty before heading further east. Our trusty compass guiding us along the worst roads in the history of roads. I don’t think they could have been worse if we drove through the desert itself. At one stage, while passing through a town, we noticed about 20 cars all over the road, driving erratically, passing each other and giving money from car to car while at speed. We found ourselves in the middle of it all and laughingly gave and received money from the passing motorists. Oncoming traffic pulled to the side to let the crazy wedding party through, waving and cheering. A little further on we found an awesome Indiana Jones bridge across a raging river. We had to stop and a bus load of locals stopped and laughed at the crazy westerners playing on the old bridge. “Hold on Lady, we going for a ride!” Couldn’t get the theme song out of my head all day. We found a great spot in the desert and cooked up a storm before sleeping.
The next morning found us with tire problems and we needed to get it fixed. We kept filling it with air and it kept going down. On the way to Bukhara it was easily 40 degrees plus, and we stopped and picked up some hitchhikers in the desert. At one stage we had 6 people in the back! At one tire filling stop we pulled out a couple of Frisbees and showed them how to use it. For 25 minutes we played like children on the side of the road. If you bring out toys, people will play. We couldn’t speak to each other but we all enjoyed playing in the desert.
Bukhara is a beautiful mix of the new and the old. This trip has shown us that everything can be fixed and shouldn’t be thrown away. We live in such a disposable society, but here everything can be reused and nothing says this more so than an umbrella mechanic. Down the steps into a dark cellar, he works on broken umbrellas of all types and price and puts them back together. I have never before seen an umbrella mechanic. After some hamburgers and ice-cream we headed into the old city and walked amongst the original Silk Road markets. Surrounded by trinkets, carpets, gold and history we gazed at ancient mosques and modern local art. We met some more teams and swapped stories before heading for Samarkand. We found a great hostel and went and had a final dinner and beer with Errin, Luke and Warwick. The gold teeth lady admonishing us, with a glint in her eye, for our filthy feet and clothes, but laughing out loud through gold teeth when I told her how beautiful she was. She tried to marry us off to her daughters before chasing us out with a promise to return for lunch the next day. Goodbye to the boys and we actually slept in a bed that night!
Samarkand is the beautiful ancient hub of the Silk Road, vibrant and rich with foods and people from all over. We went to the massive twin mosques at the parks centre and watched the rehearsal for what must have been the independence day parade. 100’s of kids and soldiers all marching, singing and dancing. What a show. After a great breaky and good chat with some of the other teams at the hostel we hit the road and headed for the border. Unfortunately the easy and close eastern border was closed and we had to reroute ourselves over 200km to the south and back up. A long dusty drive through curious checkpoint after checkpoint. No problems just wanted to chat! Our first scary moment came when an unmarked car pulled up next to us at night, police flashing there red torch telling us to pull over. Stories of bribes and corrupt police running through my head I smiled and greeted them telling them where we were heading. One of the officers jumped in and my unease grew but they soon set us at ease explaining they knew a short cut to the border and took us straight to the border!. We had dinner and vodka with them and explained our story to the colonel and his men, and some taxi drivers, before sleeping there for the night (again looked after by soldiers!).
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