Throughout my trip I had met a few people who had crossed Turkmenistan by various routes during their 5-day transit visa. And I had listened in astonishment as each of them used almost identical words to describe the country. Words such as odd, weird, different, strange, bizarre. After all the time and energy I had spent getting my Turkmen transit visa in Dushanbe I hoped that it wouldn’t be a complete waste of time .
What was it about Turkmenistan that elicited such an unusual response in people? I was about to find out. All too soon!
For my last afternoon and evening in Bukhara, I gave up any pretence of trying to appreciate the city’s cultural and historical significance. I chose more simple pleasures.
I spent it having a couple of Baltikas and dinner with a few guys riding bikes in the Mongol Rally. This is a fundraising event for various charities and is becoming very popular in Europe. A bit like the Variety Bash in Australia except on a much bigger scale! There is no set route and the drivers and riders can start from anywhere. The goal is to reach Ulaan Baatar in Mongolia by the finishing date and raise as much money as possible along the way. As well the vehicles are auctioned off at the end to raise more money for charity. All in all, it sounded like a great laugh.
Next morning, it was time to head for the Turkmen border post at Farap to see if Turkmenistan really was as weird as everybody said.
Well, what can I say!
If the border post was any sort of indication, they should seriously conside changing the country’s name to Bizarristan. To describe the arcane Turkmen customs and immigration formalities is impossible. Needless to say it involved filling a form, paying money, getting the form stamped, paying more money, getting the form stamped by somebody else, paying more money. Then getting a different form and starting the cycle all over again. All done in the chaos of a dozen jabbering longhaul truckdrivers trying to get back home!
By now I had crossed quite a few borders throughout my trip and thought I had seen it all. But nothing comes close to Turkmenistan for sheer lunacy. When you pay a fee (and there are lots like the mythical “Vehicle Disinfection” fee) you have to get a receipt. But they charge you $2 for writing the receipt, so the receipt is for the original fee as well as for writing the receipt! And this is just the tip of the icerberg. Sir Humphrey from Yes, Minister would have been proud.
I ended up with SEVEN different bits of paper and receipts and it took over two hours before I could escape from the border post.
From Farap to first major city of Turkmenabad was only 20-30km and there was a sign outside the border post pointing the way. This was encouraging, I thought. Signs of any sort (highway directions and distances, street names etc) are a rarity in Central Asia. It was the last highway sign I was to see until four days later when I was leaving the country.
To even begin to understand Turkmenistan is a big ask. It has massive reserves of natural gas and significant reserves of oil making it one of the wealthiest countries in Central Asia. Unfortunately this enormous wealth has also contributed to the bizarre nature of the country. The first president after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Saparmurat Niyazov, was an absolute nutcase. Apart from deciding to rename the days of the week and the months after members of his own family, banning lip-syncing at concerts and other strange edicts Niyazov wrote his own gospel/history/enlightenment book, the Ruhnama, that was made compulsory reading in all Turkmen schools. Applicants for government jobs had to sit an exam on the Ruhnama before being considered.
All this wealth and lunacy seems to have taken control of the government. Vast amounts of the gas and oil revenue is spent on government buildings which remain virtually empty except for a handful of security guards. The massive car parks were also completely vacant.
The hotel I stayed at, the Jeyhun, was equally grandiose and, with the exception of three fellow motorcyclists heading east, equally deserted. The hotel staff obviously didn’t see too many western tourists and were in dire need of training in basic hospitality skills – like “May I have your passport, please” not “Give me your passport!”.
In the end I just wanted to have something to eat and drink, and then go to bed. But even that seemed too much for the staff. Being charged about US$7 for a Baltika was ridiculous. In most of my travels in Central Asia it was about US$1-2. As for meals, not only were they equally expensive but the staff didn’t appear to want to cook for us, so they suggested we get pizzas delivered to the hotel restaurant!
I had only been in Turkmenistan for about 6 hours and was beginning to understand why so many people had called it a weird country. But I wondered what the ordinary people of Turkmenistan were like. Surely they weren’t caught up in this bizarro bubble also.
Tomorrow I would have my answer.