Welcome to Central Asia (Travelling Turkmenistan part I)

with 12 Comments

Flat, grey, arid waste lands greet the horizon in all directions.  Seemingly motionless, the sun hangs from the skyes, sternly monitoring the sandy soil, incinerating any brave and defiant growth of green.  Whatever escapes the scrutiny of the flaming rays is devoured promptly by the camels, these odd, voracious beasts of the desert. Only 70 km south, the shady forests of Golestan are a feverish mirage, that has abruptly melted, consumed by dust and hungry humpy mastodonts.  We get off the car and wave a brief and warm goodbye to Shamila and Mehdi, silently sending good wishes to Nima and Saide in Tehran, all of them beautiful friends that have crowned our stay in Iran.

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Then we walk, sweat and wonder if space suits would not have fitted better than t-shirts the lunar landscape surrounding the tiny Turkmen border at Godri Olum. In a few minutes we will be jumping into the jaws of another blatantly dictatorial regime. The omnipresent Ayatollah, pious, beardy mullahs, black-cladded ladies and the intangible shadow of the moral police that have permeated the fabrics of a whole society will now be followed by golden statues, monumental personality cult, corrupted paranoid government and Orwellian control. A thourough border check, resembling backpack harassment, treatening the very integrity of our luggage and finally we are through.  A cordon of camels graciously roaming the sands and men in military uniforms, slightly confused and with wits evaporated by the heat, reluctantly let us in the last Bolshevik republic. The gateway to Central Asia slowly opens.

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Crouched between boxes of smuggled goods in an old little bus we clumsily try to feel the pulse of the solitude. The Soviet machine clatters purposefully on the bumpy stony roads indifferent to the absence of signs. The sun and wind kindle fires of sand, their dusty smoke invariably aiming to stick up to any uncovered part of one’s body. A motocyclist donned in a customized helmet – a pillowcase with holes for the eyes – passes by undisturbed in a cloud of dust and fuel exhaust. Loudly laughing ladies, dressed in long and elegant colourful flowers patterned dresses confidently take up on a general conversation with the strangers in stark contrast with the silent covered women of neighbouring Iran that shyly sweep the floor with their eyes.  Finally the driver breaks and the door creaks welcoming us to Etrek – a sleepy town on the southernt edges of Turkmenistan where the contraband wares find a market.  Weak and tired, we slump at the stairs of a tiny shop, next to a huge portrait of smiling President Berdymuhamedov with eyes firmly fixed on us. We engage strategically in an ostensibly unorchestered conversation with the passing by locals aiming to gather as much useful information as possible. Secretive and oppressive, the Turkmen government dislikes independent travellers and allows them only on a few days transit visa; as a result details on everyday life of the country are scarce. Suspicious, we wonder if there is anything we should be weary of, but the almost idilically calm atmosphere of Etrek quickly despereses any fears.  Several hours later we find ourselves falling asleep in the house of Zolota (Golden in Russian)  and her youngest of four daughters whose name, to our dismay, would translate as I don’t have a son . Tea, sweets and a Turkish TV series soothe our tired senses and the giant flowing wave of normality takes over us as the fading orange light of the setting sun closes our eyes.

The simple beauty of Turkmen women
The simple beauty of Turkmen women

Intense , rough banging on the door abruptly wakes us up. We stare at the darkness out of the window and alarmed follow a muted conversation in the yard. ”The police wants to speak to you.’ – shortly explains our host. Distraught we rush to meet a casually dressed man who addresses us in sound English – a privilege in Turkmenistan, we learn later on, held only by the immigration police. ‘You might not be aware, but you are not allowed to be in this house’ – begins his grim speech the police officer.’ According to Turkmen constitution, foreigners are not permited to have any contact with the local population. I assume, that neither you, nor the women who hosts, intentionally broke the law so this time you will get away with it. Tonight, you can stay in the house,  but do not do the same thing again, because you do not want us to detain you or deport you. It wouldn’t be pleasant. You are on a 5 days transit visa, but the faster you exit Turkmenistan, the better, so tomorrow early morning make your way north. Good night!’ Abruptly, the policeman turns around and melts into the dark night. Such is the nature of law, that any eccentric absurdity springing from the wild head of men, signed on an official paper, should be observed for. Failing to do so might result in a fair punishment. Stupified, we stand on the threshold, feebly illuminated by millions of silvery, twinkling stars. Like bats in the night, the eyes that follow us have multiplied.

Etrek (Turkmenistan)
Etrek (Turkmenistan)

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Boris, Marta and Burma roam the world at a speed of a snail. Two humans and one cat that found their way to India overland.

12 Responses

  1. While I think that it is great that you visited Turkmenistan, but this all seems just wrong, you put most stereotypical pictures ever, like whole Turkmenistan is like that, have you ever been to Ashgabat or any major city? All those images leave bad impression.

    • rovingsnails
      | Reply

      Hey Vepa! Unfortunately we did not manage to visit Ashgabat on our short 5 days visa. We did get to Turkmenbashi and the huge tourist resort at Awaza, though, and totally agree that there are 2 sides to this country, so will definitely blog about it. As you can see this is “Part I” of how we made it throug the border. The pictures are of people that treated us wonderfully, who were asking to be photographed and who were totally beautiful.

      We are sorry to hear that this article makes a bad impression in you, to us they were magic! And for us, slow travellers, encounters and everyday life are always as interesting, if not more, than the tourist sights promoted by the local authorities. If you have a post on Turkmenistan, please share, we will be happy to read your impressions! And thanks for reading us too :)

      • Daniela Kaneva
        | Reply

        ……
        I am looking forward to the Part II…..

    • Ez
      | Reply

      There is always someone to show disdain of how TM is portrayed. Just because the despotic gov has built, on people’s money, marble houses, doesn’t mean that everyone should be impressed by it. Sadly, my majority of people in my country are poor.

  2. Mehdi
    | Reply

    Hey friends have fun in your travel and remember us.
    And trust Ebi, Turkmenistan has a dictatorship!!!
    Mehdi, Shamila, Ebi

    • rovingsnails
      | Reply

      We will see what Turkmen people think about that! Our impressions coming soon :)

  3. roch
    | Reply

    I dont know what was wrong with these awesome pictures, cant expect anything else from a desert country!! big cities would be about 2% of the land no? if T wants tourists to take pictures of everywhere, it should abolish the silly tourist visa rules, or give a 15 day transit visa!! :-p thanks for the time in posting this RS!!

    • rovingsnails
      | Reply

      15 days would be a treasure…to roam around and reach the hidden natural wonders of Turkmenistan. Totally agree with you, travel beyond the cities is the best part of travel. But Boris still wishes he had gotten to Ashgabat, it should be pretty impressive. Right?

  4. Hitch-Hikers Handbook
    | Reply

    Great story! How the hell did the police find our you were staying in that house? Do you think you were followed?
    How was hitchhiking in Turkmenistan in general? I’m guessing it’s not easy if the government is trying so hard to separate the ordinary people from visiting foreigners. And on the transit visa you must have rushed a lot.
    Where did you organise your visas? In Iran?

    • rovingsnails
      | Reply

      Hi guys! We organised our visa in Tehran (it took 7 days and 55 $), and yes, we had to rush through the country, but as we crossed it just south to north and there were not many sights on the way, we just got to spend 5 days talking to people (and being told off by the police). Also, we did take one bus and one train on the way. Part II will come soon with all the rest of the story.

      Regarding how the police found out – we do not know. But it was a small town and we definitely stuck out from the locals, specially Marta – as all ladies wore long flower-patterned dresses and pretty scarves (and they could tell her scarf was not from around there). Many people saw us drinking coffee near the house where we slept, but our question was “why did they decide to knock at 12 am and not in the afternoon?” – mysterious are the ways of foreign police.

      For other hitchhikers: even on a 5 days transit visa, this country is worth the detour!

  5. Hitch-Hikers Handbook
    | Reply

    Very curious about your Uzbekistan experience. Did you register for every night in a hostel?

    • rovingsnails
      | Reply

      We did not cross Uzbekistan, but went from Turkmenistan to Mangistau and crossed the steppe. We have met some people that missed a few nights and right now two guys travelling by van are saying that they did not sleep one single night in hostels. They told to the border police that their hostels was “just out there” :) You can check their blog (in German) http://www.on-a-journey.de

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