It is not so easy to visit a country like Turkmenistan. You better not apply for a tourist visa unless you want to book an expensive guide for your whole visit. It’s much better (and easier) to get a transit visa. However, the problem is that this visa is issued for only 5 days. So you don’t have much time to explore the country, especially when you’re backpacking or cycling across Turkmenistan. The country is very different from anything else. The government is in control of everything and they make sure that you don’t do things they don’t want you to do. Random police checks can happen everywhere, and in Ashgabat, the military is on every street corner to watch every step you take. That’s why Turkmenistan is the seventh least visited country in the world, receiving only 7,000 visitors per year. And we were one of them!
Getting into Turkmenistan is no joke. After getting off the ferry at the port of Turkmenbashi, we all got redirected by the guards to customs. The process didn’t go smooth at all because half of the people still got their LOI and the other half needed to get an extension of their visa. We had to wait for eight hours in the burning sun until it was our turn. Our water bottles were empty, so we had to drink water from a tap outside which tasted like chlorine, even with our water filter on. We’ve got a new five-day transit visa for $65 each because ours was going to expire that day, all because of the Caspian Sea ferry issue. It took us another three hours to get trough customs. The bags got checked thoroughly and after the baggage check, the driver needed to go to 11 different offices for 11 different papers while the passenger needed to wait in a different area. At customs, we already noticed that we arrived in a dictatorship because in every small room there was at least one big portrait of the president. The car got checked, and when everything was alright, we just needed one more document which was a real pain in the ass. This paper costs 3 manats (= 1 dollar), and we really needed it to go through the last checkpoint. Since the new rules this year, it’s not allowed to pay with dollars in Turkmenistan. So we could only pay with the local currency which we didn’t have because we just arrived from the ferry. The woman at the desk, who was very rude, didn’t want to accept dollars no matter what! Even when the other guards went to ask her if she wouldn’t make any acceptation for us. Thank god one of the high chiefs wanted to exchange us some money illegally (for a terrible exchange rate). He quickly hid the dollars under his hat so nobody would know.
It was already 10.30 p.m. when we got out of the border, and we still had to find a place to sleep. Luckily after 15 minutes of driving, we saw ‘Hotel Turkmenbashi’ along the way. We just went for it because we were too tired after all we had been through. We were still very thirsty, so we ran straight to the restaurant to buy some bottles of water. The hotel didn’t want to accept any dollars, so we had to find an ATM in the neighborhood. There are almost no ATM’s that take international credit cards in whole Turkmenistan, so we were very lucky that there was one in Turkmenbashi!
Because it was so hot outside (more than 45°C), we couldn’t even touch the steering wheel and a lot of plastic things started melting in the car. The way to Ashgabat didn’t go without any problems. There were a lot of bumps and potholes that asked too much of our suspension. So, unfortunately, our left rear suspension broke after a couple of hours driving. We stranded in the middle of nowhere in the desert, with nothing around us and with the burning sun upon us. At first, We tried to fix it ourselves, but it became quickly clear that we couldn’t do much about it. We looked at the map and saw that there was a small village 5 km further ahead. So we slowly drove to it with the framework leaning on the tire.
We went to the first mechanic that we saw, and like in Turkey; he wasn’t capable of fixing the problem. So he brought us (all three together in the car) to another mechanic further in the village. He wanted to fix it but needed to get a new suspension in the closest city, which was 30 min driving. We stayed at the repair shop while he went to get it. He came back with a new suspension after an hour and he fixed it surprisingly quick for 120 dollars. Unfortunately, we forgot our rear window shelf over there; we doubted to go back but sometimes you have to let things go.
TURKMENISTAN AND HIS EXTRAORDINARY SIGHTS
Because of this, we arrived pretty late in Ashgabat, Turkmenistan’s capital city. It is probably the strangest city in the world. Everywhere you look, there are huge buildings in white marble and golden statues. It was even more impressive by night because every single building is illuminated with bright lights and neon. Such a big contrast with the rest of Turkmenistan! We drove right in the center between all the marble buildings, but we had a strange feeling. We were driving all alone in the streets, and there were guards at every corner waving at us. Later we heard that there is a curfew in the city center, so probably these guards didn’t just waved at us but wanted to make us stop and turn around. Whoopsie… We searched for a hotel but everything was around $120/night, and that was way above our budget, so we just slept in the car.
The day after we went to the Köw Ata underground lake, known for its 35°C warm water which contains a high amount of different salts and minerals, most notably sulfur. A man was standing in front of the entrance to sell some tickets. We still don’t know if he was an official seller, but his entry ticket looked legit, so we paid 40 manats (€10) each to get in. Later, we saw that the locals didn’t have to pay to enter the cave. When we entered the cave, we saw a few bats flying around. Apparently, the largest colony of bats in whole Central Asia live in this cave. We descended 200ft, and there was a strong, distinct smell of sulfur. The water was warm but also refreshing, bathing in it is very good for your skin, heart and vanes because of all the good vitamins that sulfur contains. When we came out of the cave and wanted to go back to the car, a local family asked us to join their lunch. Everything was homemade. We had some self-slaughtered chicken, watermelon, grapes, homemade bread, etc… They were super friendly and interested in our stories! Now we witnessed the hospitality of the Turkmen people.
We couldn’t stay too long because we still had to go to The Doors To Hell; a collapsed, natural gas field in Derweze, that became a natural gas crater, which has been set on fire to prevent the spread of methane gas. The road went right through the Karakum desert. You could literally see nothing for miles and after a while, it became difficult to avoid the minefield of potholes. The gas crater is still 10 km from the main road. To get there, you need to go up a steep hill and after that, there is a lot of deep sand where you can easily get stuck in. So a lot of teams parked their cars at the beginning of the hill and arranged a jeep with the locals. They told us it was nearly impossible to drive up there, so we also fixed a 4×4 together with another team. It cost 50 dollars for the whole car. When the jeep started driving it was already dark so we could see the glow from the gas crater already from miles away. The roads were indeed terrible to drive, but it seemed like a lot of fun and adventure driving. When we arrived, some rally cars made it across the hill, so we were a little bit annoyed by the fact that we didn’t give it a try at first. How closer we got, how hotter it became because of the wind that was blowing in our direction. Standing there in front of the crater, we realized that this was one of the craziest things we had ever seen. The feeling you get is indescribable. We pitched up our tent right next to it to spent the night over there. Definitely one of the coolest camping spots on earth.
The next day we had to leave very early because we made an arrangement with the driver and the other team to pick us up at 7 a.m. The road to the border of Uzbekistan was also a tough one. The potholes were so enormous that another team that was driving a 2CV bent their rear suspension. They had to go to a mechanic, but they were to heavy loaded, so we (and another team) suggested bringing some suitcases to the hotel where they planned to sleep that night. Not even an hour later our car just stopped running out of nothing and it was impossible to start him again. Luckily a rally team and some locals pulled over to see what was going on and they kick-started him again.
At some point along the road, we and a Norwegian team that we’ve met in Baku, missed a turn and took the wrong road towards the border. Oh dear, this road was in a really bad condition for almost all the time. There were places where we needed to go through a lot of deep sand. Luckily we didn’t get stuck in it, but our car got full of sand on the outside AND inside.
SILK ROAD ADVENTURES
We took the Daşoguz border into Uzbekistan. The whole border crossing took us three hours. Our next destination was the hotel in Khiva where the other team was planning to stay. We stayed at another hotel just outside of the outer wall of the center of Khiva where a 14-year-old kid (who spoke pretty good English) helped us out with our rooms and all the other stuff. The day after we needed some petrol but apparently you find the best petrol on the black market. Thomas went together with this 14-year-old to a random house at the other side of the city to get some gas. We still don’t know if the petrol was good quality, but the car kept running. Because there are no ATM’s in Uzbekistan, Thomas also exchanged some dollars at this place. We got approached multiple times by different people that offered different exchange rates. So it’s best to shop around first before you say ‘yes’ to the first offer.
Afterward, we went to visit the town together with the Norwegians. Khiva was one of the main trading cities along the Silk Road. Now it’s known for its beautiful traditional architecture. We strolled around through the narrow streets, across the local market, some locals wanted to take photos with us, and we had a lovely drink, but it was time to move on to Bukhara. We already left Khiva pretty late around noon, and the first part of the route went extremely slowly because of the deep potholes. Luckily the biggest part of the day was paved highway. It was already after dark when we saw some ralliers at the side of the road with some car problems. We pulled over to help them, but when we wanted to get back on the road, the same problem occurred again; we couldn’t start the car. Luckily the other guys helped us push-starting it to get us going.
In the center of Bukhara, we lost the Norwegians while searching for our hotel. We hadn’t eaten for almost the whole day and were starving as hell! Surprisingly, there were no people on the street at 11 p.m. and all the restaurants were already closed. We still had some food left, so we cooked some noodles in our hotel room.
The next day we were a little bit anxious to start the car, because of all the battery problems before. And indeed we were right; it was the same problem again. A friendly local helped us to push start the car, and we went to the first mechanic that we saw to replace the battery. Apparently, we didn’t stop at a mechanic but a car wash. But hey, they helped us out! Because they had no battery in stock, they needed to go the local car shop. While we were waiting, they offered Myrthe some tea from a cup that she had to share with the rest of the mechanics and the car got washed for free. The battery cost us 60 dollars, and we had to pay an extra 5 dollars for the ‘taxi’ that brought the battery. When we drove off, we noticed that the car shop was right next to the mechanic…
Again, it was a long day until we reached the border, but it was a stunning scenic road through the Uzbek mountains. We arrived at 9.30 p.m. but luckily the border is open for 24 hours. Here we saw the Norwegians again. We needed to split up, and Myrthe had to show all the content on all our sd cards and had to explain every picture from the last month. The fuckers even deleted some files, and afterward, we discovered that a virus infected our sd cards since then. It was the first border where Thomas needed to get every single thing out of the car to get checked. We waited a long time for a couple of papers. When we could leave, there was no one at the last checkpoint, so we honked. After ten minutes (it was already 00.30 a.m.) a guy came out of nowhere who looked like he was sleepwalking. He took our passports and went to his little office. He was just standing straight for ten minutes while doing nothing. It looked like he fell asleep which looked funny from our point of view… In the end, the whole border crossing took us 3,5 hours.
Finally, we’re back on good roads, because the car had a very rough time on the Turkmen and Uzbek roads.