Next Unfree Country – “Unwelcome” to Turkmenistan

Mary (Turkmenistan), 24.05.2013

We are debating if lack of religious or political freedom is worse and somehow cannot agree. We had a week of Iran, with restrictions particularly for Helena as a woman, but also in general sensed an oppressing atmosphere. Part of that is surely our take of a situation that the locals manage much more easily then we do. At least apparently. Now we are in Turkmenistan, and we did read a bit about the country before we got here, that there is a particular regime with a lot of controls and preoccupations. But none of us has ever lived in such an environment, and it feels bad, from the first moment that we entered the country.

A border gives you an impression of a country and is the welcome you receive. Azerbaijan was very bad, and anticipated a country in which a rogue police force behaves as it likes, and that hasn’t really recovered from Soviet times. Armenia also was very formal, bureaucratic, police driven (we still remember the speed camera at the border between controls!), and we had a mixed experience. Iran was lengthy and complicated, very bureaucratic, but not oppressive in our regards (and by the way, I did the exit procedure without agents or help in just 90 minutes, alone!!!). Georgia was uncomplicated, very standardised, and representative of a free country, without any fees or documents or complicated procedures. Turkey and the previous countries were a joke, if there was a border, with 2-3 documents to be checked you were done, no need to even leave the car. In this spectrum of options known so far, Turkmenistan has set a new extreme on the oppressive and complicated side. We’re really curious what country will top this record, bets are accepted.

The border was controlled by the military, and there was a chain of bureaucracy we have never seen before. We got at least 20 stamps during the entire procedure and were not let alone one second, there was always at least one soldier watching us, following us. And we never got rid of the feeling that ignorance and fear were the main drivers of every single person that checked something. But let’s go one by one… (if you’re not interested in the pain of Turkmen border procedures, go to the last paragraphs after the dotted line now.)

When we entered the country surrounded by trucks we were the only car around. Soldiers signalled us the way to a building, where a man in a medical outfit welcomed us. He led us to his small office, with a picture of the president in scientist costume on the wall, asked us both if there was any problem, and as we denied filled out a form, checked our passports and sent us ahead. The next room was quite big, with an X-Ray scanner in the middle of it and a picture of the president in suit and tie on the wall. A young soldier, maybe 20 years old, registered our passports, asked several times the same questions about nationality and city of origin. Since he spoke no english and we no russian, another man in civilian clothes joined the conversation. When it came to the arguments of whether there are Blackberrys in Turkmenistan (I have an old BB Bold with me that is falling to pieces, but these guys loved it) and how much our car costs, I stopped talking to these guys, avoided eye contact and looked the other way out of the window. Who knows why they are asking all these questions. There were two other soldiers in the room, with these funny soviet hats, max 25 years old, one of them with clear mental deficiencies, since he talked quite confused stuff and his own colleagues silenced him a couple of times. But he kept staring at me and spoke to me in russian every time I looked at him. I had asked Helena to stay the car, to avoid more conversation and have somebody keep control of the vehicle.

After a while it became clear that there would be another man coming, “the bank” as they called him, since we had to pay USD 12 each. As the bank entered the room, suddenly another man showed up, “the guide”. (As a side note, in Turkmenistan we need to have a guide with us at all times, he is in the car with us, spends every moment with us, we’re under constant company.) The guide presented himself, and now all the border guys who didn’t know what to do with us due to the language barrier finally had someone to ask all questions to. After our passports and car documents were checked, we got some papers from “the bank”, with several stamps on it, went back to the first police officer, who had to register us again, now with the new documents at hand, and the passports and car documents.

Next stop was a place we will call the “paperwork house” for the purpose of this account, since we don’t remember the exact name written on it. The picture of the president was in suit and tie. The guide and I entered, Helena was still in the car. We started with two friendly civilian gentlemen checking passports and car documents, one filled out the car insurance, the other a form that determines our exact route, and reminds us that no deviation or changes are allowed. We were told to pay additional fees, for the insurance, the car, transit and other things. With this paper we passed a civilian officer, that registered the car, checked the passports, and put a stamp on one of the forms. We caught him having lunch, so he did his part quickly. Then we went to the cashier, the man at this counter calculated USD 151 as the total amount to pay for people and vehicle, and started to fill out papers, forms, registration books, checked passports and car documents. More stamps. I had to go to the car to get the money and was escorted by a solder in field uniform. As I walked to the car he whistled to signal me to not go alone and stay close to him. I also wanted to take a “shortcut” to the car across the open parking space, but he signaled me to get into the first building again, pass the X-Ray scanner, and go to the car from there. He stood 1m behind me as I got the money out of the car, walked me in and out of the first building and X-Ray scanner again, over the parking space, into the paperwork house. I paid, got more papers. A stamp was missing, the man at the cashier started speaking loudly, told us to get back to the previous room and get the missing stamp. In that room, at the same desk as the man that was having lunch, now sat another man, civilian, with another paper book, that registered us again, checked passports, and put the missing stamp on the form. Across the room, at another desk, sat the next two civilians, two huge paper books in front of them, and both registered the car, checked the passports, put stamps on forms. With these papers we went back to the cashier, stamps, passport check, paperwork, pay cash, and back in line for another room we had to enter. After some minutes waiting came our last episode in the paperwork house, the “officers’ room”. In a small room there were three tables with three soldiers with each of them three stars on the epaulettes and significantly older then the uniformed boys in their twenties we had seen outside. The picture of the president showed him in field uniform over a map. Passport and car document check, debate on the set route, the exit border, the concept of tourism and who knows what else (I only catch some words in Russian). During all this, truck drivers with devote views came in and out to get their documents checked, stamped etc. While the guide had to leave briefly to do some photocopies of passport and car documents, the officer taking care of our “case” kept filling forms, registering us and our car, stamping papers, looking serious.

Done with the paperwork house, the next stop was the customs check. We entered a barrack with 5 or 6 smoking soldiers, with less stars on the epaulettes. Passport and car document check, one guy filled out two forms, stamps. He passed them to his neighbour sitting right next to him at the desk, who kept one form and handed me the other. Then they all wanted to see the car, and we went out to the parking space. We went into the first building again, to the strange young soldier, who now had to check our passports, register us, asked us if we had money with us. Then we went out again, they told Helena to get out of the car and wait on a bench 10m away in front of the first building while they all started to open different doors, check the stuff inside. I had to open the hood to check the engine and car number. A soldier came with a screwdriver and started opening and closing compartments. And then we had to take out almost every single item of the car. The bags were sent through the X-ray scanner, they spared the tent, camping chairs, food, books and spare part for the car. Apparently, some days ago at another border a pistol was found at an exit control, and this meant that the entry controls and the entire chain of command had failed. Now they were all frenetically checking for the gun we don’t happen to have with us. Sorry guys! As the car was empty and nothing more to check, a more senior soldier came and asked the guide something. I had to promise to have no guns, hand granades, bazookas, explosives, drugs, cannons, kalashnikows, swords, bayonets on board. Then we were allowed to pack again. Since we had to make space for the guide in the car we put a lot of lighter stuff on the roof and the rest inside.

Dirty, sweating, hungry and completely pissed off by this country we left the border after 4,5h. Due to the time difference it was already lunchtime, so we drove some 10km into a village to a “restaurant”. We stopped in front of a house with no signs on it, passed an abandoned room and entered a courtyard with three tables and some people eating. At a rear exit there was a toilet, but the water to wash the hands had to be fetched with a bucket from a well. We had fatty samosas (don’t look inside, don’t ask questions, just eat them!), coke, and our first beer in a week for lunch. And then came the road to Mary. As the guide had mentioned approx. 20 times that he was in a hurry to catch a flight from Mary to Ashgabat since he was only standing in today for a busy colleague, and that he got tho Sarakhs this morning in a cab driving anything between 100 and 150 km/h, I tried to speed up. With the “roads” they have in Turkmenistan this was quite a challenge. The Range Rover was quite full, 3 people with 40l extra diesel and baggage until under the roof and a completely overloaded rooftop rack. And apart from the pothole slalom here comes an additional difficulty level, the deep tracks driven into the tar by the many trucks that pass these streets. The suspensions got seriously tested today, and several times I thought it was game over. The guide described the roads as “with good parts and not so good parts”. I kept looking for the good ones, but they are few, and last no longer then a deep breath.

20km down the road we had to stop for an additional military control. Passports, forms, the guide handled this one. Another 10km later we got stopped by the police. Excess of speed. There were no road signs at all, but who wants to argue with two officers holding your car documents and speaking only russian? USD 20 in a cigarette box solved the problem “in a different way” and we drove off. The next 4h were a sheer disaster. Not only is the average speed around 45 km/h. The car can get hurt at any moment on these roads. You need a Soviet truck with 70-100cm distance to the ground and massive tyres to keep going here.

Completely exhausted we reached Mary. The landscape had been completely boring and the guide kept telling us all sorts of things, so the most exciting piece of news of the day since the border is that we drove over a snake. In Mary we were stopped by the police at the town entrance, but this time the guide avoided all payments and problems. In town we noticed that the turkmen girls, different then those of other nationalities, are all very petite and dressed in beautiful, colourful, long dresses. Tomorrow is “youth day”, so it’s an occasion to dress up. That was the first positive sign in this country. At the hotel we got a clean room (second positive sign), but they need 1 day for washing laundry (KO), don’t change money (KO), and can’t clean the car (KO). Clean the car? Yes, you need a clean car in Turkmenistan. If the police stops you with a dirty car you get a “straf”. The guide left us, since our real guide would take over tonight, wishing us safe travels. We went to our room for a shower and a break. What a nightmare this country is so far. We’re seriously considering to skip everything and get out to Uzbekistan asap. But we hear that it’s similarly soviet there too.

For dinner, we can’t believe it, we are free to go alone, by foot though. When we left our room, the new guide was standing in front of the door, waiting for us. Strange coincidence. But she arranged everything for us, incl. the restaurant for the night. We ate shashlik and potato salad with beer at a nearby outdoor restaurant, under full moon. At some point a cloud in the form of Aladdin’s lamp formed under the moon, that seemed to be lifted by the smoke coming out of this lamp. We watched groups of kids walking by, the girls still in the colourful dresses, the boys also partially in costume, partially not. Some boys started a fist fight on the street, that we watched with mixed interest. In the background, a muezzin called for prayer. And somewhere in the dark there must have been a platoon of men shouting something repeatedly, like a war cry, over and over again. With these bizarre impressions we went back to the hotel. We need to be there before 23:00, curfew. Our car got washed somehow, our new guide organised it. And tomorrow we will have to get up at 06:00 to do the tour that has been prepared for us. We’re open for surprises…

Trip data (Day/Total)

– Km driven: 262/16.008

– Hrs on the road: approx. 10h/-

– Diesel l/100km: 9,0/9,1

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2 responses to “Next Unfree Country – “Unwelcome” to Turkmenistan

  1. Looks like loads of fun, adventure, and new experiences. Enjoy my friend and my sister, but beware all that friendliness. Take it with a grain of salt, you never know…

  2. Pingback: South of Tangier | electroboris

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