Hi all! Cameron here again, this time writing while bouncing up and down the, er, quality roads of Turkmenistan. [But posted a day and a half later from an internet cafe in Uzbekistan, which seems to be a much nicer place – shame it’s just a drive-through country for us on account of our time limit and it having a relatively good dual carriageway connecting one end of the country to the other.]
Our last update had us waking up in Tehran on Wednesday 3rd. Our plan was to spend the morning exploring the city, but after sleeping in, a late brunch in the hotel, cursing the heat and generally spending too long getting our act together, the only sightseeing we ended up doing was wandering through Tehran Bazaar. Nowhere near as impressive as the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul. Tehran as a city seemed interesting through – very sprawly and a bit pedestrian-unfriendly but also a fascinating mix of old and new, and some very impressive “squares” and amazing colourful lights at night.
But we were keen to press on, so after posting some postcards and changing some US dollars into local Iranian rials, we once again pointed the car east. The route out of Tehran took us up and down a mountain range – absolutely spectacular but making for slow progress. As we heading further north-east into the Iranian desert, the rich-poor divide in Iran began to make itself clear: outside of the big cities, Iran felt a lot like it was stuck in a time warp. Dinner was at a kebab joint in a large town in north-east Iran. But what we got wasn’t just any old shishkebab: we were invited to select some cuts of meat – we got a mix of liver and heart as the dude seemed to be recommending – and it was cooked as we waited, then chopped up and served on skewers. Tasty but very much not vegetarian.
As we got further out, we got pulled over by police a few times. Every time, all they seemed to want was to satisfy their curiosity – who are these crazy-looking foreigners, why are they driving through Iran, how did they get here and where are they going. In one case we got done for speeding, but there was no attempt to fine us or extort money, just a polite “slow down a bit please”.
We were originally hoping to get close to the Turkmen border – about 900 km from Tehran – that evening, but between the late start and slow progress through mountains, we didn’t get anywhere near it. We set up camp around midnight in Golestan National Park. Just as we were about the leave on Thursday morning, a couple of carloads of curious Iranians stopped by our campsite to have to chat. As usual we tried to explain with a mix of gesturing, speaking words in a language that the other party didn’t speak and pointing at the list of countries on the car.
We finally reached the border crossing at Bajgiran around 3pm. We were informed when we got there that the border closed by 5pm so we’d better get a wriggle on. The process of crossing into Turkmenistan was fairly long and bureaucratic but fortunately quite straightforward – nobody wanted a bribe and nobody tried to stop us crossing, but a lot of forms had to be filled in, signed, stamped, signed and stamped by somebody else, carried around to another building, etc. As Patrick described it, it’s “Legend of Zelda, Customs Edition”: to pass through the gate you must collect a set of stamps, each of which seemed to require a minor sub-quest to obtain.
We were a bit nervous about this crossing because we didn’t actually have Turkmen visas. The rally organisers were trying to get us Letters of Invitation which allow us to purchase transit visas at the border, but this process wasn’t completed until the day we reached Iran. We had no physical documentation saying that we had an invite, just an email saying that all Turkmen border crossings had been issued with a list of Ralliers and that no physical invites or visas would be required, and a reference number to give to the officials. The general tone of the letter was quite pessimistic and contained phrases like “if there is a problem with your invitation, which there probably will be”. However, after we said “Mongol Rally” and “invitation” to enough people, eventually one of them found the list, ascertained that we were on the list, and told us that we could buy our three visas for 150 US dollars.
The border crossing was finally completed by about 6pm. Upon arrival into Turkmenistan, the scenery was absolutely stunning – the crossing is high up in the mountains, which we ascended in Iran and began to descend upon entry to Turkmenistan. It was also amazingly quiet and the air was clean, for the first time since before Romania. We stopped by the side of the road to make some dinner and attempt to fix the front passenger power window, which had decided to becvome permanently stuck in the “down” position shortly after the border crossing.
In the midst of this, a car carrying a couple of border guards gestured at us, told us we couldn’t stop here and that we had to leave within five minutes. We assured them that we would, and then proceeded to ignore them and continue making dinner. Five minutes later, a minibus full of border guards turned up and told us we had to leave right now, stopping was not allowed until a bit closer to Asgabat. So we packed up hastily, with me carrying a boiling hot pot of pasta wrapped in a towel on my lap and Adon holding the doro trim and winding/locking mechanism together with his hands as Patrick drove.
A few kilometres down the road, we came to the Turkmenistan passport control office. Whoops. Now it became a bit more clear to us why the guards hadn’t been keen on us parking by the side of the road, and why it had been so quiet where we’d stopped before. We went through the final border formalities and stopped at a petrol station on the outskirts of Asgabat to complete the repairs (i.e. bodging the window so it was permanently closed instead of permanently open) and consumption of dinner and cups of tea and Scotch whisky.
This incident also brings our count of car breakage to two: the first being a crack in the window that happened on our way out of Istanbul.
Asgabat, the capital of Turkmenistan and nicknamed by us “Aztkaban” (thank you Harry Potter) was a bit like Iranian cities – lots of very modern and very impressive buildings, modern-seeming infrastructure and people everywhere. Unlike Iran, the dress code was a bit more relaxed, and the driving a bit less crazy. It also seemed a little bit less sprawled, with a clearly observable centre and skyscrapers. Once again, people seemed crazily enthusiastic to see us weird foreigners on their roads. We received waves, honks, lights flashed. There was one car carrying a family that we kept overtaking and they kept overtaking us, where every time they passed us waving crazily and the probably-teenaged daughter blowing us kisses.
In short, we’ve become quite accustomed to the looks from everybody around us that mean: “look at those crazy foreigners! they’re being crazy! and foreign!”
We followed the signs out of Asgabat and towards Turkmenbasy. But after following this road fro a while, we were a bit confused: we wanted to be heading east or north-east, but the compass showed we’d been heading west for quite a while, and we passed through a town which our map showed being on a very different road from what we were hoping to be on. So we did a U-turn, returned to the outskirts of Asgabat and confirmed that the sign pointing on the road we’d gone out on did indeed lead to Turkmenbasy.
Unfortunately, a closer inspection of our map showed that the city we were aiming for was Turkmenabat, and Turkmenbasy was far from an alternative spelling for the same place, it was a completely different city on the opposite side of the country. Whoops!
We drove east for a bit and found signs pointing to Turkmenabat. Problem solvered! But just a few kilometres out of Asgabat the road turned to poo. It was still bitumen, but heavily pot-holed and corrugated. Our maximum speed was about 50-70 km/h: slow going when we had 600km to cross and had originally been expecting to do it in a single day. Around midnight our driving willpower turned into a pumpkin once again and we camped on a track a short way off the main road.
Friday morning we set off again after chowing down some muesli and Tesco-brand UHT milk. We were on the road a bit before 9am is something of a record for us on this trip. In the light of day we were able to observe that, perhaps even more so than Iran, Turkmenistan was amazingly poor and desolate outside the capital city. This morning also got us the first speeding fine of the trip: Adon was doing 70 km/h on the highway which we had no idea what the speed limit was. Apparently the limit was 50 km/h. After some hesitation we handed the policeman a mixed wad of Turkmen Menat and American Dollars which he didn’t even bother counting. We’re reasonably certain that this was an “unofficial” speeding fine that didn’t go anywhere beyond the cop’s own wallet.
No more than five minutes after paying the speeding fine, adventure struck again, this time in the form of a flat tyre. Fortunately we have lots of spares, and at the next town we arrived at we replaced the broken tyre and also got the dude to repair a puncture in one of the spare tyres we had in the roof that had been there since we bought it (second-hand). We also stopped for lunch, some tasty spiced chicken and what we think was a tonic water spider.
After passing the town of Mary, about half-way to Turkmenabat, the road improved dramatically and we were finally able to travel at 100 km/h most of the way to Turkmenabat, give or take the odd pot-holed section. On this nice smooth road we had our second tyre blow-out – another back tyre gone. It was changed as quickly as we could manage as the gritty, blinding dust of the Turkmen desert is not a pleasant place to be.
The heat and dust of the desert, combined with consecutive nights of camping with no shower, has been turning us slowly mad. Er, rapidly madder. We’ve been trying to come up with ways to keep ourselves cool in the un-airconditioned car. The temperature of the air coming out of the vents has been consistently warmer than outside, something which was never an issue in Europe but is quite unwelcome when the ambient temperature is 40+ degrees Celsius. Even late at night the outside air must be close to 30C. Our water bottles left in the hot car rapidly get warm enough to brew coffee with. Patrick has had his window down as much as possible despite the dust. I’ve taken the reverse approach, blocking up the windows with towels and pillows to reflect the sun. Adon has been experimenting with evaporative cooling. None of these approaches have been particularly successful.
The other thing that we’ve been unable to get since Turkey is coffee! Right now, I am seriously craving a nice cool Coffee Chill. There seems to be nobody in Turkmenistan selling bags of ice like every service station in Australia does, and in fact the petrol stations here sell nothing but petrol (in your choice of 80, 92 or 95 octane) and diesel.
And that’s pretty much where the story ends for now. It’s Friday night (5th August), we’re getting quite close to Turkmenabat and the first of the -stans is now almost crossed. Roll on Uzbekistan!