Our ordeal to enter Turkmenistan didn’t end there. This time, at least, the customs officers and people in general were much nicer!
We spent another 9-10 hours at the ferry port sorting out our entry to Turkmenistan. From what we can gather, the customs officials basically didn’t do anything for us for about 7 hours and processed all the paperwork of the other people that were there first. We were all thirsty and hungry by the end. There was a small cafe that we got drinks at for a bit, until they ran out of water and food and then kicked us out of the cafe. We were let into a waiting room that had a TV so we watched some Olympic rowing for a while. Once the Turkmeni visa people decided to start processing our paperwork, there was a flurry of activity.
It was the most inefficient thing I have ever seen. People write everything by hand into LEDGERS. They don’t even use computers. First, we had to get our passports stamped. Then we had to go to the guy who processes car paperwork. He wrote down all of our passport details and car details by hand. Then we had to go to get a stamp on a form. Next, to the cash desk to pay all sorts of random fees like a fuel surcharge and entry fee (even though we had a visa). Stamping ensued. After that, to the ferry official to get a white slip of paper and then to trade that white slip of paper with someone else for another white slip with a different stamp on it. Then we went to another desk where the guy wrote down all of our details again on one sheet, then again on another using carbon paper. He gave us some stamps too. Then we had to go to one more person who wrote down all of our details again and gave us a stamp. We waited for the person who was going to check our cars, and got that done. We had to give someone else a piece of paper and probably needed a stamp too. We thought we were free, but then we were told we had to pay another fee when we were at the gate in Turkmen manat, which no one had. Foreigners can not take money out of ATMs in Turkmenistan and there was no exchange office at the port, so this was a very strange requirement. I got one of the customs officers to change some money for us and finally we left. By this time it was dark, so we waited for some other teams to convoy together.
Our first taste of Turkmenistan was great. The people are really nice and really friendly (except for the shopkeeper that overcharged us and screwed us on the exchange rate when we were buying groceries). We all stopped for some provisions and met a friendly couple that told us to follow them when we told them we needed a gas station and to find the road to Ashgabat. They went completely out of their way and took us to the gas station and pointed us in the right direction. We started on the road to Ashgabat, looking for a place to camp. We finally found a good area – not too windy, not in scrub that might have snakes and off the main road and a bit quieter. We set up camp and ate delicious food, with plans to get up early the next morning to make it to Ashgabat.
When we woke up the next morning, we realized we had camped near some kind of military base, which is probably why people who were driving on the road near us kept slowing down to see what we were up to! We used our stove for the first time and it worked great, we cooked a delicious rice veggy and curry. As we pulled onto the main highway, we ran into a few other teams of ralliers and we all proceeded in the same direction together. The beginning of the road to Ashgabat was great, and then it got ugly pretty fast! There were huge grooves in the road caused by heavy trucks and lot of bumps. It was pretty difficult in our Perodua which has super low clearance. We scraped the bottom a lot and it was slow going. On the bright side, gas in Turkmenistan is extremely subsidized so it was 20 cents a litre. I know full well the evils of fossil fuel subsidies, but after paying $100/tank to fill up in Turkey, we were happy to be in Turkmenistan. We also loved Turkmenistan because the people are so friendly. They loved waving at us as we drove by and giving us friendly honks. As a country that is not quite open to tourism, they are still excited to see people like us enjoying their homeland. And there are a lot of camels on the side of the road.
We all stopped on our way to Asghabat at Kow Ata, an underground lake in the side of a mountain. It was a bit spooky at the start – you descend into a huge cave with rickety, steep steps and guard rails that wouldn’t help you if you stumbled. Birds and bats circle overhead and you can smell the sulphur from the lake the minute you enter the cave. A few long sets of steps later and you come to the lake, which is a balmy 36C. We splashed around and lounged for a bit, our first “shower” since we had gotten on the ferry in Baku days earlier!
We were soon on the road to Ashgabat again, convoying with two other teams who we collectively refer to as “the boys”. Since the Mongol Rally is like 80% dudes this could apply to a lot of people, but in this case it was Alex and Elias (Americans) and Pat and Mark (Aussies). We followed the signs to Ashgabat, but had some trouble finding the centre and the hotel we wanted to go to, so we started talking to some dude who told us to follow him and led us to the downtown area. Ashgabat is a crazy place. It is full of white marble imported from Greece/Cyprus and is the last thing you would expect to see in a country that is 90% desert. When we drove into downtown Ashgabat I was reminded of the Emerald City in the Wizard of Oz. It is beautiful, but very strange.
We finally found the hotel we were looking for, but it was full. It was university exam week in Ashgabat, so all the cheap hotels were booked. We were standing there looking lost when a Frenchman, Stephan, started speaking with us. He has lived in Ashgabat for four years and has a lovely Turkmeni wife named Jane. We told him we were looking for a hotel, and he said to follow him (we were getting good at this!) and he would take us to the other hotel listed in our guidebook. This was further from downtown, but interesting because it gave us a chance to see even more of Ashgabat and its opulence!
After trying a few other places (thanks so much to Jane and Stephan for the translation and bargaining) we finally found a place with rooms. It took some sneaky bargaining tactics (props to Elias for this) but eventually a price was agreed on and we had rooms. By this time, pretty much everything was closing and we were hungry, so we ran to the hotel restaurant next door and had Chinese food, which was better than I thought it would be.
We were extremely lucky in Ashgabat because my friend Amy Sandhu’s dad works there and had asked his colleague Murad to help us out if we needed anything. What our car needed was off-road tires, which can be difficult to find for 13” wheels! Murad is awesome though, and took me to the best tire place in town – after going to a carwash of course, since it’s illegal to have a dirty car in Turkmenistan. A few hours later, we had pimped our Perodua and upgraded to off-road tires which gave us some much needed grip and a few inches more in height. Murad also took us to the Russian bazaar and walked around the downtown with us, even though it was a vacation day for him. He was so friendly and so interesting that we could have talked with him all day, but we had to meet the boys that afternoon to drive to Darvaza. Armed with some delicious kebabs courtesy of Murad we started our drive to the “Gates of Hell” in Darvaza.
The “Gates of Hell” is basically a flaming crater in the middle of the Karakum desert in Turkmenistan that is a product of gas exploration gone wrong. It is a very cool sight to see, and something that all of us were very excited for in Turkmenistan. We parked off the highway to camp all together, and a local guide drove us (about 15 ralliers) up to the crater in his Land Cruiser (rally cars wouldn’t make it through all the sand). We were all awestruck and amazed, it is truly a mesmerizing sight. There was a tremendous amount of heat being thrown off by the crater, and when the wind shifted towards you, you could feel a drastic temperature rise immediately.
I was walking around taking pictures, enjoying the view when Sebastien handed the GoPro camera to our friend Rob, told me to put my camera down and pulled me towards the crater. He told me “I love you, Through hell and fire, I’ll love you forever”, and to my surprise, he got down on one knee and proposed! Of course I said yes, and everyone congratulated us. It is funny because Sebastien had joked that he thought marriage was like hell, so proposing at the Gates of Hell was very appropriate. I told him that I liked hell, it was warm and my best friend was there.
After about an hour at the crater, we had to head back down the dunes to our campsite and went to bed. We were getting up really early the next morning to drive to the Uzbek border since our visas were expiring that day and had a long drive ahead of us. Turkmenistan will always have a special place in our hearts though!