Entering Turkmenistan – how hard can it be?!

(Emily) You’d think that arriving at the Turkmenbashi customs post at the port at 8am was fairly good timing – we’d slept for six hours on the boat and would soon be away to get a decent morning’s ride in before the heat of the day. We weren’t so naïve! We’d heard from several other overlanders that Turkmenistan took bureaucracy to a new level and so were ready for a good few hours of  paperwork, but even with the forewarning we were not quite prepared for the upcoming masterclass in incompetence and penpushing!! Despite the fact that they only had fourteen passengers to process, and only four of us were foreigners, it was nearly an hour before we were even permitted to approach the first window. The Turkmen nationals in front seemed to have quite a few hoops to jump through themselves, and were all subjected to a thorough bag search, even though their bags were first sent through an x-ray scanner like you have in airports (we concluded that this fancy bit of kit had been acquired for appearances sake only and that no-one actually had a clue how to use it!) James was particularly amused when he noticed that they had installed the ‘one-way’ glass the wrong way round – meaning that we could see into every office but the occupants couldn’t see out! Genius!! Finally the documentation process started for us but it was indeed just the beginning… I won’t bore you with the minute details but suffice to say we were moved along from one cubicle to the next to the next where one official after another would painstakingly enter all our details into their own ancient log book (er, ever heard of a computerised central database anyone?!! There were a few pcs around, but it obviously hadn’t clicked to use them – why type information in once when you can copy it out twenty times?) and worse, kept being sent back to the ‘bank’ (another cubicle) to pay various fees where the ‘cashier’ (very bored woman) copied out four receipts for each payment despite the fact she was using CARBON PAPER!!!! How on earth would they cope with a busy day?! It was hard not to crack up when we were passed the book to sign our names, in the same place on each of the four pages, then watched as each page was stamped, counter-stamped and signed by the cashier. (We were never subsequently asked to present these receipts at a checkpoint and, from what we could see, the copies retained by the bank we just shoved in a drawer. All so pointless!!)

About half way through our ordeal, Naomi and Michael were allowed to go (not before the customs officers had fun testing their bicycles bells for about ten minutes). Meanwhile, Nadia – a Turkmen woman who was returning from living in Baku for the last eight years – was in tears because she was getting charged hundreds of dollars for going over her 60 kg luggage allowance… We were ushered into yet another office cubicle, this time to begin the registration for our bikes and after another 45 minutes received a document that included a map of the country detailing our intended route. Deviate at your peril!! At one point we were even sent outside to the ticket office to pay a supposed ‘bridge tax’ (what bridge?!) We watched in despair as the clock crept past ten, then eleven… It was well past midday before everything had been triple stamped and our details had been handwritten in about ten different places (we noticed on one form that we were tourists numbered 90 and 91!!). In the end, customs hardly even looked at our bikes – it was now absolutely baking and I think they just couldn’t be doing with spending too much time in the heat. It was quarter to one when we were ushered off with a smile (but of course not even a hint of apology that the whole thing had taken so unnecessarily long) only to turn the corner and find the gate out of the compound was closed!!! It took another 15 minutes for them to find someone with a key, all the while we were sweltering in our bike gear and had kissed goodbye to getting anywhere near Ashgabat, the capital, that day. It was all we could do ride a couple of km towards the city in search of petrol and when we spotted Michael and Naomi sitting in the shades of some trees, we stopped to join them and slumped down for a cold drink. Exhausted and we hadn’t even gone anywhere yet!!!

3 Responses to “Entering Turkmenistan – how hard can it be?!”

  1. Jess says:

    Oh no!! I hope you’ll be posting news of what fun you’re having asap for your sake. It is a good read though, and astonishing to hear how incompetent people can be!! LOVE YOU X

  2. mama/kate says:

    I rest my case! XXxxxxx

  3. julian says:

    i’m exhausted reading this! You guys have FOREBEARANCE. gUESS YOU GET IT off each other! sorry about Caps in wronng place. FORBEARANCE with or with out e. I am without (big)E but James you are looking after her good. Bit jet lagges as now back in Turkey after night flight thru thunderstorms. Bye X

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