Escape from Turkmenistan

(Emily) We weren’t exactly rested after the night’s events and being woken up at the crack of dawn by a tractor didn’t really help… still, it was just as well as we were keen to cross into Uzbekistan that day and although our target town of Bukhara was less than 400km away, you just never know what the roads are going to be like. Best to prepare for the worst!! Thankfully, the road to Turkmenabad was pretty good and for long stretches we were able to maintain a steady 85-90 kmph (that’s fast for us, Jackson!!) We were back in desert lands again and this time the winds were pretty strong, blowing a constant stream of sand across the road and our faces. Not for the first time, we were reminded how fortuitous it was that we’d bought some goggles in Istanbul; sunglasses just wouldn’t cut it in these conditions. We saw the odd desert squirrel scampering about in the dunes and at one point a massive bloody great eagle took off from right next to where James was passing! His yelp of shock was quite comedy coming through the headsets but I don’t think I’d have found it so funny had it been me – the thing was huge!

By midday we’d made it to Farrap, the border town. When we were stopped at an official looking checkpoint, we assumed this was the start of the exit process and were asked to hand over first $20 then another $18. (You never quite know what these things are for, but as long as locals are given the same treatment and receipts are issued, we assume it’s legit.) The two guys in the office launched into the usual line of enquiry: ‘Married?’ (Yes – cue action of the two index fingers joined alongside each other to symbolise this); ‘Children?’ (No – cue gesturing to the bikes and mimicking that they were our babies); ‘How old’ (cue using a licked finger to write our ages on the dusty tank, always met with the raising of eyebrows – how can we not have children?!!) Anyway, we went on our way across a pontoon bridge lined with metal sheets (thank god it wasn’t raining), all the time expecting the border post to be round the corner. And we rode, and we rode. James kept stopping to ask people for directions (you’ve gotta love it when you’re simply asking where a country is: ‘Uzbekistan? This way?’), each time met with a vigorous nod and pointing in the way we were heading. However, 30km later when we found ourselves on a desert highway stretching out into nothingness, we were having serious doubts. Once again, James flagged down a passing car: yes, yes, this way. Hhhmmmn. It was only when a lorry driver going in the other direction flashed and signalled ‘turn around’ without us even asking that our doubts were confirmed. Damn it, and damn people’s desire to give an answer even when they don’t understand!!!

It was only half one when we reached the actual border but annoyingly, it had closed for lunch (thus causing a massive queue of trucks waiting to cross over – surely having a lunch rota would solve a lot of problems and avoid the inevitable backlog of paperwork once the gates opened again at 2pm?) Anyway, the guards let us sit in the only spot of shade by their office/portacabin and while we ate our penultimate can of tuna on mangled crackers (surprisingly good combo… or maybe it’s just that our standards have dropped), they amused themselves by finding random English words in our Russian phrasebook. We were just relieved they didn’t come across the ‘sexual relations’ page; do Lonely Planet really feel it’s necessary to teach the intrepid traveller ‘touch me here’ and ‘don’t worry, I’ll do it myself’?!!! Could have all become a tad awkward… Saved by the bell though, and at two on the dot we were ushered through the gate.

Considering how long it had taken us to get into the country, we weren’t surprised when a form-filling offensive was launched at the exit point too. We were lucky when a fellow ‘tourist’ who understood the Russian/Turkmen on the forms took pity on us and helped us to fill them in – no help whatsoever was offered by the officials. When we went through to actually submit all these papers to various desks, quite how pointless it all is became clear; the guy at one desk tried strenuously to ask for a certain document, looking very serious about the matter, but when it became clear his efforts were in vain and we just didn’t understand, he sighed and waved us through!! Clearly it must have been important… Finally, we were out of Turkmenistan (not exactly a highlight, though I do feel pretty badass to have ridden through desert!) and knocking on Uzbekistan’s door. Can we come in please? Yes of course, but not until you’ve filled in a form detailing every item of value on your bike plus money in any currency down to the last dollar/euro/sum. Oh goody, more forms. And we have to fill out a second copy to keep for ourselves because you don’t have a photocopier, or even carbon paper? That’s swell. Seriously, this level of paperwork was in danger of de-foresting the whole country. Luckily, we’d read warnings on the HUBB saying that it was vital to be honest and precise when declaring all cash and items of value. Apparently, the police are likely to stop you at any time, and customs when you leave, and do a thorough search – anything found that is undeclared is confiscated. One guy who kept a hidden stash of $5000 found this out the hard way… Craperola!

Just as we were leaving (a good three hours later), we came past four bikes parked up by the Uzbek gate. At first James assumed they were police bikes – very smart looking, with matching paintjobs and mini fire-extinguishers in the back – but it turns out they belonged to a group of Malaysian guys who are pretty much doing the same route as us, just in the opposite direction. Azizi and his comrades were super friendly and enthusiastic, it’s such a shame there wasn’t more opportunity to chat and exchange stories. They had only been on the road for a month, and expected to be in London by the end of August – gulp! That meant doing our route up ‘til now in one month instead of three! (Ben and Jo, we’ll send you their contact details – they don’t know anyone in London and will be there for a week or so at the beginning of September. They were excited to hear about your Malaysian connections!) Rather ominously, they told us that corruption in Uzbekistan was rife and that in the end, they’d paid to have a police escort through the country. Also, they confirmed the rumours we’d heard about lack of petrol, as in, there wasn’t any anywhere. Ah. So it was with some trepidation that we said our goodbyes and headed off towards Bukhara…

4 Responses to “Escape from Turkmenistan”

  1. Jess says:

    “do Lonely Planet really feel it’s necessary to teach the intrepid traveller ‘touch me here’ and ‘don’t worry, I’ll do it myself’?!!! ” – PURE COMEDY!!

    Loving your work x

  2. Elizabeth says:

    Yeah.They think of everything don’t they?… x

  3. Ben & Jo says:

    Trying to keep up to date with your blogs! You guys really have some stories to pass down, and plenty more to come. Talking about bumping into Malaysian guys do you know your eta for Malaysia. My mum & dad might still be out here when you arrive. We’ll look for some cheap hostels near us for your Malaysian friends to stay as we don’t have space in the house. Safe riding. Love Jo & Ben xxx

  4. Jackson says:

    “craperola”…!?? nice, like your work too

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