Archive for the ‘Turkmenistan’ Category

Escape from Turkmenistan

Monday, August 9th, 2010

(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…

A highly surreal 24 hours!…

Monday, August 9th, 2010

(James) It’s difficult to know how to even begin to describe Ashgabat so perhaps first we’d all be better off with a brief introduction to the complete ‘nut house’ that is Turkmenistan. Most of you will know little, if anything, about Turkmenistan (don’t feel bad, there’s absolutely no reason why you should!) and to be honest until our route planning indicated we’d need to cross it, neither did we. So, here’s a very brief summary of the country which might go some way to help paint a picture for you, although you’ll have to trust us when we say nothing can prepare you for the reality of the place.

Historically, Turkmenistan has benefitted greatly from its position on the Silk Road which has bought it great wealth and allowed its various rulers (many invading armies have passed through the region over the centuries including Ghengis Khan and Tamburlane) and inhabitants to flourish both economically and culturally. You may not know it but every one of you has been affected by some of the great thinkers produced here. You’ve probably never heard of the Saminids but up to 13 centuries ago they were making scientific and mathematical discoveries that we have all come to know and love/hate (I suspect mostly the latter!), discoveries that directly affect our lives and are still essential to all of our scientific and technological advances. Can’t think of any? Well, the Saminid Astronomer, Al Biruni (973-1046AD) not only proposed that the Earth rotated on its own axis and circled the sun but also calculated the distance of the moon from the Earth to within 20km, remarkable in itself but consider that he did this at the turn of the first millennium and some 500 years before the likes of Galileo and Copernicus were even born! Al Biruni wasn’t a one off either – whilst he was making his advances in Astronomy, a contemporary, Abu Ali Ibn-Sina (980-1037AD) was making huge leaps in medicine culminating in his book, the ‘Canon of Medicine’, that was so far ahead of its time that it became a bible to doctors in Europe until the mid 17th century, some 600 years later. Probably most important of all were the Saminids’ advances in mathematics, discoveries made some 200 years earlier than those of Al Biruni and Ibn-Sina. The greatest of these was Al Korezmi (787-850AD) and he has two claims to fame which we all know well. He invented a mathematical formula whose name, although slightly bastardised over the years, still bears his name: the algorithm (taken from ‘alkorezm’). Not finished there, he went on to produce a book titled ‘Al Jabr’. Again we know it by its slightly bastardised name, ‘algebra’.

So, with a list of great thinkers in its history, a geographical position on the silk road that not only made it strategically vital to any ruler or invading army, but also ensured its prosperity, and more recently, having discovered itself sitting on absolutely vast natural gas reserves you’d think that modern Turkmenistan would have a fine blend of culture, character and a sense of itself. Er,…. no.

Turkmenistan is one of perhaps two countries (the other being North Korea) that have almost total control over their population and that do almost anything without fear of being questioned. In 1924 Turkmenistan became part of the Soviet Union, and it remained so until the latter’s collapse in 1991, when it’s former Soviet puppet governor Saparmurat Niyazov, declared himself President of the newly independent state, and shortly after declared himself ‘President for life’. Niyazov felt that the country lacked a sense of national identity so embarked on a program to correct this – the identity he chose? His own. He started by renaming himself ‘Turkmenbashi,’ which means ‘Leader of all ethnic Turkmen’, but this was only the beginning of his personality cult. He renamed the capital’s airport ‘Turkmenbashi’, and followed this up by renaming the Caspian port city of Krasnovodsk… you guessed it, ‘Turkmenbashi’. Niyazov didn’t stop there, giving his name to hundreds of streets and schools around the country, and also renaming January, you guessed it – ‘Turkmenbashi’! And he didn’t stop there, either – April was renamed after his mother as was the Turkmen word for bread (the use of the actual Turkmen word for bread was made illegal!). His picture hangs everywhere throughout the country so he’s always watching you with an expression that clearly says ‘I bloody OWN you!’, there are large gold statues of him everywhere (some of which rotate so they always face the sun), his face is the logo of the three state TV channels and is legally required to appear on every Turkmen branded bottle of vodka as well as every clock and watch face.

Like any other dictator running a personality cult he needed a book of his own; after all Mao had his little red book. So in 2001 he wrote the ‘Ruhnama’ which means ‘Book of the Soul’ which contained moral guidance, poetry and a highly revised history. The book was to be a bible for Turkmen, and became required reading for all Turkmen citizens. Niyazov instructed that it was set next to the Koran in all mosques (itself a blasphemous act) and those clerics that refused or questioned this were arrested/beaten or closed down. He declared that he had spoken with Allah and had been told that if anyone read the ‘Ruhnama’ three times they would be assured a place in heaven (in doing so was attempting to deify both his book and himself – he largely succeeded). To this day, any student wishing to enter university has to sit in-depth exams on the ‘Ruhnama’. Exams on the book are also required if one wants any job working for the state, or even a driving license, and school children are required to study the book for two hours every day! Nihazov also banned all Soviet-era books and closed all libraries in the country outside of Ashgabat, claiming that Turkmen did not require non-Turkmen literature (today the only books in the capital’s library are the ‘Ruhnama’ and other books written by Nihazov). The ‘Ruhnama’ went on to win the Magtymguly International Book prize, which could be described as a sort of Booker prize but for pro-Turkmen poetry. Following the judging panel’s decision, the award was presented by the panel which consisted of none other than the winning author, one Saparmurat Nihazov!!

To solve Turkmenistan’s healthcare problems, Nihazov fired all 15,000 of the country’s public health employees who had been educated in techniques not developed within Turkmenistan and thus alien to Turkmen culture, and replaced them with conscript soldiers (he reasoned that not having medical knowledge meant they wouldn’t order expensive treatments). He also closed every hospital in the country except the one in the capital, claiming that the sick would have to make their way to Ashgabat if they were ill! Niyazov didn’t like beards or long hair on men so both were banned, he didn’t like make-up as it tended to ‘whiten’ peoples faces and claimed it made it difficult for him to differentiate men from women so make up was banned. He particularly hated lip-synching on songs so to stop it (and to promote ethnic Turkmen music) ALL recorded music was banned! In 1997, he quit smoking, and not wanting to go it alone, banned smoking in public places throughout the country. He also banned gold teeth and gold caps claiming that the best way to prevent tooth decay was to chew bones.

On the positive, all Turkmen have free access to gas, but unfortunately matches and lighters still cost; the solution to this is that all Turkmen leave their gas hobs lit constantly -as if the country weren’t already hot enough!

Tukmenbashi died very recently but, like Kim Il-Jong in North Korea, he has been elevated to such deity-level that he is still considered to be the ruler of the country. He has since been succeeded by one of his key advisors who, rumour has it, is his illegitimate son (they certainly look very similar!) Given the crazy legacy of this ‘great leader’, and the control over his people, we entered Ashgabat with our eyes wide open. We were not disappointed. The city is a giant vanity project, full of very new, very over the top bright white and gold buildings of all shapes (most of which sit empty), wide roads with white and gold lamp posts and, of course, golden statues of the great man himself! The city is a cross between Las Vegas (without the ‘fun’), Dubai (without the wealthy communities) and Pyong-Yang (not that I’ve been there but it has the strange buildings built purely to make some sort of statement) and is so utterly unrepresentative of the rest of the country it defies belief. There doesn’t seem to be any social scene worth mentioning and the people, unlike those in more rural areas, seemed nervous (they are told foreigners are likely to be spies) which is not surprising given the very high police/military presence in the city.

Having found a hotel for the night, we were assigned a room. Our room was in a ‘special’ part of the hotel away from Turkmen guests, not for reasons of racial purity (although the country’s leadership is highly xenophobic) but because all tourist rooms, as well as cafes/restaurants frequented by foreigners, are bugged, as are all telephone calls. Having had a much needed shower, we did some laundry and headed out to do some ‘sightseeing’ which proved to be a bit of a farce as by every building and statue stood a really angry looking soldier who, when asked if we could take a photo (you absolutely have to ask before taking out your camera) would bark an answer back at us that was hard to mistake for anything other than ‘NO!’ (still, we managed a few sneaky shots but nothing to do it justice!)

We managed to find a ‘restaurant’ and over a particularly crappy meal tried to discuss what we thought of Ashgabat (sticking to slang to avoid any potential problems with bugs or secret police) and then headed back to the hotel at 11:30pm by taxi. I mention by taxi as there is a curfew at 11pm and you do not want to be caught out after this time! (We later met up with one of our ‘China crossing group’, an Italian called Donato, who not knowing of the curfew had ventured out at midnight to find some water. Not being able to find a single shop open he went over to ask a soldier and was promptly arrested and held for questioning!!!)

The next morning we hit the road at first light. Although we were eager to get as far as possible through the desert towards Mary (it’s a town not a person!) before the temperature got too hot, our eagerness was slightly tempered by the fact that the previous night’s gastronomic extravaganza had given both of us a case of the trots (never ideal when riding in hot weather through desert with no cover for ‘emergencies’!). For 50km we enjoyed pretty decent tarmac but eventually it ended and soon the road had deteriorated, forcing us to more than halve our speed (never good in such heat). Even the ‘good’ roads in this part of the country seem to be ‘surfaced’ in the most bizarre and completely inconsistent patterns so we’d get 500m of ‘reasonable’ road followed by 500m of utterly broken tarmac, followed by 500m of totally potholed road and then 500m of gravel. The ‘smoother’ sections of road also contain 2 really deep ‘trenches’ caused by trucks driving on the melted surface. These trenches are often up 30cm deep and on more than one occasion my foot pegs have ground on the road even whilst in a straight line. Once in them you can’t get out until they ‘surface’ which can be a problem (Emily: I discovered this when doing an overtake and got myself stuck in trench whilst heading towards an oncoming car! Not ideal!).

Given our early start we’d managed to get some decent distance under our belt so with the heat of the day approaching as we passed a few small trees and bushes at the side of the road we decided that it might be an idea to take advantage of the shade (and cover provided for the all too frequent calls of nature!) So we parked up and spent a couple of hours reading, sleeping and enjoying the fact that we could take our boots off, disturbed only by the friendly beeps of passing cars and one random wearing a white sheet over his head – a common thing here due to the dust and sand storms – who walked up to us (from where we have no idea!), gave us a large melon and walked off without a word! By 3pm we hit the road again but soon were stopped at another police checkpoint where a Turkish trucker wandered over to say hello and invited us for chai in the shade provided by his truck. Turns out that he was also heading to Uzbekistan and had driven up from down near Cappadocia. He’d had a puncture and having run out of spare tyres, was having to wait for a colleague in another truck (with a spare tyre) to arrive. His plight perfectly demonstrated the issues we’re facing out here. Like us he was on a 5 day Turkmen transit visa but he’d already been waiting at the side of the road for 4 days and his help was still 2 days away!!! It’s times like that that we really appreciate how easy and convenient we’ve got it at home!

Having managed to stop the flow of chai (it really brings on the old bowel movements!) and said goodbye we hit the road again but were soon put onto a diversion by the military that took us onto some horrendous tracks in the middle of the desert, occasionally taking us through tiny settlements none of which were even close to being on our map. This diversion lasted for over 2 long hours (fuel starts becoming a concern at times like that!) but eventually we arrived in Mary but it was already dusk. We wanted to get out of the other side of the city so we could camp but true to form there were absolutely no road signs and no street signs so we were forced to wing it. Although we made it through the town ok. we ended up on a road going east instead of north east which required further cross country riding to correct but finally, with the sun going down, we found ourselves racing northeast on some decent road trying to find somewhere unpopulated so we could camp for the night (stopping anywhere remotely near a settlement tends to result in dozens of people coming from nowhere to ‘talk’ to and watch us – not ideal when you just want to sleep! The setting sun was also a problem as we have a well established safety rule about riding after dark – we just don’t do it, so Em was getting increasingly concerned.

Eventually we spied a farm track leading away from the road and into some trees so we headed down it and quickly the trees came down so low that we had to duck under them – a good sign that the track was seldom used. We followed it for 1km before arriving at a small clearing with some grass on the side underneath an overhang of trees. Perfect! We quickly set up our tent using just the mesh so we could see all around us, and parked the bikes on either side, before enjoying dinner (more tuna!) and an amazing sunset. We were ready for bed by 8:30pm as it was dark and we wanted to hit the road at first light in the morning in order to allow time for a potential border crossing. And that’s when our evening got a little surreal!…

It must have been about 11:30 when we were abruptly awoken by the sound of some large vehicle crashing through the tree covered track to our right. A full moon was up and was bathing everything in white making it really easy to see all around us so we could make out a truck with one very weak headlight. It came to a grinding halt no more than 5m from us and two people, a man and a woman, stepped out and walked off in different directions before coming back a couple of minutes later. They were standing talking quietly so close to us but couldn’t see us as we were just in the moon shadow caused by the trees above us. It would be fair to say we were a little nervous. What had we stumbled upon, who’s land were we on? We had absolutely no idea so silently sat there wandering what to do. Occasionally we’d see one of them (or was it a third person?!) walk off one way and then come back a few minutes later. All the while we’d whisper reassuring things to each other:

“Perhaps they’re travelling workers just looking for somewhere to sleep too?”

“Then why aren’t they sleeping?”

“We just need to stay quiet and make sure we’re packing up before first light”

“Oh shit, I’ve lost sight of that other guy, where’s he gone?”

This went on for a while and we did ponder the fact that absolutely nobody had any idea where we were should this be something untoward. At one point we heard noises coming from the vehicle, and figured that if they were having sex (who know’s what Turkmen sex sounds like but if it’s a weird as everything else in this country!?…) at least they’d likely be asleep soon and we could ‘relax’. A while later we heard more talking and again people were walking around the clearing (all the while staying surprisingly quiet given that they were in the middle of nowhere with, as far as they were concerned, nobody nearby to disturb) within a few metres of us but again the shadow and our tent’s mesh seemed to completely conceal us. After what seemed like an age they climbed back on the truck and started the engine, before engaging first gear and starting to circle the clearing. The truck had a horrendous turning circle and it crashed through the trees on the other side of the clearing at an all too rapid speed.

“Shit!” I cried, as I realised that its current turning circle would take it straight through our pitch.

“Em, open the mesh door on the tent in case we have to bail out!”

Em quickly did it but we both knew that hitting our tent would also mean wiping out the bikes.

“They’re definitely going to see us now” said Em as the one dull headlight swung round to face directly at us from just 10m away. Then the truck slowed to a halt keeping its headlight pointing straight at us for 10 seconds before straightening up and coming to a stop where once again the driver left the engine running and the occupants got out.

It’s fair to say that at this point we a tad nervous. They had to have seen us, and now they were walking around the truck with torches. Finally it got to the point where the game, we thought, was up.

“You’d better say something” piped Em.

One of the men was now just 3m from the tent so I tried to say hello, but with the truck engine running so close the man didn’t seem to hear me, and suddenly turned on his heel, walked back to the truck, selected 1st gear and ploughed off through the trees!

We were left dumbstruck!

“What the f*@k was that??!!!….”

We had no idea, and although we talked through it, and tried to work out how the hell they hadn’t seen us, we laughed nervously at what had been a completely surreal 2 hours! We decided we couldn’t have a been witness to an illicit affair as women here simply don’t have the freedom to disappear out of the house at night, other ideas were raised and dismissed in rapid succession leaving us to conclude that we must have been witness to some sort of Turkmen ‘dogging’ scene and it’s been referred to as ‘dogging-gate’ ever since.

Sand dunes, camels and the odd bit of tumbleweed

Wednesday, August 4th, 2010

(Emily) Tempting as it was to sit in the shade until the relative cool of the evening, we had to force ourselves to get away from Turkmenbashi; we had no chance of making in to Ashgabat (about 600km away) in the half day we had left, but every mile we could cover now meant less in the morning. Naomi and Michael were taking the train – there was no way they could cycle across the whole country in the five days permitted by the transit visa – so we said our goodbyes and reluctantly headed out into the sauna. It was about 2.30pm and without doubt, the hottest climate I’d even been in. Even James, who’s been to the outback in Australia and worked in Namibia, was shocked – it was about 54 degrees in the shade (er, what shade?!!) To make matters worse, within a few km we were well away from the sea and the city and on a lone road which stretched out ahead of us into the most desolate landscape. I have to say, I started out feeling quite uneasy; this would not be a great place to break down. Luckily, the road was actually pretty decent and, as we had a full tank of petrol and six litres of water, after a while I was able to relax into the riding and just tried to think about anything that would take my mind off how ridiculously hot it was. We stopped regularly to top up with water, enjoying the brief but blissful coolness of the wind on sweat when we first took off again. Seeing our first camels was an exciting moment and from then on we passed them regularly, often wandering right into the middle of the road. I was relieved that we were sharing the road with at least a few other drivers – my mind back on the worry of a breakdown – and there was much waving and tooting as people passed us. During one water stop, a car pulled in next to us and a couple got out to take a few photos of themselves with the bike before heading off again with a wave! Later on, a 4×4 stopped and the driver gave us his number in Ashgabat should we need anything – very kind!

At about half past seven in the evening we came upon a truck stop – literally a small shack/home where seven or eight lorries had pulled in – where there was a possibility of a cold drink (the water in the bottles strapped to the bikes was practically at boiling point!) and, once off the bikes, found that we had pretty much reached our limit for the day. The friendly proprietor happily gestured that it would be ok to pitch up on the sand behind his building and soon we had set up the tent between our two bikes and were ‘feasting’ on tuna and bread (left over from our ferry crossing rations). Darkness fell quickly and we were more than ready for an early night. It was still so warm there was no need for the fly sheet so we lay under the stars in our mesh inner shell (I still made sure it was tightly zipped up though having read about scorpions, snakes and even tarantulas in the Lonely Planet!!!) and drifted off in no time at all. It was a slight concern that there was a herd of camels about 100m away and James last words were, ‘Don’t worry, I’m sure they can see in the dark’! (James: I’m not going to lie, I had no idea, and my concerns were not helped when an almighty ruckass kicked off right by our tent in the middle of the night – I couldn’t see anything but the sound of heavy running, several dog’s frenzied barking, the braying of a donkey and a few camels making whatever sound camels make and all of them chasing each other round our tent didn’t ease my doubts. What a way to die! By some miracle, and I still don’t know how, Em slept through it. I decided against telling her until the morning…)

It was such a relief to set off while it was still a reasonable temperature the next morning – due to the desert landscape with nothing to absorb the heat, it had actually got quite cold in the night. We were almost half way to Ashgabat and reasoned that, given the good road condition, we should get there by midday. Ha. It didn’t take long before we were diverted off the main road and onto a gravel section in order to pass over a new bridge; a very bizarre set up – the bridge had perfect tarmac and even street lamps yet was over nothing but sand and was strangely misaligned with the main road. Oh well, very odd we thought. Then came the next one. And the next one. It was just the oddest thing, probably another strange vanity project on behalf of the crazy former leader (more on him later), and made progress frustratingly slow and we had to keep bringing the speed right down for the off-road diversions. There were so many of these stupid bridges, you wouldn’t believe it but, annoying as it was, thank goodness we weren’t doing it in the heat of the day. In the end, it was mid-afternoon before we came upon an ostentatious grand arch signalling the entrance to the city of Ashgabat. It might well have said, ‘Welcome to Crazy Town’….

Entering Turkmenistan – how hard can it be?!

Tuesday, August 3rd, 2010

(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!!!