Anyone who thinks the salt office is an Austrian invention is mistaken. When I entered Turkmenistan I came into contact for the first time with the perfect realization of a post-communist administration.
After the ferry had finally docked in the port, I waited at the loading hatch at about 2 a.m. for customs clearance. The five gentlemen in their uniforms marched past me in single file with their heads held high, did not pay any attention to me and disappeared into the belly of the ship. Food and drink, said one of the sailors. Before they start work, they first need decent rations. After a ½ h the whole thing turns around – again I went in single file past me to the terminal building 200m away, to be fetched by a soldier after another 10 minutes.
The facts for the next 3 ½ hours of entry procedure: I was the only tourist to be checked in, had to go through 9 different offices where 20 forms were filled in manually by the officials – some even doubled due to the lack of carbon paper – and were stamped with at least 70 stamps. Additionally the passport and the vehicle documents were registered in 10 different exercise books. With 4 different slips of paper I walked in circles, but in such a way that I had to visit some offices several times with one and the same slip of paper. I paid a total of 147 USD at 5 different fees, but due to administrative overstimulation I lost the overview at some point and really don’t want to know if this amount was justified or not. As a result I had 6 different documents for my trip through the country in my hands, without which it would be difficult to leave the country after 5 days.
The only computer in the check-in hall was used alternately by those officials who were not busy with me at the moment – namely to play mahjongs.
A hopefully unique event in my life was caused by that customs officer who had to record the registration certificate of my Kati in duplicate. The work was already tiring for him due to his lack of language skills and seemed to strain him so much that he put down the pen in the middle of the vehicle identification number, went to the back of his office to the sofa, put his feet up and recovered for the first time for 20 minutes with his eyes closed, while I continued to stand patiently in front of his desk. His regeneration break must have inspired him, because when he came back he demanded clarification regarding the word Zurich on my registration certificate, which I found a sensation in a country where most people can tell the difference between Austria and Australia. It took another 15 minutes to explain that this was an insurance and registration office and not the Swiss city of the same name. I’m not sure if he really understood it, but at any rate he gave up at some point and finished his form leisurely.
At dawn I was able to leave the port area and drove towards the city centre to fill up my tank for the journey to Ashgabat. There was no gas station in the first attempt, I didn’t have any Turkmen manat either, so I tried to find out something at a taxi stand. In no time I was surrounded by a crowd of people and when they recognized my request they willingly offered to fill my tank for 20 USD. From the internet I knew that for 1 € you can get approximately 7 liters of Super 95, so I declined with thanks.
The low fuel costs are relativized, because as a tourist you have to pay an additional 4 USD per 100 km in the country.
Even when I pointed this out to them they insisted in eager discussion with the argument that as a foreigner I had to pay the European price.
Eventually I found a gas station from the 1940s that accepted dollars. The petrol pumps were antiquated and the display stopped at 29 litres. It took some time again until I could make it clear to the gas station attendant that my tank actually only holds 25 liters and I still had gas for at least 150 kilometers. After tough negotiations we agreed on 17 liters, 1 or 2 liters more or less really don’t matter at this price.
Already the first hours in Turkmenistan were exhausting and it should not really change until the departure neither in dealing with authorities nor with the people. The reason for this is in my opinion the political system.
In 1991, when the Turkmen Republic declared itself independent with the collapse of the Soviet Union, the then chairman of the Turkmen Communist Party, Saparmurat Niyazov, seized power in the country. The opposition was banned, the media censored and a personality cult developed around the president, which led to the erection of thousands of monuments and golden statues in Niyazov’s image throughout the country.
On the 75 m high Tower of Independence the golden statue of Niyazov always turns towards the sun.
With the death of the dictator in December 2006, his former dentist and member of the government Gurbanguly Berdymuchammedow took over the official duties, without any fundamental change in the pace of the country. During his term of office as Minister of Health, diseases such as AIDS or tuberculosis were not systematically combated, but he had them banned by law.
90 % of Turkmenistan’s surface is desert or steppe, the remaining 10 % is used for agriculture in the south of the country through the world’s longest artificial irrigation canal (1,100 kilometres), which extracts so much water from the Oxus River that the Aral Lake, which was originally fed by it, dries up.
Through the desert on the way to Ashgabat
The proceeds from oil and gas reserves are invested in prestigious construction projects. The wealth passes by the population – gas, water, electricity and common salt are free of charge for the 5 million Turkmen, but petrol and bread are subsidised. Since, unlike gas, matches have to be bought, gas stoves burn 24 hours a day in most households. Nevertheless, the majority of people have to get by on less than 200 USD per month.
In the centre of Ashgabat, entire districts have been sanded down and the inhabitants have been put out on the streets without replacement in order to erect monumental and government buildings panelled with white marble. The wide avenues and promenades are deserted, with a police officer standing every 100 metres. The overall concept seems like the realization of a mixture of Disney Land and Germania – likeable is different. For me a reason to make the stay shorter than originally planned.
400 kilometers further east along the irrigation canal is Merv, the most impressive historical site in Turkmenistan. Merv, the former “Queen of the World”, one of the great Islamic centres of days gone by alongside Damascus, Baghdad and Cairo, was a central junction of the Silk Road until it was completely destroyed in the 13th century by Chingis Khan. The former melting pot of cultures and religions is still regarded today, along with Samarkand, as the inspiration for Sherazade’s “Tales from 1001 Nights”.
In the holy place in Merv, women attach ribbons of cloth to the trees to make fertile and bring good luck. Kati is always surrounded by onlookers…
The crash bar was a welding torch again…
To the north we pass Ashgabat again, 700 kilometres through the Karakum desert, the hottest in Central Asia, so I decided to drive at least part of the route at night. There are no signposts, the people are nice as long as it is not about business, they are willing to give information even if they don’t understand what it is about. Not knowing means loss of face, so something is answered before you say nothing.
So it can happen that if you ask two men next to each other for directions, they point in the opposite direction at the same time. Or if you ask the same man twice, he points twice in a different direction. Therefore it is important to ask at least two or three people independently and only when all of them are pointing in the same direction, one should choose the way.
Despite this precaution I ended up somewhere in the sand between vineyards and camel herds while searching for the right road and it took hours until I finally found the right way north. As it was already dawning I noticed relatively soon that the lights had failed. Spare fuses were on my list, but I had not got them. The destination of the stage was in the middle of the desert, about 350 kilometers away – an inn where you can get gasoline. A night drive without lights is not advisable because of the animals, the sand drifts and the trucks. So I waited at the roadside for a convoy of trucks, sat in between and drove under escort for 160 kilometers to the next police station in Yerbent. Along all roads in Turkmenistan there are fixed police stations at intervals of between 30 and 50 kilometres, where traffic controls are systematically carried out. However, there are only two on the entire route through the desert.
Apparently, with the new president, there is a decree not to control tourists, because I was not stopped once, although I was always going too fast.
One of the policemen was willing to part with one of his fuses for a price he could buy a good 100 pieces for. With light and forced speed the rest stop was reached around midnight.
The hut was full of truck drivers, first only tea was drunk, one word resulted in another and finally we landed at Aragy – Turkmen liquor. The atmosphere was excellent, nobody left the room below 2 per mille. There are no armchairs, everybody is sitting or lying on the floor. While I was able to sleep through the night in this position until late the next morning, the poor guys had to get into their trucks and on in a frenzy.
After breakfast with the host family the first desert trip to the gas craters of Derveeza was planned. These artificial gas craters with a diameter of maybe 70 meters are a relic from the 50s from the search for gas deposits. They have been burning through ever since, and at night their glow is visible right up to the road.
15 kilometres with luggage and worn out road tyres over the dunes of the sandy desert are no pleasure. The way there was halfway to go because of the dune descents, but on the way back it was no fun at all. If the motorcycle was buried in the sand up to the foot rests nothing works anymore. So the luggage down and up the dunes dragged, the motorcycle dug out, lifted out and after several attempts over different routes was finally reached the dune summit.
At the only gas station within a radius of 300 km… and the attendant gas station attendant
The last stop in Turkmenistan was Konye-Urgench, on the north-eastern border with Uzbekistan. This place was located on the northern Silk Road and was also destroyed by Chingis Khan in the 13th century. The sparse remains only give an idea of the former glory. The most interesting thing for me was a sacred clay hill in the middle of the site, the centre of the battle against the Mongols. Even today you can still see human bones and skulls in washed out areas.