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Poor-Rich Turkmenistan

This is the country I’ve been stressing myself for. The time block. The 6th of June in, the 10th of June out and no day sooner or later. Hette and I are early. We expect we need a lot of time at the border. At eight we are all set to go, but when I start my motorbike it doesn’t react. WTF! Empty battery… I accidently must have switched on my heated grips. We have to go to the village to charge the battery. Although we have some spectators, no one is willing to bring us there, so Hette unpacks his bike and I step up with him. It takes us more then two hours to get this fixed but then finally at ten we drive the two kilometres to the border.

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The Iranian part is done within one and a half hour. Not bad. After quit some meter driving into no-man’s-land we arrive at the Turkmenian border. The first thing I notice is the difference in appearance of the people. Especially the women look very different, very beautiful. They are dressed in colourful dresses and wear their scarfs like African women do. The officials are very strict. The first thing we find out is that we have to pay a lot of money for all the paperwork. I’m shocked when I hear the amount we have to pay: more then hundred dollars. And the second shock comes right ahead: we have to pay in dollar. I don’t have dollars, only euro’s. I really didn’t know, neither did Hette. The officials are very dogged; there is no other way to pay. The help comes from one of the lovely dressed Turkmenian women who is asked to help us. She’s the only one who speaks English (we didn’t understand what the officials were asking before she translated). Not only does she helps us with translating, she also has dollars. I don’t know if she agreed to change the money freely or that she was forced to, but she did. For travellers who want to go to Turkmenistan: At the border you have to pay for insurance (which I don’t mind, even fins useful), the administration cost and, last but not least a fuel tax. (46 dollar for 1100 km).

It’s hot, we are late, the officials are teasing us by doing difficult about our travel plan. When I walk outside to get a bottle of water the helpful lady whispers to me: ‘act as if you faint’. Do I hear that correctly? I look at her and see that see means it. The circumstances are helping a lot to put those words into action so when I come back I quickly inform Hette and act as if I’m so tired and feel bad. It helps! Suddenly the whole process speeds up. The expected luggage check is skipped. I am ordered to sit down and they guide Hette through the building to get out last stamps. When we are free to leave the helpful lady is also still in the building. I walk to her because I want to thank her for all her help but as soon as she sees me coming to her, she holds up her hands as a stop sign and nods ‘no’. Immediately I feel so sad. Another not free country.

The road is tarmacked but as we drive further from the border the potholes increase. The road is leading to Ashgebat, we are going to Mary first. The plan was to be there early so that we could visit the town centre. From what I know about Turkmenistan, Mary is one of the few old cities. Because of all the delay, the borders took us five hours, we’d be lucky to arrive before dark. As we turn left, to the east, the tarmac stops and I get happy. When Hette and I ride together I let him ride upfront, but here off road I overhaul. I love this. It doesn’t take long before we come to the big highway from Ashgebat to Turkmenabad. There is a lot of construction work going on. The almost empty highway is extended to a six-lane highway. In my opinion it would be smarter to repair the already efficient two- four lanes. Now we are riding on a badly maintained road while on the other side a pitch black peace of road is being build.

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Twenty kilometres before Mary Hette stops. His motorbike is falling out again. I feel so sorry for him. After some time we manage to get fifteen km further and then, we’ve already entered town, again we have to stop. I use the time to get my Montana (GPS) and see if I can find us a place to stay. Now the waypoints I downloaded from the Horizons Unlimited website are coming out useful. Walter Colebatch loaded them on the site, Thanks Walter! It directs us to an area where more places to stay are available, but first we want to go to a bank (also on the map!). The banks are closed and the ATM is not available for foreigners. Hopefully we can pay with euros or be able to change them into Manat, the local currency. As we walk back to the bikes a couple holds on and start a conversation. I’m surprised. The man turns out to be European and confirms my suspicion: it’s not allowed or at least the officials don’t like it that much for the locals to talk with us. They know a nice hotel for us to stay not far away and within a few minutes we can start unpacking the bikes, both very tired. It has been a long day and it’s so hot, that even my cooling vest doesn’t help out any more. It’s a vest you have to make wet and cools you down because the water evaporates. In this heat it evaporates so quickly the vest is a nuisance rather then a help. The receptionist is a very friendly lady that points us at the possibility to change money on the black market. There are some men just a hundred meters from the hotel at the ‘shopping mall’ that in fact really can change my Euros to Manat. But the same lady also tells us that it is an exception that she takes our Manats. You have to pay with Dollars normally.

After a nice dinner and a good night sleep I move on. Another goodbye stands before us. When will we meet again? I so hope Hette’s motorbike will last till Bukhara in Uzbekistan, or at least out of Turkmenistan in time. I leave early to head for the same road we rode on yesterday. It’s a very boring 300 km to Ashgabat. The scenery is not more then dull desert (desert can be very beautiful, but not this one) and again it’s hot and sticky.

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It’s about 14:00 when I enter Ashgabat. What a city. I new it would be an adventure but in real it’s even more remarkable. Big pitch black tarmacked roads, with dozens of lanterns, running through imposing marble buildings. Impressive, but also weird. The roads are almost empty, the buildings look as if not being lived in. It’s because of the perfect maintenance it doesn’t look like a ghost town.

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My GPS leads me to the hotel I again found with Walter’s waypoints, but when I ask if there is a room for me available (actually a stupid question because most of the hotels are as good as empty) the man sais he booked out. What?? When I ask again, showing him that I know it’s not, I get the same answer. Ok, the next hotel of the many. I decide to go to the Tourist Hotel. Must work. But when I ask for a room the receptionist explains to me that I really have to pay with dollars, which I still don’t have. On my way through town I’ve hold on by two banks, but they were closed already. I now some big hotels used to have ATM’s for foreigners so I drive to one of them. No go… What now! I have plenty of Manats so I ride back to the Tourist Hotel and explain my situation. The receptionist abruptly tells me she’s not going to make an exception. It’s already 17:30 by then. I’m so tired, warm and hungry. I’m done with my nerves and start to cry. The receptionist doesn’t care less. Even if I tell her I’ll put up my tent in front of the hotel in the greenery. She just says she will call the police if I do so. I leave the hotel all crying. A man comes to me and says he knows who cab help me out. HE leads me to a travel agency around the corner. The owner immediately gives me some water and after listening to my story starts to call some people. Within ten minutes he hands over his GSM and am I glad to here a womans voice speaking in Dutch to me. Christine works with this company a lot, she’s in the tourist business. She arranged a room for me at a hotel where the director of the biggest touring agency of Turkmenistan has interests in the restaurant. He will pay for me in dollar and I can pay him in Euro. What a relief. When the owner of the travel agency I’m in now offers me to drive ahead I start to believe again in the goodness of people.

We are riding to another part of the city, up on the mountain, and here the buildings are getting even more impressive. Unbelievable! I don’t know where we are going to, but I’m enjoying the sight seeing. To my surprise the car stops at one of the biggest buildings on top of the hill. It’s called the wedding building I found out later. It can’t be that I’m staying here! I would think I can’t afford it but Christine already told me the room wasn’t that expensive, fifty dollar (the cheapest you can find here in Ashgabat is thirty-five, the tourist hotel). I guess the guys that come out of the building to guide me to the underground parking must have looked strange when they saw me, mouth wide open. The room is as impressive as the outside. It is as Christine told me: enjoy your stay, you can really relax there. A marble bath, all new. A king-size bed with brand-new really white white sheets (without holes and stains in it). The only down: I’m the only guest so the restaurant is empty and the only thing they serve is fried egg. But I’m so happy to have found a room!

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The only thing I’m still worried about is that I still don’t have dollars. At the fancy hotel I tried the ATM I met a Belgium diplomat who said that I surely can get dollars with my credit card at the Senegat Bank. That’s the first thing I’m going to do after breakfast. It’s a pleasure to ride down again enjoying the marvellous view. The Senegat Bank is in one of those huge marble buildings. I park my bike in front of it. After being inside only ten minutes I get told that there is no way I can get dollars with my credit card here. The server of MasterCard is down. With VISA no problem. It’s not the first time I sense that VISA is better accepted in these countries. But the receptionist tells me that the Turkmen Bank for sure will give me my dollars.

Again I’m on my way to get those fkjrh dollars! At the Turkmen Bank I hear the same story but then I just start to demand getting dollars. If not by credit Card then by changing my Euro’s. The first reaction is again negative, but I just don’t let loose. Finally after half an hour I get permission to change my Euro’s. Even that takes another half an hour. Two hours are lost. I jump on my motorbike and for the first hour my helmet has to listen to not so nice conversation.

With leaving Ashgabat to the north I enter the desert again. But this part of the desert is more appealing. This is where you think about when you think of deserts. I am amazed how few cars I see on the only road going from north to south. My goal for today: The gates of Hell: a gaz grater that burns all the time. The tourist attraction. I know that I have to drive into the desert for about six kilometres and that the middle part is deep sand. Not my favourite type of ground. Although I am aware of the dangers driving alone off road I decide to go for it. I assume I’ll not be the only one driving up there. I leave the paved road (with potholes) and prepare myself for the worsed. The first bit is like they said it is: a hard sandy road, but then the road goes uphill and the hard sand changes to loose sand. It actually goes well until I slowly start to drift to the left, where the road turns into a slope. I cannot stop falling of the road and end on the slope, motor and me down. As hard as I try to lift the bike, I don’t succeed in this territory. Not long after two guys on a small motorbike come up to help me. We lift the bike and as fast as they come they leave. There I am sitting on my motorbike trying to get of the slope but within no time my back wheel is buried in the sand. I look around. The amount of cars seems to get less and less. There is no one in sight. I blow my horn a few times but no reaction at all. I have to get off my bike but that’s not easy on a slope. I dig a hole with my left foot, trying to get in balance with my still very sore right foot and I succeed. Maybe now I can dig out my back wheel. Another attempt. It doesn’t work out as I wished for. Sitting on my bike again the emotions start to come up. Desperate, fear, powerless, anger. I have to calm down and think of a plan. Normally you should stay with your bike, but the road is close. In the last hour no one passed here so the road seems to be my only option to get help. I take with me my GSM and a bottle of water and start walking toward the road. My right foot doesn’t like it at all, but I have to. It’s hot, very hot and I am tired.

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When I reach the road no one stops at my signs. No one. I am in the middle of the desert, alone, I ask for help and the few cars that are passing just keep on driving by. I feel desperate again. The only thing I can do is step on the middle of the road and force someone to stop. That works. I car with three men in it stops and when I try to explain what’s going on they are willing to help me. I need a 4×4 to get me to my bike again so we start driving to a few houses a bit further on. Actually there are about four buildings in the whole dessert and they are here in Derweze. They’re restaurants for the truckers. At the second one I see a 4×4 parked in front of the building. I ask the driver to go there. Again it takes some time to explain what I need, but the man is willing to help me in exchange for twenty-five dollar. A huge amount of money for this small ride, but I have no choice. When we arrive at my bike, again two men on an small motorbike are coming as well. Where they come from? They actually help me to get my bike down. One of them drives my bike to the road. When he starts the bike and takes he get scared for a moment; he didn’t expect that much power. Immediately he falls down, but gets up with the help of his friend and continues riding down. When my gear is in the 4×4 we follow. The owner of the restaurant drove with us and now he takes over my bike. Again I see the same reaction: fear. He doesn’t go faster then thirty kmh and when he has to leave the road to go to his house he hesitates, makes an extra turn and parks the bike as soon as possible. There I take over and show them how it’s done J smoothly I park the motorbike in front of the restaurant, but then it ends for me, I’m totally worn out. When I put off my motor gear I see that I injured my leg. It doesn’t seem to be very bad; the wound is already closed.

The family that runs the restaurant is very friendly, they come with tea and some cookies. I’m so glad to just be able to sit down. Not long after a taxi stops and a young man gets out. It’s Benoit a Swiss backpacker who wants to go to the gate of Hell too, by foot from here. It’s just a three-kmh walk, about an hour. He askes me to come along but I can’t, I’m too tired.

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So, Turkmenistan, the situation so far: I wanted to see Mary and the Gate of Hell, didn’t see both of them. The people are mostly not very polite, but luckily there are some exceptions. Like here in the restaurant. I get offered a meal and when I ask then if I can sleep here they immediately say yes. They take very good care of me and even repair my fuel tank that has a leakage. I lost all the petrol form my back tank. A problem I will solve tomorrow. The restaurant remains open all night. I have a great time with the family and the kids, who are showing me pictures at the mobile phone of their aunt. I have to show some of mine as well. Somewhere in the corner of the restaurant I make myself a place to sleep. Although it’s close to the fans it still is really hot. I don’t sleep much. So now and then customers come in as well to eat and or drink something. I get flashbacks of the first night Marika and I had in India. We slept at a sort like restaurant as well in a very small village without proper plumbing. Washing in a sort of big tub outside and the fields as toilet. It was just as warm and I remember the shock when we put of our boots and saw our feet totally white. The skin and nails were loose. With a to hard rub it would have come of.

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Although I didn’t sleep that well, I am fit enough to oversee the mess that’s left of my luggage. After a wonderful breakfast I pack my bike and ask for the bill. First they want to ask a lot of money, but I haven’t got that much Manat left. Then the man looks at me and asks just twenty-five Manat (€6,50). Then I have to take the next hurdle: I need petrol. Here are no cars at this moment. I decide to drive on. There are some more restaurants and maybe I’m lucky. IN these countries most of the car ride on gasoline and the trucks on diesel, so I hope I’m lucky. The petrol that’s being sold is of low quality, meanly eighty octanes. At the first building I’m lucky, there’s a car, a brand new one. When I ask the driver if I can get some petrol he is reluctantly willing to give me some, but when I try to get the in Sarakhs bought hose in the fuel tank I am confronted with the safety measures of the car builders: I can’t get through… Next building. When I ask the owner he doesn’t want to help me. I really have to persuade him. Finally he gives in and gives me some fuel form the generator. Seventy-two octanes… But better then nothing. The messages about where the next tank station is are diverse. A hundred and eighty km or two hundred and eighty I’ve being told. With the petrol I have I’ll just manage the hundred and eighty. Fingers crossed.

I’m lucky I get at the tank station at the moment my fuel light burns for twenty km. Pfff. With two full tanks (I left the rear one empty this morning because I wasn’t sure the glue that was used to fix it would hold) Hopefully my rear tank remains intact but even on my main tank Dashovuz is no problem to reach any more.

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It seems strange but I feel the atmosphere changing while driving north. A part of the family at the restaurant I stayed last night is from Uzbekistan. They were much more relaxed. That is what I’m feeling I guess I coming closer to Uzbekistan, which I have high hopes of. Dashovuz is like Sarakhs a boring border town. At the beginning of town I see a hotel and ask for the price of a room. Forty dollars. A lot. And that is the cheapest room. I ask the receptionist to show me the room and am don’t like what I see. No way I’m going to stay there for this amount of money. When I tell the lady what I think of the room, she offers me a better one for the same price. I take a look: much better. Well done! My bike can be parked at a courtyard behind a big steel door. How nice it is to take a shower and put on some ‘clean’ clothes (I wash all my clothes while taking a shower or in a sink with shampoo, so clean is relative I would say, but it at least smells good!).

Tomorrow I will leave Turkmenistan. What a strange country. Also here the people are supressed, just like in Iran, but their behaviour is so different. Is this because of the Russian influence? I could feel that the nature of the Iranian people is very hospitable; here the nature of the people is tougher. I’m still surprised about the lack of help I got in the desert (except for the family of the restaurant). To be honest: Turkmenistan will not be on my wish list again, although my experiences were mine (like for four years in Iran, that wasn’t positive as well, and now I loved it!).

 

 

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