A Police State and the Gates of Hell

“This is a GPS tracker. While you are in Turkmenistan you must have this plugged into your car” “sign here, here and here” “give your finger prints here” “please stand here for photo” “You must pay 72 US dollars each for visa” “you must pay 142 US dollars for your car” “you must pay 30 US dollars for insurance – do not crash though, this is only government insurance, you will still have to pay“ “you must pay us 1US dollar each for tip” “What is your route in Turkmenistan? You must stay on this route” “do not take any photos for the next 48km” “do not photograph any public buildings” “If you are here for longer than 3 days you must re-register with a local official” “you have 5 days in which to leave Turkmenistan” “you cannot leave your car in Turkmenistan” “if you overstay your visa you will be arrested, escorted to Ashgabat and flown out of the country at your expense” 5.5 hours later we were finally told “Welcome to Turkmenistan, enjoy your stay”.

Before we even dealt with the Turkmenistan officials, we had to get out of Iran. This was a lot easier than getting into Iran, but still a bit of a run around. We arrived at the border at 8am and were promptly told by the official he was still eating his breakfast and we would have to wait 10 minutes. Eventually, brushing crumbs off his shirt, he signalled for us all to come over. With the pleasure that only a career bureaucrat with a stamp that means something can wield, he vigorously stamped our carnet several times before sending us a further 3 km up the road to the next Iranian check post. This was a grand marble building that looked very official. This official look was lost somewhat on entering. Not only was the building a bit run down inside, but there was not a single official to be found. We spent 10 minutes wandering the building before we encountered someone. She waved us towards the other end of the building. On getting to the other side of the building we were waved back in the direction we had come from. It was at this point we realised it was going to be “one of those days”.

We worked out we should probably be talking to an official somewhere in the middle, where there were a number of empty desks. Like the first official, we suspected the missing employees were still eating breakfast. We went back to the first woman we spoke to and explained our situation, she waved us back to where we had come from and made a phone call. A further 10 minutes passed before a man finally appeared. Our earlier suspicions were confirmed when we saw him brushing crumbs off his shirt. During the next 10 minutes another 3 employees arrived for work, still tucking shirts in or finishing breakfast. Another period of bureaucratic document stamping commenced. 15 minutes later we finally had everything we required to leave with the car and were sent to the final check point for a quick document check. Or at least it would have been quick if there had been anyone there. It was a further 30 minutes before the military officials showed up and we were able to get the last stamp we required to leave Iran.
The very last step to leave the country involved the military making a search of our vehicle. We didn’t have the Australian team with us so had no rubber ducks or t-shirts to give away if they were required. The search was very quick, however, and before we knew it we were driving into Turkmenistan.

Turkmenistan is a dictatorship and a police state. Hotels frequented by foreigners are often bugged, and internet access is strictly controlled. It is a very difficult country to enter and we were only able to get our visas because of a deal that has been negotiated between the organisers of the Mongol Rally and the Government. The experience of getting into the country, described in the intro, set the scene for the rest of our time in Turkmenistan.

The first 45km from the border was a strictly controlled military zone. CCTV cameras followed our every move along the highway. Manned guard towers were positioned on the highpoints above the road giving a clear view into the valley the highway traversed. After a nervous 45 minutes of driving, we arrived at a final military checkpoint. Despite not having any way to get the car through the border unofficially we still had to show the guards the 13 documents we had collected to prove we had arrived legally.

Formalities done, we left the military zone to enter the police state proper. The road immediately opened up to a 6 lane highway, flanked by white lamp posts. There was not a single car on the road other than us and the 3 other cars we were convoying with. Ahead of us the capital, Ashgabat, came into view, a white marble city glistening in the sun. On reaching the city, more vehicles do begin using the road, but they still feel largely deserted. However, It’s not the large roads and the lack of traffic on them that grabs your attention , it’s the tall white marble columns and buildings, and gold statues which flank the road. Every single building is made out of white marble and most have some kind of gold trim; from the outside they all look very impressive. One imagines travellers reaching Rome at the height of empire feeling the same sense of awe. There is even an “Olympic Stadium” for the Asian Olympics, which only Turkmeni people are allowed to compete in. The city is incredibly clean and tidy and this applies to the vehicles within the city as well. No one drives a dark coloured car and cars are spotless; you will be fined for having a dirty car. Of course, both the grandeur and cleanliness is generally a facade. Many of these grand buildings are actually very shabby on the inside. The city was constructed in such haste and with so many corners being cut that plumbing and wiring issues continue to plague buildings. Unfortunately, we did not take many photos here as we were so paranoid we would be immediately stopped by the police officers standing on every street corner.

The same paranoia about Ashgabat meant we decided to stop only briefly to get supplies for the road, and change money. The black-market rate exchange rate for US dollars is 6 times higher than the official rate and local produce prices reflect this. Locals were very friendly, though men all wear the British working man’s cap which gives them all a slightly sinister look.

It was with some relief that we left the city. The illusion of opulence and grandeur in the capital came to a quick end; most locals appeared to live in flimsy shacks or concrete bunker like structures. The greenery and the golden fountains of Ashgabat were also soon a distant memory, with the road traversing proper desert. The desert you see in story books and the desert you imagine at the mention of the word. Rolling golden sand dunes as far as the eye could see. Despite the sand and the heat, the air was filled with large dragonflies, unfortunately for them, soon the grill of the car was too.

an oasis in the desert

The desert landscape continued for a long time, with virtually no habitation from the outskirts of Ashgabat all of the way to the Darvaas Gas Crater, in the middle of the country. The gas grater, also known as the “gates of hell” was accidently created by Soviet engineers in the 1970s. Detecting methane while prospecting for other gas and minerals they determined the gas was a hazard and that by setting it a light it would burn out in a few days or weeks thus removing the danger. Unfortunately, there was actually a significant underground deposit of gas and the crater has been burning ever since. You may have seen news articles about the gas crater in recent months due to the president (read dictator) doing laps/burnouts around the crater to disprove the numerous news articles reporting his death.

To get to the crater itself you have to leave the main road and traverse the sandy desert. A lot of the route has been turned into a metal track, but there are large sections where the desert has reclaimed the road. Locals make use of this by trying to lure travellers the wrong way, getting them stuck, then extorting them for large amounts of US dollars in exchange for towing them out. We safely made it through the worst of the sand; Josh taking great delight in the opportunity to drive like a ‘hoon’. Unfortunately, our Spanish friends got stuck and had to be towed by a Swiss team that we had also been convoying with. Whilst we were helping get the Spanish out, a British team came along and made the unfortunate decision to take the locals at face value when they signalled they should take the left hand route, despite it looking like an Olympic sized sandpit. Unsurprisingly, they very quickly became stuck. This was made worse by the driver flooring the car in first gear after he had already come to a stop. The car became buried up to it’s axels. The car would have been stuck till the next day, when the locals promised they could bring a tractor up, for a good price of course, but for the fact that 7 other teams arrived and were able to work together to dig them out and help push. Ralliers 1, locals 0.

It was 7pm and the sun was beginning to set. As the light faded, the glow of the crater in the distance became more obvious. We were now driving with 8 other rally cars. Many of the cars had loud hailers or sirens attached and as the cars raced to pass each other through the desert sand with lights flashing and sirens ringing one could only think of the major car chase scene in the Mad Max remake. This image was completed by the numerous dirt bikes weaving around us; locals hoping the whole convoy might become stuck and create a cash windfall for them.

As we got closer the desert heat increased as the wind blew air from the crater towards us. I’m not sure I can describe the crater with words so will let the photos do the talking. I will say however, the crater was one of two things depending on how you looked at it. A very impressive giant seething pit of fire and heat that was both objectively beautiful and terrifying and made one think of man’s stupidity, or, as some fellow Italian ralliers put it “imagine driving 10,000kms across Eurasia just to see some flames at the bottom of a hole”

The next day we left our Spanish and Swiss friends with plans of driving to Uzbekistan to see the dried up area of the Aral Sea. At least, that’s how the day started. We were not prepared for just how bad the roads would get and how quickly. Gravel roads are not a problem for us. New Zealand is covered in gravel roads and we are used it. What we are not used to is a “highway” littered with holes as if the road has been subject to an artillery barrage. The holes were not small either, and would happily swallow truck tyres, as was evident from the number of shredded truck tyres all along the side of the road. What followed was 7 hours of slalom driving, swerving from left to right across the road to avoid the holes. At times we left the road to drive on dirt farm tracks as the surface was that much better. Despite our best efforts, our tyre rims and suspension took an absolute hammering. The multiple camels on the side of the road began looking like the better transport option…

We arrived at the Turkmenistan-Uzbekistan border to the sight of a destroyed rally vehicle on the back of a truck. We got the story later. The team, two retired Brits, had been driving in the late evening, trying to make up time, when the driver fell asleep at the wheel and they crashed into the side of the bridge. Luckily, they were both okay, thanks in part to the large number of modifications they had made to the car, including a roll cage. The car was apparently still repairable at this point, but due to the limited time teams are allowed to stay in Turkmenistan there would be no way to repair it in country. Instead, they had to organise a tow truck to get them the 400km to the Uzbekistan border. This was made harder as it was a Sunday, followed by a public holiday on Monday, so everyone in the British embassy had left town. The Brits eventually found someone who would provide a truck. Everything was going well until they were within 5km of the border. The terrible road surface had led to the car straps becoming loose and on one particularly bad part of the road the car bounced off the back of the truck, rolled, had one of the tyres ripped off the axel, and ended up in a ditch. The car was no longer looking so repairable at the border and their rally plans were left hanging.

Getting out of Turkmenistan was certainly a lot easier for us, in a fully functional and road worthy car. The guards were surprisingly friendly even asking why we hadn’t stayed longer than 24 hours. We didn’t feel it was the time to talk about the police corruption etc…

If getting out of Turkmenistan was easy, getting into Uzbekistan was even easier. The guards were all very friendly, we didn’t need a visa, and we were done within an hour. The guards did have a reasonably thorough look through the car though and were quite suspicious of the 20 jars of peanut butter Josh had squirrelled under the passenger seat. After opening two jars for them to sniff, they seemed to accept we were not hiding drugs and let us on our way. For the first 30 minutes of driving post border we found ourselves on a perfect surface, but our allusions about the state of Uzbek roads were quickly shattered. The road surface still looked perfect, but the road had continually slumped. This was having the same effect on our suspension as being double bounced on a trampoline. The suspension could handle the first bump, but on the second one the rear of the vehicle was flung into the air crashing down again. This was made worse by the way we had stacked the car; two 25 litre containers full of water sitting on top of our tool box, right in the rear of the car. Needless to say our tool box no longer looked in such great shape after 30 minutes of this. Bridges to proved they needed to be taken with caution. I was driving along at 80km/h with no time to react when I suddenly realised the surface on the bridge was a good 3 inches above the surface of the rest of the road. Josh, sleeping in the passenger seat, had a rude awakening with my very loud swearing and a loud bang and as we hit the lip, the back of the car bounced furiously as Josh looked around to see what was going on.

The roads were so bad and it had taken us so long to get to the first town past the border, Nukus, that we both decided seeing some rusting fishing boats in the desert was not worth driving a further 300km in the wrong direction. We aimed for Khiva instead, with plans to meet the Swiss and Spanish again, and headed off. Our hearts lifted immediately at the prospect of better roads and great company.

I think I will leave it there for now. As most of you are probably aware, Josh and I finished the Rally a few weeks ago now, but the last 3-4 weeks of driving were so full on there hasn’t been time to write. I’m currently travelling in China, and Josh is back in Dunedin, dealing with Spring Snow. I’ll try to at least write something about our trip along the Afghan border, accidently sending an SOS and partially standing up a response by the NZ Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade from the embassy in Moscow, and the mechanical dramas that we began to have with the car.

Lastly, two things I forgot to mention from last time:
1) One of the highlights of Iranian driving; did you know you can use those windscreen reflectors, the silvery foil ones to stop your car heating up when you’re parked, as effectively when you are driving at motorway speeds? You didn’t, well thank me later. The number of vehicles we saw driving at 110km/h with someone peering out of a tiny whole at the bottom of a windscreen was insane.

2) See the below post about what happened to a team in Azerbaijan. Who would have thought sticking a sex toy to the top of a vehicle would be such a bad idea in a Islamic country.

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