Mongol Rally 2004 & 2005 Blogs & Photos
Part 2 - Trials and Troubles with the Turkmen (Baku to Samarkand)
We are still going... now in Samarkand, which seems like a great place.  At last time of writing I think we were in Baku, which I liked less the more time we spent there.  The middle of it could have been mistaken for any western city, and it just feels slightly corrupt.  I guess it is a legacy of all that oil floating around.   Anyway after sending the last email, and extricating ourselves from our hotel, we had a look under the bonnet of our car, which had been misbehaving.  It turned out our park plugs had been deeply fouled and that one of our HT leads had burnt out.  Managed to botch the lead, which made a miraculous difference, and found a mechanic.  After much jollity, and a new lead straight from under the bonnet of a Lada they were fixing, they presented us with a large esso sticker and saw us on our way. Our car is now part Lada, a great privilege, and helping us fit in very well wherever we go.  If only it stopped the police flagging us down.
The next game was to try and find the ferry, easier said than done, meaning it was about 9 o'clock by the time we got there.  By this time the ticket office was closed, but they said there was a ferry going around midnight. Any details beyond this were different according to whom we spoke.   The best we could gather was that the ticket office might open just before the ferry went.  It didn't.  We then followed a taxi around the city trying to find a hotel, eventually ending up in a place that was a mixture between a 60s boarding school and a David Lynch film, but it was more than enough at the time.
The ferry the next morning followed a steadily emerging pattern.  Dave and Harry spent about 3 hours negotiating the price of the ferry, getting it down from around $350 per car to $250.  At this point negotiations had to cease because we thought the boat was going.  Of course it did not leave for another 3 hours, but you get used to these things.  We were also the only cars on it; the remaining space was taken up by a freight train. Considerably more negotiation over whether we needed to pay a 'deck fee' took place once we got on board.  Anyway it was all ok in the end, and off we went. There were a couple of Russian navigation students on board, who spoke good English and seemed very glad of some variety in their company, they were a great help.  We retired to the ferry bar and spent a very pleasant evening, on a rare occasion when we could completely relax.  We were woken at dawn to find ourselves about to dock in Turkmenistan, several hours before we expected to.  This was to be the last time for several days something happened easily and on time.
Firstly we sat on the ferry for an hour, after the doors had been opened, looking at this deeply mysterious country, before eventually being invited to go into customs.  Here the fun really began.  At first it was just bureaucratic, each having to sign about 7 bits of paper, and visiting 3 windows before being allowed to go back to the original window and pay.  This got us in, the cars were more complicated.  They were trying to classify our car as a lorry.  Apparently because it had an open top and no back they thought it was a pickup, and was thus to be licensed to carry up to 10 tons.  It added $125 to the price.  Dave, as we have come to expect, was having nothing of this.  5 hours later, after several 'chiefs' had appeared, Ashgabat (the capital) consulted, and finally the ministry of foreign affairs rung up we were allowed to be a car after all.  Apparently if the roofs had been up at the start none of it would have happened.  It was another hour of form filling, signing 7 pieces of paper to get one form saying we had our car disinfected, and much running backwards and forwards until we had done something at every office in the building before we escaped.  100m after getting onto the main road we met our first police checkpoint, at which we were of course stopped.
Turkmenistan has a very strong claim to being the strangest country on the planet, it’s certainly the weirdest I have ever been to.  It is mostly desert, or desert like, with some beautiful hills going down to the Caspian in the west, and bakingly hot (I think somewhere in the 40s), but dry enough that it is just about tolerable.  Turkmenbashi (previously known as President Niyazov) is where it really gets strange.  He first came to power as a communist stooge, appointed by Gorbachov, but he really came to fruition after the fall of communism.  He appears to be a fully blown dictator, with large pictures of him on every public building, in every office, and quite probably in every home.  He has named the month of April after his mother.  He has written a book, I think on spiritualism, which every Turkmen must read, and on which all students take an exam.  He has a large golden statue of himself, on top of a huge 3-legged pillar, which revolves to face the sun in the capital Ashgabat.  He is rumoured to drive round the city, wearing a false beard, listening to what people say about him, although I’m not sure how much truth there is to this one.  He also runs an extremely tight police force, as we discovered every half an hour or so along the way.   There are very regular checkpoints along the road, and I don't think we managed to get through a single one without being stopped for 'registratse'.  This involved writing down all our details, along with a series of questions about where we are from etc. It never seemed to take less than 10 minutes.  The police were almost all very young, friendly, and rather bemused by us.  They always asked us hopefully for “dollar, dollar” which is a sure sign that they don't get many foreigners as the police are much wilier in other countries about trying to get bribes.  This made the whole journey incredibly frustrating, but I don't think any of us would have missed it for anything.   I think the final total was about 25 or so, in 2 1/2 days, although it is impossible to keep track after a while.
On the plus side $1 could buy 65 litres of fuel, essentially making it free, although we had to pay a $70 surcharge on the border which balanced it out, and worked out as a similar price to elsewhere in the region.  We were so embarrassed at only paying $1 for our petrol that we often gave them $2 instead.  Water, and I think electricity, are also provided to the Turkmen population for free, so they are well looked after even if there is no opposition to speak of.
The surreal jewel in the crown of Turkmenistan is Ashgabat, which Turkmenbashi is busy using all his, I guess considerable, oil money to try and make as impressive as an old European city.  There are lots of large municipal buildings, of course adorned by his portrait, all impressive, if often rather gaudy, and all in the centre of the city. Apparently he has cleared large sections of the city to make way for these, and not got round to providing any new housing for the unlucky victims.  At first it seems very pleasant, it is clean and quiet with big wide-open avenues, and some perfectly acceptable (at least to my eyes) buildings, but the longer we stayed the stranger it seemed.
The centrepiece of Ashgabat is the aforementioned revolving statue, and it is here that we yet again fell victim to the police.  We were busy taking photos of this bizarre monstrosity when I walked round to the other side, partly to avoid Dave's video camera and partly to get another view.  I walked onto some grass.  A policeman immediately beckoned me over, looked at my passport and put it in his pocket, I still can’t work out if it was because of the grass or the photos.  After much arguing, I don’t understands, and lets go to the police stations he also picked up Dave, who was brandishing his camera, we think because there was a building he was not meant to film.  At this point we steered his gaze towards the group of locals also taking pictures and using a video camera,  The policeman thought for a second about this apparent discrepancy and then when and picked up the locals too. He then led this merry band off to the police station.  His boss’s face fell as we all filled his office.  After lots more negotiation Dave then wiped all his footage of Ashgabat in front of the boss, amidst the most evil of stares from our detainer, and we pulled our holiday snaps out to show them.  After Dave's beach shots, mostly of girls, he started on mine, which began with 10 consecutive photos of our car. He was so dribblingly bored by this that they let us go.   Very strange all round.
The rest of Turkmenistan passed relatively easily, we met a, surely deranged, cyclist halfway across the desert who was cycling alone from Portugal to Brazil.  He had been pedalling for 5 months, with another 7 to go.  We gave him some water, and felt he had just rather put our little jaunt into perspective.  We also stopped and had a wonderful lunch in Turkmenabat where, perhaps sensing a killing, they brought us every dish on the menu.  This included soup with a pepper stuffed with meat in it, salad, watermelon, bread, yoghurt, the local dumpling/ravioli things and then just when we had stuffed ourselves and thought that was it out came the shashliks (kebabs).   We had to turn down pudding.  A couple of the children spoke English, and had great fun quizzing us, and gradually more and more people seemed to come out of the woodwork.  At one point we asked one of the boys, who was about 15, if they got a lot of foreigners coming in.  He said yes, we get lots, in fact we had 3 last month.  We then asked him what there was to see in Turkmenabat.  He thought for a second and then said “yes, there’s a nigger on a Harley!” which caught us all on the hop a bit.  I guess it probably was quite a rare sight, who knows what he really meant by it.  Chris got his Polaroid out, and we took lots of photos of everyone, which went on immediate display, but not without having been signed by us first.  It was fantastic, and a wonderful example of the huge contrast between the great humour and generosity of the people and the bizarrely repressed country they live in.  They all just changed the subject when we asked about the great man, saying they liked him and nothing more.
The Turkmen border then almost created the biggest problem of the lot, we got there at 5.50, to discover the border closed at 6 and that they did not want to let us through.  Our visas expired that day.  Apparently the fine for overstaying it is about $500.  Luckily they let us through.  The Uzbekistan equivalent were not so helpful however, and we resigned ourselves to a night in no mans land.   Just before this the buzzwagon had discovered their suspension was about to snap again, this time on the other side.  Somehow they found a mechanic who set to work, amidst a great crowd, with their car only held up by 2 jacks. He eventually got it off, and set off at about midnight, saying he would be back in 2 hours with a new one.  He eventually appeared at lunchtime the next day.  Meanwhile we found no-mans land to be a strangely busy place.  We bought 8% beer from little women towing around little cool boxes, and people miraculously seemed to throng around us.  Then Harry managed to conjure a bottle of vodka from somewhere and things began to disintegrate.  We ended up consuming more snuff than was strictly necessary, as well as another, extremely strong, form of tobacco you put under your tongue and the name of which I have forgotten.  I blame the vodka.  Harry managed to lose his glasses and our only set of car keys in a small ravine.  Luckily we found them again once it got light.  It kept us amused but by lunchtime the next day once again it was just a deeply frustrating delay.  We also had a number of things stolen at some point that morning, including my discman, sunglasses and a/c inverter which was a useful bit of kit allowing us to plug 3 pin plugs into the cigarette lighter, and thus charge phones and iPods.  It would have been useless to them, but unfortunately it was shiny.  Bloody magpies.  As we were in the process of going through the Uzbek border formalities some Irish travellers appeared (nothing to do with the rally) and told us that they had met a 2CV on the other side of the border, but that one of their visas had run out and they were now stuck.  They couldn’t go back into Turkmenistan, but neither were they allowed to leave.  It was great to hear news of another car, frustratingly close by, as the majority were taking more northerly routes, and strangely heartening to know we were not alone in our bureaucratic struggles, sorry as we felt for them.  While we were leaving Dave contrived yet another altercation over money with the mechanic, which lead to a crowd of people surrounding their car. Someone managed to get hold of their car keys, and started to go through their bags.  At this point Dave went into action, he bellowed at the chap with the keys, who cowered, took a step back and gave them over.  He then gave the mechanic another $10 and drove off.  Most of them had been rather taken aback by this outburst, except for a large man in a red t-shirt, who looked momentarily nonplussed and then smiled.  If things had gone much further we might have had some trouble.  On the upside we had escaped, we were back on the road with Uzbekistan to explore.
We finally made it to Bukhara that night, one of the great Silk Road cities, which was full of fantastic old buildings.  We arrived just before sunset, which made it most atmospheric.  There were mosques, an old town full of tight streets and dark corners that must have looked roughly the same for 100s of years and a great big fortress that dominated the historic centre of the city, and which you could just imagine the Emirs beheading people in front of, or throwing them from the battlements.  Unfortunately it was bombed by the invading communists in the 1920s and there is not much left inside other than rubble.  We wandered around the old town for a couple of hours, wished we had a couple of days, then set off on the road again, this time heading for Samarkand.
The 2005 Mongol Rally - The Escapades