Another border day. Again we were cautioned to expect delays and be prepared for them. Just before the border we said ‘goodbye’ to Rusthom who had been our guide in Uzbekistan. He had been pretty underwhelming, but it was not necessarily his fault but more likely to have been imposed by the higher authorities , but I felt a bit of ‘sparkle training’ would not have gone amiss! In addition, he missed no opportunity to be totally disparaging towards women – not a good idea with six women in your audience! However, we had seen some incredible cities with him.
As we left Uzbekistan we had travelled approximately, 10,600 Kms from Beijing. Not many people have visited Turkmenistan and few know much about it. It was definitely on some of the routes of the Silk Road. Today it has a rich economy. It has both oil and gas to offer the world. Both are free to its people. Petrol is very cheap. The rich are booming. The poor are very poor. We were about to enter Turkmenistan.
We arrived at the border at 9.45 am. Initially things took their normal course of getting our passports stamped as we were leaving Uzbekistan. Things were pretty smart and efficient, if not very chummy. We were first inspected by a man with a gun over his shoulder and then entered the border office. Forms had to be completed and these were all fairly smoothly handled once a man with three pips on his shoulder arrived and took over from a man with two pips who was obviously struggling a bit. From here we literally walked – say – 100 meters to the outside and the Uzbeck border post barrier, a very smart if isolated area. There don’t seem to be many people who want to leave Uzbekistan or perhaps want to get into Turkmenistan. I am not sure which. The next step was for Penelope to catch us up, two border guards to get on the truck and help themselves to beer from the ‘fridge, under the guise of searching it, and we were out of Uzbekistan.
Next we drove perhaps half a kilometre to the Turkmenistan border post. The sun blazed down on a very, very smart building with a large picture of the Turkmenistan president with a big sign saying ‘Welcome’. When we entered the building we were personally welcomed by Kurban, our Turkmenistan guide. He was very smiley. More forms were issued and we waited while visas were sorted. They had all been previously prepared but had to be paid for. Interestingly after we had handed over the initial fee required – 45$ for everyone else and 85$ for us Brits – there came another demand for a 10$ administration charge…….. By this time the handful of other tourists and the two other local people had gone and there was just us. There were just four chairs and a desk in the room where we waited. No-one was allowed to sit on the desks so we arranged ourselves around the walls on the floor, making the place look a bit untidy I have to confess. After about an hour of a lot of comings and goings with Emma and Simon, we all had to sign for our visas.
Now the difficulty was that when we left the truck we were told just to take hand luggage and passports, which is what most of us did, not knowing that we were not going to be allowed back into the truck for some time. This meant that after we signed for the visa, had our hand luggage checked and our passports stamped we were then ushered out of the other end of the building to await Penelope with, in my case no IPad, ergo no book. Needless to say there was no seating outside and the heat bounced back off the concrete forecourt of the building, as we huddled in the shade. Then they announced it was lunch time and the office would close for one hour.
We were allowed to rescue the food from the truck and we set up our camp lunch on the steps of the border post. Out came chopping boards, bread, cheese and tomatoes. You could not help but to sense the outrage emanating from those inside the building, but there was little that could be done as they were ‘at lunch’ and we were hungry! By the time 2.00 pm came our stuff was packed away in its boxes. Once again we settled down on the floor to wait. This we did until, at 3.30 we were told we could go. Turkmenistan here we come – or not quite. We next had to go and register at the first town’s tourist office.
The town was reached in about 20 minutes. Already we could see the noticeable difference wealth difference. The cars were very upmarket – I saw the first Lexus seen since leaving the UK – the buildings of the town were immaculate high rise affairs with designer air conditioning plants on the side. There was a two lane highway through the middle of the town, designer shops appeared.
We waited an hour to be registered with the tourist office and found out that the President had visited the town earlier – could that have been why a rather bedraggled group of tourists together with a rather obvious ex Sainsbury’s truck was better off at the border post until he had gone?!!
Eventually we continued on our way out of Dashhowuzi and in the direction of the Karakum Desert, the hottest desert in Central Asia. On the outskirts of town we passed a number of amazing buildings of the white concrete variety. One was described as a ‘wedding palace’. It was all extremely swish with a sculpture of a couple in gold under a gold coronet held aloft by four concrete ‘arms’. There was also a race course,
As things became more rural, large fields, tilled and ready for planting lay back on either side of the road. Later we moved unto the desert. Occasionally we saw a lonely camel in the distance, but mainly there was just sand as far as the eye could see.
Not too far into the edge of the desert – there were still elements of green and some trees – we pulled off the road to set up camp for the night.
We are getting quite slick at this camping business now. Keith made a fire and we quite enjoyed being out of town.