Thursday, September 25, 2008


Turkmenistan is a very interesting country to visit.  Like many of the former Soviet republics, they like to maintain their feeling of power by making tourists' lives as difficult as possible.  This was the cause of the 9 day Baku debacle from the Rally two years ago - no one had/could get visas to Turkmenistan (the daily ferry across the Caspian) so they had to wait around for the ferry to Kazakhstan (the whenever we damn well please ferry).

This time, we wanted to take the fast ferry so Slepak and I each spent $110 to get letters of invitation to the country.  Slepak also spent a mandatory $40 on airport transfers (we weren't flying in) and $60 on a guide (there's only one road, how lost can we get?)  $320 for the both of us, just to be "invited".  Ridiculous, but in line with the other 'stans.  Then war broke out in Georgia, which meant we couldn't drive to Baku to get onto the ferries, so we decided to drive around the Caspian Sea instead.

Crossing the border was another example of maintaining a feeling of power by making tourists' lives as difficult as possible.  We spent 3 hours going from hut to hut to hut filling out paperwork at the border - and this was with no waiting as we were the only people in any of them.  At the end of it, we'd paid $55 each to process the letters of invitation into actual visas, $10 each entry tax, and $160 of vehicle import tax, fees, and mileage allowances.  So another $300, bringing the total to set foot on Turkmen soil to $620.

At least we got to feel like high rollers when we converted our remaining rubles to manat.


Yes, those are 10,000 manat notes.  2.2 million manat total.  Gas was only 2900 manat per litre, which makes you feel even richer!


With 14,250 manat per dollar, the fat stack checks in at $160, so not too ridiculous.  Though gas at $0.77 a gallon was the best deal of the trip by far! Obviously the government was subsidizing the gas just a bit.  It often seemed they had a finger in the satellite TV market, as dishes seemed to sprout from every apartment building like the state flower.


Our guide had his own car - and was incredulous that our car had made it this far - so he couldn't tell us interesting stories about the country or otherwise add value for his $60.  Most of the time we were with him looked like this - barren desert with him leading the way.


And if you can't quite read it, that silver thing on the dash is a clock/thermometer which reads 110°.  That was a pretty typical temperature - we topped out at 116°!  We did confuse the guide a bit when we slammed on the brakes, hopped out of the car and sprinted backwards to take a photo of this sign.


When we got to Ashgabat, the capital, we then had a very uncomfortable exchange with the bosses at the tour agency.  They claimed that the $60 was just a deposit and we owed them $650 more for all their guiding - the first $320 had went to them as well.  They agreed that the grammar in their initial letter was incorrect about the cost of the guiding, but we'd better pay or we'd get in trouble leaving the country.  Apparently you're supposed to have a guide with you at all times outside Ashgabat and they have some magic paperwork that lets you leave.  After much stonewalling we settled on paying them $300, not having a guide for the rest of the trip, and a getting a copy of the magic paperwork.  So visiting Turkmenistan only cost $920 for the two of us. 

I'd recommend *not* getting a Tourist Visa if you ever want to drive through.  Apparently with a bunch of paperwork from the Adventurists, the Mongol Rally organizers, we might have been able to get a Transit Visa - which doesn't require a guide and the associated fees.  Sounds better but later in the trip we met a couple that did take the fast ferry with a Transit Visa and the ferry was stuck in port and not allowed to unload for 3 days.  Which didn't leave enough time on a 5 day transit visa to drive several thousand kilometers across the country.  Skipping the country entirely seems like the best plan but would deprive you of observing the weirdness of it all.


For a relatively poor country in the desert, they have a gleaming marble capital city full of fancy fountains.


The sheer audacity of it is absurd, but the most ridiculous part of it all is that they don't let anyone appreciate it.  Note the big pedestrian mall in the photo above with only 10 people on it.  And if you do dare to stop and read one of the signs - they're in English, they've got to be for tourists - the cops yell at you to move along.  And god forbid you try to take a photo.  Especially of the Presidential Palace - though with the cascading waterfalls and golden dome, it does look quite impressive.


The dancing fountains are pretty cool too.


As we were (finally) leaving the country, we discovered one final FU from the Turkmen desert.  Apparently all that driving had taken a toll on our shocks and the right rear tire was contacting the fender on bumps and slowly being shaved off!  They didn't have tires small enough for the Mini so we just started rotating the bad tires around the car as we took off on our speed run to Mongolia.


I know this post sounds pretty negative about Turkmenistan.  It just seems the bureaucracy was out to get us.  The people of Turkmenistan are wonderful!  From the guy who towed us out of the sand, to the girl flirting with us at the border, to the guy who invited us to his house for dinner and passed around some local moonshine, we felt welcomed.  Just try to avoid the government...

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