I’ve arrived back in Ashgabat around 1 am from my trip to the door to hell. This is of course the last day on my visa, so I’ve got until 5 pm today to make the border – after that it’s closed for the night. With this in mind, and the fact that I had 757 km to go which would take about ten hours without traffic in an unfriendly country not known for hitchhiking, I decided to take a shared taxi at least to a place called Mary, about halfway to the border. I better get my skates on.
Hitchwiki.org is another one of my travel bibles, and as ever I stick close to its advice. And it’s advice regarding Turkmenistan is that you’re gonna have to pay. The concept of a free ride doesn’t exist. Now if I was here at leisure I would try it anyway, as I’ve no problems with waiting an age for a free ride, because in my experience they come along eventually. Oh and nothing could be worse than my 7 hours waiting at night in freezing fog in Poland, so I’m prepared for anything.
But alas time and visa are against me, and it does make a nice change to guarantee the journey. I figure further down the line I’ll hitch, but I just want to get off to a strong start and get out of the city. In another life I would have attempted it , defied the naysayers and given Turkmenistan a chance to prove itself. Instead at 4 am I’m in a cab waiting for it to fill up, which is an odd culture they have in these parts of the world, but I guess it makes sense to keep the cost down.
An hour later I’m still there, and it’s not looking great. Until an enormous man leans in and offers me a deal in a car he’s setting up. I’ve got no choice and I take it, passing out as soon as we’re on the road in a car filled with large Turkmen. But at least I’m on the move.
I wake intermittently. There’s nothing to see out the window anyway. The only thing I’m interested in, is the unfathomably large hands of the driver to my left. I just keep staring at them on the wheel, and then lifting my own pathetic mitt to my face in comparison. How women must love being handled by such god-like phalanges! Imagine what might have been if I didn’t have to share half of my size with a twin sister…
Massive hands pulls into a mosque for early morning prayer, and all but one occupant decants. Me. I want to be chewing up the kilometres but god gets in the fucking way. He’s always getting in the fucking way. Aside from this, we’re stopping regularly to drop people off and pick other people up, hardly making any headway at all, and regardless of the early start, the day is quickly ticking on before we’ve even reached Mary. Do these people not realise I’ve got an expiring visa? Honestly there’s no consideration these days.
So much so that as we finally reach the halfway point, and the only vehicles there are shared taxis, massive hands offers me a deal to keep going to Turkmenabat. This is the last major town before the border, and it’s still a hell of a long way. Figuring if I just get out now and start hitching I either won’t get a ride for ages and/or have to pay for it anyway, I take his offer. I’m not proud of myself, but again, in order to make the border in time I don’t really have an option.
The ride passes predominantly in silence as the behemoth beside me says little. When there’s a language barrier as bad as this I prefer it this way. There’s nothing worse than someone still talking at you when you don’t understand an utter word. He’s happy. I’m happy. Everybody’s happy. I’d be happier if I wasn’t paying for the ride, but to his credit he pulls over and buys me breakfast. At around three.
And you’ve guessed it. Once we’re in Turkmenabat he offers to just take me the whole way. For a fee of course. As it’s now coming up for 4 pm I’m not going to make it otherwise. All in all he fleeces me around 100 bucks, but considering the distance, it’s not that bad at all to have your own private (for the most part) ride. Another reason it makes sense is there is no way on gods green earth I would have found or made it to the border. It’s a nightmare trying to locate it. He’s asking for directions after every wrong turn. Eventually when we’re on the road towards what we hope is customs (and we’re the only ones on it) I realise that hitching this would have been utter madness and I would never have made it. So I resolve to return and try it again one day.
Massive hand shakes my tiny hand and we part, and I undergo a ridiculous border check-point. Guards pull out all my stuff (I’m convinced they only do this out of curiosity) and laugh and make gestures to each other. Very fucking funny. HA HA HA. Can you hurry up please because it’s getting dark and I’ve still about 100 K to go? Thanks. Some arsehole chief dude shouts at me when I’m attempting to fill out a declaration form because I can’t understand Russian. ITS IN RUSSIAN YOU FUCKTARD. Nothing is written in and nobody speaks English. The sooner I’m out of this country the better.
Crossing into Uzbekistan feels like you’ve been released from prison. An armed Uzbek chats away to me in good English, while a doctor puts a funny thing up to my forehead. I flinch away and he reassures me it’s just for temperature. The border guards are laughing and joking with me, but still pretty incredulous that I’m trying to get rides for free. “BISPLADNO!” I exclaim (for free) and they all heartily guffaw. “STOOART MUSICA IDA IDA!” He points at my guitar wanting a song. I’m offered a cigarette and waved through with no problems. It’s amazing the difference a few yards have made.
Finally I can relax and manage to take a picture of the long, lonely road away from the border which I’ve no choice but to walk. I’m hoping for a busier intersection over the horizon. The sun is going down, and I’ve still got a fair distance to go. However I needn’t have worried, as with just two, free rides I’ve made base camp in Bukhara. In the interim I’ve had money changed and allowed to use internet for free to locate my hostel. Websites are unblocked, and the people are friendly. 3 rides, 15 hours 757 km, and I sink into a really comfortable bed in a warm, private room for fifteen bucks. I think I’m going to like Uzbekistan.