Hitchhike to India leg 48: Ashgabat to Bukhara

Thursday 03 December

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.

Trucks...

Trucks…

...and goats.  Good name for a band

…and goats. Good name for a band

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.

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The door to hell

Wednesday 02 December

Now this was one I’d been looking forward to for a long time.  You’ll have all seen it before – it’s one of those tourist oddities that crops up in lists of strange places you won’t believe are on this planet.  Or things to see before you die.  Or Sovietfuckups dot com.  Not sure that’s a real thing, but it should be.

The so-called “door to hell” or “gates of hell” has been on my radar for sometime, simply because of how cool it looked, one of those alien landscapes you don’t think exists here.  It’s visited by more than 50,000 tourists each year, and is actually number one on trip-advisor for Turkmenistan.  That’s not really anything to be proud of – that a burning hole in the ground is your number one attraction – the country really must have bugger all else.

The vast nothing

The vast nothing

And judging from our three and a half hour journey into the desert, you can well believe it.  Because it’s best viewed after dark, we set off from Ashgabat mid afternoon, greeted by mile after mile of nothingness.  It’s just one long, monotonous slab of tarmac through scrub and sand, occasionally pitching up bleak remote villages and the odd herd of camels.  Some 98% of Turkmenistan follows suit.

The door to hell

The door to hell

The Darvaza gas crater is a man-made phenomenon, situated in a natural gas field in the Karakum desert.  The story goes that Soviet engineers were on the search for oil, when a drilling rig collapsed into a natural gas chamber instead.  Concerned with poisonous fumes, and in order to limit the emissions of toxic gasses, they decided to set it alight, estimating it would burn for a couple of weeks.  That was back in 1971.  Or 1950.  Because Soviets.

P1110335

Warming my hands by the gentle fireside

Since then it’s been a continuous flame, with the glow at night visible from over 40 km away.  Recent governments have been spit-balling filling it in, but nothing has happened to date.  And why should it?  It’s your country’s number one tourist attraction!  But Turkmenistan isn’t exactly a country pre-occupied with tourists.  You only have to look at the quality of the hotels and the difficulty in obtaining a transit visa to figure that one out.

CAMELS!  WILD CAMELS!

CAMELS! WILD CAMELS!

And yet still the crater attracts visitors.  Not all of these visitors are human.  Spiders are drawn in their thousands to their fiery doom by the warmth the flames generate, and it’s fascinating to watch birds dance and swoop above the heat.  During warmer climes, intrepid travelers set up camp in the surrounding desert and party into the night.  On one such occasion someone drunkenly fell in (I’m going with Australian) but surprisingly enough they were successfully rescued by a crane some time later.

Don't fall in

Don’t fall in

Still, you wouldn’t want to fall in, and indeed I’m a little apprehensive at standing too close to the edge.  When rallying through the sands in the dark and seeing the crater for the first time, it literally looks like a door into the underworld because you can’t see the bottom.  There’s something distinctly unnerving as you approach, with the thought that the ground is going to give way and suck the 4×4 and all its occupants into Hades.  I was happy to keep my distance, and happy another one is off the bucket list.

P1110376

In the teahouse. Too hungover for vodka and my glasses are stuck together with sellotape

Before beginning the long journey back in the dark, we stop for local food and refreshment at the famous remote tea house – a way-point for truckers and travelers.  My visa expires tomorrow, and I need to make a decision how I’m getting to the border I’m allowed to cross, some ten hours drive away.  Reluctantly I decide the best option is to leave at 4 am, and so snatch a little sleep in the back of the pick up.  It’s going to be a very long day.

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Ashgabat

Tuesday 01 December

Oh where to begin?!  Ashgabat is just crying out for a lampooning by an eloquent, witty wordsmith with biting prose and scathing humour – but unfortunately I’ll have to do.  Let’s all follow the impeccable brick road shall we?  The insanity starts when you ease into the city from the border checkpoints, on tarmac that looks like it’s never been driven on, underneath a pearly white gate…

Welcome to Oz

Welcome to Oz

 And so the theme continues.  The entire city (or at least the recently built and polished side) is one giant white marble reconstruction of the city of Oz.  It’s one dictators attempt at heaven on earth, a dazzling, gleaming, eat-your-food-off-the-floor utopia that almost doesn’t belong on this planet. Splice iRobot with Demolition Man directed by Tim Burton, and it’s the strangest place you’ll ever see.

The white city

The white city

And that dictator, is one Saparmurat Atayevich Niyazov.  The self-titled Turkmenbashi (Leader of Turkmen), this eccentric leader imposed his ego and erratic whims upon the populous for over a decade, so much so that the wider world considered him one of the most totalitarian rulers of recent times.  He forced himself into power following the collapse of the Soviet Union and set about re-molding Ashgabat into the bat-shit crazy place it is today.

Hundreds of these.  There were thousands, but the new crack-pot in charge had a lot removed

Hundreds of these. There were thousands, but the new crack-pot in charge had a lot removed

His gold effigy is everywhere and unfortunately his infamous legacy cemented for eternity.  I didn’t manage to take a picture of the numerous giant portraits of him around the city, as I’d be in serious trouble if I did.  Police and guards appear to be the only people on the streets, and woe betide you if you raise your camera within eye-line.  Consequently most of these snaps are poorly shot from the hip or from a moving car, so apologies for that.

From the car - governMENTAL buildings

From the car – governMENTAL buildings

“His Excellency” died of cardiac arrest in 2006 (so we’re led to believe) having previously survived numerous assassination attempts.  A massive earthquake in 1948 killed around 110,000 – most of the population (although at the time Stalin owned up to only 14 to 40,000 – as ever when the Soviets made mistakes, nobody was ever sure of exact figures and dates).  Niyazov was the only survivor from his family, and he wasted no time in building a monument of himself as a golden baby on what appears to be a broken earth, being lifted into the sky by a bull.  Again, apologies for no picture.

An enclosed Ferris wheel

An enclosed Ferris wheel

The psychotic demands of a madman began, and following his admission to office (where he duly named himself president for life) he set about re-modeling Ashgabat largely with the money from Turkmenistan’s oil and gas reserves.  The Arch of Neutrality is a bizarre structure, similar to Thunderbird 1, and at the top stands a golden statue of – yes, you’ve guessed it – the illustrious leader.  And this statue – wait for it – rotates to face the sun.

Bonkers

Bonkers

I just can’t understand how someone didn’t stop him?  Obviously not the general public because they’d be thrown to the lions, but a close aide or family member?  “Errr yeah…about that rotating statue boss…”  Who was in the room when he demanded that?!  How could he say it with a straight face?!!  Did nobody just piss themselves?!!  I would have loved to have been a fly on the wall for that one.

Other outrageous vagaries included banning TV anchors from wearing make up (because he couldn’t tell who was male or female), changing the names of days and months to his own family members, and forcing every student to read his book – Ruhmana – which he demanded was held in the same regards as the Qur’an.  So much so that you have to know it to pass your driving test, and if you read it three times you’ll get into heaven.  One public square holds a giant copy of the book.

Madness

Madness

Gold teeth were outlawed, and Niyazov suggested Turkmens chew on bones – and I quote -

“I watched young dogs when I was young. They were given bones to gnaw to strengthen their teeth. Those of you whose teeth have fallen out did not chew on bones. This is my advice.”

So if someone were to go missing passing through here you’ll know where they ended up.  There aren’t padded walls thick enough for this kind of lunacy.

Not a sinner in the place.  Parks filled with ghosts

Not a sinner in the place. Parks filled with ghosts

And yet in the city you have to watch what you say.  With my CS-host having let me down, nearly a full day is spent trying to find a place to sleep, and I manage it only through air bnb.  My host kindly drives me around the city, but she herself is aggressively defensive when I challenge the infrastructure and way of life.  “WHY IS THIS BIZARRE?” She snaps, when I jovially point out how fucked up it all is.  In her defence, one mans dream is another’s nightmare, and she staunchly argues that what is strange to me isn’t strange to a local.  However one gets the impression of more than a touch of brainwashing, particularly when conversing with her more relaxed brother, who still lowers his voice anywhere and anytime he lambastes the “fake” city and former president – including in his own kitchen.

Shortly after I managed to snap this, we had to leg it out of the bazaar followed by an unhappy looking chap in a black jacket

Shortly after I managed to snap this, we had to leg it out of the bazaar followed by an unhappy looking chap in a black jacket

Try as I might, I only managed a couple of decent pictures, but they’ll give you some idea.  At one point I’m in a butchers market at one of the bazaars, and I request to take a shot of the sheep heads.  Given permission to do so, I duly snap away, only for an indignant man to scream bloody murder.  During this incredulous diatribe, my host’s brother – who I was with at the time – nearly gets into a fight because of it, and the whole market stops working to see what the fuss is over.  It appears that the deep-rooted suspicion and paranoia has filtered down from the tyrannical government onto the streets.  My crime was taking a picture of the heads of dead sheep.

National security concerns

National security concerns

But at least I’d found people.  The empty boulevards, shinning buildings and immaculate parks are sinister.  Enormous open vistas with thousands of white street lamps punctuating flawlessly cut lawns.  There’s more colour-changing fountains than Las Vegas.  I’m at a loss as to the nature and use of most of the structures, astounded at the sheer size of certain buildings for trivial uses – vast spaces “just because we can.”  There’s a post apocalyptic air, and the imagination doesn’t need to stretch far at being the only survivor in a quarantined location after a zombie outbreak.  Occasionally I catch a masked street-cleaner chilling out on the sidewalk, but when I approach, they stand and vigorously polish the road.  There’s not an apple core, a coke can, or a cigarette butt in sight.  The city isn’t lived in.  My host claims it is because nobody likes to walk in Turkmenistan, but effectively you have one giant sprawling mass of white marble (in the Guinness Book of Records) that nobody seems to use.  The only evidence of human beings are the trench-coated jobsworths masquerading as police.  Curfews are in place, spot checks are rife and outsiders eyed with suspicion.  It’s 1984 realised.

Sanitation ninja

Sanitation ninja

Vacant utopia

Vacant utopia – the city looks like a giant architectures model, complete with little trees

As luck would have it, I make a friendlier acquaintance in Igor, a 30-something bar manager working out in the Maldives.  He only comes home once in a while, but it’s my luck that he has, and we hit the town for a night out.  A night out consists of how much we can drink before 10 pm when what appears to be the only two bars begin to close.  He echos too the sentiments that you still have to be careful what you say – as previous US guests of his got into hot water for slandering the former leader in a bar.  Lucky for me then that on my first night back on the demon drink, I only manage to fuck up my glasses.  It could have been a lot worse.

Fourth pair in four years.  At least I'm consistent

Fourth pair in four years. At least I’m consistent

There are positives.  The streets are immaculately clean, there’s virtually zero crime, and citizens enjoy free gas, water and electricity.  But what a price to pay to live under a totalitarian boot, looking over your shoulder in a soulless, plastic city that nobody uses?  A city destroyed first with a natural earthquake and then a man-made one, the wrecking ball giving way to an instant facade?  And what happens when the oil money runs out?  Perhaps then they can melt the hundreds of golden Niyazov statues.

Bling bling

Bling bling

The pictures here are just a scratch on the surface of what this city holds in store.  I wish I had more time, and I’m disappointed I didn’t get photographs of some really strange stuff, but five days is barely enough to cover Ashgabat, let alone other sights and another mammoth hitch out of the country.  With a quirk round every corner, from the strangely beautiful to the downright fucking crackers, it’s a capital city the likes of which you’ll never see – mainly because you’re not really allowed to see it.

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Hitchhike to India legs 46/47: Tehran to Ashgabat

Friday 27 November

I had finally scored my visas.  There was nothing keeping me in Iran. Well, nothing I’d write about just now anyway, and the time was drawing nigh to depart.  Visas are date specific, so I needed to enter Turkmenistan on the 27th of November and cross is within 5 days.  So at the time of leaving Tehran at 6 am on the 26th, I assumed I’d planned it all perfectly…

A word about that departure.  My wonderful couchsurf host Honey had put me up and put up with me for about a month on and off.  She let me stay in her place while she worked, and took me on various excursions around Iran.  It was safe to say she was one of the best hosts I’ve had in my still fairly limited surfing experience, but we’d not always seen eye to eye.

I was attempting to slip away with little fuss so’s not to wake her, but I’d failed, and she came sleepily out to say goodbye.  Let’s just say as far as goodbyes go it was interesting.  And by interesting I mean passionate.  And by passionate I mean I shouldn’t have left.  We’d been dancing around each other having arguments more often than not, but maybe this was the reason why.  Nonetheless, the taxi was waiting, the meter running, and sure – there’d be other dames…

I’d made a contact with a super friendly taxi driver about a month back who gave me his number in case I ever needed a lift in the city.  It just so happened that I did, as getting to where I needed to be in a city like Tehran would have been a logistical nightmare.  With such a long way to go, I opted to pay him to take me to the city limits, and hopefully out of range of do-gooders trying to force me to take the autobus.

Except it didn’t cost me a penny.  Regardless of driving for nearly an hour through traffic and across Tehran, Shapoor doesn’t charge me a bean, inspite of my protestations.  I was on the highway with the sun just testing the sky around 7 am.  An electric kiss and a free ride?  The day had started well.

And my luck was to continue.  I spy a speed bump and strategically position myself to pester the slowing traffic, but before I even manage to produce my sign, I’m being bundled into the back of a car by a couple of students, the driver speaking perfect English.  They can only take me 20K, but as ever with hitching long distance, getting out of the city is vital.  They marvel at my “smartphone google map” – which is a bit of a paper with a line drawn on it, and after an impromptu roadside selfie session (honestly I’d love to see all these pictures from my years of hitching), I’m in a great spot basking in warm winter sun and walking on air.

And it continues, albeit somewhat confusingly.  An old, classic Mercedes-Benz pulls next to me and its driver tries his best to understand what I need, but the conversation is going nowhere.  Many people simply don’t understand that you want to be hitchhiking.  That you don’t want the autobus or a train.  That you’re clearly out of your mind but it’s ok because you’re a foreigner.  I didn’t make this really nice sign for the good of my health or because I’m incapable of finding a bus station.  After twenty minutes he’s still  on the phone to someone and parked right in my designated space to allow truckers to pull in.  It’s getting annoying.  I just want him to give up and move on.

But persisting, he beckons me over and puts the phone to my ear.  A voice on the end of the line ascertains what I’m trying to do, and I hand the device back over.  A little reluctantly I find myself in the passenger seat but on the move again, apparently with a firm understanding of the situation.  For all the back and forth, he can’t actually take me very far are all, but every little helps.  About ten minutes into the short drive in very broken English he insists I come and meet his 20 day old daughter.

The father, the son, the daughter and the un-holy ghost.  Iranian hospitality

The father, the son, the daughter and the un-holy ghost. Iranian hospitality

Alas my attempts to explain I have a long way to go and little time to do it fall on deaf ears.  Not to mention my baby phobia.  Clearly a very proud new father and peddler of kindness, before long I’m sitting in his cosy home being fed by a grinning Iranian family.  Even during my flight from the country they’re still killing me with kindness.  But true to his word and appreciative of the distance I have to travel, it’s short and sweet, and thankfully they don’t make me hold the child.  In leaving they thrust a days supply of food into my hands (which one could easily ration for two, and would force my pack to be included as check on luggage) and heartily wave me on my merry way.  Iranian hospitality at its best.

A 20 day old little bundle of joy.  I would have probably dropped her

A 20 day old little bundle of joy. I would have probably dropped her

And my kind host doesn’t stop there as he takes me to a taxi lane somewhere outside his town.  By now he’s clued up on my task, and is taking great delight in conversing with his peers standing and smoking by car doors.

“FarsifarsiEHSTOOARTfarsifarsiEHSCOTLANDfarsifarsiINDIA!”

My gracious host flagging down cars

My gracious host flagging down cars

It is with this repeated conversation that he scores me a free taxi ride to Semnan – the first significant way point.  Fed, watered, and hands shaken, I’m finally on my way.

I’m deposited at a police check point and truck stop.  Easy peasy pickings, but the day isn’t getting any younger and I really need a long distance hitch.  It’s not long before I strike gold, and a young guy pulls in to take me as far as Sabzevar.  That’s some 450 KM and in a fast car.  I’m cooking on gas.

This for miles.  I think there are some camels if you look close enough

This for miles. I think there are some camels if you look close enough

But the sheer vastness of this country begins to take its toll and although I’ve had a near perfect start, I’m still a fair distance off my destination as night is falling.  Mile after mile of the same, dry, shrubby landscape zips past the lowered window and I realise there’s no option but to push on into the night.  Winter is not the friend of the hitchhiker.

Night hitching in Iran.  Mechanics somewhere on the left

Night hitching in Iran. Mechanics somewhere on the left

It’s dark by the time he’s pulling away to his home.  He offered my a place to stay for the night, but with the border still some leagues away, it’s for the best that I at least make an attempt to get close to it.  It all comes down to this damn Turkmenistan visa.  With only 5 days allowed, I need to be crossing early tomorrow to get the most out of my quota.  But if I didn’t have to do that I would have an extra ten days in Iran, and THAT could have been interesting.

The light has taken the heat, and see my breath on the air for the first time this year.  My previous driver has been another angel in driving me through the built up areas to deposit me on the highway out of town.  Negotiating areas of population can be a tough task for free-loaders.  I do like getting picked up by young guys.  They just get me.  Y’know…?

Fending off the predominately good-humoured attentions of a bunch of mechanics at the road side and I’m saved by a shared taxi.  My only blight with an otherwise perfect day of hitching was the rather aggressive way in which one man was attempting to tell me I’d never in a million years get a ride for free and that in exchange for my guitar he would take me to my destination.  Trying to explain the logic to someone that you’ve managed to hitch through 28 countries without payment is useless.   In the circumstances, I don’t mind parting with the tiny sum of money to get me over the finish line for tonight, and as I still don’t have a place to sleep, $3 isn’t a bad price to get me to a roof over my head and lock on my door.

Digs for the night.  Slightly concerned about gas leaks

Digs for the night. Slightly concerned about gas leaks

And I feel I need it too.  It’s comfortable enough, but the toilet reeks of nutty poo, it appears I’m the only person staying here, and the proprietor is that sort of limping, one-eyed, man-servant to the human centipede doctor.  It’s ten bucks for the room and I welcomingly pass out from exhaustion and the heat from the broken boiler.  Or maybe the gas they were pumping into the room.

The Iranian care package from earlier today - saved my life

The Iranian care package from earlier today – saved my life

I wake with light trying to get round a filthy curtain.  There’s no shower that I can see (and if there was one it would be freezing cold – so I’m happy to have the excuse), and I’m out the door as soon as I’ve shivered into my clothes.  There’s not a sinner on the streets, and I stutter a question and answer from a couple of old boys hanging on a corner.

Quchan in the morning

Quchan in the morning

“Turkmenistan? Turkmenistan? Ashgabat? Ashgabat?!”  I make big pointy gestures in the direction I think I need to be going.

This kind of thing is never simple.  Instead of a straightforward yes or no, there’s always an inquest.  And nobody every really seems to know anything about the place they actually live in.  Between the two of them I hear a life story, before finally deciding that I am indeed going the right way.  Thanking them, I set off to march in the direction of what I hope is the edge of the city on the northern side, fending off a significant amount of taxis in the process.

They love these here.  Sugary swizzle sticks for tea and coffee

They love these here. Sugary swizzle sticks for tea and coffee

Surprisingly enough, I’m exactly where I need to be, and at that moment of time, a car swings in seeing my ‘TM’ sign.  Lo and behold, he is a customs officer on the Iranian side, and can take me all the way to the border.  For $5.  I consider this for a moment, and realise I’m already eating into my first of five days in Turkmenistan.  As there is nobody else on the road (and I’m unlikely to catch another border official) I allow myself the cheat.  To be honest, the free hitchhike goes out the window until I’m through Turkmenistan.  The transit visa is not the hitchers friend.

His name was Smile.  Apparently.  He was pretty cool - working this border for 40 years

His name was Smile apparently. He was pretty cool – working this border for 40 years

My driver speaks little English, but when he does it becomes a time-passing game to figure out what he’s actually on about.  He pauses between words for the length of a bible while I presume he’s trying to find the translation, or he’s forgotten what he’s trying to say.  A sample sentence can be found below.  Most of the time I just nodded and said ‘yes!’

“You…  …  …  tourist…  …  …  …  …  tourist…  …  …  …they…  …river…  …  …  …fifteen dollar…  …river… … …go…  …fifteen dollar… …and go.”

I think he was trying to tell me I owed him $15 instead of $5, and my suspicions are confirmed when indeed at the border he demands the higher sum.  Credit to him though he backs down and smiles when I stick to my guns and pay him a fiver, and we both laugh off the fact that he was blatantly at it.  My luck holds again when a taxi going the rest of the way to customs offers me a free ride.  According to my crap phone, it’s approaching midday.

Leaving Iran behind

Leaving Iran behind

Then it just becomes a nightmare.  The shit hits the fan.  Either I’m really unlucky with my timing, or it’s like this everyday, but I seem to be attempting to cross at the exact moment a host of Turkmens are returning from an Iranian shopping spree.  Now you would have thought that the sensible thing to do would be to let the solo traveler – who sticks out like a sore thumb – quickly cross before rifling through everything everyone has bought.  Everything.  EVERYTHING.  But no.  That would be far too sensible.  And not only that, but aside from the extortionate $85 I’ve paid for a visa for five days, they have the audacity to ask for another $12 to cross the border!  The sheer cheek of it!  This had better be one fucking outstanding country!

Illegal photo from the hip.  Waiting at the Turkmenistan border

Illegal photo from the hip. Waiting at the Turkmenistan border

And so I become invisible.  I’m sitting waiting at the “bank” door to be robbed of my twelve bucks, while slowly but surely large women drag their stuff through customs.  I’m waiting two hours.  Two hours!  And not only that, but by the time I finally cross, I’ve realised it’s actually two o’clock in the afternoon!  I’ve crossed a time zone!  And not only that – I’ve somehow lost another hour from somewhere as well!  I’m in a black hole of time!  And it didn’t help matters when the ever suspicious Turkmen border guards remove everything from all my packs to search for guns and drugs.

So it’s mid-afternoon when I’m in a new country, and with no confirmed place to stay tonight (my confirmed couch-surf host has been strangely silent) I take the shuttle bus to the edge of town.  For some reason all the long distance trucks have disappeared, and I’m wedged in to a tatty rust-bucket with a bus load of Turkmen shoppers.

Barf washing powder?!  No thanks!  (It means snow in farsi)

Barf washing powder?! No thanks! (It means snow in farsi)

There’s nobody and nothing here.  Deposited on the city outskirts and I can’t find an internet cafe, or a money exchange place, and I’ve not actually seen a real life person for that matter.  I stumble into the first open place I see, and a young lady with a family takes pity on my predicament, feeds me back at her apartment, before arranging for her outlandishly rich friend to take me to a hotel in his brand new land cruiser.  But this is where the hospitality ends.

I did take a photo of the family, but they requested it not posted to the internet.  Welcome to Turkmenistan...

I did take a photo of the family, but they requested it not posted to the internet. Welcome to Turkmenistan…

The hotel, one of the cheapest at $35 a night, is actually full.  I’m left to wander the streets as night falls, trying to figure out where I’m sleeping.  I contemplate one of the empty fountains, and I’m on the cusp of preparing myself for a night on the streets when I stumble upon the offices of a tour company still.  Ducking inside, thankfully they speak English, and the very kind receptionist calls round a few hotels to find me a cheap deal.  The standard $35 is the only option, and after they change me some money and put me in a cab, I’m standing in what can only be described as the worst hotel room I’ve ever stayed in.  It’s more like a squatters crack den, but at least it’s better than sleeping on the streets.  Just.

35 dollar shit hole

35 dollar shit hole

So after 2 days, 8 rides and 961 KM and I’ve somehow made it to Ashgabat.  I could get a little teary eyed at departing Iran, but I don’t want the cockroaches to see weakness.  Now there’s only four full days left to explore as much of this country as I can, and then get out.   It’s about to get super, super weird.

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