Sometimes we have those moments when we want to throw our motorbikes onto the ground, asking ourselves why again we would like to take this route by motorbike. Sometimes, only sometimes, we think we cannot go any further and that every mile is one too much and that Australia may be too far. Yesterday, was such a day. Such a day you can suffer from sadness, pain in your buttocks, shoulders, neck and arms (where not?) and that each pothole in the road is one too many. The day before yesterday does not help either. We drove through loose sand and both felt off at least 10x, get up and continue, get up and continue. Exhausted of the desert heat, we finally gave up.
To give up is not really our thing, but we have given up to at least not reach the tourist attraction of Turkmenistan by motorbike. However, what we have seen in Turkmenistan has greatly surprised us.
Monday 7th August 2017 Bajgiran – Ashgabat
When we arrive at the border at 7.45, we are not the first. Some other Mongol Rally Riders are in front of us. Nevertheless, the things that have to be done at the border, especially stamping the Carnet de Passage to get out of Iran went pretty quickly. Once at the Turkmen border, Erik was the first one to receive the stamps so that we could park our bikes in front of the line to the next country.
So far everything is going well, but then the long waiting starts. Officers who should have been in their post are not yet there. 45 minutes later, the paper mill will start running again. In addition to all stamps, we need to pay 12 USD per person entrance fee and 68 USD per person for the motorbikes; 1 USD disinfection (not executed), 15 USD for entry, 24 USD fuel compensation as the fuel is freely given in this country, 15 USD motor insurance, 5 USD administration fee, 4 USD exchange rate and 4 USD bank charges. The amounts that we cannot pay properly, we will have a change, but with an exchange rate that does not even reaches half the amount we got on the black market. After the financials, all panniers and bags are checked. “Do you have weapons? Do you have any drugs? Why not? Are you sure? “Against our will, we are already beginning to annoy the men’s macho behaviour. They really want to see everything, take everything out, and it takes us a lot of time to pack it all in again. Then a man suddenly comes across. Although he is not dressed in uniform, everyone seems to know him and the customs officers are submissive to him. With an alcoholic smell out of his mouth he steps on Bertha’s motorbike and pretends to make a trip. “Broem Broem.” He’s almost falling off, but Bertha dares nothing to say, because then probably the customs will only make it even harder for us. When the medicine box is found in one of the suitcases, the alcoholic takes out a box of tablets and tries to sell it to one of his suspected colleagues. Bertha is cooking in anger while trying to keep calm. We can only look at it. Then Erik tells that the box of medicines helps for mosquito bites. The alcoholic has immediately lost his interest in the box and returns it quickly to Bertha. He was probably looking for hallucinating analgesics, but he could not find it among all Dutch labels. In Mashhad, Erik has also done a thorough check on all medications on predominantly codeine and morphine. These painkillers are prohibited to take into Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. Also, the customs are not very happy on drones and GPS equipment. We therefore hided our GPS tracker somewhere. If they find one of these things then you can get into trouble.
The agents nod, everything is alright. Our trump, a package of Marlboro for 2 EUR bought in Iran and worth around 20 EUR in Turkmenistan, will remain in Erik’s jacket. Fortunately, we did not need this. We know we’re doing nothing wrong, but a border crossing is always a bit exciting. After 3.5 hours we set foot on Turkmen border.
When we make a sanitation stop over the border along the road and put all forms back in the panniers, two macho-with-a-lot-of-stripes-customs officers yell at us: “No stop, no stop here !!! Ride! Ride! Go!!” Apparently, we should not stop in the area between the border and the next city Ashgabat. Everywhere we see cameras hanging and there are watchtowers. Oops!
The moment we enter Ashgabat, a new world opens in front of us. The houses are large and almost entirely lined with marble, the cars are white, all the trees and plants are pale green in the middle of the desert, all streets are covered with the newest asphalt and, moreover, as straight as a line, all traffic signs and columns are equipped with golden edges, all statues are made of gold, no horn-honking on the streets and the few road users even stop before the traffic light has jumped to orange. Welcome to the world of Ashgabat, a world created by former President Saparmurat Niazov.
During his presidency, the president was renamed to Turkmenbashi (Leader of Turkmen). When this president was re-elected in 1994, every Turkmen resident received water and gas for free. In 1999 he was re-elected as a president for life, so no elections anymore. The president is quite full of himself and everywhere, mainly in Ashgabat, are golden statues of himself or of his relatives. His head is on banknotes and there are airports, stadiums, vodka bottles and even a meteorite named after him. Turkmenbashi has written a book called Ruhnama, a kind of autobiography with his ideologies, supplemented with the history of Turkmenistan and texts from the Quran. Every year, the Turkmen officials are tested for their knowledge of the Ruhnama. Anyone who has read the book 3x will go to heaven, according to Turkmenbashi.
Other notable changes by Turkmenbashi:
– The month of January is named to Turkmenbashi, April became “mother” in Turkmen.
– A holiday day has been introduced for ‘melons’ and ‘carpets’, the two major export products of Turkmenistan next to the ‘gas’. And there is a national holiday for Turkmenbashi’s parents.
– In Ashgabat there is a statue of Turkmenbashi which is 75 meter high and turns with the sun.
– Schoolgirls had to wear a fur hat, because Turkmenbashi found that cute.
– Beards and long hair for men were forbidden.
– Golden teeth were forbidden for a long time. “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 … ”
– Women on tv were not allowed to wear makeup because they were already beautiful enough.
– Turkmenbashi’s last idea was to build an ice palace “big enough for 1000 people”, according to the president. This ice palace had to be built in the mountains just outside the capital of Ashgabat and with the capital being connected by a cable car. Furtunately this idea has not been executed in the middle of the desert.
In 2006, Turkmenbashi died of cardiac arrest and Goerbangoeli Berdymoechammedov was his successor. This current president reversed some laws, but remains in the shadow of his predecessor. Below is a video of the current president. Unfortunately, we do not speak or write Russian, but we understand from the people around us that this video should be taken very serious.
In short, it’s a bizarre world here in the isolated Turkmenistan. For a long time tourists were not welcome in the country. Currently it is still difficult to get a visa. For us, a 5-day transit visa was the best option and this was happily accredited.
Bertha is relieved that she is not obligated to wear the headscarf in this country and together we are glad that we can get up the street in short pants and a shirt without anyone looking at us.
On the internet Bertha had found a bank to get dollars that we need to pay the hotels in the city. Except in the hotels, everything is paid in the local currency, Manat. Bertha checks 1000 for the amount and is completely surprised to see when the money comes out. Oops, we have pushed 1000 Manat instead of 1000 USD. This is only 250 euros, but since the fuel and food here are so cheap, we will never lose these Manats in 5 days. There is also no exchange office in the country that Manats wants to exchange for Dollars. We decide to quit the search for a bank for dollars, fortunately we still have some. That will be luxurious diner tonight!
Ashgabat is an expensive city in terms of accommodation. It may be that cheaper hotels may not accept tourists because at the first two hotels we step in we are completely ignored. One last option we had written on a paper was the cheapest hotel of the more expensive ones we found. Hotel Ak Altyn is a great value with its 110 USD per night. Fortunately, we can pay the hotel by credit card. We hope to compensate for some of these expenses with the cheaper food and fuel. The gasoline costs only 0.25 euros per litre! Whoopwhoop !!
In the evening we go for a dinner in a Western-looking Steakhouse where we can order delicious steaks. Unfortunately, they do not seem to have beers here, so we drink our first beer in the evening. After 3 weeks of abstinence, a cold beer in the hotel disco with 40 degrees is divine!
Tuesday 8th August 2017 Ashgabat
When we want to leave on our motorbikes, Bertha’s chain seems to be pretty loose. Last night, two Romans arrived on their motorbikes and had parked them next to ours. They advise us to clean the chain first, as it does not work well. When we say we’ve never done this before, they start laughing. “Ai, you should do this every 5000km.” They apparently have some time left before their departure and before we know one of the men is brushing Bertha’s chain with a brush and petrol. He was not taking it easy. After half an hour, the chain is flashing clean. Unfortunately, one of the links appears to be stuck, so the chain clicks every round. We adjust the chain one more time, put it a little tighter and leave it like that. Perhaps the chain still holds for another few thousand kilometres, and besides that we have two spare chains.
We get on the bikes and do a sightseeing tour around Ashgabat, starting with the Yikham Inspiration Park, full of images from poets, researchers and philosophers. It’s crazy that nobody walks in this big park or is in the shadow. There’s just no one at all.
Then we drive to Ertogrul Gazy Mosque. Bertha has forgotten her headscarf and has to wait outside. Inside, there is a ceremony and Erik is offered delicious cookies.
In the Independence Park is the Monument of Independence. The monument is 118 meters high, and this is the sum of 27+ 91. On October 27th, 1991, Turkmenistan signed for independence. Statues of leaders and writers stand around this monument.
There is a giant copy of the book Ruhnama at another entrance of the park. Every evening at 8 o’clock this book would open and Turkmenbashi’s book would be heard from the speakers. However, we do not know if this is still the case with the new president.
At each monument a few soldiers are standing. Despite the fact that there are no prohibitions, it is usually forbidden to photograph monuments in this country. It’s an art to film and shoot without being seen or before the soldiers have reached us.
In the giant Berkarar Shopping Mall we park our motorbikes under one of the hundreds covered parking spaces with shade. It seems like the whole city has hid here, it’s crowded with cars. However, it does not appear to be excessively busy at the shopping centre itself. We buy some canned vegetables, pasta, canned meat and water for our crossing through the country tomorrow.
After an ice-cream we continue our way to the west of the city, to the Monument of Constitution and to the great pride of the city, the Indoor Ferris Wheel. This is the largest Indoor Ferris Wheel in the world and is included in the Guinness Book of Records. However, when we arrived at the wheel, in our opinion the wheel did not looked that high and it looks a bit dull. The Ferris Wheel is not running and besides us there is nobody to see.
Then suddenly a man in a van and shouts at us. We decide to wait and he comes to us. He is very interested in where we come from and where we go to on our motorbikes and he turns out to be a Toyota dealer in Ashgabat. Due to various country restrictions, he may not import or sell any motorcycles, but may import small parts. It may be that these restrictions will become less restricted in the future, so that he can grow his business. We indicated him that if that would be the case, he would be spokesman in this country. Despite the fact that there are daily motorists driving the country, there is no motor dealer with the right tires. When Erik asks about chain spray (a search he has already started in Azerbaijan), the man nods right away. “I think I’ve got it…” We are going to meet at 18:00 at our hotel to buy the spray and talk a bit more.
The last activity of today is the Walk of Health. These stairs form a footpath in the middle of the Kopet Dag mountains, designed to improve the health of the inhabitants. There are two distances, one of 8km and one of 37km. Turkmenbashi obliged all officials to take the long path once a year and advised the inhabitants of the city to do the same. He himself took the helicopter to the end as he thought it was not good for his heart. Probably this would be correct because he later died of a heart attack. However, the 37km was also not very healthy for the inhabitants of the city. It is a path without trees and thus without shadow in one of the most extreme climates of the world. It could reach up to 50 degrees in summer.
When we arrive at our motorbikes at the start of the path, we are stopped by a military. Here tourists are not welcome at all. We ask if we can see the entrance of the short path, and this turns out to be approved, however with a disapproving look. Quickly we take a picture and get away. It turns out that in this country they prefer to lose tourists rather than to serve them.
When we arrive at half past six at the hotel, it appears that the Toyota dealer has already passed by and left a packet of two chain sprays as a gift! What a top service!
Wednesday 9th August 2017 Ashgabat – Darvaza
We get up early, looking for jerry cans. The crossing of Ashgabat to the north of Turkmenistan, Kunye-Urgench, is about 600 km. On this route there would be no gas stations and the ones who are attend would not have petrol. With our motorbikes we can ride at least 300 km with a full tank of 15 litres. So we decide to bring a minimum of 30 litres extra. Unfortunately, there is no store in the entire city selling jerry cans. We decide to go to the Russian Bazaar and here they only have 20 litres water tanks, which are equally huge. At the gas stations they will probably have them and so we will finish three gas stations. In the end, we got one of 5 litres for free and bought one of 20 litres. Both are used for oil, but we clean them before we fill them. Together with the canisters we already have on our motorbikes, we now have 31 litres spare with us. This must be enough!
As we wait at the gas stations, we see many cars in line for the carwash. There are even 3 clean police cars in line. It is obligatory in the country to have a clean car. With a dirty car you risk a fine.
It is a long straight road through the desert to Darvaza, a point halfway the country. Along the way we see an oasis! Really bizarre! Also, we see a lot of camels walking, they even walk over the road. Bertha has almost had a collision with a camel in the middle of the desert!
Then, 40 kilometers before arrival, Erik’s 20-liter jerry can drop off his bike. The jerry can now has a hole in the bottom, so we decide to fill both bikes with petrol as soon as possible. The 20 litre is too big to be poured into the bike at once, so every time we first fill the 5 litre can before we fill the bikes. We use the top of a plastic bottle as funnel. After 15 minutes, both motorbikes are filled. We now have only 2 more 3-liter containers as spare. Hopefully this will be enough!
Darvaza is the location of one of the highlights of Turkmenistan. The Darvaza gas crater is located in the middle of the Karakum desert, about 220 km from Ashgabat. Darvaza has one of the largest gas reserves in the world. During drilling in 1971, geologists accidentally found an underground cave filled with natural gas. The ground under the drill collapsed, resulting in a large hole with a diameter of about 70 meters. To prevent the discharge of toxic gas, it was decided to burn the gas. Geologists hoped that the fire would go out after a few days, but since then the hole is still burning. Local residents gave the hole the name: Gate to Hell.
From the highway it is still 8 km to reach the crater. When we arrive at the starting point of this ‘road’ we take a rest. The asphalt in Ashgabat is so smooth, but the route to Darvaza was a road full of potholes. The first two hours were okay, but the last 3 hours it was tough and we had to focus on a road that had more holes than asphalt.
From the highway to the crater it is another 8 km drive, of which half is sandy. Almost simultaneously with us, some of the Mongol Rally cars arrive and they try to climb the first mountain through the sand. Without success. However, they get loose and do another 5 attempts, in which the first car bounces all sides. We hear cheers, the first one is upstairs. Then Erik tries on a motorbike and drives the first one up the hill in one try. However, when he drives the second bike up, he is making a big mistake and bounces in the roadside. The throttle is somewhat twisted and the panniers have luckily captured much of the fall. Oh, this could have ended different. With the help of some locals we get the motorbikes up and push it through the loose sand. On top of the mountain, however, this appears to be part 1 of the many enduro tracks that will still come. We drive a little further, but not much later Bertha falls back into the sand. By two locals, she is pushed further, falls again, gets up, pull the motorbike further, falls again, gets up, falls again. This ritual repeats itself a few hundred meters. Bertha is no longer able to think. The heat and energy have grabbed her and without thinking she drives with a survival modus after Erik. Then Erik suddenly turns around and looks at Bertha. “We cannot continue like this, we have to stop. In this way our motorbikes will not reach Australia.” Since we have already loaded all the bags and panniers into a 4×4 car that drove behind us, we decide not to set up the tent here but to drive back to the highway and to set up the tent there so that we do not have to get back tomorrow morning. What a disappointment. After 2 hours we are back at where this adventure began, along the highway. The locals who helped us see opportunities and try to get our cigarettes and money. Of course we would like to go to the crater and they know that. For 200 Manat (50 USD) and almost a full package of Marlboro cigarettes we make a deal.
With the last bit of energy we cook a meal, which brings us a little bit back to earth. At 9 o’clock in the evening we are picked up by a few locals with a 4×4 terrain that brings us through the desert to the crater in half an hour (also with a lot of effort). When we take the full 8km in the car, we are again glad that we turned and went back to the highway. Of course we would have reached the crater, but we would not know if the motorbikes were still running at our destination. During our trip to the crater we still see many Mongol Rally cars splashing in the sand, not knowing that there is a long way to go.
Miles away the crater is already fully illuminated. But when we get closer we really see the extent of the hole. It’s breath-taking! It’s gigantic! We really did not want to miss this!
A little later, the car brings us back to the tent and eventually it turns out that, according to the locals, the deal included some more packets of cigarettes. Cigarettes are gold in Turkmenistan. It seemed like the money did not matter to them and they only wanted cigarettes. We gesture that we have no more and quite angry and irritated they leave us alone. The last hour before we sleep, we sit on our chairs, looking at the many stars and the moon’s light that even causes a shadow. Again beautiful!
Thursday 10th August 2017 Darvaza – Konye-Urgench
We wake up at half past six to be ready before the sun hits us in the desert. Pack and go! The 280km long road will take place in 8 hours. What a hell! Asphalt makes room for debris, debris makes room for gravel. On most parts it is better to drive along the road through the sand than on road itself.
100km before reaching Konye-Urgench there is suddenly a shop. Happy we can buy some water!! We brought 12 litres yesterday, but in that heat, these 12 litres have gone through. Together with us, another couple that is participating in the Mongol Rally stops. They have slept at the crater, but their exhaust is completely broken. At the shop we are welcomed by some kids with a delicious melon. While we enjoy the melon we see a number of rally cars passing by, the majority do not sound too good anymore and a van is even dragged.
Again happy with our decision yesterday we get back on our motorbikes. To our surprise we can refuel our bikes in 10 kilometres. Still another 80 kilometres to go for today. We do not care that the only hotel in the city just before the border with Uzbekistan is a dark bunker where we have to pay a high amount of 160 Manat (40 EUR). Fortunately, we can spend the rest of our Manats here. We have a shower and a room with air conditioning and that is the most important thing now. By taxi we drive to a restaurant that appears to be closed. We buy food in a supermarket cook in the room with our gas burner while enjoying a well-deserved beer. Exhausted with the capital letter E!