Saturday, August 17, 2013

48 hours of Turkmenistan

We wake up at six, Ilona almost didn't sleep beacause of mosquitoes. But we are alive and we are not discovered. I am glad for this. Today is going to be hard. The border guy told us to reach the border in three days although our visa says five.
We also have to sleep in a particular hotel in Asgabat otherwise we'll have problems with police. By sleeping in this dump we just broke this one rule.
Getting to the border the day after tomorrow seems easy by bus and taxi by paying an insane amount of money but it's a real challenge by hitchhiking.
Maybe they'll forget about this 3 day rule and they'll really give us five days as they wrote on the visa and maybe they'll also forget about that hotel. Let's hope.
Anyway if we have to make it in time, we have to reach Balkanabat or at least Berket tonight. Turkmenbasi would be a miracle. Maybe we'll have to hitchhike at night.
So at six we walk. The road is good, I am surprised. I thought it would be awful, unpaved and all. This is a highway. It's empty but it's new and well maitained. A car passes. We are afraid to hitchhike, we are afraid to be seen, we are afraid of everything because we could be reported to the police and everything is forbidden here. Or at least that is what we understand from what the border guards told us.
The only thing that is allowed and expected from us is to race likes crazies towards the Turkmen border, sleep in hotels and take taxis.
Anyway, we have to start hitchhiking at some point, we cannot cross 700 kilometers by foot so as Gazelle says, "don't think about it, just do it!". Without this saying we would never had the guts to cross Turkmenistan.

"These people are so distant, we can forget about invitations here", says Ilona.
I can't believe that because I have read that book about two czech people who have cycled through Turkmenistan and were also invited. But it was twenty years ago and today it seems that Ilona is right.
Ashgabat,futuristic view

But hitchhiking works. The guy seems sad and bored, he doesn't talk much. Actually, the correct word would be: depressed. He is a taxi but takes us for free. He is going to Asgabat and lets us out at a roundabout in the directions of Abadan, our next city. I start to talk in turkish but he speaks russian, that makes everything much easier. No huge language barrier like in Iran.
People are also starting to have slightly slanty eyes here. This is weird. It's like we have taken one small step towards china. There is a huge difference between chinese and turkmen. Turkmen have a darker skin, like turks but their eyes are slantier than turks or europeans. Just a little bit. The eyes of chinese people are much slantier. I didn't think there were levels of slantiness but then again not many people have seen turkmenistan.

Back to our taxi driver, he lets us out in the south of Asgabat. Shock. This can't be real. Countless shiny white buildings clean as newly washed porcelaine. Everything is new and the weird architecture of Asgabat makes it possible to see a maximum number of constructions for afar. When the buildings are not similar they still seem to respect some kind of pattern, as if they belong to the same family.
All buildings look the same

If I wasn't sure this was reality I would have thought to be in a video game.
I haven't seen anything like it, the closest city in my memory to the asceptiscised Asgabat is Singapore. But there were people in singapore. Asgabat is empty. A huge shining new ghost city. It looks like it has been computer generated. How can people live in that? This doesn't make sense to human mind. It's not ugly, it's not pretty, it is disturbing. Maybe it is also beautiful in a weird sense of beauty.
It seems to be a great cosmic joke.

Since there are so few cars we decide to hitchhike inside the city. It works and it works very well. We go to the center and then on the road leading to Abadan. Nobody has reported us to the police (for doing what? no idea but everything can happen here) and the police doesn't seem to care much when they see us. This is fortunate because there is police everywhere.
KGB police entrance

We make it out of the city quite easily. The road is still awesome, I am starting to think these rumours about bad roads in turkmenistan were just propaganda like the stuff about Iran. We hitch several rides, each for only a few kilometers. Hitchhiking is pretty straightforward, people stop, we explain taht we have no money, they usually speak russian, everything goes well. Sometimes they refuse to take us without money but usually the second car stops. The only downside is the heat which is getting worse whith every kilometer and also we are only getting 10 kilometer rides.
After a while we are running out of water and Ilona is exhausted. We are merely 80 kilometers outside of Ashgabat.
"So much work for so little?", she says

Turkmen woman with baby also hitchhiking.
However, she probable will pay for transport.

I am still fine with it, it's merely noon and I hope that we reach Bereket if we hitchhike into the night. Ilona hopes for Turkmenbashi but I think it is too optimistic.
We are starting to get a little insight into this big unknown that is Turkmenistan. As always the information you get in europe is scarce and usually biased. Yes it's a dictatorship, second only to Norh Korea, I really can't say. People don't seem scared anymore as the women from the border. Most of them aren't interested in politics and don't really care and therefore don't judge the ways and means of their leader. However, they appreciate the results. "A few years ago, Turkmenistan was a country of criminal and drug traffickers. Our president put a stop to this."
The roaads are also improving. The awful unpaved roads which were here during the soviet union are turning into huge uniform pathways, flat and clean as glass.
Same with buildings, new ones are emerging, all white and shiny.The same way us europeans are proud of our old historic monuments, here they take pride from everything that is new. We make compliments about their nature, they are not receptive: "We have many new buildings, go look at them!"
Each time we go somewhere, people point us to new buildings. It is a sign of development.

Even though hitchhiking goes well, people here are definitly more distant than in Iran. Not much physical contact, almost like in europe. And they just don't see any point of doing what we are doing. We try to explain for a long time that we are hitchhiking to be in contact with people, that we like not knowing what will happen tomorrow, that we want to see how far we can get only be relying on the kindness of people.

"This still doesn't make any sense to you, does it?", says Ilona after some time of explaining
"Honestly... No", says our driver, "but hey, do whatever you want!"

Turkmen family
Our driver is a young guy who speaks english. He has taken us into his car in Bamy. He and his girlfriend are going all the way to Turkmenbashi. This is at least 500 kilometers! We are now 150km from Ashgabat and this will take us about 200 kilometers towards the Kazakh border, this is a miracle!
Maybe Gazelle's prayers worked! I am starting to think we might get to that border in 3 days and tell them that we were so fast we didn't even have to time to get to that stupid hotel we were supposed to sleep in.

We are picked up by Ruslan

The guy's name is Ruslan and he works at an oil company here in Turkmenistan. Turkmenistan has a lot of oil rigs, so many that each citizen gets about 1000 liters of free gaz each year. Electricity is also free and so is tap water. No wonder a lot of people don't want to overthrow the dictatorship. Actually most people don't consider it to be a dictatorship. On a personal scale, you can do whatever you want. You can drink, you can go a club.
Kat, Ruslan's girlfriend is of Armenian origin. She can dress normally, actually she dresses in a more liberated way than most girls in France.
"There are clubs but you can only go there if you're a foreigner", she says to Ilona.
This makes me think that some people don't want to tell the whole truth because it could damage the reputation of the country. This is understanable. On one hand, Turkmenistan has a lot of features of a dictatorship, on the other hand the media likes to take those features and put all the focus on them, discarding all the rest.
Ruslan and his girlfriend and me

I am starting to wonder wheather this leader, despite being quite full of himself, wasn't such a bad choice after all. Some authoritative regimes tent to push some countries forward, at great costs yes, but still. I wonder if the current situation with Turkmenistan couldn't be compared in some aspects to the situation in Turkey when Ataturk was in power. Nevertheless, there are insanely big differences between Ataturk and this clown, nobody could deny that.

Anyway, we are starting to realize that we have misdjudged Turkmenistan at the border and the situation is obviously more subtle than we thought.
Ruslan points out that while you have to be extremely lucky and have connections to get a good job in this country, nobody actually dies of hunger or is homeless. Society just takes care of you somehow. I just hope that somehow doesn't include summary execution.

After sleeping in a dried river in the desert, even I stopped believing in Turkmen hospitality. And believe, it takes a lot for me to lose hope in hospitality. And since we almost didn't take any food because we hurried too much from the moment we left Tehran (and there was nothing there) and also no money, we were more or less prepared not to eat anything in the following several days. Plus, our water was running low and digestion consumes too much water anyway.

Little did we know that our cute little couple would invite us to eat a Turkmen speciality. I have forgotten the name but it wwas so great, there was meat in it, something like georgian Khacha-purin but with meat instead of cheese.

19:00 hours, we arrive in Turkmenbashi. An hour and a half before nightfall, that is unbelivable. The couple gives us two bottles of water and we get another one for free at a local luxurious restaurant. Our stay in Turkmenistan is turning into a quest for water. The worst desert is yet to come as we will enter the 200 kilometer emptyness between Turkmenbashi and the Kazakh border.

Caspien sea in Turkmenbashi
My map shows a very small, almost imperceptible raod going through there. It will take forever, if there even is a road. But I will never know until I get there, I wouldn't have found a better map anyway. my electronic map is about the best you can get.

Some children beg us for money.
Seriously? I don't think that we look like tourists at that point. My pants have a big hole on my knee because of the awful night we spent yesterday. We just asked someone to give us water. Do you really think we have money just because we're strangers?

We walk in Turkmenbashi, in the direction of Kazakhstan. We have a lot of way to cover, better start as soon as possible. On our way, Ilona takes a heavy watermelon from the trash.

"It's a little too ripe from the inside but if you eat only the corners that should do it." So we carry the heavy watermelon. A car stops. "Do you need a taxi?", he speaks english.
Everybody always tells me to discard the taxis but I like to give a chance to people. I ask him if he's going and he tells me that he can bring us two or three kilometers towards the road to Kazakhstan. That sounds good to me so we go.

Slam is a fireman and is going to work tonight. His good friend he met in the army is driving him.
"It's not every day that we meet tourists here.", he says.

They show us a part of turkmenbashi that looks very different. It's like being in Ashgabat again but with more people. An enormous fountain is shooting giant geysers of water towards the sky under a shining moon. This is amazing. I am not sensitive to tourist attractions but this is truly amazing. Light works are shining into the water while the music of "mission impossible" plays.

Fountain in Turkmenbashi

Dadesh, Slam's friend, invites us home. He lives with his parents in a nearby village. Take that stupid Turkmen authorities! You're giving us tranzit to get the hell out of your country in order to see and hear nothing, in order to stay away from the local population, sleep in hotels you choose for us and only see what you want us to see.
Well that is a fail, we are doing the exact opposite.

Dadesh is a great guy, he has a sense of humour and makes videos with his friends. His acting skills are not bad actually. Some of the videos are quite funny. He got married not so long ago and yesterday his wife gave birth to a child.
Dadesh has such a beautiful wife, you cannot imagine. She has dark long hair only asian women can have and eyes just slanty enough to have this beautiful asian charm but wide enough that you can see them shining. She's so beautiful in every aspect that you wonder how such a subtle combination of aestethic is even possible. And she isn't the only one so blessed. Forget georgian girls, go get them in Turkmenistan! Unfortunately, you'll have to pay the heavy price of living in a dictatorship. The only spot on the otherwise spotlessly perfect beauty that is Dadesh's wife was her name: Ogurlgul.
What the fuck? What were her parents thinking? How can you give birth to such a divine creature and then name her Orgulgul? I would understand if she was a goblin or a mutant cobra but in this case? Come on just call her Vanessa and be done with it!

Unfortunately Vanessa (forgive me, I just can't call her by her real name, it would be a sin) wasn't there so we made a video for her. Actually I made a video because Ilona was to shy to appear on camera. Ilona wrote her a note instead.

We ate an amazing dinner. Oh my god that was good. I can't believe we were prepared to be hungry for two days. The exact opposite happened. We drank milk from camels, there are plenty around. Amazing taste! And turkmen bread, best ever.


And last but not least, we slept in a safe place, our beds made out colorful hand made turkmen carpets. They might kill us in this weird country but maybe we are in heaven already.
According to Dadesh, it is not that bad. He reckons this country is a democracy. He can do whatever he wants, he doesn't fear to get into trouble. The streets are safe and that is also important. I, for one, can't say that I feel safer in the streets of Rennes in my home country.
Dadesh's opinion bears weight. He is smart, he has a sense of humour and therefore is able of criticism. This country is more complicated that is seems at first glance.

The next morning, we have an amazing breakfest. The tea is really great, they drink it from bowls. First they pour it into a first bowl with some tea leaves compressed into small balls. You are then supposed to pour the first bowl into a second bowl to get rid of the impurities.

He then buys us bread and chocolate for the road. We also get lots of candies. He drives us to the spot where the only road into Kazakhstan starts. As most roads in the desert, as most roads leading to borders, as most roads in Turkmenistan, this one is empty. Empty, empty, empty.

He films us as we walk away. Thank you Dadesh, you have changed our experience of Turkmenistan. Farewell!

Emptyness towards Kazakhstan

We hitchhike a small truck towards the closest police control. There are very usual in this region because of multiple oil sources. There are about three small villages in the 200 kilometers between turkmenbashi and the Kazakh border, each of them has an oil source. We see the fires burning.

Not many cars on the road and they are getting fewer and fewer as we approach Kazakhstan. The road, which was very good at the beginning is in a poor state now. But it is still paved, that's more than I expected.
We've got one 100 kilometer ride from a Turkmen guy who would like to live in russia. He doesn't speak the local language and complains of racism towards foreigners. He says it's hard to live here but when I ask him what he thinks about how the country is ran, he says he isn't interested in politics. That makes sense, a lot of people from the former soviet union reason like this, including myself.

Our next ride are two guys who wanted money but finally took us for free. They ask if we know some self defence before we enter Kazakhstan. Lucky for us, Ilona is a kickboxer.

Passport control again, I lost count of the checks. Where are you from? The police guy writes our names into a big log book. No computers. I say Czechoslovakia because it's too tiring to explain what Czech republic is. So we're oficially registered as from Czechoslovakia, a country that doesn't exist for more than 20 years.

The landscape is dry and desertic. Salt planes appear because of the dried out caspian sea. I see sea shells in the desert. There was sea before and now there is nothing. The sun is shining like crazy. No cars. We are still carrying a good supply of water and the huge watermellon. i would love to throw it away but Ilona wants to keep it."It's not that bad,", she says, "just cut the central parts and throw them out,we can eat the rest".

We make it to a lonely shelter next to the road. Misha is living there. He is Azerbaidjani, he is here all the time. All alone all day; day after day. Sometimes truck drivers on the way to the Kazakh border stop by and by some food and water for the road. We have no money so he offers us tea. Tea is excellent. He makes tea for us again and again.
He's very kind, he helps us finding a car. But almost no one drives by for hours and hours. The border closes at 7 he says, we still have a little time. He tries to negociate with cars to take us but they are all full. Most of them are jeeps who drive people all the way to Aktau for probably a huge sum of money.

The other cars are going to the lake, 16 kilometers from here. They are building something there and there is probably nothing there, nothing but the desert. We are much better of with Misha who is good to us, makes us tea and has electricity.
He says there are cobras in the desert, to be careful. That is ironic onsidering the picture on my left shoulder.
After more than 4 hours, me and Ilona are bored. We have decided not to drink water anymore but to eat the watermelon instead. It is so huge and e just cannot finish it. We organise competitions of watermelon crust throwing.
Ilona tries to convince Misha to also eat our watermelon from the garbage. Misha refuses politely.

He makes us more tea. "We will drink your tea if you eat our watermelon", jokes Ilona. So poor Misha who was kind enough to make us wonerful tea ended up eating watermelon from the garbage with us.
"We'll drink your tea if you eat our watermellon," Ilona says

At last, he stopped a minibus. It was empty. I didn't have much hope but the bus driver was smiling: "Misha! He's an old friend of mine! Of course I'll drive you for free!"

We race towards the border at 60 km/h. You might think this is slow but actually, it was a crazy ride. In about 5 kilometers the very bad road stopped being a road at all and we were racing through the desert like Paris-Darar riders with dust everywhere. Up, down, to the side, the old minibus almost burst into pieces a dozen times. I was sitting in front so I was quite allright but Ilona was having a hard time at the back.

There was a shoe under some seat. For a while she thought it was a part of a dead body. Weird how strange things may seem possible sometimes. It was just a shoe. Our crazy ride stops at the border. I have hidden some of my stuff that may seem suspiscious to Turkmen authorities. Like SD cards, I heards they mght ccheck them or my pepper spray and especially my GPS beacon.

At the border, we have to declare our stuff. How much do your bags weight? Do you have any religious books? No. That's a lie, Ilona has a bible. Do you have high frequency transmitters? Nope. That's also a lie, my two GPS beacons fall right into that category. They decide to check our bags. Shit.
That's when the sight of the border official slowly turns towards our watermellon. We still have a good half of it and if you ask me, the thing is starting to rot from the inside. It's dripping its disgusting juice on the floor and flies are flying around it like crazies, as it was a piece of crap.
"Just take that thing and go", says the border official. He doesn't want to find another abomination like this inside our bags and he is right to do so, my socks aren't very far.

We have almost crossed. Ilona is in a very happy mood, she laughs all the time. She also wants to pee but I guess that makes he laugh too. I am stressed out, the only think I can think of is if they are going to bother us beause we didn't go to that hotel in Ashgabat like we told them.
"What do you think they'll do? They just want us out of the country, the worst thing that can happen is that we'll get banned from Turkmenistan." I know she's right but I am not able to get into a happy mood just yet.
"Regulate your russian!", I tell her, "we still can use our lack of language skills for our benefit"
"Don't smile too much", "don't talk too much", "don't talk about politics!" I am so annoying.

At last, they find a border guard who speaks english.
"Where are you from?", eternal question, "And are you married?"
"Czechoslovakia and No"
"Are you family?"
"Because...", says Ilona with a brilliant smile, "we were born in different families"
And she bursts into laughter. I think my heart is gonna explode, don't fucking make fun of turkmen officials in a dictatorial regime! Come on are you high?
Nope, and everything works fine. We transport our half of dripping watermelon accross the rest of Turken border and cross to the Kazakh side.
The idiotic picture of their leader says goodbye to us one last time.
When turning back towards Turkmenistan, the Kazakh border writes in big blue letters: "Good Luck". I wouldn't have written anything less.
But this is good, that means Kazakhstan has a sense of humour. Maybe I should say the same about my french phone operator who writes me a welcome message for every country I cross into.
Today they wrote: "FREE welcomes you into Russia"