Turkmenistan was by far the strangest country of our trip.
Coming out of the 20 year old dictatorship of Turkmenbashi and walking on an equally peculiar political system at the moment, it is considered by many as the “North Korea” of Central Asia.
It was already clear by the extremely complicated visa-issuing process (for just a 3-day transit), but it became apparent when we reached the country.
Cowboy-style soldiers doing the checks at the borders, extra charges even with the visas at hand and long waiting hours.
Other teams even have stories of being asked for their planned route in the country and being charged with gasoline taxes on the estimated kilometers to be done!
Anyway, the Nomad Caravan teamed up with another Swiss team, the “All inclusive tour” and made it into the country together.
(Some beautiful videos of the “No man’s land” are about to come as well.)
And then the “White City” comes. The capital Ashgabat, the dream of Turkmenbashi, a shining pearl in the middle of the desert, a place where you get fined if your car is too dirty for this perfectly polished environment.
On the basis of a former Soviet city, modern Turkmenistan built its awe-striking capital and took us by surprise.
Four-lane highways, white marble everywhere, fancy monuments, arches, bridges and decorative lights hide the truth that lies behind them, in a Las Vegas style way.
Police officers stand literally every 50m on the main streets blocking foreigners from taking pictures and the atmosphere is so odd that could definitely inspire Orson Welles for a novel on totalitarianism.
Being late, we started looking for a hotel just to find out that almost any of the few options in the city was already fully booked.
That led us to a final option of a 5-star hotel, where surprisingly other Rally teams had found shelter as well.
After playing the charmer’s game with the receptionist we managed to a get a room for three for the price of 90$.
We rushed into the shower and got out for dinner, being advised that every single restaurant or bar in town closes at 23.00.
On the other side of the street we came across a restaurant with private rooms, loud music and Russian girls serving the food.
Back home, we don’t call these places restaurants, but it did the trick for that night.
We move back to the hotel for beers in the garden with the other teams and organization plans for tomorrow.
The most brave of us try the hotel disco as well. A most peculiar mixture of people being found in there, with highlight the discussion with a girl at the bar:
“What do you do?”
“I work here”
“So, what do you do?”
“Give me 200$ and I’ll show you!”
The next day, we enjoy the luxury of the hotel before hitting the road.
Continental breakfast and swimming in the pool, before heading to the Karakum desert.
The convoy is formed – first time for our team – and we leave the city with noise.
Eight cars moving together.
We manage to be left behind pretty early, at the first gas station.
And even though we catch up, we will never enjoy the fun of the convoy…
We stop to buy water in a tiny village in the desert and there we find an inflatable red dragon as well.
We buy it as a mascot and while we head back to fix it on the car, we realize that something strange is happening there. The roof rack has slid all the way back, about 20 cm from its original place, ruining the roof of the car and stopping at the back door.
Running with 100km/h on these bumpy roads took its toll.
Luckily, we didn’t kill anybody on the road.
But there we are, stuck, four hours before reaching our destination, looking for the right tools to fix the roof rack.
A local from the house nearby comes out and after explaining the problem with mimics, he returns with the tools.
We spend an hour screwing and unscrewing and after having teamed up with a lot of villagers, pit stop is over.
We leave again, driving like grannies and hoping that our roof rack doesn’t fly off again.
Just before sunset, we manage to reach the turn for the “Doors to Hell”.Locals advice to lead us, but we refuse, claiming that we move on by ourselves.
Five meters away and the car is stuck in the sand, digging deeper in every turn of the wheels.
A jeep comes to rescue us.
The first attempt fails with the rope being broken, but in the second one we make it.
Now, we allow the locals to show us the way, making it to the end of the road.
There we leave our tiny car for a massive 4×4 that will take us through the dunes to the “Doors to Hell”.This mythical place; a huge hole the size of a basketball field with a fire that never burns out.
Rumors have it that the Soviets opened the hole looking for oil, did not consider the deposits being sufficient for exploitation and then abandoned the place setting it on fire.
It has been burning ever since, for the past forty years.
We found the others, shared our stories, set our tents and headed up on a hill for the necessary photos. As the sun went down, the pit kept lighting the desert with the teams wandering around, playing music and making jokes. A festival-like spirit went on until the early hours.
Only drawback the huge spiders and scorpions that lured around.
7am we leave again; stopping at the next village and having stew for breakfast.
The roads turn out to be awful – the worst ones of the whole journey –with huge craters threatening our car all along and with us trying to drive us carefully as possible, due to poorly fixed roof rack.
Giorgos, at the co-driver’s seat, falls asleep in exhaustion.
In his dreams we can listen to him mumbling: “straight…turn left”!!!
A tiring day all the way to the northern borders with an off-road track considered to be the national road connecting two countries.
At the borderline we find the other teams again and with so many hooligans together, the crossing the borders process turns out to be a big mess.
Uzbekistan here we come…