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Turkmenistan, A bite of Adventure.

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(foundry rough, sorry for the many mistakes and clumsiness)

First day – 27/ 11 / 2018

The snow that fell yesterday melted, at least on the roads. Once the battery is carefully returned to the hotel room for the night and reinstalled on Utopia, it starts without any problem. Just until the luggage is fixed and I leave. I have 5 days of fixed-date visa: from November 27 to December 1.

I approach this stage with a certain curiosity: Turkmenistan, the last country in Central Asia that is still under the yoke of a “sovietizing” administration. Turkmenistan, which some people call North Korea in Central Asia. The stories told by the few rare travellers who were able to visit it are often not very engaging, such as this one: https://cloetclem.fr/visiter-le-turkmenistan-visa-transit-coree-du-nord-asie-centrale

The topo I had when I decided to cross it was the following:

Extreme difficulty to get the visa and impossibility to have anything other than a transit visa for 3 to 5 days.
At the border, a GPS tracker is attached to the vehicle, allowing the authorities to know where you are at all times
Absolute prohibition to deviate from the pre-defined path for transit: when applying for a visa, the entry and exit borders must be indicated. It is essential to stay on the road that leads from one to the other.
It is certainly possible to obtain a tourist visa, but this requires going through an agency that will plan the trip for you, and you will be accompanied by a guide at all times.
Photos and videos are very controlled and often prohibited.
Here… the framework is set, I know what to expect… all I have to do now is go…

But first of all, I must say that as far as the visa is concerned, I did not have too much trouble in fact. The procedure was quite simple although a little long (15 days waiting). However, it is possible to apply at one consulate and collect the visa at another. It is sufficient to specify this when making the request. Besides, the staff I had to deal with was pretty nice. But I know that obtaining this famous visa seems to be a lottery. I heard about an entire family for whom the visa had been accepted… except for the father. Legend or reality, I don’t know.

27 November 2018 – late morning – Border crossing

On the Uzbeck side no problem, except that when I want to come out on the other side, the guard who performs the final check tells me that I forgot a stamp. I have to go back to the offices to get the sesame. Apart from that, the customs officers are really nice as on almost all borders so far. But it is true that procedures are often complex, a legacy of Soviet times.

One last greeting, one last smile and I leave Uzbeck territory and head for the Turkmen border post…

I enter the building with the same attitude that I have adopted for years at all the customs offices in the world: a big smile on my face and a slightly naive look. This often disarms the most clothed customs officers. An old man, rather friendly, welcomes me. He takes my temperature and helps me fill out the entry form. Once done, the administrative labyrinth begins….

The first customs officer is in line with my expectations: cold and distant. He checks my passport, then hands me a paper and tells me to go pay a $10 tax at the counter next door.

In terms of a window, we should be talking about a skylight. I knock on the window. A woman, rather pleasant by the way, opens the door. I hand him the paper. She fills out a paper herself, hands it to me for signature and asks me for 14 dollars: 10 dollars of tax and 4 dollars of bank commission… which just added to the 50 dollars of visa, or 64 dollars in total.

Once done, I go back to the first customs officer, and hand him the paper he just gave me… he gives me my passport back and tells me to go to the next counters.

The result is both more pleasant and full-bodied. More pleasant, because the other customs officers are rather nice. More robust, because none of them speak English, unlike the first one.

At this second counter, there are three of them, each with a stamp just to clear the motorcycle through customs. The first one completes a specific form on which are indicated:

The taxes I’m going to have to pay.
Information about myself and the motorcycle
The path I’m supposed to follow carefully drawn with a ballpoint pen.
Once done, he told me to go pay the taxes to the bank.

So I’m going back to knocking on the skylight. The young woman opens again. I lean towards her with a big smile, that smile you get when you meet an old acquaintance. I have to look comical because she smiles herself for a brief moment as if in spite of herself.

As before, I hand him the paper. But this time, she fills out not one but five or six others herself, which she asks me to sign, and then asks me for $84. Strange, I thought I read $64:

1 dollar for vehicle disinfection – virtual disinfection!
15 dollars for “entry and transit of the motorcycle”
28 of “compensation for the cost of fuel oil”
15 dollars of insurance
5 dollars of “processing document” processing
Even including the bank’s commission, that seems a lot to me, but that’s inflation… and the banks are the same everywhere, isn’t it? I just hope there will be no more taxes because this time I’m at 50 (visa) + 14 + 84 = 148 dollars just to enter Turkmenistan for 5 days…it’s getting expensive.

So I go back to my second window where my three customs officers stamp my sheet in turn with their respective stamps. I can’t help but smile as I recall an old joke: why the KGB agents still don’t go three? one can write, the second can read and the third is there to control these two dangerous intellectuals…

A fourth or rather fifth customs officer comes to me (in fact, no, I forgot 3 others who had simply checked my papers between the first and the 3 others… so if I count well: the grandpa who took my temperature + first customs officer, + 3 + 3 + 3 + 1: I have already gone past 9 customs officers!

The ninth customs officer then fills out another form that he hands me by saying: “Ten Days! “Surprised, I answer him: “no, five days”. He repeats: “Ten days! ».

All that remains is the baggage screening formality. Before leaving I ask where I can change money. The customs officers answer me: to the next city Kounia-Ourguench.

I certainly filled up the 43 litres of Utopia’s tank to the brim before going through customs, but I hate being without money in a country. In general, there is always a way to change a minimum at the border. But this does not seem to be the case here.

I take the road to Kounia without money but with a 10-day stay permit instead of the initial 5 and no one has put GPS on my bike contrary to what I was told… What am I going to do with these ten days? Even without GPS, it doesn’t seem appropriate to me to deviate too far from the road indicated on the paper I was given… that’s what the angel said to me on my right shoulder. But the imp on my left shoulder blows me away: “You’re free, man! »

Arrival in the city of Kounia-Ourguench.

First priority: find a hotel. Maps.me, the application I’ve been using for several months, shows two. I’m going to the first floor. Apart from the main avenues, the streets are muddy. That and the sounds close to Turkish take me back 45 years. Memories are coming in.

Arrived at the location where the hotel is supposed to be: nothing. Neighbours come out: an old man, a young man and a little behind, a young woman. I ask them “Hotel”. The advantage of this word is that it is international or almost international. They make me understand that it’s closed. Still using sign language (it’s amazing how much you can make someone understand just with signs in the end), I ask where I can sleep. The young woman addresses the old man with a little head movement towards the house that makes me think that she is telling him that I could sleep at their house. The old man seems to be hesitating. He asks me where I come from. French. He’s still hesitating. I prefer not to insist despite the desire to see how they live. But the reputation of the regime in place makes me fear that they will have problems once I leave. When in doubt, I abstain and thank them.

I go to the place where the second hotel is supposed to be, but I don’t see anything and this time no neighbour to find out. Forget it, I’ll just have to move away a little and I could pitch my tent. But first, I need to find money to have a meal and to have enough to feed Utopia when the time comes. And there, my GPS applications remain silent: No ATM or bank seems to exist. When modern means are lacking, only one solution: go back to the old methods: Go to the city centre and ask!

On the side of the road a young man waved to me. I’m stopping. He speaks a few words of English. I jump at the opportunity and ask him where I can change money. He signals me to follow him and takes me to a bank. I suggest he wait for me for a drink. He’s declining. Lack of time or fear of being seen with a stranger? I ask myself the question without having the answer.

This bank does not practice exchange. I have to go to the bank of Turkmenistan! After many requests to passers-by, I finally found it. I imagined an imposing building. But no, the bank of Turkmenistan in Kounia is just a very small decrepit building with a tiny door with an eyelet, which must be knocked on. The guard opens. The man seems suspicious at first, but very quickly he puts himself in a hurry to help me. The bank is closed. He tried to negotiate with the clerks, but to no avail. I’m making him understand that I’m hungry. He starts a conversation with a third man who waved at me to follow her and led me to another building, pointing to a rather austere steel door. I’m opening a… miracle restaurant.

I ask for Turkish soup and a coke and get confirmation that I can pay in dollars. Miracle, people understand me! And in less than 10 minutes, I find myself in front of one of these delicious soups, half a pot au feu that I love. Sometimes it takes little to make a traveller happy: a soup and a nice place to pitch a tent. For the place, I don’t know yet, but for the soup, I’m not sulking my pleasure.  I am on my second (soup! must follow!) when a man approaches me and makes me understand that he does not speak English. On a piece of paper, he marks $14 and the word “order”. A little sorry, I look at him a little dazed. I don’t understand what he’s saying, but he seems really nice. On paper he writes this time: 15/20 minutes and makes big signs. Okay, so, someone’s coming in 15/20 minutes, right? And I have to wait? Well, why not? I have nothing else to do but eat my soup and I’m curious to understand. 15 minutes later, I see the bank clerk arriving with a surprise, after I had wiped a smile off her face at customs. She explains that she made a mistake: she counted me the rental of a GPS, which was not useful since I was not asked any on the bike. She comes to pay me back and take back the corresponding paper.

How did they find me?…. that is the question! I had been in this restaurant for barely 10 minutes when the man approached me. Kounia is certainly not a big city but still….. But since they are there, I might as well take advantage of it: I ask them where I can sleep.

They led me to a closed building (which actually corresponds to the second GPS point but the lack of signage and the fact that I had arrived in the adjacent street had made me miss it) and without any other indication: just a phone number to notify the guard. A young man named Murat, introduced himself 5 minutes later and opened the “hotel” to me. The room is all pink, the hotel completely empty and decrepit but there is a bed, toilets and especially hot water. I shower, then go to bed. The pink walls of my room take me back to the yellow ones who saw my recovery in Morocco 14 years ago. As I fell asleep that night, I finally felt like I was feeling the sweet smell of adventure. This adventure that I’ve missed since the beginning of this trip.

Second day – 28 November 2018.

In the morning I try in vain to find a way to change money on the black market. I managed to get some interesting information: at the official rate, the dollar is worth about 3.5 manat. On the black market, the price would be around 1 to 15… a big difference. But every time I try to find out where I can go, I get the same frightened answer: “No, it’s not possible”.

Dismayed, I decided to go back to the bank. Not without hesitation, I decide to change 100 dollars. I’d rather lose a little money than be left without cash on my person. Then I take the direction of Darvaza. I want to see the famous “Gates of Hell” at all costs: a crater, or rather a subsidence of land that opened in the early 1970s following a drilling by the Soviets. Believing they could eliminate the gas that escaped from it, they decided to set it on fire… which still burns today, more than 40 years later.

The beginning of the road looks difficult: a bad track, sometimes tar, sometimes muddy and rather slippery. At this rate, it will take me two days to reach Darvaza 300 km to the South.

In front of me: the Karakum desert. I can imagine it cooking quite well in the summer. For the time being, it is rather cold. I make a small fall while wanting to go on a magnificent new 4-lane bridge built on a river. I’m lucky, one of the few cars to drive by passes at that time. They help me to lift the bike up and finally the mud part only lasts 70 km and then gives way to a tar that goes from bad to quite good in places. It makes it possible to support a good 100 km/h without any problem and I arrive in the evening in Darvaza.

T

Two young people, Suleyman and Sardal, are preparing a meal next to a yurt. We discuss a little bit about the price and I decide to put my things down for two days in the heat of their wood stove.

A little later, near the crater, I met a young French couple travelling with their two children in a camper van. The customs authorities granted them a residence permit of… 3 weeks. This story seems stranger and stranger to me, but I quickly drive this thought out of my head.

Day 3 – November 29, 2018.

The day is spent reading and dreaming. I do some magic tricks at Suleyman and Sardal soon joined by a third colleague.  In the afternoon, another tourist, an Italian, Manuel, arrives on foot: he has hitchhiked (this is a common practice in Turkmenistan) from Ashgabat and therefore makes the journey in the opposite direction to me.

In the evening, we do the world again in front of the crater for more than two hours.

He gives me some valuable information and in particular the place where I can change money in Ashgabat: the Russian market.

Day 4 – November 30, 2018

The next day when I get up he’s already gone. The day is gloomy and cold. Utopia for the second time does not want to start: the battery is dead. I take it apart and bring it in to warm it up. Two hours later, I can start Utopia without any problem but I give up leaving that day. In the evening, I am the only tourist to admire the fabulous spectacle of the crater.

Day 5 – Saturday, December 1, 2018

My 5-day visa ends today… but a priori, I have 10 days…. well… I think… maybe.

I leave early in the morning under a beautiful freezing sun. The road is fine and I’m going at 120 km/h. Alas the weather gets cloudy a few kilometers before arriving in Ashgabat and it is under the rain that I arrive there.

I hesitate: Either I play it safe and cross the border, about thirty kilometres away, immediately….. Either I take my chance…dilemma…but, but…still…it’s a shame not to see this city under the sun and I know that on Monday it should be sunny. In addition, there is this hotel, the Sofitel, which a friend told me about a long time ago…. I’m curious to see him. Finally, there is the famous Turkmen horse, the Akhal-Teke, with its golden robe, the steppe greyhound… a shame to pass without trying to see some of them in person…

I decide to go to the Sofitel, now renamed Oguzkent Hotel and I take a room there. Very expensive for my budget as a long-distance traveller but once in a while, why not indulge yourself. In fact, as I will learn later, the technique is to change dollars on the black market and pay in manat. On condition that they accept what is not won in advance but by being convincing it seems that it is possible. But I won’t learn about this until the next day… too late…

The hotel is in line with the description I was given: incredibly luxurious. All in marble, 15 floors, 14 presidential suites of 300 m2 each, all original and unique, two high-end restaurants: the first on the ground floor offers dishes of traditional local cuisine and the second of high French cuisine on the 15th floor. A spa, a swimming pool and a sports hall complete the package. But the most incredible thing about all this is that the hotel seems completely empty to me. Except for the staff, who are overwhelmed, I don’t see anyone.

Day 6 – Sunday, December 2, 2018.

At breakfast, I am relieved to see that I am not the only customer. Not that there is a crowd and, clearly, it seems that less than 10% of the rooms are not occupied, but at least I am not the only one. And it is also French people, working for Bouygues, who have negotiated construction contracts worth several billion dollars with the Turkmen government. It was Bouygues, among others, who built the hotel in which I am staying and several of its employees are staying there when they arrive, waiting to have a place in their base.  I will spend this day discussing and going from one surprise to another…

To be continued…..

Next episode:

“Ashgabat, the capital of white marble”…
The crater of hell.

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