EU2AU #5 – If there was one country I was really stressed about, it´s Turkmenistan. You can barely find any infos about accommodation, prices, transport system and stuff that can be useful while traveling. If all the bad things that I expected became reality, now I would be bankrupted and half dead. But I´m none of those.
My couchsurfing host from Mashhad brought me to the border village called Bajgiran. He saved me a lot of time (3 hours), money (12 euros) and struggle with that. Thanks! I found an accommodation in Bajgiran online promising rooms for 10USD but when we came there, the building was abandoned. My host just started to ask locals about accommodation and one old man said that he can give me a room for a night. It was a very empty room, the only furniture there were the carpets. But it was in Bajgiran and that was the point.
Next morning I departed at 8am. I wanted to save money to the border building and started to walk instead of taking a taxi but two Iranian soldiers stopped next to me with their car and said that I have to go with them. They brought me up, I wanted to pay, they declined. I changed my rials to manats at the border, checked out from Iran, checked in to Turkmenistan. Tourists have to pay 14 USD on the Turkmen border and they accept only cash. I had to pay 5 USD extra for the officer who checked my body temperature and wrote my details in a book, that´s either some registration fee or a scam, I´m still not sure. You have to prepare with USD if you go to Turkmenistan!
On the other side a bus was waiting for me and two local guys (there was only the three of us there since the border just opened at 8am), it took us to a chekout point 20km away. After the checkout point I had the chance to try bargaining for the very first time: the taxi driver wanted to bring me to Ashgabat for 50 manats but we ended up with 20. It was probably still too much but at least I arrived straight to the hostel which was important because that is the cheapest one in the town and I wanted to make sure that they do have a free place left for me. And they did! I booked a room for 2 nights which costed 20USD (paid in cash, in USD!)
The image I had from Ashgabat was a city with big empty streets and big white houses. I was pretty much correct. What I didn´t know was that there are police and soldiers on literally every corner watching. They absolutely hated when they saw that I´m using a camera, sometimes they came to me and deleted my videos, sometimes they shouted at me even before I could start making a recording. I could still save some material but I felt like a secret agent making hidden videos.
I had three goals in Turkmenistan: making photos in Ashgabat, making photos around the Darwaza Gas Crater (aka. Hellhole) and making photos of the ruins of Konyeurgench. My secret extra goal was finding a Couchsurfing host in Ashgabat because without that there is barely any chance to get in touch with locals. It´s forbidden for them to accept any foreigner guest.
In Ashgabat I walked to the Independence Square, took a taxi to the Wedding Palace and went back to the hostel by bus (one bus ride is 50 tenne). There are many huge monuments in the city but they are quite far from each other. I chose to go to the Wedding Palace simply because that´s the one I liked the most from outside.
The gas crater in the middle of the country was not made by purpose, it´s a random result of the Soviet oil searching culture. They wanted to burn the gas in a hole 50 years ago, thinking that it will burn for no more than 2 weeks. It´s still burning. I wish I knew how it became widely known that there is a burning crater in the middle of the desert, in the middle of one of the most closed country because I´m sure they didn´t want the world to know about that. But it´s too late, I bought a train ticket to Ishoguz (19 manat), then one from Ishoguz to Dashoguz (26 manat). There are two trains per day from Ashgabat to Dashoguz, Ishoguz (where the gas crater is) is halfway. The first train arrives there at 9pm, the second one at 1am.
On the earlier train I was sitting with a Turkmen mother and daughter duo, we played activity so good that at the end they invited me to a dance party to Dashoguz for the 29th. That would have been a nice adventure but I had to leave the country on the 29th afternoon, before the border gates are closing.
In Ishoguz I was the only one who got off the train. A totally empty station was welcoming me. I had no idea what to do. Everything was dark and silent. I thought that in the worst case I will wait for 4 hours for my next train. But after a while a man came out from the shadows and he guessed correctly that I want to go to the gas crater. He called me a motorcyclist, we agreed that he brings me to the crater, I spend 30 minutes there, then brings me back, all that for 10 USD. I think he would have agreed with less money too but after you propose 10 USD (as I did) you cannot make it less.
It was a great experiment rushing through the dark desert on a motorbike, spiced up with the excitement that I´m about to see one of my biggest highlights of my whole trip. The crater is 8km away, one way was somewhere between 20 and 30 minutes. The cyclist lost his balance sometimes on the sandy path, in those cases I just closed my eyes and hoped that I won´t be lying on the ground in the next moment.
The gas crater was burning and stinking there, just like I expected. There were a few other people making photos. I was so glad that I finally made it here. Spent there almost 30 minutes and went back to the train station. Originally I was planning to spend a night next to the crater but thanks to the train schedule I decided to save money on accommodation by using the night train.
The train arrived to Dashoguz at 9am. I realized that spending only four days in Turkmenistan instead of 5 will be enough for me. There was only one thing left I wanted to check, the ruins in Konyeurgench. It was one of the most important station on the silk road centuries ago but now it´s just a poor vilage with old ruins.
At the train station in Dashoguz I just said “Konyeurgench”, the taxi drivers suddenly gathered around me like when you throw some bread to the pigeons. The first one said 70 manats, the second one said 50 manats, then it became really chaotic and I didn´t understand anything. There was a guy, he already had 4 passengers and he was ready to go anyway, he just showed me 15 with his hands and that´s how he became my driver. He bought me to the ruins. He said that he will wait for me for 30 minutes but not more, if I come back, he will bring me to the border. I came back later so I had to find a new driver to the border. One brought me to the bazaar (city center) for 1 manat, the next one to the border for 4. I arrived to the border short after 1pm which was unlucky since they have lunchbreak between 1pm and 2pm. One officer was sitting there, he killed the time by making me teach him English. What is this called? What is that called? Do you like apricots? And so on. After that the mood was pretty good in the office so they just let me out without any serious checking.
When I made my first few steps in Üzbekistan, I realized that I don´t know how to reach Khiva. The Turkmen border behind me, the endless Uzbek desert in front of me, Khiva is more than 200 km away. How the heck am I going there? If this happened one month ago, I would have probably got a little panic attack. But now I just started to walk, being sure that something must happen sooner or later.
And I was correct. A little white car came to me after a while, offering to bring me to Nukus for 50 dollars. I gained massive bargaining skills in Turkmenistan, first I wanted him to bring me to Khiva but then he wanted 100 dollars, after some little arguments he brought me to Nukus for just 10. But then I had no idea what to do in Nukus. In Nukus there are no cheap hostels. In Nukus there is nothing. He kept offering to bring me to Khiva for 40 dollars which sounded too much. I said that I want to go to a bank because I have no Uzbek som. When I entered the bank, I started to ask around the locals, what is the cheapest way to Khiva. They told me that shared taxis bring me there from the bazaar for 6 dollars. Bingo. I went out from the bank, said goodbye to my driver and walked to the bazaar. After asking around there as well, I finally found the taxi spot. They always wait until the car is full, I was the third out of 4 passengers so we had to wait a little. I checked a hostel in Khiva when I was still in Mashhad and wrote its address down, thinking very smartly that I won´t have internet in Turkmenistan, that´s what I showed to the driver. Things went smooth after that. The hostel had a bed in the dormitory, had (very slow) internet, it was good to have a few foreigners around me again (probably not for too long though).
Arriving to Uzbekistan feels like I´m back to Planet Earth. I don´t have to worry every time I use my camera, I can see tourists again, locals don´t act like they live in a parallel universe but talk to me (most of them in English!), boys are in short pants, girls have free hair. I only saw the edge of Khivas downtown so far but that´s only because my hostel is next to it.
The next day I did what my heart desired and spent the entire day inside of my private room, under the air conditioner. I booked a private room on purpose when I was in Iran because I knew that that´s what I will need after Turkmenistan. So I could finish this blog post and the third vlog episode is probably coming with the upcoming post, straight from Tajikistan.