We woke up after a good night’s sleep. If you are tired enough, cockroaches don’t matter! In the kitchen there were a couple of girls preparing samosas. They gave us some coffee. After that, we drove car back to the welding place to get the exhaust fixed. We were there at 8:30, as agreed, and so were a bunch of the mechanics, and the welder. Unfortunately the boss wasn’t there yet (maybe he was partying too hard with our 50 dollars yesterday!). And of course, the boss was the only one who had the keys to the workshop where all the tools and equipment were kept. So everyone had to sit around for over half an hour and wait for him. In the meantime, two guys approached us selling smoked fish. With a smile they assured us that it was home made and fine to eat. Zsolt and Eslie declined the friendly offer, but I was curious and went for it. I am always keen to try local specialties! It was very delicious, but also very hard to get the bones out of the meat, which had a firm, chewy and rubbery texture.
Finally, the boss arrived with the keys. It didn’t take long to weld the exhaust pipe back together and add a few more welds to the silencer box to make that rusty thing more or less tight again. In Eslie’s words, the welder did a “fucking good job”, so we gave him some 20,000 Somoni and drove away. Finally, our car sounded normal again.
The border to Turkmenistan was very near, but we decided to stash up on petrol before we cross it, as we had not found any petrol ever since we entered Uzbekistan. All the cars here were modified to run on either methane or propane, even the old Soviet Ladas. So this was the only kind of fuel on sale at the petrol stations here. Determined to finally find actual petrol, we started asking around and trying every station we could see. We were circling the area for something like two hours. Someone pointed us to “the only station in the area that sells petrol” – the one with a red roof – but then it turned out to be abandoned.
Unfortunately we then realised that those places only had 80 octane petrol on sale, which our car definitely wasn’t designed for. Frustrated about having wasted so many hours on this wild goose chase, we decided to give up and leave. Otherwise those plastic bottle people would perhaps try selling us 80 and saying that it was 95. We had just enough petrol in the tank to get over the border, and we heard from locals that the petrol situation is less dire in Turkmenistan than it is in Uzbekistan. So we decided to risk it and drove straight to the Turkmen border.
We arrived at the border as the heat of the day reached its peak. It was absolutely boiling. On the Uzbek side, we were the only car. The border looked closed – the gate was shut, and there was no one around. We already thought we would be stuck here. But as we got out of the car and approached the border gate on foot, a soldier saw us and came out. The border was open, we were simply the only ones here! They opened the gate and let us through. The processing on the Uzbek side was very quick and we were soon stamped out of Uzbekistan and drove through the gate.
The neutral territory was a 100 m wide strip of land devoid of any trees or anything else that could provide shade. There, in scorching heat (something between 40 and 50 degrees Celsius), we met another Mongol Rally team in their car for the first time since Prague. They were travelling the other way, doing Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan in reverse order compared to our route. Now they were stuck in this no man’s land because they had already been stamped out of Turkmenistan, but the validity period of their Uzbek visas was only starting the next day. So the Uzbeks were not willing to let them in before 9 am the next day. In addition, the Uzbek border guards had seized their passports, to make sure they wouldn’t go anywhere. This misfortunate stranded team turned out to be a very nice couple from Belgium. They took their brutal fate with a lot of humour (and were using loads of sunscreen). We exchanged a few words. They had just been at the Darwaza gas crater (also called the Door to Hell), our next destination. They gave us some useful advice on how to get there. After saying goodbye and wishing them good luck, we continued to the Turkmen side of the border, where a building with a giant portrait of the Turkmen leader was waiting for us.
Getting into Turkmenistan turned out to be a bureaucratic ordeal of previously unknown magnitude. Although we were the only people there, we were entertaining the whole house and all its staff for several hours! First, we had to fill out the customs declaration, then going to the passport control and showing our printed out LOIs (letters of invitation), paying $160 for the visa at the bank (next window), which involved signing four different papers and getting at least a dozen stamps from an elderly guy filling out the papers veeeeery slowly, then taking the receipt he gave us back to the passport/visa guy, him realising that my name was spelled wrong on the receipt, sending me back to the bank window with the slow dude, who then did the receipt procedure all over again, with that new receipt going back to the passport/visa guy again, telling him the details of our route, getting our Turkmen visas glued into our passports, getting our photos and fingerprints taken, proceeding to customs control where they thoroughly checked all our bags, and then proceeding through three more windows, where we filled in more forms and got more stamps for the car registration, the car customs, and the car insurance, respectively, going back to the bank window and pay for all this, again getting the receipts with the dozen stamps from the veeeery slow dude, taking those receipts back, then getting the car insurance paper stamped, going back to the car and having it completely searched and all our stuff taken apart by the Turkmen guys, and when this was all finally over, driving through two (!) more passport controls before finally entering Turkmenistan.
The whole procedure had a high amount of redundancy, as we has to answer the same questions over and over again (Any drugs? Cigarettes? Alcohol? Weapons? Anything illegal? Which route are we taking? Why are we doing the Mongol Rally? What do we get for it? Is it a race? Is there any prize money? etc. etc.), run back and forth between the same people in the different windows, and all those people filling in the same information (like our names) again and again. They managed to misspell Zsolt’s name at least two times in two different ways on the different forms, but assured us it wouldn’t matter.
The whole border crossing took five hours in total. And we were the only customers there! We didn’t have to queue for anything at any point – we were mostly waiting for forms to be filled out, or running back and forth to give the right form to the right person.
At the end, we were finally let into Turkmenistan. We had shiny new Turkmen visa stickers in our passports and an entry permit for the car that showed on a map the exact route we specified we would take. We were told it would be very important that we absolutely do not deviate from this route. (Please note that this entry permit alone has no less than five different stamps on it!)
It was astonishing that we could then actually drive through Turkmenistan on our own, albeit having to follow a predefined route. The transit visa we received with the Mongol Rally LOI was just about the only way a tourist visitor from the Western world could achieve this kind of freedom. Turkmenistan has a reputation for isolating itself, and normally Western tourists could only come here with a pre-booked tour and could only go anywhere if accompanied by government-appointed Turkmen “guides” at all times. It’s a system very similar to the one that North Korea practices with its tourist visitors. Let’s see what this weird and secluded republic would have in store for us!
In the first Turkmenistan city we hit, the border town of Köneürgenç, we immediately noticed how different everything looked here compared to western Uzbekistan. The streets were clean. All the women were wearing beatiful, brightly coloured dresses and matching head scarfs. The people in general seemed even more friendly than in Uzbekistan (if that’s even possible!). The country seemed somewhat more developed, prices being noticeably higher. And the most crucial good news for us: they had proper petrol stations selling 92 and even 95 octane petrol. Yay!!
However, as we drove there eager to fill up our thirsty little car, we hit a new problem. The petrol station only accepted payment in local currency: Turkmen manat. Which we didn’t have, of course. They wouldn’t take dollars, euros, or credit cards. So, with an almost empty tank, we had to turn around back into town. There, the problem became more severe. It was just after 6pm, and all the banks had just closed. The ATMs only accepted local cards. People we asked on the street confirmed that in this country, you can only change currency at the banks, which would only re-open tomorrow morning at 9 am. We were also told that no shop and no petrol station in this country would accept foreign currency, and Visa, Mastercard etc. wasn’t a thing here, either. We were left without any cash for petrol, food, or water, which we all needed very badly. Turkmenistan showed us just how complicated it can be!
As we were standing around in front of the bank not knowing what to do, we experienced the amazing kindness and hospitality of the Turkmen people.
The first guy who started talking to us about our situation decided to invite us for dinner to his home for free, since we had no means to buy food. He already took out his phone and started talking to his wife, telling her to prepare more food, when we managed to convince him this was probably not necessary.
Then a young woman came out of the bank who was working there and just about to go home. She immediately offered us to lend us some cash, so we could buy food and water, and we could give it back to her tomorrow morning when the bank opens. When we told her that we did not intend to stay in Köneürgenç overnight, she finally agreed to change some money for us. She explained that in Turkmenistan it was illegal for private people to change dollars, and that the bank was the only place to legally do so, but due to the difficulty of our situation she would help us anyway. She just asked that we all step away from the bank entrance so the transaction wouldn’t be caught on the CCTV cameras… She ended up giving us some manat at the official exchange rate from her own pocket, in exchange for 50 dollars. Thank you!!
With our newly acquired manat we finally could fill up our tank and our jerry cans with 95 octane petrol. This petrol station visit turned out to be a bit stressful, because as we were at the petrol pump and the other cars were waiting for us in the queue, we couldn’t find the right spanner to unlock the jerry cans from the roof – the Turkmen border people had gone through all our tools and left behind a mess, everything was in another place than before. Finally, we were done and rewarded ourselves with a dinner at a small local place. We ordered what they said was chicken, but it ended up being some other weird kind of bird that was significantly smaller and tasted somewhat different. Whatever it was, it was good (albeit slightly undercooked), and as usual came with flatbread and tomato salad, served on a low table around which we were sitting on the floor. We each ate two of these birds. Then we continued our drive to the Door to Hell.
As the sun was setting, we reached the ruins of ancient Köneürgenç, a UNESCO world heritage site, and stopped to check it out. Weirdly shaped minarets and beautiful ancient structures were standing around in the desert. There was no ticket booth, no gate, nothing, just two Turkmen guys chilling in the distance. Other than that, there was no one apart from us. We went inside the main building (Turabek Khanum Mausoleum), startling a family of bats that started flapping around and making noise under the beautifully tiled dome. It was an epic place, filled with the shadows of a past civilisation.
The road from Köneürgenç to Darvaza turned out to be the absolute worst road so far. The tarmac was completely destroyed, full of cracks and holes, so we could only go very slow, and the night air was filled with all kinds of mosquitoes and bugs. It’s impossible to describe just how bad it was. On our way we met a car with four people that had broken down. They had a flat tyre and didn’t have a spanner to change it. Of course, we helped them. They turned out to be a Turkmen family who were just returning to their home in Köneürgenç from a vacation at the Caspian Sea. Just like all the other Turkmen we had met so far, they were extremely friendly and of course also invited us to stay at their place (we had to say no again as we really wanted to keep going).
At around 1am we reached a massive river. There was a big bridge across it. However the road leading to the bridge was blocked, probably some kind of construction work (difficult to tell in the darkness). There were tracks in the sand leading off the main road and around the construction site. We absolutely had to get to the bridge, so we followed the tracks. And course, we immediately got stuck in the sand.
We could not get out, so we started digging. It was difficult to do this in total darkness. The bottom of the car was so deep in the sand that the gearbox was stuck in neutral, and we couldn’t even use the car engine’s power for help! There was so much sand that all our efforts were futile.
Lucky for us, soon three cars appeared in the darkness coming the other way. As soon as they saw we were stuck, around twelve Turkmen men came out and pulled us out of the sand in no time. Thanks, guys!
We exercised a bit more caution from now on and managed to find the way back to the main road without getting stuck again. As we kept driving, we noticed that mud was now coming out of the windscreen wipers instead of cleaning fluid. Now that’s proper Mongol Rally stuff!
At 3am we reached some kind of road block. A police car was blocking the road. A few other cars were queuing there with people sleeping on the ground next to them. It was clear that we wouldn’t get past, and at this time of the night we wouldn’t be able to figure out what was going on. We didn’t want to just sleep on the main road, so drove a few hundred metres away into a sideroad and decided to camp there. I first suggested we simply sleep on the ground outside next to the car like the other people on the main road, because I was tired and didn’t want to bother with the tent. But then we remembered a sentence from our Central Asia guidebook: “Cobras, vipers, and scorpions are all native to Turkmenistan”. So we pitched the tent to be on the safe side. Eslie and I went to sleep inside the tent, while Zsolt, as usual, preferred to sleep in the car.
After six gruelling hours on this horrible road, we had only made about a third of the 260 km to the gas crater. This is how slow we were! Would the road get any better tomorrow?
Hopefully we will reach the crater tomorrow, so stay tuned for the next blog post!