Leaving Iran with the car, at the last hurdle after our guide and translator had left, we were turned back from the exit gate and told to start the process again. As we had been there for at least an hour this was a bit alarming as it was not clear why.
However, a good natured boss figure eventually unlocked a side barrier with a large padlock, which side stepped the officious junior officer and queues of lorries and we got a final stamp and left to enter Turkmenistan. The road between the two was horrendous. More holes than road.
The border in Turkmenistan was time consuming, but well organised and efficient. Things progressed as soon as we arrived. Everything was done in a clean modern building with people working in teams to process arrivals. It took three hours, but was fairly stress free as things were constantly moving forward. (This was on top of the hour and a half it took to leave Iran!).
Inside, one soldier took it upon himself to ensure we got through everything and knew where to go next. It was definitely less confusing than the arrival in Iran.
What was remarkable was that they wanted to know our precise route and they then gave us a map with that route marked up. By implication we were not permitted to vary it! Then to our surprise we were charged for a GPS which was issued to track our car’s movements and we were instructed to keep it charged up in the lighter socket. The total cost for this transit was $161 which included the insurance for 5 days.
To be fair, the Turkmenistan car search was less tricky than I had envisaged. They had a good look around, peeked in a few pockets and storage boxes and basically sent us on our way. They found boiled sweets amongst the screwdrivers and asked what they were. They lost interest when I offered them one!
One of the boxes they decided to search was on the roof and it had multiple padlocks and ratchets. I started undoing them and before I had finished they gave up. A funny sight was the border guard holding my back so I could perch on the running rail and use both my hands to tie up the ratchets again👮♀️. (Jim was in another process elsewhere).
Towards the end of the search I pulled out my Turkmenistan flag to stick on the car. This was a popular move. They were actually polite and efficient but just short of friendly. You knew that this country was going to be special. It was going to be a real contrast to the slightly chaotic but very friendly Iran.
The plan was to pass through Turkmenistan as quickly as possible. We were to stop in Ashgabat, the Capital City to see Old Nissa another UNESCO World Heritage site.
As we pulled out of the border we realised we were somewhere totally different. It was not only the brightly coloured women’s clothes that were different but we were somewhere largely flat with fewer cars and in this part of the country clearly more impoverished than Iran.
After so many mountains and steep passes in Iran, in Turkmenistan the fields were flat and irrigated near the border. We could still see the Iranian mountains on our left as we drove to Ashgabat and nothing had prepared me for this.
The women wore long colourful and sometimes figure hugging dresses and hats perched on their heads more reminiscent of an African National costume. It was totally different and gone were the multiple black chadors.
Many houses looked the same and government built with identical green or red roofs in batches.
The roads started out newish but had no lane markings or white lines to show the edge of the road. Night fell before we had found somewhere suitable to pull over. We found Driving at night quite scary as we were not able to see roads because there was no lighting but no road markings or even signs at all. Some small openings appeared and went which presumably led to a small settlement. But there were few if any signs.
We eventually had to stop because the roads got so dark and it was difficult to drive. We found a cafe in a settlement called Klara obscured by bushes and trees, and we drove across four carriageways and a central reservation to pull up alongside the small shops with a few lorries and cars parked outside. Signs of ordinary life. So success, we were able to stay the night and get something to eat.
Our night’s sleep was only disturbed by barking dogs and occasional passing traffic.
The roads approaching Ashgabat in the morning, were littered with police check points where all vehicles are required to stop. There were five during a two hour drive. Drivers were almost excruciatingly law abiding and a complete contrast to Iran where people driving motorbikes and cars contraflow or backwards down a one way street was the norm.
The roads became a bit busier and expensive cars purred passed on improving roads. It was an amazing place and maybe would become a world heritage site itself in another 500 years.
Nothing had prepared us for Ashgabat. It was simply hugely wealthy and a massive contrast to the poverty of the countryside. Had we arrived on a different planet? Jim was using words like dystopian, imagine the Hunger Games with people passing from the colonies into the capital.
There were Lots of gleaming white brand new show piece buildings and statues and fountains. The roads were perfect, the planting perfect. No weeds, no litter, no dirt or poorly maintained anything and teams of people cleaning the verges and weeding. Some of them had their faces completely covered in white muslin with slots for their eyes. (Was this for the desert dust?)
We were told that when the President’s cavalcade passed in the morning everyone had to keep off the streets, keep their windows closed and under no circumstances to hang out laundry to spoil the look of the gleaming white frontages. It has the atmosphere of the Handmaids’ Tale. The country has 5m inhabitants and the world’s third largest reserves of natural gas, so is massively rich but it is only the Presidential Capital that appears to be benefiting from this.
What was particularly strange was that this huge city with all gleaming new buildings seemed comparatively deserted. Few if any pedestrians.
The town had sports stadiums, and many statement buildings and a fancy monorail. The traffic was light and all of the mostly white cars seemed new and in good condition with no dents of bashes. All the windows on the buildings gleamed cleanly and it was not clear what was happening inside. Probably full of civil servants working away. Most of the buildings seemed to be government ministries and everything had massive security. What was missing were shops, food, shopping centres, advertising, restaurants and most of all people.
Our plan in Ashgabat was to visit Old Nissa the Parthian Capital from 300BC to 200AD and a perfectly maintained Unesco World Heritage site. This was situated outside town and Maps Me took us to the entrance, up a tree lined but deserted road to an equally deserted car park and empty ticket booth. Eventually a custodian came to greet us and charged us for tickets and then two other European tourists turned up with a driver who gave Jim a chance to change some money!
A bird, one of a pair at Old Nisa. What is it Annie?
After our visit to this impressive but deserted site, trucking out of town the landscape is a desert with nothing but camels and impoverished shepherds with goats.
The roads went from picture perfect in Ashgabat to unmarked and eventually heavily potted and rutted the further away we drove through desert.
Our stopover was to be at the Dharvaza crater and some 60km before we got there we saw a stranded car in the desert which had broken down. Remembering our own experience only a week or two ago, we pulled up and towed a white Toyota some 50kms to a make shift cafe where he could hopefully get his next tow.
We were planning to head further into the desert towards the Dharvaza crater.