Venture to the Unknown

Devin Finneran
Aug 13, 2015 · 9 min read
  • Border — Ashgabat
  • Ashgabat — Mary
  • Mary — Merv
  • Merv — Turkmenabat
  • Turkmenabat — Border

We were in customs for about 4hours and when we crossed into it there was a time change of plus half an hour which was an odd one. We would have been out faster only we got caught at a lunch time and had to wait an hour and a half while the guards had their break. When we cross borders usually the driver and the two passengers are split and can’t talk without causing suspicion amongst the guards. When we went through passport control the guard told me I was allowed to take off my headscarf which was a big relief as it was continuing to get hotter as the morning went on. The official record of nelly entering Turkmenistan in the vehicle registration book is Eoghan Eirneach Irish! Just before we left the guards saw Feargal check the one on his phone, thy were quick to ask to go through the gallery of his phone to see if their were any prohibited phones present which could have got him deported back to Iran, which nearly happened to another rallier!

We drove to Ashgabat to change money as fast as possible as we hoped to get to the Door to Hell that evening. The road down from border control was amazing as the roads had been carved out of the hills, I don’t think I’ll ever get used to thinking of the sheer job of doing that! We didn’t actually get out of border control until we were 20miles down the hills when we reached another guarded area to have our passports checked again, just incase we had swapped since 20mikes up the hills.

As soon as we hit the main road into the city it all clicked. This was the mad city with the white marble buildings and hardly anyone around that Diarmuid (rallier 2014) had told us all about, it was exactly that and it was jaw dropping. Everything was decadent, there were streetlights every 25–50m depending how close you were to the main boulevard. There were multiple fountains, obnoxious statues and gardens surrounding the ridiculously big buildings. It was so hot and dry the cars tyres were all screeching when they stopped at junctions and after researching it a bit more we learnt that the Turkmenistan government provide free gas and electricity for all citizens due to the huge reserves.

We pulled into the nearest shopping centre and a security guard pointed us in the direction of the bank but they wouldn’t let us take out excess dollars as we weren’t citizens so we bought manats with some of the remaining money borrowed from Genghis Kant after the expensive border crossing as we had to both import the car and purchase our visas. When we were pottering around the centre we spotted two guys walk past wearing Mongol Rally tshirts, so we did as we had learned and followed them to introduce ourselves.

Alec and Steven from the Sussex Rum Runners were great lads and they showed us the ropes of Turkmenistan, they had been to the Door to Hell the night before. The site was originally identified by Soviet engineers in the 70s and was originally thought to be a substantial oil field site. The engineers set up a drilling rig and camp nearby but when they instead found gas, the ground beneath the drilling rig and camp collapsed into a wide crater and disappeared. Expecting dangerous releases of poisonous gases from the cavern into the nearby towns, the engineers saw it as best to burn the gas off. The gas was estimated to burn out within a few weeks, it didn’t work though and 40years later it is deemed a strong contender for one of the most impressive sights to see over the course of the rally.

By the end of the conversation we were going to show us to the National Bank up the road in the hope of taking out more dollars, apparently this was the only place we could do that. By the time Alec had brought the car round he had found the Danish team from the border and we all went to the bank together. I suppose it’s very easy to spot a rally car in a city filled with brand new spotless white land rovers and Chevrolets, not to mention we as people stuck out like sore thumbs!

Dressing didn’t seem to be as strict here, thank god because it was 46degrees when we read it off a sign at about 4pm. The majority of women wore a a different variation of headpiece which didn’t cover their necks as well as patterned long dresses. They carried little umbrellas to protect them from the sun and wedged cork heels seemed to be popular. The style of the fashion seemed to influenced by both Africa and Asia, it was an odd combination to say the least and was very distinguishable.

At the bank we were disappointed to hear that we would not be able to take out dollars until Monday (it was Saturday at this stage). After a lengthily conversation and stocking up on bread, cheese and water we attempted to get to the Door to Hell. However, we hadn’t accounted for the time change at this stage, or for getting lost trying to leave the city for nearly an hour. We didn’t have a proper map but had originally figured that there were about 4 main roads outside the main two cities in Turkmenistan and we couldn’t really go wrong. After we took a wrong turn we decided it would be best to turn back, we weren’t mechanics and if we got stuck on the last 12km of the dirt uphill road to the doorway it could be game over for the entire trip not to mention there were potholes and humps the size of tractor wheels on the road which we didn’t fancy navigating when it got dark.

We tipped back to the Grand Turkmen where the lads said most of the ralliers were staying. We needed to make a game plan and decide whether our route would take us to the big ring of fire or not. We decided it wouldn’t. Our visas for Uzbekistan were time constrained unlike most of our other visas which meant we only had from the 3rd — 7th there. As we had received emergency processing of our visas we thought we she make the most of it. It turned out that most websites were censored in Turkmenistan also and the internet reception was very poor so we opted to go to bed early.

We went in search of another bank as receptionist said we should be able to take out dollars easily in the one across the street. We were sent on a little bit of a wild goose chase looking for but we were desperate so as to keep chucking along. A man in the bank came to help us but I think that either he was as lost as we were or there was a major hit and miss with communication. We ended up being sent from booth to booth before being shown to the ATM around the corner to take out more manats only to learn we couldn’t exchange it anyways. Someone was looking out for us though, as when we got back to the hotel the receptionist asked how we got on. We told her about the disappointing walk we had with no luck and Nelly managed to exchange money for 150usd!

We had a long day of driving in the heat to get over with so we headed straight for Turkmenabat as quick as we could. I had found the name of a hotel on google but couldn’t find the address nor the booking page due to restrictions on the internet so we had to make due with what we had. By the time we found the hotel it was after 9pm and we were starving. We wanted to check in, get some food and get to bed as we had an early morning to get to the border.

There was no wifi which was possibly a good thing but it also meant we couldn’t check the details for the hotels we were supposed to have booked in Uzbekistan since we were going to be one day ahead of ourselves after crossing through the border further south instead of the northern one. There was a standard double and single available as well as a lux room which was only 15dollars extra so we decided to go for it. We turned out of the lift but couldn’t find the door, turns out we accidentally waked past it as it was so decadent we didn’t realise it could be it! It was a mini apartment with two ensuite bedrooms, a sitting room and two balconies and the pillows felt like clouds, so much so that we contemplated trying to bring them with us!

We were informed that the restaurant was still open and it was deserted, as expected though as by now it was 11pm. This was our first real experience of a menu being entirely in Russian with the waiter speaking broken English. Some things were crossed off the paper menu so we had to guess what to order by the price differences. We managed to order three bottles of Tuborg, a side salad to share, a plate of dumplings and meat with chips so were satisfied with ourselves.

The next morning when Feargal took out his card to pay we were informed that we could only do so in cash dollar bills, we had some left but were saving them for the border as we didn’t know what we could come up against! The search for dollars continued once again but as well as paying the hotel we were under pressure to get to the border to avoid delays. A young lad who had helped us with our dinner order the night before offered to come and help us and Nelly stayed in the hotel minding the bags. We first went to the bazaar and a lady held three or four crisp one hundred dollar bills to exchange but we still had to take out manats. We were unlucky in two banks for before even realising we needed our passports which were in the hotel! When we were stuck in traffic a man pulled up to say hello and asked was the guy from the hotel a translator, gosh this trip would have been a whole lot easier if we had him! As we drove around Turkmenabat at 8am I saw a sign to say that it was already 33degrees.

We dropped the young lad off in the centre of town, headed back to the hotel and subbed Nelly in for me In the hope that his MasterCard would work! Gas Craic essentially became a taxi service for the hotel staff that morning in our efforts to get dollars. Nelly and Feargal also brought another guy from reception who had just finished his shift into town in order for him to give directions! Another hour passed but we had no luck. The second guy then said that the hotel could then accept euros but there was a lot of confusion with conversion rates etc.

We got lost leaving Turkmenabat surprise surprise and did some grocery shopping to use up remaining money. Some of the roads were basically dirt tracks and we were going to make up no time. A toll appeared but we were waved into a different booth for tourists and we met Steve and Alec again! We had to barter in order to pay the bridge toll to use the end of our manats and avoid using dollars because we weren’t sure if we would be charged at the border.

The bridge was 500m of ridiculousness. It wavered with the water flow not alone the weight of the trucks that were passing over it at the same time. It was in sections which moved up and down so Nelly had to time crossing to avoid getting stuck in a gap.

When we got to the border we converted our remaining Iranian Rials into Uzbek money and filled out our forms before being told to sit down. We were waiting so long that we started to make up episodes of Grand Designs and talk through the story lines. Steve and Alex appeared from passport control again and were told to wait in the customs. We questioned as to why we weren’t given similar instructions so we followed them and moved the car round too. We managed to unfortunately just hit the lunchtime break so we were left waiting but there was no harm as it wasn’t far to Bukhara from the border. The lads told us about their evening of camping where they had managed to pitch their tent right beside a set of train tracks and woke up thinking the horn was their alarm but they couldn’t hear each other shouting, hilariously plausible situation!

After getting a final stamp on out passports we were off after a quick search of the cars.

Devin Finneran

Written by

@HardlyFlawless 23, from Boyle, Co. Roscommon, Graduate from University College Dublin. Events | Travel | Music.

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