The Silk Road. People have been traveling this route for over 2,000 years between Asia and Europe. Bala, our trusty stead, is still struggling with an overheating problem, loss of power, and a new problem with the front suspension. But we continue to move West, along this ancient trading route, through deserts and sandstorms, across borders and seas, and through cities that are older than Moses (literally)….and we continue to collect stories and experiences along the way. To live a few of them, keep on reading…
Border crossing entering Uzbekistan: Searched for Codine (painkillers) and bibles (both strictly forbidden). But everyone was friendly enough.
Border crossing entering Turkmenistan (keep in mind we only have 4 days to travel 1300 kilometers across the entire country and were already delayed by a flat tire just 30k before the border, so needless to say we are in quite a rush.): Arrive at border (after being searched AGAIN for codine and bibles by the Uzbek exit customs), fill out various forms, wait. Wait. Wait. Collect various stamps on various forms from one guy, sent to other guys in army fatigues who send us back to the first guy who sends us back to the Army guys who finally tells us that we need to talk to a third guy (we are now one hour into the process), BUT…(He makes hand to mouth motion), we understand through extensive pantomiming that the entire border crossing is closed now for lunch. Wait on the curb for an hour and a half. Wait. Wait. Hot. Wait. After work resumes, we are drawn a map of the route we will take and explained we are not permitted to deviate from this route. A few more stamps, and some “road tax” payments made and we are on our way.
Imagine what it is like to be standing under a heat lamp…wearing an ALL BLACK astronaut suit (protective motorcycle pants, jacket, and helmet…and then imagine you are standing in front of a gigantic very hot hair dryer. Then you will have an idea of what it was like to drive through the Karakum desert of Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan.
We were a bit surprised when we payed our bill for lunch just after entering Uzbekistan and it amounted to a stack of notes almost an inch high. One US dollar is 2,300 Uzbek Som…And the largest bank note I ever got was for 1,000 Som (there are of course for even lesser amounts). People would walk around in the bazaars doing their shopping with plastic grocery bags full of money!
We walked through the same large entryway of a 1000 year old mosque that Genghis Khan himself had walked through (as he burned and looted the rest of the city)
We discovered a country that few people ever visit (because they rarely issue tourist visas), that you might not have ever heard of, but that we thought was fascinating and ridiculous. We call it Absurdistan (AKA Turkmenistan). Whats the deal with Turkmenistan?
- The current dictator is only slightly less eccentric than his recent predecessor, Turkmenbashi. Turkmenbashi renamed a large city after himself and another after his mother, because she brought him “The Leader of all Turkmens” into the world. Also under Turkmenbashi, the Turkmen word for “bread” became illegal. Instead, as a homage to the life-giving powers of both bread and mothers, he made the two synonymous. His mother’s name was now the Turkmen word for bread, officially changed in all dictionaries.
- Turkmenistan sees almost no tourism. Tourist visas are almost impossible to get and if you do get one you will pay a hefty price and will have to be accompanied by a government employed “guide” at all times. Much like in North Korea. We were granted a 5 day “transit” visa.
- Turkmenbashi wrote a book, a “spiritual and moral guide”. He called it the Ruhnama. Mosques were ordered to teach from the book and treat it as an equal with the Koran. Students must study it in school and are tested on it. Memorization of parts of the book are required to get a drivers license or government job. Oh yea, and Turkmenbashi interceded with Allah himself who told him that anyone who reads the Ruhnama three times will be promised a place in paradise after their death.
- The names of the months of the year and days of the week were renamed after various aspects of himslef, his mother, and other family members.
- Dogs were banned in the country, as well as gold teeth, recorded music, and lip syncing.
- Electricity, natural gas, and water are all free in Turkmenistan. One person said that some Turkmens leave the gas on their stove running 24 hours a day to save the expense of matches. Until just a few months ago even petrol (120 liters per person per month) was free. When we filled up at a gas station it cost us a whopping 20 US cents per liter (70 cents per gallon).
- Women under the age of 35 cannot get a drivers license or leave the country for leisure purposes.
- A while back the president had heart surgery and had to quit smoking. So…he banned smoking in all public places throughout the country.
- The current president, a dentist by trade, decided to build a mega-resort town on the Caspian sea. He spent billions of dollars building 5 star hotels. He said it would be the “Dubai of Central Asia”. It has multiple 5 star hotels, fully staffed, and it is pretty much empty…a ghosttown. He has obviously not made the connection that for tourists to come….you need to issue them visas.
- Don’t ask anyone in Turkmenistan what they think of all this insanity, they wold rather rot in a dark jail cell then talk about it…because that is where they would end up anyways. Turkmenistan ranked 178th out of 180 countries by the World Press Freedom Index.
Our guidebook said “Only the insane or deeply unfortunate find themselves in Ashgabat (Turkmenistan capital) in July or August, when temperatures can push 50 degrees Celsius (122 Fahrenheit)”. We cruised into Ashgabat, the capital of Turkmenistan, on July 17th, feeling as usual, a bit insane, but certainly not unfortunate. Because we were about to experience what proved to be, by far, the most bizarre place I have ever visited in my life. Ashgabat observations:
- The whole city looks like Caesars Palace Casino in Las Vegas grew an ugly tumor in the form of a Central Asian city. By presidential decree all buildings are built from white marble. In fact it holds the Guinness Book of World Records as having the most white marble-clad buildings in the world — 543 to be exact. Oh, and there is no shortage of gold trim and gaudy fountains for that added “class”.
- There is an 11 kilometer (7 miles) long artificial river running through the city
- In “residential” areas we drove down broad multi-lane avenues lined on each side by manicured lawns and walkways that are set before large 30 story apartment buildings (white marble of course) one after another for kilometers on either side of the avenue. In the city center there are massive white marble buildings with lavish fountains in front of each of them. Universities, ministries of this and that, sports centers, etc. etc. There are massive parks with fountains and green grass. The bizarre thing…ALL of these buildings, all the parks… are mostly empty, just there for show, I never saw a single soul walking in or out of a building . In fact the only people we did see on the streets were police (stationed every 200 meters along the road making sure you dont take photos of any buildings), and hundreds of maintenance people picking up every scrap of paper or leaf that fell on the ground.
- There are dozens of absurdly bizarre monuments all over the city. What does an absurdly bizarre monument look like?
Perhaps the winner of the absurdly bizarre monument award is the “Arc of Neutrality”, which is adorned with a gold plated statue of former president Turkmenbashi that, we read, rotates during daylight hours so that it always faces the sun (must have been broken when we were there). This we had to see for ourselves. We pull onto an EIGHT LANE road that leads to the monument. On either side are multiple parking lots, probably enough to park a couple hundred cars yet I’m sure none of them have ever seen more than two cars parked in them at one time, EVER. There is no one. ZERO. Not one car or person. We pull Bala right up to the front and laugh at the absurdity of the monument as we stare at it. Then we see what appears to be a ticket booth. Could it be? Can we actually go up and inside of this thing? Surely there is no one inside the ticket booth. But, low and behold, as we approach we see a woman inside. “Two tickets please?” I ask with doubtful inflection. To our surprise we are given two little scraps of printed out paper. Now our excitement has reached a childlike glee. We cannot believe we can go up into this thing. We march off towards the monument when an AK47 armed guard stops us saying “Niet!….making it clear we are not allowed any closer”. We try and show him our tickets, he takes a look and shakes his head…”Niet!” Confused and disheartened that perhaps the tickets we bought were for something else, we try and explain…”But we just bought them, right over there” pointing to the ticket both just 50 meters away. He takes the ticket again, holds it closer to his face, scrutinizing it. Clearly this is the first time he has seen this. He gets on his radio, a discussion ensues. Our access seems to be granted and a small elevator starts to move down the side of the monument. The door opens revealing an expressionless young man
who motions us in. By now I feel like Charlie entering Wanka’s chocolate factory I am so excited to be part of this absurdity. The top of the monument reveals amazing views of the capital of Absurdistan and all its absurdity. From the top we can see in the scorched desert that an artificial forest of pine trees has been planted in perfect rows for as far as the eye can see, literally. (They were planted by Turkenbashi who believed they would lower the temperature in the city). Most are dead or dying in the desert heat. To either side of the monument are symmetrically identical parks with fountains and large restaurants which seem to have been abandoned a long time ago. Not a soul is to be seen. On the way down the elevator stops at the “museum” where a half dozen women, dressed in bright traditional clothing, are sleeping on all the small plush benches…the cleaning ladies. They scramble to their feet, amazed to see actual tourists (or anyone for that matter) visiting the museum. A tour of the small museum reveals ludicrous and gaudy little trinkets which are supposed to honor Turkmenistan’s role as a world power and are made from what was claimed to be solid gold and precious gems. Afterwards one of the cleaning ladies accompanied us down the elevator where, so amazed to have seen us there, she asked me if I would take her picture with Magdalena
Delayed by flat tires and an absurd border crossing into Turkmenistan, we realized we had no chance of making it across the country with our 45mph (65kph) top speed on our limited time visas. So we decided to put Bala and ourselves on a train for half the way. The process seemed easy enough, and absurdly cheap. All was well until we got off the train at our stop, went to the back of the train to help unload and claim the bike when, chugga chugga chuga chugga….the train began to move and off it went into the early morning desert light…with Bala on board. With the help of a friendly stationmaster we arranged a car that raced 30k in the wrong direction (to get gas), then 120 kilometers along the highway dodging stray camels along the way to arrive at the next train station JUST as Bala and our train pulled in
After our runaway train/Bala episode, having successfully unloaded Bala from the train I found myself driving her alongside some torn up old train tracks and I had one of those moments that come to even the most experienced travelers from time to time…just a moment when reality hits you “Holy shit, I’m on a motorcycle….. driving through a trainyard….. in Turkmenistan”. They are moments we travelers live for
Need to restore some of your faith in humanity? Some random acts of kindness bestowed upon us:
- Driving down the highway in Uzbekistan a man pulls his car up next to us honking his horn, thrusting a white plastic bag out the window and moving dangerously close to us. I’m a bit confused but understand enough that he wants us to take the bag. Magdalena grabs it, he gives a big smile and a wave and speeds off past us. “What the hell was that all about!” I scream back to Magdalena, who is peering into the bag. “Apples!” She yells. “He just wanted to give us some apples!”
- Within an hour of the apple incident we stop on the side of the road to eat a lunch we had packed for ourselves. A man comes out of a nearby farmhouse and asks the compulsory questions in Russian “Where are you from, where are you going, are you married, have kids….???” He returns to his home and emerges 10 minutes later with a HUGE plate of sliced watermelon and cantaloupe, simply places it in front of us, puts his hand over his heart (a Muslim gesture of sincerity and respect) and walks away.
- In Bukhara our friendly bartender heard we were looking for a motorcycle mechanic. I would have been happy if he gave me his name and drew me a map to find the guy. Instead, the next morning he insisted on leading me there (He also had a motorcycle and I followed him.) He translated my problems to the mechanic, then drove me back to my guesthouse BUT stopped on the way to buy a nice ripe melon, which he then presented to us as a gift.
- In Turkmenistan I went to a small shop near the train station to buy a samsa (Meat/onion/disgusting fat filled pastry). He asked me as I paid for it where I was from. Then he quickly took the coin I had given him and put it back in my hand and said “For you, my foreign friend, you do not pay”
- I wake up from a deep but short sleep on the train. It is 6am and it is stopped in a scraggly desert outpost. Still half asleep I stumble to the nearest door where a dozen old women are squatting in the dirt selling their food to people on the train. They see me and chaos ensues. They all start yelling at me in Turkmen competing for my business. One of them leaps to her feet and runs towards as if she were going to attack me! She is yelling in an aggressive unfriendly tone and shoving a bag of food in my chest. Dazed by the bright morning light and the yelling I say “No thank you” several times in Russian when a young train conductor appears behind me. She yells something at him in the same abusive tone, he takes the bag of food then hands it to me and says in English, “You take”. Confused as ever I try and explain that I don’t have money with me and I don’t…He stops me and says “No money. She gives”. The train began rolling away before I had had a chance to thank her.
To Magdalena’s disgust and the ice-cream man’s delight,I ate 4 ice cream cones to get rid of our last Turkmen Manat (currency) while waiting for our ferry to leave.
The process of exiting Turkmenistan proved to be an extensive bureaucratic circus that cost us two hours of time and several bribes to officials.
We were shocked to arrive in Azerbaijan…shocked at how European it was, shocked to see Mcdonalds and Carrefour (like European Walmart for those who don’t know), shocked that our days of horrible roads seems to be over (for the most part), but happy to find that people were still friendly and interested in us
We spent some days cruising around Baku (capital of Azerbaijan), calling it “The Paris of the Caucuses”. Beautiful avenues, tasteful fountains, Parisian-style newspaper kiosks, a perfect blend of ancient buildings dating back a thousand years, beautiful 19th century classical era architecture and spicy contemporary glass and steel structures.
We swam in the Caspian sea
We slept next to the highway
We slept in the home of a Turkish guy in Ashgabat who opened a beer bottle for me with his eye-socket
We slept in the home of a Russian guy in Azerbaijan who used to be a patriot but eventually became a sharp critic of Russia’s government. We listened, fascinated, to his opinions of the Ukrainian conflict. Then we all sang Karaoke.
We slept in the middle of the Caspian Sea as two of 6 other passengers on a ferry that took us from Turkmenbashi, Turkmenistan to Baku, Azerbaijan. We cooked our dinner over our little beer can stove, and watched the sun set into the Caspian Sea.
I post this from Southern Turkey, just 50k from the border of Syria….yes I am way behind in posts but promise to try and catch up soon. We are alive and well…more stories on the way. In the meantime…
…To see more pictures and read more stories in their captions you can CLICK HERE
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