Transiting unknown Turkmenistan
Wow, it is happening! After a rollercoaster of decision making in Iran, we are now really entering the gateway to Central Asia. The sun is burning straight on our heads, or I must say Abi’s roof. It is 44 degrees outside, inside probably about the same. On an empty three lane desert road we drive our first kilometers in this unknown country. And we are a bit nervous: we just entered the second most locked up country in the world, right after North-Korea: this is Turkmenistan! Our visa allows us to transit the country in five days,.. Detours are not allowed: we have to stay on the prescribed route or we risk a fine of 1,000 dollars. The heat makes the air tremble and in the distance we see bright white reflections: is this a mirage in the desert? Or are we approaching a city?
A few minutes later we drive through a white arch and we enter the city of Ashgabat: the capital of Turkmenistan. As far as our eyes can see there are buildings made of white marble: high apartment blocks and extravagant roman style government buildings. According to the Lonely Planet more than a million people are living here. But the roads are empty and everything is spotlessly clean. Where are the people? We have the feeling we are entering the film set of an apocalyptic science fiction movie. The only people we see are the women sweeping the streets and watering the flowers along the road.
We find a good spot close to a park to camp for that night. It is unclear if it is allowed to camp on the streets, but hey we are on transit.. Time to explore the city centre. On every corner we see big bronze statues that mostly show powerful or heroic scenes: Lenin is there, a group of fiery horses, and many more. Where is the money coming from? Apparently Turkmenistan is very rich in natural resources, like gas and oil. The president decided to give it back to the people in this way. But again: no people on the streets. We only see military guards protecting the government buildings -that seem to be everywhere – and they tell us to walk away from it and not take pictures.
And everywhere fountains: in the night they are lighted with a lot of colors. That is the moment when we see a few more people on the streets: the temperature drops to a bearable 30 degrees. It is a surprising mix of people: women, with long colourful and well fitted dresses and beautiful long black hair. Every now and then a shoulder is revealed, or we even see women wearing short skirts. Wow, a welcome change after the black chadors and headscarves in Iran! Some people have an East Asian look – like Chinese – others have a warm darker skin and could almost be from Latin America. And there are blond, European looking people.., of course: the Russians! We are in Central Asia now, that is clear. A flamboyant mix of people. When we visit a restaurant to try the Turkmen food and drink our first beer after six weeks of no alcohol in Iran, the restaurant turns into a blasting disco! Impossible to see what we are eating, but the beer is great!
The next day it is time to continue our journey, four more days to go to cross the country! It is hot, very hot. Almost no traffic on the roads, but the cars and trucks before us made deep tracks in the burning hot and almost melting asphalt. Every now and then there are some small buildings along the side of the road. Now the buildings are mostly made out of white plastic instead of marble and their windows are dark. They seem out of use, but when we open one of the doors we discover a small restaurant. A friendly women is very curious where we are from. “Galandia”, we say. It means Holland in Russian: the international language here. We try her homemade Somsa: a pastry like the Indian Samosa. And as we are in Central Asia, it is filled with meat of course. Great to see the influences from other parts of Asia. This is the Silk Road!
Paradise in the desert
The next day, still a bit tired from the broken night, we drive on towards our last stop in Turkmenistan. Whenever there is some water from a river we see small villages, a bit further the green disappears and the landscape changes: sandy dunes, desert bushes and a lot of emptiness. When we are close to Turkmenabad we try to find a good place for the night. On our map there seems to be a beach close to the city. A beach? In the middle of the desert? We don’t dare to believe it… But let’s take a chance! We drive through the backstreets of the third biggest city of Turkmenistan. This time no marble buildings, no clean streets: even no asphalt. When we arrive at our location, we can’t believe our eyes: colourful inflatable slides, a beach and even a place to buy ice cream. And a lot more Turkmen people having the same plan to cool down in this basin of a river. After the desert, this is paradise! We take out our swimming trouser and bikini (! a really naked feeling after 45 days in Iran) and take a dive in the water. Wow, this is amazing! At the end of the day, it seems the beach is closing and everybody has to leave. But the security makes an exception for us: we can stay for the night and hee promises to grd us. An hour later we are eating there dolma soup and our couscous dish and we can’t escape to drink some vodka with them. Nazdravje, a warm welcome to Central Asia! In the morning it is time to prepare for the next notoriously difficult border crossing, Uzbekistan, here we come!