Wednesday, August 15, 2012

The Two Faces of Turkmenistan

After seeing the grim totalitarian face of Turkmenistan, while crossing the border and visiting the capital, we were quite unprepared for what would come next. There had been signs, I can see that now, at the border crossing in the form of the friendly soldiers, the jovial chief of police, the helpful immigrations officer, the nice lady who offered us grapes while waiting, and in the capital in the form of the talkative döner kebab boys or the girl who together with her mother walked up to us to do some polite conversation in excellent school English. But even if we would have immediately noticed every single one of these signs, there had been nothing that could have prepared us for exactly how Janus-faced Turkmenistan would show itself to be.

As soon as we had left the capital, Turkmenistan turned its head around completely, hid the grim totalitarian face from our view and showed instead its other face, one of such exceptional friendliness, helpfulness and hospitality as I have ever encountered before.

The byzantine bureaucracy ensures that very few tourists ever come to Turkmenistan, so that alone made us a novelty item wherever we walked, and as if that would not have been enough, driving a 6 m long bright yellow ambulance (the only yellow vehicle in the entire country) guaranteed us to also attract attention wherever we drove. Wherever we walked, people walked up to us to greet us, shake our hands and ask permission to take photos with us, and wherever we drove, people would honk and wave and smile. This is the first time I’ve encountered the locals taking more photos of the tourists than vice versa.

Driving out of Ashgabat towards the city of Mary was easy on good roads, and after half the distance we stopped at a road-side chaikhana to celebrate the good progress with some tea and snacks. There we met some other cars from the Mongol Rally and chatted a bit with the other ralliers, exchanging stories about the journey so far and rumors about what might lay ahead. Then we sat down and were immediately surrounded by the boys working at the chaikhana and all their friends, who wanted to know everything about who we were, where we came from, about our ambulance, and everything else. They were also very curious to know whether Turkmen tea is the best in the world (it might well be) and whether we now felt welcome in Turkmenistan (as welcome as it’s possible to feel).

So we spent far too much time there (it’s easier to both drive and navigate if arriving at the destination before sunset) before we got back on the road again. The next unexpected thing to happen then came a couple of hours later when we were overtaken by a car in which the front passenger through his open window signalled with impossible-to-misunderstand hand gestures that he wanted us to pull over so that we could shake hands and take photos together. With such an invitation, we obviously had to pull over.

The driver of that car turned out to be Хыдыров Аман (sounds kind of like Jedirovaman; an awesome name, like Batman), who runs a furniture retail shop in Ashgabat and handed over his business card on which he had written his own title in English, in capital bold letters, as: BOSS. A short message, sent through our SPOT satellite transceiver, that we had “met The Boss” created much confusion and a discussion on Facebook about whether Bruce Springsteen was on tour in Turkmenistan. The Boss introduced us to all his minions (his large Japanese car was full of them), we shook hands, took photos, and conversed as much as our limited shared vocabulary of English and Russian would allow us.

After nightfall, we eventually reached the city of Mary and checked in at an old Soviet era hotel, not far from the railway station. Thomas was not feeling well and fell asleep as soon as he reached his bed, while Rico and I went out to get something to eat. After the sterile night streets of Ashgabat we didn’t really hope to find anything, but we were most pleasantly surprised to find the area around the railway station bustling with life; drivers of shared taxicabs shouting out destinations, vendors hawking food and drinks, people walking, talking, eating and drinking.

Three guys were grilling the local version of şişkebab over a large open wood fire and the scent was irresistible. We bought two plates of kebabs, bread and salad and two large bottles of the good local beer, Zip. A man at a standing table made space for us at his table, and despite us not having any spoken language in common he wished us welcome to his city by sharing the last of his small bottle of the local vodka with us.

Without further delays, we arrived in Turkmenabat (the last city before the border) in the afternoon the next day and checked in at an old Soviet era hotel (this time newly renovated to look exactly like before, but kind of newer, in a strange and most charming way) and walked out to eat and see the town.

Passing by a large statue of the dictator, painted in brownish “gold” paint, reminded us temporarily of that other face of Turkmenistan, but when walking further that was quickly forgotten. We got a good meal at a Russian restaurant. Some girls selling vodka and Russian champagne at the closing bazaar were greatly amused to take photos with us when we walked through. I bought new sunglasses. A nice afternoon stroll.

Then once again a guy stops us to ask to shake hands and take photos, but this time it’s different: Ylham Akbajev turns out to be studying the German language, and is overjoyed to be able to practice his language skills with us. Together with his friend, we walk a few blocks away to a bar to drink some beers and chat more. There, Rico’s impressive camera equipment provides the next connection: Ylham, together with his brother Rozik, runs a small photography studio here in Turkmenabat!

We walk to the photography studio, meet the brother and their friends, and then spend the next hours playing around in the studio. The Akbajev brothers are true masters of kitsch and in their studio they have all accessories one might possibly need for a really good portrait, everything from a guitar to nicely bound books with classic Russian poetry.

After posing for various portraits, Rozik realizes that this is a golden opportunity for advertising, the big professional video camera appears and all of a sudden I find myself the main character of a video advertisement, heartily endorsing this photography studio, in Swedish. Everybody is greatly entertained and we drink innumerable cups of tea together.

Now the next surprise walks through the door. The brothers have made new posters for a local pop singer, and with impeccable timing she walks in to collect them right when we are there. The pop singer is greatly embarrassed to have her picture taken without wearing make-up, but lets herself be persuaded to do it anyway and poses with us. Embarrassed without make-up she, of course, is cuter than ever.

This is a thing that should be told about the women in Turkmenistan: I have rarely seen so beautiful and so beautifully dressed women, both younger and older, anywhere else in the world. Those ethereal beauties from mysterious deserts in the east, that always appear in fairy tales, we now know where they come from in real life.

When the pop singer has left with her new posters, Ylham talks about his desire to find any kind of job in Germany, in order to learn the German language properly. Organizing such a thing is, however, far from easy when living in Turkmenistan. If anyone who reads this has any potential leads or connections that might help him out, please get in touch. His friend tells us that he himself has managed to get admitted as a foreign student at university in The Netherlands. From the döner kebab boys who went to Turkey to these guys, most young people we meet seem to have a desire to get out of Turkmenistan; not for the rest of their lives, but definitely to get to know the outside world.

The photography studio needs to work the next morning, but we don’t, so we wish each other good night and good bye and when they go home we go back to that bar where we were before.

Rustan is the owner of this bar and nightclub. He is delighted to have us as his guests, and in this small bar in a side-street in Turkmenabat we are quite certainly the first European guests ever. He smiles with all his gold teeth and explains how his parents once opened the place that he now has modernized and runs quite successfully.

Some of the other guests are at first quite apprehensive of our presence. They believe that we might be Germans, and the last time anyone they know of met Germans was when their ancestors were sent by Stalin to fight the second World War. But as soon as it has been cleared up who we are and where we come from, the ice is broken, beer and vodka starts flowing and Rustan’s new and powerful sound system pumps out Turkish and Indian hits. Soon we’re at the dance floor, and after a few songs we’re joined by the girls as well, who after a short initial shyness form a group dancing next to us guys.

This is another thing that should be told about the women in Turkmenistan: While the country officially is Muslim, women take part in daily life as they would in a modern secular city like Istanbul, and not as I would have pictured a provincial town in a backwater country. This journey is not good for my prejudices, they die faster than I can count them,

The partying continues until the closing hour prescribed by the police, at which the music is turned off, the lights on, and the partying continues longer still. When we finally leave, Rustan refuses to accept any money for what we’ve drunk during the night. In the end, we pay with hearty handshakes and a pack of exotic Swiss Parisienne cigarettes.

The next morning we got a quite extraordinary demonstration of Turkmen helpfulness: At a petrol station, I had tried to ask if they had any equipment for checking and adjusting tyre pressure. While doing this, I had imitated the sound of a compressor and for that been shown to the shop next door. The guy in there did indeed have several compressors, but not for pressurizing tyres but for spray-painting cars. He did however understand what we were looking for and volunteered his help to find not only a tyre shop but also the way out of the city onto the right road towards Turkmenabat.

(Our tyres turned out to be perfectly fine, but had just felt unusually soggy in the unusual heat.)

Getting out of the city and onto the right road would indeed have been difficult without help, but sitting in the passenger seat our new guardian angel gives me turn-by-turn directions and when we‘ve eventually reached the city limits he takes a taxicab back to his shop while a nice lady who’s heading towards the same road as we need to find instructs me to follow her car.

Close to the border, at a desolate road through the desert, we take a break to study the map and after that break the car is impossible to start again. (7,185 km after leaving Zürich, a pretty decent distance until the first break-down, I’d say.) We have brought both the Haynes and Chilton repair manuals, but after a while it becomes pretty clear that whatever’s wrong, it’s nothing that we’ll be able to repair road-side in the middle of the desert.

Eventually, help arrives in the form of Dmitry, a Russian war veteran from the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, nowadays a petroleum man working for the Chinese (who import enormous amounts of natural gas through a pipeline that begins in Turkmenabat), who drives up to us in his gigantic Toyota Hilux (turbo diesel, 4×4, crew cab, last year’s model, shining white), together with his son and the son’s friend.

Dmitry, born and raised in Turkmenistan, is a man of action, he solves problems and gets things done. He investigates our engine, electrical system and starter motor at length, but must eventually draw the sad conclusion that is isn’t as easy as us being useless but that there indeed is a problem that can’t be repaired road-side in the middle of the desert.

The ambulance needs to be towed. When outfitting the ambulance earlier this year, we bought a tow cable of such excellent quality and clever design that it now when we desperately need to use it, is utterly impossible to find. We start unloading and unpacking our cargo, and the amazing tow cable hides itself even further away. Dmitry drives off together with Thomas to find a tow cable somewhere else, while leaving his son and the son’s friend with Rico and me in the desert.

We never found the amazing tow cable, we packed and loaded our cargo again, took some photos showing us stranded on this desolate road in this desolate desert, and waited. Before leaving Turkmenabat that morning, we stocked up on supplies at the bazaar and then also bought a big melon. The melons of Turkmenistan are said to be the best in the world, second only to the melons of Afghanistan. So together with the two Russian boys, we feasted on the melon (which indeed was absolutely fantastic), in what little shade the ambulance provided us in the scorching desert sun, until Dmitry returned with Thomas and a borrowed tow cable.

Really wanting to avoid towing, Dmitry made one final attempt at finding the problem himself and while he was digging around the engine an old Opel Vectra suddenly appeared out of the desert and pulled over next to us. Inside it were four (maybe five; I couldn’t see the driver) very drunk Turkmen men, all of them in an excellent mood. They shouted a question to me about whether we were Russians and I pointed to Dmitry who shouted some Russian greeting back to them. This seemed to make them immensely happy and they shouted something back about how much they loved Russians, pushed an unopened bottle of locally produced vodka into my hand, and then disappeared into the desert again as suddenly as they had appeared. Surreal.

The desolate desert road goes through a hilly landscape, with slopes as steep as 12%, and the ambulance is around 3 tonnes heavy when fully loaded. With Dmitry driving the Hilux and me steering the ambulance at the other end of the tow cable, I get a wholly new appreciation for power steering and power brakes. This thing is seriously heavy. The Hilux, however, has enormous power reserves and never even hesitates when pulling its new cargo up the steepest slopes.

In the first village we reached, we stopped outside of a small convenience store and a car was sent to fetch a man explained to be “махина мастер” (“car master”), a description that soon came to be used as a name, as if Master had been this man’s proper name.

Master arrived, together with his assistant, and showed himself to be that kind of man who is so good at what he does that one can feel it in the air and everybody around him immediately trusts that he knows exactly what he’s doing. It took him less than a minute to figure out what was wrong and what needed to be done, and then he proceeded with the strenuous work to remove the starter motor from its exceedingly inaccessible location behind the engine on the Volvo 965.

When removed, he disassembled the starter motor and could show us the gears that were supposed to transfer power from the starter motor to the engine, but now were utterly broken. A complicated contraption, made in Germany, that needed to be replaced. Master went away in search for spare parts.

The guy who had fetched Master in his car, an Opel Astra, proudly pointed out that his car was of German quality, implying that such a thing as our problem wouldn’t happen to him. I could not help retorting that our starter motor had been built by Bosch and it therefore wasn’t unlikely that Opel used the same one. Hilarity ensued when Master returned with the spare part, explaining that he had been able to find it because it’s also used by Opel.

Dmitry’s wife had been calling him, wondering why father and son hadn’t come home for dinner yet, so they now left us with a promise to drive by again later at night to verify that we were still not there then. We thanked them profoundly, they waved it away as being nothing, and then drove off in the gigantic Toyota.

With the spare part at hand, Master and his assistant pretty quickly put everything together again and with proud confidence he urged me to try starting the engine. It started flawlessly, of course. I did a few more stops and starts. Everything perfect. Master asked for 30 USD for his work and for the spare part. We happily paid, said goodbye to everyone who by this time had become involved and then drove away towards the border.

Shortly before the border, shortly before sunset, we met another Mongol Rally car, heading in the opposite direction. They could tell us that the border had been closed for the night but that they and yet another Rally car had decided to camp along the canal (part of the large irrigation system through the desert for the Turkmenistan cotton fields) near the border, and that they were now just going for supplies. We gave them directions to the small convenience store we had just left and decided to camp with them to cross the border in the morning.

At the border the next morning, Turkmenistan once again turned its head around to show the face of the totalitarian state with its byzantine bureaucracy. When entering the country, the official who filled out the document known as the big green form had for some unexplained reason in this document entered our last day in the country five days before our visas expired. Not understanding this document (in Turkmen) anyway, I had not noticed this, but now it became apparent that this document had been used to calculate the road tax and vehicle insurance fees. Because of this, the approximately 800 m we had driven on Turkmenistan public roads this morning, from our camping site to the border crossing, had been illegal, as they had been driven without paid road tax and without valid vehicle insurance.

The man wearing the uniform of the totalitarian state and given the task to execute its orders was however a very nice person, and explained that if we would just fill out a new form, valid from this morning, and pay taxes and fees, we could then just pretend as if we had never driven those 800 m illegally. So some paperwork and 35 USD in cash for taxes and fees later, we were ready to exit Turkmenistan legally and with all papers in order.

While doing this paperwork, I met an Englishman named Mark Wright ( who was about to cross the border on his bicycle. He had been cycling from London and was heading for Hong Kong. I exclaimed that this was a fun coincidence, as I have a friend in Hong Kong, Aron Åkesson, who is really into cycling. Cards were exchanged and Mark and Aron were put in touch with each other. (Let’s see if they actually get to cycle together in Hong Kong.)

The Turkmenistan border officials then did more paperwork and vehicle inspections (but, luckily for our sanity, not anywhere near as much for exiting as for entering the country) and as we now had learnt to know some Turkmens, we noticed that most of them here were wearing uniforms that required them to do stupid and annoying things, but that most of them were really nice people under the uniforms, trying to make jokes and small talk to make the ridiculous procedures pass more pleasantly.

With that, Turkmenistan showed a smiling face when we were waved goodbye and after a friendly handshake and wishes for a pleasant journey from the last border guard, drove on into Uzbekistan.


  1. I find it wonderful that wherever you go, you meet nice and friendly people. That give me hope for mankind! (And I feel like situations like when helping the soon-to-be-working-at-the-Lund-university Indians on the train to Lund with their huge pile of suitcases find their accomodation, walking them there, is indeed the right thing to do since most likely there will be others doing the same thing for oneself when abroad.)

    "Funny" thing about the Bosch starter; our Bosch generator went south earlier this year. Pretty hard to do something then there is Bosch equipment in all cars (except those with Lucas' parts, but that doesn't count as proper equipment).

  2. Frank Wadenpohl09:05

    Wonderfully written (again)!

  3. Stort tack för ännu ett inspirerande inlägg, Fredrik! Känns onekligen en smula märkligt att sitta här och tänka "Men Turkmenistan måste jag ju bara åka till!"....