Friday, 4 November 2011

TURKMENISTAN at a glance. Getting into Central Asia

University students in their "blue" day
After Iran the next stop of my Silk road trip and the entrance to Central Asia is Turkmenistan. The government made it extremely difficult and expensive to get a tourist visa, so most of the backpackers arrive on 5 day transit visa. It is the most difficult visa to get in Asia, together with the one for Buthan.

BORDER CROSSING
I arrived on the 5th of September. After being almost kidnapped by a local journalist who wanted to make an interview with me and also marry me, I finally got to the border. The Iranian border was alright, I was the only tourist, so the policemen were quite interested to see me I guess so they invited me to their office, offered me some tea, biscuits and dates while checking the passports of the others. When leaving, they insisted to take the rest of the biscuits and dates with me and as I kept saying no, no, no.. he just dumped everything in my bag (without putting it in a plastic bag first)! So never say NO to Iranian policemen J, they were nice though, and one of them really handsome.
The rest of the people at the border were all Turkmen, travelling every day to Iran and coming back with lots of products to sell, like detergent, soap, etc. We all took a mini bus to the Turkmen border (15 min ride, including 2 passport checks). By the end of it, all the Turkmen in the mini bus knew that I was travelling alone, not married, 30 year old, from Bulgaria, and I’ve studied Russian in school. They were all really friendly and nice,  exchanged all the Iranian money I had left, one of them even offered me to merry his son but as I had only 5 days in Turkmenistan we really had to push it (the weddings here are a big thing, needs lots of preparation), so it was decided its was not very reasonable J. It was like one big family.
Then the saga started. Declarations, luggage checks, fees to pay (10 US $ entrance fee + 2$ fee for paying in $!!). When we were done with all the paperwork and checks, I had to go to this private room and have a private conversation with someone in charge of the private things there (maybe a private). It was a young guy who was more flirting with me than other things, asking me why at the age of 30 i´m still not married, especially being so beautiful, smart and simply amazing (In Turkmenistan a girl like me wouldn’t be left single). Finally he let me go and I was out of there.

VISA ISSUES
If you apply for a Turkmen visa, be very careful when you tell them the name of the border you are gonna enter the country from. Otherwise you might have to suffer a big change of plans...just like I did. I had a couch waiting for me in Ashgabat (the capital) but apparently I wasn’t allowed to go there because on my visa it said Saraghs (Iranian border) – Farab (Uzbek border) and Ashgabat is not in between. When I got my visa in Ankara, I was asked which border Im planning to use and I told them Saraghs because that one appeared on my quick search on internet and didn’t think that after that I would be limited to travel only in the area between borders, direction Uzbekistan. So if you plan to go to Turkmenistan from Iran on a transit visa (based on Uzbekistan), its better if you point out the border near Ashgabat, this way you can go there by bus from Mashhad, and then directly to the city and will still have time to go to Uzbekistan.

CULTURE AND PEOPLE



Always burning
For centuries, the area that includes Turkmenistan was known as Turkestan. Caravans loaded with silks from Turkey and spices from China and India followed the Silk Road on their way to Asia Minor and Europe. Nowadays Turkmenistan is probably the country on the silk road that is the most difficult to travel through due to the government and all the obstacles the backpackers have to cope with.

The gas, electricity and water are free in the country but the matches are not, with the result that many Turkmen keep their gas stoves burning 24 hours a day. Petrol used to be extremely cheap as well – 60 litre for 1 $ (0,02 $ per 1 litre), but now you can get only 5 litters for a $. Still quite a deal compared to Europe.

Well, everything is complicated in Turkmenistan. And accompanied by the feeling that you are constantly being ripped off. Most of the people who have travelled to developing countries know that feeling, sometimes it can even ruin your day...but only until you meet the next nice person who make up for it J.

My room and breakfast at the taxi driver's house
Normal people I met were very friendly and nice but others working with tourists were such swindlers...but also nice at the same time. Every time I had to bargain for prices (taxis and accommodation), they were lying, making up stories and exaggerating. It wasn’t that hard to discover the real price – just asking someone in Russian what is normal to pay in that case. For example the taxi driver who took me from the border ended up inviting me in his house, having dinner with his family and also sleeping there FOR FREE...but at the same time he overcharged me for the taxi to Mary (250 km) at least 10 times more (I knew the real price because the guys at the border told me that I shouldn’t pay more than XX manat) but he was so convincing, explaining me how all the prices went up, how the petrol is extremely expensive now (5 litters for 1 $!!!! Well, compared to 4 years ago it was 60 litters for 1 $), changed the price about 700 times. I just didn’t know how to react to someone lying to you in your face but at the same time opening your house for you. So I just gave up and paid what he asked for, knowing how overpriced it is. It was just annoying and tiring and made me suspicious whether people are honest or just trying to trick you out. Not a good feeling at all.

Learning how to walk


People here are Muslim but they are not as religious as the Iranians, also I didn’t hear Azan anywhere. Girls usually wear long colourful dress, but quite a tight one (I think it was even sexy and provocative), and many of them a scarf that covers half of the hair. But never black. The students wear a uniform, girls in green long dresses and the university students blue or red – they take turns: one day blue, next day red; usually have the hair in 2 braids, looks quite nice but probably they are hot as it gets up to 50 degrees in summer.



Most of the people speak good Russian so at least there was no language barrier. It´s funny how important is to be married here. More or less my conversations with the locals went like that (for example in a shop, always in Russian):  “How much is that? Five manat. Can I get one please? Here you are. Are you married?”
So the usual questions are asked in a reverse order: Are you married? How old are you? Where are you from?
Im seriously thinking about getting a T-shirt saying: “Yes, Im not married, Im travelling alone and yes, I’m 30. And again yes, you heard it, 30”.

In Mary, I slept in the most disgusting hostel or whatever that place was, I think its the worst place I've spent a night at in my entire life... But hotels were really expensive, and the taxi driver just took me there as I asked for something cheap..Well, I still managed to have a shower, probably I was the first person there asking to have a shower...Will spare you the details cos I'm a nice person :)
In Mary
In Mary
Through the desert on the way to Turkmenabat
TURKMENABAT
No building without the photo of the president


Second biggest city in Turkmenistan, people still call it with its old Russian name Charjou.
Internet doesn’t work here...I tried and it is so slow that really pisses you off. Its also expensive, 1h is about 2,5 $ but usually after half an hour trying to open your gmail or yahoo account, you just give up.

Jemal
Here I met this sweet girl (Jemal) who was working in a Motor oil shop and after she finished work we met with a friend of hers and walked around the city. Again, she didn’t let me pay for anything because I was a guest in her country. Also convinced me to stay one more day in her house before I head to Uzbekistan. That was what I needed – someone local, smiley and positive to make up for the not so good impression the country left on me so far. In addition, Jemal is a very open-minded girl and aware of everything that was going on in town.
I spent the whole afternoon in her shop and even helped her open an account on CS, so now Turkmenabat has its first CS representative (CS is not very popular in Turkmenistan). At night, her brothers drove us around the city and we took photos at any possible place that they thought it could be interesting for me. Jemal was speaking Turkmen to everyone in her family but Russian to her friends and to the people in general. Thanks to her I got to know more about the Turkmen culture and lifestyle. Many things are forbidden there. For example the girls are not allowed to pass the driving test and drive before they turn 35! Foreigners are not allowed to be on the streets after 11pm!
Jemal's nephews 
Doing the homework
 Also the education is extremely expensive – the cheapest one would cost you 18000$...For that reason most of the young people go to study abroad – the most usual destinations are Kyrgyzstan, Turkey, Ukraine, Uzbekistan, Russia...Jemals has three brothers, the oldest one studied medicine in Kyrgyzstan, the second one in Turkey and the youngest one was about to leave to Ukraine for his first year in the Uni. Jemal as an only girl in the family wasn’t that lucky, her dad didnt let her go abroad to study.

Bumped into a wedding shooting

 


I have to admit that the Turkmen flag is the most beautiful one I’ve seen so far. Just my opinion.



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