Sunday, April 20, 2008

Halfway to Ashgabat

I hate border crossings and I am particularly nervous because I am using my old passport which contains valid visas for both Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. Regrettably, the British embassy saw fit to cut off all four corners off the cover and it looks a bit dodgy. I have bought a passport cover to try and hide this mutilation. A Turkmen soldier, looking like a Nepalese Gurkha, holds out his hands and I thrust the suspect document out to him. He ignores it and shakes my hand with both of his. "Welcome. How are you?" Big smile. It's the friendliest border crossing we've had, I think. But not the quickest. Bored customs officers and everyone else in the wooden hut gather round to have a peek at our stuff, and thumb through our books. Before we reached the Turkmens Gayle had thrown off her headscarf in a symbolic act.

A Turkmen traveller is heading to Ashgabat and we share a taxi with him. We have to haggle hard for the price of twenty dollars and then we're off down an endless road. We are looking forward to seeing some of the kitsch monuments and awful buildings created by their first president in a prolonged egomaniacal rule. There's also supposed to be a great bazaar. After about an hour we pull over at a checkpoint. I present our passports and the details are recorded in a book. And then the officer in charge looks angry. We have only transit visas, with fixed entry and exit points, and we have wandered off course. "Problem! Ashgabat No! " He crosses his arms in an X to emphasise his point. We plead and whine a little but there's no give. The taxi driver looks happy. He will take us to Mary instead, and we are too deflated to renegotiate with him.

Our journey is long and boring, through desert scrub. For a brief moment, in a small town, we see a group of women dressed up and crossing the road. One of them is covered in an elaborately embroidered and decorated hood. "Wedding" our taxi driver shouts in Turkmen, miming putting a ring on a finger. We arrive in Mary and are deposited beside a wide boulevard with low-rise buildings. We try to find a cheap hotel, and are helped by lots of friendly locals. In sharp contrast to Mashhad, the women are walking around in long colourful dresses, with brightly embroidered necklines. The people look almost south-east asian. Schoolboys are wearing colourful skullcaps. We end up in the old Soviet hotel - which is actually okay (there's some money-changing with a man in the carpark and a request for toilet paper, which fortunately I don't have to mime, as some kind Germans gave us a picture book to use to communicate. The toilet paper is standard dual purpose stuff, we find out later, as it's great for getting the hard skin off your soles) and head off to look for food. We immediately find a barbecue grill going outside a cafe and shashlyk skewers lined up cooking. We order with the help of another friendly customer, and sit down to lovely cold beers. The new sensations continue, when we are served more beer, courtesy of the friendly customer sitting next to us. Elman invites us to sit with him and Nazar who have started on a bottle of vodka. Within minutes we have shot glasses with "chut chut" (it's supposed to mean 'a little') of vodka and Nazar is proposing a lengthy toast. We knock them back and nibble at food and try unsuccessfully to have a sensible conversation. Nazar proposes another lengthy toast, and looks to Elman to translate. He points at Gayle and says "Her. Good!" We knock 'em back. After photographs, more vodka and beer, kisses, e-mail and telephone number swaps, and suggestions to go and dance in the disco above the cafe, we finally extricate ourselves before either of us falls off our chair, or ends up doing a John Travolta to some Russian techno. What a wonderful introduction to the Stans.

Next day is baking hot. We search for breakfast and settle down to meat pies and a pot of tea. We wander the bazaar and seek shade in a park. We consider a trip to Merv, a ruined Silk Road city, but the hangovers and heat put us off. We lack the verve for Merv. Mary is an odd place, full of grand empty-looking buildings on wide boulevards, shadeless parks with brash monuments and wonderful flowers and shabby side streets with broken roads, dirt pavements, and rundown lowrise blocks of flats. But it looks like a garden city compared to our next stop, Turkmenabad. After a long taxi ride across the desert, sand wafting across the crumbling tarmac, we end up in a desolate place where we find our shabby little hotel and then hunt for food. The streets seem inordinately long and empty. There's rusty pipes sticking out of the ground and running off in all directions. It has soviet Russia written all over it, except where the word Turkmenistan is - just in case the residents forget where they live, I suppose. We kill some time looking for biscuits and fruit and checking out our escape route to the border. We are kind of looking forward to leaving and we've only just arrived! A student sees us loitering outside the train station and approaches. She speaks enough English for us to sit down and talk awhile and she gives us information about train times for the morning. Firouza lives in the border town of Farab and commutes to an academy school in the big bad Turkmenabad. She says she wants to help tourists because Turkmenis are not so friendly, but we have to protest, because many people had been very nice to us and helped with directions. It's just the taxi drivers we don't like, but then that's an international dislike.

Boutique hotel Turkmenabad

Next morning Firouza is waiting for us at the train station and takes us to Farab. It was clear she really wanted us to stay with her family and hang out all day, but we were focussed on the border crossing and were determined to continue. I hope she wasn't too disappointed. At the border there are lots of women with shopping trolleys doing the border run with miocrowaves, mixers, telephones etc. We are thankfully waved through past them and sent on our way into Uzbekistan. "Do you have any religious books?", the customs officer asks, thumbing through a novel called 'Lamb, the Gospel According to Biff, Christ's Childhood Friend'. We shrug our shoulders and they let us through. It turns out the hardest thing about the border crossings in Central Asia is getting away from them. We try to haggle with the taxi drivers but they ask for silly money just to get to the next town. We start to walk, angry and anxious, and thankfully one of them picks us up and agrees a fare to Bukhara. Did Marco Polo have all this grief, we wonder?

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