If you were to think of the most different place you can go to on this planet, different from the one you live in, what would it be? We are not talking about extremes like Antarctica or a warzone, but of a place that you could call functioning, yet different from everything that you know until then. Well… this is a story of a very different place, one like I have never seen before, something straight out of a dystopian movie, and no, it is not about North Korea! I was with Vali and Tudor, my Mongol Rally teammates in our faithful little red Suzuki Swift and the “full of rally lights” Dacia Sandero. After spending a great week in Iran with the most wonderful and welcoming people, it was time to continue our journey east, and we were preparing to cross into the next country. It was not Pakistan, it wasn’t Afghanistan either, it was the exotic Turkmenistan.
When I say that Turkmenistan is exotic I’m not referring to its landscape, the place is so strict when it comes to offering visas that few people get to visit every year, and those who do usually have a solid reason. We were lucky because we had a special type of transit visa by being in the rally, basically, the organizers vouched that we were to be trusted. This still meant that we needed to be at the border on a certain day, tell the route that we will follow, have a booking at a hotel (the shortest transit route is 600KMs through the desert), don’t overstay our 5-day transit, don’t have any kind of drones with us (we didn’t) and make sure the GPS tracking device they will put in our car will stay functional all the way. All good and ready, except that after filling in the application around four months before and being on the road for some weeks now, you tend to forget the name of the hotel you booked and can’t find it because you wrote it down and saved it somewhere really safe not to lose it… After some time trying to find it we just gave up, didn’t book another one either, instead, we decided to wild camp at the Darvaza crater and just explain the insignificant change at the border (you thought we’ve learned our lesson from entering Iran right?)
With all this in mind, we started towards the border that was on the peak of a small mountainous range. After a smooth money exchange and exit from Iran we were instructed to park the cars behind some gates, just outside Iran, into the no man’s land, and started our paper marathon through the Turkmen offices. The officials were polite, welcoming, and curious about us. They all had really cool green camouflage uniforms, we were in the desert but hey, coolness is coolness. We again had different paths, while my teammates were on the “driver” route I was alone on the “passager” route, being amazed by the huge quantity of pufuleti people were bringing back to their country (I’m sorry but there will never be a translation for pufuleti). When they got to pay the insurance for the cars, Tudor had a great walk down memory lane with an official, who started to be very sad and sorrowful when he heard about our country of origin “Ahh Romania! Great! Romania, Bulgaria, Hungaria, Czechoslovakia! Great! Great!” Another official was so intrigued by one of our (Vali’s) traditional straw hat that we just had to offer it as a gift, he was as delighted as a young kid on his birthday.
After some more old “other-era” looking offices that made us feel at home, we ended up at one where the official drivers needed to confirm the route that we were taking. Of course, they didn’t know it because I was the navigator making sure we don’t take a wrong turn and end up in India but don’t worry, at that moment I just saw Vali pointing at me with the most helpful attitude ever saying “He knows it, he’s the boss!”. The next thing I hear is one of the most convincing voices ever, inviting me to partake “Boss man, come here!” When I actually got to the window office I felt kind of a relief because I saw a military man so tall and massive I thought there’s no way he can get out of that room, he must’ve been born there. “Where are you going?”, “Nukus”, I replied like I knew the Uzbek border city better than the one I was born in. “Where are you staying tonight? What hotel?”, “No hotel, we go directly to Darvaza, camping” And there, that was the exact moment, as I finished my words I saw and immediately knew that my friendship with the big dude ended as fast as it started. I just knew by seeing his face that no straw hat will ever make him happy again. What followed was some fast bursts of hotel questions and mentionings of visa applications but all I was feeling was that the whole place just stood still in shock after my response, as if I was now running around the station yelling there’s no Czechoslovakia anymore…
After a few minutes of talking, looking through the window to our vehicles, and us being more honest than stupid, the man probably realized that the biggest threat to his country was indeed our pure stupidity so he let us in. We went to the cars where your standard border questions are asked, if you have a drone or if you have weapons and bombs like AK47 or grenades but again, the looking of our cars were the biggest threats here. After the inspection was over we were explicitly told to drive until the capital (around 20km) without stopping or filming and under no circumstance to drive at night because camels sleep on the tarmac, being warmer than the sand.
We left towards Ashgabat at around three in the afternoon, checking our documents, again and again, having the feeling that we forgot something but all was there so we just enjoyed the view of the city, a huge white city in the middle of a desert. Vali found the beauty of the president on the radio, in English, Russian, and the local language. Everything was new, in white marble, luxurious, with tall and good-looking buildings, with 6 lane streets and roundabouts with huge monuments in. The streets were so clean you could eat directly off them, all the cars in traffic were white or very bright colors but there was no one in the streets. The beautiful new buildings really looked new, as in not being used, the whole city looked like it was brand new, ready to be delivered to its buyer and people to be invited in. We knew that it was already midday but from our estimates done online we should do the 300km to Darvaza in around 3 hours, after all, it was a straight line through the desert, with asphalt, no cities to slow us down and it was summertime with plenty of daylight so we decided to search for a mall to buy sim cards, food, water and have a coffee before we leave.
We arrived at a huge mall, realized that probably half the cars in the city were parked here, found ourselves a spot, and got in. Even with all the grandeur of the city we have just witnessed, we were not prepared for this. We entered the shiniest and most luxuriant mall we have ever seen, live or on a TV. All the major western brands were here, everything was so clean that we wanted to take off our shoes and yes, everything was made with marble. After a few minutes of wandering around in shock, we gathered our courage to sit down in a coffee shop but the prices, atmosphere, and service soon made us feel at home again. While our young and English-speaking waitress was serving us our coffees, we asked for help to connect to the wifi and she was more than happy to help, so she asked for our phones. We, like three little gullible piggies that forgot where they were, gave our phones to her, all at the same time, like we were expecting her to tap in all three of them at the same time. She just took them, smiled, and left, went into the back of the coffee shop, behind some doors as we remained there with our brilliant minds. After some 5 to 10 minutes she came back, gave us the phones confirming that they now work. They didn’t, but then again, we only tried to browse western sites and navigation maps, we didn’t try the local ones. Also, until this day I haven’t done a factory reset to my phone… One rule of Overlanding is that as soon as you get into a new country you get yourself a sim card so you can keep in touch with those back home so we tried to buy one. We knew stories from other rally teams that went through a few years before, that in this mall, at a certain floor, near some staircases and a supermarket, on the right side… (right side of what…?) you could find a guy that would sell you a SIM card and install a VPN that should work and let you freely browse the internet. With no surprise to anyone reading at this point, this did not go as planned, we did not find any guy, but at least this time we didn’t get kidnapped either. We soon realized that we had only one option in regard to network operators, no surprise here you guess who was selling them, but the problem was that we probably had to sell one of the cars in order to make a decent phone call back home if it actually worked. We had to go without sim cards, we were not happy about it knowing that WiFi’s are also out of the question, but we had some offline maps downloaded and after all, it was only one straight road to the next country, even if you wanted to get lost you couldn’t.We all put some money together to buy food and water and we decided to leave the city for Darvaza, as promised to our not-so-happy friend from the border. We navigated each marble monument from each roundabout until we got out of the city towards North, towards The Gates of Hell in what we estimated to be a 3 hours drive, and towards Uzbekistan the next day. When we got out of Ashgabat the sun was going down so we realized that we will drive at least 2 hours after dark, but as we knew that our team name was shifting since we started, from “We are all Mongolians” to “We are always late”, two hours of night drive was a bargain. As the light was getting dimmer the road was getting worse and as the city and its monuments were disappearing in the back, that dystopian feeling started to reappear. There was nothing around here, not even camels to sleep on the tarmac, only an old tarmac road full of potholes and sand to crash into if you don’t stay on it. We soon realized that there are two things that we can do in order to make things a little better, first is to drive as fast as we can so we kind of get over the potholes so fast the car actually goes over without the suspension having the time to go down in them. We managed to find the perfect speed somewhere between 90 and 100 KM/h, it doesn’t sound much, but on that kind of road we actually got in the air with all 4 wheels going over a hill, we jumped from the middle of the road and landed somewhere on the right of it (we would get to master this hovering technique in Mongolia, what is happening there defines physics). The second thing that we could do is to listen to old manele songs, rediscovering these songs in the middle of Turkmenistan, in the night, going to a weird place like Darvaza… somehow it all made sense… or not… as we would soon see… (To Be Continued)