Borders almost closed, cult of the president, control of media: by crossing Turkmenistan, we knew that we were going to live a rather… unique experience! On the other hand, we had no idea how warmly Turkmen people finally welcomed us. After a short passage, we relive with you our Turkmen journey – an experience we won’t soon forget!
Our story begins in Tehran, Iran: after 10 long days of waiting, the Turkmen Embassy finally delivered us a 5-day transit visa to reach Kazakhstan. We jumped for joy: it was a great victory for us, especially when we knew that Turkmenistan is a country quite closed to tourists. 5 days it’s good but not much: it means that we won’t have time to visit… On the other hand, contrary to tourist visa holders, we are “free” in our moves inside the country – or rather not obliged to pay for a 24-hour guide.
It won’t be long before we realize that we’re not that free…
By chance, the day we were granted our Turkmen visa, we met a German couple traveling in their van. They took us in their “four-wheeled house” to the Turkmen capital Ashgabat, where our paths split. Without them, hitchhiking would have been more complicated because there are hardly any cars crossing the border.
Our arrival in Turkmenistan turned out to be totally surrealistic: a GPS ship was put in our friends’ van and we were all banned on stopping and taking pictures before the capital… Anyway, there was not much to see; nothing on the horizon, not even a cow! But before reaching our destination, there was another police check. They ended up opening a big gate for us: the way was all clear!
At first glance, Ashgabat looks like a big amusement park: immaculate white buildings, wide and empty streets, perfectly mowed lawns and not a single piece of garbage in sight. After a quick visit with the van, we left our German friends to wander around the city, looking for a place to sleep. We approached a woman and asked her if it was possible to camp somewhere: despite her little English, she was obviously trying to help us. Eventually she introduced us to her neighbor Hadji, a fifty-year-old rock music (and cognac) enthusiast who owns a small studio where a group of three young Turkmen men were rehearsing. We ended up falling asleep on the coaches in a small living room, lulled by the sound of very rhythmic and “rock’n’roll” melodies.
The next day, we visited Ashgabat again: a visit that proved to be not very interesting, main monuments were built on the outskirts. We entered a big luxury hotel to ask for some WIFI: the staff, very nice, gave us the access codes and allowed us to sit for a few hours at the reception, without any compensation…
CouchSurfing requests in the capital were unsuccessful, but Ilaman from Balkanabat agreed to host us the following night. We left the hotel at nightfall, without any precise itinerary… Bad idea! Policemen, scattered all over the city, blowing the whistle on us every time: “no photo”, “not here”, “no possible”… Can they say only “no”? Hunted, tired, we decided as a last resort to call Hajji, our impromptu host from the previous day – and our only contact in this city. He met us in town and drove us to his best friend’s house. Hajji, our savior! Thanks to him, we were safe when the curfew started, able to take a real shower and enjoyed a private room. True happiness!
Balkanabat & Bektash
For our 3rd day in Turkmenistan, we left early from the capital, direction Balkanabat – without knowing if hitchhiking would work in this country. After lifting our thumbs on the side of the road, several cars stopped: hitchhiking turned out to be quite easy here (even if a lot of drivers wanted to drive us as a taxi) and we arrived in Balkanabat, 400 kilometers away, in the early afternoon. Ilaman’s family – his parents, artists, and his sister Shirin – welcomed us like kings: traditional Turkmen breakfast with rice “palau” and beers, hot shower, private room with a comfortable double bed, internet… We were already frustrated to stay for only one day! Before leaving, Ilaman’s mother eventually offered me a beautiful traditional Turkmen dress… A priceless gift, a piece of Turkmen culture that I wear proudly on the For our 3rd day in Turkmenistan, we leave early from the capital, direction Balkanabat – without knowing if hitchhiking would work in this country or not. After giving our thumbs up, several cars stop: finally, hitchhiking seems quite easy here (even if a lot of drivers offer to take a taxi) and we will arrive in Balkanabat, 400 kilometers away, in the early afternoon. Ilaman’s family – his parents, artists, and his sister Shirin – welcomes us like kings: traditional Turkmen breakfast with “palau” rice and beers, hot shower, private room with a comfortable double bed, internet… We are already frustrated that we can only stay for one day! Before leaving, Ilaman’s mother will even offer me a beautiful traditional Turkmen dress… A priceless gift, a piece of Turkmen culture that I will wear proudly everywhere I travel.
Outside the capital, you can find a much more sober, obsolete architecture, and even a little Soviet touch in some cities where there are blocks of square and concrete buildings. After a picnic on the roadside offered by Ilaman’s mother, we stopped a car driven by David and his 2 sons. The eldest son, Jakob, 15 years old, was delighted to practice his English: we communicated as best we can with the help of a translator, and we ended up understanding that the family was going to Bekash/Garabogaz, about 40 kilometres from the Kazakh border. A godsend for us! After a break in Turkmenbashi and several hours of driving on more or less bumpy roads, we finally reached the village. David took us to his wife, who runs the village post office: they were ready to let us sleep in the post office, after a shared dinner outside…
We were drinking tea when local policemen showed up. After rigorous inspection of our passports and visas, policemen categorically refused to let us spend the night at the post office. “Hotel, hotel!” We also categorically refuse: no way! After a heated discussion, a compromise was reached: local police paid us a hotel room! Resigned, we put our stuff in the shabby local hotel, escorted like prisoners… And as soon as they finally left us alone, we discreetly escaped from the hotel to go back to the post office to see David and his family – a whole family as delighted as us to spend an evening together!
On our way to Kazakhstan
May 20, 2018. Difficult awakening. We didn’t sleep much on the stoned beds, yet we have to leave quickly… We knew that finding a lift will be complicated, because few people cross this border. As we left the hotel, we met in the streets two colleagues of David’s wife, with whom we had spent the evening the day before. One of them dropped us off at the start of the “track” – a completely lost place in the middle of the desert, where asphalt seems to have disappeared…
Among the jeep-taxis waiting for a potential customer, we spotted a truck on the side of the road. Julien hastened to talk with the driver: bingo, he’s going to Kazakhstan! That’s how we were lifted by Sergei, a Russian trucker, on a completely broken track leading to the Kazakh border. We spent no less than 5 hours there, between strict controls by Turkmen officers and the closing of the Kazakh border office during the lunch break…
Did you know?…
Manat black market
Before running to the nearest ATM to withdraw money, you should know that there are two exchange rates in Turkmenistan: the official rate set by the government (1$=3.5M) and the unofficial one (1$=13.5M). With such a difference, most of tourists would prefer to exchange money at black market… To find the sellers, check at the border and Ashgabat main bazaar!
A white cult
White buildings, white cars, white streetlights, white bus shelters… Behind the Turkmen leader megalomania, Ashgabat really deserves its nickname of “white city”!
A leader cult
When a political leader has an over sized ego, it results in portraits of his person on every street corner, headlines in newspapers to his glory, controlled television channels and blocked websites…
No smoke, no cry
As we all know, quitting smoking is sometimes very complicated… In order to find support, the Turkmen president simply banned his fellow citizens from smoking in public places… Pure and simple!
Fast and furious
Turkmenistan is an oil-producing country and is also the country with the most big cars on the roads (Toyota 4X4). And as much to say that with straight roads across the desert, some drivers like to push on the accelerator!
Curfews and oppression
Having experienced this at a Balkanabat disco-club, nightlife in Turkmenistan stops right at 11pm (10pm for smaller towns!). Imagine our faces when the music stopped after enjoying dancing on “Despacito” song!… But even more oppressive than the curfew, it’s the permanent controls that make Turkmen people’s life more complicated: surveillance, police controls (in town and on the road), lack of freedom of speech – and for us, lack of freedom of movement and total control of pictures taken!
Traveling alternatively in Turkmenistan
We knew that when we entered Turkmenistan, time was counted (4 days to get to the Kazakh border) . And as we had spent our last rials in Iran to buy a lot of food, we made a bet to cross Turkmenistan without money – keeping a few US dollars in our pocket just in case. Our bet finally paid off!
If hitchhiking was rather easy in the country, hitchhiking across the borders was more complicated… Our advice is to make all the arrangements, and find a driver who will cross the border (truck driver, tourists transportation). Not to mention the low number of people at the borders, strict controls and specific opening hours (9AM-5PM on average) that make the crossing more complicated.
While it’s theoretically possible to do wild camping outside the cities, it hasn’t worked for us. In the small village of Bektash, policemen didn’t want to let us camp and paid us a night in a shabby hotel!
Against all odds, we’ve found Turkmen hosts on CouchSurfing! But apart from that, Turkmen people are so curious and delighted to see tourists that some of them will not hesitate to offer hospitality, as it was the case for us in Ashgabat!
More about Turkmenistan:
* Post written according to our personal experience *