The golden man

Turkmenabat Travel Blog

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People i met here, who contributed to and improved my trip: Julia (Russia)

Having had days, if not weeks of headaches with the Turkmenistan Embassy, i wasn't particularly looking forward to crossing the border into the country. Just like the embassy, we were confronted by a queue when we arrived at immigration and stood for over half an hour with a gaggle of truckers who were trying to push their way in. Once we made it into the building, a friendly guy took my passport, asked how i was and proceeded with the formalities. When he had studied the visa, he commented that we were leaving through the border at Saraghs, at which point i told Julia to ask him if there was any way that he could change it, so we could leave via Gaudan and thus see Ashgabat.

"Yeah, sure, of course, no problem" came the reply, as i stood there somewhat gob smacked that a) he was going to do it and b) it was a five second job to change it. Why had we had to go to the Embassy so many times and still get told that it was impossible? Simply incredible!

We continued through customs and Julia asked several people whether what had just been done was ok and that there would be no problem exiting somewhere different from what was on our visas - Lonely Planet said this was impossible. All the staff assured us it was fine, as the border guards would look at what was on the computer, rather than what was on the visa. In fact the guy who helped us said that the computer even said we should exit via Gaudan, which proved that the man in the Embassy had been talking through his arse all along, when he said it was orders from Ashgabat to make us travel the route that we didn't want.

Once through the border and safely into Turkmenistan, we were left with the usual taxi sharks and money changers. It was nearly 17.00 and we were concerned that if the border closed and no more people emerged, then we would have to pay for a taxi by ourselves. In the end two more locals turned up to split the cost, which was 50,000 Manat ($3.50) each. As i had no Manat i said i would just pay $4 each, but for some reason the taxi driver made me change the dollars into Manat and therefore he actually got a dollar less than i was offering him originally!

Travelling at 140km/h down a narrow bumpy road got us to Turkmenabat in no time at all and we were dropped by the train station. Walking through town we got our first sighting of 'Turkmenbashi' (Father of the Turkmen) aka President Niyazov, the zany character who had dominated Turkmenistan's History from 1991 up until his death in 2006. A large gold statue of him dominated a square and was a perfect introduction to this thoroughly bizarre country and character!

The reason that we wanted to stay in Turkmenabat was that it had cheap accommodation, so we headed to Hotel Lebapgurlushyk, which was supposedly $6.50 per person. The LP map was as usual totally useless, both out of scale and drawing roads that weren't there, but thankfully a young boy pointed us in the right direction. I was a bit taken aback when we entered and were told that the cheapest room that they now had was $36. When we asked for a discount they said they could come down to $30, so Julia went and took a look at what was on offer. Surely such a price increase must signify a recent refurbishment, right? The look on her face when she returned told me immediately that the room was probably not worth $5, let alone $30! The owner informed us the other budget hotel had closed and that there was only one other hotel in town and this cost $90, which was obviously why they could get away with charging $30. I hate been backed into a corner like this, so we decided to get the hell out of there and try and catch a bus or train to Mary.

At the train station the woman in the ticket booth told us that there was a train leaving in 20 minutes that would arrive into Mary three hours later, at 22.00. There were only hard seats available, so we decided that we definitely didn't want to go all the way to Ashgabat, which is where the train terminated. The ticket cost 11,000 Manat ($0.80) but the lady made us pay 21,000, for no apparent reason! Once on the train we were told that the journey to Mary actually took 7 hours and we would have to get off the train at 02.00, which really sucked. We decided that if we were going to be on the train that long, then we may as well just stay on until Ashgabat, so as to save on a nights accommodation cost. We bribed the guard 15,000 Manat ($1.10) each and he agreed to turn a blind eye to our presence on the train. Funnily enough, the ticket would have been cheaper to buy than the bribe, but we didn't have a choice and it was incredibly cheap anyway.

We hadn't eaten since breakfast, so it was a relief to see women passing through the carriages selling some really good fish (5,000 Manat - $0.35), naan breads and ice cream. A Turkmen guy began talking to us and this helped pass some time until it came time to sleep. As there were no beds on board, Julia and I climbed onto the upper luggage shelf and slept there! I can't say it was comfortable, but it beat sitting on a hard seat all night. The train arrived into Ashgabat at 09.00, bringing to a close a 24 hour trip from Bukhara - what fun!

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photo by: Deats