Crossing the Uzbek-Turkmen border

Turkmenabat Travel Blog

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Water melons for sale!

The trip from Bukhara to the Turkmen city of Chorjew (Turkmenabad) used to be like traveling from one state to another in the United States.  Back in the Soviet times to go from Uzbekistan to Turkmenistan was like traveling from Texas to Oklahoma, you just got in your car and drove.  There might have been a sign along the road, but it was basically an administrative line, with no consequences for the traveler.  It is no longer like that.  In fact, the border between two of the world’s most repressive dictatorships reflects the suspicions of both xenophobic neighbors.  Today, the road is in a state of disrepair, used mostly by trucks transiting from Iran to Kazakhstan via Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. 


The actual border crossing is a series of huts in the middle of the desert.  As you approach the border, local traffic is stopped and vehicles cannot proceed any further.  Only vehicles with permission to go across the border can proceed through the last two kilometers.  We unloaded the kids, and waited in the desert for a van that would take us to the immigration post.  After riding the van a few minutes we arrived at immigration.  The surly Uzbek officials stamped us out of the country.  The angry Uzbek customs officials then inspected our bags.  Every dollar in our wallets was counted, and I got a thorough patting down to check for any smuggled items.   Then we were free to walk across the 500 meters of no man’s land.


The Turkmen side gave us a new surprise.  The whole border was closed for lunch, a two hour lunch.  It was lunchtime, and the kids were hungry, but there was not a shop in sight.  So, we just sat there waiting for the border to open.  Both boys did admirably well, and after a little time a group of Samarkandi women on their way to Iran to sell their bundles of clothes made friends with the kids.  Before you know it they were showering the kids with cookies and happily chatting with our Persian speaking three-year old.  They could not believe that this little kid could actually understand them.


We cleared immigration with no problem.  The process was similar to entering Afghanistan, except that there was an additional step.  We had to pay $12 per person to open a police report so that they could mark any violations during our visit.   This is the only country I’ve been to that assumes you are going to break the law when you enter, so they open up a separate police report!  But I guess no other country has the repressive laws that Turkmenistan, where gold teeth are forbidden and the only book allowed in schools was written by the President for life.  We did not know this at the time, but President Niyazov had only one month left to live at that point.  We were about to enter one of the world’s most bizarre countries where everything is designed to glorify or even deify their supreme ruler.


We finally cleared all the administrative hurdles to enter the country.  We hit the inevitable crowd of taxi drivers scamming the unknowing tourists.  I was wary.  One guy approached me and offered to take us to Turkmenabad, 45 minutes away, for $10 USD.  That was for all four of us.  I demanded to see the car first before I agreed.  He took me to a BMW 740.  No way!  Was he serious?  I asked the price again, and he confirmed it was $2.50 a head, no other passengers.  So, we took it.   We cruised along at 140 kilometers an hour in the nicest car I’ve ever ridden in for as much as it costs to ride a few miles in most countries.  Amazing.  We went straight to the train station where we were informed that there were no tickets for a week.  So, we decided to go for dinner at a typical Russian restaurant, ordered schii (no they didn’t have it).  Have you ever noticed that Russian restaurants don’t ever have anything on the menu.  I even watched a spoof on Sesame Street about a puppet going to a Russian restaurant and after several tries finally exclaiming “What do you have, then?”   Well that’s what we finally did, and got some good chicken soup.   After that, we rented another car for a ridiculously low price, and headed to Merv that same night.


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Water melons for sale!
Water melons for sale!
photo by: Deats