I awoke in early in Khiva. I had arranged a car the night before to take me to the border station that was maybe 45 minutes away. At 8:00 AM, my car came to meet me at my hostel and we were off. My anxiety about entering Turkmenistan had been building and building over the course of the week leading up to today, so once I was in the car actually heading for the border, I was feeling quite restless. I had the visa in my passport and my abstract plan for traversing the country in just a few days to catch the ferry to Azerbaijan, but actually executing such a plan is another matter entirely. As the road raced past us and the border post came into view, I had no choice but to take a breath and continue.
I paid by driver and he sped away back towards Khiva, leaving me alone in front of the border post. There was a little hut selling food and water on the Uzbek side, so I went to get rid of my last few Uzbek som. I was heading into the Karakum Desert in the height of summer, so I bought as much water as I could carry. It was already close to 100°F (40°C) at 9 in the morning, and it was only going to get hotter.
I exchanged 30 USD for 300 Turkmen manat with a guy lurking behind the food hut and set off. I’m certain he had the wrong exchange rate, because I walked away with way more than I was supposed to get. He seemed sure enough, so I left and headed for the border post.
Border Crossing: Uzbekistan to Turkmenistan
First, I showed my passport and visa to the Uzbek soliders who checked me out. I went through a quick customs process and had my bag checked, then was waved through. It was just me and a few old Turkmen women. Once through the minimal Uzbek customs, we crossed a bridge and waited under a tree for a bus to come pick us up. The ride cost 1 USD, and is mandatory. Not a lot of borders really permit you to just walk across the no-man’s land. Which is just as well, because this one was several kilometers.
The bus wove through rusted roadblocks and over rickety bridges spanning swampy rivers lined with barbed wire. It came to a large white building adorned with a portrait of President Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow, and we were directed inside.
Inside, I had to fill out the usual immigration form and declare anything I might be carrying that demanded extra attention. Thankfully I had thrown away my knife in Beijing, so there was nothing in my bag to draw any attention, or so I thought. My bottle of Ibuprofen caused some trouble while the border agents tried to figure out what it was. As I was filling my form, an English-speaking guard came to me and told me to hold still. He held a device up to my forehead for a few seconds, which apparently took my temperature. I had never seen such a device before, so I commented that it was cool. He grunted and waved me along.
After him came an agent at a desk who took my forms and my photo. He stamped my passport for entry and welcomed me with a smile. The guards who inspected my Ibuprofen came next. They checked my passport, exclaimed, “America!” with a thumbs-up, then waved me through. There was one last barrier before I was officially in Turkmenistan, and that was a passport check by Turkmen military guards. There were two guys who looked about my age, and one spoke pretty good English. He asked the usual questions, like why was I coming and where I was from.
“Ah, you’re from America?”
“Yeah I am. Here to travel!”
“You go to Iran next?”
“Nope, Azerbaijan. My passport isn’t good for Iran.”
“No it is not… Have a good visit to Turkmenistan!”
I walked out of the border post into Turkmenistan feeling much more relaxed. I don’t know what expectations I really had, but everyone was very amiable and friendly towards me. The atmosphere was just laid-back (at least to me, the foreign tourist). However, the relaxed atmosphere was quickly shattered when the first taxi driver caught sight of me.
“Ah, hello! Yes, my taxi, good price!”
Another driver saw him, and then another, and another. A footrace ensued as they all shouted their prices. When they reached me, it was like a feeding frenzy. One grabbed my backpack and tried to pull me to his taxi; another, my arm. All were shouting, mostly at each other. I had to forcefully push one off of me. Every price they offered was in USD.
A little tip — any cabbie that offers a price in USD and not local currency is almost definitely hoping you don’t know the exchange rate and is trying to rip you off. In Uzbekistan, drivers often ask for 10 USD, saying “it’s just ten dollars!” But the rate is more like 1 USD. Don’t be fooled.
Here, 10 USD was the standard offer. I went with the one driver who had been the least pushy, though he promptly gripped my arm tightly to make sure I didn’t go to a competitor. Just as I got to his taxi, another guy popped up with a shrug.
“Five dollar? Dashoguz?”
Dashoguz was the town I was heading to first, and five was the best I would get. I looked at the guy who I was about to go with and shrugged, then went off for the lowest bidder.
We sped off through the Turkmen countryside towards Dashoguz, the major city in the north. As I looked out the window, I was strangely conflicted. It looked just like Uzbekistan. So the conflict was this: I had come to this allegedly strange place to prove to myself that even the most reclusive and hard-to-reach places can also be totally normal. But I was also half hoping that it would be as strange as I had heard. But, just as in Kashgar, the day-to-day didn’t quite match the narrative. But that’s exactly what I was looking for anyway.
Old men hung out on the steps of their homes. Vendors sold bread out the windows and women walked their children home from school. Guys in suits had urgent conversations on the phone. Roving bands of children marauded through the streets on their bicycles as I once had in America. Even in Turkmenistan, life goes on much as it does in a lot of the world. Of course, people face some very unique and insidious issues in Turkmenistan. Those issues considered, it was shockingly normal as I entered.
It was maybe a half an hour by taxi to get to Dashoguz, one of northern Turkmenistan’s main cities. In fact, it’s basically the only one aside from Konye-Urgench, which is the other border crossing from Uzbekistan. All I ended up doing here was getting out of one taxi and finding another. The unfortunate nature of traveling in Turkmenistan is that unless you have some cash to spend, a transit visa is your only option. As a budget traveler, that’s what I applied for, and that’s what I got.
As a result, I only had a few days to get through Turkmenistan on a mad dash through the desert. I would have loved to spend more time in each place, but there just wasn’t time for that. So, when I arrived in Dashoguz, literally all I did was restart negotiations on a taxi to take be south, towards the capital city of Ashgabat.
However, there’s a little twist to my ride south: I’m stopping halfway down.
My destination for the night was a moderately (in)famous site officially called the Darvaza Gas Crater. More commonly, it’s known as the Doorway to Hell. It’s located almost directly in the center of Turkmenistan. For me to reach it, I need to get a ride on a shared taxi that’s crossing the desert from Dashoguz to Ashgabat, but get out halfway there.
It’s already 100°F (40°C) in the morning. Temperatures in the Karakum are known to exceed 110°F (43-44°C), and have been recorded at record highs of 120 (50). So, most of my anxiety about entering Turkmenistan revolved around surviving both the extreme temperatures and the scorpions that live in them.
We’ll see what happens.