Published: October 31st 2007October 14th 2007
Spunky portrait on the facade of the Mary Municipal Council building.
The 11th October started out like any other day, except we were leaving Uzbekistan and crossing into Turkmenistan. Things seemed a bit dire when I told everyone to make sure they had their Uzbekistan Customs Declaration forms ready to present at the border, and found out that 2 people didn't even have a form (both copies were mistakenly taken off them at Tashkent Airport). There was nothing we could do about it. Firstly we got them to offload as much currency as possible to other group members, but this still left them with around US$1470 total. Nothing for it. We knew a lot depended on the official we got, which could prove to be a costly exercise for the clients. Worst came to worst, we would have to pay a bribe. In addition, 1 client had forgotten to fill out the currency declaration on her form. The guide told me a story where some people had forgotten to fill out this section, and they were searched and found to have 1000 euro's, of which the customs officials kindly took half as a fine. We got around this by getting the client to fill out the section, and the guide was able
4th city walls
Merv consisted of 5 cities.
to sweet-talk the customs official (a nice lady) by saying that the stupid person at the Airport forgot to note the currency and stamp it. As for the 2 clients without a form, they ended up only forking out US$50 total (hey presto - new forms!), which was a great result. The moral of the story is to fill out everything and keep every single piece of paper until you cross the border.
Then we had to walk through No-Man's Land for about 1km dragging our luggage. It was a very hot and dusty day. We ended up having more delays on the Turkmenistan side, as not long after lodging our passports, the border guards & passport control broke for their lunch break for over an hour. With the various delays, the 2 borders ended up taking us 5 hours.
Finally we were allowed into Turkmenistan, which I can confidently say is one of the weirdest countries I've ever visited. The previous president (aka "Turkmenbashi") died last December, and the new president (who looks eerily like the old one, and is rumoured to be his illegitimate son) was voted in without contest in February. The new President has
Barbara and I getting friendly with some local girls
followed on from his predecessor by replacing the enormous portraits of the previous president on every building facade with ones of himself. Plus there are tons of gold "Oscar-look-alike" statues of the previous president outside the govt buildings in Ashgabat. I was feeling the "LOVE" (Me; Myself; I) everywhere we went.
The official exchange rate to the US Dollar is 5200 Turkmenistan Manat. But you can change currency with the street moneychangers for close to 5 times that rate at 23,500 Manat. Even the government officials use them. It's purported that the previous president also used the unofficial rate as he got more bang for his buck; or in this case - a much larger mosque and mausoleum built in his honour.
Petrol is ridiculously cheap in this country at 300 Manats per litre. Also gas and electricity are practically free. On the minus side there is 60% unemployment. Internet is practically non-existent, but where there is access you have to register your passport details (even the locals). The guidebook warns you that your emails will probably be read by the authorities; plus the hotel rooms and restaurants are bugged as well. This all-encompassing fear factor over the
Ancient pottery shards are everywhere you look in the oldest of the Merv cities dating from around the 6th century BC. Apparently the locals come trawling the site with shovels after a large rainfall.
masses is a little creepy, and quite different from Uzbekistan even though that country is also a dictatorship. You'd think with all these hoodoo tactics (didn't anyone tell them the Cold War is officially over?) that the populace would treat foreigners with suspicion, but you would be wrong. The Turkmen people have been so friendly and welcoming and generous, which has been a pure delight.
We ended up spending 2 nights in Mary, of which the major highlight was the great ancient city of Merv (also known as Margiana). Finally we went onto the capital Ashgabat for 2 nights.
There are more photos below