I left Mashhad early. I had sort of expected to see Tom this morning – the guest house owner said a guy from New Zealand was arriving on a 4am bus from Tabas. But not to be. (Tom – was it you?) (Update: turns out it was – we missed each other by 30 minutes.)
I made it to the border with much better time than expected, ready to meet my guide on the other side from 11am. The road to the Turkmen border climbed and fell, through canyons and over broad hills. At the border I met a Polish couple and a German woman heading my way, and a Spanish journalist (his occupation shared with us in a whisper after scanning the room) heading the other way. It took us two unexpected hours to cross, but our guide was waiting, and we headed down the mountains to the flatness of Turkmenistan that was on the other side.
Entering Ashgabat, the capital, just 10km away from the border, was surreal. Wide treed streets and huge white marble buildings. It was kind of like Las Vegas meets the Jetsons after a nuclear fallout. Very few people on the eerily clean and quiet streets. Police every 100m doing who knows what. Many examples of the government’s work (based on the extensive titles on ministry buildings) but little evidence of where people actually live in this city.
To give you a frame of reference for this country, you should know that there are only two types of Western tourists in this country. The first have a transit visa. They are given 5 days to get through the country, and have their entry and exit point specified on their visa. Most tourists get this visa. Many tourists with this visa are cyclists (of whom I met 6 in Mashhad). These tourists have freedom in the sense that they can travel under their own power within the country, but are trapped in that they have to do it in a straight line from border to border.
The other type of tourist has a full tourist visa. These are available for more than 5 days (I have 12 days if I want to use it) but require a tour guide at all times and a pre-arranged itinerary with a travel agency. I have used a very often referred agency named Stantours, and originally had a simply, four day itinerary booked with them (one that could have been done on a transit visa). However, as I approached my time in Turkmenistan, I wanted more.
I changed hotels (my original one set too far outside the city centre to walk around) and ended up next door to the Polish couple. I started the evening having my usual “first night in a new country” blues. It turns out my desired itinerary change to visit the Yangykala Canyon isn’t possible as guides aren’t available, and my original itinerary has me missing the infamous Sunday market in Ashgabat – one of, if not the best in Central Asia. Euros (my only cash) are also not possible to exchange in the usual venues, and it’s too late to get a credit card advance at the one bank in the country that does them. I wouldn’t be able to get to the bank anyways as I have no local currency to take a taxi. I was under the impression that the travel agent was going to help me with this upon arrival, but it didn’t happen.
So I shed a few “pity me” tears as I stood in my (rather lovely, actually) hotel room without money, food, or an itinerary that fulfilled me.
But then soon enough I was off with the Polish couple and we explored the city briefly in the evening in search of money exchange, dinner, and internet. They graciously lent me money to last a few days, we got dinner (and my first real beer in a month!) and I was able to update my itinerary to include a city and archeological site that I hadn’t really planned to see (thus ignoring my “geography not history” mantra) but which allows me to be back in Ashgabat for the Sunday market. I admit I was a bit jealous of the Polish couple. Their travel agency seemed to be a bit suspect, but this seems to allow them a bit more freedom. I hope their plans (or lack there of) work for them.
So I’m up at 5am for an early morning flight tomorrow, and things (perhaps) are looking up. I caught a bit of the NZ-Paraguay World Cup game over dinner (a lasting infection from time with Tom) and we strolled back to the hotel, getting stopped more than once for taking photos (what are they so afraid of?). May that’s what all the police are for: holding up their arms in an ‘x’ to signal tourists to stop whatever innocent thing they are doing.
Overall so far, this place is strange. It’s nothing like anywhere I’ve been to before. But where ever it is, I’m damn glad not to have to wear a headscarf.