Raise your hand if you’ve heard of the country ‘Turkmenistan’ before. I sure hadn’t. The Turkmen government seems to try very hard to keep it that way. I believe the current president, Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow, was at some point the former president’s personal dentist, but good fortune has seen him in to the big office himself. The population seems to love him, he was voted president three consecutive times with a stunning 97% of the vote, and they put his picture on almost every building!
If you have heard of the country, chances are it’s because of its most alluring feature: the Darvaza gas crater, a collapsed natural gas field that has been burning since the 1970’s and that is lovingly known as the ‘gates of hell’. A most interesting trip, if we would have been allowed to go there, which, customs told us, we were not.
Our entry in to the country was hell in its own right. I vote we bestow the title of ‘guardians of the nine circles’ upon the bureaucrats at the Serakhs border, may they find their way to somewhere between the fifth and sixth circle. There were a dozen officials and we were sent on a merry tour from one back to the other. Getting forms, stamps, proof of payment and torn dollar bills in change. I was fed up with it after about an hour, which was three hours before we could finally leave. In this time it was made very clear to us that we had specified the two hotels were we were planning to stay in and that those were the hotels we had to stay in, we were drawn a map of the roads leading there and were told in no uncertain terms we could not deviate from our route, I’m not sure if we were allowed to even look left or right on the road.
Which, as it turned out, was largely impossible anyway, the roads were so bad that constant vigilance was required, a trick we’ve learned how to do quite well by now, but the border circus had taken so much time that three quarters of our route to Mary was through the dark. A nerve-wrecking experience, where we tried to follow the tail lights of a truck in front of us as much as we could, because we couldn’t see a thing on the road and were constantly blinded by oncoming traffic.
What little we had seen of the during the last light of the day was empty. Flat sandy fields with some shrubs, as far as the eye could see. The few villages simple and poor. So riding in to the, brightly LED lit, almost Vegas like, boulevards of Mary was completely bewildering. After the nightmarish ride, it almost felt like heaven, if it hadn’t felt so fake. Huge white marble buildings, competing in grandeur, but lacking beauty, lacking life, all hung with the images of the grand leader himself.
Our hotel was very welcome though, long white marble halls took us to our luxury room, where we washed away the sweat and the dirt (Pepijn took a bit of a dive of his bike in to the sand earlier), and slept the deep sleep of the innocent in our big comfy beds, dreaming we’d wake up in Uzbekistan.