Border Crossing into Turkmenistan and Beer Garden in Ashgabat
We had to say goodbye to Iran and enter a new country, Turkmenistan. We were ready for departure in the lobby of our hotel in Shirvan at 8am. Unfortunately our truck didn’t arrive as expected. Our leader Jason found out the truck got actually repaired last night but after driving for 10km it broke down again. Sam and our local guide Mehdi, who was helping him translating to the mechanics in the workshop, needed to sleep in the truck on the road. The issue seems to be more severe and it will take a couple of more days to repair the truck.
Jason quickly arranged a minibus for us which was supposed to bring us to the Turkmenistan border. The minibus arrived at 8:30am and it took three hours to drive to the border. On the way we saw an accident. A bus was completely burned out and smoking quite heavily. There was nothing what we could have done since the firefighters and police had already arrived and the situation seemed to be under control.
When leaving Iran we needed to follow a three step procedure. First our entire luggage was inspected. I have no clue what customs was searching for. They didn’t use an x-ray machine but everybody needed to open their luggage and an officer was searching it by hand. Next was a passport check where Jason collected all our passports and submitted them as a group. Unfortunately this didn’t speed up the process so we ended up waiting 1.5 hours for our passports getting processed and we getting stamped out of the country. While waiting Jason was standing right next to the counter hoping his presence will speed up the process and everybody else was sitting in the waiting zone watching some Iranian TV. The program wasn’t too exciting. We watched people praying in a mosque and after 1.5 hours I had enough of it and was glad to move on to the last check. It was a health check but strangely the officer was only checking my passport without having a look at me. I didn’t even saw the officer since the counter window was very high up so I had to stretch out my body in order to submit my passport.
Upon entry of Turkmenistan we went through a high fence and two meters after it an officer wanted to see our letters of invitation before we were allowed to proceed to the building. There we needed to wait from 1pm to 2pm since all officers went for lunch and the border was closed. As soon as the officers came back everybody except for me used their letter of invitation to obtain their Turkmenistan visa. I had already obtained mine with the help of my friend Michael and a visa service back home.
While people trying to get their visa Batsy, our local guide for Turkmenistan, showed up. He has never worked with Dragoman before and we hope he will prove himself helpful during our travel in Turkmenistan. His first task was to help translating so people manage to get their visa. It still ended up in some confusion since Chris from New Zealand needed to pay 225 USD for his visa and Emilie from Australia 195 USD. These amounts seemed extraordinary high but after a while we figured out Chris and Emilie both paid not just for their visa but for three visas each so other people in our group needed to pay them back. Payment needed to be done at a bank in the same building which charged a two dollar bank fee.
In addition to the visa and bank fee everybody needed to pay a 10 dollar immigration fee for the work of the immigration officers. So far I never had to pay an immigration fee at a border crossing and the services of immigration have always been free of charge. At least the information I provided with my visa application in Germany was enough and I didn’t need to fill out an arrival card upon entry of the country. Interesting to know is also Emilie tried to change her remaining Iranian Rials into Turkmenistan Manat but nobody, even the bank, wanted to change her money. So Jason ended up buying the Rials from her and changed them later on in Ashgabat on the best available rate which made him loosing 20 USD on the change of Rials worth 60 USD. The last step at immigration was an x-ray of our bags and then we were free to enter the country.
Ashgabat was only a short drive away from the border. According to Jason, driving into the city felt like driving into Las Vegas since there were many new and fancy buildings around. I would compare the drive into the city more with a drive into Brasilia. The modern part of the city seemed to be built from scratch in order to create a capital representing Turkmenistan to the world. Everything was in white, golden and very shiny. We stayed in a four star hotel named “Ak Altyn Hotel” which was situated in the heart of the city. Usually we stay in less posh hotels while overlanding but there is no real budget accommodation in the city. The only cheaper hotels are said to be very bad and dirty so we went for the more comfortable option.
Since this was our first night outside of Iran and we are actually allowed to drink alcohol and party, we went into a beer garden right next to the hotel which was recommended by our guide. There we had Shashlik which is the Russian version of the Kebab we had in Iran. The main difference between Shashlik and Kebab is the Shashlik has bigger and fattier pieces of meat than the Kebab. Also the Shashlik I know from home is a mix of meat and vegetables on the same stick but the version here had no vegetables but meat only.
While eating we saw many local people showing up with empty Coca-Cola bottles which they got filled with beer from the tap. Maybe the beer here is really good or cheaper than the one in the supermarket. We also had lots of beer and vodka with it. My roommate Isabella even went to the supermarket close by to purchase more vodka which we mixed with the one we bought in the beer garden. All of this ended up in us getting pretty drunk. Jason and Patricia even jumped on the table to dance on it but were stopped by the staff. Around 10:30pm everybody disappeared suddenly, probably because in Turkmenistan you are not allowed to be on the street after 11pm. Patricia and I were the only ones left from our group. While I was kind of tipsy, Patricia was very much drunk so I had to walk her back to the hotel, give her lots of water, find out her room number and deliver her there.