Of camels and white marble
I was extremely tired after my escapade across the Caspian, due to lack of sleep and maybe a bit of heat exhaustion.
I should have headed straight for the bling-tastic new hotel right at the port. I was told it couldn’t be missed. Well, all I can say in my defence is that there are quite a few other buildings now at the port, all sporting the same external livery of white marble and gold trimmings. I was also filled with the rather irrational desire to just get away, away from the port. So I drove. I had also tried to find a bank to obtain some Turkmenistan currency but it was closed. The official rate is $1=3.5 Manat. The problem is that this is largely ignored and ‘private enterprise’ operates, enabling rates of about $1=18 Manat. It is a widely accepted approach though sources advise you not to do it in full view of a Police Officer.
I had a Transit Visa. This is severely restricted in that you are required to take the most direct route (only!) to the stated border crossing at the other end. You are provided with a map which tells you the route. The authorities generally place a GPS Tracker in your car so they can monitor your movements. I was deemed (I mistakenly thought) low risk as they didn’t fit one in my car. I heard them talk about it (in Turkmen, but I heard the word GPS and then a shake of heads). As I would find out later on exit, a tracker should most definitely have been fitted.
I was on the road to the capital Ashgabat, some 600kms southeast of Turkmenbashi, 6-7 hours away.I realised I needed to buy some fuel. I found a garage and explained my predicament. They were more than a little happy to provide fuel for dollars. I could have bartered vodka, cigarettes, anything. We negotiated the rate with our fingers, writing against the dusty rear windscreen. 1:15. That’d do. But I was in the middle of nowhere, in the middle of the night. There were 4 of them, all crowding around the car, getting excited. I gave one of them my remaining drops of bourbon and slipped off with lots of waving and smiles. Just over a half tank of petrol had cost me £2!
I stopped the car off the road and had a sleep for a few hours.
80% of the country is covered by the Karakum desert, one of the driest deserts in the world. Temperatures have reached 51deg in the past. When I stopped at 1am to sleep, it was still 35deg!
I awoke just before dawn and continued on the road. I thought I was still asleep as I glanced to the left and saw two camels. What? As I was to find out over the next few days, there are plenty of wild camels about!
The road was newly constructed and very smooth. I kept my speed down to 90kms/hr to avoid further police contact. Periodically, about every 20 miles or so, there are police check points. You don’t have to stop but slow down so the Police can pull you over if needed. I suspect they also use ANPR cameras.
Approaching Ashgabat, I needed to clean the car. You can be fined for having a dirty car in the city. I couldn’t find a place so thought the authorities would just have to accept a slightly dusty arriving guest. I could get no data on my phone, nor texts. So finding an hotel was going to be a bit tricky. I drove about the city centre. It is an extraordinary place.
Nearly all the buildings are clad in gleaming white marble, often topped out in gold. Thousands of women hand brush the kerbs and pavements. The stainless steel rails alongside a bridge or marking a junction are buffed up meticulously. Policemen with truncheons wave on traffic and looked at me suspiciously as I pass. It is almost obsessionally pristine. About 90% of all the cars seem to be white, in homage to the prescribed colour scheme (though I think they were once the only colour allowed). Another rather weird thing is that buildings do not have signs which say what they do. Imagine trying to find a supermarket but in a place where no trolleys, brand name, shop windows offer any clue. Some white buildings did have signs on the roof with the company name. But it was all in the same typeface, but different colours did seem to be allowed. This city makes slim picking for marketing people and I think they’d be required to join the street sweepers for work. The same is possibly true for architects. If you didn’t like designing in white and gold, then it’s the streets for you.
I was almost giving up on finding an hotel when I spotted a policeman in his squad car. He was having an surreptitious fag (smoking in cars and public places is banned) so was a bit surprised when I crept up in the car next to him! I asked “gde hoteli” which is a Russian/Turkmen kinda language I was learning! Now I couldn’t say which hotel and even suggest my budget but I heard him say the magic word “looks?” My saviour, oh yes please, a lux hotel. A grand lux hotel would be even better!
It would have been pointless him trying to give me directions so he asked me to follow him. On went the flashing lights on his rooftop and I was given a police escort right into the hotel! No sirens though – horns are banned in certain central parts. Very kind of him and given the hotel was right opposite the presidential palace, perhaps a bit of a risk. Good on him.
The Nusay is pretty much the top hotel in the city. It cost $140 a night. I’d been on a ship, slept in a layby and a car park. I think I could stretch to that. It was comfortable and had wi-fi. However, my PC was blocked from the net. WhatsApp is blocked, Skype is blocked, Facebook too.
I’ll provide my take on Ashgabat on the next blog.