I have compiled this from my travel notes, often omitting irrelevant details such as where I ate what, where I was sick with what, and so on, but adding some afterthoughts and hindsight.
This journey was totally improvised, reservations - except for flights being a concept totally alien to me. Of course I did some homework beforehand, so as to know the must-sees. Valuable information sources were the Cadogan guide "Central Asia: The Practical Handbook" (UK, 1993, by Giles Whittell: excellent value), the Lonely Planet guide "USSR - A Travel Survival Kit" (Australia, 1991, by John Noble and John King: a great book, but it unfortunately came out as the Soviet Union was collapsing, and was thus aging badly), and the "Blue Guide to the USSR" (an excellent source of background knowledge). Descriptions are kept informative enough so that those who have been there should recognize the places, while those who would like to go there should be able to locate them. This report is not intended to be a crash course on Central Asian history.
By the way, I compiled an independent travel guide to Uzbekistan & Kyrgyzstan from available on-line information, and it should also allow access to many resources on travel in Turkmenistan: .
This journey was on a shoestring budget, a mattress to crash on and a shower being all that is needed when constantly on the move. Round-trip flights, visas, inoculations, medicine, and souvenirs excluded, I had a daily maintenance ratio of about $12, covering accommodation, food, drinks, transportation, and entrance fees. This has to be relativized though, as Uzbekistan was significantly more "expensive" than Turkmenistan.
All views expressed here are mine, and you are the judge whether they are witty insights, total misunderstandings, or unspeakable truths.
Comments are welcome.
The bus-station in Tashauz is absolute bedlam, and I don't know yet that I'm going to spend two of the most frustrating days of my life. After interviewing six locals or so (you have to abide by the Law of Big Numbers here), the bottom-line, including outright contradictions, seems to be that there are no buses to Ashkhabad. Some say there is not even a road, others pretend there never has been such a service, others say it is demanddriven (and little demand in the dead of the summer), others want to ferry me in whatever vehicle some of their acquaintances have, quoting prices for which I could actually buy the entire vehicle. I could try my luck in nearby Kunya Urgench, but why should there be a difference, because Tashauz is big enough by itself?
The consensus seems to be that I should try my luck at the railway station and get a ticket for the daily 8pm passage of the Moscow to Ashkhabad train. It's a 24hr haul, but I would still vastly prefer sticking it out for 8hrs in a bus across the desert, just for the heck of it, especially that I don't know how the then necessary re-entrance into Uzbekistan would be handled. Anyway, so on to the railway station. Underway I ask as many people as are willing, or able, to answer: apparently tickets are only on sale after 7pm, so I have about seven hours to investigate alternatives.
The first idea is of course to check out the airport, although half the people tell me that these domestic flights have been discontinued a few months ago. All my new interviewees add an interesting melange of new opinions as to the bus question. Anyway, after a torrid ride in an over-packed city-bus, I find out that there are flights, every two hours or so, to Ashkhabad! I drop my passport at the standby queue of passports, although I'm a little reluctant to leave mine within easy reach of just about anybody. But this turns out unjustified, as the waiting crowd is scrupulously honest and always shows me where my passport is in the queue when I drop by to inspect how fast it is moving. Most people having reservations, it seems that the standby queue is not moving at all. But time doesn't matter here, some people apparently wait since yesterday!
As I wander around, asking questions as to the price of the ticket and about my other alternatives, I collect even more contradictions, and find out that the locals pay $1 (or was it $6?) for the flight, whereas I would have to pay a whopping $67.
After a few hours of waiting, I decide to discard the train option, especially that I have no clue how expensive my then necessary re-entrance into Uzbekistan would be, and even to sacrifice the $67 so as to get the hell out of this nightmare. So I seek out various important looking people of the airport staff and convey to them that I absolutely need to be on the next flight out, no matter how many people are in front of me in the standby queue. They all promise, although my "need" is only based on my wanting to have more time to explore Iran, but nobody delivers, despite my amateurish attempts of bribing them (I have little experience in this field).
Various Turkmens offer to sell me their tickets (which means they would have to enter the day-long standby queue, but I have come to believe that queuing is a national pastime here), even at quite realistic prices, but when I see that entering the waiting hall involves passport checks, I wonder how a ticket for Ali Osman would match with my passport and looks. Again, as an afterthought, I could have tried to bribe my way through that obstacle, but I was in a near state of panic and couldn't think rationally most of the time.
Then I make friends with Murat, a Turkmen student from YIldIz Universitesi in istanbul. He also tries to help me, but in vain. However, in passing, he mentions that about thirty people left at 8am in the morning on a bus to Ashkhabad, for about the same fare as the flight! "Harika," I think, back to my old plan. When I move to the standby queue to retrieve my passport, I see an obviously upper-class woman enter the airport with her kids, stoop in front of the long standby queue, and then energetically walk towards some office. Minutes later, she emerges with a handwritten notice, elbows her way across the queue, shoves the notice to the ticket lady, and gets tickets. Cool, what she can do, I can do! Murat reads the Cyrillic sign for me and says it's the airport commander's office. OK, in I go and tell him that since I have to pay for eleven (or sixty-seven?) seats anyway, Turkmenistan Airlines had better treat me as a VIP passenger and get me on the next flight out. (I guess my ticket is "reverse-subsidized," by which I mean that I reimburse the Turkmen government for subsidizing tickets for Turkmens.) "Sure," he says very sympathetically, "come back half an hour before the next flight, and we'll swing that deal." Needless to say that he never shows up, leaving the second-in-command behind, who is a rude obnoxious jerk and doesn't honor his chief's promise.
I definitely switch back to my bus plan now, retrieve my passport from the queue at about 9pm (the last flight being gone, they are closing anyway, so the queue will start all over again tomorrow morning), and walk over to the motel in front of the airport. Judging from the old Russian receptionist's reaction, I must have been the first foreigner to check in there, especially that the price list is not two-tiered. She asks me whether I have local currency. "Da" (as I did some black market deals at the airport). I think this is going to be for all eternity the cheapest accommodation I ever had to pay for: the for Turkmens cut-throat rate is a stunning $0.15! However, the Soviet craze for bureaucracy makes that all sixteen guests are crammed into four rooms: the receptionist lady is selling beds, not rooms, as I realize upon entering "my" room and finding three people already in there. I don't want to create a warped impression of foreigners and their spending power, so, despite my desperate need for privacy after this harrowing day, I don't go back to the reception in order to rent an entire room for myself for a mindboggling $0.60. My room companions actually turn out to be extremely jovial and hospitable people, and they invite me to share the dinner they are preparing in the room. And the Turkmen language being a lot closer to Turkish than Uzbek, I actually round off the day in a good mood, especially that I now feel confident about reaching Ashkhabad tomorrow, by bus!
At 9am, with still no bus in sight, I lose my nerve, storm back into the airport commander's office (he is actually there now), get a (free!) handwritten notice from him, shovel my way through the already long standby queue, purchase a "VIP" ticket, and check in on the next flight. Boarding is the expected fun, due to a complete lack of discipline and the absence of seating assignments: everybody is holding seats for some cousin, who is actually holding a seat for them in the other half of the cabin. The stewardesses give no safety instructions as we roll to the runway, and I am the only one to fasten his seat-belt. It's a no-frills flight (just a glass of water), and as far as I am concerned, we could just as well have flown over the moon, the desert being indeed a most desolate place.
Unboarding and checking out in Ashkhabad is a matter of a few minutes, this being a domestic flight. It then takes me a long time to haggle a taxi-driver down to a still shameful $4 so that he drive me around until I have found a place to stay. Ashkhabad is very widespread, and one of the hottest towns on Earth. My first attempt is at Hotel Jubilienaya (two-star), which is, at $10, the cheapest place in town according to my October 1993 guidebook. The only alternative is the Intourist joint Hotel Ashkhabad (also two-star), which is already known to be one of the biggest rip-offs this side of the universe. The taxi-driver eyes me and my backpack suspiciously as I motion him to the former hotel, and I'm soon to find out why: over the last few months, the management has single-handedly multiplied their price for foreigners by twelve! "What?!" I croak, "You said $120? Dollars?" The receptionist actually manages to say yes without blushing. This is nothing else but twice the average yearly income of Turkmens! I'd die to see the reaction of a Turkmen/Uzbek in my country when the receptionist says that, s/he not being a citizen of the European Union, s/he would have to pay $60,000 for a night, in a two-star hotel! My reaction is probably equally priceless, because I am literally fighting for air. Some countries are obviously not ready yet for individual journeyers, because they are geared up only for embassy personnel (this hotel actually houses the US and German embassies) and foreign business-people on expense accounts, and for package tourists, who all don't mind being ripped off, or don't know that they are being robbed blind.
Bargaining being predictably useless, and asking at the Intourist joint being a predictable waste of time, I appeal to the resourcefulness of my taxi-driver (one of the rare opportunities where I appreciate a cabbie), and ask him to get me to the cheapest place in town, no matter where, no matter what kind of place it is. And I land in the funniest place I've ever slept for a fee!
About 1km south of the Tikinsky Bazaar, he drops me at what turns out to be a private mental hospital, or so! A bunch of harmless fools are living there in a commune, and a woman drops by in the mornings to look after them. They have a spare room with mattresses on the ground, and rent them out for $3 a night; I didn't figure out whose initiative that was. I share the room with some very friendly Iranians and Pakistanis, and they assure me that this is indeed the cheapest place in town. And arguably the coziest one, as the atmosphere is excellent. You may use all the facilities (fridge, cooking machine, hamam, TV, even A/C, ...), and I simply must recommend this haven of peace: the address is 106, ulitsa Shaumyana (just go south of the street going past Tikinsky Bazaar and the long-distance bus-station; every taxidriver seems to know it).
After the welcome tea, I take a shower, shave, and dress up as well as I can, because I need to go to the Iranian Embassy. But some background first: my project is to do the second half of the southern branch of the Silk Road, from Tashkent to istanbul, across Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Iran, and Turkey. I had bribed ($15) my way into an Intourist-independent two-week-visa to Uzbekistan ($50), bought a tourist visa ($30) from the friendly Turkmen consul in Ankara, and don't need any visa for Turkey. My first tourist-visa application for Iran had been rejected, without any motive, just like all other applications this summer from Turkey, indiscriminately of the nationalities of the applicants. On the sympathetic Iranian consul's suggestion (after I personally appealed to him and described him my project, which would have to be changed without the help of Tehran), I wrote an emotional appeal to the Tehran authorities, and he added a personal letter of recommendation, but we didn't have an answer when I left for Uzbekistan. But he said he'd telex the answer to Ashkhabad, in case it is positive. In any case, he said, Iranian consuls have the right to deliver transit visas to European Union citizens, on the spot, without consulting with Tehran first. Clarification: transit-visas must be obtained from the embassy of the starting country of the transit (Turkmenistan, in my case), so he couldn't write me one in advance. He also solemnly assured me, just like his Turkmen colleague, that the border from Ashkhabad to Mashhad was no longer closed to foreigners, as otherwise I wouldn't even have embarked on this project. Iranian transit visas being known to be sort-of easy to extend once in Iran, I left Ankara in complete confidence about the feasibility of my itinerary.
At the Iranian Embassy in Ashkhabad, things start out funnily. A clerk rips off a page from a calendar and asks me to write my request on it, or wherever there is free space on it, so that he carry it over to the consul. So I identify myself, and ask about my tourist visa, mentioning that my application was filed from Ankara. Minutes later, the slip of paper comes back: "I'm sorry, I cannot give you a tourist visa." Guessing that my second application was rejected, despite the glorious prose of my appeal and despite the letter of recommendation from the Ankara consul, I ask for another calendar page and apply for a transit visa towards Turkey, not without adding my business card and signing as Prof. Dr. Pierre Flener. Minutes later: "I'm sorry, I cannot give you a transit visa either." The business card doesn't come back, though. On the next calendar page, I ask: "Why?", signing Prof. Dr. Pierre Flener again. Sensing the ridicule in his way of dealing with me, the consul finally comes out to see me, and explains that the land-border is still closed to non-CIS citizens and non-Iranians. Once again, the misinformation syndrome has struck, and I cannot even challenge him on that, because he's definitely the authority here, not his distant colleagues in Ankara: the right paper is more important here than the promise or the person. Pleading turns out useless, because he is about as friendly and cooperative as a prison door, and even if I flew to Tehran (at a cost that would have exhausted my cash travelbudget, credit cards and traveler checks being yet unknown in Turkmenistan), he would only grant me a transit visa of three days, which could be shorter than the bureaucratic hassle needed to extend the visa once in Tehran. (Later, back in Ankara, the Iranian consul told me that my second application had actually been accepted, but under the proviso that I go on a package tour, which is very expensive of course. I didn't have the guts yet to investigate whether that border is really closed for me or not.) He even dares suggest I apply again for a tourist visa, and wait in Ashkhabad for 4-6 weeks until the answer comes in! A strange sense of humor, or no notion of time? I briefly curse the fact that I wanted to do this trip within five weeks only, because otherwise I'd have more time to patiently seek for solutions to the obstacles that are being thrown into my path. Having first assured myself that he sees "absolutely no solution" (I'm thinking of baksheesh of course), I leave the embassy.
After overcoming my deep disappointment, I look at the map and see myself truthfully trapped: no return to Uzbekistan (visa too difficult to obtain); nothing else really worth to see in Turkmenistan; civil wars in Tajikistan, Azerbaijan, Armenia, and Afghanistan; and a flight to Pakistan (Islamabad or Karachi, where Iranian transit-visas are definitely easy to obtain) would also deplete my cash reserves. I very briefly contemplate the option of setting out to the Iranian border and see what improvisation is possible there, but then I reject this idea as foolhardy. So I scrape together what money I have and grudgingly buy a ticket ($422 for foreigners!) at the Aeroflot office (they haven't changed the sign to Turkmenistan Airlines yet) for the next flight to istanbul, aborting my trip and deciding to do the Iranian leg another year. I'm of course angry now for not having fully used my fifteen days in Uzbekistan, as I could have stayed there for another three days and gone with Elena and Yulya to the mountains in the east.
At the Aeroflot office, I have a nice chat with a Turkmen lady who tells me a lot of interesting things about her country. She will be on the same flight as I on Friday. Then I stroll through Ashkhabad, which is a Soviet reconstruction similar to Tashkent, as it was completely leveled by an earthquake in 1948. No historical buildings are left to see, but the spacious shaded parks and tree-lined boulevards reward an afternoon of exploration. Surprisingly, in one park, I find a still untoppled statue of Lenin, set on a magnificently tiled pedestal depicting the motives of Turkmen rugs. The two city bazaars, though set in ugly concrete constructions, provide the usual riot of colors and smells. I see some nomad Turkmens who wear the typical huge suffocating shaggy sheepskin-hats. I had somewhat hurriedly converted $10 into Turkmen Manat in Tashauz yesterday, and it turns out that I will not be able to spend them all, unless I indulge in imported goods: my host "fools" want dollars, and everything else is absurdly cheap. So I decide to sample just about every food and drink I can find in the streets and markets.
But let me also tell you about my "fools." The most jovial one is an Azeri with large gold-plated teeth, who always talks in a funny, expansive singsong manner. He is the cashier as far as the $3/night are concerned. Then there is the "pigeon," a man who constantly tends to (and talks to) the many pigeons in the interior courtyard, and who has been seen in the early mornings flapping his arms like wings. The "radio" is a man who speaks to himself all the time. Another noteworthy one is the Iranian Kurd who thinks I am Turkish and every now and then lectures me on the atrocities committed by "my" government against the Kurds in Turkey. The others always shoo him away when he does this. They are all completely peaceful and harmless, pursuing their daily lives in a fixed pattern.
The other guests are all Iranians or Pakistanis. One of the latter is traveling from Moscow to Karachi, but can't get into Iran either. The Iranians are here either on small business (aren't they always?), or, as they say, "on holidays." There being little to see here, I suspect they also like the concept of freely available alcohol. In the evening, we picnic together in the courtyard on the wooden dais, and it's very amusing. The Iranians are very embarrassed that I can't get into their country, but they give me their addresses so that I contact them next time, because they would then invite me from inside Iran.
Everything is sensationally beautiful and exotic, and I look forward to going back there one day.
End-of-Part-II. This travelogue starts in Part I: Uzbekistan.