Trapped in Turkmenistan

I really appreciate all the emails from everyone and I am fine, I promise. It’s nice to know so many people are reading my site and following my trip. I know I haven’t responded to emails, facebooks or posted in a few days but that is because the government of Turkmenistan censors and blocks all Internet access in their country. It is virtually impossible for a foreigner to use the Internet and impossible to check email or use any site that has a log-in that’s in English. Lets just say it was annoying and frustrating. I am now safely in Iran and will be here for a few nights and then home Saturday. The most unfortunate thing about the Turkmen censorship nonsense is that it spoiled a great time and a beautiful country.

The first thing you need to know about Turkmenistan is that it is very difficult to get a visa to go there and you need to be registered with the government and you need to have a guide. I hate guides and I really don’t like governments much either so I was at two strikes quickly.

As I left Bukhara to drive to the Turkmen border I crossed through the Uzbek side with no problems and then was held up for about 2 hours on the Turkmen side for no apparent reason. I met my guide at the border, a small Asian looking Turkmen, Jennet, who spoke very good English. She asked for my passport and got me registered speaking in Turkmen to the border guy, then I had to pay $12 for an entry tax or something stupid.

So she took my entry permit and $12 to try to fight through the insane mob of Uzbeks trying to cross. As I’ve mentioned before, these people do not know the meaning of the word line. Needless to say, she was not doing well and wasn’t being taken. It was driving me nuts watching people push her around. So after literally 45 minutes of this crap. I asked her for the money and registration card and literally, in a tremendously brilliant move, lowered my shoulder into about 10 people and moved them all and stood at the window and got my receipt so I could get my passport back. Everyone, the guide, the people and the window attendant looked at me in astonishment. Afterwards, I was glad I didn’t get arrested or something but the insanity had to stop somewhere. After I was taken, the crazy people continued on with their chaos. I was just glad to be out of there and into my three hour drive to Ancient Merv.

The journey through the Karakum Desert was beautiful but it was three hours of watching the same thing over and over as the scenery never changed-sand and bushes over and over. However we finally did arrive at Merv, which was one of the most important Silk Road cities before the Mongols destroyed it. I toured around the UNESCO World Heritage site with Jennet. I’m not going to sugar coat it-it was OK. I am glad I saw it but wouldn’t feel the need to go back, the ruins were very very old and there wasn’t too much left.

After finally arriving in Ashgabat, the white marble capital of Turkmenistan, I was relieved to just chill out and relax after a long day of travel. I was going to go out and get dinner but Jennet said that I am not allowed around the city without a registered guide. So this obviously displeased me and I was annoyed. So I picked out an Italian place that Lonely Planet recommended and went there because I couldn’t possibly eat anymore lamb or doner kebabs. She came with me but wouldn’t sit with me at the table and waited outside. It was weird because she said she couldn’t spotted with me by any Turkmens because it would look like we were on a date and the people would gossip and her family would be embarrassed. I was like, OK…

She then explained to me how Turkmen arranged marriages work and how they aren’t allowed to date, their familes arrange the marriages and then they can find out if they like each other. Sounds like fun huh?

Anyway she also mentioned that if a girl is over 25 and not married there is something wrong. So obviously I asked her how old she was and she said 26 (although she literally looked 50). Then the conversation ended because I didn’t want her to get all sad or weird about her personal life so I just went and ate.

I don’t want to ramble too much but Ashgabat is a beautiful, I mean gorgeous, city where all the buildings are white marble. The government is majorly communist and controls and censors everything. They are offically neutral as declared by the United Nations in 1995 but in truth they are an isolationist country with very few allies. It was excessively frustrating feeling trapped and cut off from the world, sometimes that’s fine but not when you don’t want to be.

Again, I am in Mashad, Iran right now and it is ungodly hot as you might imagine. I am flying to Tehran tonight with my Iranian guide Sia who seems very nice and he speaks great English so I am pleased. Until tomorrow…

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  1. “a tremendously brilliant move” a little overdramatic are we?… have a camel kabob for me in Iran

  2. I’m pretty sure I had Jennet as my guide too (that name sounds familiar). Did she have a mouthful of golden teeth, and was she carrying a green backpack (I gave her mine when she left).

  3. I actually asked if she was your guide and she didn’t think so…no gold teeth but they certainly weren’t pretty, haha…and Jake it was brilliant if you’d been standing there forever as well-trust me

  4. I am leaving Iran tonight and will be back in NYC tomorrow after a long flight with a layover in Istanbul. I will be saving my post on this country until I get back because of the sensitive issues with the country. I wish to cause myself no trouble in getting out of the country as I am pretty sick and just looking forward to some good food-prepared sanitarily, and my own bed! Thanks again for everyones emails and I will write next from New York.

  5. plug it up with some Immodium before that long haul.. good luck

  6. Just finished our trip to the -stans including Turkmenistan (we are in Erbil now). Didn’t get to cross to Iran, our visa was denied for some unknown reason which was frustrating since we could practically see the border from Ashgabat. I guess it has gotten a bit better in a few years, there are some Internet cafes but you still have to give up your passport to use it, and many sites are still blocked. We were allowed to wander around Ashgabat on our own as well, just don’t try to take photos of any government buildings.

  7. Hi Lee,

    May i know the agent that u use for your Turkmenistan trip ?

  8. You didn’t get a chance to see the Darvaza Flaming Crater (aka “Gate to Hell)?

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