Part 8 (25 July - 28 July) Turkmenistan

Entering Turkmenistan


The message is clear, Turkmenistan wants us in and out as fast as possible, 5 days in our case, since this is the period they have allowed on our transit visa. We heard stories about motor-bikers who were asked by the Turkmen border officials if their bike was fast… when they enthusiastically answered ‘Yes!’, the official proceeded to change the transit visa from 5 to 3 days!


Before crossing the border we took our video drone apart to avoid any misunderstandings about us being spies or worse, journalists. Turkmenistan really hates journalists, especially when they write something ‘unapproved’ about their current or former president. An unfortunate French female journalist / human rights activist died in prison in 2006 because of a sharp article she was writing on President Niyazov. Turkmenistan is now rated as having the second-least freedom of press in the world, only surpassed by North-Korea… So we were prepared for the Turkmen border officials… we thought.

Iran exit was very smooth, only brief checks and a stamp on our all-important Carnet de Passage document and into no-man`s land we went. On the Turkmen side we were again separated from each other, Jeroen had to go through the passenger terminal and Nicolette had to stay with the car. Then Nicolette was very seriously questioned in a small room by a panel of 3 male border officials about 1 single topic; ‘Why don`t you have children?’…. really, there was little interest in the car or why we wanted to go through Turkmenistan, the 3 guys only wanted to know why we did not have children! After 45 minutes of patiently and politely answering every question (‘Don`t you like children?’, ‘Is something wrong with you?’ and ‘Is something wrong with him?’ ‘Is the bed in the car big enough?’ etc) the border officials gave up and decided to let Nicolette go to the car inspection. Here they were only interested in the medicine box to check us for possession of illegal substances… on top were Nicolette`s birth control pills, so while showing the pills to the officials she exclaimed; ‘Look, no children!!’. And that was it, with a good laugh from the border officials she was sent off to pick Jeroen up to proceed to the last checkpoint some 10km further down the road.

The last checkpoint was easy and we were allowed to proceed into Ashgabat, a gleaming white city build by the previous president to show off his power. The city was built by a French company and has cost so much money that it left Turkmenistan virtually bankrupt, although the country has huge natural gas reserves. 

Ashgabat, city of insanity


Upon applying for the visa we had to indicate which route we were going to take through Turkmenistan. This meant we had to go in a straight line from Ashgabat to the Kazakh border, and if we would deviate from this route the police were allowed to deport us by plane… But we were allowed to stay in the capital of Turkmenistan, Ashgabat, for 2 days. We had read much about Ashgabat but nothing could prepare us for the real thing… it is truly amazing, surreal, megalomane and it looks like some sort of whacky mix between downtown Manhattan and Disneyland! 

All the buildings are marble-white, adorned with golden ornaments and blue glass. The cars in the city are mostly white, with the occasional and very daring silver car driving in between, so you can imagine how our camel-colored Land Cruiser stood out from the crowd. Before entering Turkmenistan we were ordered to clean the car, because entry with a dirty car is illegal in Ashgabat and we could be rejected by the border officials. But the weirdest thing is that there seem to be almost no people in the downtown buildings, streets and parks, only cleaners, police and military. The downtown part of Ashgabat is clearly meant to amaze, not to be effectively used...


We read on our new favorite website that we could sleep in our car at the car-park of the Ak-Altyn hotel, so we drove there to check it out. The hotel turned out to be a bit of a run-down Soviet-style building, but to our surprise it had a great outdoor pool which we could use for 20 Turkemnistani Manat (about 4 euro). More importantly, we could get a beer here after 5 weeks of Islamic prohibition in Iran, yay! :-) 

Away from the center, the city more or less came alive, there were a few shops, a decent restaurant and even some people in the streets.  The 2 days gave us more than enough time to both relax at the pool and explore the city. We were told it was forbidden to take any pictures of the buildings in downtown Ashgabat, but apparently this also goes for the parks… Nicolette found this out the hard way as she was screamed at by a police officer from across the street when she was taking pictures of 1 of the central parks. So we developed a new strategy; drive around in our car with the excellent dash-cam, secretly videoing the whole city.

This worked like a charm, see the results HERE! 


After dinner we headed back to the car to find a party going on in the back yard of the hotel where we had parked, lots of dancing and fun, even some very good salsa, so at least some of the Turkmen people know how to have a good time! This all ended abruptly at 22.45 because Turkmenistan has a ‘curfew’, meaning no one is allowed outside after 23.00… (We asked around, but it remained unclear at which time people were allowed to come out of their houses again, probably at sunrise?!)

The second day we visited the very new and sterile bazar just outside of the city. It mostly sold cheap Chinese goods so it wasn`t very interesting and we tried to change some money, but without result. There should be a black market at around 5 Manat per Euro, but as this is very illegal, people were too afraid to change money with us here. So the only other option was changing money in the city mall against the official rate of 3.7 Manat per Euro. So be it, we were not spending a lot anyways. After another stroll in a huge empty park with only police officers, we headed for a high pyramid shaped building which had a nice panorama bar. The guys running it didn`t mind us taking a look so we could photograph the whole city, safely out of sight of the police officers :-)

Into the deserts


We learnt that the last stretch of road from Turkmenistan to Kazakhstan was a real car-breaker, so we decided to cut our Turkmenistan journey 1 day short to prevent overstaying our visa if the car broke down. This meant that the next day we had to drive in 1 straight line to the oil & gas town of Turkmenbashi, located on the Caspian Sea coast. As soon as we left the city the landscape changed drastically into a real desert (Turkmenistan is 80% desert).


The ride was pretty interesting as we encountered lots of camels (on the road), had some rain (in the desert!) and were caught in a full-on sandstorm! We were also checked by the police several times, but with papers checking out ok, we were allowed to continue each time.

The final stretch to the coast was particularly nice, with the Caspian Sea nicely contrasting with the sandy deserts surrounding it, really beautiful!


The city of Turkmenbashi got its name from the previous president, Turkmenbashi meaning ‘Father of all Turkmen people’, as this narcissistic president saw himself. It was not very inspiring, lots of industry and old Soviet buildings, but with a nice hotel where we could park our car safely. We decided not to sleep in the car but to check in at the Hotel as we were not feeling very well (first time on our 4 month trip, this must be some sort of record for us!) and could use a good shower. The hotel was mainly used by expats hired to work in the Turkmen oil & gas industry. There was even a cool Dutch guy with some interesting stories, apparently business visa are also not easy for Turkmenistan. Although he had to work In Turkmenbashi for 1 year, he only got a 1 month visa each time, so he went home for 2 weeks to get a new visa and then went back again. He also was totally surprised why anyone would want to go to Turkmenistan on holiday ;-)

The Road from Hell


A good night`s rest helped us a lot and the next day we were ready to take on the dreaded border road into Kazakhstan! The first part was pretty bad but do-able, lots of potholes but still reasonably surfaced, and it took us along the beautiful Caspian Sea coast dotted with big oil & gas rigs. Again we got checked several times, this time by military guys controlling access into Turkmenistan (ours was the only road) with 1 guy making 5 phone calls to confirm that we were allowed to be there!

From the small city of Karabogaz road conditions went from bad to downright terrible… we were glad we took the extra day in case of problems. Along the road we encountered an abandoned aircraft on top of a hill and again lots of Camels and horses next to and on the road. The main road really was undrivable with potholes the size of a small car and 10cm high corrugation (wash-bord) which certainly would chew up lesser cars than ours. So most of the time we took the improvised sandy tracks next to the main one. 


We made it to the border around 17.00. Border formalities on the Turkmen side were fast, but the Kazakh side was an entirely different story! 

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