Our plan was to leave Turkmenistan and enter Uzbekistan via the northern border close to Khiva which meant that due to time constraints, we had to fly from Ashgabat to Dashoguz. The only airline that would allow us to do that was with the one and only national carrier, Turkmenistan Airlines. As we are talking about the second most closed country in the world after North Korea, it wasn’t surprising to us that it wasn’t possible to buy the flight tickets online from Switzerland. To ensure we would be able to get out of the country, the first thing we did upon arrival in Ashgabat was to head to the “Tour Agency” which was a huge white marble building where the insides functioned more like a bank/customer service place. We can’t quite put our finger on what exactly it was, but the atmosphere and environment was so strange that we felt we could’ve been on Mars.
A few days before we flew out to do our 3-week trip covering Caucasus and Central Asia, I read on the Lonely Planet guide book that tourists must have different travel permits if they wanted to visit different parts of Turkmenistan. Ashgabat had its own travel permit and so did the north. I panicked and immediately called the consulate in Geneva and asked if we needed this special permit for the North as we wanted to leave the country via the Dashoguz border. He however assured me that it wasn’t necessary, that our transit visa was sufficient. Was that really the case? Of course not.
Boarding the flight from Ashgabat, it was apparent that we were the only tourists on board the plane (and later to cross the border) which had a huge picture of the President at the very front near the cockpit. Of course we were hassled and had to battle and negotiate with the taxi drivers who spoke no English for the short ride from the airport to the border.
Upon arrival at the border, we saw a long queue. A kind soul came up to us and quickly took us to an area where we were told to fill out some forms. He later took us and slipped us into the very front of the queue – tourist luck. The border officers however were downright nasty. I can understand if a border control officer gives you a hard time when you are trying to enter a country, but why do they do that when you are trying to leave? It was the exact same case when we were leaving Baku, Azerbaijan.
The two passport control officers tossed peoples’ passports like they were worthless documents. We did not get any special treatment. “What is your aim?,” we were asked. “WHAT? Tourism? Where is your travel permit for the north?” My fears came true. I explained we were informed by the Turkmen Consulate in Geneva that it was not necessary as we had the transit visa. We were questioned if we went to a nearby city in the north an hour drive away which was a UNESCO site. We said absolutely not, we couldn’t have as we had just arrived in Dashoguz less than an hour ago as he could see from our flight tickets. He wasn’t happy, took our passports and disappeared for 30 minutes. I was so worried and wondered if they had intercepted the one email I sent to my family the night before complaining about how crazy the country was or if they actually heard what we said as it was common knowledge that all hotel rooms in the country was bugged. Of course we were made to empty our entire backpacks and every single item was scrutinised. There were pictures of the President everywhere in the building. It was amusing to see him dressed in his army uniform posing while looking at battle plans. SERIOUSLY?
My prayers were answered and soon we were on our way out of the building. However, there was No Man’s Land ahead of us whereby no pedestrians were allowed to walk the stretch of land to get to Uzbekistan. We were all dependent on the shuttle van. Of course it had to be lunch time which meant that the shuttle service was suspended for a full hour. We had to wait outside in the cold – the wind was so strong, I was sure I would freeze to death. It was one of the longest hours of my life. We were starving and all we had to eat since the night before was the chocolate we brought with us from Switzerland. We were entertained by the phony young guards who kept harassing the other locals for using their phones.
The long lunch hour was finally up. I knew we had to fight to get a place in that first shuttle and was determined to do so. By the end of this 3 weeks on the road, we became experts at dealing with locals who had no understanding of the concept of queuing or taking turns. We managed to get on that first shuttle out of Turkmenistan and had to exchange USD with the local currency with some of the other passengers to pay for the shuttle fare.
Arriving at the Uzbekistan border and being greeted by the border control officer with the widest smile and the magic words “Welcome to Uzbekistan”, I almost cried. Never had I been so relieved to leave a country and the reason for this calls for another post on another day. 16 hours of stress and agony endured trying to leave Turkmenistan was FINALLY over!
Will I ever go back? Certainly not!