Update from the Mongol RallyThursday, October 14, 2010 14:09
Leaving Iran with a heavy heart, after all the hospitality and kindness I’d received, entering Turkmenistan was a bit of a shock to the system. Having taken a full 7 hours to clear customs, where my passport was checked endlessly I was finally allowed to cross the border and head for Ashgabat, about 20 miles down the road. Knowing that Turkmenistan is essentially a police state, I thought it best to keep within the speed limit and was pleased to see a sign saying 30kmh so that I at least knew what the limit was. The problem was that the speed limit went all the way to Ashgabat and as I crawled along behind lorries in 42 degree heat I could see police watchtowers on the surrounding hills.
Ashgabat was for me a rather terrifying experience. The city seemed to comprise of rows upon rows of gigantic gleaming glass and concrete blocks interspersed with vast open parks containing gigantic overblown monuments to the previous dictator.. the centrepiece of which is a 12m high gold statue of Niyazov which revolves to follow the sun. Questioned by police almost everytime I stopped to get my bearings and unable to find a hotel that would put me up for the night I slept in the van in the carpark below a disused monolithic tower block… it felt safer in the van… and decided that I didn’t want to hang around in Turkmenistan and would try and reach the Uzbek border by the following evening!
The next day started fine, as usual the road out of a capital city was in pretty good shape. After 50 kilometres or so the road deteriorated into a sea of waves and troughs. The traffic was characterised by a two speed system of lorries going at 40kmh and BMWs and Toyotas doing 130kmh, and it was in trying to overtake one of the lorries I had my first ‘accident’. Having checked behind me and found a gap in the oncoming traffic I indicated out and started to overtake when a toyota doing 130kmh decided to try and overtake us both and in doing so flew off the road, skidded back on (nearly overturning), at which point its boot opened up and emptied a load of luggage on the road. I pulled up behind the toyota to face the angry mob emerging from it as other cars stopped on the road to point their fingers at me.
Trying to explain that I thought they were going far too fast as the woman in the car pretended to have a heart attack by the side of the road, it was decided by the mob that I should pay the injured party $500. By this point I wasn’t going to argue, who were the police going to believe anyway.. and in state of shock I handed it over.. almost all my money!
Still shaking, and worrying about my lack of money (the only place to get some more was 200km back in Ashgabat) I picked up a hitcher, Alexei, who kept my spirits up talking non stop russian as we crossed the Karakum desert and arrived in Turkmenabad his home city (on entering which I was fined another $20 by the police for no particular reason other than giving Alexei a lift). Alexei kindly offered to let me stay at his flat… force fed me dumplings and vodka, and the next morning directed me to the Uzbek border… I can’t say how glad I was to get to the Uzbek side!