Travel Through Turkmenistan on a Harley-Davidson

By Peter Forwood

Turkmenistan on a Harley (12/9/05 - 15/9/05)
Distance 632 km (438756 km to 439388 km)

This is part of the eleventh section of my around the world trip.
Complete Trip Overview & Map

Coming from Uzbekistan

12/9/05 I had been warned of Turkmenistan's liking for bureaucracy. As with their embassy the process was largely computerized and modern but I needed to visit eleven places to get my seven pieces of paper and fourteen stamps and many signatures before I could leave the border. The people helpful and directed me to the next office. I was not asked for any bribes although everyone else was paying in watermelon, bottles of beer or cash for what was a normal service. There were 100 trucks lined up on the Uzbekistan side and a similar number on the Turkmen side waiting to cross. Most were coming from Mashad in Iran, trading with Uzbekistan. The final cost for me, with bank receipts was $US 73.00. $10 for my entry, $1 for vehicle fumigation (which didn't actually occur), $15 for vehicle entry, $15 for vehicle insurance, $5 for document processing and $27 for fuel cost compensation due to the subsidized fuel, calculated at 4 cents a km for the route taken.Waiting in line for 1.5 cents a litre petrol It took about 90 minutes which I thought was pretty good considering. With an almost empty tank I headed for the nearest petrol station, 25 km away, which had run out of fuel. Led by a local down a small street into town to another station with about eighty cars lined up waiting. I thought, I have paid my, about 80 cents a litre, at the border for this fuel and now I can't get it. After a few minutes they moved me to the head of the line (not likely to happen to a Turkmen in my country or any other western country for that matter) and I filled up at 1.5 cents a litre. Apparently there is no fuel near the border because it is all smuggled to Uzbekistan, surprise, surprise. The further I travelled away from the border the shorter the fuel lines became until they disappeared near Mary, 200 km into the country. Also pre warned about the number of check posts, I tried to keep that pet hate from annoying me however each one required the writing of my details in a book. I was stopped by three young policemen who proceeded to write me a ticket for having my headlight on in daytime. An older local man selling watermelon by the road came over and told them they were stupid and to let me go, which they did. I had met two Austrian motorcyclists at the border who had been fined for speeding, $20, and for smoking on the streets of Ashgabat, $10.The Presidental Palace in Ashgabat Through Mary I was hailed to stop by the police at almost every major intersection. After a few I decided to ignore them, just shaking my head and holding my hand out indication "why" and rode slowly past, so far without consequences. It seems easier to ignore them rather than to go through the hassles of arguing whilst they hold onto your passport. Camped just off the road about 50 km south of Mary as the sun was setting.

13/9/05 The police were out again almost as soon as I began so with nothing better to do I decided to count them. In less than 400 km to Ashgabat, six groups of police let me pass, usually because they were occupied with another motorist, eight waved the baton at me to stop, which I ignored and three formal posts that needed to copy my details into a book. Yesterdays scenery was sandy desert, today's was flat irrigation, most crops having been harvested. There was nothing I could see to delay my progress. There were virtually no road signs but the people were helpful in giving directions. The roads good but bouncy and crazed asphalt. About 100 km out of Ashgabat I finally managed to buy 95 octane fuel. Much had been sold to me as 95 octane over the last couple of months but the engine still rattled and pinged to the extent I thought there was a problem with the bike.The old Russian appartments replaced by modern towers, amongst newly planted forests The fuel I had been buying, usually 80 octane advertised, would not let me accelerate without a knocking noise, and even heading into a strong wind I had to change down a gear to help protect the engine, now it accelerated smoothly and feels like a new bike, well almost. On entering Ashgabat I stopped to look for gearbox oil, the quality not good enough  for the motorcycle, needing GL5, with only GL1 available, after which I found the rear tyre was flat. First one in a couple of hundred thousand kilometres from memory. Thinking myself lucky for the tubeless tyres it was a simple plug and using the small compressor I carry was on my way in less than 30 minutes. I think of all the dirt bikes that use tube tyres, having to remove the wheel and tyre for a repair and the danger of a tyre going flat quickly, particularly if a front tyre. 

14/9/05 I finally seem to have fought off a stomach problem that, whilst didn't seem serious, had me gradually getting weaker. As I have built up a resistance, through long exposure to problem bacteria, the symptoms are often mild, but the problem doesn't go away. In some ways this is almost worse as I am not sick enough for medication but get run down over time. It started with bad indigestion in Russia and Mongolia, getting so bad I couldn't eat after 5 pm without having a sleepless night. Treating the symptoms and not the problem didn't work, naturally.The leaders books are advertised everywhere, and are in every government office. A course of antibiotics and later a second course, had the problem disappear and return. A course of giardia medication again had a temporary effect. It wasn't till I had a double dose of giardia medicine that the problem completely disappeared two weeks ago. Having purchased local drugs, and only just recently watching a BBC documentary on generic drug copies, where often the active ingredients is reduced or non  existent that I postulated this was probably the cause of my continued illness. My problem was not life threatening but in the documentary they showed anti-malarials, aids medication, even adrenaline, and saline drips with none or little of the active ingredients, a worry, causing possible death or at least drug resistance. Also a worry if a serious illness occurs whilst travelling in third world countries. If you don't think the population of a country will accept changing its name to yours, particularly after you already changed the name of the month of April to that of your mothers, then you change your name to that of your country, thus the leader of Turkmenistan became Turkmenbashi the Great. Treating the country as if it was his own property he rules it in the same fashion of the leaders of Libya, Syria and North Korea, with his picture emblazoned on public buildings and billboards and his green book adorning every government office. Still it wasn't so long ago that the Queen of England's picture wasWater fountains and satelite dishes a release from the indoctrination of the leader in every school and government building and on every coinage in Australia. With oil money he has built a modern city centre of western quality workmanship and appealing, if not a little glitzy, architecture. Most rulers in history are remembered, not by the social changes they made, but by the structures they left behind. The pyramids, Taj Mahal, Machu Pitchu. Perhaps not in the same league but Turkmenbashi's new city and buildings will remain long after his death even if his statues and pictures are torn down. The city layout is grand. It is difficult not to be impressed, with fountains in every direction and broad, almost empty, streets and miles of parks and greenery. Walk outside the new oasis and find the old Russian concrete, a legacy to its rule, the previous city to them was totally destroyed in 1948 killing 110,000 people. The new centrepiece is the Arch of Neutrality, topped by a 12 metre high gold statue of the leader that revolves to always face the sun. For seven cents you can catch the cable car for magnificent views over the city, the same price as locals pay to visit the toilet in the local bazaar. There is a feeling of inappropriate spending here, where to the north people are picking cotton and tilling the fields by hand for small money whilst French construction firms are laying marble on the latest new buildings in Ashgabat.A 12 metre high revolving gold statue of Turkmenbashi But who was it said we are all equal. Perhaps Saparmyrat Niyazov (Turkmenbashi) forgets his almost 30 years in the Communist Party from 1962. I walked km's through the new city, a cool place, ate in cheap restaurants, and used internet, only available at upmarket hotels. Cinema is banned, as is opera and ballet, being considered un-Turkmen, however that didn't stop the building of the new National Theatre. Having heard mixed reports of needing or not needing to register a transit visa that is longer than three days I went for clarification to the OVIR office, now in back of the new theatre, and was advised there was no need to register as long as I was going to be out of the country by the visas expiry date. 

15/9/05 Having grown up in a planned city, Canberra, carved out of pasture land for the Australia's Capital, with money thrown at it for buildings and gardens I can see a similarity in Ashgabat. Whether the country can afford to maintain and sustain such development remains to be seen, particularly on such a grand scale. After a few more police checks I left the country, 140 km south, just 45 minutes and no hassles or paperwork problems or further payments.


Move with me to Iran


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Story and photos copyright Peter and Kay Forwood, 1996-
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