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Escape from Turkmenistan

By far the most mysterious of the ‘stans, we entered this totalitarian republic using our hard-fought-for five-day transit visa. The limited contact with the outside world - no phone signal and state-run internet access, which blocked all social media sites - left the team with no choice but to immerse themselves fully in Turkmeni life, leaving behind the security and comforts of the Western secular and liberal mindset. Day 1 - Every Minute Counts After 10 hours at the border, we exited the ferry port shortly before midnight (taking an automatic day off our already short 5-day window) in convoy with a choice selection of other ralliers. And with this, the countdown to our departure began.

Day 2 - Hitting the Big City Leaving the ferry port behind, our convoy took the decision to press on into the night and get some hard-earned miles under our belts on the way to Ashgabat (Turkmenistan’s ostentatious capital). Loading up on caffeine and sugar, we kept to the main roads to avoid the worst of the bus-sized potholes that were to become an ever-present feature of our Central Asia journey. By 03:00, even Marcus (our Duracell-bunny, nocturnal Finnish journeyman) was flagging, so we pulled over at the first affordable hotel to treat ourselves to lumpy mattresses and showers with no curtains (to be fair, after the ferry, this was pretty much luxury). After a few hours respite we were up, washed, and raring to go. All that stood between us and Ashgabat was one long road that had seen more action than Rachel’s shewee. We bumped our way into the big smoke by late-afternoon to be greeted by more glitz, gold and fountains than Las Vegas. It’s fair to say that Ashgabat appears to have forgotten the stark poverty of its neighbouring metropoli, and flashes its gas-cash with all the subtlety of a delirious Brian Blessed. Sadly, for our wallets, everything in Ashgabat was quite expensive ($30 for a small pot of Nutella anyone?)... but uniformly so, such that your average hostel bed was similarly priced to the grandest hotel suite. So... we took the unthrifty decision to stay one night at the city’s premier traveller’s venue - the Sofitel Oguzkent Hotel. The opulence of the interior was matched only be the eeriness of inhabiting a venue with more floors than it had guests (I’m not sure Turkmenistan has the bustling tourist trade required to maintain this going concern; without, of course, the generosity of Mr Burdy). We retired to bed early, knowing we had a big day ahead of us tomorrow that would, ultimately, end with the team parting ways (albeit, only for a few days). Day 3(ish) - Punctures, Pits and Planes Rested, breakfasted, and having enjoyed a quick dip in the hotel pool we set off on the road to Darvaza in the Karakum Desert (home to Turkmenistan’s most famous sight - a raging open inferno: a gas crater set alight by Soviet engineers and has burning ever since 1971). Google assured us it was but a short 3 hour meander, so we set off at midday in order to get there for nightfall (the best time to see the flames in action), conscious that we’d need to get there and back by 7:00 the following day (in order for Rach and Ow to catch a flight back for a wedding). But we had plenty of time to play with... or did we? The road to Darvaza was worse than my spelling, and 6 hours after we left (and one mangled tyre later) we stumbled across the 10km desert track that would ultimately take us to the crater. Not wishing to leave ourselves stranded in the sand, we took advantage of a friendly scrambler (off-road bike) service: hitching a ride with some enthusiastic locals for a small fee, and leaving Bluey in the relative safety of the partially tarmacked highway. The key stipulation being that our resident bikers would be back at the crater for 21:30 to make the return journey and allow us ample time to make it to the airport. The crater at Darvaza (the "Door to Hell") was just what the guidebook promised: massive, fiery, slightly noxious, marginally poisonous, and hugely impressive (unlike anything we’d seen before) with a hint of hellishness for good measure. The product of a Soviet era “accident” (you know how it is in the death throws of an empire, when you inadvertently leave a crater full of gas on next to a perfectly innocent open flame). It’s been burning continuously for more than four decades, with no sign of abating, and is well worth a visit if ever you find yourself wandering through the middle of a desert in the impossibly accessible Turkmenistan. The 2 hours we had planned at the crater flew by quicker than the upcoming S7 flight to Moscow. By 21:30 we were back at our agreed meeting point, playing “spot the headlights on the horizon”. 21:45 passed. 22:00. 22:30 😬 We were getting twitchy (to put it mildly) when one lonely scrambler pulled up alongside us, complete with a raft of bilingual excuses and an inadequate number of seats for 3 passengers... So we took the decision for Rach and Ow to shoot off into the night, whilst I (Charlie) would attempt to make as much of the same journey as possible, on foot, with a local guide, before being picked up on route by our tardy two-wheeled taxi service. Come 23:00 the team and Bluey we’re back on the road with 5 and a half hours to make a 6 hour journey. I’d like to be able to give a blow by blow account of Rach and Ow’s epic all-night drive, but the Turkmeni ferry chicken had, by this time, rendered me prone and somewhat incapacitated in the backseat. The important thing was that they made it to the plane, following an emotional goodbye, and I was left alone, unsupervised, with a constant nagging desire to visit the gents, and a more overwhelming need to escape Turkmenistan. Day 4 - Another Mary Comforts Me One man, four tyres, no phone or internet access, limited sleep, and 645km to cover in 48 hours... what could go wrong? Cut off from from my nearest and dearest, I drove away from the airport at 7:00 and proceeded to the plush hotel we’d stayed at the previous night. The plan was simple - get some kip, find a garage to replace our dearly departed spare tyre, and work out how to get to Mary (my overnight pit stop on the way to the border). Sadly, instead, I got lost. With Google Maps more restricted than Donald Trump’s little black book I found myself driving aimlessly around central Ashgabat looking for familiar landmarks (it turns out that giant fountains and golden rooftops are ten-a-penny). This led to a brief accidental foray down a lightly guarded street containing the country’s great offices of state. The security personnel on duty took me for a piñata, and proceeded to use their batons to poke me through the car window to see if I’d drop anything of use or value. Ignoring their enthusiastic protests, I drove off hurriedly, revelling in my small act of insubordination... 10 minutes later, and still lost, I turned up at the same crossroads, to be confronted by the same guards, and made the same (perhaps a little more internally agitated) speedy getaway. By now I was ready to give up on sleep and planning altogether and just follow the signs to Mary, but then - out of nowhere - was my marble-clad saviour: Hotel Sofitel Oguzkent. With a 5-hour power nap in the bag, I popped my head over the concierge desk to see what tyre shop options they could offer. This turned into a 20 minute exercise, involving the entirety of the hotel staff, a number of heated debates, three different maps, and, finally, an agreed recommendation. Gratefully received, I followed the directions to the letter, to only find myself in the middle of a housing estate, with not so much as a corner shop for a commercial presence, let alone a garage. Fortunately, whilst I was exasperating, Bluey drummed up some local interest, and the friendly residents of the street I’d gatecrashed pointed me towards a large Kia workshop the other side of town... so off I went! The people at Team Kia were great: they ferried me across the city to find a replacement tyre, fixed our rims, fitted the new tyre and - most importantly - fed me coffee... all for free! And with that, I set off on my 6 hour solo stint to Mary: a journey of largely uneventful driving, across inconsistent roads, following the taillights of lorries (comfortably the most sensible drivers!). Day 5 - Borderline Crazy I woke in an instantly forgettable hotel in Mary to discover that I felt sketchier than an episode of Art Attack, but necessity rather forcibly persuaded me to mobilise. The day’s mission was to cross a heavily protected border, in a vehicle that needed to be mine (but where all the paperwork demonstrated, to the contrary, that it was Rachel’s), with visa documentation that claimed I had two passengers... easy! I trundled, apprehensively, to the Turkmen/Uzbek border at around mid afternoon, with the 10-hour entry exercise from the ferry still fresh in the mind. Loaded up on water and supplies (not that I was actually eating anything at this point, but it was comforting to know that I could, if I’d wanted to) I prepared for the worst. Surprisingly, the Turkmen authorities couldn’t wait to get rid of me, so with barely a cursory glance at my passport, and the reams of accompanying visa documentation, they waved me through as quickly as they could read my full name. The Uzbek border police were even more accommodating (apparently they’re doing a big tourist push at the moment). We all laughed at the ineptitude of the Turkmeni guards who had mistakingly allocated me two mystery passengers and, miraculously, having passed a random thermometer test I was free to go. The safe-haven of Uzbekistan beckoned.

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