Crossing Borders – Part 3: Uzbekistan to Turkmenistan

If you ever consider crossing the border from Uzbekistan to Turkmenistan, bring a beer, you’ll be in for a wait.

Getting out of Uzbekistan is straight forward enough, and walking 2km to the next border control is relatively easy too, but Turkmenistan is a notoriously difficult country to enter, first getting all the right documents in advance and next physically getting in. You’ll be in the good company of truckers from all over the region, ferrying goods from Turkey and Iran as far as Kazakhstan and China. You may then have the bad fortune of having two different letters of invitation, a potential source of much confusion for the local border guards. In their defence, most of them are doing their military service, very young, and seemingly more interested in practicing a few words of English with you than actually getting the right stamp in your passport. A more senior customs official may then call you into his office and start a conversation about Chelsea Football Club:

“You like Chelsea?”
“They have been doing pretty well” (unsure where is loyalties lay, I tried to be as non-committal as possible)
“Good players.”
“Yes, they have a lot of money..”
“Turkmen money! A lot of Turkmen money!”
For a moment I wonder whether Abramovich has a background I am not aware of.
“Russians stole gas from Turkmenistan, Abramovich stole money from Russia. So Chelsea is Turkmen!”
Not too concerned with the veracity or logic of his statement, I nod in solemn agreement, hoping my sympathy will speed up the visa process.

A few hours later I am through, with the help of Abdullah our guide. Unlike North Korea, it is possible to visit Turkmenistan without being chaperoned, but in order to get a full tourist visa you need to book a tour, which is what we did. So Abdullah, who liked to intersperse his stories about the country and its history with heartfelt expressions of “believe me”, took us around. Believe me.

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