Pants down in no man’s land
A long day transfering from Urgench to Ashgabat. Leaving our hotel early morning we go in our spiffy blue Intourist bus towards the nearby border checkpoint crossing into Turkmenistan. West of Urgench we encounter some cotton fields typical for the region and jump off to have a closer inspection. There’s not much action here, a few farmers can be see harvesting in the middle of the field. The sight of our group of tourists mucking about in the field raises a few eyebrows. We chat a bit with a 25-year old cotton picker called Rashid before departing towards the border. Shoista recalls memories from her univeristy days; students are regularily sent into the fields during harvesting season to pick cotton. Not everyone is as ambitious though, some clever minds would simply go slacking in the fields all day and even buy cotton from farmers to return with a sack of picked flowers.
Reaching the checkpoint we have to wait for some other vehicles in front of us, and I start to realize that I could do with an inspection tour to the restrooms. However, we’re asked to wait inside the bus and the slow progress of the queue ahead is starting to drive me crazy. At least finally me and another man are allowed to exit the bus. We are escorted through the border office by a guard and officially depart Uzbekistan without having any documents signed to end up by some small shacks located in the no man’s land in between the two countries. Even though we are being constantly monitored it is quite a relief. The we re-enter Uzbekistan and take our place in the line again.
I am sad that Shoista will stay behind but at least we will team up with her again in a few days. Instead we are now going to be escorted by a Turkmen guide and his two drivers. After passing through immigration rather swiftly we board a rather scraggy old bus and head for the border city of Dashoguz on the Turkmen side. Driving into town we find it very peaceful, bulidings are far apart and the roads are wide in classic Soviet style. However, we immediately make contact with the infamous President Niyazov, a.k.a. Turkmenbashi, as big posters and pictures of him can be found on most of the major buildings.
After a short stop here we drive towards Konye-Urgench, an eerie place where only a few grandiose buildings still stand to remind of a city razed by the Mongols. Located near the Uzbek border just west of Dashoguz we reach it in an hour and a half. The atmosphere is very calm and somber. A few imposing structures stand in a big plain, yet you can see the stonework traces of a road network and building blocks where there is now only sand and gravel left. The gigantic lone Kutlig Timur minaret is stretching into the sky, but there are no remains of the mosque or the neighbourhood where it stood. A handful of beautiful mausoleums remain in the deserted plain, their only inhabitants being a few pigeons and crows circling the distant rooftops.
Close by is a traditional muslim cemetary, its painted white tombs and small mausoleums in silent congregation. Many of the graves are equipped with a short ladder, a symbolic means to facilitate for the deceased to enter heaven. On the other side of the old city is Kirkmollah, the hill of the Forty Mullas, a little hill which is covered with little pyramids of small rocks, offered by people coming here to make a wish and pray. Our guide informs us that childless women would sometimes come here and roll and tumble down the hill in hopes that this will assist them in getting children. While we walk around the Khonye-Urgench I chat a bit with our new guide Serdar, a young Turkmen man of the Tchechlik tribe.
Late in the afternoon we return to Dashoguz for dinner at a local restaurant. We drive through small villages and cotton plantations, big plains where camels roam. At one place we encounter a cluster of minibuses -people returning home from a day in the cotton fields. During harvesting season people are commandeered into the cotton fields regardless of their profession. Police checkpoints will examine vehicles and you need a really good reason not to be picking cotton. There are stories of travellers, guides and even diplomats being hassled.
After dinner we head to the domestic airport. In the back end of the bus a few of us are trying to speak to the driver’s friend, and we speculate about what he is really doing there. All efforts at communication fail miserably. Over at the airport I start getting excited again; this will surely be one of the highlights of the trip. Finally a chance to fly a suspicious and exotic Russian airliner, but what type will it be?
First things first, entering the departure hall I make an entertaining discovery; the PA system uses the infamous Microsoft Windows “ding” sound to make announcements, unless of course the operator is getting a system error each time he tries to use the system. As we board for the gate we are scrutinized by officials in imposing Soviet style uniforms with the typical and wide hats. Every person or thing brought through the metal detector makes a sound, and they promptly ignore it without inspecting anyone of us. Geee, that feels safe. We are also asked to carry our tagged bags to the gate ourselves. Peeping out through the security steel bars into the dusk I can make out the familiar sleek silhouette of an AHTOHOB AH-24PB (Antonov An-24RV) in the tarmac. My heart jumps a beat, and I realize that all of the decisions I have made in my life have now led me to this moment. Ok, so I am exaggerating, but this is one cool bird and I can’t wait to board.
Noone comes to pick up our bags, and as the gates are opened we have to walk the tarmac bags in hand ourselves and then form a mob outside the rear entrance of the aircraft. Although we have boarding passes the size of a small country there is no useful information printed on it, and boarding follows the traditional Asian elbowing technique. As everyone has finally come to rest in the cabin we sit and wait for something to happen. Why are we not making preparations for departure? Why, while there is no crew onboard. It takes a little while before they finally arrive and quickly file through the aisle into the front of the craft and lock the little door to the front cabin section and cockpit. Five minutes later we are airborne.
I am seated next to Serdar, and as we are being ferried to Ashgabad he tells me more about his country, his family and the obstacles in his marriage preparations. The heavily maked Russian flight attendants serve a dry cookie, and then let us wait with aching throats before serving some water. Landing at Ashgabad International the crew is the first to depart the aircraft, but at least the airport has conventional luggage handling here. In fact, Ashgabad has a very spiffy and modern looking airport. The same impression goes for the taxi cabs waiting outside the terminal. We are climbing into yet another bus and drive through big boulevards, lined by large buildings. The traffic is light, but there are plenty of exclusive international brands to be seen in the streets. Except for the big pictures of the president (there was even one in the front of the aircraft cabin) the houses are decorated with lots of flashing neon lights which seems so common in Persia. In fact, the city of love does feel like a luxurious version of Tehran.
We arrive at the five star Hotel Nissa which is owned by one of the President’s brothers. My jaw drops when I walk into my room, it is the most welcoming room I ever stayed in. The only quirk I can come up with is the Turkmen three pin sockets but for two nights I am pretty much sure this can be endured.