DAY 24 – Ashgabat’s brave new world

184 miles (296.12 kms for the metric-civilised world)
#Mashhad to #Ashgabat

Chapter two of our trip ends here. Chapter three starts now: the Stans.

Some days many things happen, and you don’t write a lot about them. Other days nothing much happens, but you want to say a lot. Like this day.

We just ride from Mashhad to Ashgabat, Turkmenistan. Ashgabat is an incredible place. It certainly deserves a book, or at least a book chapter, more than a simple and short Facebook post. That’s why this day we’re gonna be longer than usual. Probably.

A good albeit boring literate would describe Ashgabat this way: “If you wanted to put an example of the word ‘distopic’ in the Encyclopedia, you should put Ashgabat”. But let’s start from the beginning.

We reach the Turkmen border around 12:00am, a little bit in a hurry because the gate closes at 3pm, and everybody told us it will take forever to cross, as usual. No one in front of us at the border. Just us and some Turkmen carpet importers. We pass, we get our visas. We also discover that where Italy doesn’t export good food, it exports other things, like endless bureaucracy. Getting all the paperworks done at the Turkmen border requires walking back and forth among different offices, where nobody speaks English, and everybody fill the same form at least twice. The car checking is the most funny bit. Four Turkmen soldiers, probably between 17 and 19 years old, start unpacking Jelly Belly, searching everywhere. They seem confused by the Tampax. They actually open them and start pulling the cord like they are party poppers. We think they’re still not convinced it wasn’t drug. Everything looks OK in the end, so we’re free to go. There’s a last warning from the troop captain: “From here to Ashgabat it’s 35 kms. Don’t stop, don’t take pictures, drive straight there”.

Now, either the Turkmens are the best people in hiding something, or they are the most absurd. From the border to Ashgabat there’s actually nothing. Zero. Just mountains, bushes, one single road, and a couple of guard towers. But this is just the beginning.

While we drive down the mountains, all of a sudden we have a glimpse of the city from far. We heard stories about this famous “white city”, but we couldn’t actually believe it is so bloody white. A long boulevard adorned with white street lights leads you to a massive complex of white skyscrapers, whose architectural style is heavy and ungraceful. Everything is strange. There are few cars around, basically nobody walking in the street, and policemen at every street crossing. There’s also a monorail dominating the sky around the massive stadium. It seems like a model of a fake ghost town. The only thing breaking this monotony of white are the colourful dresses of the Turkmen women, that you can spot every now and then at the bus stops. The temperature touches 43-44 degrees.

We stop at the first big hotel in the center to ask for money and infos. There’s something strange in the air. We meet a couple of Mongol Rally teams leaving for Darvaza in a couple of minutes. It seems like they’re running away from something. We figure it out just few minutes later, when we enter the hotel and ask the receptionist where we can get some money. She replies that all the ATMs in the city are having problems with international transactions today. Also the banks are having the same issue. Apparently this problem started 5 hours ago. We don’t know why, but according to the stories we’ve heard so far, this happens every day. We feel like we are projected in one of this distopic badly-done TV series like Wayword Pines or Persons Unknown. We decide to try an ATM anyway. The VISA card works, and we get a maximum of 40 Manats (local currency, about 8.8 pounds). All in 1 Manat bills. Something doesn’t sum up here.

We decide to find a cheaper hotel, and we find one which gives us the shittiest room we’ve ever been for an absurd price. Apparently tourist get charged 60% to 80% more. Money that we don’t have now, because all the banks are closed. Luckily we’re allowed to pay tomorrow. The hotel is an old sovietic building which resemble all the sadness that is typical of this kind of structures. Inside it’s even worst. On top of that, on the way to the hotel we are also stopped by one of the many policemen in town (we’re quite sure they are at least 50% of the population of the city). He got confused with the English car, and believed that the passenger (Ilaria) was driving while looking at the mobile. At least this is what we got. We showed him the passport, we got some bad words in exchange, but they let us go.

After having recovered for a couple of hours, especially because the temperature is barely sustainable, we go for dinner. The city swarms with policemen more the other people. The city center is desert, there are only awe-inspiring white buildings illuminated by solemn lights. Many of these, which are supposed to by houses, look totally inhabited. Some cars also behave strangely. They stops at road crossing where there’s no traffic light for several seconds, even if there’s no one passing. Then, they suddenly start going again. It really seems like they are autonomous, and they follow some triggered behaviours.

We don’t know where we ended up, but luckily tomorrow we leave.

Number of countries crossed: 12
Days without accidents: 24
Number of times the counter has been reset: 0