Saturday, April 11, 2015

Welcome to Turkmenistan!

Having dinner in Mary.  Pat with our guide, Jabbar.

Today marked two events. One is that we've reached the halfway mark on our trip. I cannot believe time has flown by! The other is that we are finally going to Turkmenistan, our third Central Asian country on this trip! We'll be there for a few days before returning back to Uzbekistan.


I travel light :-)
Pat and I had mentally prepared for this day well before we even arrived into Central Asia. In our itinerary it read,
"Go through border formalities on both checkpoints. Cross 1.5 km neutral zone (transportation may not be available."
We had no idea what crossing the neutral zone was going to be like - it's most certainly a bit of a walk, not made any easier by all the stuff we're now carrying.  We each had our suitcases and backpack.  But now, I also have a bag with my Bukhara carpet in it and Pat is carrying a bag holding our paintings that we have bought in Samarkand - we had thought they would fit in her suitcase but unfortunately, they were just a tad to large.   Best case scenario for crossing the neutral zone was that we coiuld find a ride.  Worse case scenario was that we have to walk....dragging our suitcases over an unpaved road....in the heat of day.  Whatever it ended up to be, we were mentally ready.

Of course, there was also the challenge of the border formalities.  Exiting Uzbekistan is no piece of cake but we had our paperwork ready to go.  We had to obtain our Turkmenistan visa at the border which will most certain entailed filling in forms.  As it turned out, all went really well for us at the border.

Flashing back to the start of the day, we met up with Shavkat for the two hour drive to the border crossing. It was a quiet ride out of town. The scenery was same old, same old by now. I was soon lost in my own thoughts.

Not exactly inspiring landscape.

Shavkat was able to literally drive us up right to the Uzbek border gate.  He got out and took our luggage out of the trunk.   We said our thank you's and goodbye's and I handed him his tip which include two Kashi granola bars.  I knew he liked them and well, I can always buy snacks to fill me up.  I was expecting him to get back in the car and drive off but instead, he stood by to make sure we got through okay.  We had to wait for a few people to be allowed entry before us and then it was our turn.  The soldier looked at our passports and when he was satisfied, he waved us through.  I turned around and waved at Shavkat.  I will miss him.

Uzbek border control is always an adventure.  This is our third crossing and we never quite know what to expect and what's going to get checked.  Surprisingly, we breezed through today's Uzbek exit. No big lines, no baggage check.  We thanked our lucky stars.

It was a short walk to the border gate.  We exited and our timing could not have been more perfect.  A man, driving a jalopy of a mini van, had just pulled up.  We asked, "taxi?"  He nodded and replied, "1,000 som".  That's about 80 cents!  I was happy to see him and more than willing to pay the 1,000 som.  Of course, when we handed him the 1,000 som bill, he used his fingers to indicated we had to pay 1,000 each.  I had expected that - it was still a cheap ride!

He put our luggage in back and Pat and I clamored into the back passenger seats.   It really was a rickety van.  As we drove off, we could see the buildings of the Turkmenistan border check in the distance.  Before we even came close to them, we had arrived at another security check point.  Initially, I thought they were Turkmen soldiers until I saw the Uzbek badge stitched to their sleeve.  We were still in Uzbekistan.  Groan.

We got out of the van and retrieve our luggage and stood in line to go through the security check.  Just then, a group of American sounding tourists approached the security gate.  Naturally, we struck up a brief conversation with a couple of them.  I think they were surprised to not only see the two of us.  I have to admit,  we do make for an unusual sight - not often do you see an older *white* woman traveling with a younger *asian* woman.  They were even more surprised to find out that we were traveling on our own - sans tour leader.

They were a group of 14 tourists - 7 Americans and 7 Canadians who were on a trip to through the 5 stans.  Their tour leader is an American who apparently had lived in Uzbekistan for several years.  He spotted the van we just got out of and was arranging with the driver to shuttle his folks over to the Uzbek border control building.  We wished them safe travels.

I quickly turned my attention back to my task at hand.  As I waited for the soldier to finish looking at my passport, I saw another mini van pull up.   People, who didn't look like they were related to each other, got out.  I hoped it was another taxi!

We approached the van and the driver.  Taxi?  He nodded and replied, "One dollar".   We were so happy to see him and more than willing to pay!  We have been lucky so far.  The van held four passengers so we waited for two more people to join us before moving on.   Luckily, we only had to wait a few minutes.  From here, it probably took less than a minute to drive to the Turkmenistan border control buildings.  The driver was able to drop us off right at the front steps leading up to the entrance.

Inside, there were quite a few people, huddled around pedestal style tables, filling in forms.  Oh....here we go, I thought.  I immediately started to look for the forms.  Just then, a man approached us and told us he was our guide.  We mutually asked questions to confirm that he was indeed our guide and we were his clients.  He told us his name was Jabbar as in "Kareem Abul Jabbar" and that he was here to assist us with making through border control.  I could not have breathed a bigger sigh of relief!!  He asked us for our support letter and passports and then told us to wait while he went into the next room to get our visas.  Pat and I could not believe our luck.  We stood and waited as instructed.  We found out later that Jabbar filled in all the paperwork for us - both immigration and customs!!

A short while after he disappeared behind the door, Jabbar reappeared and waved for us to enter the room.  It was time for us to pay for our visas $67 each.  Pat had already researched the cost so we were prepared with the money.   While Jabbar did the needful on our behalf, we just stood and waited.  The immigration room was buzzing with activity.  Pat and I did notice that everything was computerized, making the process of issuing the visa a pretty easy one.

Next it was on to customs.  Pat went first.  She had to open up her luggage and answer questions about her pills.  Like Uzbekistan, Turmenistan is concerned about drugs being smuggled into the country.  But one look at Pat and you would know that at her age, you can expect she will be taking some medicine.  Then it was my turn.  Luggage wise, I cleared.  But my Bukharan rug caused a bit of a kerfuffle.   I told them that I had bought the rug in Bukhara and showed them the receipt.  Apparently, they were looking for the dimensions and that information was not provided on the receipt.  According to Jabbar, the fact that the size of the rug was missing was going to be problematic.  There were a lot of Turkmen words going back and forth between Jabbar and the four customs officers standing on the other side of the table.  One of the officers went off to get a ruler and the actually measured the rug.  Jabbar then noted the size on the customs declaration form and I initialized the change.  It was then that I realized I hadn't declared the rug on the Uzbek customs declaration form.  Just goes to show that for all their strict procedures, there are still things that fall through the cracks.  It seems they are more concerned about the entry and exit of money to/from Uzbekistan than the exit of small goods....like a rug.

But, I still wasn't in the clear with Turkmen customs control.  The senior officer, who was a woman, took the rug and headed off to a nearby office.  According to Jabbar, she was taking it to her superior to discuss the matter and get approval to allow me take the rug in.  It was a few tense minutes of waiting for me.   Soon, she returned and handed the rug back to me.  I was cleared to go.  I sighed a really big breath of relief and thanked everyone.  I made a mental note to add a bonus to Jabbar's tip.

We followed Jabbar outside customs control.  I was happy that whole incident was now over and could focus on enjoying my time in Turkmenistan!

Our driver, Dolat, and mini van were waiting for us on the other side of the security gate.  It was going to be a very long, 6 hour, drive to the town of Mary ("mah-ree").  By now, it was close to 10:30a.  We didn't drive far before we took a break....for lunch!  Dolat pulled over at a small roadside cafe that Jabbar said was owned and run by a local family.  I think most of the small eateries in Central Asia are owned and run by local families.  I was expecting a good traditional meal.


The door was locked and Jabbar knocked on it.  No one came to answer.  It was obvious he had been here before because he knew the people were out back.  He knocked out again and this time, a young woman appeared.  They exchanged a few words and we then all entered.  Just inside was a small store - selling an variety of foods.

Cookies, candies, fruit and dried fish.

Sodas in a variety of artificial colors and flavors.

Central Asians drink a lot of juice!  I  must try the cherry and the blackcurrant, two of my favorite fruit juice flavors.

Central Asian ramen!  I'm guessing this is chicken flavor.

From the store, we entered the dining room - a pretty good sized space but only a few tables.  We plopped our stuff down at one table and followed Jabbar to the kitchen.  This would never pass inspection in the US but it's amazing what delicious food can be made in a place as simple as thing.  Just goes to show you that it's the cook that makes good food, not a fancy kitchen!



Simple pantry.

In the courtyard out back, an older woman was stirring up something in a large cauldron that was being heated by a wood fire.  It was a giant pot of sumalak!  Jabbar asked if we knew what it was and of course, we had sampled it in Tashkent and had bowls of it in Samarkand.


As for Uzbeks, sumalak is also a seasonal dish that Turkmens love.  Apparently, they have to stir this pot, continuously, for 8 hours.  It's then left to simmer for 24!   The wheat comes from the family's field.  Some of the sumalak will be eaten by the family and the rest, shared with friends and members of the community.

I love how they just stick the log in to burn!

This cutie pie was playing with a bowl of tea. It's about to spill!

Jabbar getting into the act.

Before heading into the kitchen, we had ordered our food.   There was no menu so Jabbar just translated for us.  There were only 2 or 3 dishes to order from, including fish.  I don't know where the fish comes from in this landlocked country so I opted for fried chicken.  Pat decided on the same.  I figure you can't go wrong with fried chicken.  We shared a pot of black tea and a basket of bread.  Simple lunch.


Of course, I had a very specific image of fried chicken in mind.  Oh....something that looked like what you would find in a bucket of KFC would have fit the bill.  Instead, this is what landed on our table.   It did not look like any fried chicken I had ever seen before.


It took me a few seconds to realize that the bird had been placed on the plate breast side down.   Pat and I tore into the bird.  Central Asian chickens are pretty lean.  Fried they make for a dry, tough bite of meat though flavorful.


In the end, a whole chicken it was too much for both of us.  We offered what was left to the guys and were surprised to find out that Jabbar is a vegetarian!  I didn't think anyone in this meat loving part of the world could be a vegetarian but he is.  Apparently, it's not for health or religious reasons - he's just never liked the taste of either red or white meat.  He was eating fish for lunch.  Our shock came at the end of lunch when we were charged $10 for the chicken!  I was in sticker shock!  I can buy a rotisserie chicken in the US for about half that price!  Pat had read that of all the five stans, Turkmenistan is the most expensive to travel in. I hope this was not a sign of things to come.  The good news is that they do take USD here so we don't have to exchange US dollars to Turkmen manat - we can simply use the exchange rate of 3.5 manat to a dollar.

Back on the road we went.  We still had at least a four hour drive ahead of us.  It was warm outside - the thermometer inside the car registerd 32 centigrade outside.  We've progressively stripped off layers of clothing as we've traveled - from down jackets in Tashkent to short sleeved t-shirts here!


About 40 minutes later, we arrived into Turkmenabad, the country's second largest city in terms of population.  We weren't going to be any time here - just driving through on our way to Mary.   Like the other Central Asian cities we've been in or passed through, much of Turkmenabad is new construction.


Thanks to oil money, Turkmenistan can afford to lavish millions of manat on building some pretty extravagant looking buildings.  Here, the buildings are faced with white, Carrera marble - only the best, imported all the way from Italy!



Newer style apartment buildings are popping up all over the city though the apartment blocks built by the Soviets are still standing.


We had to make a quick stop for Jabbar to pick up our plane tickets - we're will be flying from Mary to Ashgabat, the capital city.


Turkmens are passionate about horses.  I think every city has a hippodrome.  We passed by the newly built one in Turkmenabad.



Broad avenues criss cross the arid landscape.  This is truly a desert oasis city.


We soon left the city limits.  The scenery outside was pretty boring landscape.  Flat, arid, desert.  I do have to say that this part of Turkmenistan is my romantic image of the Silk Road landscape come to life.   Sadly, as a result of improper irrigation practices, salt has leached to the surface of the soil so there's a dusting of white everywhere you look.


Soon, it was warm inside the car - even with the air conditioning turned on.  My belly was full.  The sun was on my face.  There was nothing to look at outside the car.  Perfect storm of factors for inducing a nap.  I wasn't the only one. We notice Jabbar had shut his eyes.  I was next.


When I woke up, we were still on the boring road but just a short distance away from Mary.


In the late afternoon, we arrived into Mary.  Another city filled with newly built white marble buildings.

The Wedding Palace.

The mosque.

Ruhyýet Köşgi (Palace)

Dolat pulled our van out front of a very fancy looking hotel. The Mary Hotel was just recently.  It looked like a very luxurious place.  I felt a bit under dressed entering it :-)


Jabbar got us checked in and then left us.  We would meet back up with him for dinner.

The room was very nicely appointed.  Everything was new but fancy by US standards.  For this part of the world, it was definitely a 5 star hotel.  But, it only looked good.  The room was sweltering hot when we entered it so I turned on the air conditioning.  There was air flowing from the vent but it wasn't cold.  I gave it several minutes and it never got colder.  We tried the WiFi and couldn't get a signal.  We even tried standing under the router in the hallway.  No connection.  We were not happy campers so Pat went down to the lobby to inquire.  We were told.  Sorry.  There is no air conditioning in the building and the WiFi does not work.  The receptionist advised us to just open up the windows to cool off the room.  That was not the answer I wanted to hear.  I will not be able to sleep in this heat Pat and I were on the same page.  We effectively paid for the room by paying for the tour and for what this room costs, we expect to have things working.  We agreed we would bring up the issue with Jabbar and asked to be moved to another hotel.


We decided to in the lobby to chill out - there was air conditiong there though no WiFi.

We met back up with Jabbar at 6:30p for dinner and we delivered the news to him.  We asked him what his hotel was like and he said it was not as nice as this one but it was fine.  We told him we would be willing to move over to his hotel.  He got on the phone with his office and told them about the situation.   He also told them we wanted to move to another hotel - in fact, we would be okay staying the one he was in.  When he got off the phone, he told us he got his office's approval to switch us over.  He then had a chat with the receptionist who seemed none to pleased about our departure.  While we waited for Dolat to arrive, we quickly went upstairs to retrieve our luggage.

A few minutes later, Dolat arrived and took us the short distance to the Hotel Margush.  It was definitely a not so luxurious hotel.  It probably was years ago but it now could do with a face lift.  Our room was much smaller and initially, the air conditioner did not work but the building engineer soon took care of that and we finally had cool air!!  I was happy!

For dinner, we took a short walk to a nearby cafe, situated on the banks of a canal.  By now, sun was beginning to set and the temperature was dropping.  It was a very pleasant for a meal outdoors.


The cafe's grill!

Jabbar helped us order.  Pat had spotted the charcoal grill.  That was enough to convince me to get the beef shashlyk.  We shared a salad - the best fresh salad we've had on our trip so far.  Seriously, doesn't it look good?


We shared a basket of bread.  Jabbar ordered a tomato spread (Central Asian salsa) that was delicious!

Pat taking a photo of me taking a photo of her.   That's one big glass of beer, Pat!

By the time we finished eating, it was dark.  We walked back to the hotel, stopping along the way to get an ice cone for Jabbar.  I was tempted but held back.  Contrary to what I had expected, coming to Central Asia, I have actually put on weight - the pants are getting a little tight!  Time to practice some restraint!

We passed by two of the city's landmarks on our walk back.  It was really too dark for photos by I snapped away anyways.

The mosque.

National History and Ethnology Museum.


Hotel Margush, where we are spending the night.

In the lobby, we bid goodnight to Jabbar.  Tomlorrow, we have a full day of sightseeing and we're starting out early to avoid the heat.  So I am hitting the sack early tonight to get a good night's rest.  I'm thrilled to finally be in Turkmenistan!

Goodnight from Mary!