Cheleken, Turkmenistan, Russia
Summer 1996
A two weeks culture shock
in Turkmenistan

Part 2

Turkmenistan emblemI step into the dining room with apprehension, since I am still angry about last night. After a good breakfast (to my surprise) we head off for the airport, again guided by the same driver from yesterday. Before going to the airport we head into the centre of Ashgabat. One of the people that I travel with flew in with Turkish airlines. During luggage handling they seem to have misplaced one of his suitcases, and now he is off to the Turkish airlines office to deposit a claim. We park in front of a large office building and the guy leaves the car to take care of business, while we remain seated in the car.

It is around nine thirty in the morning and the plaza next to the office building is populated with quite a lot of people. Most of them are Caucasians like us and dressed in western style clothing. There are also quite a lot of people dressed in far more colorful clothes then I am accustomed to, mostly women. They wear colorful headdresses and bright red robes with colorful embroidery, and they have Mongol like characteristics. I realize that we are not that far away anymore from the Chinese border, and you can clearly see that in the faces of what must be the indigenous population. The Caucasians were probably moved out here during the reign of Stalin, who relocated large groups of people left and right through the immense Soviet Union.

On the left of the plaza there is a group of men observing us, and our vehicle. I notice that a number of them is holding something in their hands that resembles a small box of some sort. When they come closer I see that the item is not a box at all. What they are holding are large stacks of banknotes. These are money exchangers. They accept your foreign money, preferably US Dollars, and exchange them against the local currency, the Manat. They are very keen on US Dollars I am told, and their exchange rates are far better than the official rates that are applied by the official Turkmen banks. These official rates are absolutely not in line with the enormous inflation that haunts this country. This makes trading Dollars a risky business, especially for foreigners, since this activity is totally illegal. Foreigners especially are obligated to accept the very unfavorable rates from the Turkmen official bank.

People come here after they have received their wages in Manats and exchange that for US Dollars, because this is a much more stable currency then the Turkmen Manat. I am told that on one occasion during the same day, the price of a loaf of bread had doubled due to the terrible inflation of the Manat.

It takes about half an hour before the guy returns again from sorting out his luggage problem. We then drive straight to the Ashgabat airport. I still remember that it was only a small plain that took us to Turkmanbashi and that is just about it. I can´t remember any detail of the flight itself except that after taking off most of the time we flew across a ochre colored flat and barren landscape.

Arrived at Turkmanbashi Airport, again we are picked up by a company representative. We are taken to the parking where a Lada like automobile is waiting for us. The four of us, that is. With luggage, that is. Things are being stacked into the trunk so high that it can´t close anymore. Inventive as the driver is he pulls out a shoelace, ties one end to the lid of the trunk and the other end to the lock, and we are ready! Unfortunately my bag is in the trunk and I don´t have much confidence in that single shoelace holding down the trunks lid. The Samsonite suitcase of the passenger at my right is positioned vertically between us on the back seat. Looking over the suitcase to the man at my right, I am just able to see the top of his scalp.

The first thing we do is go to the gas station in order to take in fuel. We will be driving for a couple of hours I am told. Arrived at the gas station the driver starts to fuel up the car, and after only a minute or so a very strong gasoline smell fills the interior of the car. It makes me quite nervous! If I had a car like that I would take it into the shop and not drive it anymore until this problem was dealt with. After refueling we head south for the Cheleken base camp, our final destination. By now it is early in the afternoon, and we drive through the suburbs of Turkmanbashi. These appear to be quit old and scruffy and covered in yellow dust. It looks like the entire neighborhood has been sandblasted. Clearly it has not seen a paintbrush in quite a number of years. On top of that the streets are covered with potholes and gravel lies everywhere. It gives the place a bit of a rundown appearances.

Eventually we leave Turkmanbashi behind us and head further south. Having left the city the roads become even more run down. The potholes have become craters now, and our driver is zigzagging around them. Out here there is not much traffic anymore, and the driver really puts his foot down on the gas. The current speed in combination with the "crater" like potholes in the road, do make this a very special experience.

It becomes even more special when we rush up a small hill. Reaching the top of this hill without losing any speed at all and going full speed downhill again, right in front of us two to three dromedaries on each side of the road appear. They tower high over the small and overloaded car and thus giving us an unrestricted view on their behinds. Not losing any speed at all the driver rushes on with a swift zigzag, thereby avoiding any direct "confrontation" with the animals, leaving them behind us in a cloud of dust. In the back I am really busy trying to swallow down my heart that has just tried to jump out of my throat. This type of driving does take my mind of my luggage and the tiny shoelace that holds down the trunk lid. Works for me!

At some point the sun set´s behind the horizon. Out here between the sand dunes, in the middle of nowhere, it becomes dark quit rapidly. In the headlights, on the left side of the road, a red 40 feet sea container appears. Out of the door opening a soldier with a large hat on and what seems to be a clipboard, walks towards us. The driver pulls over and starts to converse with the military. It turns out to be a young man in his early twenties that wants to know where we are going to and who is on board. After having filled in his form we are allowed to continue our travels and the young man disappears into his gloomy "office". This seems to be a normal procedure around here. As far as I am concerned it is purely mend to intimidate the population, and thus create the impression that their government is constantly monitoring them.

We continue our travels and at some stage we reach the top of a small hill. While rushing down into the total darkness, in the headlights appears something that looks like a huge hole in the road. It is a totally black hole of about 40 feet wide. I panic and grab hold of the back of the driver´s seat and brace myself for the inevitable impact. Suddenly a loud rustle against the bottom of the car gives an indication about what is happening. Still holding on to the back of the driver´s seat, I ask the guy next to me what the hell just happened. Half bored he explains to me that this happens all the time. When the tide is high the Caspian Sea simply floods some of the roads here. And yes, that the road is being flooded by the sea is considered "normal" around here.

It is around eight in the evening and in pitch-black darkness that we arrive at our destination. We are issued a sleeping place and bed down. Guess what? The shoelace survived the torture on the road and my bags are still with me. Unbelievable! Some shoelaces these Turkmenies make!

and welcome!


Highslide JS
Caspian Sea with in the distance an oil platform.

Caspian Sea with in the
distance an oil platform.

Highslide JS
Tugboat at the end of the jetty.

Tugboat at the end of the jetty.

Highslide JS
Reefers behind the camps diner.

Reefers behind the camps diner.