Ever feel like you’re being watched? Like there are eyes and ears in the walls? Well, in Turkmenistan, there is a good chance that feeling is justified! This was the first of our ‘Stans’ and ralliers are of a privileged few who visit as the country receives less visitors than North Korea. It is an unusual place where there was a constant feeling of surveillance as we were followed whenever we left the hotel and presumed that our rooms were bugged. The feeling of being watched is exacerbated by the pictures of Turkmenbashi The Great which overlook most areas of Ashgabat whether he be in leisurewear or his suit.
It all started with the visa on arrival process followed by the road tax, insurance and customs process which took some time and a large sum of money. After much delay, Ashgabat was only 45km away from the border so we set about finding a hotel. As we drove into the city through a majestic archway, we were all mesmerised by the white marble and golden buildings. None of us spoke but just stared in awe. The city was in pristine condition with more people tending to the city than civilians living there it appeared. Barely anyone walked the streets and very few cars were driving anywhere either. This wasn’t even one of the “car free days” which they spontaneously have.
All hotels in Ashgabat are expensive so negotiating was needed when we arrived at Nusay Hotel. With 8 in our convoy including Yurt Lush, The Rally Rascals and the guys in the pink Yaris, they cut us a deal. Paying $120 for a hotel may seem dear but you’ll be hard pressed to find cheaper and the hotel itself plus location meant that we were willing to hand over the money. This was easily the nicest hotel we have ever stayed at. I felt out of place in my swim shorts and grubby t-shirt.
We did the only logical thing when in the “North Korea of Central Asia”: clubbing. Every club and bar in Ashgabat shut at 11PM when the curfew kicks in except one called the Grand Hotel. After taking a taxi there (which as expected in Ashgabat was the most expensive mile that we’ve ever driven) we were directed across a car park, through some tennis courts and by a swimming pool before entering a door where a man pointed down some stairs. At this point, I was convinced that the secret police would probably be waiting for us down there for a different type of clubbing but to my pleasant surprise, we found a nightclub. As expected, it was totally empty. Strangely, 20 minutes after we arrived, it began to fill almost as if people had been called to fill the dancefloor for us… Some of the guys got chatting to a local at the bar and he drew our attention to the fact that the lovely ladies who had filled the club were in fact working that night attracting customers as opposed to enjoying a night out with friends. Once pointed out, it was a light bulb moment as it all became clear to us. In Turkmenistan, we heard that it was an automatic 150 day prison sentence just for making a deal with them therefore we decided it was not wise to venture down this route. The club was filled with uncover cops too. This was evident after photos and videos were taken off our experience by a few of us and they were immediately dragged to the bathroom to delete and forced to delete them. Nonetheless, we still have some footage from the night. Mongol Rally 1 – Cops 0.
The drinks cost 40 Som for a beer which I found unjustifiable with an exchange rate of 3.5 Som to $1. Whilst the others drank their wallets dry, it was a relatively sober night shelling out for just a couple of drinks. As the feeling in the place starting to appear more tense around the police, 5 of us left and grabbed some late night grub in the hotel bar. The others made it back at 4AM apparently but they’re still not sure how. Luckily, despite warnings about staying out late from hotel staff, everyone’s limbs remained in tact.
With most of the convoy hungover or still drunk the next morning, not much was achieved but lounging by and swimming in the pool. When by the pool, Kye whom we were travelling with spoke to some of the girls who were swimming too and mentioned how odd it felt in the city and the club. They informed him that they had been invited to swim by the pool. Whilst not explicitly stated, we assume this was to make the hotel look busier although we suspect that there were no other guests. The girls confirmed that the night previously was probably an act put on for us. Eventually, after the Yurt Lush guys had paid $70 for their washing, at 2PM we set off for the greatest sightseeing attraction we could find. Our expectations were high and excitement was barely contained for the largest indoor ferris wheel in the world. The place was empty except for a few staff members. On entry, a man directed us round to the ticket desk through an arcade which had evidently not been used where we got two tickets before following through the rest of the arcade back to where we had first walked in. From here, we were chaperoned around the zig-zag lines in place as if this were Alton Towers and into a lift. We zig-zagged some more up to the entrance where we boarded the wheel which seemed to have been turned on just for us. Once in our cabin, we were commanded to hand over our second ticket and off we went! The views were mediocre as except for a few gaps all we could see was the shell of the building encasing the wheel. If we’d have paid more than a dollar each then we might’ve been disappointed but instead the whole experience was hilariously bizarre. Bonkers is the best way to describe the city.
Daylight was burning away so we swiftly departed for the next port of call which was the Gates of Hell. It looks as menacing as it sounds, it is literally a burning pit of fire in the ground. Back in the 1970s, a Soviet gas drilling platform collapsed and they decided that they could simply burn off the gas. This didn’t go to plan as they predicted that it would burn off in a few days or weeks. Now, 30 years later, it is still burning with pipes and evidence of the old rig still around the crater. After spending an hour and a half attempting to drive over the sand dune, we gave up and begrudgingly handed over 50 dollars to the locals who knew the best routes. They were more than happy to take our money and attempt to destroy our cars. With a short run up, they jumped to second gear and pushed the revs as high as they would go relentlessly pushing the cars harder and harder. We made it to the gas crater late then enjoyed it into the early hours. The immense heat given off by the burning inferno was unbearable at the edge especially when a gust blew up and hit us. It was quite an astounding sight. The beauty of the area was that it was untouched since it began to burn. We could camp anywhere nearby and park the cars up next to it for photos. The lack of health and safety was a welcome change from the rules and regulations that would restrict access to such an attraction in the UK.
The next morning, we tried to get ourselves back to the road but again we got bogged down in the sand. This was after a high speed attempt completely removing our roof rack scratching and denting the car in the process. The friendly locals who only talk to you when you’ve agreed to pay them money took our cars and trashed them even more getting us back over in two attempts. Fortunately, the roof rack could be reattached but we removed all weight we could from it. The Skoda Fabia of Yurt Lush took more of a hammering after 4 or 5 tries. The sand tore off their sump guard and fuel tank guard, left their computers throwing all sorts of error codes and at one point looked as though their whole engine mount had shifted but luckily, it was just the air filter. We trundled back to the road to set off for the border town.
From halfway up the country, we didn’t want to backtrack so we travelled north and along the worst road we have ever driven. It was an old road from the Lenin days and appeared to have not been touched since then. Turkmenistan outside of Ashgabat seemed to be forgotten about. From the pristine streets to the deserted roads, there were stark differences in lifestyles of luxury to subsistence farming. Not content with the dire state of the car at this point, we drove across hundreds of potholes despite our best efforts to avoid them. At points, there was no point of the road without a pothole. Strangely, there was a well built bridge which provided 30 seconds of relief before continuing on dirt tracks and pothole heaven. There were very few people venturing up this road however among the few was one who pulled over, waved us down and gave us a huge watermelon before returning on his journey. No words were exchanged other than thanks. It was random but awfully nice. We powered through the pain and eventually made it to Konye-Urgench. Finally, the pain was over.
There was only one hotel in town which was incredibly overpriced for what seemed to be an run down, old orphanage as the sheets were covered in teddy bears and had a strange vibe to the place. Again, the police turned up and were getting curious about our presence but left with no issues. At this point, everyone was totally exhausted from the tough driving so slept before an early start for a thoroughly enjoyable border crossing.
After unloading the whole car to prove we weren’t smuggling nefarious goods, we were stamped out and on our way to Uzbekistan. Shout out to Conor McGregor for giving something to small talk with the border guards about. “Conor McGregor, the best” is now written on our car forever more.