2009/07/26: Jeep from border to Merv
We began the border crossing process when it opened at 7:00 a.m., finding there was some order on the Uzbek side, but next to none on the Turkmen. We emerged to find our car and driver just after 9:00, and with only front wheels removed our bikes fit neatly in the back of the Toyota mini-van. We were driven to Merv, and deposited at a Soviet-era hotel frequented by Turkish truck drivers. We had lunch, a shower, and a rest, leaving again at 5:00 p.m. once the the heat was a bit less overwhelming, we were driven to see the Merv archaeological site. It covers an extended area, and would be impossible to see without a vehicle. I hummed the theme song from Raiders of the Lost Ark as we rode from one vestige of ancient civilization to another.
2009/07/27: Jeep to Ashgabat
The following day took us to Ashgabat, the capital. My comment as we arrived was “This looks like Burnaby.” Coming in from the desert, it seems incongruously tidy and manicured, with miles of watered green lawn between grandiose but sterile buildings, flagpoles, and fountains. We walked from our hotel to the museum, and were berated by the gardeners for taking an obvious shortcut across the tidy lawn. Grass is only for admiring here. The vaulted museum has three great wings: archeology, natural history, and an entire wing devoted to idolizing Turkmenbashi, the self-appointed leader-for-life.
The only other visitors to the vast museum were a small group of Brits in business suits. We found ourselves leapfrogging them around the archeology wing, and considered moving a bit closer to benefit from their English-speaking guide, but something about the cameraman quietly trailing them prompted us to keep our scruffy selves at a polite distance. Later, we spoke to one of their peripheral figures and learned that the portly central figure was none other than Prince Andrew, on a “private trip.” After getting over our initial surprise, we speculated that Andrew might actually be useful in making initial contact with rogue figures such as the Turkmenbashi, when more mainstream channels aren’t yet functioning. Or perhaps it was just a quick side trip on his way to or from a visit to his Kazakh mafia-connected girlfriend.
We spent some time in the natural history wing, getting a glimpse of all the nasty beasts we were lucky not to have met in the desert. We spent the last few minutes before closing time in the Turkmenbashi wing, trying not to giggle at the over-the-top kitch. There were floor-to-vaulted-ceiling portraits of the current Turkmenbashi, the illegitimate son of the first one, in iconic patriotic settings and poses: riding an akal-teke horse while dressed in national costume, making plov in front of a yurt, surrounded by flag-waving children and so forth. Did we want to see the second floor, we were asked? No thank you, it’s too near closing time. We noticed that HRH Andrew and Co. didn’t visit the the Turkmenbashi wing. Sensible them.
2009/07/28: Jeep to Turkmenbashi
Our driver appeared at the appointed 7:00 a.m. with a different vehicle, and our precious bikes now strapped to the roof. He spoke only Russian and made little effort to communicate, so we never found out why the switch. Alarmed, we checked his bike loading and tying, deeming it OK. He drove us to Turkmenbashi in seven hours. The only excitement as we drove through bleak desert and scrub was camels. Here we see dromedaries rather than the two-humped bactrian camels of Xinjiang, Kazakhstan and Afghanistan. They’re domesticated, and we see them grazing in groups as well as working. Sometimes the loose ones are hobbled. They make me think of a smoothly-moving long-legged brontosaurus, and I see how they earn their nickname of “Ships of the Desert.”
Arriving at the ferry terminal in Turkmenbashi, our driver was unable to find out anything about the next crossing. He drove us to town to buy food and water, and returned to leave us to the whims of a non-existent system for getting across the Caspian.