Turkmenistan - and a little bit of Iran

September 2010


This is my travel notes from my trip to Turkmenistan – with a couple of days in eastern Iran. I traveled with my friend, Mikkel, and Turkmenistan was shortlisted from my travel club's '20 Least visited countries' and I was happy to combine it with Mashhad that I had long wanted to visit.


Red tape

Please skip to the next chapter if you are not interested in 'how to' – it is a long chapter…

Turkmenistan

It is essential to plan in good time for your visa. It is not difficult, but you have to plan ahead.
You cannot travel on your own in Turkmenistan, EXCEPT if you have obtained a transit visa. With a transit visa, you can enter from one neighbour country, travel in one direction (no backtracking), land to land (no airport arrival/departure) and exiting through another neighbour country. You still need to obtain the visa before arriving from an embassy near you – you do not need a Letter of Invitation (LOI).
For the more regular tourist visa, follow the following process:


http://www.botschaft-turkmenistan.de/index.php/de/consular-issues/visa-issues.html

Whether you need a single entry visa or a double entry visa, the procedure is the same, and according to Ayan, there are no problems getting that.

Another, easier, option, is UK based Undiscovered Destinations new Turkmenistan tour - it looks great: Undiscovered Destinations

Iran

Summary: Fly into Iran and get visa on arrival. You cannot do this by overland travel; here you need the visa before entering.

The long version:
We wanted to fly into Iran, travel overland into Turkmenistan and the same way back, and fly out of Iran. This meant a double entry visa. I asked a friend of mine, who responded, that it was funny I asked – she had just gotten a decline on a double entry visa, and just gotten a last minute single entry instead. I wrote the embassy in Copenhagen, they responded with one of their one-liners: 'We can try'.
Since my passport would be away for the Turkmenistan embassy for a long time, I decided to try to obtain a visa code before applying, since this can be done without sending your passport. I wrote Iranianvisa.com who said they could get the double entry visa. 70€ sent with the application. I heard nothing. It should take 10 working days, and after 3 weeks, I wrote them, and they said they had gotten a visa code for a single entry visa, and had asked the MFA to change it to a double entry visa. At this time we only had 2½ weeks until our departure, so my friend and I sent the applications for the embassy in Copenhagen including fee for a double entry visa. After that numerous emails was sent between me and iranianvisa.com and the embassy – both of them answering in one liners: Ask the embassy if they have the code – ask 'your friends' to send a new code – we have not received a code – ask the embassy. Nothing happened, and it seemed iranianvisa.com lied even about the single entry visa code. Mikkel traveled to Copenhagen the day before our departure, went to the embassy and asked for our passports. First they would not give it to him, until he said we were leaving tomorrow and needed them.
Summary: Double entry visa is not possible, to my knowledge – so do plan ahead with this in mind. Second, don't think of using iranianvisa.com – go for visa on arrival, check thorntree on lonelyplanet.com, or apply directly at the embassy without a pre arranged visa code.   

After that, he went to the airport to change our tickets with Turkish airlines. We could not change the return flight to commence in Ashgabat, but could cancel the leg from Mashhad to Istanbul, so now our tickets were: Copenhagen – Istanbul – Mashhad and return from Istanbul to Denmark. We could then buy a new single ticket from Ashgabat to Istanbul (200€), so this was OK. Since we had planned for 3 days in Iran at the end, these were then going to be spent in Istanbul since the dates on our Turkmenistan visa were fixed. We where then counting on getting a visa on arrival in Mashhad.

Afghanistan

Being in eastern Iran or Turkmenistan, visiting Herat in western Afghanistan is a tempting option. Again, bear in mind the difficulties with multiple visa to Iran, whereas you could wait for a new visa in Herat. There are a paved road and a daily bus service directly from Mashhad and is definitely the easiest route in. You can arrive/depart at the border to Turkmenistan – the desert drive is 7 hours to Mary and is truck route with few options. A travel agency can pick you up/drop you off at the border. It may take some time to cross – a friend of mine spend 4 hours getting searched there, but should usually just take a hour. There is a train service direct from the border through Mary on to Ashgabat. The only issue is security on the Herat – Torghuni road, where you will go by taxi.


Travel day

Mikkel had stayed the night in Copenhagen, and surprised me in the train to the airport. Using my lounge card, I enjoyed too much Danish, before our noon flight with Turkish Airlines to Istanbul. The Ataturk airport is quite well organized and it has a compact area for businesses. We spend the 5 hours in a lounge, where I through Facebook got in contact with a friend of a friend who lived in Mashhad, and just happened to be at the airport to say good bye to his sister – when we arrived. So now we were quite anxious if we would get our visa – or be sent back on the next flight.

7. October Mashhad, Iran – 26 degrees.

We arrived at 01:20 in the night, leaving our Iran lonely planet on the plane for the next passenger (not intentionally). The arrival hall quickly emptied through the passport control, and we spotted the place for visa (travel insurance the sign said) – there were 3 others (Arab pilgrims). The application was much shorter than the visa applications we had used before – just 8 questions. We Paid 50€ + 15€ for an 'insurance' that I don't quite know why we should have. Changed a little bit of money – 25.000 Rials for 1$ - in just a month it had gotten 40% worse rate. The 'real rate' was 28.000, so for an airport, not so bad. So after about an hour, and we were long the only ones in the hall, the 'tourist' representative came and said we should follow her – and not to worry. A sour looking official then questioned us for about 5 minutes about what on earth we were doing here – obviously they did not see many tourists here, other than pilgrims. He was quite interested in knowing if we had any contacts here in Mashhad, and I was a bit afraid of saying too much about my friends friend that I knew would be waiting just outside (I had just gotten an SMS). So I said, which was true, that it was a friend of a friend, and he may be outside, but we did not know him. After that, 5 minutes later we had our visa, and our entry stamp. They unlocked the baggage arrival hall, so we could pick up our backpacks – and were off with Saeed about 2:30. Half an hour through empty streets, we were in the hotel Iran close to the center. One among many hotels in the area. I had emailed the hotel a month before, and gotten a confirmation. Mini bar with only non-alcoholic cans, the Koran in the room, directions to Mecca in the ceiling, welcome to Iran.
Since we only would have 1½ day in Iran, we were up and ready for breakfast at 9. The usual kind of boring selection with lots of fruit. Water melon was in season. A woman from the next table took courage and asked if we would talk a bit with her, to practice her English. They were here for the shrine and her husband was a sales person, often traveling to China – but didn't want to try to speak English with us. I showed her my photo album from my last Iran visit with my family – which she read starting with the last page. Saeed was there at 9:45 and we had planned to spend the morning together before he had to travel to his school in another city. We should have walked to the Bazar-e Reza, but took the car – and since the bazaar is right next to the shrine, it was of course difficult to find a place to park the car. We did and enjoyed the bazaar – 2 stories, 1 km long (!). At the main entrance end, it was mostly turquoise stone shops, spice shops (especially saffron) and clothes. Further back the usual Chinese things appeared. After intense haggling, I bought a nice 20$ turquoise, some saffron and kandis. Nice bazaar. It catered mainly for the pilgrims to the shrine, but it was interesting to visit. At a shop the shopkeeper invited us behind the counter, so he could take a photo of us, and in general people were kind and not especially curious about us – nothing like when I was here with our children. The next place we wanted to see was the outcrop on the south ring road - Koohsangi Park. It was getting quite hot here around noon, but from the top there was a great view over the city. We were alone here, but could see that they were planting a lot of trees here and they had a pump at the top, pumping water up here to create a small steam down the hill. There would be a lot of people here at late afternoon and sunset time. To the north, there was a child friendly park (many activities). Saeed drove us to a restaurant with good lamb chops and we said good bye and thank you. He had been a great help to us.
Turquise and spices at Bazar-e Reza

Taxi to the hotel (70.000R), a quick fresh up and walked to the Imam Reza shine (15:00). We were there until 18:00. It was HUGE! Until now, we had seen no other tourists, and we were also the only ones here – except of course if you don't count the many Arabs. It is the largest Mosque in the world by dimension and second largest in capacity. For Shia Muslims, making a pilgrimage to the Imam Reza shine is almost as important as the Hajj to Mecca. There are a lot to write about the shrine – it is beautiful, lots of marble and gold – read more on Wikipedia or in your guidebook.
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Imam_Reza_shrine
The sun set at 17:00 and evening prayer was at 17:30 with 20-30.000 people attending! (from my calculation) They were spread out on the many squares, with most on the Razavi Grand courtyard – men in front, and black clad women behind. No one questioned us around on the different courts, but we did of course not try to get into the shine itself, but could see into it from all sides. Just when we came in one person told Mikkel not to take pictures so openly with his phone, but we could see all others also did this, and later when we did it more discrete, nobody said anything or noticed. Carpets where rolled out in the courtyards and around the blue mosque for each prayer times. We especially enjoyed the Qods courtyard, with a copy of the mosque from the dome rock in Jerusalem and the blue mosque behind it.
Dinner at Hazardestan Traditional Teahouse (450.000R for two).
I walked back to the Imam Reza shrine again. Still lots of people late in the evening. Very beautifully lit. Smuggled my camera inside, and carefully took some nice evening pictures.



Imam Reza

8. October Mashhad – Ashgabat, Turkmenistan

Mikkel visited the shrine in the morning, before breakfast. The hotel called a taxi – we had thought about taking a shared taxi to Quchan, but it seemed ok to just take a taxi all the way to the border. The hotel said it should be 450.000R, but it was also what they said the day before when we asked for the price to Quchan, so I was prepared to pay somewhat more. We showed the price on the phone to the driver, who nodded, but of course we had problems afterwards. He filled the tank – for 13 cents per litre, I could see, and we were off at 10:00. A good highway through desert like landscape and a few dust devils appearing now and then. All the way a mountain range to the north and hills to the south. In Quchan at 11:45, then north to the Bajiran border. Here it was more interesting landscape. At the border 12:45. 20 minutes discussion with the driver who wanted 1,5 million. He argued it was a kilometre rate we had agreed on. He got our Rials + 20$, ending up in 1,25 million, which also was an ok price, but not what we had agreed. ½ hour to get our exit stamps and an hour at the Turkmenistan immigration. We paid 12$ at the immigration. It was easy to see that the people here were a totally different ethnicity – the people of the steppes, soldiers with big Russian type caps. Visa check – they had the Ayan invitation ready – and 'Welcome'. X-ray, passport again, custom, passport. At the exit a large, empty parking log – except our Mercedes limo. We were ready. North, down the mountains driving 130 km/h. Our guide Shavkat came on the car at a checkpoint and we started joking together. He shared our (special) humour and irony and spoke English well. We entered Ashgabat and drove to the office and paid for the tour (there had been no deposit) and checked our itinerary. We had to run for the elevator in the building, since taking a photo of the building apparently was strictly forbidden. Change some money (2 DKK/Manat). We do a quick tour to the big monuments in the south of the new city – totally white marble and very impressive - but no locals around. The Arch of Freedom looks like a space rocket with Turkmenbashi on the top in gold. It has just been moved here from the centre of the city where he used to rotate with the sun. Now he is 'fixed' towards the city saying: look what I've created. It is not fully finished, but Shavkat knows the person in the 'Kassa', and gets us up in the rocket with great views of the city. Here as at the following monuments, there are NO people except us and maybe a person sweeping the marble. We see other monuments and the sun is setting. We stay at the hotel Ak Altyn, nice and fine – 80$ per double per night – we try to figure out which key words that will trigger the surveillance, but fail. Mikkel takes down all the pictures to search for the microphone and/or camera, but again fail to find it (the guidebook states that it is 100% certain that the room will be bugged). Breaks a couple of the strings, so the pictures are not quite horizontal afterwards… We eat from the neighbour grill – a small place to the left of the entrance with lots of flashing leds. Plastic chairs and fantastic grilled loin and local draft beer. 55M.

9. October – Ashgabat - Darvaza

After breakfast, we walk into the city center along Admiral Kogesi, passing through beautiful and clean parks – many marble buildings. There are many government buildings that are strictly 'no photo'. Even though we have no intention of taking pictures of the presidents palace, a guard spots Mikkel's camera and come storming from the other side and tell us to go away. We had promised our guide not to try – not only will he get in trouble: 'trust me, you don't want to get in to questioning!'. Independence square, soviet memorial park, Earthquake monument. We visit the Russian market and have a good döner kebab here. People don't want their pictures to be taken, but people are friendly. Most people in the national dress.
The Russian market, Ashgabat


We are picked up at our hotel at 13:00 by our guide and a Russian driver. We had given the hotel 2 passport photos and now our passports were returned with a new police stamp. We passed the new bazaar outside the city – out guide said it was not interesting now that all the colours were gone. The city quickly dissolves into desert and nothingness. The Russian driver drives fast on a relatively good road. The desert was the same most of the way – small hills with sand/earth and small wind pruned bushes. We did a short stop half way – a small village with curious school children and a couple of trucks from Kunya Urgench selling vegetables and fruits. After 4 hours we reached a couple of craters near the road – one with water and gas and one with a little flames at the button – our guide almost convinced me it was Darvaza. It was a little further on, a few kilometers on a sand track to the east of the road. Even in daylight it was IMPRESSING! We arrived at 17:00 and shortly after the sun was setting. We set camp behind a small hill to the west with two tents – our team just slept outside. An American arrived with his crew. Dinner, and Darvaza – we simply had to be at the crater as much as possible – we were out until 23:00 (6 hours). Lots of small flames, one big flame at the crater center. We could get all the way to the rim, except if a hot wind would come. At 21:00 a Japanese came on the back of a motor bike – it was smart, he was transiting from Iran to Uzbekistan and had taken the train from Ashgabat and jumped off at a small station nearby. He had convinced someone to drive him out there on a motor bike, explaining where to go with one Russian word: fire. At 22:00 while we were quietly watching and talking at the rim – it was part of the itinerary: 'We finish the day tasting delicious nomadic food (barbeque) pondering over the meaning of life in the serene atmosphere of beautiful evening sky and flickering lights of the eternal fire", 4 jeeps and a bus turns up. 50+ people come out and wander about for 15 minutes and are suddenly gone again. Weird. I'm thinking of David Bowie's song 'Putting out fire – with gasoline' from Cat People – at to remember to put together a video with this as music. Most of the video is done by Mikkel - he is a great photographer, and did some great shots here - I quickly gave up.

Darvaza
The road to Darvaza


10. October – Darvaza – Kunya-Urgench – Ashgabat
We got up at 6:30 for an extra hour with Darvaza. We walked up the hill to the east, but it was not much better than the crater hill. Only we and the American had stayed here and no one else had turned up during the night. Continuing north through the desert, the road soon deteriorated and was not so much fun as yesterday – for 4 hours (230 km) to Kunya Urgench. We saw many pilgrims from different parts of Turkmenistan. Lots, lots of history with only a few building to prove the history. Genkis Khan was here, E.g. there was a small mosque – not very noticeable – of a righteously man – people would walk around it 7 times and touch with their head – which is usually totally forbidden for a Muslim – they can only do that to the Kabala and the Koran. So the Imams would speak against it all the time, but pilgrims will still do it. At one of the ruins we met a strange German girl with no bags and no money – just arrived from Uzbekistan. She wanted to see everything in Turkmenistan, but hardly had money for the bus to Ashgabat. She came with us to the local market to change money. We looked around. Lunch at Shavkat's family. Very good and plentiful. Boring drive east to Dagrus. In the airport at 16:30 and departure at 19:40. We had opted for a local flight instead of driving 900 km back through the desert, which I'm happy we did. The price on the ticket said 30$. We met Musa – the director of Ayan – and another of Shavkat's colleagues. We found out that all the people that turned up yesterday at the crater was something that Musa had arranged – there had been 80 people, mainly British, that were on a Moscow – all the Stan's tour with something called a Golden Eagle Silk road tour – basically driving with train from Moscow to Beijing through the Stan's. I had a very interesting talk with the knowledgeable man about visa, border crossings between the neighbouring countries. Good flight (45 minutes in a Boing 717), Mercedes pickup to our hotel, just in time to have a beer and ribs at our own barbeque next door before curfew at 23:00.
Kunya Urgench
Köw Ata

11. October – Escursion day

We are picked up at 9:00 in the Mercedes – first stop is the second largest Mosque in Central Asia. And Iran is of course not included in Central Asia. Turkmenbashi is buried in a marble tomb next to the Mosque, which he build. It was much too polished but our guide said it sometimes was filled. Nice cupola, golden on the outside. We continued on to Köv Ata cave – an underground lake. It was in a cave in the mountains close to the Iranian border. Birds shit and sulfur smell – and body temperature water – perfect. There were two chambers, and we were instructed not to go into the next cave, which we of course did since I had brought my head lamp, and could swim on a bit. Lule kebab for lunch – a couple of stalls were outside. We continued to the blue mosque, which Niyazov build after his hajj to Mecca. It had a beautiful blue tiled dome roof, but little marble compared to other buildings… We discussed Islam with our guide, who was practicing Islam. We visited a stud farm, which I tried several times to get off the program, but somehow ended up on the itinerary again and again.  Back home we tried the swimming pool. Of course we were the only ones there. Later we looked into the karaoke bar, but it was without visitors, a teenager quickly woke up one of the employees sleeping under a table – we said: please continue sleeping. There was an internet café to the right of the entrance, across the street (1 manat/15 minutes) – the internet at the hotel did not work – when I asked for wireless: Yes, we have that, but it costs a lot of money and it doesn't work… I visited the Russian hairdresser on the first floor, and got a nice Turkmenistan haircut – 30 Manat. Dinner at the Ice Bar – more people, louder music and bigger selection of bbq, same prices (about 50 Manats for meat and two beers) – but not as good as our neighbour restaurant.


12. October – Ashgabat

The tele provider MTS had just started a month ago, and has roaming with Denmark – our guide was quite surprised – and so were we. So we were actually in SMS contact with our families at home every day. There are Khrushchev blocks every where (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Khrushchyovka) – it was funny, those with facades to the streets in the centre had all gotten a facelift – an extra 10 cm coating, stucco and painted windows.
We visited the internet café to book a hostel in Istanbul, since we would not be returning through Iran, but fly directly to Istanbul. Taxi to the cableway – no, it had closed a long time ago, according to the hotel staff, so instead we went to Yimpas – the city mall. All entrance roads were blocked by police, so eventually we got off and walked. When we reached the mall, it was like the Truman show where all extras started moving when we arrived – at the same time. It was probably the president arriving, so the main road had to be cleared. Bought some cd's in Yimpas and lunch (Lüle, 50M for two). Walked along the main road to Ertogrul Metjidi (Azadi mosque in LP) to see the Friday prayer. It was totally full, so we waited for everybody to clear out. It was very nice, but similar to the blue mosque in Istanbul. No photos – as usual – people didn't want to get photographed. Walked to the earthquake museum (outside there is a bronze bull, holding the world which is cracking up – and Nyazov's mother saving Nyazov from the earthquake. There were nobody, and looked empty inside. Altyn Asyr – had TM t-shirts (14M). We changed 10$ with some street money changers nearby, coffee in the café next to the Russian market, walked home, a swim. Very hot today – 31-35 degrees the thermometer on the air-conditioned bus stops. We tried one, and it was nice – everybody waited outside – but then again, this is cooler temperature for them at this time a year.
We had bbq at our 'usual place' to the left of Ak Altyn hotel – it was only 4 out of 6 tonight, our piece of meat had too much fat. We bought the dictator conyaki (brandy) with a nice picture of Nyazov in full military uniform on the label (7M) – perfect souvenir. It is funny; it is in remembrance of his birthday.
Dictator Konyagy
Ertogrul Metjidi mosque Ashgabat

13. October

We were picked up very early by our Mercedes and the airport had 20 security steps – they won't let everybody out, it seems. The route to Istanbul was quite interesting. We cross the Caspian Sea and flew along the mountain range between Georgia and Russia – beautiful mountains. A nice view to Mt Elbrus – will probably climb it in 2013. I had never been to Istanbul before, so it was interesting to see some the must sees. But I had only once seen so many tourists before (Florence) – it was all that Turkmenistan wasn't as a tourist destination. Perfect weather, good food. One morning we beat the crow and are the first in Hagia Sophia - amazing.
Mt. Elbrus - view from the Ashgabat - Istanbul flight 
Hagia Sophia - first visitors 


This area of the world was very interesting and a place on earth with very few visitors. Not because it is dangerous, more because it is unknown to many, people are afraid of Iran, and because of the paperwork involved in getting in.

Feel free to contact me for more information - contact information on my homepage: 
http://www.futtrup.name


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