Turkmenistan and the road to hell

Turkmenistan wins the prize for being the strangest country we have ever been to. It is also one of the most secretive countries, and as you may remember from our last post, it isn’t exactly easy to visit.

By the time we had left the boat, collected all the stamps, filled in all the forms and paid all the fees required to enter Turkmenistan, it was 6.30pm. The border guards were adamant that tonight we must drive to Ashgabat (the capital), which was at least seven hours away. This wasn’t ideal - we were worried about driving so late at night, and there were a lot of unknowns. We didn’t know what the condition of the roads would be like, we didn’t want to hit any camels, didn’t know whether it was safe, and there was rumoured to be a curfew in Ashgabat which meant you couldn’t be outside (or driving) after 10 or 11pm in the city.

But it was clear there was no choice. We had to get moving, and we wanted to make the most of the available daylight. Thankfully we were with Charlie, Lucas and Roland – the drivers from the teams that had been split up – and we tackled the roads together in convoy. As we drove off, the border guards cheerfully reminded us not to worry: “You will be very safe here. Immigration know exactly where you will be at all times”. Reassurance came with a side order of threat… we had definitely entered a dictatorship now.

If our first impressions of Turkmenistan were that it is an inflexible maze of bureaucracy, filled with stamps, repetitive notebooks and ridiculous charges, our second impressions were that it was one big desert. On the road to Ashgabat we saw a lot of sand, some camels, a few small settlements, and some more sand. Once the sun went down, we found ourselves in a giant sand cloud, which was less than ideal and meant we had slow down. It didn’t help that despite being on a highway, there seemed to be no rules about which side of the road to drive on. Cars hurtled towards us as breakneck speeds, but also approached us from behind. At one point, Lucas (team Silicon Rally), pulled over. “Are we driving on the right side of the road?”, he asked. It remained unclear.

Lucas from team Silicon Rally storming through the Turkmenistan desert

We finally made it to Ashgabat at 4.00am, after nearly 10 hours of driving. Ashgabat looked like a bright, white city, lit up like a Christmas tree, in the middle of the desert. The Lonely Planet had warned us that there was “no budget accommodation in Ashgabat”, and this seemed to prove true. We had identified one “mid-range” hotel, but it was full. Across the road stood the five star Grand Turkmen Hotel, complete with secure parking, air conditioning, swimming pool, breakfast and wifi (well, “wifi” – it didn’t really work, and all social media is banned in Turkmenistan anyway). They had rooms, and although it wasn’t cheap, the idea of a bed for the night (not to mention a comfy bed with all the available amenities) was appealing enough for us all to blow our accommodation budgets and check in.


A day of sleeping and sight seeing followed. As we wandered around Ashgabat, it seemed no expense had been spared in making the city look fantastic. Every building was massive, grand, white (with a hint of gold), spotlessly clean and accompanied by a varying number of fountains. Huge monuments and gold statues littered the city. There were giant squares and parks everywhere (many of which were called “independence square”, or “independence park”, or another similar variation), filled with symmetrical fountains and plants. There were also a considerable number of gold statues, many of which were of the previous President (apparently he had given in to the “huge pubic demand” for thousands of statues of himself. What a good man he must have been.) A stomach turning amount of water was used to keep the city green and keep the thousands of fountains going in the middle of the desert. The city was also spotlessly clean, and you could be fined for having a dirty car (luckily no one spotted Martha, who wasn’t exactly sparkling after driving through a desert sand storm).

Horse statue (and many fountains) in Ashgabat

Symmetrical fountains, tall white buildings and suspiciously green plants in Ashgabat

Martha visits the Monument of Neutrality, Ashgabat

Ashgabat by night

The weirdest thing about the city was that despite its grandeur and its obvious desire to impress, there was no one there. There was a police officer on every corner, and no shortage of cleaners keeping the place immaculate, but there was no one actually in the parks or looking at the fountains or anywhere at all. We were also told we couldn’t take photos of most things, and as we tried to walk across the city were met by Police telling us we couldn’t go any further. It made us question why the government had spent so much time and money making Ashgabat so impressive. Not to impress tourists or foreigners (after all, there were none apart from us – Turkmenistan isn’t exactly an easy place to visit), not to impress or satisfy its own people (again, there were none), and not to impress anyone far away or make Turkmenistan seem like a great country (we couldn’t even take a photograph). Was this all just one massive ego trip for the previous President? It was very surreal, a little eerie, but undoubtedly extraordinary.


As we only had five days to get through Turkmenistan, we couldn’t hang about in Ashgabat for too long. Next stop on the route was a crater of burning gas in the middle of the desert, otherwise known as the gates of hell.

At this point we said goodbye to the drivers from the split teams – their passengers were now on their way to Ashgabat, and they would all come to the gas crater later in the evening or the following day. We travelled up the road to hell with another team from Sweden, who had two cars with four people in each. They were a very friendly team, and they gave us one of their walkie-talkies so we could communicate on the way.

We arrived at the track to the crater with very few issues, apart from having to stop a few times to avoid camels crossing the road. When we did reach the track, we were faced with an interesting sandy hill, and a number of locals in jeeps – some of whom told us we would never make it to the crater in our rubbish cars, and some of whom said we could get up the hill if we approached it from a long way back and went really, really fast.

Martha and some camels on the way to Darvaza (hell)

More camels in the desert


One of the cars from the Swedish team made a first attempt up the hill, while Shane changed the tyres on Martha (we had brought special mud/sand/snow tyres with us which we thought might give her a bit more grip). The first car made it part-way up the hill, but got stuck in the sand. After a bit of pushing, the car was free. It went back down the hill and did better second time. The second car made it up the hill with no problems, but Martha wasn’t so lucky. Shane had four attempts, and on the fourth, all eight people from the Swedish team ran down to push Martha the last few yards. With their help, she made it up.

But over the hill, more sand was waiting, and every single car (including others that arrived, and, of course, Martha) got stuck in the sand. The locals and their jeeps were back, offering different services for different exhorbitant prices (they could drive our cars to the crater for us, for $150 per car!). While Martha could reverse back out of the sand, it was clear she wasn’t going to make it all the way to the crater (at least not any time soon, or without a lot of pushing). Most of the other cars were so stuck that they couldn’t even get back without a lot of help. We were going to need to do some sort of deal with the locals if we wanted to see the gates of hell.

And so, the negotiations began. It wasn’t easy. With so many teams now completely stuck, we had limited bargaining power. The sun had set, and darkness was creeping in, along with various insects. The desert was home to scorpions and spiders and snakes, and we wanted to get out of it and see the burning hole. Eventually, we agreed on a price of $10 per person plus two packets of cigarettes for transport to and from the crater, and to help get the stuck cars un-stuck in the morning.

A long, bumpy ride followed, but we made it to the gates of hell! The burning gas crater was huge, spectacular and hot, and did look like it could be the entrance to hell as the desert seemed to just fall away around it.

The big fiery hole (gas crater) at Darvaza - the gates of hell

Shane and I at the entrance to hell

We camped right beside Martha that night, and after another negotiation in the morning (the locals wanted more money and more cigarettes for moving the stuck cars, so Shane suggested they provide us with a receipt which we show the military police, and suddenly they were happy enough with what they already had), we were back down and ready to drive the 250km or so to the border and enter Uzbekistan.


We were expecting a three to four hour drive, and to arrive at the Uzbekistan border by around 11am, giving us plenty of time to cross over (and deal with the inevitable border bureaucracy) and a leisurely evening on the other side.

As we drove off, we waved goodbye to our new friends from the Swedish team (they had been given a different prescribed route when they entered Turkmenistan, and had even been given a black box which tracked their every movement), and started on our journey.

This didn’t go exactly as planned. The start of the road was bad – it was bumpy and littered with pot holes. Then it got worse. And worse. Eventually we found ourselves on a gravel track. Shane expertly avoided the bumps, but it was very slow going. We finally reached the border at 4pm, after around 8 hours of driving, and found it strangely empty: it was almost closed.

Struggling to avoid potholes on the road from hell

Luckily we were just in time, and as the border police undoubtedly wanted to get home for the day, the process wasn’t too arduous. We were across by 6pm, and felt a newfound sense of freedom as we entered Uzbekistan: our route was no longer fixed, and our visas were valid for 30 days. While our experience of Turkmenistan had been interesting and unique, it had also felt a touch oppressive and difficult. While the surface of Turkmenistan glittered and sparkled, the emptiness, the crazy bureaucracy and the thousands of police officers and soldiers hinted that something underneath wasn’t right.


The Bureaucracy Diaires: Crossing the Caspian Sea

The Mongol Rally starts at Goodwood Motor Circuit in the U.K, passes through Mongolia, and ends in Ulan Ude in Russia. There are optional meet-ups and parties in the Czech Republic and Romania, but otherwise there is no set route.

While most teams tend to take the Northern route (through Northern Europe and Russia), or Southern route (through Turkey and the ‘Stans), previous teams have taken detours through China, the Arctic Circle and even Africa. Shane and I still have visions of taking the Trans-Siberian railway right across Russia one day, so decided to take the Southern route to see the highlights of Central Asia.

The only problem with the Southern route is that there is no obvious or easy way to cross from the Balcony of Europe into Central Asia. The options are:

  1. Drive from Georgia to Russia to Kazakhstan. This is, in fact, not a viable option since it would require a triple entry visa for Russia which are incredibly difficult (if not impossible) to get hold of, particularly if you are not on a business trip (and this is not a business trip).
  2. Drive through Iran to Turkmenistan. A significant number of teams have chosen this option, but it isn’t without its challenges. Visas for Iran are expensive and complex. To take a car into the country makes things even worse. You have to buy a $500 special passport for the car (a ‘carnet’), and British nationals also need to be accompanied by a guide (which requires even more money and paperwork). Shane and I have been to Iran before (and as a female traveller, I didn’t have a particularly positive experience), so we were keen to avoid the expense and the admin, and take a different route to Central Asia.
  3. Take a reliably unreliable ferry over the Caspian Sea. It is possible to take a cargo ship from Baku in Azerbaijan over the Caspian Sea to Turkmenbashi in Turkmenistan. The downside is that reports from previous Mongol Rally teams suggest this is anything but straightforward. From finding the port to buying a ticket, nothing is clear or simple. Everything costs a lot of money and takes a long time.
  4. Take an even more unreliable ferry from Baku to Aktou in Kazakhstan. As above, but even less clear, less frequent and more expensive.

The reliably unreliable ferry from Baku to Turkmenbashi seemed like the obvious, if not ideal, choice.


On arriving in Baku, our first problem to solve was that neither Shane nor I had a visa for Turkmenistan. To apply for a five day transit visa (longer tourist visas are significantly harder to come by and require you to be accompanied by a guide through the country), you need a letter of invitation from the government of Turkmenistan. Despite applying for these letters in March, they arrived in July, just one day before the launch of the Mongol Rally, so we didn’t have time to apply for the visas before we left the U.K. Our options were to apply in Baku, or to get on the ferry without a visa and get it on arrival in Turkmenbashi.

In many ways, applying for the visa in Baku was a much riskier option. Our visa would only be valid for five days, and the unreliablility of the ferry meant that if we picked a date that was too soon, the visa could be used up before arriving in Turkmenistan, and that would be a big problem. However, we were repeatedly told that we would not be allowed to board the ferry to Turkmenistan without a valid visa (we wouldn’t be allowed to leave Azerbaijan without proof that we were authorized to enter Turkmenistan), so we set off for the Turkmenistan Embassy in Baku.

The opening hours of the Embassy were limited to Mondays and Fridays (9.30-12.00). Those are the only opening times. We arrived in Baku on a Wednesday night, so after a day of sight seeing on Thursday we were at the Embassy bright and early on Friday morning. After a long wait and some frustrating queue jumping (we saw some locals bribing the guard at the Embassy to reach the front of the line), we were told that the Embassy had no electricity, so could not process any visa applications. We would need to get the visa on arrival in Turkmenbashi or come back on Monday.

As Monday was three days away, we thought we might as well try to board the ferry without the visa. If it didn’t work, we could return to the Embassy and try again. There was a boat in the port, which was apparently sailing to Turkmenbashi that day, so we made our way over there to try and buy a ticket. We met Viktorya at the ticket office. She seemed to be in charge, and she (somewhat aggressively) directed us to sit in a waiting room. She would let us know when she had some information about whether we could buy a ticket.

When she returned, it was with bad news. She didn’t have enough cargo to justify the sailing. The boat was too empty. She said we should come back tomorrow and try again.


Along with several other Mongol Rally teams, we arrived at the port around 9am the next day. Viktorya hadn’t arrived yet, but we found the waiting room full of other people who were also eager to get on a boat. When she arrived, Charlie (from team Genghis Kart) went to speak to her and there was more bad news: the ferry was now too full. There wasn’t enough space for everyone who wanted a ticket. We were told to wait to see whether there would be space for us.

So we waited. And waited. And waited a bit more. Eventually something seemed to change, and we noticed local people queuing up at the ticket office and handing over money. It seemed that it was possible to buy tickets now after all. We joined the queue. It was a long process (more local queue jumping occurred) but eventually the first Mongol Rally team in the queue managed to buy tickets, and all was looking well.

But then there was a sudden change in fortune. Having been told there would be enough space for all the Mongol rally teams, there were now only four more spaces for passengers on the ferry. Charlie from Genghis Kart was next in the queue and had been waiting since Thursday night (it was now Saturday), so it made sense for his team of three to go with Jamie (who was a team of one).

Except then Viktorya had another idea. There was apparently plenty of space for cars, just not for passengers. She suggested that four car drivers board the ferry with their vehicles, and that the remaining passengers take a speedy passenger ferry, which would leave the next day, and should bring us all to Turkmenbashi at the same time. There were four drivers from four teams in the queue: Charlie (from team Genghis Cart) Lucas (from team Silicon Rally) Roland (from team The Flying Dutchmen) and me, and all agreed that this seemed to make sense, as it would get the maximum number of people to Turkmenistan as soon as possible. Each of the drivers bought their tickets, visited a separate office to pay the extra $12 fee for using the ramp on to the boat (yes, really), and started to sort out the cars to make sure passengers had what they needed for the day and for the ferry crossing.

While my rational brain agreed with Viktorya’s plan, the idea of getting on the ferry and going all the way to Turkmenistan without Shane wasn’t appealing. I would miss him, and I started to worry about what could go wrong. Where and when exactly would the passenger ferry go? Where would we meet in Turkmenbashi? What if one of us got stuck on one side or the other? Out of all the parts of the trip where we could be split up, this seemed like the worst part to separate. It suddenly felt like a terrible idea, and I felt quite panicked.

All of a sudden, Viktorya realized she had one extra space for a passenger on the ferry. After establishing it was just for a passenger (now there seemed to be a space for a passenger but no more space for cars…), the other teams suggested Shane buy the ticket, as we were the only team of two. It was our lucky day. Little did I know at this point just how lucky.

After a few hours of hanging around waiting for the ferry to load and passing through customs and passport control, we were welcomed on board the boat. We were led to a room that turned out to be the main social / dining spot, where cabins were being distributed. Lots of angry shouting from other passengers revealed there was another problem – there were not enough rooms for everyone on board.

The Mongol Rally teams were the last to be given cabins, and they were quite obviously the worst ones on the boat, and perhaps weren’t meant to be used at all. They were a floor below every other room (next to the engine) and consisted of two rooms with six bunk beds and one toilet for 12 of us. But, at least there were bunk beds. And an all-important toilet. It could have been worse.

The boat journey was hot and not always comfortable, but it was an experience. We made friends with the locals (and were invited to share their dubious cheese, tomatoes, soft drinks and vodka), watched a lot of Russian films, got invited to explore the bridge and relaxed watching the sunset over the Caspian sea.

Waving goodbye to Baku and setting sail on the Caspian Sea

All was going well, and we reached Turkmenbashi in around 18 hours as promised. However, we couldn’t get off the boat yet. The port was congested, so we had to wait on the boat a little way out in the water. For another 22 hours. This meant our 18-hour boat crossing took 40 hours. We were happy enough on the boat (and had three free meals a day for the whole time on board), but had we been in a rush to get somewhere, this might have been a bit annoying.

Shane getting to work

Friendly little boat in Baku helping us out of the port

View of the Caspian Sea from our “cabin”

Martha enjoying her time on the boat with other rally cars

Passing the time on the 40 hour crossing

Sunset on board as we approached Turkmenbashi

Chilling out on the boat

When we finally docked in Turkmenbashi, we needed to give our passports to the officials on board. I sent Shane to get our letters of invitation to prove we were authorized to enter Turkmenistan (as we were yet to get hold of the visa) and followed the official into an office in a part of the boat we hadn’t yet visited. Then another man told me to follow him, and led me through some windy corridors around the ship. I started to feel a little anxious. I wasn’t sure where he was leading me or what this was all about. I was on my own, and no one (including Shane) knew where I was. The man opened a door and told me to follow him into a room.

A wave of cool air washed over me. This room was air conditioned (unlike the rest of the boat), and there were plates of cherries, sunflower seeds and cold drinks on the table. “I am the captain”, the man said, and invited me to sit down and enjoy a cold drink, a bite to eat and some Russian films. We had been communicating and watching Russian films together for a while, when I could hear Shane outside calling for me, so I shouted back and he joined us for some more cherries and a Russian soap opera.

After two or three hours with the captain, it was time to leave our air conditioned oasis and get off the boat. As we reached land and our phones picked up a signal, we had some bad news. The promised ‘passenger ferry’ hadn’t materialized. The passengers from the three teams with us were still in Baku. They weren’t getting on a boat that day, and couldn’t be certain they would get on one the next day. Despite our delayed ferry crossing, they wouldn’t be able to catch up. We only had a five-day visa to get across Turkmenistan, and the passengers were at least two days behind.

The problem became even clearer as we started the process of entering Turkmenistan. There was no option for the teams to stay the other side of the border and delay their visas starting. There was no flexibility on the visa dates. In fact, there was no flexibility on anything, and we wouldn’t even be allowed to stay in Turkmenbashi for a day or two to give them the chance to catch up. Shane and I were the only ones lucky enough to be together, and we planned to stick with the drivers from the three split teams for as long as we could.

Entering Turkmenistan was bureaucracy on a whole new level. I have never experienced anything like it, and I don’t know whether anyone reading this will even believe it, but this is the condensed version of exactly what happened:

Step 1: Apply for visa. We had to give in our passports, and a detailed itinerary of where we would be on which dates. Except that it turned out we had no choice in this. We had to follow a set itinerary that the Turkmenistan government had already been decided for us. (Luckily this fit with our planned itinerary). We could not stay in Turkmenbashi. We had to go straight to Ashgabat THAT DAY (even though it was an eight hour drive away and we would probably get there in the middle of the night, given the length of time the immigration process took). And so on.

Step 2: Pay for visa. This had to be done at the bank, rather than at the passport office. For UK citizens, this was $85, plus a $14 “entrance fee” and a $2 “extra charge”. For Irish citizens, this was a bit cheaper ($55, plus $14, plus $2). This could only be paid in US dollars.

Step 3: Back to passport control. Have fingerprints taken, photos taken, reconfirm all details in the passport and all car details.

Step 4: Visit an office on the other side of the building (this involved first going through an X-ray machine) to complete some paperwork for the car. All details about me, the car, the route we were taking and various other bits and pieces were written into a big notebook. Then a form was filled in with a bill on it, and given to me. I was told I needed to take it to two additional offices, and then to the bank to pay the bill.

Step 5: Take the same paperwork to a man in the office next door. He filled out all the information into another big notebook, and gave me some kind of stamp.

Step 6: As above, but in another office two doors down.

Step 7: Try to pay the money I owed for the car at the bank (about $170 for insurance, fuel compensation, tax and extras). Unfortunately the lady at the bank told me there were some extra steps involved. I had to first go and get a ticket, then go to the ticket office, and then come back to the bank.

Step 8: Visit an office behind the ticket office (this involved leaving the area, so I had to show my passport).

Step 9: Collect a ticket from the office behind the ticket office.

Step 10: Take the ticket to the ticket office (all the details were copied out into another notebook and another piece of paper was given to me).

Step 11: Back to the bank where I was finally able to pay (in US dollars only), get a receipt and some more bits of paper.

Step 12: Back to the ticket office where I had to pay for something else (in the local currency, Turkmenistan Manat, only – challenging when you can’t get any outside of Turkmenistan and there is no ATM or money changer at the border), get a receipt and more bits of paper.

Step 13: Back to the original car office with the receipts to collect some more paperwork.

Step 14: Go to the customs office, fill in a customs declaration form, and watch as my details are written down in another notebook, and another form is filled out and more paperwork provided.

Step 15: Get my new bit of paperwork (the customs form) stamped. This involved yet another note taking exercise and questions about me and the car.

Step 16: Get another stamp for the customs form.

Step 17: Take the stamped form back to the customs office. Finally given the all clear to go.

Step 18: It turned out we were not quite clear to go – it was now time for a thorough car search. I had to find and identify every sort of medicine we had, and they went through various bags. They even read my books. We got off lightly compared to the other Mongol Rally cars though.

Finally, after at least six hours of moving from office to office, handing over wads of cash and seeing my name and details written in more notebooks than I could ever imagine, we were free to go. Well, as free as you can be when you have been clearly told that you must drive eight hours to Ashgabat, and it’s already 6.30pm.

Crossing the Caspian Sea was expensive and difficult, but it was an experience, and it was worth it to see Turkmenistan and to make it into Central Asia.

Map of the process to enter Turkmenistan

Some of the paperwork and stamps collected


Crossing the Caspian Sea:

Total time: Five days (4 hours attempting to get a visa, 3 hours waiting for the ferry on day one, 12 hours waiting for the ferry on day two, 40 hours on the ferry, 3 hours unloading time, 6 hours entering Turkmenistan).

Total cost: $634 ($340 for ferry tickets for Georgia, Shane and Martha, $12 fee for using the ramp to board the ferry, $140 for Turkmenistan visas, $28 for entrance fee to Turkmenistan, $4 for extras, $30 for Martha’s entry and transit passage, $74 for fuel consumption – fuel is ridiculously cheap here, so tourists have to pay an extra charge for every mile they drive – $5 for processing the documents, 4 Turkmenistan Manat (about $1) for something which remains unclear).

Pieces of paper and stamps collected: Too many to count.