The fences were white. The customs and immigration hall was white. The checkpoint booth next to the fences was white. The lines on the ground were cleanly painted onto smooth asphalt. Everyone was in uniform. And the smiling face of Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov, the current Dear Leader of Turkmenistan, beamed down on everything from a three-metre high portrait on the side of the building. It was completely different to Iran.
First things first, I took off my hijab. We got out of the car and handed our passports over to an extremely serious looking young dude in jungle camo fatigues inside of the checkpoint booth. He wrote our information down in a graph paper notebook, pressing so cleanly, slowly and carefully he could have been carving it into wood.
A guy in blue uniform with high spirits paced around outside of the booth, asking us where we were from and if we were driving to Kazakhstan. He directed us to park the car next to the gleaming white customs building to ready it for inspection, then to head inside and get our immigration stamps.
Inside the chaos from Iran had returned. The exotic-looking Turkmen ladies had multiplied, and so had their imported goods. There were bags everywhere on the lobby floor, and a huge crowd around the immigration window that people walked in and out of while shouting at their friends or relatives who were seated in the waiting area. They looked kind of like gypsies, with their gaudy, mismatched outfits, flashy accessories and rows of gold teeth.
Three young, trim army officers stood in their jungle camo uniforms, complete with safari hats and dark green flasks on their belts. They heckled the crowd with insulting words that put deep frowns into the faces of the gypsy Turkmen, probably telling them to stand in a line and clear their bags out of the middle of the floor. It was kind of embarrassing to watch.
Much to the dismay of the locals, Mook managed to push through the crowd and hand our passports in the window. After a few minutes the immigration officers ran us through the usual questions of why we were transiting through Turkmenistan, where we planned to stay, and how long we’d be there. We paid $12 each in crisp, clean bills for the sheer privilege of entering Turkmenistan, and got our immigration stamps.
Mook went back outside to do customs for the car, while I had to go through customs in the passenger hall. There was a metal detector and an X-ray machine, with a ten-metre queue of plastic-wrapped carpets, boxes, and Chinese shopping bags stuffed to the brim, all waiting to go through. The Turkmen traders managed some semblance of order as they waited for the soldiers to call them through the metal detector.
I only had one small bag and didn’t want to wait in line. Thankfully, The General came to my rescue. He was an older middle-aged man dressed in an army-green uniform with a bunch of pins and badges that spoke status. He took a break from bossing everyone else at the terminal around and came over. Without saying hello, the General snatched my passport and my bag, and set the latter at the front of the X-ray machine, much to the displeasure of the gold-teethed traders. He ushered me through the crowd of security while he flipped through my passport. VW cars might be rare in this part of the world, but so are Americans.
“Amerikan, hmm? Stadt? Stadt?” Stadt like.. city? I told him I was from Detroit, mimicking a steering wheel while I listed off names of automakers. He’d never heard of it.
We passed a set of double-doors and he sent me on my way into the cooling desert air. I went around the side of the building towards the vehicle inspection area, hoping to find Mook. The customs agents told me to have a seat on a bench next to the bays. Here I had a first-row seat for the incredibly fascinating process of Turkmenistan vehicle inspections.
There was a small queue of Iranian trucks and used cars waiting for inspection. When one rolled into a bay, three or four Turkmeni soldiers (in jungle camo fatigues) would get to work with wrenches and screwdrivers, tapping on the tires and engine parts, and prying open the doors and seats of all the vehicles, looking for smuggled goods and contraband. They were thorough, and even went as far as to disassemble the fold-down sides of one flatbed truck. I hated to think they were going to pull apart our little car too.
The General was back. He sat down on the bench next to me. We mustered up all of our collective language skills and he told me how, back in 2007, he had gone on a state-sponsored trip to the USA to check out the latest in customs and immigration technology. His trip had taken him to Dallas, San Antonio and some cities that I couldn’t quite suss out. He seemed to like America, but most of all was proud that he had been so close to Mexico. I tried to ask if he had eaten Mexican food, but he didn’t get it.
Mook had just finished the customs process and was rolling Jagger into an inspection bay.
After three months on the road, our car was a mess. The outside was caked in dust stretching back from the days of Cappadocia, and the inside looked like a freshman dorm room. The customs dudes went to work, examining the engine and the underside of the car before reluctantly attacking the mess in our trunk and back seat. The soldiers and customs officers had Mook pull out all of our bags, and they poked around inside. They popped open the EU-manditory first aid kit, examined our reusable ice packs, and tapped around the dashboard console. “Do you have any narcotics?” They asked rhetorically. “Any weapons? Are you carrying any guns?”
The questions were serious but their faces weren’t. After they sent us on our way, Mook and I reflected that this was the most jovial, almost friendly, border crossing we’ve been through yet. Aside from the $24 immigration fee, we paid $106 to import the car (most of it to make up for the ridiculously cheap petrol prices) and for insurance. But that’s it. No pressure for bribes, no hidden fees.
As we drove through the borderlands towards Ashgabat, the sun broke through the clouds. We spotted a falcon dining on prey, and herds of wild sheep bounding across the road and over the desert hills. The Islamic Republic was behind us, and there was beer ahead of us. Turkmenistan may be a dictatorship, but we definitely felt free.