Our short journey in Turkmenistan came to an abrupt end when, after driving over 60 kilometres down the worst roads we’ve ever experienced, we hit Konye-Urgench and found that the only hotel in town was an over-priced, Soviet-built pit of despair inside a dilapidated council block.
Ashgabat was so amazingly flashy it was easy to ignore the repressive side of the Turkmeni dictatorship. Upon entering Konye-Urgench, however, you’re slapped in the face with scenes of institutional oppression and poverty. The streets were bleak and empty, and most of the buildings had been left to rot since the country declared independence. The North Korea analogy suddenly rang starkly true. It could have been interesting, but we were tired of dictatorships, tired of being cold, tired of bad roads, and just plain tired. So we headed to the border.
We arrived at 3:30pm, with more than enough time before the border closed. It was still almost completely empty, and we were the only vehicle passing through. This immigration and customs building was even more pristine and perfect than the one where we had entered. Everything was green, white or made of wood, and there were Turkmenistan flags and pictures of the president hanging from the walls. But the most striking thing about this border crossing was the almost complete lack of computers. The only thing run on electricity were the lights and the phones; all the customs and immigration procedures were done with pen and paper, in official-looking books with lined paper inside.
Everyone in customs and immigration was ridiculously excited to see two foreigners. Loads of dudes shook Mook’s hand and asked questions out of curiosity instead of duty. We filled out our customs forms and then handed our documents in at the beginning of a long row of desks. The officials behind the desk went at it with their pens and their official-looking books, carving our details onto paper. It took forever, mostly because we’d drawn a small crowd of guys in army green uniforms and jungle camo fatigues, who wanted to practice their English and joke around. Is this really how it goes at a border post for one of the most politically, economically and socially isolated countries in the world??
One of the top dudes heard the commotion and came over to scold everyone for slacking off. They sulked and stared into their official-looking books as they continued their work in silence. Embarrassing…
The only computers we saw was at the final immigration window, where two guys in fatigues engaged us in simple banter before stamping our passports and bidding us a good journey. Outside we went through a final customs inspection, pulling everything out of the trunk while answering their rhetorical questions about drugs and firearms. And then it was finished and they waved goodbye, and we crossed through a gate back into the real world.
The Uzbekis all had serious grimaces on their faces, bundled up in their winter gear with AK’s slung over their shoulders. But we were the last people to go through for the day and they were relieved that it was time to go home. They soon ditched the serious atmosphere for belly laughs as they made snarky comments and pushed each other around like school kids.
We entered the tiny border post office to get our immigration stamps and fill out customs forms. The dude behind the desk heckled us lightheartedly when we made mistakes on the forms, flashing his gold-toothed smile. It was only about five degrees outside that day, so I stayed inside while Mook went out to do the customs inspection.
They were gone for quite a long time, so finally I peeked out the window to see what they were doing. I saw Mook crouched on the ground behind the car with the two customs guards hovering over them… they were looking at photos on his laptop. It turned out that the Uzbekistan customs inspection was extremely thorough, checking out everything from the spare tire to the Kinder Egg capsules laying on the floor.
Everyone was in good spirits, though, and not long after they sent us on our way so that they could go home too. We weren’t asked for any bribes, and didn’t have to pay anything to import our car, or for car insurance. Definitely one of the quickest, easiest border crossings we’ve done lately.