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Border Mystery, Fire in the Hole, and the Most Bizarre City in the World.

If Uzbekistan felt locked down when it came to tourists, Turkmenistan was a whole different story. We crossed the border at a rundown little border town named Yablykangly on the Uzbek side. We passed stray dogs, dudes just hanging out, and several hookers. When we got to the border there was just a single rather unassuming building with a checkpoint and no signage or anything that would indicate we were entering Turkmenistan.


We met our fixer and handed him our papers and started to follow him into the offices, but he told us to wait in the lobby and assured us our wait would be short.


At most borders we were asked questions by a variety of different people, each playing their part in the process which usually ended with some kind of stamped document(s). At this border, our fixer disappeared and came back about 15 minutes later with all our papers in order and directed us straight through customs, and told us to ride to the next checkpoint, which was about 100 yards away. We never got his name and we never saw him again. The definition of a border fixer. Judging by how short our wait was I can only imagine that some dodgy exchange of money occurred which greased the rails.

When we got to the official checkpoint, we were waved through without having to show any documents. But on the Turkmenistan side, as we put our documents away before we were to ride a short distance to meet our state-issued guides, Nick was approached by two young, uniformed guards. One guard pointed to the other and told Nick that it was his birthday and that they would appreciate a small cash gift.


Nick asked them point-blank if their request was legal and they just stared at him blankly, then turned their gaze towards me. They asked me the same question and I reached into my pack and pulled out a crisp $20 bill and said happy birthday. They both smiled and said thanks and let us pass. That was the only time in the whole trip that I was shaken down and most likely I could have and should have said no with the same result.

We met up with our guide Jabar and headed to Dashoguz, a town about 10 km from the Uzbek border and a former Silk Road city. It is now more renowned as the end destination for people "displaced" by ex-president-for-life Saparmurat Niyazov, a brutally repressive and wacky dictator along the lines of Kim Jong Un of North Korea.


We pulled up in front of a huge modern hotel constructed entirely of white marble and walked into an empty lobby. We got our room keys and we asked if there was a restaurant where we could get some breakfast. They directed us to a room the size of a Las Vegas banquet hall, completely vacant, and seated us at a table.


A waiter came by and asked us what we'd like to eat. He offered no menu to indicate what they might be serving. We looked at each other slightly befuddled, Mike ordered a standard American-style breakfast of eggs and bacon, and the waiter shook his head no. I ordered some yogurt and fruit thinking maybe they would be serving a more European-style breakfast. Again, the waiter shook his head no. Nick was at a loss so he said bring us what you've got.


An hour later the waiter appeared with what could be construed as a salad of sorts. It was exceedingly wet with lots of mayo and chunks of what looked like jicama. There was some corn and slivers of green roughage. It was almost inedible and if not for the bottles of water that accompanied it, we might not have choked it down.

The rooms were modern and had TVs but when we went to see what was playing all we got were state-run channels with images of the current dictator attending various state functions. No CNN, no BBC, not even a movie. On the small desk, there were magazines and tourist pamphlets all with dominant images of the smiling dictator.


We looked to see if there was Wi-Fi and there was no card with a password, so we called down to the lobby and were told there was no Wi-Fi in the hotel. We were beginning to understand that we were in a locked-down country and that our movements were going to be carefully watched.

The next day we made the long desert trek to remote Darvaza, known as the Gates of Hell, a giant crater that is perpetually on fire. We were on crappy pavement most of the way, but about five miles away from the site, the road turned into a deep sand trail. We lowered the pressure in our tires and headed up the first of many dunes. Nick plowed right through at a high speed, but Mike and I got bogged down and stuck - me because of my fear of going too fast (I didn't want a repeat of Mongolia), and Mike because the sand was deep and his bike was lowered.


Nick doubled back and helped push us both, and we got some unlikely help from some local rabbit hunters who went flying by us on dirt bikes with their dogs sitting on the seats behind them. We thanked them and waved goodbye as their dogs hopped right back up on their seats and they sped off.

We finally made it to the crater and rode right up to the edge and got a blast of heat from the inferno below. The crater was formed from a gas explosion at a Russian drilling site back in the 70s. The Russians initially thought that it would burn out in about 10 years but 50 years later it's still going strong.


Most of the country is sitting on huge natural gas reserves, hence the spectacle of our next destination, the capital city of Ashgabat. Easily the most bizarre city any of us had ever seen.

We had been warned that Ashgabat was a strange place, but nothing prepared us for what we were about to see. The whole city was constructed of white Corinthian marble and gold; in fact, it's the mandatory building code set by the previous wacky dictator, Turkmenbashi, and continued by the current nutcase running the country. Not only was the uniformity of an entirely white city bizarre, but the architecture of the buildings and monuments was a cross between Las Vegas and Disneyland. To make matters even more strange there were hardly any people in the main city center. Most of the people lived in slums on the outskirts of the city. The city center was essentially a monument to the wealth generated by an abundance of natural gas, most of which was concentrated in the hands of the party elite and the crazy dictator.

The journey got even more strange when we were directed to where we would be staying for the two days we spent in the city. High on top of a hill in the city center sat the Wedding Palace. It's a hotel where wealthy newlyweds spend their honeymoon night. We entered the subterranean parking lot and quickly realized we were the only inhabitants of the 21-room hotel.


We were guided to our rooms through a ghostly empty lobby and told that we'd be touring the city in the morning. Mike and I instantly started scanning the room looking for listening devices. We were dead sure we were being watched and listened to.

Mike and Nick decided to take an impromptu nighttime tour of the city and hopped on their bikes and took off. My Spidey senses and the fact that there had been some ominous storm clouds told me that it might be a good idea to wait for the official tour in the morning, so I stayed behind. Several hours passed and just as I was starting to get a little worried, Mike and Nick walked in covered in oil and water on the entire left sides of their bodies.


I asked what happened; they told me they had gotten a little lost and that just as they were getting near the hotel, the sky had opened up and dumped a short torrential rain on the freshly oiled roads (the oil keeps the dust under control). It had turned the roads into a virtual ice rink and they had both gone down simultaneously and fast.


Neither was injured except for a few scrapes and bruises and the bikes were fine. Both seemed happy to have escaped serious injury and glad they had had an adventure. I was just glad to see them in person and not in the gulag given the controls that we were obviously under.

After we toured the city, where we were stopped from taking pictures several times by armed soldiers, we took off for a remote oil town called Balkanabat. There was more life happening here, and after a long ride, we checked into the hotel and went on a trek to find our coveted Snickers bars and Cokes. On the way, we saw a pedestrian get nailed by a car at an intersection. Nick and I were ready to jump in and help but several locals came to his aid, and he seemed to have suffered just cuts and bruises, so we moved on.

The next day we were given the choice of pushing on to the Black Sea resort town of Turkmenbashi or to go see the "Grand Canyon" of Turkmenistan. Jabar was pushing for us to take the detour because we were also going to visit the site of an ancient monastery. Even though the sound of spending a night in a plush resort on the Black Sea sounded wonderful, we opted for the adventure and took off into the desert.

The roads leading from Balkanabat quickly turned to potholes and dirt trails. It was a long ride, challenging but also quite fun. As we approached the "Grand Canyon,” Mike and Nick were having fun in the dirt when suddenly both of them hit what looked like a simple mud puddle and their bikes simultaneously slipped out from under them and they went down hard with a loud "shit" ringing through the headsets.


Neither was hurt (except maybe their pride a little) and although Nick’s bike was a bit banged up and the front fairing was cracked, they both fired right up, and we continued.

We got to the “Grand Canyon,” which turned out to be not so grand and not a canyon but more of a gorge. We took a few unimpressive photos and pressed on. On our way out Nick noticed that his bike was running a bit hot so he and I stopped to see what was going on.


Unfortunately, Mike was following our Jabar’s 4 Runner and they didn't see that we had stopped and continued. Nick and I got back on the bikes, wanting to catch up as quickly as we could, and started heading in the direction that we had come in. We soon realized that maybe we were going the wrong way because Mike and Jabar were nowhere to be found.

We decided to stop and head back towards the canyon and sure enough we met up with Mike and the guide right at the intersection that led to the canyon. They had taken a right and not a left, the direction that we had entered. They also had not thought to stop at the intersection and wait for us. This and the puddle mistake didn't put me in the best mood, but I bit my tongue and we moved on.

Our next destination was the monastery, but after about 30 minutes of trekking through the midday desert, Nick's bike started to overheat. We stopped and realized that the accident had pushed the crash bar into the radiator, which had smashed the radiator fan into the face of the radiator and was not spinning, thus not cooling the radiator.


This was potentially a catastrophic problem.  We were completely in the middle of nowhere in a country where it would be virtually impossible to get a new fan. This had the potential to be a trip-ending debacle.

Nick was determined to not let this happen and broke out the tools and dove in. About an hour later, with bike parts and a bent crash bar strewn all over the desert[1]  Nick spaced the fan away from the radiator with some spare washers and with nervous anticipation started the bike and let it get hot to see if the fan would come on. As the temperature rose, we heard the familiar whirr of the fan as it spun up and the temperature gauge lowered. We all let out a whoop and hugged each other and some random dude stopped to see what was going on.

Unfortunately, we were too late in the day to make it to the monastery so we headed back to the hotel, leaving the mangled crash bar behind, which meant Nick would have to be extra careful the rest of the trip.

The next day we took off for Turkmenbashi and maybe a little R&R at a resort. Unfortunately, we got word that the ferry we were going to take across the Caspian Sea was arriving a day early, so we rushed to the hotel and unfortunately, there was only enough time to take a quick dip in the Caspian Sea, shower, and head out to the harbor. So much for the R&R but at least we got to swim in the Caspian.

When we got there, we were last in a long line of trucks waiting to get loaded onto the ferry. We were ushered to the front of the line and taken into a large room full of families that were to board the ferry for the trip to Baku, Azerbaijan. Once again, we were ushered silently past the waiting families and taken into a doorway. On the way we were shot quite a few disapproving looks as we were being given special treatment.


We got inside the processing room and without any words being said ushered onto the ship. Easy as that. The same person that had greased the rails for our entrance to the country had also worked his magic for our exit.

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