The border out of Iran is nearly at the top of the mountain. Not sure where to go as the biggest sign says WC and all the gates are locked. It turns out the WC sign is where John & GR2 have to go. I have to walk through on my own. John through – now the Turkmenistan side. Our visa is supposed to be waiting. Eventually they open the office and we get our visas. I head through while John waits with GR2. Outside I meet our guide. Because we have tourist visas we are expected to have a guide & stay in Ashgabat in a Hotel. (Most European travellers we have met have a transit visa, but they were impossible for us to obtain in Australia – we would have had to get one on the road, so we decided to bite the bullet & pay extra for a tourist visa to be sure our dates for all our visas line up)
Anyway, back to the border. John is not through before lunch and they stop for an hour! I can sneak back to GR2, have lunch and finally we are through. But our plans have been altered. They will not let us drive to Kow Ata Lake & camp there as planned – we can only drive directly north, and we have a tracking device on board to make sure we obey (like prisoners!)
Ashgabat here we come. Because we have a guide on board I have the middle seat on top of our box. And really it is as uncomfortable as it sounds, especially coming down the mountain with no seat belt. We head straight to our Hotel where our guide leaves us. It is the same one we stayed at 13 years ago and nothing has changed for the better. There is still no Wifi and we have no phone range. Suddenly we do not want to stay here 2 nights, so we arrange to leave tomorrow afternoon. This gives us enough time to explore this “Fantasyland” place. It is full of white marble & the parks are manicured to the max. The only people in the parks are the army of cleaners, gardeners & soldiers guarding all the official buildings. Definitely no photos allowed. We try to find the places we visited 13yrs ago, only to discover these sights have been replaced, presumably by the new president. His picture is everywhere astride a white horse, clutching his favourite dog & wearing a white fur hat.
The next afternoon, guide on board, we head in to the desert. Unfortunately, the country’s spending does not extend to this road that heads to Uzbekistan. It is appalling – all broken tarseal. It is a long hot drive through the Karakum desert. We stop at a few incredibly poor villages that still live off camel farming. Finally bump by bump we reach our turn off for Darvarza or Hells Gate. Then it is over the sand dunes – we are camping here for the night. And it is all that we expected and more. An amazing sight – day & night. A massive crater of burning gas. Apparently, it has been burning since the 1950’s after a disastrous Soviet gas exploration.
We set off bright & early before it gets too hot. Many hours of jolting before we reach the border. Our exit is fast, as our guide jumps us through all the queues. They unlock the gates and let us out. But then we get to the queue of cars at the Uzbek locked gate and wait….. Thank goodness we can leave our air con on and make a coffee. After nearly 2 hours they jump us through the queue (sorry guys!). There are so many guards just standing around doing nothing. Finally, we are through, hopefully those other cars get through before the border closes for the night. Khiva here we come.
When we got our Uzbek LOI we also received a list of instructions. We have to register each night of our stay at a hotel. The fines can be very heavy. We decide to abide by the rules (later we meet Germans who camped out & had no dramas, but so it goes). So, we head to a hotel we have heard about in Khiva – yes, we can camp in the carpark & register for a small fee. After a big day we relax & wake to a sand/dust storm. It doesn’t clear, so it is a dusty wander around this lovely old city. There aren’t too many tourists, but there are heaps of teenagers celebrating their release from school, ensuring the atmosphere is bright & happy.
It isn’t far, about 450km to Bukhara, so we think we will have plenty of time to get there this afternoon. But no! We hadn’t allowed for sections of terrible road. Mind you there is one long section that is perfect, lulling us in to a false sense of security. And the dust storm continues. At dusk we are dodging potholes & crazy drivers. Finally, in the dark we reach Bukhara & hunt for a Hotel. They want to charge us for a room. Eventually we end up in a large carpark behind the Bukhara Grand Hotel – nice and quiet, with water & Wifi. In the end we stay for 2 nights and spend time exploring the old city. We have been here before & it has changed. There are many more tourists of course and the historic centre is sanitised enormously, but beyond the tourist area the streets are still dusty & decaying.
And so, it is on to the amazing Samarkand. John has found a B&B where we can park on the street & register. As a bonus it is a stones’ throw from the Registan. We head off to explore with countless other tourists, mainly local. It is all very photogenic. We have a photo on the wall at home of GR1 in front of a lovely mausoleum. When we find it again we decide to drive there in the morning for an updated photo. But before we leave we explore the Bazaar (almost as good as years ago) & yet another Mausoleum. Finally, by early afternoon we get our photo and head off through yet more flat heavily cultivated land. The border exit is easy, and so too is the entry to Tajikistan. But that is for our next blog.