Contrary to the stories we’d been told about entering Turkmenistan and the harassment and interrogations we’d been schooled to expect, completing customs and immigration was a surprisingly painless (albeit arduous) process.
We waited on the deck of the ferry until we were given clearance by border officials to descend. Initially we were allowed off in batches of ten – as many as would fit in the back of the Ford pickup truck sent to carry ferry passengers to the border. However the border officials soon lost patience with this arrangement and the most important guy (we knew he was the most important guy because he had the biggest hat!) barked something into a walkie-talkie and five minutes later, a bus appeared and we were ordered into that.
Arriving at border control, it was all rather mad with everyone pushing to get out of the blistering heat and into the warehouse that functioned as the customs processing facility. Queueing was not on the cards as everyone tried to grab one of the customs forms being distributed by a border guard. Thankfully, our lovely English-speaking gentleman from the boat helped us to the complete the forms (written only in Turkmen) then sent us into the office to start the much-feared immigration procedures.
Interestingly, after helping us, he squatted down in the shade and started to help the other passengers who crowded around him waving forms and passports in his face. He was filling in their forms for them which led us to wonder about the literacy rate in Turkmenistan…
Into the office we went and queued up at the immigration window. Our passports and Turkmenistan visas were given the once-over by two very friendly immigration officials – who according to our friend on the boat are secret police! We paid the entry fee of $14 USD (this per person fee is to be expected, it is for everyone) at the cash window next door before returning to complete immigration proceedings; fingerprints, photo, confirming planned itinerary and intended exit border crossing and of course, fail visa checks and the much desired passport stamp.
We’d been advised to be suspicious of their cheery disposition, apparently often used as a front to trick you into revealing details about the true nature of your trip (i.e. intending to visit tourist spots while on a transit visa). Consequently, as the guards inquired about the nature of our trip (transit directly to Uzbekistan) and the reasons for our delayed entry into the country (held up in the port – “not good, not right” they said), Laura and I were rather guarded. However, their interest seemed genuine and their welcome to Turkmenistan most sincere. They stamped our passports, gave us a thumbs up and we were on our way to customs.
We put our bags through the x-ray machine and were called forwards to one of the tables to present our bags for inspection. One of the more senior officials in army fatigues came to oversee our inspection which was carried out by a formal but friendly female official. Having watched the rather thorough inspections of the bags of those before us, we were quite surprised at the apparently lax inspection of ours. The contents of the main section of Laura’s rucksack was sifted through, her wash kit and glasses case opened but they didn’t bother with the front section of the bag or the pockets. I opened all three sections of my bag and presented it but the senior man merely had a quick look in – ignoring my camera and laptop. The only things he took interest in were my book (The Life of Gertrude Bell) and the shotgun mic for my camera, the fluffy appearance of which he found highly amusing.
Inspection complete, we were waved on and with that the border process was complete. It took, in total, roughly two hours from departing the boat to sitting down in the waiting area to wait for Dad and Kermit.
Poor Dad and Kermit had a rather trying ordeal. For them it took much, much longer.
They weren’t let off until after the foot passengers had been processed. Then, despite being the first ones off the boat (they’d been tucked in at the end) they were told to wait to the side of the bottom of the ferry bridge as they started to unload the trucks. Three trucks disembarked and Dad could see he was going to get stuck behind all of them so he gradually started to creep forwards. Caught by one of the soldiers, “but I just want to put the car in the shade” he said, regardless, the soldier told him to stay put. On came the charm offensive and he befriended the soldier by offering him some water. It worked and he was allowed through with the first batch of five trucks. The soldier hopped in the car to direct him to the border checkpoint and promptly started helping himself to my breadsticks…cheeky! Papa D wasn’t really in a position to say anything though…!
He parked up outside the customs warehouse and the border guards reviewed his documents. He started the immigration procedure and was interviewed by the
secret police immigration officials who, while very pleasant, gave him a good grilling about the details of our journey across Turkmenistan. Having already interviewed Laura and I, it was clear they were fact checking to see if our stories matched.
He paid his entry fee and completed his declaration as Laura and I had done, then he was sent to the vehicle registration office – which was a mission in itself as the folks in the office couldn’t make sense of our UK vehicle registration document and had no idea Daihatsu was a make of car. Eventually they stamped his vehicle customs document and sent him to another office. We still don’t really understand the function of most of the offices but long story short, the guy in the next office stamped anther piece of paper to confirm that the paper had been stamped by the guy in the vehicle registration office. He then sent Dad to another office where a guy stamped another piece of paper to confirm that the guy in the previous office had stamped that piece of paper to confirm that the vehicle registration form had been stamped in the first office.
Dad then took all the stamped pieces of paper to the customs who asked whether the car had been inspected yet. It had not cue more pieces of paper and more stamps. With more stamped pieces of paper than he knew what to do with, customs then said he needed to pay local transit tax of 4 Turkmen manat (worth 80p / $1). With no ATM and no local currency, he was a bit stuck. Did they take dollars? No. Could he change dollars? No.
The same female official who had searched our bags got out her purse and gave Dad a 5 manat note so, thanking her, off Dad went and paid the transit tax. With yet another stamped piece of paper in hand, he went back to customs to return the 1 manat change to the lady. She found this quite funny and told him to keep it as a souvenir to remember her by – as Dad pointed out, while 1 manat is a great souvenir, it’s not much to remember her by. Selfie on the other hand…
Customs leafed through all the stamped pieces of paper, confirmed the registration was complete and sent Dad outside to wait by Kermit for the car to be searched. Four soldiers came out to search Kermit because it obviously takes four soldiers to search a tiny Terios. They were clearly sad when Dad confirmed that no, he did not have any guns, narcotics, explosives – he didn’t even have any alcohol or cigarettes! Useless! They thought they were onto a win when they found our first-aid kit. They almost declared a victory when they found the 16-pack of Strepsils but when Dad explained these were just for a sore throat, the disappointment was palpable. After a perfunctory search of the car (well, it was 40°c) saw them about to release him, when the secret policeman appeared and said something to one of the soldiers.
The soldier with some English translated “anything for headache?” – Dad said yes, immediately regretting saying so, could it be a trap? Having already practically confessed to being a drug smuggler, there was no other option but to give him two aspirin – and clear instructions to take them with water (couldn’t exactly have a Turkmen secret policeman dying on us now, could we?!).
Having convinced them he was not a threat, he was finally told he could go. This merry dance had lasted a mere four and a half hours but at long last, we were on the road bound for Ashgabat.