Friends and Fruit in Turkmenistan
Our Mongol Rallier, Pamela MacNaughtan, finds some unexpected comfort at the Turkmenistan border—from an immigration official bearing a watermelon.
MONGOL RALLY STOP #10: Turkmenbashi, Turkmenistan
Kilometres to go: 6,700
We pulled into Turkmenbashi, Turkmenistan, at 7:00 p.m. It had been 25 hours since we boarded the boat in Baku, and 14 hours since we had set sail. When we finally arrived, I had high hopes of being able to get off the boat, get through customs and quickly start driving. There was still daylight left, and I thought that surely the train cars (which were loaded after the vehicles) would be offloaded quickly.
It was just after 11:00 p.m. when we walked into the immigration building.
Before leaving Baku, Ishmael (a resident of Azerbaijan who was helping ralliers with their paperwork) had given me a piece of paper containing a list of names and their corresponding invitation letter numbers. My name had been added to the list at the last minute on the day we left Baku. There was, however, a slight difference between me and the other ralliers on the list—they actually had Letters of Invitation (LOIs) in their hands. I did not. The only thing I had was the piece of paper Ishmael gave me.
I didn’t think it would be a problem. My invitation number was on it. I should be good to go. I was wrong.
I filled out a customs form and handed it back to a friendly border agent, then made my way to the visa window. When the man on the other side motioned for me to come forward, I gave him the piece of paper.
“No,” he said, shaking his head. He said something in Russian, and a nearby Lithuanian couple translated to me that I needed an LOI. I told them the piece of paper was all I had, and they relayed that information back to the man behind the window.
“No,” he said again.
I felt a manic-like laugh building inside as I looked around. I was in Turkmenistan. I had jumped through numerous hoops to get this piece of paper with my name on it. There was no way I was leaving that building without a visa in my passport! That’s when I saw him—the border guard who had given me the customs form to fill out. I crossed the room to where he was standing and showed him the piece of paper.
“I don’t have a letter,” I said. I explained that the Turkmenistan Embassy in Baku had said my paper would suffice. “Can you please help me?” I begged.
He looked at the paper, then spoke to the man behind the window, then looked back at the paper. I have no clue what they said to each other.
“It’s okay. You will be okay,” he said, pointing to the back of the line. “You need to stand over there and wait.”
I walked slowly to the back and waited. And waited and waited. There were 15 teams on the boat, which meant there were at least 30 of us waiting to pick up our passports (they had taken them from us when we boarded), pay our visa fees and deal with the paperwork needed for the cars.
I felt a manic-like laugh building inside as I looked around. There was no way I was leaving that building without a visa in my passport!
While I waited, I chatted with other teams.
“Don’t worry, we won’t leave here unless you get your visa,” one guy said.
I smiled, hoping his enthusiasm would bring me luck. There was no way I was getting back on that boat and going back to Baku!
A little after 1:00 a.m., I finally walked back to the window, smiled at the man and gave him the piece of paper. He frowned, but took it from me. As he slowly typed away on his keyboard, I crossed every finger I could possibly cross. When I saw him put a blank visa into the printer, I evened my breath. And when the visa was printed and placed inside my passport, I almost walked into his office and kissed him.
I have never in my life worked so hard to get a visa (and a transit visa at that!). I had jumped through hoops, begged, pleaded and even offered “to pay extra for fast service” as we travelled from Istanbul to Baku to Turkmenbashi.
For the next two hours (while waiting for Charlie to deal with the car paperwork), I kept flipping open my passport to stare at the Turkmenistan visa.
While Charlie dealt with the car paperwork, I wandered between the immigration building and our car. The number of teams waiting around was thinning out as men in fatigues searched cars (teams had absolutely everything in their car pulled out and searched), which meant I was running out of people to talk to.
“Hello, friend” said the border agent who had helped with my visa.
“Hi,” I said sleepily, leaning on the wall beside his office.
“You are waiting for your friend?” he asked, pointing to Charlie.
We chatted for a couple minutes, then I went back outside to the car. Men in fatigues had just searched a German team, and asked if I was ready.
Thankfully, it was quick and painless.
“How much vodka do you have? How many cigarettes?” he asked.
I had none.
He asked again, and again I replied in the negative.
“Okay, go sleep now,” he said, closing our trunk and walking toward another car. Oh, sweet relief. I guess there is a benefit to being one of the last cars! I had my visa, the car was cleared through customs, we had been searched and now we were good to go.
As we started to leave, I noticed a man in fatigues walking toward us, holding a watermelon. Yes, a watermelon. Apparently my border agent friend from inside had decided to give us a parting gift. I was floored. Never has a customs agent given me fruit via a man in army fatigues. It was trippy.
As I climbed into the car, desperate for sleep, I took once last glance at the visa inside my passport. Turkmenistan, here we come!