Mary, Turkmenistan: Welcome to Turkmenistan    

The waitress' expression freezes on her face, the unmistakable look of “You must be completely out of your mind.”

“Not even a little glass of alcohol” she asks showing about a centimeter between 2 fingers.

“No,” Rowshan replies.

“The girl wants some,” she says confidently.

“No, I really don't,” I reply.

We order our shashlik and salad. Even though she evidently thinks we're crazy, I think she's nice for a Russian waitress. The ones we have met seem to be kind of bitchy. The woman who serves us our food is also nice, setting our plates down with, “Pazhalusta.” (please) I say, “Spasebo,” (Thank you) and she responds with “Pazhalusta,” again-- a response I haven't heard since basic textbook conversations in Russian class. “Hmm,” I think to myself, “They actually do say that.” Most of the time in our travels my “spasebo” gets a look that seems to say, “What are YOU speaking to me for?”

I guess this not your typical Central Asian Russian establishment. We are in Mary, which for tourists is where you go if you want to see the ruins of Ancient Merv. If, however, you are a truck driver, it is the last stop before entering alcohol and disco free Iran. The only budget hotel which sounded decent in LP is located next to a truck stop. We got here around 9:30-10PM. As I sat waiting in the taxi, Rowshan went in to ask about a room. In the darkness I watched the silhouettes of truckers running from the hotel (which had a restaurant/bar downstairs) to their trucks. Then, as I sat shivering in the car, I saw the shadow of bare legs near the hotel. A trucker called a name and a young man in shorts ran over to the trucks. Another pair of bare legs lurking by the hotel seemed to belong to a woman.

Rowshan soon returned and said the room was nice, warm and big, had a king-sized bed and hot water for $32. I said that was fine. The only disadvantage was the bar/disco which the administration said turned off their music at 11PM. I was so tired, I figured I'd fall asleep even if they didn't until much later (as was usually the case). True to their word, the music was off by 11.

I always repeat, “Never underestimate the amount of time it will take you to get form one place to another in Central Asia. We made good time through Uzbekistan from Bukhara to Farab but got stuck at the Turkmenistan border during their lunch break. We were waiting for one officer to write something on one of our entrance cards. Rowshan was at the bank window with the other card and the money ready. When the officer finished his official marks, I ran the card over to the banking window but at the banker closed his window and went to lunch. I suppose we'd be stuck anyway since after the banker was paid, we had to show the receipts to the first officer and get our passports. Then we had to go and get a customs form filled out... then get our passports stamped. However, we didn't know this at the time and it just seemed that the banker's refusing to put off his lunch by two minutes stranded us passportless at the border for an hour and a half.

Eventually we got through the border and were dismayed to find taxis were charging $20 per person to Mary and $5 to Turkmenabat (as opposed to $.50 as was written in LP). They wouldn't back down, bargain or even reduce the price as we walked away and asked the first Iranian truck driver we saw for a ride. He said it was fine and told us to walk down the street a bit. Then we boarded his truck and he helped us change money with one of the black market moneychangers-- a matronly woman who seemed to be selling vegetables from the back of her car but this was probably just a front for her money changing business since I'm not sure how many truckers are into buying vegetables.

The truck driver was from a town near Isfahan. Rowshan had done his military training near there. The driver had been driving a truck around Central Asia for 20 years. He and Rowshan talked a lot. At one point he ran out of gas and hailed down another Iranian truck. The first didn't have extra but the 2nd was able to give him enough to get him to a gas station. I'm guessing drivers probably try to avoid filling up in Uzbekistan waiting to get to Turkmenistan where gas is much cheaper. We slowly progressed along a road with potholes which looked like meteors had struck it. The driver complained that the roads don't last. The one between Turkmenabat and Mary is new but already bumpy. Eventually we joined a line of trucks waiting to be allowed across a floating bridge. As we waited, the driver showed us a video of a time when there was too much snow and ice and they had to put the trucks on a train and take them across via the railway bridge. Eventually we got to the bridge-- a rickety looking structure of metal platforms attached together with puzzle piece connections. The speed limit was 5 km an hour and there were bridge workers who would motion for the trucks to slow down. At one point the platforms were uneven so one was about 1 foot higher than the other making it impossible for cars to make it. The bridge monitor motioned for our driver to drive from the lower platform onto the higher one. The truck was able to make the gap and the weight of the truck pushed the high platform down to the level of the low one. He then stopped with just his back tires on the uneven platform sections, holding them even. The other cars on the bridge were able to cross in this manner. After the bridge monitor decided enough cars had gone by, (or maybe we'd earned our passage across the bridge and the next trucker could hold it for a bit) we were motioned to drive on. Our driver said Iran had offered to build a real bridge for half the money earned from tolls for a certain number of years but Turkmenistan had refused their offer.

Once we made it over the bridge, we continued on to Turkmenabat. We got there about 3 hours after leaving the border. I guess if we had taken a taxi it would have been less than an hour because I think the trucks have to go a different road. However, what we lost in time, we gained in having good company for the trip. The driver talked to a taxi driver when we got to Turkmenabat, and arranged for him to take us to the Mary taxi stop since he couldn't drive into town.

When we reached the stop, the vultures descended. We were surrounded by taxi drivers trying to pull us to their cars. One came up saying “Sprechen Sie Deutsch?” in a cartoon-like manner. Prices were thrown around but they were all the same. Rowshan would say something to one driver then that driver would grab his arm and try to drag him to his car. He'd try to tell me what the driver said and the driver would assume that meant he accepted the offer.

After much time, bargaining and shifting into different cars we ended up paying the price we were originally quoted and were off to Mary.

It was getting dark and there were no lights, lines or reflectors on the road. The road would sometimes suddenly jog to the right or left, forcing a switch of sides with oncoming traffic. Later I realized this was because the road is still under construction so one side is done but the other side is still being worked on. For some reason they didn't work on one side and then do the other side but instead worked on the right section for a bit then switched to the left for a while and then back to the right. This also explained what I first interpreted as a lack of understanding of the concept of a divided highway since each side of the highway had cars going in both directions.

Our driver was good and drove safely but even so whenever we passed a truck I felt uneasy since it was so dark and there were so many trucks on the road. Then we saw police up ahead and an accident. A car was completely smashed up by a truck. Next to it there were 4 covered bodies lying-- the car's passengers. Our driver stopped his car and went over. It had been another taxi driver with passengers. He explained they had passed us a little while earlier. I remembered because of the high speed the car was traveling at and how quickly he shifted back in front of us into the lane we were traveling in-- a bit too quickly and close for comfort.

This made the drive even more frightening. Also, since we'd been on the road so long, I was feeling myself being hypnotized by the red lights in front of us.

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