As the taxi pulled away from my Bukhara hotel at 7:15 a.m., I asked how far it was to Uzbekistan-Turkmenistan border at Farab. To my surprise, he responded 120 kilometers – much further than I imagined. I was supposed to meet my guide, Oleg, on the other side of the border at 9:00 and it was clear I would be cutting it close.
Sure enough, we pulled up to the Uzbekistan-Turkmenistan border post at 8:45, thus beginning my longest border crossing to date.
My first stop leaving Uzbekistan was the customs office. A cheerful officer greeted me:
Puzzled, I shook my head no, but said I spoke Russian. A huge smile came across the man’s face and he quickly grabbed a blank customs form. Switching from his broken English to Russian, he asked if I had the form I completed when I arrived in Uzbekistan. I handed that to him and he immediately started filling in the blanks on the new form for me, then handed it off to me to do the rest. I finished and showed them both to another officer sitting behind a window who simply chatted with me about my itinerary and where I lived in the United States rather than actually look at the forms.
So far, so good.
Forms in hand, I walked to the next building, which was the actual customs checkpoint. Three women and an elderly man stood waiting in front of me as an officer was thoroughly searching several large bags belonging to two men apparently importing knock-off Levis jeans into Turkmenistan. I had a feeling it might take a while.
Indeed, more men (apparently all truck drivers) appeared and for some reason they got to cut straight past the rest of us. The women in front of me didn’t object so I assumed this was the norm. But ten minutes later when a group of women arrived and decided to ignore those of us waiting, we all quickly objected. I went straight to one officer and pleaded in a mix of English and Russian that they were cutting in line (this may have included the phrase “what the hell?”). Sympathetic to our situation, he pulled me and the Uzbek woman in front of me into the glass booth to process us next. The waiting continued, though, as the Uzbek woman had some major issues. I tried my best to appear patient as the officer did a lot of scolding and questioning and she did a lot of pleading and explaining.
Finally, it was my turn and the officer asked me to clarify the amount of currency I had on me, but didn’t seem overly concerned with it. Then he yelled out to the officer doing the baggage checks that I was an American tourist. Apparently that got me out of having my bags checked because I just picked them up from the x-ray machine and went on my way, whereas they had searched everyone in front of me.
Leaving the customs building, I nearly missed the miniscule desk that was actually passport control. Luckily, the officer behind the desk caught me with the familiar “devyshka” yell and I stopped to get the all-important stamp out of Uzbekistan.
From there, I headed to an open road that I assumed would take me to Turkmenistan.
Some truck drivers told me it was 1.5 kilometers – apparently there are taxis that shuttle people back and forth but I insanely opted to walk. As I did, I passed a huge line of semi-trucks waiting to cross the border. Two called out to me and gave me some watermelon, asking me to join them and warning me of “very bad police.” I politely declined as it was already nearly 9:45.
Hot and sweaty, I finally got to the front of the line of semis and saw only a very small brick building. I thought this would be the beginning of formalities at the Turkmenistan border but I was wrong.
I was still in Uzbekistan.
A very friendly, fair-skinned, tall officer approached me, again asking if I spoke French. He inspected my passport and asked whether I had a Turkmenistan visa. I explained I had a guide waiting for me and that I had an invitation. He went over to the building, told them something, and then returned telling me that a taxi would come to take me down the road to the Turkmenistan border for 1000 som (about 50 cents).
Finally, I walked into the building for Turkmenistan customs. As I did, a large man in a t-shirt and cargo pants approached me – it was Oleg, my guide!
I don’t know that I have ever been happier to see someone.
Oleg helped me through getting my visa – a process that seemed difficult enough with him handling it; I’m scared to think of how hard it may have been if I was on my own. The officer asked a lot of questions about my itinerary and just seemed generally troubled by me. But eventually he put the visa in my passport and handed me an entry card that I would need to carry with me throughout my visit and turn in when I left. The cost of the visa was $85 but I only had $100 bills and they only had $11 in change so it ended up costing me $89. I had heard it would be $110, so I was fine with that.
Then it was on to the x-ray machine and brief questioning by the customs officer, who wanted to know whether I had any religious books, whether I had any drugs and again, whether I had any religious books.
Finally, he smiled and said in English, “welcome to Turkmenistan.”