Day 26 – Mashhad to Ashgabat and the Turkmenistan border

With an early start in the Misban Hotel, Mashhad, admin work and packing were completed in short order; aiming for the Iranian border crossing before closing at 13:30 local time meant no time could be wasted this morning. The drive was estimated at 4 hours to the border town of Bajgiran, but given the continued reports of a closed border there, we instead had to make it to Lotfabad – approximately 70km to the south east. This included an additional 90km of mountain road pass that none of us could have envisaged at the time; surprisingly this crossing was used usually by lorry drivers; quite the border pass for any heavy goods vehicles.
Once the turn off was made from the main highway for Lotfabad, the scenario became clear – we had to make this pass rapidly, and with a lot of co-driving. It would seem that Iran was the true start to our rally – one of precision driving on this 90km mountain pass, to make it before the 13:30 closure. In the driving seat was Rhys, co-driving from the back seat, Oli and Reza. Colin McRae would have raised an eye-brow to Rhys’ driving ability in the 75 minutes of hair-raising tight turns, 10% climbs and falls, taking wide births for each corner, accelerating through each one to account for the weight distribution inside the car. The van tyres screeched through almost every corner, but Mickey held fast. A strategic stop had to be made prior to Turkmenistan entry on top of this feat of rally driving – fuel was running low, and it was apparent from the Maps.Me feature points that gas stations on the other side of the border would not feature until Ashgabat. The gas station chosen was off Azadi Square, Dargaz. Much to the station attendant’s amusement, a small British car pulled up, with 300’000 Rials immediately thrust into his hand, and the occupants running around the car to check the odometer, fill up the tank and to readjust ratchet straps that had come loose through the newly found 90km WRC Road Rally stage. With the final stretch burned through in a matter of minutes, passing a queue of lorries awaiting x-rays, and their own list of border requirements, Reza was in his element for this carnet and customs check. Even at the height of 0-hour for him returning home (having to make a flight from Mashhad at 20:00 local time), he pushed us through the border crossing, making sure we had all the paper work required at every desk.
Finally, after 90 minutes of push pull between desks and windows, being barged out of the way by lorry drivers, and ensuring the car was in the correct queue, we made it to the end point – passport stamps and a final check were all that were required from Iran to exit the country on good terms. We made our long heart felt goodbyes to Reza- exchanging our gifts and thanks to our new-found friend, from the faraway land of Iran. Reza even went as far as to assist us in paying the customs charges and settling dinner bills on the final night, something that at the time of writing must be settled through indirect transactions. With passports stamped, we shook hands with the final Iranian border guard, and drove gracefully into no-man’s land, passing a string of lorries al waiting the same fate of the ill-reputed Turkmenistan border checks… or so we thought from the string of stories and rumours circulating Turkmenistan’s border forces.
At this stage we recommend reading the guide, “How-to Iranian-Turkmenistan border” for the more administrative side to a smooth crossing at Lotfabad.
The Turkmenistan crossing was to put it mildly, an escorted one. Once through the initial check at the border gates, we were whisked through the process by 2 seemingly assigned border guards, with much, “This way, now, please.” Oli went in one direction as “Driver Machina” (car owner), Rhys and Thomas went the other as “citizen Britaninia”. Bag searches for both were prompt and thankfully without issue – Turkmenistan has similarly strict policies for digital and media content as Iran. Meanwhile in a small office crowded with customs officials, Oli was subjected to a stringent driving route examination – a direct spoken and a repeatedly affirmative official sat at his desk asking for route details and finishing points, asking for additional maps and detail to confirm exactly where we intended to go in his native country. Finally, after much deliberation, our route was drawn onto our customs declaration, and Driver-Machina was allowed to continue forward to the next section of car checks and contraband searches. The car search was one of smoke and mirrors, much to our advantage. The border guards took note of Oli’s large shoe size (UK-16) and subsequent jokes allowed for the doors to be shut and the central locking switched on – much to the disappointment of one guard who was looking through the passenger doors. Once the customs declaration was cleared with the desk outside, the car was searched through; the guards taking advantage of the sweets and cigarettes deliberately planted to keep them and other visitors inside the Micra distracted. The crossing took 4 hours, and by historical reports of this border, a record breaking time. 3JD in 2009 suffered a 24-hour crossing here, and a team preceding them had been stuck in the open desert for over 3 days due to a visa discrepancy.
Celebrating a massive victory and a +1-day advantage to our schedule, we headed straight for Ashgabat and the Hotel Ascabil (formerly the Hotel President) – a prize to ourselves for completing Iran and the Iranian-Turkmenistan border. With phone signal found once again, we made contact with our new cameraman, in this case in need of rescuing. Hartley, our second fly-on-the-wall observer was stuck quite firmly in Ashgabat without means of escape, sleeping rough in a shopping centre for the past 2 nights, we were his escape from the model city of marble and gold. We entered the city to a scene of perfect roads, smooth driving speeds, fountains and coloured lights decorating the roadways, all the way through to the hotel – itself a model of the skyline, brightly coloured and maintained to a flawless standard. Mickey carried with him more dust and sand than perhaps the rest of the hotel and its grounds had seen in a week. With smiles and friendly demeanours, we shook hands with the reception staff of this vast complex; the main hall chandelier bigger than our kitchens at home, marble and gold covering almost every surface. We asked with fingers crossed for 2 rooms for the night; including our newly found cameraman, playing away at the grand piano in the lower reception lounge. We were accepted as guests – much to our relief from previous rumours of Turkmen hotels refusing guests.
We went straight to our rooms to refresh and relieve ourselves of the Iranian dust and traffic fumes we had accumulated, freshly clothed and feeling far more human, we headed to the bar for our first proper drinks and dinner in over 2 weeks. The barman was happy to offer guidance to the city from the views out of the large panelled windows, and pointed us in the direction of the international bank, located only a few kilometres north-east of the hotel – a 5-minute drive, if that. Seemingly a world away from the chaos, hustle and bustle of Iran, yet less than 100km from its border.

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