In the planning stages of our trip I had a lot of trouble working out the best way to connect Turkmenistan to other countries in the area. In an ideal world we'd have taken an international flight out of Ashgabat, but the only direct route I could find was a twice-weekly service to Almaty, and the schedules simply didn't work for what we were trying to do. Rather than connect through another country (and risk lost luggage) I decided that the least bad option was to take a stupidly early domestic flight to Turkmenabat in the north-east of the country then cross the land border into Uzbekistan.
Our already abbreviated night was shortened significantly by a disco taking place on the ground floor of our our hotel. The music was being played at a level sufficient to shake the furnishings eight floors up, and ear plugs were wholly inadequate to defend against the assault. It finished shortly before 11:00pm, but by this point my stomach had begun to indicate that it was my turn to offer prayers to the porcelain god. I'm told that I was uncharacteristically cheerful when this process finally completed almost three hours later ("better out than in!") even though it was by then almost time for us to leave for the airport.
The flight was uneventful, though readers should be aware that local security rules completely forbid photography on airport premises. We were unaware of this until Megan got officially grumbled at for a quick phone snap of the exterior of our plane during boarding. About ten minutes later after the initial exchange a member of cabin crew came to her at her seat to deliver what we assume to be a lengthy secondary reprimand in the local patois. Her polite "do you speak English?" after the sixty second monologue was met with thinly disguised fury and a barked "no photo!" accompanied by a scowl that could have shattered glass. I can only assume that the powers that be will at some stage issue a cease-and-desist against the operators of Airliners.net for posting large numbers of illicit pictures.
The border crossing was probably the most complex I've experienced in my travels, taking the better part of an hour to get through with virtually no waiting time. We used taxis at three different points in the process at the cost of USD $1 per person each time; though it is possible to walk between stops this would not be advisable in the summer weather without copious quantities of water. Readers should be aware that the border is only open during daylight hours, and it closes for lunch between 12:30-1:30. The steps today were as follows:
- The first stop was a simple checkpoint with an officer looking briefly at passports. Our tour bus was not allowed beyond this point, so we moved our luggage into the back of a very battered taxi for the drive to a gate around one kilometre away.
- At the stop our passports were examined in exhaustive detail, with the officer taking at least a minute per person to go through each page individually.
- With that done we walked to a nearby customs building. Our bags were manually inspected, though that was apparently only because the heavy duty scanner was under maintenance. Once cleared we were sent to the front of the queue (apparently foreigners have priority) where our passports were stamped, marking our official departure from Turkmenistan.
- There was a second taxi at the exit to that building that brought us to another security gate. The guard there greeted us with a cheerful "Welcome to Uzbekistan!" accompanied by the first smile we'd seen all morning. He then flicked through our passports one at a time, stopping only to closely examine the Uzbek visas.
- Our group boarded a ridiculously overloaded minibus for a ninety second drive to a quarantine building where we were all subjected to a temperature check. I found myself very grateful that my bout with food poisoning was at an end.
- From there we walked a short distance to the Uzbek customs hall, where our bags were scanned and our passports stamped. We were not required to fill in declaration forms, though I was asked some questions about medication and currency. The lady I dealt was very friendly and spoke flawless English.
- On the far side of the building was a short walk to a final gate, where our passports were checked one last time. Our guide and driver were waiting for us there, and perhaps unsurprisingly spotted us right away.