August 29: Darweze, Turkmenistan
8:44 We have been driving since 8:00 a.m. and so far we’ve passed at least 100 camels that have been grazing in the desert, standing on the shoulder of the road, and occasionally standing in the middle of the road showing no intention of moving when cars and trucks approach. I know they have been known to kick, bite and spit but I want to pet one.
11:03. We pulled over about 15 minutes ago for what I initially believed to be an early pee break. Helen has just announced there’s an issue with the clutch and it may take a while to fix — if we even have the spare part onboard.
11:14. We’re about 30-50 km from Ashgabat so there’s talk that we may hire a few taxis or even a bus to get us into town.
Rustam is standing on the roof of the truck trying to get cell service.
11:42 A mechanic from a nearby village has heard of the broken down truck and he arrives on a bike to check it out. He wants a king’s ransom to tow the truck to a Mercedes dealer in Ashgabat — and even then he can’t actually tow the truck within city limits so a second tow would still be required. Duncan continues to work on the truck in hopes the mechanic and pop-up tow truck driver may come back with a better price.
11:30. A camel has been spotted on the road just 100 meters from where we are stranded. He’s either fearless or deaf and blind as he hasn’t even flinched when trucks roar past. None of the people on my truck are very excited about approaching him, let alone petting him, so I take a stroll down the road and introduce myself. You can call me ‘The Camel Whisperer.’
13:30. The local mechanic returns and as expected he lowers his price. Duncan and Rustam will stay with the truck while it’s towed into Ashgabat. An air conditioned coach is coming to pick up the rest of us. Theres’s just one catch: We’re about 170 km from Ashgabat, not 30-50 as originally thought. This could take a while.
15:45. The luxury coach finally shows up. We’ve been sitting on the side of the road in 30C heat for 4-1/2 hours. Some people are fading fast.
16:05. It takes 20 minutes to load the bus as a few people decide to go for a pee, dick around with their backpacks, get items from the back locker, etc. We’ve known for hours that we’d be leaving on a bus yet people have waited till the last minute to get their s___ together. Helen is so patient. I would have left them by the side of the road 19 minutes ago.
18:45. The suburbs of Ashgabat appear on the horizon. One tourist brochure describes Ashgabat as “The white marbled capital of Turkmenistan, confident and neutral, the Pearl of the East.” I’m not sure that anyone other than a tourist board hack would call it a ‘pearl’ but it is most definitely white. We pass at least 30 large government buildings and every one is clad in white marble. The president looooves his marble even though little if any of it actually comes from Turkmenistan.
The same brochure notes, “The new role of the city in the infrastructure of the country is directly connected to implementation of the first President Saparmyrat Atayevich Niyazov’s doctrine to the status of a new locus (sic) of business activity.” And that’s one of the better translated quotes! The brochure is littered with typos, misused words, bad translations and blatant propaganda.
19:01. We step off the bus outside our Ashgabat hotel. I win the pool with a guess of three hours and nine minutes (drive time). It actually took us three hours and one minute. (The bus may have taken 5-1/2 hours to get out to us but I based my calculation on the belief that it actually left at least two hours after they promised.)
22:00. Rodney and I have beers and shaslik (kabobs) at an outdoor bar adjacent to the hotel dance floor. A DJ has been playing Russian dance music on a very good sound system with lots of bass. I was just getting into it when he started to mix in some western music. He has all the current hits, like Mambo Number Five and Vanilla Ice’s Greatest Hits. Thankfully last call is at 23:00. Just one more hour of this.
23:20. The hotel’s Karaoke Bar is also closed. The square headed doorman gives no indication that the hotel’s third bar is open 24-7 and it’s just steps away. They haven’t quite mastered this market economy thing.
23:30. Neither of us need big goblets filled to the rim with ice and Bailey’s but that’s what we’re handed. There doesn’t seem to be much choice if you’ve sworn off vodka for a few days.
Exhibit #1 in the case of Hamilton vs vodka