05-Oct-2014 -- This is the 11th out of 12 confluence reports, reaching 10 and attempting 2 confluence points in Iran and Turkmenistan. The story starts at 36°N 51°E and continues from 36°N 58°E.
For 95% of all countries, it is possible to travel individually as a tourist. However, Turkmenistan is one of those 5% that do not issue tourist visa without ‘invitation letter’. Such invitation can be obtained only from a special travel agency that collaborates with the government. If you request an invitation letter from such travel agency, asking for the minimal booking requirements, you will find out that you have to book all hotel nights and all transportation with them. This not only means that you end up in 5-star hotels, but you also get a car with driver. This sounds very comfortable. The local driver will not only drive you around. Since he knows his country much better, he therefore will also guide you around. As he is used to guide tourists around, you will have it difficult to put through your own travel destinations. For me, the big part of the fun of travelling is actually the organisation and self-determination, even though my individual plan may be not so perfect compared to a professional one. To make a long story short: I avoid organized travel whenever possible.
In this situation, the Turkmen travel policy has left one loophole: they issue transit visas for a maximum of 5 days. Within 5 days, you can travel individually without any involvement of a travel agency. However, there are some requirements: you need to have the visa for both neighbouring countries. Make sure that both countries don’t have a common border, otherwise the ministry of travel will tell you that you don’t need to travel through Turkmenistan, because you can go directly. Looking at the topology of the countries around Turkmenistan and excluding Afghanistan as a travel destination, then you will find out that two possibilities remain: either travelling from Azerbaijan to Uzbekistan crossing the Caspian Sea. However, only unreliable freight ferries cross the world’s biggest lake on an unregularly basis. The other possibility is to travel between Iran and Uzbekistan. This is what we opted for.
We initiated the visa process already in June – more than 3 months ahead. At first sight, this sounds like a lot of time (anyway, obtaining a visa more than 3 months ahead is often not possible). But actually, the time span was hardly enough. First, we obtained the Iran visas. The list of requirements is long and includes a copy of your fingerprints officially stamped by the police. In order to get those, we had to travel within Switzerland to a special police station that does issue those required hardcopy fingerprints. But Iran should not be blamed for such requirement. It was the EU requiring such fingerprints from Iranians. Iran only reacted by issuing the same rules to EU travellers in turn. After submission of all documents to the Iranian embassy, we didn’t hear anything for 3 weeks. Now I could write a lot about the ‘unfairness’ of consular sections at embassies. For you as the applicant there always applies the rule ‘in dubio contra reo’. When I finally got to speak with an employee at the consular section (after 20 attempts to get through), the employee just said: you are travelling in 2 months so we don’t hurry to issue the visa. I finally could make it clear that I needed my passport back to obtain the other visas. The Uzbek visa process was even worse. They also kept our passports for over one month and I again had to phone several times to find out why the process got stuck. In this case, their website had shown a wrong bank account number, such that the fees hadn’t been paid. Of course they never would take the initiative to inform us about the missing fees.
When we finally had obtained the Iranian and Uzbek visa, we could apply for the invitation letter by the Turkmen Embassy. It took another 30 telephone calls until we finally got the invitation letter. Meanwhile, we were already travelling in Iran. Luckily, the invitation could be sent by email. We printed it and showed it to the border police when we arrived with our bicycles at the Iran–Turkmen border at Bājgīrān (باجگيران). There the police needed to know where we were going to spend each night. I said honestly: 2 nights in Ashgabat, 2 nights in Mary. But this travel plan was unacceptable, because with a transit visa one cannot stay two nights at the same place. So we made something up, looking in the travel book naming randomly some place names and hotels and everything was fine.
The visit of this Confluence took place on the first day directly after entering Turkmenistan. After crossing the border, we entered the monstrously built capital Ashgabat. Extravagant white buildings
have been constructed in the desert city. The huge wide boulevards were almost empty of cars. But cycling was difficult, because at every second intersection a policeman made us U-turn due to sensitive government buildings that cannot be passed by bicycle.
It was already 3:30 PM when I started the approach to the Confluence from our hotel in Ashgabat. The beeline distance was 35 km, so I pushed into the pedals as hard as I could in order to make it to the Confluence before nightfall. The rule clearly says that it always takes longer than expected – and this visit was no exception.
The first part from Ashgabat city to Ashgabat Zoo (in 6 km distance) went very smooth – cycling with an average speed of 30 km/h. Shortly after passing the zoo, a side road follows a green valley through a mountain desert. This beautiful road has a minimal distance of 570 m to the Confluence. I was pretty sure that I would need 10 minutes to reach the Confluence from the road. But I was mistaken.
At a distance of 700 m I found a convenient spot to wade through the stream. I hid my bicycle and began to climb the mountain beeline to the confluence point. But having climbed that mountain, I saw that there was another, much steeper valley in-between, which was too dangerous to cross. So I had to go down almost back to the road and start over again. And again, I ended up traversing a difficult valley before entering the right one. Interestingly, the previous visitors faced the same problem. Since I only read the reports after visiting the Confluences, I couldn’t learn from their mistakes. Meanwhile the sun had already set; I just had enough daylight to take the pictures.
The confluence point itself is on a very steep grade that is precarious to climb – particularly with a camera in one hand and a GPS device in the other hand. The surface is covered with gravel of different grain sizes between sand and fist-sized rocks.
Returning was much easier than getting there: I climbed about 20 m further up to the ride and followed it smoothly down to a restaurant at the road. Tip for future confluence visitors: park at the restaurant and hike from there along the ridge. I cycled back to Ashgabat, arriving at our hotel at 8:20 PM. Elionora was so caring to buy us a tasty dinner with Russian-style salads and Turkmen-style bread.
CP Visit Details:
- Distance to a road: 570 m
- Distance to a track: 570 m
- Distance of bicycle parking: 700 m
- Time to get to the confluence from car parking: 40 minutes
- Time at the CP: 6:30 PM
- Measured height: 537 m
- Minimal distance according to GPS: 0 m
- Position accuracy: 5 m
- Topography: steep mountain terrain, confluence on a steep slope
- Vegetation: bare ground with loos gravel and sand. Some areas are covered with scattered little bundles of dry bushes.
- Weather: cloudless, 28° C (felt temperature)
- Given Name: The Steep Ashgabat Confluence
The story finishes at 38°N 62°E.