The Turkmen Bridge Fiasco

a border guard eagerly looks at every pic i have ever taken on my phone as we wait to find out if we can get into Turkmenistan.

(This post could also be called “The Psyco White Chick”)

Days like today only happen rarely, which is good because otherwise we’d be hating things and possibly home already, but conversely it’s a shame because in retrospect they are totally awesome and memorable and the reason we travel to these fucked up countries in the first place.

Sally is screaming at the policeman, literally screaming.  She’s pushed her way into his office, sat down on his chair in the middle of the room and demanded for our bike permit to be returned…

“I’M NOT MOVING FROM HERE UNTIL YOU GIVE BACK OUR PAPER!!!!!!!!!  GIVE ME BACK MY PAPER!!!!!!!” (i cant emphasis the volume and screaming enough)

While I’m a little surprised/bemused by her outburst, the poor Turkmen policeman is totally out of his depth, and starts to look around the room for support.  Which is course there is none, all the other guys have excused themselves and hastily run outside to avoid the confrontation with the crazy blonde haired girl and her boyfriend.

“WHERE IS MY PAPERWORK.  GIVE ME OUR DOCUMENT!!!!” it goes on and on…

This all began about 30 mins prior, when after a frustrating 5 hour / $300 border crossing (another epic story in it’s own right), we were stopped at a bridge just past the border and asked for a $15 fee to cross it.  $15 might not seem like much to you just now, but after paying $300 in fees for everything from vehicle sanitation (that didn’t even occur) to fuel taxes and bank fees, in 42 degree heat, we were in the mood for a fight.

So pulling up at the bridge, we were waved over and then cordially asked to pay $15 to cross it… while every other car was throwing the equivalent of less than a dollar through the window.

(Bear with me here, because I’ve had more than enough beer and some vodka to boot – just don’t judge me, you didn’t have the day I just had)

So the policeman asks for $15, I say no way, and start a conversation about how much this would be in Manat (the local currency), then Sally offers the guy $1 saying this is all we have.

Part of the confusion has come about because in Turkmenistan, there are not one, not two but three currencies concurrently being used.  There is the old Manat, the new manat and the USD.  Then for each of these currencies there are two different exchange rates on offer, the bank rate (only idiots pay the bank rate), and the black market rate.

Earlier at the border, I asked one of the guards what the rate was, and was told 17.5 Manat for one dollar, meanwhile the bank rate is only 3.5…

What I didn’t know is that that rate was for old Manat, meaning 17,500 manat for one dollar.   Then there is a fixed conversion between old and new manat at 5000:1.   So the 17,500 for one dollar, was about 3.5:1 for new manat.  Keeping up?  Dont worry, I didn’t.

So anyway, we went into this little bridge situation thinking that the real exchange rate was 17.5:1, and consequently when they told us the fee was 30 manat, I offered them about 2 dollars, which they laughed at, and asked for $15 again.  The policeman realised we weren’t going to pay so he refused to return our permit, which made us even more angry, and it went on like that for about an hour.  Leading to the sit in at the guys office.

The poor policeman even offered to change USD for us at 5 manat for a dollar, actually a pretty good rate, (and totally illegal here in Turkmenistan where you can only change USD legally at the bank so the government can rip you off), but because I still thought the rate was 17:1 I called him a corrupt man, and continued to yell a lot more.

Of course we did have a lot more than $1 on us, actually we had more like $1500 on us, but having already committed to this argument, it was impossible to pull a $100 bill out and not look like idiots.

So we argued some more…  and some more, and some more, then there was the sit in, which the poor man really didn’t know how to handle, he raised his voice and everyone in the room scampered outside except for Sally, who sat defiantly on his chair demanding our paperwork.

“OK IF WE CAN NOT PASS THE BRIDGE WE WILL RETURN TO UZBEKISTAN.  NOW GIVE ME BACCK MY FUCKING PAPERWORK!!!”

“you go back Uzbekistan??”  now he’s looking slightly shocked

“GIVE ME BACK THAT PAPER!!!!!!!!”

Now it’s just him, Sal and I in the little room, Sal is fuming, the policeman is at his wits end, and I’m starting to think we should just pay and get out of there.  So I slip Sal a ten dollar note, which she adds another $2 to, and offers the guy $13…

At this stage I’m still sure that he’s ripping us off, so I assume the $13 will seal the deal, but NO!  He says it’s still $15!!  WTF???

This makes both Sal and I see red, so a new round of yelling ensues, now joined by a truck driver trying to get his paperwork signed.

Later on we worked out that Sal didn’t realise the police were willing to change USD for us, so she genuinely thought that we only had $13 to give them (that or a $100 bill which she thought they wouldn’t change).  Hence all the yelling and screaming.

Anyhow, in one of the more vehement sequences of “GIVE ME MY PAPERWORK BACK!! WE WILL RETURN TO UZBEKISTAN BEFORE WE GIVE YOU $15”, I see the poor guy looking totally lost, and shoot him a look of “Please help me out here buddy, my wife is a total psycho, I live with this every day… please!”

He looks at me in genuine sympathy, nodding his head in one of those  “better you than me” moments, and starts mumbling something about us coming back tomorrow to pay the outstanding $2…

He returns the paper we’ve been asking for, and then sits down at his desk and writes out the receipts for the fees, takes me to another counter where Sal literally throws the money at another poor man in disgust, who we think took $2 out of his own pocket to pay the bill, and then we’re free to go.

It wasn’t until later that night that someone else explained that there are two different currencies, with different rates, which then made us feel a little bad for the policeman.  That didnt stop us enjoying a nice cold beer in a garden near our hotel, where we eventually worked out the confusion, and then toasted to the crazy but very funny situation we got ourselves into!

Ah well, I’m sure the Policeman has a great story to tell his family over dinner…

“You would not believe the two psych tourists that came into my office today, especially the woman, I’ve never seen anything like it… her poor husband!”

Ashgabat, a horribly sterile city full of MASSIVE white marble buildings while the rest of the country is in ruins. How stupid.

Ashgabat, a horribly sterile city full of MASSIVE white marble buildings while the rest of the country is in ruins. How stupid.

Anyway, $15 to cross a bridge when the locals pay one dollar… it set the scene for the following days in Turkmenistan, where the government’s lust for foreign currency makes tourism a total pain in the ass, the country is falling apart except for the larger than life capital, Ashgabat – which is a monument to the Prime minister’s stupidity, but the average person is incredibly kind and helpful.

 

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