Across the Karakum desert in Turkmenistan

The Karakum desert covers most of Turkmenistan. I crossed it between Ashgabat and Konye-Urgench, by minibus (marshurtka). It normally takes a full day of travelling. It took me a full day and a full night because the minibus kept breaking down. But we made it...

When I came to the bus station in Ashgabat, the drivers of minibuses and shared-taxis rushed to me, all trying to promote their service "new car, fast car, cheaper minibus,....". Eventually, I settled for one of the driver who was less aggressive and calmer and already had a few passengers. The problem is that other potential passengers seemed to opt for the more excited and aggressive drivers, and our minibus was slow to fill. Eventually, after 3 hours waiting, we left.

After just a few hundred meters, I already had doubts about my choice, as the engine of the marshrutka started coughing and puttering up the slope of a small bridge. Leaving Ashgabat, the road across the desert was very wide, very smooth, like an airport landing strip. But it did not last. Soon we reached some road works... and, first incident: puncture. They did not simply change the wheel, they took out the inner tube to replace it, so obviously, it took a while. The road then became narrower and really rough, with giant, crater-sized potholes.

desert road

Traffic on the road across the Karakum desert

The engine then starting giving out some "pof... pof... poff.." sort of noises. We stopped and the driver fixed a few things, topped up the radiator with some water. We left and the same happened again and again, I lost count how many times. Eventually, the driver totally opened the engine block, and found the cause of the problem : a tiny screw that was broken. So he squatted on the side of the road and waited for some traffic. When something eventually turned up, he waved at it to stop and asked if he had a spare such little screw. No. Next one. No… but after a few tries he could obtain a spare from a similar looking minibus and spent another good half hour fixing the engine.

It did not work too well, though, the same noises were still coming out of the engine from time to time, and we still had to stop every so often to top up the radiator. Needless to say all those stops meant stepping out of the marshutka and squatting in the little bit of shade on its side, by 40-ish degrees.
All the way across the desert, the only bits of “civilisation” were many police checkpoints, one “village” and further on, a few yurts serving food.

Checkpoints were staffed by young cheerful recruits. Why they’ve got checkpoints every 100 km in a desert, don’t ask me. I never had problems with them, they were always good humoured, joking and cheerful. One of these policeman wanted a photo, so I took one. Then he asked to look at it, pointing at the back of the camera, but sorry mate, it’s not a digital one.

turkmen police

Policeman and fellow traveller at the checkpoint

The village was made of scattered houses and yurts, one or two shelters selling drinks and petrol, some camels and a lot of sand. The wild rough look of the place reminded me of some places in the Gobi desert in Mongolia.

karakum village

The only sort of village we passed

Further on, we stopped for some food at a yurt-restaurant by the road, and the driver spent much of his time doing more repairs on the engine. Not with much success, we had to stop again some 10 km on. By now it was dark, so they had to fix a light so the driver could see something while doing more fiddling in the engine. There seemed to be a leak in the cooling system, and the repair at some stage involved… a plastic bag… But we kept going.

The fellow travelers were very friendly, and the trip was not that bad. At some point, they asked me what I thought about Ashgabat. I said I found it very interesting as a city but all those statues, posters and slogans of the president surprised me. They laughed and one said “ahhh… Allah…”, as in “he thinks he’s God”. And then he said “shhhh… diktatur..” crossing his fists as if getting arrested.

turkmen yurt

Fellow travellers at the yurt-restaurant

More kilometers and a few breakdowns later, way into the night, there came the killer pothole : the engine made a loud “CRRRRRR….”. The driver stopped, tried to restart the engine. Nothing. He took out a crank, and we felt the whole vehicle moving with the crank. He simply did not insist. The engine had clearly seized. No repair this time. Engine dead.

So we waited for a vehicle to come by, at 3am, in the dark. Desert skies are beautiful at night, very clear, so many stars. Then came a big truck to which they attached a cable. Obviously, it soon snapped. The driver flashed the lights, the trucked stopped and they fixed it, making it shorter. And it snapped again, this time the driver was not flashing his light to tell the truck to stop : I had to him wake up as the truck was driving away.

Eventually, we arrived at dawn in Konye-Urgench, tired, though surely not as much as the driver. We got dropped just near the only hotel in town, that has no running water (just buckets for washing), smelly pit toilets at the back, and a special foreigner price of 5 USD … but nevermind…

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