As I prepare to embark on a trip from Georgia to Azerbaijan that will feature a few train journeys, it is a good time to reflect on a trip that I made a year ago from Turkmenistan’s capital Ashgabat and the eastern city of Mary.
Ashgabat to Mary by Train
Having spotted a train travelling through the desert northwards from Ashgabat to Dashoguz close to the Uzbek & Kazakh borders, our excitement to be embarking on our only train journey in Turkmenistan was palpable.
Before the journey began it was time for supplies. These were procured at the hustle and bustle of Ashgabat’s central produce market; happily far away from the unsavoury livestock market we had witnessed the previous day.
Purchases were entrusted to me as Hamish stayed in the vehicle. Happily Aziz (our wonderful Turkmen guide) accompanied me for translations to ensure I didn’t unwittingly purchase sugar coated camel testicles and also to act as insurance against rip offs.
The latter was undoubtedly unnecessary such had been the charming nature and courtesy of every local we had met up to that point.
First up fifty or more delicious biscuits of various shapes, sizes and varieties were heaped into plastic bags for our delectation.
Central Asian varieties of jammy dodgers, dark chocolate coated cookies, Viennese whirls sandwiched together with delicious apricot jam, pistachio stuffed baklava dripping in honey, shortbreads festooned with date and fig.
This trove of delectables were to last several days, morphing into a collective lump of sweet delights that we would snap off like crumbly nut brittle and savour.
It was now time for bananas. The only issue was the fruit & vegetable stalls all had huge throngs of women of a certain age all jostling for position and we had a train to catch.
No problem as Aziz displayed his undoubted charm, thus enabling me to crowd jump and secure half a dozen ripe yellow fruit.
The water purchase was straightforward and uneventful and so we arrived for our transport with plenty of time to spare.
We were dropped outside Ashgabat’s futuristic looking station and bade a fond farewell to our capital city driver, who beamed as we handed him some dollars for our gratitude.
We first lingered for a few snaps of the incredible station building from across what must have been Ashgabat’s busiest road.
As witnessed across the capital, this was statement architecture. Predominantly white as you will have come to expect, the main building looked more presidential palace than railway station.
The bleached facade led up to golden braiding and a bright blue roof, topped with a central tower complete with gold-coloured pole-like adornment resembling a sort of old fashioned radio mast.
The walkways up and over the tracks were encased in a blue plastic bubble reminiscent of the water chutes you get at an aquatic theme park.
The whole ensemble shot straight into my top 5 railway stations, up there with the likes of St Pancras in London and Grand Central in New York, albeit for very different reasons.
Being a bit of a rail journey anorak, I was of course keen to get some shots from the platform. The problem was that photography was banned in every official building such as government premises, military bases and annoyingly train stations.
Aziz came to the rescue again. The train guard would permit a single shot of our train. Best make it a good one then!
I managed to surreptitiously snap a few with my phone whilst pretending to line up the big one.
With one eye on officialdom my efforts were not spectacular, but they satisfied this particular train twitcher.
I actually believe there is an accepted collective noun for people like me who have the urge to click away at stations.
Not as nerdily disparaging as trainspotter and more in keeping with the bird fanatics who will travel miles to see a scarlet-breasted speckled gannet or a lesser-spotted dwarf tree warbler at the mere mention of a sighting on avian social media.
Itch pleasingly scratched, we clambered on board to find our six-seat compartment. Aziz handed us our tickets.
There were three each as evidently we had hired the whole space. This had been unrequested and unbeknownst to us, but clearly had been assumed as a requirement for Western travellers in these parts. We just hoped we hadn’t stopped four locals from making the journey.
By all accounts it was a pretty crowded train in bound for the city of Mary, 227 miles east of the capital. The train would actually continue to Serhetabat near the Afghan border, with the line also crossing the border into Afghanistan to a place called Turgundy, though at the time of writing for freight only.
Our leg of the journey would take around eight hours to complete, a slovenly but for us pleasing average of 28.5 mph. The people trying to get home to Serhetabat would undoubtedly have had a different view.
There were no standing passengers in our premier class compartment, but plenty stood in standard class. Perhaps standing in premier class environments was embargoed in these parts like smoking and grubby motor vehicles.
Anyway, I did feel a tad guilty again, especially as I surmised that the standard class passengers were locked out of a fairly empty section.
We had paid around $8 for our standard seats in our basic but comfortable compartment that would convert to 4-berth sleeper for the overnight section south towards Afghanistan.
Hamish was delighted to note that our carriage had a samovar, a Soviet style water boiler used for making tea, coffee, pot-noodles and the like. This instantly reminded him of his trans-Mongolian adventure, an iconic journey still on my to do list.
My experience of such a contraption was limited to the journey we undertook from Simferopol to Lviv in Ukraine seven years prior.
Our journey was set to last eight hours, arriving around midnight, so we made ourselves comfortable for the trip.
More naughty pics were taken through the window of a Turkmen loco and some stationery trains, before our train guard enter the fray to introduce himself.
Aziz was riding as a ‘jump seat passenger’ and would be sat with the guard all the way to Mary. He declined the offer of sharing our abode, either out of politeness, boredom with our company or a preference to natter in his mother tongue for a while.
We suspected it was most likely the former seeing as how keen he was to perfect his English whilst in our company.
He carried a notebook at all times, which he must have scribbled in 20 or 30 times thus far with the English for a young horse, a translation for an Eastern style toilet and a few colloquialisms.
Back to our friendly guard. He first presented to us a very nice Turkmenistan porcelain teapot, white with gold lettering, for our use for the duration of the trip. China cups were also proudly handed over.
Expecting that we would be knocking back a few Twinings, he very kindly offered that we could use his personal Western style toilet whenever needed.
Aziz made the translations and we gratefully accepted all offers, shaking the railway official warmly by the hand.
The route would take us very close to the Iranian border, with Mary itself not too far from Afghanistan.
I managed to repeat my schoolboy error from Istanbul Airport. I had left my phone on roaming, safe in the knowledge that there was no network that I could connect to in the country.
You may have guessed what happened. I picked up an Iranian network and no sooner had my phone beeped to welcome me to Iran, than I had clocked up another £40 worth of roaming charges having moved into a new charging calendar month.
I was yet to twig that photos I was taking on my phone were uploading to the cloud using a mobile network.
With most photos in excess of 4mb, it only took a matter of seconds to use up both my monthly allowance and self-imposed charges buffer.
Thank goodness I had set such a limit, else I could unwittingly have run up a small fortune.
Eventually the cause of my angst dawned on me and after a frustrating 30-minutes trying to find the right setting, I managed to turn cloud uploads on to ‘when on Wifi only’.
No texts home for the rest of our stay then!
I at least had the pleasure of taking a screenshot of my welcome to Iran message, whilst wincing at the £1.49 per minute tariff to make or receive calls and the whopping £5 per megabyte charged for browsing or downloading. Each picture had cost me about £22.50 to upload to the cloud!
Anyways, this had been the closest I had ever come to visiting the fascinating country situated on the Persian Gulf.
Again Hamish has already visited without me. You can go off people you know!
Back to the journey. Leaving dead on schedule, we soon shuffled out of the station, past row upon row of identical white housing with identical brown roofs that seemed to last for 5km and into desert territory.
It was soon time for tea and biscuits. In a rare act of foresight I had packed a few teabags and we were soon enjoying English breakfast poured beautifully from the Turkmenistan Railways issue teapot.
Sadly they were not for sale anywhere, being reserved for rail employees only and pinching it or making an offer was never considered as an option.
As darkness fell we settled in for the journey and relaxed, apart that is from my phone rage episode!