August 5, 2019
Arriving at Alat, the last town on the Uzbek side, by happy coincidence I met a couple from Turkmenistan. They travel across the border on a routine basis to buy alcohol and cigarettes, items that are much cheaper here.
Perfect, I thought. I could exchange a few dollars for Turkmen manats, unavailable outside the country. I had heard of the exemplary business acumen of Turkmens. If you don’t have manats, the price remains the same, except the currency is switched to dollars. At a rate of one dollar to seventeen or eighteen manats, this ploy borders on brilliance.
The woman spoke fair English and money laundering completed, we chattered through the shared taxi ride to the border. She had decided to shepherd me through the border. I acquiesced happily and followed their lead. Given the anxiety and uncertainty of getting this transit visa, I am not quite sure what I expected, but it was definitely not this strangely smooth border crossing.
At the other end of the funnel I shared a taxi with three other Turkmens, all of whom were students in Uzbekistan. Despite being unable to string a sentence together in English, they quizzed me on all they deemed important. I as usual, had plenty of questions myself and we sped toward Turkmenabat in a convoluted jabber of Russian, Uzbek and Turkish with lashings of Tajik. The close confines discouraged vigorous miming.
There are fields as far as the eye can see. What are the crops, I asked? Cotton was the reply and only cotton. And all the water for this irrigation-intensive crop comes via canals from Amu Darya. It is little wonder that this concerted effort has dried up the Aral Sea in less than thirty years.