We left you all on a slightly philosophical note last time as we enjoyed the last green pastures of Georgia and drank our last glasses of red wine. Although if I am to admit it our last two nights were in the Telavi region, famed for its wine production, and I may have enjoyed it all a bit too much?
Driving out of Georgia towards the Azerbaijani border was a sad affair, we were leaving our generous hosts for a country known only for its oil wealth. But we were pleasantly surprised, even at the border we were ushered through quickly after being quizzed on our thoughts for the up coming Champions League final - would it be Manchester United or Barcelona? We suggested United, and even the guards agreed thanks to their good odds at the local betting shop. Immediately the people's faces and language changed as did the landscape. The people and their mother tongue was much more Turkish, and their country became hotter and less fertile.
We were only to be in the country for three days as it was a race to get to the port at Baku where we were trying, by any means
possible, to hitch a lift on one of the many oil container ferries that make their way into Turkmenistan. So during the whistle stop tour of Azer, we did manage to fit in quite alot. First stop was Seki, Sheki or Saki, it seems to be spelt many different ways. Famous for being on of the major stops on the Silk Route it now has re-invented itself as a travellers stop off. Unfortunately if you read the guide books, they all suggest it is only 'slightly' more organised at catering for travellers than many other places in Azer, be warned there isn't really that much there! The highlight was the
hotel we were staying in, a Caravansaray, a purpose built hotel for olden day merchants complete with rooms for the men and their animals. Shame the hotel was horrid and unclean and the
restaurant expensive and slow...but it was definately worth a visit, plus we managed to watch the aforementioned football match on a fuzzy 14 inch tv complete with Azerbaijani commentary.
Relief was the main feeling next day when we knew we were going to be back out in the open and camping rather than stuck in the
horrible hotel room, and we soon found ourselves in Mars. Well, not
quite Mars but more like the mud volcano littered dessert plains just out of Baku. Complete with flat arid lands, grey bubbling mud volcanoes and a significant temperature increase it was as good as being
on another planet. The mud volcanoes are unlike others and apparently can be found throughout the land near the capital, they are stone cold and don't smell like rotten eggs, and the mud sticks to
your skin like glue! A great place to visit.
Final stop off was Baku, the shiny, new, mega rich capital city. Unfortunately we only had less than 24 hours here but it was unlike any other place so far. The buildings, cars and people oozed wealth
but still the backstreets were unkept, ragged and full of drivers in love with their horns. The dusty backstreets stood amongst a back drop of skyscrapers complete with gold and silver trims, think Dubai!
The faces were a mixture of those found in Istanbul dotted with those who were unmistakably Russian, all decked out in the latest Prada, Gucci and in one case, too much Burberry. The sea front on the
Caspian Sea was like a French riviera with a twist, we sat and enjoyed tea with assorted goodies as we watched what seemed like all of Baku on parade. Locals would hit the seafront in the early evening complete with children and toy poodle and enjoy the sea air and maybe take in a ride on on of the many attractions.
We would of had longer in Baku if the expedition to find a lift over the Caspian not be so successful. Getting across the sea is not easy, there are no ferries and planes into Ashgabat are expensive, for a country like Turkmenistan which looks on tourists with much trepidation it suits them just fine. But after paying a few 'local taxes' and making our way to the port at 3am for a 6am boat - which we actually boarded at midday we were soon on the go. Our 'ship' was an old Soviet ferry which boasted a games room, bar and restaurant but instead provided mouldy seats, dank cabins and one toilet for 40 people which could be described only as the 'devil's shitter'but it's all part of the adventure. The ships have now been moved from
people movers to container movers, railway carts loaded with empty oil containers are loaded on these ships and taken over to Turkmenistan to be filled and returned, this was certainly NOT a tourist boat. Admittedly we slept for most of the trip thanks to our early/late night but the view from the top deck was eerie to say the least. We are there out in the middle of a sea but the horizons are bright like day thanks to the many oil rigs. The Caspian is one of the most important bodies of water in terms of oil production and it was sad to watch humans pillaging the world in the reflection of the oil sheen left on the sea, but I guess we are dictated today by wealth and greed huh?
We were warned that the trip would take up to 36 hours but were pleasantly surprised when our cabin door was banged on by the lovely Svetlana (our name for the surly, Soviet Women's Shot Put team throw back) who informed us that we were in - and imagine a loud, booming voice -'Turkmenistan' and that we all had to get out. Most of us were happy
to know we would soon be away from the mould, grime and devilish toilet which was now so bad even he had rejected it and booked into the Hilton, but the few who stayed up downing vodka shots with the Azer crew were slightly peeved to know they could sleep off their hangovers. Our entry into the country was by no means fast, it took an hour to
get off the boat, three hours to pass through the border and a further four hours to get the truck out of the boat. So after landing at 5am, we managed to leave the port of Turkmenbashy at 1pm, we were no longer in the land of efficiency! However we were all too excited, we were finally in Turkmenistan!
Now, what do we even begin to say about this country? From its past leader who claims to be an almost demi-god and named one of the months of the year after his granny, to the constant police stops, the fact that it is 80% desert, Ashgabat its capital being a city of white marble buildings with only a smattering of people to be seen, to its Dervaza Gas Crater which is
a mining hole that has been on fire for 40 years..it's all just a bit strange really.
Our time in Turkmenistan began int he desert and then finished in the desert, there is, yes, lots of desert. Our first bush camp was amazing, off the main road to Ashgabat by a small oasis, with sand and dunes as far as the eye can see it was a real contrast to what we had previously been used to. "Just be careful when you roll up your tents as scorpians like it under there" was the call - yep we really were somewhere different. Feeling grimy and dirty after our foray on the boat we didn't mind the fact
that we were now completely covered in dust and sand, and to be honest the view of the stars made it worth it.
Ashgabat was next, also known as the 'white city' thanks to the fact that it was completely rebuilt in mostly marble tiles after the earthquake in 1948 which completely devastated the city. Like the country, Ashgabat is strange, the buildings are huge and monumentous, complete with thousands of statues (mainly of the late president Turkmenbashy) yet there is
absolutely noone around. The place is deserted apart from police and soldiers. We did however manage to find a bar/restaurant which served good barbequed food and beer and which hosted a few of the locals who ventured out after dark. However our nights in Ashgabat were shortlived thanks to the curfew which we all forgot about until they switched off the lights at 10.30pm and told us 'Close! Close!'. Yes, strange again. We did a bit of a guided tour around the city the next day which could only be done by cab or minibus as the police can stop you walking where you want to, and because of the 35 degree plus heat. And the tour continued to persuade us that...yep, it was definately strange.
Leaving Ashgabat we continued to drive north into the Karakum Desert towards the border, but on the way we stopped off for a bush camp at a real highlight - the Dervaza Gas Crater. The result of soviet mining in the 1970's it is literally a big crater in the earth which went a bit wrong. After finding gas which could not be controlled some smarty pants decided to set a match to
it and just burn it off, but instead it has been burning ever since. According to our guide it could fuel thousands of houses for years, but for a country which is 4th largest gas producer they don't really care. We camped nearby and provided a 'tip' to a local truck driver at a gas station for a lift as to get there is some serious off roading. We were successfully picked up at 9pm in a Kamaz truck, the beast of Soviet cars, and driven into the yonder. The light from the crater could be seens from kilometres away and once we went over the ridge down towards it, it really did take our breath away. Apparently there is nothing like it anywhere else in the world and we were very lucky to see it, who knows, it might decided to burn out next year?
The next night was a final bush camp before we farewelled Turkmenistan and got ready to welcome Uzbekistan. Reflecting on the country I still wouldn't move away from the word 'strange' but like most places we have been too the people are friendly, warm and welcoming. Not a minute will go by as
walk down the street without a 'Hello' and 'Where are you from', and it's lovely to see that even living under the constant curfew, police presence and thousands of posters of the new and old leaders the people continue with their lives and still have a sense of humour. We feel very lucky to have
visited the country as it is one that is notoriously difficult to get into, before and after our time there we have met dozens of travellers who have tried to enter it but have failed. Another big tick to add to our list of things to do during ones life...we are lucky aren't we?
Next up is Uzbekistan for ten days visiting the ancient silk road cities of Khiva, Bukhara and Samarkand and then the capital Tashkent. Then we are on to another highlight of the trip, Kyrgistan.
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