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Published: October 26th 2019
I was told Turkmenistan is a totalitarian and isolated society second only to North Korea. Our first experience with it was a 4 hrs boarder crossing process from Uzbekistan - the longest of all the boarders we crossed. Our local guide Gozel was a retired University English Professor, very knowledgable and stood firm when Max (our Tour Leader) tried to talk down her. She won all the travelers respect right away. We stopped at Turabek Khanum Mausoleum, one of few mausoleums dedicated to a woman who was credited with bringing science to this region.
We flew to the capital Ashgabat - the city was destroyed in a devastating earthquake in 1948 but rebuilt into a modern city with extensive white marble covered buildings. We stayed at a very fancy 5-star hotel with one indoor heated spa pool and two outdoor pools. This hotel has 15 floors, a bar/cafe, a restaurant and roof top French restaurant. The strange thing is that we were the only group staying there, if there were other guests in this giant hotel, we didn't see them.
We ate a late dinner at the bar restaurant and the lamb chops and pizza were excellent. The bill
came to 175 TM (Turkmenistan manat) . We didn’t have enough local currency so I signed the bill thinking I could pay it when I exchanged some money. It turnout that we were forced to pay it with US$. Since the government officials rate is 3.5 TM per $ instead of the black market rate of 8 TM, this policy basically double the costs of our meal. The hotel wifi signals were strong but all the internet sites I usually use like FaceBook, gmail, travel blog etc. were all blocked. Now I know what living in a government controlled society felt like.
We drove around town and found Ashgabat to be a beautiful city with lots of monuments, statues and water fountains. Many status were dedicated to its first president Niyazov and his hand picked successor Berdimuhamedow. They were referred to as the 'Father' and the 'protector' of Turkmen or as the "dear leader". We saw their pictures every place we visited so this was the part that reminds people of North Korea. However, my conversation with Gozel brought out the fact that the citizens of this country enjoy free education, free medical care and 3 years paid maternity
leave.They pay very little for electricity and water, gasoline is almost free. If a person wants to purchase an apartment, the government loan him a 30 years mortgage with 1% interest. The children at school, both boys and girls were clean, well dressed and smiling and waving as our bus drove by. This may be an autocratic government but I hastened to ask is our democratic system any superior than theirs.
Turkmenistan is a dessert environment with little rainfall. People use to live as nomads chasing the water. This all changed when the Soviets built the 850 mile Karakum Canal that carries water from the Amu-Darya River in Uzbekistan, across the Karakum Dessert to supply water to Turkmenistan. Suddenly Turkmenistan becomes one of the worlds top cotton producers but this canal is also a major factor leading to the Aral Sea environmental disaster. The Aral Sea used to be the fourth largest lake in the world but started to dry up when the water was diverted by Soviet irrigation projects. In 2014, the eastern basin of the Aral Sea had completely dried up and it’s now the Aralkum Dessert. This is a big contention between Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan and
the reason why Turkmenistan people still appreciate Russian more than other 4 Stan's.
We took a short flight to the ruins of Merv - an important town on the Silk Road. The museum in the nearby city of Mary has life size exhibitions deciphering what life looked like during the high trading time of the area. We also visited the famous Akhal-Teke horse farm. This horse has a reputation for speed and endurance and distinctive metallic sheen. Chinese called it "blood sweating precious horse" or "heavenly horse" and went to war with Turkmenistan to get these horses. These indeed are beautiful animals, especially the golden colored ones and the dark ones with four white hoofs (Chinese called it "dark cloud over the white snow"). I got on one and pretended I was Mulan - the female Chinese warrior in ancient time.
We complained to Gozel how monotonous the meals has been on this trip so she took us to a "steak house" for lunch and a Chinese restaurant for dinner - the best meals we had on this whole trip. Ashgabat has the only air conditioned indoor Ferris Wheel In the world. The structure looks like a clock
and is charming. Gozel pulled some strings and took us inside for a ride. The view of the city from the top of the wheel was magnificent.
Our farewell dinner was at the Palace of Happiness - a place for wedding banquets and also divorce celebrations (interesting concept). The meal was excellent and we were entertained by a group of beautiful dancers. They invited us to participate as guests at a "wedding". We all dressed up with Turkmen’s elaborate outfits and danced, laughed and had a great celebration. The evening scenery of Ashgabat was enchanting because most of the buildings were lit up with different color lights. We said good-bye to Max and Gozel and completed our 21 days of Central Asia tours flying out of the brand-new "Falcon" airport of Ashgabat. This definitely is one of the most unique trips Ray and I experienced, we learned a lot about the history of the Silk Road but even more is that we found local people very welcoming and interested in getting to know us as we want to know them. We all have the same hope that all people in this world, regardless of the origin and religions, would
live peaceful and in harmony with each other. As-salamu alaykum (Peace be upon you).
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