Turkmenistan - An illusion in the desert


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June 24th 2007
Published: June 24th 2007
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Ashgabat - an illusion in the desertAshgabat - an illusion in the desertAshgabat - an illusion in the desert

viewed from the lift in the mountains
After 6 weeks in Iran I headed for the Iranian/Turkmen boarder at Bajgiran/Gaudan, prepared for a totally new experience in the state of Turkmenbashy.
But it turned out that my imagination was far too little for the reality in his realm.

Neverthelsee, my first impression at the boarder wasn't that good, as I ran into a relict of the Soviet Union, the customs...time stealing and unnecessary in its extend, one has to pay an additional 12$ just for entering the country (not to mention the visa I purchased in Tehran after 4!! visits to the embassy). And then there they were:
Shuttle bus taxi drivers who hold the monopoly over the boarder area and ask for not more than 10$ to take you to Ashgabat, the incredible capital of this desert dictatorship...which is 35km away! (Inside the country you pay roughly 0,5 to 1$ for this distance)
That was too much for my budget and my nerves...but I got really angry after I wasn't allowed to hitchhike or walk towards the city! After fruitless negotiations with those bastards and a short reflection, I concluded that the boarder guards have to leave the border later as well (it was already 17.30 and it closes 18.00), so I decided to sit things out and just grabbed my book (Leon Uris's "Trinity", a really good novel about Ireland during the 19th century...but be warned, if you're a true catholic, you might find it blasphemy in some parts) and refused to leave the ground.
And, as so often when situations are obviously unfair, help approaches, this time in form of Roushan, a 30 year old boarder guard who talked to the drivers. At the end they agreed to take me down together with the boarder guards for about 4$ and Roushan even invited me to stay overnight at his flat in Ashgabat. I was welcomed by his small son and his lovely wife in their flat and he did everything to make up the inconvenience I faced at the boarder for regaining a positive image of his country. We had dinner, beer and vodka together (yes, alcohol after 6 dry weeks in the world of the Ayatollahs!) before we started out to go swimming (women in Bikinis!!! After 6 weeks in the world of the Ayatollahs, where many women are covered from head to toe) in a swimming pool of one of the numerous hotels.
Life's great isn't it :-)

Next morning he had to work for 24 hours and brought me to a guesthouse where I stayed the following 2 nights in Ashagabat, it was a great pleasure to meet him and his family.
I was also really happy as he revealed the secret of many boarder guards to me:
After asking how he can afford a used, but still expensive BMW with his wage of 100$ a month, he grinned and explained me that smuggling is only tolerated to the extend of cigarettes and alcohol for which they ask for a little tip of the truck drivers. Drugs aren't part of that deal (according to him). So I couldn't hold the question which I always asked myself: How do you deal with this, let's say: "extra money"? Is it distributed among all officials at the border or are there a few lucky ones who get the main share of it?
He explained me the system that it's distributed among all of them, as far as I understood even among different boarder posts (as some are far more lucrative) as the guards change posts every few weeks (in order to prevent corruption I think..obviously doesn't work :-)

After leaving Roushan and his family, I went on to explore Ashgabat (which means "city of love" in Turkmen) on my own and was absolutely stunned when I saw the dimensions of one man's phantasm when it comes to building his capital. A city which has no comparison in the current world!
He (Turkmenbashi = the leader of the Turkmen) had numerous ministries constructed, a presidential palace, a square of independence, several theatres, an editors' house (which looks like a book), an earthquake monument (in memory of the 1948 earthquake) many impressive banks, huge apartment buildings, fountains everywhere, an amusement park (which just opened it's gates), the wlak of health (a 38km long concrete stairway in teh mountains next to Ashgabat) and on top of that all: the "Arch of Neutrality" a high rising monument to show the world that Turkmenistan has no intend to be drawn into any war or aggressions.
The monument itself isn't that wonderful, but on it's top, his Excellency, a pure golden (that's what they say) statue of the great leader of the Turkmen himself reaches 18m tall into the sky and.....revolves during the day in order to
Arch of NeutralityArch of NeutralityArch of Neutrality

with his 18m figure on top of it - revolving with the sun (or is it the sun which revolves around it?)
always face the sun. Standing there, surrounded by all that marble and gold, one of a less rational mind could think that it's maybe the other way round and the sun follows his movement...
His catch phrase was: Halk, Watan, Turkmenbashy! (People, homecountry, leader of the Turkmen)...which reminded not only me of 'our' leader, Adolf Hitler: Ein Volk, ein Reich, ein Fuehrer!
Anyway, he was human as Hitler was and joined him in hell as he died the 21st December 2006, not before announcing that the 21st century is going to be the Golden Age of the Turkmen people!
So far, his death didn't change much in the country.
His face is still everywhere (on banknotes, as emblem of the national TV channels, in offices, restaurants, hotels,...), as it his book, the Ruhnama, "the book of the soul". It is his version of Turkmen history and has religious touches as well. You can find it in any bookshop and in the big shopping centre of Ashgabat they have a special "study room" where you can dive into his philosophy of life..just next to the billiard tables :-)
The new president is a cheap copy of him and was one of his first servants. Also the constructions go on as if nothing happened and it's still a long time until all his plans are carried out.
Well, the whole city is really incredible and the contrasts couldn't be bigger between the old houses and the newly constructed ones. Also the old Ladas and soviet limousines which are still around don't really fit into the large boulevards and the vast squares.
After having already visited many soviet cities, this one is definitely not recognizable as one of them. In this case he did a good job extinguishing all the soviet architecture and replacing it by this neoimperialistic design (carried out by a French construction company: Bouyges).
Despite all the new buildings, the average salary in Turkmenistan is still very low and the people can't eat the palaces....
At least the prices for the new pleasures aren't too high (due to high subventions by the government):

cabin lift in the mountains: 0,04 EUR
gas for heating and cooking: free
amusement park ticket: 0.30 EUR
Ice-skating/ hour: 0.10 EUR
theatre performance: 0.30 EUR
sending post card abroad: 0.06 EUR

Next day I tried to change money at the National bank of Turkmenistan, a mjestic building in the heart of the city. After entering the huge reception hall they were quite amazed y the fact that I came to them to change money: "But we are a bank Mister!?!" So I enquired where one can change money if not in a bank and they sent me to the Russian bazaar, but not without wraning me of the people there who like to cheat on foreigners!?! What a world...the biggest bank sends you into the hands of some robbers :-)
After finding the bazaar and changing money I headed out of town towards the Tolkuchka bazaar, the biggest bazaar in Central Asia which is held every Thursday, Saturday and Sunday in the outskirts of Ashgabat right in the desert sand.
There you can find the other Turkmenistan: A long stretch of containers where salesmen sell everything from traditional clothes over carpets to furniture...such a colourful, lively place!
I strolled around there for some hours searching the narrow alleys for beautiful snapshots and just breathing in the atmosphere of this magical place filled with these great Turkmen people.
The population of the country is mainly Turkmen with many Uzbek, Kazakh, Russians and Kurds among it. The Turkmen are very nice people who are really fun to talk to (what a relief after Iran) and you can talk about nearly everything...but governmental issues aren't treated with the same openness as in Iran. They're obviously afraid of the consequences, as far as I experienced.
The dress of the women is magnificent, colourful, yet stylish and certainly not boring (after weeks of black coats in Iran)! Compared to the Russian women there (see picture :-) they have a more decent taste which doesn't attract that much attention, but I liked it very much.

After 3 nights in Ashgabat it was time for me to move on in order not to violate the visa rules, I had only two days left to cross the desert and leave the country.
So off we went (I found company in the guesthouse, a French/Polish couple who went with me to the middle of nowhere...into the Karakum desert)
We went to Darvazan which is in the centre of the desert and where you can find 2 clay houses, a tent and a ger, some camels and many sand dunes.
Not far from this stopover point next to the only street crossing the desert is a rather unique site located:
A burning gas crater of at least 30m in diameter. They were made by the Russian some 40 years ago as they searched exploitable gas resources, but left the spot for economic reasons unused. So there they were: several gas craters, emitting a lot of gas into the atmosphere...until one Russian (or was he Turkmen) had the brilliant idea to light a fire there and now they have a tourist attraction of a really interesting sort.
We went there at night by jeep and I can tell you, it is impressive with all the noise the burning gas makes and the heat emitted by this big fire! After this experience we ended the night in the dunes, drinking some vodka and sleeping under the stars, only disturbed by hundreds of black bugs who ran around the dunes...
Next morning I left the others and went on hitchhiking to the boarder on a road which is being improved in the moment, but my bum still remembers....well, maybe they should have built one palace less and repaired the road instead...but who am I to question the work of the great leader? :-)
Anyway, I made it just in time (half an hour before they closed) to the boarder and left for Uzbekistan.



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1:1 copy of the Blue Mosque in Istanbul1:1 copy of the Blue Mosque in Istanbul
1:1 copy of the Blue Mosque in Istanbul

actually it was already copied some centuries ago by Cairo...
central bankcentral bank
central bank

that's where they sent me to the market in order to change money...not before warning me about possible scums


28th June 2007

Hi, dear Matthias, I had received your postcard from IRAN, that is Great! It is now standing on my dest, i saw it everyday, Thanks! Now, i will enjoy your pics from Turkmenistan, another window open for me!
28th June 2007

ashgabat's glory n°234
Hi matthias, how are you. it is always a pleasure to read your adventures in the far far east of the world. I did not know how Tukmenistan looks like. (I thougth it was a beer brand). Now I can say I more smart than before. Do not stop your travel, to read you is like dreaming (without living his seat, like a couch potatoe). (Please, I bougth an american bomb on E-bay but the seller is in Irak, could you get back it to me,it is not far for you). Aurélien
28th June 2007

TOTALITARISM, TELL ME ABOUT IT!!!
VERY FUNNY, MAT, LET ME TELL YOU, AFTER ALL THIS, I CAN TELL YOU THAT CUBA IS NOT SO BAD... TAKE CARE OF YOURSELF. SUERTE

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