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Published: August 22nd 2009
Prior to researching our visit to the “Stans”, we saw this part of world as little more than a homogenous mass sandwiched between Russia and China. In general one of the highlights of this trip has been watching places change from a name on a map, to a plan, to living breathing experiences and finally memories; this has especially been the case while travelling through a region about which we previously knew so little.
Turkmenistan has been dubbed, by those in the know, as the North Korea of Central Asia. The extent to which this analogy applies is debatable and we guess it is perhaps a little unfair on Turkmenistan. However, one thing the two countries have in common is institutionalised xenophobia. In both cases this manifests itself by the mandation that tourists are accompanied at all times by an official guide. Although costly and considerably less than convenient, we have never been ones to shirk a travelling challenge and in any case circumnavigating Turkmenistan would have involved either back-tracking considerably, or passing through Afghanistan. Therefore, we made the necessary arrangements to transit the country in three days, seeing a couple of sights along the way.
Since independence from
Russia, the brief history of Turkmenistan has been dominated by two factors. Firstly, the vast wealth created from its large oil and gas reserves and secondly the bizarre personality cult created by the now late President Niyazov. Nowhere can the effect of these influences be more strongly felt than in the capital, Ashgabat. Located close to the Iranian border, this was where our tour was to begin and it is conveniently the one place that foreigners are free to wander unaccompanied. We say “free”, but as we discovered, we were inexplicably far from worthy of gracing certain sections of pavement or passing within an unspecified radius of statues of the former president and of course like everyone else we needed to obey the 11pm curfew.
From the moment we walked across the border from Iran and were greeted by a soldier sporting a giant Soviet hat, a full set of gold teeth and looking as though he’d stepped straight off the set of a James Bond film, we knew we’d entered a different world. A world where significantly, Sarah could once again show her hair.
Although we didn’t need a guide while in Ashgabat, it was deemed necessary
for us to be escorted the 20km from the border to our hotel. Our guidebook described Ashgabat as a cross between Las Vegas and Pyongyang, despite never having visited either of these great cities, we knew we were in for a treat and we weren’t disappointed. Since independence in 1991, the city has been completely rebuilt and not just rebuilt, but rebuilt in style. Now almost entirely built from white marble and gold, it is something of a fantasy land, consisting mostly of wide boulevards, parks, fountains, parade grounds and statues, lots of statues, needless to say mostly of our friend Niyazov.
As well as gawping at what is, without a doubt, the most bizarre city we have ever visited, whilst in Ashgabat we took a trip to the nearby Tolkuchka Bazaar and were rewarded by the most spectacular market we have ever seen. Here at this colourful event it is literally possible to buy everything from camels to carburettors and washing machines to wigs.
After a day in Ashgabat, our tour proper began. In order to reduce costs, we teamed up with another tourist, something easier said than done in Turkmenistan. Our companion for this leg of
our journey, was to be Tony, who had somewhat impressively driven there from Worcestershire in his campervan! Tony will always hold a special place in our hearts, largely due to making us our first cup of decent tea in six months. We had often fantasised about when our first proper cuppa would come on this trip and Australia was odds on favourite for the honour. However, such are the unexpected joys of travelling, that it was produced by an excitable Yorkshireman in the back of a campervan, in the Karakum Desert, surrounded by camels and rusting Soviet vehicles.
Our destination, in the middle of the desert, was the burning gas crater of Darvaza. We travelled in convoy, us in an ancient Russian van and Tony and our guide in his campervan. Quite unexpectedly, this place will rank alongside the gorillas when it comes to spectacular sights we’ve seen on this trip. Neither our words nor pictures come close to doing it justice, but we‘ll give it a go.
As the result of an explosion which occurred while prospecting for natural gas during the Soviet era, a crater, 60m wide and 40m deep, was formed. Ever since then, the
crater has been a blazing inferno, constantly fed by the flow of subterranean gas. Picture if you will the world’s largest gas hob.
We camped close (but not too close) to the crater and were fortunate enough to see (and photograph extensively) it by day, night, dawn and dusk. The greatest spectacle of all came at night, when thousands of kamikaze beetles are drawn to the only light in the desert and provide an easy meal for the local bird population. As they feed, the birds are illuminated from below by the fire and dance against the night sky like perpetual fireworks.
Our final stop in Turkmenistan was the ancient city of Konye-Urgench, which after being treated to the architectural gems of Iran, was frankly disappointing.
There are enough bizarre facts about Turkmenistan to fill an entire book, we won’t subject you to them all. However, we will leave you with our favourite, and one which we feel sums the country up quite nicely. In Turkmenistan natural gas is so abundant that it free, matches however are not free. Therefore to save money the majority of people leave their gas stoves on permanently. Utter madness.
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