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Asia » Turkmenistan
December 15th 2013
Published: December 30th 2013
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So here I am standing at the gates to Turkmenistan. Instantly as I leave Iran the faces of the people change; now people start to look more Asian, specifically more Mongolian. As I come up to the immigration counter all talking is done in Russian, luckily there is a crew of ladies removing their headscarves that help me go through immigration. It is quick and painless, I was expecting Chinese type quarantine with jabs and blood tests and the like, nope if you have a VISA just pay your entrance fee and you're in. Waiting for me is my guide (actually driver) Mashad, the guy who will become a good friend even though he speaks next to no English. One of the conditions of getting a tourist VISA is a mandatory guide wherever you go, keeping you out of trouble and signing you into places. For me this is expensive however not a problem as to get anywhere interesting here you need a 4WD and that is what we have.

Quick Facts

• Turkmenistan was annexed into the Russian empire in 1881 and became independent in 1991
• The Ashgabat earthquake of 1948 killed over 110,000 people, amounting to two-thirds of the city's population
• The Karakum Desert covers almost 80% of the country
• As of 2008, Turkmenistan boasts of a 100% total adult literacy rate.
• Since liberation in 1991 the country has been a so-called democracy with only one party that you can vote for (so a dictatorship)
• Gas and electricity are free in Turkmenistan, so some citizens opt to have their stoves burning 24/7 to avoid the cost of using matches. They also get a few tanks for petrol for free a month
• One of the projects of the former president Saparmurat Niyazov is a ski resort in a Turkmenistan mountain with no snow.

Once I have cleared customs we begin the 20km drive to actually where the country begins. Due to its "special" nature Turkmenistan keeps a 20km buffer of nothingness between its neighboring countries. As we drive I start spotting guard towers literally in the middle of nowhere, those poor soldiers. They are everywhere on crests of mountains, in the valleys; it sort of reminds me of the lightening beacons from the lord of the rings. As we traverse the wilderness I read up on Turkmenistan and its zany ways, first thing that catches my mind is surveillance. Obviously I have a guide with me the whole time and I need to be signed into every place I stay however it is the point of spying that catches my eye. Apparently it is to be expected that your hotel room will be bugged, also all your emails and internet surfing behavior will be tracked (Social sites such as face book are blocked). So it is to be EXPECTED that my room will be bugged, that’s just perfect I will make sure to discuss my plans to overthrow the government elsewhere.

Immediately after the 20km exclusion zone ends the white city of Ashgabat comes into view. The city is almost completely constructed of white Italian marble and all funded off profits from the sales of Turkmenistan’s oil and gas supply. The scale of the city is mesmerizing; there are just wide lanes, marble, gold and Bellagio type fountains everywhere. It is like the Las Vegas strip was transplanted into the Turkmenistan desert but they just removed all the people as the city is pretty much deserted. As a start we visit huge monuments to the founding father of the country Saparmurat Niyazov however he renamed himself "Turkmenbashi" meaning leader of the Turkmen. This self declared deity ran the country from the fall of communism until his death in 2006. Deemed to be one of the most repressive dictators of all time he did it in a very different way to others. His more radical policies include renaming days of the week and months after his family. Other policies implemented below contributed to what is deemed the cult of personality for Turkmenbashi, removing Marx and Stalin and putting himself as the one true leader. Here is a selection of his more eccentric policies:

• Banned the use of lip syncing at concerts
• Banished dogs from the capital Ashgabat because of their "unappealing odor."
• Banned smoking in all public places and ordered all government employees to give up
• He outlawed opera, ballet, and the circus in 2001 for being "decidedly unturkmen-like"
• In February 2004 he decreed that men should no longer wear long hair or beards
• He banned news reporters and anchors from wearing make-up on television
• Gold teeth were Banned
• His book the Ruhnama be the only book in the National Library (phasing out physics/algebra for students as this was deemed the only book necessary)
• Lastly he banned all car radios

Niyazov was the instigator of massive public infrastructure projects of dubious value that I am seeing in Ashgabat. His huge sporting stadiums (The Turkmen people believe they have hosted the Olympics, I have seen the fake videos of them winning medals on big screens around the city; just messed up); huge monuments to the ruler (there is one massive one called the arch of neutrality with a gold statue at the top that follows the sun during the day) and the marble fountains I see everywhere. After this quick drive I am put up at my hotel which is apparently 4 stars, yes just what the grubby backpacker ordered! Surprisingly my guide leaves me for the day and lets me explore the city by myself. I explore all the monuments and stumble across the army practicing drills in the main square. There are 30-40,000 of them jammed into the main square going through the drills yelling causing vibrations through the city. Quickly I skirt them as I don’t want to be seen, desperately I want to take a picture as the site is immense but I refrain as that would pretty much mean instant Turkmen jail time. Tonight I head to a Russian beer garden and have my first alcoholic beverage in a while and chow down on Shauslik (yum bbq meat).

The next day dawns and my driver picks me up with a new 4WD loaded with camping gear. We head north out of town and are instantly engulfed in the desert. We head north to the remote town of Darwaza. Well actually it was a town until Niyazov decided it was too much of an eyesore and razed it to the ground. All that remains are the clay bread ovens that are considered sacred and must be left to decay. So at this ghost town we take a sharp right and head into the desert proper. After a few kilometers we come upon a huge hole in the floor of the desert. This hole is called the Darwaza gas crater and was caused by a Soviet gas exploration blunder. While trying to extract from an underground gas deposit, the ground gave way and opened up a huge crater with all the machinery collapsing into the earth. The result is something that can only be described as the gates of hell. It was set on fire hoping that the gas deposits would burn off quickly. 20 odd years later it is still burning and offers one of the most intense travel destinations on the planet. Tonight we spend the time around the pit mesmerized by the burning and then camp in the desert having freshly cooked Shauslik, one hell of a travel experience.

The next day it is back to Ashgabat and we head to the stables of the world famous Akhal Teke horses. It is claimed that these horses were the original thoroughbred and one that dates back 3000 years. These horses are considered a national symbol and because of that they are only here and not exported as breeding pairs. They are one of the most beautiful breeds I have ever seen and renowned for their long distance running ability. At the stables we check them out and the breeder points out who the real runners are. That night is spent cruising the city after dark checking out Ashgabats bright lights with a couple of young guys from the travel agency. I learn that for fun the locals don’t really drink (that’s for the few remaining Russians); they drive around and abuse their free gas.

Today is time to head out of Ashgabat but not before we visit the horse races. Horse racing is the social event for all Turkmen citizens. It is shown live on ALL their TV stations and attending is a great honor. So off we go and hang out in the stands, a foreigner is a real oddity here so there is a lot of posing for photos. I spot all the horses I saw yesterday and the winners the trainer picked all come through, if I was betting I would have been a rich man. Funnily enough one of the current president’s nephews is a jockey and thrashes everyone in his race. The Turkmen are incredibly proud of this but I seem to think that he got the best horse and the rest got the ones heading to the glue factory. But anyway I will keep my thoughts to myself.

Next stop is a tiny village east of the capital called Nohur. The landscapes are simply stunning and totally off the beaten track. To really see this country a 4WD is needed as the sites are remote. We make it to Nohur and I go and stay the night with my driver’s family. Is a very pleasant experience meeting his mum and family, eating as real Turkmen do on the floor and sleeping on mats in the living area; a really unique experience. When day dawns I say goodbye to the family, give them the packet of biscuits I bought for them as a present (yep what a lame present but I couldn’t find anything better at the corner store) and we get off-road again. Today is just a transit day where we keep going east to the major city of Balkanabad through remote rural areas. Again the landscapes are sublime; I didn’t know this type of beauty could be locked away in this country. Balkanabad is just a transit point so me, my guide and the two other tourists in my hotel head to a Russian place for more grilled meat and a jug of beer. This takes me back to my time in ex soviet bloc countries as on every table there are Russians all whom have a bottle of Vodka that they drink almost like an appetizer.

After the transit stop me and my guide head north and go desert. A 6 hour 4WD later we are in what can only be described as one of the most extraordinary places I have ever seen, Yangikala Canyon. This canyon was created by subsiding sea levels millions of years ago. It is a mash up of red, pink and white colors throughout and upon closer inspection the lighter colors are make by just millions of seashells; that blows my mind. Again I have the place to myself and release my inner Indiana Jones climbing the canyon walls. We were due to camp the night on top of the canyon but the wind is so strong we run the risk of being blown into Kazakhstan. Therefore we head to the canyon floor and drive to the Gozli Ata pilgrimage site. From my travel agent: "Gozli Ata is one of the remotest and most beautiful shrine pilgrimage destinations in Turkmenistan", and that it is. It is dedicated to Gozli Ata a respected Sufi who lived in the early part of the 14th century and his Mausoleum is surrounded by the pink and white of the Yangikala canyon and thousands of pilgrim’s graves who chose to rest near this master. I check into one of the pilgrim’s rooms, stoke up the fire while my guide prepares dinner. We eat surrounded by natural beauty of the canyon and my guide says that I will sleep well as the Sufi will watch and protect us.

The morning brings out amazing light so I spend the first few hours exploring on foot more of the canyon (obviously I didn’t expend enough Indiana energy yesterday). We climb into the 4WD, say good bye to the pilgrims and set off East for my final stop; the town of Turkmenbashi on the coast of the Caspian Sea. Here I am due to try to catch a cargo boat to take me across the Caspian to Azerbaijan. With my previous research I knew that there is no schedule to these boats sometimes they leave, sometimes they don’t and you are stuck. Because of this my agent had built in a 2 day contingency into my VISA. Unfortunately half way through our trip we meet up with some other tourists from the same company who need my driver and the 4WD to head into the desert. So it is with great sadness that I say goodbye to my driver Mashad. Even though we just communicated with little bits of English and mostly grunts I considered him a friend. The new person I am given I am not too taken with, he is just a casual for the company and this brings major issues later.

We arrive into Turkmenbashi and he takes me to the tourist town of Awa. This massive project is north of Turkmenbashi and can be described as a project just as ambitious as Dubai without ANY tourists or people. I am the only person in a massive 5 star hotel with hundreds of rooms. Absolutely mind boggling but is nice to be on the seaside. I go for a run and then watch the Bellagio fountains outside my hotel. Then about 11pm I get a call, it’s the agent; they have learned that a ship leaves tonight, I got to check out and the driver will be there in 30mins. He picks me up and takes me to the port, we get in there and something is not quite right. He argues with the ticket office person turns to me and says that tickets will be ready in an hour just wait. Then he abandons me much to my displeasure (and me yelling at him) alone at the edge of the port. An hour later I go to the ticket office and she just stares at me. Next I try to talk to the army guys and they only speak Russian. Ok what do I do now; as I don’t have a phone I beg the army guy to let me use his. The agent finds out that the boat left hours ago; she cannot believe that I was abandoned and tries to get him back to no avail. I therefore end up curling up on a park bench, freezing at the port until dawn, not my fondest memories of this trip.

Next morning I ring the agent and she says to wait 10mins all is sorted. Then out on the horizon like a scene out of a Wild West movie comes the familiar sight of my old guides 4WD, I am saved! He takes me to another hotel that will be paid for by them, and tells me the owner of the company will come and see me. Sure enough tonight the owner appears to take me to the port and he comes armed with bottles of Turkmen beer, chocolates and a random watermelon; as if this country couldn’t get any weirder. Tonight I am more successful and I board a cargo boat along with 40 Hong Kong Land cruiser enthusiasts. One of the crew members gives me his big, clean cabin for an extra $10 and I settle in for a 2 day boat across the Caspian Sea to Azerbaijan with my Turkmen beers.

So with that I bid farewell to my guide and the oddity that is Turkmenistan. I reflect on what an eye-opening adventure that was. The sights were sublime but for me the highlight was getting to know the Turkmen people a little better. Because as an outsider I see that from afar what is going on with this country could be deemed a repressive society; but from the inside it’s just not the case. With the previous dictator gone, the current one has gone a long was to remove some of the more ridiculous rules and building projects. They still have internet censorship, spying and don’t have the ability to vote. But as one local put it: Yes I know we are under a form of dictatorship but hey I’m off to fill up my car for free and drive around and see all my friends. This seems very simplistic but in essence I can see where he is coming from. The rulers are trying to preserve and increase their culture, all people who want jobs are given them, the rulers place high virtue on education and health, no one goes without the necessities of life, they have been very effective at stopping "extremists" from entering the country and the list goes on. So now that I have been there, yes some of their policies are bizarre and they are under a weird form of dictatorship but they have built a utopia where the people live under ignorant bliss. The ones that I talked to that are well aware of the way the country is run laugh and tell me the petrol joke again and again. One hell of a country....

Next I head to the Caucasus countries: Azerbaijan, Georgia and Armenia

Thanks for Reading


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25th December 2019

Nice post! It is always good to see articles on Turkmenistan, it is a very interesting place. Political Holidays ( travels to Turkmenistan and other unique destinations. Let us know if you want to share ideas!

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