Ever heard of Turkmenistan? No? Essentially, it’s a bit like a Central Asian version of North Korea. But it is much richer than North Korea, due to its massive gas reserves. The capital, Ashgabat, is like something out of a dystopian future; all the buildings are the same, the police control everything and individual rights do not exist. Sounds like a great holiday destination to us, so this was our last Stan to visit with the overland tour! Come with us and learn something of this very, very strange land.
A few facts you need to know about Turkmenistan before you read further. The country has a population of 5,000,000 (this is an estimation, because results of the last census taken in 2014 are still not published). The inhabitants speak Turkmen and Russian (English found in tourist specific places).
About the economy we can’t tell you any real facts, as they aren’t really published by the government. They do have the fourth biggest gas reserves in the world though.
The country is ruled by one leader. After independence from the USSR in 1991, the country was firmly grasped in the fist of the ‘President’ (supreme leader would be a better term) by Saparmurat Niyazov who died (mysteriously) in 2006 and was replaced (mysteriously) by Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov (he is also called ‘protector’. Creepy, don’t you think?) when he died. Whilst Berdimuhamedov toned down some the extremes his predecessor, who had renamed months of the year, for example. He still runs a one party state with himself at the head, with no signs of that ever changing.
But let us start well telling you how we experienced Turkmenistan ourselves. As everything that happened from entering until leaving the country was very different and interesting to us.
Konye-Urgench (Konye = old in Turkmen)
We met our guide (a mandatory addition, as the government mandates tour groups must be accompanied) at the border and he seemed friendly and helpful enough. After we filled in our forms, paid border fees (it costs about $150USD p.p. for letter of invitation, visa and annoying ‘taxes’) and had our temperature checked (a hand held machine reads the temp directly from your forehead, that some Men in Black shit right there), we stepped on official ground in Turkmenistan. After changing some money at a local market, we left for Konye-Urgench, to check out old Sufi mausoleums and the “highest minaret of central Asia” (having heard this claim about other minarets in central Asia, we have become rather suspicious).
Never mind that, more about the ruins. Konye-Urgench was destroyed by Genghis Khan (this guy was seriously EVERYWHERE! Don’t think we have visited a city between Beijing and Ashgabat that he didn’t destroy) rather ingeniously by diverting an entire river to flood the inhabitants out. Now all that remains are some run down buildings which are interesting enough, but not particularly inspiring after having seen the well preserved structures in Uzbekistan.
We all went to bed early that evening for two reasons; the mosquitoes attacked us fiercely as soon as it darkness descended and because we had an early start to go to hell…
The Gate to Hell
Fire and brimstone, intense heat, the whoosh of flames all give the Darvaza Gas Crater its much more descriptive name: The Gate to Hell.
It seems a rather dramatic name until you see it in person. It stops being dramatic then, real quick. It was one of the most amazing sights either of us have EVER seen. Getting to it was also our longest and most difficult travel day, due to getting the truck stuck in sand repeatedly for 5hrs. The path was pretty sandy to the gas crater, but we expected the ‘bad bit” to be only 100m long. Ah well, a bit of optimism can’t hurt. To stop the truck from becoming too stuck, we used “sand mats”, carried by the truck for just such an occasion. These metal sheets weight about 15kg and you lay them down and drive over. Then you carry the one from the back to the front and repeat, gaining maybe 5m each time. Lift, carry and repeat. Lift, carry and repeat. Lift, carry and repeat.
You get the idea now. 5hrs later we were through it and the glow from the gas crater loomed ahead (darkness had completely enveloped us by this point). After soooo much hard work, seeing the fiery glow getting closer and closer was extremely rewarding. Colin (the driver) actually parked the truck quite close to the crater (safely, as always), which was rather exciting.
The sheer heat radiating from this crater is truly impressive. It’s 80m wide, 30m deep and has been burning for 40 YEARS (Russian drilling rig collapsed in the 1970’s and with classic soviet ingenuity they decided to just burn the gas off, thinking that it would all burn off in a few days…)! Awesomely, there are no pesky fences or signs to stop intrepid photographers from getting as close as they want. Not David of course, he sensibly stayed a few cm from the edge…
Can you see that figure standing on the far side? That small smudge of red on the far side of the crater? That’s Tamar! This should help you visualise how crazy big it. Standing near the edge, getting intense gusts of heat and hearing the roaring fire is a rather awe inspiring experience. Check out this video we took:
After arriving late, eating late (Tamar had duty on our last cook group of the tour), thoroughly checking out the gas crater, it was 2am. We had to get up 3.5hrs later, early start… So we quickly hopped into our tent to sleep. Only to discover that it was as sandy inside the tent as outside, due to the strong wind that had been blowing non-stop. This is the view from our tent, the glow of the crater caught on the immense amount of sand in the air.
We left the campsite before breakfast, taking a different route and only getting stuck a little bit. We convinced a local (money talks) with an ancient (but very powerful) 4×4 truck to pull us out. It simply engaged reverse and started pulling. It looked like a bulldog pulling on a rope! Finally, on our way to the strangest city in the world…
Ashgabat is a soulless city. Maybe you’ve read about this place, but in case you haven’t, we’ll explain a bit about it and show you what photos we were able to take (they are extremely strict about what buildings you can photograph. There is literally a security guard/police on EVERY block in the city centre).
The only place that could be weirder would by Pyongyang. So what does Ashgabat actually look like? The city centre is comprised of over 250 marble buildings, all very similar. It has been estimated that their construction has cost many billions of dollars. No signs of life inside or out. All the ministries have recently had new building constructed and they are all lined up next to each other, the buildings resembling the function of the ministry. A good example of this architectural approach is the Ministry of Press (irony much? The press in Turkmenistan is the second most controlled press in the world. It functions much more like the Ministry of Truth in the novel 1984), which has been built to resemble an open book.
The only signs of regular, understandable human life occur outside the new city centre, but this is still rather muted. The locals are pretty suspicious of foreigners (we had a few nice conversations though), but this is due to their history of secret police (many buildings, vehicles and hotels are bugged). When you are walking in the new part of the city, the only people that you see are cleaning ladies and other low skilled workers maintaining roads, parks and buildings.
Our hotel for the first night was much, much more extravagant looking (due to the marble facing and fancy looking interior), than we were ready for. Kim and Colin assured us that it wasn’t a joke, we were actually staying here.
The first evening we went out for dinner with the whole group in the old part of the town.
Here we saw some life on the streets. The dinner was ok, but trying to get the bill paid, with 20 people, some who could even remember what they had was a pretty painful experience. The next day we went on a guided tour (yes the guide had to be with us as long as we were in Turkmenistan) of the city with a tourist bus. We went from one amazingly expensive, white and empty building to another. Many things were not open (museums) or not working (Ferris Wheel).
The next day, we moved to a different hotel, as it was cheaper (although, by law, no budget hotels exist. The cheaper option was still $80USD for a double without breakfast). On the way, we were informed that they had changed the hotel to “something nicer”. No reason given. Normally, alarm bells are screaming “SCAM ALERT!!! SCAM ALERT!!!”. But, for some reason, we weren’t too worried. As you can see below, we also didn’t need to be. This is the hotel that they moved us to, for the same price. One of the landmark buildings of Ashgabat, which we had actually visited during the day. Not bad eh?
We should also mention that were the ONLY people staying. In the entire hotel. This is common in Ashgabat, as the government simply decrees that 20 new hotels shall be built, regardless of demand.
In the evening we ended up at our hotel for an overpriced meal with everyone (until we showed unlocked the door to the room and showed people in, no one believed we were really staying there) and then out for a night tour. Well, we knew that we were going on a night tour, but it was very surprising to our guide, who was planning on simply taking everyone back to the hotel (such an amazingly low level of service for such amazingly high fees). Some of that outstanding Turkmenistan service (which we would soon get another taste of). We told her that we wanted to check out the sights by night, 20 people clamoring for a night tour proved to be rather persuasive. Thus, we secured another fantastically weird experience, Ashgabat by night. For no discernible reason, everything is light by garish neon lights.
We had all gotten together before dinner for a truck clean (making the truck spick and span for the next leg with only four people remaining). The tour was continuing onto Iran, so ALL the booze had to go. Into our bellies. We also drank vodka during dinner and cunningly brought a bottle of vodka with us on the night tour, so we were all a little somewhat quite boisterous. English Dave (for the 35 day tour we had 3 Davids on board, Belgium David, English Dave and Australian Davo, see this photo)
and Tony were doing handstands in front of the non-working Ferris Wheel and the guide tried telling them off, saying it was a place of religious worship! Whilst the personality cult around the ‘president’ could readily be called a cult/religion in our opinion, surely a Ferris Wheel doesn’t count as a place of religious significance! The drunken fun loving behavior of the group was making her nervous, as it was 22:00 and curfew in the city is 23:00.
Some shots of vodka and a couple of sights later, we said our goodbyes to everyone, got dropped off to the hotel and slept rather soundly 🙂
Aiming for a morning shower the next day, David was dismayed to find out that the hot water wasn’t working. Upon enquiring at the reception, he was informed that it was working, “You just need to let the water run for 10 min”. WTF? In the desert? For an $80USD a night room? Ashgabat, you naughty city! Giant fountains gush everywhere in the city and so saving water is definitely not on high on their priorities (although they claim to re-use the water). In fact, they are very proud of their ability to grow trees not suited to life in the desert, throughout the city.
On our own we walked all the way into the city, struggled for quite some time to find a supermarket (quite difficult when there is not one single piece of advertising. No external advertisements are allowed anywhere in the city and all the buildings look the same) for some cheap breakfast. Once achieved, we set off to the super luxurious Sofitel Hotel to steal some WiFi in the lobby, as internet is available almost nowhere (not even in our fancy hotel). After some quick emails, David wanted a nice photo of the amazing lobby but from the top floor looking down. So, we went up to the entirely deserted (actually, every floor looked deserted) 13th floor, he got his camera out and was about to take a mind blowingly good shot when security staff rushed out from the lift (they were off course watching us in the lobby. In Turkmenistan, someone is always watching you) and told him to stop immediately as we weren’t to both be here or take photos allowed, as this ENTIRE floor was for the ‘president’. Once safely escorted to the lobby, it was explained to us by someone that the ‘presidents’ rules were that the 13th floor to be left for him. Tamar enquired about the 10th floor? Also not allowed. David took a couple of shots from the lobby, which did turn out all right, but just not the same.
As we wandered further into the city, becoming increasingly creeped out by the fact that there were no regular people at all, just guards. So weird to see a 200m long, 6 lane wide section of highway closed and only the ‘president’ allowed to use it. Well, it was in front of the presidential palaces, (gargantuan buildings in their own right), so I guess that makes sense? Who knows, certainly not us. Impossible to tell which buildings or areas you could be allowed to walk into/through, so we played it safe and stuck to the roads. From these pictures you should be getting a tiny idea of what the city is like. It really feels like a computer generated city. A city without a soul. No rubbish, no people, all street lights exactly the same but too many of them far to close together, all roads new, all buildings have the same architectural design and same materials, all guards look the same, all the gardens are laid out in perfect geometric patterns, the fountains the same and too many of them. EVERYTHING IS THE SAME AND EVERYTHING IS CREEPY!
Anyways, after a quick lunch at the bazaar we took a taxi back to the hotel, driven by a clean cut young Muslim guy. He was blasting out some western music, but at a traffic light stop he flicked through his music collection until he settled on a song he liked. I don’t know how good his English was but we looked at each other, both of us in shock at hearing the crudest and rudest lyrics of our lives! Just another weird experience, driving down the pristine police state streets of Ashgabat, listening to a song glorifying misogyny.
We got to the airport early, as there is no way we wanted to stay one minute longer. However, when we arrived, we noticed that they hadn’t put our flight on board at the correct time. It was showing our Dehli flight as leaving 7hrs later, at 01:55. Wait a minute, did they change our flight without emailing us? Yes, yes they did. With not one single fuck given by Turkmenistan airways, we had to wait at this tiny airport with no Turkmen money left. The staff were incredibly rude, they couldn’t/wouldn’t left a single finger to help us. Typically patient, David refrained from any bad behavior on his part, choosing the moral high ground and definitely didn’t swear at any of the staff.
After 2 hours waiting English Dave from the tour also arrived for his flight. To pass the time we decided to play the card game Saboteur (a Dutch card game, cards with pictures). After 30 minutes a guard walked up to us and asked us to stop as “playing cards is not allowed in public”. He told us that the guards were very nervous that their superiors would see this very subversive activity through the cameras and then they would get into trouble. Somehow we managed to stay awake until boarding time and then stepped on the worst rated airline in the world (in terms of service and we now know why…) for our next adventure in India…
P.S. In this blog it has been incredibly difficult to convey just how it feels to be present in Turkmenistan, Ashgabat specifically. We had to leave a lot out, to protect the people who told us interesting things, so if you want to know more, please get in touch with us and we can try and explain to you with more detail what it felt like. We were so happy to leave, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t worth a visit! You could also watch the interesting travel documentary by Waes, his documentary made Tamar interested in going to Turkmenistan in the first place.