Finally on Turkmenistan soil
Waking up in Turkmenistan it felt like I’d gone back in time. The massive hotel was new but felt old. Down in the dining room at breakfast I got the chance to enjoy some cigarette smoke with my coffee, from the table next door. And it was the start of the new cash only world. A cash world that had two currencies. New Manats and Old Manats. They hadn’t bothered to phase out the old currency. However the US dollar was king. If I was lucky I would be able to find a cash machine in Ashgabat. On the plus side diesel was 21c per litre, Whoa-hoo!!
I brought 100 litres of diesel for $21 which is 10% of the cost in the UK. They certainly do not lack for cheap fuel. And that is not the only thing that is good about Turkmenistan. The cost of living is ridiculously low here. The electricity and gas costs about $10 USD a month, if that. Rent is next to nothing and fuel is free. At least the first 120 litres per month anyway. You can understand why the locals are pretty content with their new way of life after the fall of the Soviet regime. Turkmenistan has huge oil and gas reserves and yet in only has 6-7 million people. This gives the government the ability to keep the locals happy while keeping a very tight leash on the country.
The drive south was pretty chilled to start with. Mostly desert terrain on a good road. Then the road went downhill fast. Still that didn’t stop Yuri going to sleep in the truck as I drove. It was fairly uneventful until we got close to Ashgabat. We stopped at Geok-Depe to look at the massive Saparmurat Hajii Mosque. It was empty except for the birds and myself. Quite surreal but lovely to walk around without massive crowds. It is also famous as the site of the last Turkmen’s last stand against the Russians. They were crushed by the Russians and 15,000 Turkmen died.
Saparmurat Hajii Mosque at Goek-Depe
Next stop was Ashgabat. The city of love, the white pearl of Central Asia. I didn’t know what to expect as I hadn’t done a lot of research on the city. What I did see totally blew me away. We drove into a massive city of white buildings. There was hardly anybody else on the road. It was amazing to see this in the middle of the desert. It was totally out of place with the rest of the country.
The White Pearl of Central Asia
I checked into my hotel which was on a street of hotels just for tourists. It was almost empty apart for an American traveller called Antonio. We got chatting and decided to venture into town that evening to have a look around. If I thought the view was great driving into the city that didn’t prepare me for the night drive into town. The whole city was lit up like Las Vegas (apologies for the lack of pictures as I was too busy filming. You’ll have to watch the film). The lights were amazing and totally out of place at the same time. We cruised into town marvelling at this city of lights in the middle of the desert. It was surreal, especially as there was hardly anybody about. The streets were empty.
We stopped at the British pub with no Brits, for dinner and beers. The whole town closes down at 11pm so we left the pub at 11pm, brought a few beers and headed back to the hotel. The taxi ride back was just as spectacular. Just amazing!! I can see why Yuri is happy with his set up. Ashgabat would be a fantastic place to live for the cost alone. The city is beautiful.
However you couldn’t escape the feeling that big brother was watching. All around town there were policemen waiting and watching. Often stopping vehicles for papers and to asking what they were doing.
The next morning our attempts to depart early were thwarted by breakfast only opening in the chinese restaurant at 9am. Antonio and I didn’t leave hotel until 10.30 so by the time we caught the bus the morning celebrations for the War Remembrance were over. May 9th is the Remembrance Day in Russian/Soviet history.
War Memorial in Ashgabat
First we found an internet cafe and checked our email. That was about all we could do as social media was banned. I still had no mobile signal. It was a blackout for tourists (and would remain this way until I arrived in Uzbekistan). We wandered around town and checked out the war memorial. Here we met a drunk local from the parachute regiment. He called us Antonio Banderas and Jonny Depp from ‘Once upon a time in Turkmenistan’ fame (it was actually Mexico but this didn’t sound as good). He let us take pictures with him but he was the only one (later these were deleted from my camera at the border). Around the rest of the city centre there were cops and military watching us and continually asking us not to take pictures of the government buildings. We stopped at the Russian bazaar for lunch (a nice looking and very tasty kebab) and a beer. We were stopped from taking pictures in there too!! I took one on the sly anyway.
Russian Market in Ashgabat. Beware of the Kebabs.
We caught a couple of buses towards home (for 2p each) via a pretty cool monument for the former president (one of many monuments of the great man, Saparmurat Niyazov). We were back by 5pm and pretty knackered as we had fallen into the standard tourist trap of walking around during the midday sun.
Back at the hotel I was just in time to hand over my passport and 2 passport photos for my OVIR registration, which every tourist must do. More big brother activities!! That evening I just relaxed as I wasn’t feeling 100%.
About 3am I found out why I wasn’t feeling very well. I had a severe case of food poisoning. All signs pointed to the kebab from the previous day. Now all orifices were pointed at the toilet for the next 3 hours. Boy, did I feel bad. And I continued to do so for the rest of the day. As a result I had to cancel the Mary leg of the trip which was a bit of a blow. However nothing could be done about it. I was in no condition to travel. I was fortunate enough to be in a hotel at the time.
The following day along with some hastily rearranged plans I departed Ashgabat with my guide Aziz (Yuri was also ill). I incurred a few additional costs as any changes to plans often result in lost bookings with cancellation fees. In my case a plane ticket that could not be changed for my guide cost me $50. Nothing was ever going to be simple in Turkmenistan.
At midday Aziz and I hit the road again. I was feeling a little tender so I figured a gentle day would be wise. We headed north heading for the Darvaza Gas Craters in the middle of the Karakum desert. The craters were created by the Soviets when they blew up the land looking for gas. As a result there is now a gas burning hole in the ground.
Darvaza Gas Crater
We arrived around 6pm at the crater. It was a very cool, and hot sight. The heat near the edge was intense if the wind blew your way. Once again another beautiful spot in the middle of the desert. We decided to find a spot for camping and saw that there was another car parked on the hill. We drove over to say hello and ended up being invited to stay.
Aziz, myself, Bayram, Gurban, Gaip, and Dovran
Bayram, Gurban, Gaip, and Dovran were two 2 fathers / brothers and 2 sons from Mary. Straight away they welcomed Aziz and I onto their carpet and plied us with food, and of course, vodka. Always vodka!! I wasn’t feeling in the mood for it but I didn’t want to refuse their hospitality. A couple of shots later we were enjoying the first of many different mutton dishes that the sons were preparing. Tradition states that the younger family members look after the older ones (along with guests). So Aziz and I sat back along with the two dads and enjoyed the food and drink while we shared stories.
The evening entailed lots of talking and story telling, and a bit of cricket as I introduced them to the game. Followed by a night viewing of the crater, which was amazing in the darkness of the desert, before we all slept under the stars. It was a special place and fantastic to share it with a few of the locals. Apparently this was pretty rare, as Aziz said it was the first time this had happened to him in 7 years of guiding groups. It was a silver lining to missing Mary, and one that wouldn’t have happened if I hadn’t been sick and made the journey to Mary.
Sunset at the Darvaza Gas Crater
I had interesting chats with Aziz and the rest of the guys about life in Turkmenistan. It is common for men to have wives and girlfriends, but not for the wives to do the same. If they divorce the guys get remarried, whereas the girls generally don’t. Unless of course, they are beautiful or wealthy. Turkmenistan practices a light version of Islam, where they appear to loosely apply the religious rules. Especially where the males benefit. However they still adhere to many Russian traditions and vices.
I was up at 6am for the spectacular sunrise. The views were just as breathtaking as the night before. I just sat on the top on the hill watching the sunrise over the desert. It was very peaceful.
Sunrise at the Darvaza Gas Crater
Breakfast was soup, meat and bread left over from last night’s meal with everybody. We all tidied up and prepared for a long drive. The locals heading south to Mary, and Aziz and I north to the border (and Khiva). By 7.30am we were back on the road again. It was an uneventful drive, though I nearly ran over a tortoise. We arrived in Dashoguz around 1pm for lunch and a break before heading for the border.
Aziz got me thru the Turk border relatively quickly as I didn’t have to wait in the queue. Though I did have a couple of pictures deleted from my camera posing with the drunk officer.
Farewell Turkmenistan. It was certainty interesting. Next stop Uzbekistan!!
The current regime is run by the former vice president who has just assumed the mantle left by the previous president. Their democratic party was created purely by changing the name from the communist party. They have banned any other parties and have total control over the country. The roads and infrastructure outside Ashgabat are poor which is a great shame given the huge oil and gas resources the country has. The people are kept happy by cheap living costs so they don’t complain, publicly at least about the lack of free of information and movement. However there doesn’t seem to be any thought to the future economy once the natural resources run out. Big Brother is always watching. That said they seem a fairly happy country, the people are friendly and are generally enjoying prosperous times. It was fascinating to see Ashgabat and meet some of the people. Missing Mary was a shame but I don’t think I would bother going back Turkmenistan. While it’s open to tourism it doesn’t feel like it.