Turkmenistan! Our 5 days/4 nights here flew by and its time to jot down a few thoughts of this fascinating and bizarre country. Getting into Turkmenistan was surprisingly easy. We were efficiently stamped out of Iran and into Turkmenistan in less than 2 hours…compared to last year’s border crossing taking well over 6 hours and we had cause to celebrate! We had already bid adieu to Mark Dawson in Mashhad and were excited to greet the new members of our overland group in Ashgabat. Its gonna be a full truck with 24 passengers for the 3 week period from Ashgabat to Bishkek, and we were keen to meet the newbies. A big welcome to Chris, Tina, Michael, Ben, Bjørn, Conrad, Kate, Warner and Brian!
Our hotel in Ashgabat was at the very comfortable Ak Altyn Hotel. The pool quickly lured us in and we spent the afternoon getting quite tipsy in the sun – not a hard feat considering none of us has had a drop of alcohol in the past few weeks of Iran. Vodka is dirt cheap here – a 0.5 liter bottle costs a mere 9 Manat or about $2. Bargain. Our Turkmen guide, Maksat, has been phenomenal. He led us on a city tour of Ashgabat where we got to meet this city of marble up close and personal. Security forces and police are seemingly on every corner of this glistening city, and we were forewarned that our hotel rooms would be bugged (the first thing we wanted to do after hearing that was to play a porno on full blast). It is forbidden to talk disparagingly of the ex-President (Saparmurad Niyazov aka “Turkmenbashi”) even though he passed away in 2006. No doubt about it…Turkmenistan is a tightly controlled police state.
Here is a quick synopsis of the 3 cities we spent the most time in. Ashgabat feels like a sci-fi movie set with the highest concentration of marble buildings in the world. And not one of them looks lived in. Massive super clean highways and roads and not a single car driving on them. Completely and utterly surreal…definitely a twilight zone moment where we kept pinching ourselves and wondering how the hell a capital city can function this way. Darvaza crater actually ended up being 3 craters – water, mud and gas. The gas crater (aka “Gate to Hell”) has been burning for over 40 years and it did not disappoint…super cool and well worth the arduous journey to get there! Konye Urgench had an impressive minaret and also served as the gateway to Uzbekistan.
Hands down, the highlight of Turkmenistan was the Akhal-Teke horses we saw perform at the Turkmen State Circus in Ashgabat. With their intelligence, speed and endurance, they are gorgeous creatures to behold. Next up will be Uzbekistan…gotta get through a few bush camps first!!!
04 Jun – Kate had us at the Bajgiran border crossing an hour before it opened. Getting out of Iran was super smooth and thanks to a friendly Turkmen General, getting stamped into Turkmenistan was a breeze ($55 visa fee and $10 service charge, cash only). The Turkmen women at the border crossing were wearing the most beautiful traditional outfits, with embroidered dresses and large pillbox style head-wear. ..phenomenal. Too bad we weren’t allowed to take photos at the border because the women looked amazing. Our guide, Maksat, met us at the border. He instantly impressed us by taking charge and leading us directly to a suitable area for our truck lunch, which was past a 30 km restricted buffer zone (no photos or stopping allowed in this area, highly tempting because there were tons of ibex on the hillside). Kate asked for volunteers to help clean out the 3 spare tents to prepare them for the newbies joining us in Ashgabat so we helped out. During lunch, Maksat gave us his contact information (in case we got hassled by the police) and a briefing on Ashgabat. We really loved having a local tell us the best places to score cheap alcohol and good food. We liked Maksat instantly and were thrilled to have him as our guide.
The drive to Ashgabat was unforgettable. A shimmering white marble city visible from miles away. However, the excellent highway and immaculate wide streets were totally devoid of vehicles and pedestrians…totally surreal! We felt as if we were in the middle of a movie set…there is no other capital city in the world as unique as Ashgabat. Our hotel for the next two nights was the excellent 4 star Ak Altyn Hotel, complete with a swimming pool! Happy times. We had been warned that Turkmenistan is a tightly controlled police state and that our hotel rooms would definitely be bugged. Our first priority after checking in was to get some cheap alcohol. Since we were adjacent to the Turkmen State Circus, Maksat pointed us to a nearby store where we got cheap vodka (½ liter of bottle for $1.50). Then it was straight to the pool with our drinks. A fun few hours ensued and at 7 pm, we tore ourselves away to join the group for a welcome dinner. Maksat led us to the Berk Restaurant (used to be listed as “Iceberg” in the Lonely Planet) and helped over 20 of us order our meals. Shockingly, pork is served in Turkmenistan (its a Muslim country), so we ordered pork ribs and kebabs…delicious. Poor Maksat also helped settle the dinner bill which was a horrible ordeal for him considering we all wanted to pay individually. During dinner, Lars and Ichiyo were invited for shots with a guy celebrating his birthday and they both got completely smashed. Ichiyo was fine after puking right outside the restaurant, but Lars was out of control. Kate was busy helping him out and we managed to get him to his room and into his bed after tricking him into drinking a bit of water (its vodka Lars, drink up). 15 minutes later, he showed up at the Kaktus bar on the dance floor and we knew it was gonna be a long night! Helen took mercy on Lars looking forlornly at all the couples slow dancing together and was rewarded with a swing dancing session. Pretty soon the party moved to the downstairs disco and Lars showed off his drunk dance moves much to the chagrin on the concerned bouncer. Great first night in Turkmenistan!
05 Jun – Ashgabat city tour today at 9:30 am led by none other but the excellent Maksat in an air-conditioned bus. The rest of the new travelers joining us showed up with just a few minutes to spare before the tour kicked off. We had a total of 9 newbies joining us: Chris & Tina, Michael, Ben, Brian, Kate P, Warner, Coen, and Bjorn. It would have been impossible to see Ashgabat without transportation because the city is massive and all the interesting sights are spread out. Maksat gave us an excellent summary at each sight and told us when and where we could take photos. We had read beforehand that it was next to impossible to take photos in Ashgabat, but with Maksat at our side, we found that we had a lot more leeway. Granted, the security guards might scowl at us and suspiciously stare at our cameras, but we were left unmolested the entire day. Highlights of Ashgabat were the Independence Monument, Neutrality Monument (complete with a large golden statue of Türkmenbashy), the world’s largest Ferris wheel, Saglyk Ýoly Park, Gypjak Mosque, and the Russian Bazaar. Lunch at the Russian bazaar was cheap as chips and delicious to boot. Fantastic dumplings and chicken plov! After lunch, we had a brief stop at the Wedding Palace for photos before pulling back at the hotel by 4:30 pm. Connie had discovered that the circus was in town today at 5 pm, so a group of us happily attended. Tickets were an unbelievable 2 Manat (50 cents) and the show was amazing! Lots of talented performers, and our very own Michael was pulled from the audience to perform in a clown act. But the highlight of the show undoubtedly was the phenomenal Akhal-Teke horses. Beautiful, athletic and powerful…amazing combination. Connie got major kudos for recommending the circus as everyone had a great time. We had time for a quick dip in the pool before joining Ichi, Lars and Michael at the Berk restaurant for dinner. Then it was time for the Ashgabat night tour where we got to see this city transform itself into a lively, bustling metropolis. It was interesting seeing Ashgabat by day and night as the difference is striking.
06 Jun – Robby’s cook group (Robby, Andy and Kate) had to go shopping at the bazaar after breakfast. We were supposed to leave Ashgabat at 11 am but getting everyone’s passports registered took a lot longer than anticipated so it was closer to noon by the time we finally left for the Darvaza craters. The drive north was hot and dusty and seemed to take ages. Maksat explained Darvaza actually consists of 3 craters (water, mud, and gas) and we visited them in that order. The first 2 were easy to get to, but the gas crater was off road and based on last year’s experience, Kate/Kyle were worried about getting the truck stuck in sand. Last year took 4 arduous hours of sand-matting to get the truck to the gas crater and we were NOT looking forward to a similar experience. The first route we took was a bust as the shepherds strongly advised us against proceeding further ahead, guaranteeing that the truck would get stuck. Kyle turned the truck around but was unable to get back up the hill without a tow, so we had to wait patiently for Kate to coordinate a solution. Daniel had a meltdown experience on Dya, yelling at her when she asked him to close the door prior to Kyle driving the truck uphill. He was completely out of line and made himself look like an ass in front of everyone. Kate finally showed up with a ruggedized 4×4 truck that was able to pull us back onto the tarmac. It also led us along an alternate route to the gas crater, and amazingly, Kyle managed to drive the entire way without assistance. Seeing the gas crater at 9:30 pm was a surreal sight…amazing, phenomenal, the superlatives are unable to accurately describe the sight, sound and smell. It was well worth the extreme effort to get here despite the late hour. Cook group had dinner prepared at 11 pm so it was a late one. Maksat assisted by grilling eggplant over his own camp fire for a special dish. Weird spiders with large pinching legs were attracted by the light, and they looked like alien creatures in a horror film, freaking us out. At midnight, we trudged back down to the gas crater and took lots of silly group photos…it was great having the place to ourselves. Due to the toxic fumes emanating from the gas crater, camping by the rim is strongly discouraged so we had to settle for being about 300 meters away. Close enough to admire it from a distance.
07 Jun – Kate recommended that we wake up and depart at 6:30 am, so that if the truck got stuck, we could sand-mat before it got too hot. Luckily, we had no problems leaving the gas crater thanks to Kyle’s skillful driving. Once on tarmac, we stopped for a quick breakfast and then drove north towards Konye Urgench. The drive was uneventful but at our roadside lunch stop, Dya bought an embroidered collar that the women wear on their traditional dresses. A curious Turkmen woman brought her son over to our lunch area and asked if she could take photos of us. We happily obliged. It was interesting that she felt comfortable enough in a police state to stray outside of what is considered normal behavior. We learned that Turkmenistan is on par with South Korea and Eritrea in terms of tightly controlling its populace, so the level of paranoia here is understandably high. It was refreshing to have someone here show curiosity and act upon it, instead of suppressing that natural urge. By mid afternoon we reached Konye Urgench and Maksat told us how we could see most of the sights without having to pay for an overpriced ticket. The 11th century minaret was the most impressive of Konye’s sights, and it didn’t take us long to see everything. Kyle went to fill the truck with gas while we were busy sightseeing and because of the heat, most of us were ready to go before he got back. Kate and Kyle took mercy on us and stopped at a store where we could get cold drinks and ice-cream to cool down before we drove off to our final Turkmenistan bush camp. Robby, Kate and Andy prepared veggie stew with buckwheat for dinner, while SCUBA Gill made bread pudding. Bjorn was keen on a camp fire, so we lounged around for a bit after it got dark chatting it up with everyone. Helen asked everyone to contribute to a tip for Maksat for his excellent service over the past few days and we happily gave our portion. Without a doubt, our Turkmenistan experience would have been completely different without Maksat as our local tour guide.
08 Jun –During breakfast, Andy handed Maksat his tip and thanked him for everything he had done for us. Then it was border time. Turkmenistan busted our chops leaving the country, demanding that we pull all of our bags off the truck to be scanned. Becky’s passport was singled out and she was shuffled around between 3 different officials, with one of them drilling her about countries visited and what she honestly thought about Ashgabat. Denise was also given a hard time because the official could not believe that she was a British black woman. Despite her British passport, he kept insisting she was American and she kept denying it repeatedly. He could not comprehend that Britain has blacks too! It was all a bit bizarre but we were finally stamped out of country and onward to country #4 of our tour, Uzbekistan!