Wednesday, July 3, 2019

Central Asia - Turkmenistan

Over the past decade of our travels, we've polished off large chunks of Eastern Asia and Europe, but in between, both on our maps and in our minds, there's a big blank space. Just what is the craic in Central Asia!? That's the question we hope to answer over the next 5 and a half weeks, as we travel through Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan. So, without further ado; hit me back, just to chat, truly yours, your biggest fan... This is Stan.

First up was Turkmenistan, and what a way to kick things off! Certainly the most unique and bizarre of the Stans, and one of the strangest countries you’ll find anywhere in the world. Most of that eccentricity is concentrated in the capital, Ashgabat (described by the Lonely Planet as a mix between Las Vegas and Pyongyang), and I’ll start by reeling off a few records for you. Ashgabat is home to:

- The world’s largest indoor ferris wheel.
- The world’s highest density of white marble clad buildings.
- The world’s highest number of fountains in a public place.
- The world’s largest hand-woven carpet.
- The world’s fifth tallest flagpole (formerly the tallest)

...among many other strange achievements. And wow, where to start? Well firstly, I've never been anywhere as clean and pristine, and outwardly impressive. It's somewhere that really needs to be seen to be believed. On first glance, you would probably think 'what a thriving city this must be!'. Manicured gardens, multi-lane highways, gold and marble at every turn; there's just something missing... oh yeah, people! We had three days in the city, and during that time, we pretty much had the place to ourselves. Few locals, close to zero tourists - clearly a lot of money has gone into creating and maintaining this place, but for who...?

You may also be thinking 'I bet the rest of the country is equally as extravagant!', and you would be very wrong, but we'll get to the bizarre world of Turkmenistan and its rulers in due course.

For now, let's backtrack a little. We landed in (the super fancy) Ashgabat airport (via Istanbul) at about 2am on June 24th. Not an ideal landing time and, on top of that, the whole Visa and immigration process took another 45+ minutes. You wouldn’t mind but we were the only flight in the airport! To get a Turkmen Visa, you first need an official Letter of Invitation, which we had sourced in advance, and then you pay $85 on arrival, plus an extra $14 immigration tax. It will be the only Visa on the trip that requires any planning though, so we’ll put up with it.

So, after all that, we were ready for Turkmenistan! In one sense at least. One thing we weren't ready for was stepping out of the airport at 3am to 25 degree heat! This kind of weather would bring Ireland to a standstill, and it’s only the middle of the night. How hot will it be in the daytime?!

The answer is, very fucking hot! It peaked in the early fifties, but it was a constant mid-forties during our three days in town.

I'll always remember the feeling as we stepped outside the next morning, it was like opening an oven door! And there was very little escape from the heat too. We had high temperatures in Japan a few years ago, but you could pop into a shop or café at any time and suckle on the sweet AC, or get a cool drink anywhere from a street-side vending machine. Neither were options here. And as we spent our first day going around on foot, we really felt the full brunt of it. The factor 50 was seriously working overtime! On the upside though, you wouldn't be long getting a colour. And I came up with a perfect maths joke! Feel free to skip the next two lines...

How do you calculate 1 in Ashgabat?
Just step outside and you'll get the Tan of 45 degrees!

Moving swiftly along...! We spent the best part of 5 hours walking around on that first afternoon, and it was seriously tough going. We did have a great day and there was so much to see, but there's just no enjoying heat like that. At least no one was around to witness our bodies melting.

I know I've said it before, and I'm not exaggerating, there were so few people around! In the city centre, there were a small number of cars and pedestrians, quelling any doubts we may have had about being the last people on Earth. But most of the monuments were on the outskirts, where the only people you would see were groundskeepers. No wonder the place looked so impeccable! Even the central bazaar which, in most cities, would be a hive of activity, was just barely ticking over.

They did have nice, cool drinks though which were very much needed. And only 20 cent a bottle! That's another thing, you may think that with such fancy buildings and monuments, the prices would follow suit, but not so at all. It's one of the cheapest places we've ever been for food and drink. Though that's possibly down to us changing our money at the *ahem* unofficial rate. In the banks, you can exchange $1 for 3.5 Manat, however, in other (less legal) places, you can trade in $1 for 15 Manat. Over four times more! We obviously wouldn't have known any of this ourselves, but thankfully, we had a man on the inside who organised our stay in the country, so he was able to sort us out.

On our second day, we took the much less sweaty approach and got a nice air-conditioned taxi to take us around the city for the day. 

And it was more of the same attraction-wise; lots of deadly stuff with nobody around to enjoy it. Actually, at each monument, there were always three soldiers on guard, just standing there, doing nothing. Talk about terrible jobs! Especially in this heat! They must have been delighted when we walked past, just to have something to look at. Like cows in a field...

Apart from just simply going from monument to monument, we did get a cable-car up into the mountains overlooking the city, right on the border with Iran. And continuing the trend of everything being really cheap, the 20 minute ride only cost us 5 Manat, or around 30 cent.

And we rounded it all off with a couple of ice-creams.

Oh, we also saw some wild hamsters! Who knew they existed!?

On our final day in Ashgabat, we decided to travel around like the locals (the few that existed), and hopped on the number 20 bus which does a big loop all around the city, into the desert and back again, all for the princely sum of 3 cent. We did jump off at the Alem Entertainment Centre, home of the, previously mentioned, "World Largest Indoor Ferris Wheel".

It was closed during our visit, however, just like most other things seemed to be.

We also made a video diary there, if you want to take a closer look:

Later that day, we saw the city at night for the first time, as the guy who had organised our trip here, had also arranged a driver to take us on a night tour. It was great to see things from a different point of view, and I'll put up some photos of that in a minute, but there's an elephant in the room with regards to Turkmenistan that became a lot more noticeable over this couple of hours. I guess because we spent the last few days doing our own thing, we almost forgot where we were, but this isn't a normal country. We got a few small reminders during this drive, like some roads suddenly being cordoned off by police, some places being off limits to visit, and others where photos were not allowed.

As a very brief background, Turkmenistan gained its independence from the Soviet Union in 1991 and since then, its people have been at the mercy of two of the most bizarre dictators you'll ever come across. The first, Saparmurat Niyazov (who was declared President for Life in 1999) wrote the book on how to be a Turkmen. No, seriously. He literally wrote a book called the Ruhnama which is mandatory learning in schools, universities and government agencies. Some of his greatest hits also include:

- renaming days of the week and months of the year
- changing the word for "bread" to the name of his mother, Gurbansoltanedzhe
- closing down all rural libraries and hospitals
- building a giant gold statue of himself that rotated to face the sun
- changing the words of the national anthem to reference himself
- banning lip syncing at public events (actually, fair enough)
- outlawing opera, ballet and the circus
- forbidding men having long hair and beards

The list goes on. Anyway, he died in 2006, and in stepped the current main man, Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow, who has since scrapped term limits and age limits for the presidency, so get used to the name! He got 98% of the vote in the last election anyway, so what's the problem?! In his defense, he did scrap many of the strange laws of his predecessor, and he did pick up a new record to add to the collection: Turkmenistan is absolute bottom of Reporters without Borders’ 2019 Press Freedom Rankings. 180th out of 180 countries, and yes, that's behind North Korea.

Link of the full table:

While it's easy to laugh at crazy laws and self-aggrandising monuments, Turkmenistan is not in a good place, and it's hard to see things getting better any time soon. It's kind of impossible to escape such a situation without outside involvement, especially with the internal restrictions on internet access and independent media. Who knows what the future will hold for a country that most of the world probably doesn't even know exists?

Getting back on track, it's impossible not to have mixed feelings about our time in Ashgabat. Visually, it's one the most impressive places you will ever see. It's very cheap, very safe and you will have the whole city to yourself. However, it’s a city of facades. Its record number of white marble clad buildings is the perfect metaphor for the place itself. Note, the buildings aren’t made from marble, just coated with it. Ugly concrete structures, dressed up with an outer layer of beauty. In many ways, that is Ashgabat. It has a luxury airport, but no tourists. It has multi-lane highways with no cars. It is in the middle of a desert, yet most of its water goes to grand fountains. It has gold monuments to its leaders, with little left for its citizens. It is the centrepiece of the country, yet most of the populace can't afford to live there. It's the most amazing city, but none of it is real...

And though our time in Ashgabat was up, we still had a further two days in the country as we travelled up north to Turkmenistan's most famous attraction - The Darvaza Gas Crater, aka, The Gates of Hell. Talk about "out of the frying pan, into the fire...".

Unsurprisingly, as you leave Ashgabat, the facade (as well as the buildings and roads) starts to crumble away. We even stopped in a little village a few hours north of the capital, and we got out to walk around as our driver went to the shop. It's hard to believe how quickly your surroundings can change in such a small space of time, and it was one of those travel moments where I thought "If he drove off now, how we would even begin to find our way home...?".

"We're not in Ashgabat anymore, Toto..."

Thankfully, he didn't abandon us and we kept on the bumpy road to The Gates of Hell. Now, we've seen some things on our travels. Some good, some mediocre, some unique, some over-hyped, but to quote Martin Tyler, "I swear you'll never see anything like this ever again!" Check this shit out!

And if we thought things were hot in Ashgabat...

This crater was formed when Soviet engineers set up a rig to drill for gas. The ground beneath the rig collapsed and gas began leaking out. The engineers recommended setting the crater on fire and the gas would burn itself out in a few weeks... That was back in 1971! Here's to another 50 years!

This place was seriously deadly though. One of the most incredible things you'll see anywhere in the world. And just imagine if this was anywhere else in the world; how sickeningly over-crowded it would be!

One strong gust here and you'd want to start looking for a new pair of eyebrows!

And we made a second video diary! Again, have a watch just to see what it all looks like #gascraic

And now for the part of the evening entitled: Yurt, Wind and Fire. If anyone wants to build a hotel nearby, there's a serious gap in the market. Turkmenistan is hot. The desert in Turkmenistan is very hot. A crater full of fire in the desert in Turkmenistan is... not the place you want to be camping out for the night. It was one of the worst night's sleep I ever got. Still, it was absolutely worth it!

The next day, and our last in Turkmenistan, we drove further north to the UNESCO site of Kunya Urgench. It was pretty good, but some old buildings were never going to top the day before.

Our time then came to an end as we were dropped off at the Dashoguz border between Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. We didn't really know what to expect, firstly, because we hadn’t come into contact with many local people so far (mainly because there’s been none around). And secondly, border crossings can be rough at the best of times, never mind when it’s somewhere as unknown and potentially complicated as this. As we walked up to the building, there were crowds of people around the entrance, all in a big group, in no particular queue, so we’re thinking ‘do we just bunch up, is there an order here?’, but as we approached, a local woman spots us and yells “Tourist! Tourist!” and the crowd parts like the red sea! And this happened at each step along the way! Everyone stepped aside for us to walk through, and we were out the gap in Uzbekistan in no time at all! They were all so friendly and the first real interaction we had with the Turkmen (and Turkwomen), so the perfect way to end our time here.

And that was Turkmenistan! Seeing as we only had 5 days in the country, and considering that the two things we came to see, Ashgabat and the Darvaza crater, were like nothing else you would see anywhere else on Earth, I’d count that as a pretty resounding success! Let's see if Uzbekistan can match that level of prolific return.

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