We have been really excited about visiting Turkmenistan, on the crossing over the Turkish lorry drivers keep saying "Turkmenistan" and then pulling strange faces this doesn't bode to well! But before we talk about our adventures a little background info about Turkmenistan.
Until 2006 Turkmenistan had a president who was basically bonkers. In 1985 he was elected general secretary of the Communist Party of Turkmenistan (CPT) and retained power until the collapse of the soviet union in 1991 when Turkmenistan gained its independence. He then proceeded to change the name of the CPT to the Democratic Party of Turkmenistan before banning all other Political parties and remaining in power, in 1999 he declared himself president for life.
To say this guy was a little bit full of himself is an understatement, He has been reported to have been one of the most totalitarian and repressive dictators and his own glorification far out weighing any benefit for to his people. He renamed a town after himself and some months of the year and days of the week were re-named after his family members. He erected large gold statues of himself around Ashgabat the Capital, one particularly famous one now removed was 12meters high and rotated to always be facing the sun.
He also liked to ban things he banned Ballet, Opera and the Circus as it was "unturkman-like" music of any sort was not allowed to be played in cars. dogs were banned from the city as they were deemed to be a bit smelly and in 2004 he decided that men would no longer be allowed to have long hair or beards - since he died in 2006 some of these bans have been lifted but his legacy lives on in many ways. He ordered an ice rink or as he called it an "ice palace" to be built in Ashgabat so the people of the country could learn how to skate - this country is 80% desert!!!!!!!!!! This was completed in 2008 2yrs after his death.
He was also renowned for the book he wrote called the Ruhnama - it is supposed to be a spiritual and moral guide for the nation on how the Turkman people should live their lives according to him. It is mandatory to be read in schools and there are exams on its teachings. There is even elements of the book you have to know about to get your driving licence. In 2006 he was recorded to have said that he "had interceded with God and if you read the book three times you would be guaranteed entry into heaven" - Fruit loop or what!!! Even today "The book" is still as popular as ever and exams are still set on its content
At his death in 2006 the nation was distraught with lots of weeping and wailing as they had lost a great leader - the new president is slightly less loony but only slightly - There is very little internet in the whole of the country, Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are all blocked and banned and probably any other type of social media. Reporters Without Borders a French organisation reported Turkmenistan was second only to North Korea for being the worst offenders for freedom of press.
So with all this loony baggage it's no wonder that the Turkmen people don't particularly like foreigners. Getting into the country took hours the bureaucracy was ridiculous, there were so many bits of paper and many many dollars, it seems they can tax you on everything including the roads, you are going to use which are probably the worst roads in the world, the bridge you need to get off the ferry, and the petrol you haven't yet used regardless if you have a full tank when you arrive or not. We also had to have a guide with us for the whole time except when we were in Ashgabat he met us at immigration and if we hadn't had him to help I think we would still be there now. Our passports and visas were endlessly checked from one end of a room to another goodness knows what was supposed to have happened to them in the intervening few meters between getting checked! And smiling it seemed was frowned upon and definitely not encouraged!
We swap dogs and cows on the roads for Camels!
After a good few hours we eventually set off we are not going as far as the Capital Ashgabat in one hit we are too tired after the boat journey and its hot, there are now 4 of us in the van the windows are open and with 41degrees we feel like a hairdryer is being blown on us The roads are full of pot holes and we think this is bad, little do we know how bad the roads are going to get! After a 3 hour sweaty bumpy ride we arrive at a fairly modern looking hotel a little "Central Asian" in its decor but it has decent showers, air con and surprisingly a swimming pool but no wifi - we really can't understand this at all having just come from countries where even the local public convenience seems to have wifi! We are excited about the swimming pool until we get out and look at it, its an interesting shade of green not sure when it last saw any chlorine or cleaning solutions. The sun loungers are all broken and it is unbearably hot, we do swim a little but its not the fun experience we were hoping for more slimy and warm than cool and refreshing plus I'm paranoid that we are all going to get ear infections or worse from the water - hey ho it can only get better in the capital can't it?
We do venture out later that evening to eat the guide Rustam has told us about a local restaurant a short walk away. Walking around the town is strange, there are no gardens as it is all desert and all the houses/apartment blocks seem to have bars on the windows, we don't think this is anything to do with crime as Rustam tells us that Turkemenistan is virtually crimeless (unless you include ripping off tourists then I think they have a high crime rate!) but more of a hangover from the soviet days. The town doesn't look like a town at all, more of a gathering of dusty buildings no shops you can actually see as they are all hidden behind the barred windows and there is a distinct lack of advertising so all in all everything seems very barren.
We eventually find the restaurant decor is circa 1970's but it's full of young people so, it is obviously the local hip and happening place. Rustam has suggested we try the local camel milk which is camel milk mixed with fizzy water, an interesting mix once tried never forgotten and not to be repeated, it would also seem that you don't buy your vodka by the glass here but by the bottle! The food is unremarkable but in the middle of the meal the lights go out and the disco starts, with full on trance dance music, everyone is up and throwing some shapes - this is obviously why vodka is sold by the bottle!
The following day we drive to Ashgabat it was a full day's drive but we stop off for a swim in some extremely smelly underground caves, and another stop to look at some ancient mud houses, which I'm sure were really interesting but in 40degree heat with no shade seemed to lose their appeal a little.
Stinky underground lake
Ashgabat well the only word to describe it is Bonkers! You drive from the arid desert where there is absolutely nothing and then you come across this completely huge marble city, everything is made from marble and gold there are lavish palaces, manicured gardens and lots of fountains it looks like a cross between Las Vegas and Disney. The roads are huge and wide but there is no one on them, other than a sneaky policeman with his enormous Russian type hat trying to catch you out for speeding!
Where is everybody?!!
Rustam became quite animated as we arrived pointing out the varies ministry buildings. There was the Ministry of Education and the building was shaped to look like a book, the Ministry of foreign affairs with a globe on the top, the Ministry of Energy was built to look like a cigarette lighter with a flame, Ministry of communications building represented a mobile phone and my favourite the ministry of health looks like a the top of a needle and syringe! I think there were others but James and I were so busy sniggering in the back we probably missed a few was there going to be a ministry of funny walks shaped like a leg?
Ministry on Education - in the shape of a book!
Ministry of communication - in the likeness of a mobile phone - really?
Ministry of foreign affairs - with the globe on the top
Ministry of Health, in the shape of a needle!
He also pointed out the world's only indoor air conditioned Ferris Wheel (why?) and what used to be the largest flagpole in the world until a few yrs ago - they have a national flag day where they fly a flag 52x34m which weighs nearly half a ton.
Indoor Ferris Wheel
The city did look very impressive from afar all the buildings are covered in marble and it is the world's most marbled city, we asked Rustam if Turkmenistan produced marble ? No they import it all from where ever they can. The city it would seem has been built on off the back of Turkmens oil and gas revenue and is trying to tell the world something. We were also told that Turkmenistan is the third largest producer of gas - can you feel this theme emerging with the world biggest, Rustam was always keen to point out these little nuggets of information and seemed genuinely proud of each of these facts.
The Turkmen people are given virtually free gas, electricity and water by the government. Everything else is expensive, the average persons wages is around $400 per mth. We were told a story by another traveller who had heard that because the gas was free but matches were expensive people often kept the gas burner running the whole time so they didn't have to buy matches how true this is I don't know but they do seem to have a disregard for energy saving, or green issues.
We spent two nights in Ashgabat one law we did have to adhere to is that it is illegal to have a dirty vehicle so we had to get Tigger washed otherwise we would be fined! we spent the next day or so wandering around the city worried to take photos as its illegal to take pictures of some government buildings and there seems to be a scowling sullen faced policeman on every street corner watching us and waiting for us to do something wrong. No one was friendly no one spoke with us but positively went out of their way to ignore us, we felt we were being ripped off whenever we did buy anything. We didn't see any other tourists either, not surprising really as apparently it is the 7th least visited country in the world - that was a world statistic Rustam didn't tell us about!
It is forbidden to take pictures of the palace - whoops, what is that with the gold domes??!!
Marble Marble everywhere
We were happy to leave the controlling marble city behind, but it had a little goodbye gift for us. Driving out of the city we were pulled over and caught for speeding - John thinks it was very dubious that we were speeding but who were we to argue. The fine should have been 100manet (around £25) but this needed to be paid into a bank and it was Sunday and banks are closed, so the alternative is to take our licence off of us until we pay the fine the following day. To give Rustam his due he argued hard with the policeman that we needed to be out of the country the following day due to visas etc so couldn't wait around to pay the fine, consequently we paid 50manet to the policeman which "apparently" he would pay into the bank the following day - funnily enough we didn't get a receipt for that 50manet!
Next stop is the Gas crater which requires driving across the Karakum desert, this is Central Asia's hottest desert and you drive for hours through the same scenery of sand, dunes and camels. The Gas crater is a result of exploration for oil in the 1970's while the soviets were drilling the ground collapsed and the crater appeared. Because the crater was leaking gas they decided to set the crater on fire and expected it to burn for a few weeks - over four decades later it is still burning.
We camped here for the night and it was great to be back with Tigger
An early evening photo, spot the person and it gives you and idea of how big the crater is
And at night - it is also known as the "Door to Hell" and you can see why
It was a bit scary next to the edge and very hot
The following day we set out for the border which took more or less 12hrs continuous driving on the most abysmal roads, in fact we wouldn't even call them roads in the UK more likunusable farm tracks, deeply rutted in fact so bad it was better to drive off the road than on it if we could.
The border we had been heading for we heard was now closed so we had to drive a further 150km was there no end to this nightmare, we eventually reached the border at 5:40pm and they told us we were too late as they closed at 6pm however a $50 fine for using the extra road to get to unclosed border ensured that we got through that evening - funnily enough we didn't get a receipt for that $50 either and it seemed to go directly in someones top pocket!
By this time we didn't care we just wanted to get out of there, it was a hasty goodbye to Rustam,as everything was rushed .
So nothing bad happened in Turkmenistan it just wasn't our best experience, as soon as we crossed over the border into Uzbekistan it felt instantly different, friendlier, happier, so much more relaxed. However I have no doubt we will remember Turkmenistan for a long time to come!