STEPPES HON­EY­MOON

Turk­menistan for two

Vancouver Sun - - TRAVEL - FJOLA HELGADOTTIR

Most peo­ple have never heard of Ash­ga­bat, Turk­menistan and can­not point it out on a map.

Peo­ple of­ten say it is like a mix of Las Ve­gas and Py­ongyang. The city looks like a car­toon fairy­land, with huge struc­tures of mar­ble and gold ev­ery­where you look, and each sky­scraper is more lux­u­ri­ous than the last.

We vis­ited Turk­menistan as part of our hon­ey­moon trip from Syd­ney (Aus­tralia) to Ox­ford (Eng­land). We en­tered Turk­menistan’s bor­der town, Konye-Ur­gench, af­ter trav­el­ling across Uzbek­istan.

To get around in Cen­tral Asia is tricky. One of the main meth­ods of trans­port is go­ing to a hub, find­ing a car go­ing your di­rec­tion, and wait­ing one to five hours un­til it fills with peo­ple. Add a few chick­ens, a cou­ple ba­bies and at least two peo­ple on laps and then it leaves for your des­ti­na­tion.

Af­ter trav­el­ling in this area of the world for about a month, we got good at mak­ing lo­cal friends with­out any lan­guage in com­mon. Most peo­ple speak their na­tive lan­guage with Rus­sian as their sec­ond lan­guage.

While driv­ing across Uzbek­istan, the young man next to us showed us a seem­ingly end­less al­bum of pic­tures of him­self pos­ing in dif­fer­ent mil­i­tary out­fits with guns. The car over­heated sev­eral times and we had to stop and wait for it to cool down. At one point a cushy air-con­di­tioned tourist bus drove by, and we ques­tioned our de­ci­sion to travel in­de­pen­dently.

We met our guide Oleg in KonyeUr­gench. He was Rus­sian, a nonon­sense guy, and we had full con­fi­dence he would be able to han­dle what­ever Turk­menistan threw at us.

First, he drove us to a mar­ket so we could buy the lo­cal cur­rency, the Manat. Ex­chang­ing money in banks in Turk­menistan is too costly so every­one goes to mar­kets for money ex­change. Then we drove south through sandy dunes for hours, with camels dot­ting the land­scape. Fi­nally, we reached the gas crater in the mid­dle of the Karakum desert.

Stand­ing next to the crater, we ex­pe­ri­enced one of the most bizarre sights of our lives, with noth­ing around in the mid­dle of the grey desert and the bright flames light­ing up a mas­sive or­ange hole in the ground.

I woke up with a strong headache af­ter a night camp­ing next to the crater. I claimed it was the gas. My hus­band sus­pected it had more to do with the shots of vodka we had the night be­fore. Re­gard­less, we had a great night with Ir­ish Rudi, Ital­ian Alessan­dro, and our guide telling us scary sto­ries of peo­ple dis­ap­pear­ing into the flames.

On our drive to Ash­ga­bat, Turk­menistan’s cap­i­tal city, Oleg pointed out a place he said used to be a vil­lage. The Turk­men­bashi (for­mer pres­i­dent Sa­parmu­rat Niya­zov) didn’t like the looks of it, so he de­cided to tear it down.

Af­ter mak­ing it to Ash­ga­bat, we wan­dered around the city.

I’m sure many dic­ta­tors in the world would love to build a city like Ash­ga­bat, but Turk­menistan is unique in that it had a spec­tac­u­larly ec­cen­tric and nar­cis­sis­tic pres­i­dent, and enor­mous oil rev­enues that al­lowed him (and his pre­de­ces­sor, Gur­ban­guly Berdimuhame­dow) to in­dulge in all th­ese ridicu­lous van­ity projects.

For ex­am­ple, many of the build­ings in the city house use­less min­istries for this and that. There is the Min­istry of Horses (horse fea­tures are cut into its mar­ble), the Min­istry of Car­pets (with car­pet pat­tern dec­o­ra­tion on the front), the Min­istry of Com­mu­ni­ca­tion (looks like a big phone), and the Min­istry of Knowl­edge (shaped like a book).

The city is full of gold stat­ues of the for­mer pres­i­dent. Th­ese are be­ing slowly re­moved by the new pres­i­dent in ex­change for things more rel­e­vant to him­self. Turk­men­bashi was pretty crazy. He changed the names of some months and days to names of his fam­ily mem­bers. If that wasn’t enough, he even changed the Turk­men word for bread to the name of his mother!

An­other quick one — he was try­ing to quit smok­ing, so he banned smok­ing in any place where he might ac­ci­den­tally see an­other per­son smok­ing — even out­side in the coun­try­side! You can’t even smoke in the mid­dle of the desert!

Ba­si­cally, Turk­men­bashi banned things on a whim, and when he died in 2006 the new pres­i­dent (his for­mer den­tist!) re­versed some of the more out­landish laws — although the new pres­i­dent doesn’t seem to be much bet­ter. He is con­tin­u­ing the end­less build­ing spree, while spend­ing lit­tle money on things like ed­u­ca­tion.

On ev­ery street cor­ner there are a few young men in uni­forms whose only job is to make sure no­body walks in front of pub­lic build­ings or palaces, be­cause this looks shabby (there are un­der­passes). Also, tourists have been ar­rested for tak­ing pic­tures of the pres­i­dent’s palace. All traf­fic stops in the morn­ing when the pres­i­dent wants to use the roads to get to work, and peo­ple are sup­posed to hide be­hind parked cars if the pres­i­den­tial con­voy passes by.

We ac­ci­den­tally vis­ited Ash­ga­bat’s lat­est ho­tel when we were look­ing for a toi­let. The ho­tel had only been open for a few weeks, so they had plenty of staff ready and ea­ger to serve. They had just re­turned from France, where they learned the art of hos­pi­tal­ity.

They call the ho­tel Seven Stars. It fea­tured show­ers that em­u­lated rain, and the most lux­u­ri­ous toi­lets we’ve ever seen. The only prob­lem was the com­plete lack of guests. Turk­menistan is some­times called the world’s sec­ond most iso­lated coun­try (af­ter North Korea), so we won­dered how they plan to fill all 299 rooms (well, less be­cause the pres­i­dent has re­served a whole floor for him­self ).

We had been warned to not speak about our tour guide in our ho­tel room as this could get him in trou­ble. It is com­mon knowl­edge ho­tel rooms are bugged. This was a slightly chill­ing feel­ing.

We flew out of Ash­ga­bat to Azer­bai­jan, in a com­pletely empty Lufthansa plane, with mixed emo­tions. One the one hand we felt a sense of re­lief we were no longer un­der ob­ser­va­tion, but ab­so­lutely fas­ci­nated by what we just ex­pe­ri­enced.

Dr. Fjola Helgadottir stands bravely in front of a gas crater in the mid­dle of the Karakum desert in Turk­menistan in Cen­tral Asia.

The Ruhyyet Palace in Ash­ga­bat, Turk­menistan is a thing of beauty.

Change cur­rency at a Turk­menistan mar­ket rather than a bank.

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