Turkmenistan for two
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.