September 2010: I have spent my life in pursuit of those places that are unique and different, and Turkmenistan is as different as a country comes. It is often called the North Korea of Central Asia because of its isolation both politically, and geographically because of its leaders such as the Turkmenbashi, who have established an almost divine rule over their country. Turkmenistan fascinated me and it was one of the country’s I prioritized my travels to since it was so out of the ordinary. Getting a visa is not easy and is only possible on the most part if a trip is organized via Turkmenistan based travel agency. Since this was pricey, I organized a group of co-travelers from Sweden and England over the Lonely Planet Thorn Tree forum to help share the costs of the trip and the four of us spent a week exploring Turkmenistan. My friends and I met in Istanbul, Turkey and flew to Ashgabat, Turkmenistan. This is the story of our trip to Turkmenistan.

 

 

About Turkmenistan

Location of Turkmenistan

Turkmenistan is a desert country of Islamic Turkmen people located in a bad neighborhood between Afghanistan, Iran and Uzbekistan. Turkmenistan declared its independence from the Soviet Union in 1991 and like many former Soviet States that have now become countries, it has been ruled power hungry dictators ever since its inception. The first dictator, the Turkmenbashi, Saparmurat Atayevich Niyazov died in 2006 and was replaced by a new dictator, Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov. Turkmenistan’s natural gas reserve, one of the largest in the world, has enabled the leaders to subsidize many of the daily costs of life for its citizens. This along with the Ministry of National Security (KNB), which is tasked with intelligence gathering spying on its citizens and keeping a firm grip on the general populace is why Turkmenistan’s totalitarian rulers have been able to rule for so long. 

Turkmenistan was also a prominent location along the Silk Road with ancient, ruined cities such as Merv, Capitol of the Great Seijuk Empire.  During the Silk Road cities like Merv, where bastions of safety for passing caravans enroute to China or Europe and were sanctuaries against bandits in the hostile Karakum Desert. The fierce Turkmen nomads always had a reputation for their warrior like ways and were well feared by passing caravans.

 

 

About His Excellency the Turkmenibashi

Turkmenistan was ruled by Saparmurat Atayevich Niyazov, who declared himself the Turkmenbashi or leader of the Turkmen from the early 90s until late 2006, when he died of a heart attack. There was no freedom of press, speech, or freedom of anything Turkmenbashi demanded absolute rule over his country and established a cult of personality around himself that was similar to the Kim Dynasty of North Korea. he renamed the months of the year and days of the week after childhood events of his, family members and anything else to his pleasing, he wrote a book called the Ruhnama, which he required every student, government official anyone taking a placement test to read. The book, which I bought and brought home with me claims to be a religious and cultural book that the Turkmenbashi called more important than the Koran, which says a lot considering the people of Turkmenistan are Islamic. He squandered millions of the country’s GDP on building gold plated statues and other bizarre monuments dedicated to himself all around the country and capitol, Ashgabat. One enormous statue of himself was designed to rotate to always face the sun.  His impulsive whims which often change on a daily basis sometimes had drastic effects on the people of Turkmenistan, while others just didn’t make sense to anyone. Here are a few of his decrees:

  •  He remade the capitol Ashbashat in white marble.
  • Lip syncing was banned as well as dogs in the capitol.
  • he renamed the Turkmen name for bread after his mother.
  • He banned smoking after he had to give it up after heart surgery. he also banned other activates like opera he considered un-Turkmen like.
  • Long hair and beards were banned for men.
  • All hospitals outside of Ashgabat were closed and anyone in the countryside was forced to come to the capitol for medical care. 
  • Car radios were banned.
  • Only clean cars are allowed in Ashgabat.
  • There are many more, but the list is too long to place here.

These are some of the remnants I saw in Ashgabat of the Turkmenbashi’s rule:

 

20′ tall gold plated statue of the Turkmenibashi

Giant Replica of the Turkmenibashi’s Book, thee Ruhnama-The book written by the president which now proudly graces my bookcase is a propaganda piece detailing the president’s view on Turkmen etiquette, history and culture. It has been translated into hundreds of languages and even sent to outerspace. The president required all students to study this book in school and even answer questions about it to get a drivers license

Base of the giant 50′ rotating gold statue of the Turkmenibashi that rotates with the sun. The new leader, Berdimuhamedow has dismantled it and according to rumor is building a statue of himself in its place.

Statue of Turkmenisbashi as a baby on top of the Earth that is on top of a Huge Bull

The New Leader-Cut From the Same Cloth as the Old Leader

 President Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow who replaced the successor to the Turkmenbashi after his death did so after the successor was immediately mysteriously arrested.  President Gurbanguly repealed many of the bizarre decrees of the Turkmenbashi and took down many of his statues and promised more of a normal government but during my visit, 3 years after President Gurbanguly took power, there seems to be little hope of democratic change and Gurbanguly has started to implement his own bizarre decrees and cult of personality. Instead, he has erected his own statues and murals across in honor of himself. The murals and statues are mandatory by law. In a similar fashion to the Kim’s of North Korea, the president has proven his so-called heroic mastery in all displays of masculinity such as horse racing and race car driving, among other events and he is always declared the champion in any race he partakes in.  These are some of crazy tributes to president Gurbanguly I saw during my visit in Turkmenistan:

Giant Mural of President Gurbanguly Outside of a Mosque

Portrait of president Gurbanguly on Wall in Economy Class of my Turkmen Domestic Flight to Mary  

A Museum dedicated to the history of Turkmenistan with a floor dedicated to Presdient Gurbanguly. Comical portraits that look superimposed of the president engaged in numerous sports, and  flattering poses were porudly on display. 

President Gurbanguly, the Yachtsman

President Gurbanguly, the race car driver

The Showcase City of Ashgabat

Both the Turkmenbashi and president Gurbanguly have decidedly made the determination that the capitol, Ashgabat would be the showcase city. The city was largely rebuilt by the Turkmenbashi after an earthquake and the Turkmenbashi wanted to remake the city into a showcase city of white marble. Ashgabat holds the Guiness World record for the highest density of marble clad buildings in the world.  There is the new and the old city. The old city is where most normal people live and the new white marble city and mostly new and is almost an artificial ghost town in appearance with little evidence of realness, similar to something you would find in North Korea. The streets are immaculate, avenues wide and largely devoid of cars, parks green with huge fountains and buildings all built with sparkling white marble. Upon entering the city, there is a police checkpoint and part of their inspection is to determine if your vehicle is clean enough to enter the city. A car was conveniently located near the police checkpoint. 

New City of Ashgabat

Turkmenistan with one of the lowest human rights ratings in the world is politically and economically isolated and I didn’t see any western corporate brands or restaurants. Even Coca Cola was not present. Instead, Turkmenistan has its own version of Coca-Cola called Turkmen Cola.

Turkmen Cola

We stayed in a Soviet era hotel in the city that was not cheap. Turkmenistan is expensive and all costs other than fuel are very high.  Our hotel was one of the few in the city, where foreigners were allowed to stay. There were rumors that rooms of foreigners might be bugged and Travel Writer; Paul Theroux was interrogated by intelligence officers when he stayed in Ashgabat and claimed his room was bugged. Needless to say, I was careful about my discussions even when in the perceived privacy of my hotel room.

From our hotel, we explored the city. There was a celebration in the streets of performers marching in traditional clothes. Turkmenistan in effort to eradicate western influence has really promoted its own culture and dancing and singing was done according to local traditions.

Statue of Prominent Historical Turkmen Figure in a Ashgabat Park with Multi-Colored Fountains

Random Parade in Ashagabat

In Ashgabat, my friends and I explored the city on our own usually without a guide. Aside from the markets where for some reason most people are very concerned about having their photo taken, everyone we met was great. They are not accustomed to tourists and are usually confused by a camera at first but most people I met were very flattered to have their photo taken.  The Turkmen girls are very beautiful and during the day, female students all wore a red traditional Turkmen dress with a colorful hat as a school uniform.  Whenever I approached them for photos they would giggle and agree. One group of girls spoke English and was very curious about why we were in Turkmenistan. I asked them if they had Facebook and they had never heard of it. We settled on exchanging emails.

Turkmen Female Students in their uniforms 

Turkmen Female Student

Turkmen Student

To get around Ashgabat at night, my friends and I would waive down any regular car on the side of the road, and in our experience any car driving by would serve as a taxi and we would just tell them where we wanted to go and agree on a price. Nightlife in Ashgabat was non-existent however, and we never did find any night clubs or bars. We would usually eat at a kebob shop and in the video below we were able to find some live music at a kebob shop, but the music was a far cry from being entertaining.

Ashgabat Nightlife

Horse Racing Stadium

The most interesting place we visited in Ashgabat was the horse race stadium where thousands of boys and men filled the stands to watch and gamble on races of the prized Turkman breed of horse. The stadium is free and is paid for by the government to promote pride in the Turkman breed of horse and to give young men a way to blow of some steam by horse gambling. This was also where the president would partake in horse races and would be declared champion. A huge mural of the president adorned the stadium wall. We sat in the stadium and watched a race. It was hilarious to witness the shouting, jumping and chaos in the stands as both men and boys screamed in excitement hoping their horse would win bringing them gambling winnings. The champion horse would be adorned by a handmade Turkmen carpet.

Turkmen Horse Racing

Crazed Fans Placing Wagers on Their Winning Horse

Crazed Fans Placing Wagers on Their Winning Horse

Crazed Fans Placing Wagers on Their Winning Horse

Market Place

In a place like Turkmenistan with a paranoid government that is always conducting surveillance of its citizens, you need to be careful where you take photos to avoid being detained. Any checkpoint, government facility is an obvious place to avoid photos, but some other places were not as obvious. In some marketplaces, I received overt opposition from bystanders when I presented my camera and whenever a gas station attendant observed my photos, I was warned that photos are not allowed. It was as if these were considered strategic or secure locations and a camera could potentially be used to compromise the security. I never did receive a proper explanation for this especially since most people outside of these places were more than happy to let me take their photos. But I was able to sneak some photos in marketplaces and even some people were willing to pose for me.

Man working inside a store we stopped to by snacks at

Smiling woman selling wares in a amarket

Friendly woman I met in a a market

The most fascinating market was outside of the city where belligerent and very unhappy camels are traded and loaded onto trucks by a crane. The nearby carpet market sold some pretty beautiful looking hand-crafted Turkmen carpets and some factor made ones from China too.

Camel Market

Carpet Market

Traveling Overland to Nokhur Mountain Village

Once outside of Ashgabat we passed several police checkpoints and outs passports and visas were checked. Most tourists that visit Turkmenistan do so on a transit visa, easier to get but more restrictive. The transit visa is only valid for a few days and doesn’t all travel outside of Ashgabat to most places of the country. I not only wanted to spend a week in Turkmenistan, but I wanted to see more of the country including the Darvaza gas crater. For this reason, I obtained a regular tourist visa, which is notorious for being difficult to obtain. The Turkmen immigration authorities can arbitrarily deny visas to foreigners but luckily for my friends and I, ours were issued in large part because of the well-connected Turkmen travel agency I booked out our trip through.

We drove from Ashgabat to Nokhur mountain village a few hours’ drive away. I requested a home stay to get a chance to interact with the local people in the countryside and this was going to be our opportunity. We were going to stay with a family in their home and observe their way of life.

The drive to the village was mostly on a dirt road. We passed a few interesting graveyards where the tombstones are adorned with the horns from wild mountain goats. The people of the village believe the spirit of the slain goat will help the deceased find their wat to heaven. Village life is very modest. Most houses have an outhouse, no plumbing and grow their own food. Natural gas is free, we observed gas pipes in local houses that weren’t even capped. Instead, they were being flared off. This is how cheap natural gas is. It is easier to burn it off than to contain excess flow.

The family we stayed with was kind and the mother cooked traditional meals for us and we sat on the floor of the living room on the carpet and shared our meals with tea. At night we slept on the floor in the living room in our sleeping bags that we all brought.

Driving to Nokhur Mountain Village

Village graves with wild ram horns on tombstones-spirits of rams are believed to guide the dead to heaven

Local man witlh traditional wool hat

Friendly village kid

The family we stayed with-milking the family cow

Eating dinner at our homestay

Family portraits hanging in the living room of our homestay

Kow Ata Cave (Underground Sulphur Lake)

One of the most surreal places we visited with the Kow Ata Cave (underground Sulphur Lake), To get to the Sulphur Lake there are hundreds of steps leading to the bottom of the cave where there is a dark lake that is also a hot spring. I was told that the lake had not been fully mapped and it was unknown how deep and vast the lake was but when I was swimming in it and I was reluctant to swim too far into the dark depths of the cave because I couldn’t help but to imagine some kind of monster lurking inside.

Kow Ata Cave

Entering the Sulphur Hot Springs for a swim

Ancient Silk Road City of Merv

From Ashgabat, we flew to Mary an hour flight to the northeast of Turkmenistan to visit the ancient Silk Road city of Merv, once the capitol of the powerful Seijuk Empire. Merv would eventually be ransacked and destroyed by Mongol hordes. We stayed in Mary for 2 nights and visited Merv on a day trip. Merv was full of old ruined buildings and mosques in the middle of the desert. The Soviet era city of Mary was also interesting. One night we went out looking for nightlife and we found two nightclubs. The first one was full of men dancing with each other to loud Turkmen music. it was a bizarre scene as the men danced traditionally Borat style waist to waist with one another. The next nightclub we went to was full of girls and boys and had more electronic music than traditional Turkmen music. We danced and drank beer with new Turkmen friends that we met in Mary.

Old Mosque in Merv

The building where dozens of virgin girls lived and  jumped to there death during the invasion of the Monghols. The girls fearing they would be raped chose death as a preferred option 

The building where dozens of virgin girls lived and  jumped to there death during the invasion of the Monghols. The girls fearing they would be raped chose death as a preferred option 

Inside pfan old mosque in Merv

Our van we drove around in when at Mary parked under a Soviet Mig Jet

The most interesting place we visited in Ashgabat was the horse race stadium where thousands of boys and men filled the stands to watch and gamble on races of the prized Turkman breed of horse. The stadium is free and is paid for by the government to promote pride in the Turkman breed of horse and to give young men a way to blow of some steam by horse gambling. This was also where the president would partake in horse races and would be declared champion. A huge mural of the president adorned the stadium wall. We sat in the stadium and watched a race. It was hilarious to witness the shouting, jumping and chaos in the stands as both men and boys screamed in excitement hoping their horse would win bringing them gambling winnings. The champion horse would be adorned by a handmade Turkmen carpet.

Into the Karakum Desert

The karakum a vast featureless hot desert dominates Turkmenistan. To reach the Darvaza Gas crater we needed to drive through the desert, which gave us a chance to see how people live in the small desert towns. Along the way we stopped to have lunch in a few desert villages, and we met some friendly locals. Most desert people were traditionally nomads living in yurt like structures. These days they live in concrete or mud brick houses and have yurts adjacent to their houses where they relax when their house gets too warm during the heat of the day.

Camels in the desert

Lunch with locals in a desert village

Traditional Turkmen bread, which is huge and doughy and shared by everyone at the table

Old Soviet truck common vehicle in the villages

Pet camel tied up to someone’s house

Yurt outside of someone’s house

Desert squirell 

A firendly Turkmen in a traditional wool hat that we met on the road

Darvaza Gas Crater

We finally reached Darvaza gas crater after driving across the desert all day. The gas crater often called the Gateway to hell is an enormous man-made accident-70 feet deep and 250 feet wide. There are no fences around it and you can walk right up to it edge and feel the heat from the 20′ tall flames raging below. There seems to be many stories about their origin but the most commonly told one is that the gas crater was created by the Soviets in the 70’s when drilling for natural gas. They accidentally ignited the gas flowing from pit and were unable to cut off the source of natural gas and the fire from one of the world’s largest natural gas reserves has burned ever since and could potentially burn for many more years to come. The government of Turkmenistan has promised for years to out the fire out but has not been successful yet.

Darvaza gas crater was located a few miles off of the main highway on a rough desert track. Then out of nowhere the fiery pit appears. We camped in tents a few hundred feet away up hill to avoid breathing in the dangerous fumes all night. It was an incredible experience to camp near the crater and to photograph it at night. We had the crater to ourselves and were free to roam about the crater at night and I explored the desert looking for snakes. In the middle of the night a herd of camels started us awake as they invaded our camp making Star Wars like sounds groaning and grunting. The next morning, we visited the crater again and then set off on the long day journey all the way back to Ashgabat.

Us Visiting the Gas Crater by Day

Us Visiting the Gas Crater by Day

Me in my tent

The 4 of us at the Darvaza Gas Crater

Two of my friends at the gas crater

me at the craters edge

13 + 10 =

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