Asia South Korea

The World’s Only Demilitarized Zone

The DMZ is a fascinating place. The history of the Korean peninsula and the geopolitical situation there now remain unique around the world, and I was so looking forward to getting a chance to see more of it for myself. I got picked up from Seoul pretty early – obviously, the border is highly regulated, and so my understanding is that there’s a system where you go from Seoul to a park near the DMZ border, then the guide goes and picks up timed tickets and then from there you can get back on the bus at the specific time they give you.

The park where you start out is mostly memorials and information, including some photos and a shot up train that used to run between the Koreas. We had quite a while there while we waited for our logistics to be sorted out.

From there, you take a bus to the Demilitarized Zone. We started with a movie about the whole concept, which is where the title of the post comes from – they talked about how this is the only demilitarized zone in the world, kind of as if it was a flex, which was interesting. Then we were allowed to go into the 3rd infiltration tunnel, which was one of the cooler parts of the whole experience. We all put on hard hats and headed down, where you can walk through the tunnel basically up until North Korean territory. We weren’t allowed to take pictures in the tunnel, but you can take a picture with mannequins of soldiers.

It is a weird tourist destination – sort of like how I had a hard time with Amsterdam making weed and prostitution ~touristy~, there was an element of this that felt very strange. After the infiltration tunnel, you go to the observatory, where you can go to the roof and look through binoculars into North Korea. It’s apparently their third largest city, according to what they told us.

When I was there, it was shortly after that idiot American soldier defected, so the Joint Security Area was closed. It was kind of a bummer because I think that would have been interesting to see, but apparently it gets shut down a lot at any hint of concern so this was probably the more normal version of the tour.

The observatory had a lot of artwork in the lobby about the effects of the separation between North and South Korea, which was pretty interesting to observe. It’s always strange when people don’t cross a border but a border crosses them – my own family experienced that in Central Europe in the early 20th century, but it would be so strange to be in a place that got divided as starkly as North and South Korea for so long.

All in all, a fascinating experience, and something I was glad to get the chance to do while I was in Korea this time. The DMZ is unlike anywhere else.

Asia South Korea

More Than A Stopover in Seoul

I first visited Seoul on a stopover coming back from China in January 2019. There are a lot of great things to say about China, but it was also pretty tough in some ways, and I remember being unbelievably excited that places in Seoul would take my foreign credit card. I had told myself that I would return at some point, because I could tell that I needed more than 24 hours to explore the city, and it ended up working with my flight path for this trip! I was so happy to get the chance to take more time in Seoul, which remains one of my favorite places in East Asia. I got an Airbnb near the Mapo train station, and it had cool views both during the day and at night.

One of the fun things since the last time I’ve been in Seoul is that I’ve gotten more interested in Korean media. I still haven’t watched any K dramas yet (I know, I need to!) but I did see Parasite in the theater, became mildly obsessed with it, and have been working my way through Bong Joon-ho’s entire filmography. So I was super excited to come across this view of the river.

Yes, that is the monster from The Host (2006). Not the Stephanie Meyer one. Look it up and join me in this rabbit hole. Not too far away is the Korean version of Denmark’s Little Mermaid, and she’s even smaller this time.

I also did a couple things that I found overrated – I went to the top of N Seoul Tower, which had cool views of the city but otherwise felt a little touristy, and went to the bookstore at COEX mall, which was cool to see but obviously I wasn’t the only one who went to go take pictures so it wasn’t exactly my optimal bookstore experience (which is walking through in a fugue state and picking up every book with a cool cover to see if the plot looks interesting).

My favorite thing in Seoul is still just wandering. Especially given my next destination on this trip is not a good place to just walk aimlessly (more on this later), so I was truly savoring it in Seoul. I love getting lost in a place and then trying to figure it out. At one point, I was trying to meet a friend for lunch and I ended up on some sort of pathway, and then had to try to figure out how to get back on a normal street again.

I also love in the East Asian cities how the temples are built seamlessly into ultra modern parts of cities – I still think about that photo I took in Beijing with the temple with the Old Navy sign in the background. I had a fun time trying for some artsy shots in Seoul as well.

One of the other things I was most excited about was getting the chance to do a day trip to the DMZ! I would have loved to go last time but I didn’t have time. The next post will be focused on my experience there before I left the Korean peninsula for my next country and 5th continent.

Asia Cambodia

Recent History in Phnom Penh

Although Cambodia has no shortage of incredible ancient history, its recent history is more tragic. The primary activity that comes up in the guidebooks when you visit Phnom Penh is visiting Prison S-21 and the Choeung Ek Genocidal Center, which is located at the former Killing Fields. I am always fascinated by how countries represent their dark periods of history, and after taking a course in college about how we memorialize genocide, it was important to me to come see these sites and pay my respects.

As it was explained by my guide, Cambodia tried really hard to stay neutral during the Vietnam War – they didn’t want to anger Vietnam, their neighbor, but they also weren’t excited about angering the United States either given its considerable firepower and economic dominance at that time. However, after an arms deal that helped Vietnam, the United States helped overthrow their King and installed their own government. At this point, it opened the door for Pol Pot and his fellow communist revolutionaries to gain traction. They told the people they were interested in reinstalling their royal family, which was a popular sentiment but also totally untrue.

Once he came into power, Pol Pot and his administration carried out a brutal genocide, lasting from 1975 to 1979 and killing around 2 million people, about a quarter of Cambodia’s population. Even those who were not killed were often whisked from the cities and towns where they grew up to work in rural fields, and a number of those who died were killed by starvation and overwork. I knew some of the basic details. I read And First They Killed My Father, and watched the movie adaptation as well. I also watched the movie The Killing Fields. These were excellent, but I still was not prepared for the full scale of the atrocities that were described at the museums. I took a tour, which ended up being me and a couple from the UK, so our guide was able to take plenty of time with us and answer all our questions.

My tour started at the site of the Killing Fields. After watching a short film (informative but with rather dated special effects), we worked our way through a museum exhibition on the timeline of the genocide and then headed out to the Killing Fields themselves.

I’ve gone to other sites dealing with genocide – first of all, my college course about memorializing the Holocaust that took us to Auschwitz and Birkenau, and also, a number of Native American sites in the United States that focus on that history as well. But in both of those cases, I knew more of the details upfront, so while there was a sense of processing and grieving, it wasn’t necessarily learning most of the details about the genocide from scratch. Between that and how recent these events were, it was a very hard day emotionally.

In the Killing Fields, there were still bones and victims’ clothing embedded in the ground. Our guide told us that more is revealed every year during rainy season. They had built walkways over and around the mass graves, but it was absolutely heartbreaking to learn about the number of people for whom that was their final resting place. They have a memorial with some of the bones nearby, which made the scale of death so much more real.

From there, we headed to the S-21 Prison site. This was closer to the city, and was where they held prisoners before taking them out to murder them in the Killing Fields. It had been a school before it was turned into a prison. We walked through where they held the victims. Some of the areas were kept as they were when people stayed there, including bloodstains on the floors and ceilings. Others had been turned into a museum exhibit. There were images of the victims, and some very graphic images of the violence that had been done here. Other sections included weapons that were used and bones of some of the victims.

Ultimately, I was so glad to have gone on the tour, but it was a hard day for sure. Luckily, the rest of my time in Phnom Penh was less emotionally exhausting! The hotel I booked was one of my favorites I’ve ever stayed in – I had upgraded to have a private pool, and it was fantastic. The hotel was called Pavilion and I would absolutely consider going back to Phnom Penh just to stay there again.

I also spent some time walking near the Royal Palace, near the Wat Botum Park and the Sisowath Riverside Park. It was so pleasant – there were families, kids rollerblading, people walking dogs. I was just struck by how Phnom Penh has managed to move on from their history and rebuild. While the scars will always remain, I’m so impressed by their resilience as a country.

All in all, I loved Cambodia and would absolutely recommend it to anyone going to Southeast Asia. I spent six days there across Siem Reap and Phnom Penh, and definitely could have enjoyed more time in both.

Asia Cambodia

Siem Reap and the Angkor Temple Complex

The Angkor temple complex is one of the most famous landmarks in Asia, and after spending a few days visiting Siem Reap, I can see why! I ended up spending about three and a half days in the city, two of which were in the temple complex itself, and had a great time.

Hello to Country #39!

Cambodia featured some of my favorite hotels I’ve ever stayed in! I was in the Mane Village Suites in Siem Reap, which was absolutely gorgeous and included a massage as part of my room reservation.

Something that surprised and delighted me about Siem Reap was the number of Cambodian-Mexican fusion restaurants. My hotel was an easy walk into town or an even easier tuk tuk ride, and it was nice to have the option to go get a frozen margarita after the long and hot days visiting temples. I also tried local Angkor beer! Not sure if my server did the best pour but I did enjoy it.

The focus of this part of the trip was obviously the Angkor temple complex. I booked a two day tour that included watching the sunrise at the complex on the second day. The first day started with four temples. Some first impressions – I was surprised at how much they let us access. Some of the more popular temples had more strict paths, with more areas roped off, but especially the less common ones more or less let us climb the towers and wander freely.

It sounds like they have had some significant problems with looting. Our guide would point out places where the statues have been replaced with replicas made with concrete, just so that the thieves couldn’t take the real versions. It is a massive area, so I could see where it’s hard to keep everything protected.

For our sunrise tour, it was brutal when my alarm went off. My hotel had packed me a boxed lunch, which was nice, and I left that on the bus while I followed my tour guide through the dark. We were heading to the most famous temple in the complex, Angkor Wat itself. Often, people refer to the whole complex as Angkor Wat, but that’s actually not correct. Anyway, we got to a good viewpoint and took a ton of pictures. This was the only place where it felt particularly touristy, for the record. Most of the other temples had other tour groups, but the site is so big and so spread out that it wasn’t that noticeable most of the time that there were lots of other people visiting. That sunrise was gorgeous, though! Definitely worth it.

One of the interesting things about some of the other temples was watching nature reclaim the area. In some areas, large trees were growing on top of the temples, or sending their roots over the ceilings and down into the floors. We saw scaffolding trying to hold up the buildings. The restoration efforts look quite significant.

We also saw bullet holes from the Khmer Rouge in one of the temples, which was pretty wild. I got much more of this history in Phnom Penh (stay tuned for that) but it was strange to imagine them hiding out this far into the rural areas as the regime started to crumble.

I would absolutely recommend visiting Siem Reap and the Angkor complex. I had high expectations, and it exceeded them! One of the cooler historical sites I’ve been to globally, and in conjunction with the hospitality I experienced in Cambodia, it’s on my list of favorite travel experiences.

Asia Vietnam

Hectic Hanoi

Coming from the calm and orderly Singapore, Hanoi felt even more chaotic. Honestly, if I was doing the trip again, I would have structured the order slightly differently. I feel like my first experience of wandering around Hanoi was so overwhelming that I didn’t get the best first impression. But I figured out dinner, and the next day I went to Ha Long Bay, and by the time I got back, I was ready to embrace the city!

I was staying in the Old Quarter, so a lot of my exploration of the city involved wandering around the winding streets and trying to cross streets (which felt very similar to the video game Frogger). It was walkable to most of the bigger tourist sites, but I did use Grab to call cabs for a few trips since it was fairly hot and humid, even in March.

The first monument I visited was the Hoa Lo Prison, which I found fascinating. It captures a lot of the important periods of history of Vietnam. It was built by the French when they were colonizing Vietnam, and was a location where they held the “radicals” who wanted an independent Vietnam. The first half or so was all about the awful conditions in the prison. From there, it talked about how the prison was used to hold American prisoners of war in the 1960s, where it got the name “Hanoi Hilton.” Famously, the American politician John McCain was held in this particular prison. I am always interested to see how different countries represent history, and this one didn’t disappoint. This period of history is spoken about rather differently in the United States, and when I return to Vietnam, I will definitely want to go see more of the sites in the south closer to HCMC.

There were a lot of beautiful temples and older architecture as well. My personal favorite was the Temple of Literature, which was really pleasant to wander around. I also visited the Imperial Citadel, but that one felt like it was more focused on the archeological and preservation aspects of the site. That was interesting but not really what I was expecting when I visited. That was also one I went to right before I was supposed to go to the airport so I spent my time there a bit stressed about making sure I left on time to go back to the hotel and pick up my luggage. Nonetheless, always cool to see some of the older sites in a country. The Imperial Citadel is from 1010 CE, which is almost unfathomably old coming from the United States!

Another relatively touristy activity that I did was the water puppet theater! This reminded me of the Sichuan opera in China, although that one had a greater percentage of locals to tourists. That said, they’re both performances designed to capture specific local traditions, and while I’m not sure how much the water puppet theater is still performed in Vietnam outside of the tourist centers, it was legitimately cool. The stories were apparently about the founding and myths around Vietnam, and while I didn’t follow the parts that were told in Vietnamese, the puppets were beautiful and the effects were pretty impressive. It was also a nice few hours in an air conditioned theater, so it is a worthy addition to any Hanoi itinerary.

I managed to accidentally save my favorite experience for last. One of the interesting aspects of communist countries is the instinct to embalm their leaders and put them in a mausoleum for all to see. I didn’t go see Mao while I was in Beijing, although in hindsight, I wish I had. So while I was here, I made sure I went to go see Ho Chi Minh. When I showed up to Ba Dinh Square, it was clear that I had managed to time it to overlap with a school’s field trip, as I found myself surrounded by tons of Vietnamese children. After going through security and walking through a grand yet foreboding square – it does rather feel like Tiananmen – I went through the freezing cold mausoleum, and stared down at the man who, in death, looked like a kindly old Vietnamese grandpa. The giant Vietnamese flag and hammer and sickle were present on the wall behind him.

All in all, Vietnam was fascinating. I wish I’d had time to travel to everywhere in the country that I wanted, but it was a great taste of the northern part and I look forward to returning for the other places on my list someday!

Asia Vietnam

A Cruise Through Ha Long Bay

Ha Long Bay was absolutely incredible! I took a two day one night cruise. It was my splurge of the trip, and it was so worth it. After a drive through the countryside from Hanoi, they took us out to the cruise on smaller boats and the adventure began.

En route to our ship

One of the things I’ve noticed about Vietnam’s tourism industry is that they have a very hands-on idea of how to give good customer service. As we transferred to the ship, the employees sprinkled rose petals on our head. We were immediately treated to a meal with so many courses I lost count, and when I went to bed, there was a handwritten note and a rose on my bed! I found that the employees had this same instinct at my hotel in Hanoi. It’s nice but also a bit overwhelming sometimes.

The view from my room’s balcony was stunning!

The highlight for me of the whole experience was kayaking in the bay! I was the second person out on the water, which meant that for a while, it felt as though I had the whole place to myself. It was so peaceful and beautiful.

We also did a tour to Dark Cave and Bright Cave, where someone rowed us through the cave and into a new section of the bay. Unfortunately, this area had some trash in the water, which is always a bummer. It was still cool, but I thought the kayaking was better. We did see monkeys in the trees above the caves, which our guide said was a rare treat!

The two days one night cruise was amazing, but if I was going to do it again, I might have gone for the three day and two night version. I didn’t want to leave the boat when it was time to take us back to Hanoi!

Anyway. Highly recommend Ha Long Bay. The company I went with, Elite of the Seas, did an incredible job showing us around this UNESCO site, and I would absolutely go on a cruise with them again. It was my favorite part of Vietnam that I’ve seen so far!

Asia Singapore

Singapore Stopovers

Singapore feels like this amazing Asian utopian melting pot, with the meticulous organization (and prices) of a Disney theme park. As one of the main flight hubs in Southeast Asia, I had a stopover at the beginning of my trip and another at the end, so I got about two days in Singapore to explore!

I did finally find the famous part of the Singapore airport on stopover #2!

My company has an office in Singapore, which is one of our main Asian hubs. Even though I wasn’t working on this trip, I did stop by the office to meet up with a few coworkers and see the amazing views of Marina Sands! It was so cool to meet up with people that I’ve spent years talking to on Zoom and Slack and email, and they had lots of recommendations for where I should go during my visit.

One of their top recommendations was Gardens by the Bay! It’s this amazing botanical garden, and they have the giant sculptures that look like trees that you’ve probably seen if you’ve seen any picture of Singapore. Or Crazy Rich Asians, which absolutely made Singapore look amazing and was some serious travel inspo. Anyway, every night they do a free light show where they play classical music and then project lights on the tree sculptures, and I thought it was going to be a little cheesy/touristy but it was amazing. I laid out on the grass and watched the sun set and it’s one of my favorite memories of my time in the city.

Singapore is also known for its ethnic neighborhoods! I stayed in Chinatown for my first night, and spent a lot of time wandering the Little India and Kampong Glam areas as well. Honestly, most of what I did during the day was just walk around, and it was such an incredible way to see the city. One of my coworkers told me that if you walked end to end in Singapore, it would be about one marathon of walking.

The other thing that really struck me while I was there was how futuristic it all felt! First of all, the metro was amazing and functional and so easy to use. The malls that I went into were incredibly fancy, like the Marina Sands one that had an actual canal with gondolas inside it? I low key wanted to ride one of the gondolas but they were done by the time I was in the right area.

I also did all the touristy things while I was there, like go to the Raffles Hotel and order a wildly overpriced Singapore Sling, and go take pictures of the Merlion. I ate lunch at a hawker center. As a warning, those do require cash, which was the only time I needed it while in the city. When I left the Gardens by the Bay, I came back out through Marina Sands and found that there was another dancing fountain show happening in front of the skyline. Sometimes it felt Disney, but in a way that just felt functional instead of fake.

I’ve been excited to visit Singapore for a long time, and it lived up to all my expectations! Such a cool city, and a great introduction to Southeast Asia. I’m looking forward to my next visit and will definitely add it to the itinerary on my next visit to the region.

Asia Turkmenistan

Adventures in Ashgabat

How can I begin to describe Ashgabat?

It’s unlike anywhere I’ve ever been before.  It’s unlike anything I’ve ever seen in a movie or TV show, unlike anything I’ve ever read about in a book, unlike anything I’ve ever contemplated.  It feels a little like the world’s largest science fiction movie set, or perhaps what would result if Walt Disney and President Snow from the Hunger Games decided to collaborate on a city.  I spent the entire time we were there glued to the bus window, trying to capture every second into my memory, and actually strained my neck in my effort to see out both sides of the bus simultaneously.

Almost every building in Ashgabat is built out of white marble, imported from Italy.  Everything is designed down to the smallest detail, from the lampposts to the telephone booths to the bus stations, and nearly every park and roundabout has a stunning monument of some sort. The government buildings are often themed to what their purpose is, like how the Department of Education looks like a giant book and I think the one for Energy or Natural Gas looks like a giant lighter. The stadium is recognizable from anywhere in the city, because it’s shaped like a horse. The airport (which is gorgeous, by the way) looks like a flying bird on the outside.

Ironically, the aspect of Ashgabat that felt the most unusual was the lack of people. When I started writing this post back in October, that was something that I had planned to comment on extensively. We could cross six lane streets and not see a single car. And then when COVID first hit, suddenly it felt like the whole world was like that. Nevertheless, for a pre-COVID city, it was shocking to go to parks and restaurants and malls and not see anyone around. We did spend some time in a mall that had locals, but almost at all of the monuments and museums, we were the only people there.

One of my absolute favorite places we visited was the park in the pictures above. See if you can spot me in that picture. The scale of the monuments is next level. While we were here, we got to watch a changing of the guard ceremony – I’m sad I didn’t get the chance to photograph or videotape it! They’re very strict about photos of anything involving the military, which is fair. But it was pretty amazing. The man twirled the gun like a baton.

This is the largest indoor ferris wheel in the world. I know, weird flex, isn’t it? But we arrived in the middle of a hot and hazy day to find it empty and turned off. We all sort of shrugged and got ready to get back in the bus, but our guide said they would turn it on just for us. And he went and got the employees, and sure enough, they ushered us in and turned on the ferris wheel.

There’s the view from the way down. There was an arcade at the bottom of the ferris wheel, and that was all off too. Our guide went to get the employees again and they turned it all on for us. We played a few rounds of air hockey, and then he asked us if we wanted to do bumper cars. “Sure,” we said. Out came the employees again. Is this what it feels like to be a movie star?

One of the other world records held in Turkmenistan is the largest handmade carpet. We went to the Carpet Museum while we were there. I wasn’t sure what to expect – a whole museum of rugs? But it was amazing. Our guide talked about how each design represents a specific region, and taught us to recognize where the patterns come from. The craftsmanship is very impressive, although sadly I could only take pictures in the final room.

One last picture to highlight before the gallery – this one, taken not by me but by someone else on my tour group. This is a bottle of water that a waiter brought out at one of our dinners.

Images speak louder the words, so here’s a selection of pictures I took while I was in Ashgabat. It’s not an easy place to go, but I’m so glad I got to have even a small glimpse into one of the most private and unusual countries in the world.

Asia Turkmenistan

Thoughts from Turkmenistan

This post is basically going to be everything we did outside of Darvaza and Ashgabat, with a few random reflections on my time in the country.  It’s going to get a bit out of order, because I want to keep my pictures from Ashgabat together.

I wish I had a picture of every single billboard we saw, because they were all fascinating. Most of the time, they had this sort of font, but sometimes there were horses or pictures of the president.
What’s a road trip without a couple stops at local gas stations? In Turkmenistan, every gas station is state run and looks exactly the same.

During our drives across the country, there were a number of checkpoints we had to go through. Tourism is highly restricted in Turkmenistan, and any visitor is required to be part of a tour group. I believe there’s an exception for anyone who can get a five day transit visa, but even so, it was incredibly helpful to have our guide. He warned us when we weren’t allowed to take pictures, explained about the history and culture, and arranged activities and tours based on our interests.

The countryside reminds me a lot of Arizona in the United States. There were less cacti and more camels, but otherwise, it felt like we could be driving to my grandma’s house. There are a lot of stalls on the side of the road selling melons throughout Turkmenistan, and we stopped at one of them on the way out to the gas crater and bought some for dinner.  The woman selling them cut off a few chunks of them and let us try, and it was so delicious. At one point on a drive, our guide played music sung by the president of Turkmenistan.  Apparently, he’s put out several albums. Some of the songs were pretty catchy.

As we left the Darvaza gas crater the next morning, we stopped by a few other craters that had collapsed but were full of mud or water – they weren’t quite as impressive as the one full of fire.  Nevertheless, it seems like maybe that’s not the best area of the desert to drill for natural gas.  Then our guide took us to a semi-nomadic village.  Comparing that with Ashgabat, the difference was rather stark.  Our guide told us that some of these villages don’t have running water.  They still live essentially how they lived prior to the Soviet Union, except they no longer migrate the way they did historically.  Not all the villages we saw were as poor as the one pictured, but it was an interesting look at income inequality in Turkmenistan.

This was especially startling considering our next stop was Ashgabat. I’ll get to that in my next post. From Ashgabat, we took a day trip to ruins at Nisa, which is an ancient fortress. We saw several locals taking wedding pictures from one of the hills, which was understandable – it was absolutely beautiful to walk around as the sun set.

We headed out to Mary, which is the 4th largest city in Turkmenistan. On the way, we stopped off at ruins in Abiverd, which were probably my favorite that we saw. More of it seemed to be standing, and we spent maybe half an hour just wandering through. There were so many pottery shards and other small artifacts throughout the ruins, and it almost felt like living out the fantasy of being an archeologist. I could kneel down and wipe away dirt and find a piece of a glazed pot, and there’s something so thrilling about that.

At one point on our way both to and from Mary, we passed within about 10 miles from the border with Iran.  Turkmenistan is at such an interesting crossroads – it borders both Iran and Afghanistan, and Russia is just on the other side of the Caspian Sea.  Turkmenistan actually petitioned the UN to become formally neutral, which is something they’re very proud of.  There’s a monument in one of their parks, the Arch of Neutrality, that celebrates this.

Mary felt like a city that had developed more naturally than Ashgabat – it had less of that intentionally planned vibe.  There was one section with the types of buildings that we saw in Ashgabat, with a large mosque, a library, and a few other monuments.  We stopped there after dinner one of the days we were there and walked around.  When we went back to the bus, our bus driver had begun talking to two local older ladies, and they ended up talking to us as well.  It was a bit of a challenge but one of the people in our group spoke some basic Russian and they could communicate that way.  They said that the Canadian prime minister (Trudeau) is very attractive and that the UK prime minister (Johnson) looks like he just got out of bed, which sounds accurate on both counts.

We had a day trip from Mary as well.  We went to Merv, which was one of the world’s largest cities at one point.  It was an oasis city in the Silk Road for centuries. So much of it has been destroyed, but we got to walk around the remaining structures.  It’s fascinating to see the scale of what remains.  We literally had to take the bus between the ruins.  Like the other ruins we visited, shards of pottery still littered the ground.  Occasionally we saw them embedded in the walls of the ruins.

At one point, we saw a herd of camels being shepherded into a new area.  I’d never seen a camel outside of a zoo before this trip!

After Merv, part of our group wanted to go to a different archeological site, which is something that was a logistical challenge for our guide because of the controls on tourism. Three people elected to go to Gonur Tepe, which is an important historical place, but it required a drive through the desert that was 2+ hours each way, and the majority of our group wasn’t that interested.  We’d been coming off of a number of extremely long days in Ashgabat and wanted a little free time.  So our guide dropped us off at a restaurant for lunch with the bus driver and went with them.

For the afternoon, we mostly stayed at the hotel, but we were allowed to take a quick trip to the market across the street.  The bus driver watched us from the hotel.  Crossing the street was a bit of an adventure, as there weren’t any crosswalks and drivers have the right of way over pedestrians, but we followed the locals and made it there and back in one piece.  The market was mostly fruit and vegetables and other food products, so it was all locals.  It was pleasant to just be among them after so many places we’d gone that had no Turkmen people.  Our guide told us locals prefer markets since they can haggle on the prices.  After walking around for a bit, we ended up playing cards and drinking while we waited for the rest of our group to get back for dinner.  We played cards the next day on the bus as well and invited our guide to join us.  He told us he had never played cards with women before. He picked up the games quickly and the ride back felt much faster.

Turkmenistan was fascinating for many reasons, a number of which I’ll get into in my next post.  Few countries are so isolated from the rest of the world.  When we would wander through grocery stores, the prices of any imported products were outrageously expensive. The Nutella pictured above is about $32 USD for the larger size.  There was not a single Western chain that I saw throughout the entire country.  No McDonald’s, no Starbucks, nothing.  All of the gas stations were state run.  I had been shocked at the number of Western food chains when I was in China, and here I had the complete opposite reaction.

One of the other aspects I found interesting is the cult of personality surrounding the leader of Turkmenistan. There were a number of billboards and images of him throughout the city, which is something I’ve never seen before in the countries I’ve visited. This billboard above was next to the large mosque in Mary.

My next post will be on Ashgabat, which was absolutely a highlight of this trip for me!

Asia Turkmenistan

Standing at the Gates of Hell

You have no idea how long I’ve wanted to use that title.

From Khiva, we woke up early so that we could cross the border into Turkmenistan! For those of you who know nothing about Turkmenistan, you’re in good company – it’s one of the most closed off and secretive countries on the planet. John Oliver recently did a segment about it, which has helped raise awareness that it exists. The guy at Walgreens who took my passport photos for the visa had seen that segment and was very excited to hear I was going there. Basically, the short version is that it was once a primarily tribal and nomadic region, and then it existed under the Soviet Union for about 70 years, and since 1991, it has been ruled by two consecutive autocrats. It’s also the world’s 4th largest producer of natural gas, so it’s a very rich and very isolated country. For additional context, I would also recommend this podcast about the first ruler post-USSR.

Low key obsessed with looking at things in the Turkmen language. Their billboards were all fascinating and I wish I had pictures of every single one.

This was actually my first land border crossing. We went through about three different checkpoints to get out of Uzbekistan, and then ended up in no man’s land. Turkmenistan would periodically send what looked like an authentically Soviet minivan to come collect us. Our entire tour group and all our luggage were crammed in and we were driven to the checkpoint. Thankfully our new guide was there to help us navigate the visa on arrival process. It’s one of the most difficult visas to get, apparently. We had our Letters of Invitation already, so we just had to pay the fee and wait in all the lines. The fee, interestingly enough, varies both country to country and day to day. There’s a base rate per country. I think for a US citizen it was $55, which was the same as Canada and Australia. For the UK citizen on our trip, it was $85. Then from there they charge an additional amount, which could be anything. I think mine ended up being around $82. You have to pay in new US dollars. Like, beautiful crisp ones – they actually turned a few of mine away. And after each person paid, they had to sign 18 different receipts (and no, that’s not an exaggeration). Nonetheless, while the process was a bit long, it was essentially painless.

Our first stop within the country was Konye-Urgench. I’ll be quite honest with you, dear internet, I don’t know much about ancient history in Central Asia. So I’m sure some of the historical significance was lost on me. It’s an ancient city, it was on the Silk Road, and it’s a UNESCO site. That’s all I’ve got.

It’s interesting, though, because Turkmenistan takes a very different tack from Uzbekistan. Instead of building their historical sites back up to look like they did in the past, they leave everything more or less as is. Obviously there’s preservation work, as you can see above, but it doesn’t feel as though you’re actually back in the past. Most of it is left in ruin. More on this later in some of the other sites.

Konye-Urgench also had a decent amount of locals, more than we saw at pretty much any other site we visited, and our guide said that it’s still looked at as a holy place, and so people will come to pray there and do rituals. There was one group gathered by a tree, and the tree had a sort of hole in it where there was water. People would dip their hands in the water and touch their faces, and it was said to cure them of headaches and other pains.

Once we had seen all the buildings there, we switched from our bus to some vehicles with four wheel drive and headed off into the desert to go to the Darvaza Crater! This is something I was really looking forward to. It’s also sometimes called the Door to Hell or the Gates of Hell, which is my personal favorite since it sounds more dramatic. The story here is that they were drilling for natural gas out in the desert – and we’re talking WAY in the desert – when there was a collapse where they were drilling. They figured they’d just burn off the excess natural gas that was being released into the atmosphere, and they figured it would burn off within a couple weeks. And that was in 1971. It’s still burning.

The drive out was honestly a bit harrowing. Maybe it was just that I was sitting in the back of the car, but it felt a bit like the Disney Indiana Jones ride, where they’re intentionally trying to make it feel bumpy. But we arrived in one piece! We’d unfortunately missed sunset, so we had dinner before heading over to the crater. Our guide had bought us some vodka and then there were grilled vegetables and meat.

Standing next to the crater was… amazing. Mesmerizing, to watch the flames flicker. Sometimes there would be a gust of wind and the combination of heat and gas would make it feel as though you were standing in an oven. Dumb tourists exist everywhere, because we watched people dangle their feet over the edge while their friends took a picture. It takes a lot of audacity to do that, considering this is an attraction that was literally created by the ground collapsing.

We spent the night camping, which was surprisingly comfortable. I was up very early, and although we may have missed the sunset, I got to spend sunrise at the crater. Watching the sun crest over the horizon was incredible. When it was time for breakfast, I headed back and made friends with the local guard dog, which was an alabai. They’re a Turkmen guard dog, and they actually clip both the ears and the tail so that the dog has less weaknesses if it gets into a fight. The one at our camp was so sweet, and I was sad to leave him when we continued on our tour!

I had high expectations for the Gates of Hell, and it was everything I wanted it to be. Plus, honestly, the fact that I can say that I’ve “stood at the Gates of Hell” or “camped at the Gates of Hell” or any other variation thereof…. that alone almost makes the entire trip worth it 😉