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 😉