Thursday, 1 December 2011

Turkmenistan - Did chickens or eggs come first?

Turkmenistan is one of the most autocratic and isolationist countries in the world, second only to North Korea, and therefore not easy to travel in. However, it is key to many overlanders as it connects Asia with Iran and the Southern Caucasus. Other routes would involve travelling through Afghanistan and/or Pakistan. Our Turkmen visas gave us 5 days to cross the country through the desert to the Caspian Sea where we would try to get a place on a cargo ship to Azerbaijan. We had to enter at the specified border crossing on a specified date and then the race was on to get the boat out within 5 days. This was travelling at its most stressful.

The border crossing at Konye Urgench turned out to be one of the more straight forward ones we had experienced, especially considering it was meant to be a restricted area. Although at one point a thermometer was thrust under our armpit and the reading carefully noted. On taking a taxi into the town we headed to the market. People wore traditional clothing here more than anywhere else in Central Asia. The women wore bright red or green dresses with embroidered collars and had their hair in long plaited pigtails. Everyone seemed friendly enough and no police bothered us.

We negotiated places in a shared taxi and jumped in with a father and son heading to Ashgabat for a wedding. The drive took us past cotton fields where the harvest was in full swing. Unlike in Uzbekistan, where the cotton was harvested by teams of people picking the cotton by hand, here the process seemed to be completely mechanised with large, new-looking combine harvester type vehicles. When the irrigation channels ran out the landscape abruptly turned into desert and camels roamed serenely by. Our fellow passengers kept the conversation going with a constant stream of questions. Did we grow cotton in England? Did we have camels? How much is a litre of petrol? How much?!?

After a lull the old man, entirely seriously, piped up with, "in England do people think the chicken or the egg came first?"

This threw James for a moment, before he could reply with, "well we are not sure".

"No, we are not sure yet either," he said.

Our intention was to get the taxi to drop us off at the Darvaza gas craters. This man-made phenomenon  was caused when the natural gas was accidentally set alight, creating a fiery spectacle akin to the gates of Hell. After the taxi driver had asked a few people at the roadside for directions we stopped at a ramshackle hut and asked about staying the night and visiting the craters, as well as getting a lift to Ashgabat the following day. Everyone there was drunk. They quoted us an outrageous price. We got back into the taxi and headed down the road to the next hut to see if we could find a better price. The drunks pursued us in a land cruiser. At the second hut the men were also drunk but less aggressive, quoting us a more reasonable price, however, once the men from the first hut protested, he withdrew his offer. Everyone was drunk, there wasn't a woman in sight and, now finely tuned, travel alarm bells were ringing. The taxi driver was now asking for more money than our initial agreement. We decided that the best thing to do was to miss out the gas craters and reluctantly get back in the taxi to continue on to Ashgabat.

We arrived into Ashgabat late. Wandering around the empty streets of this bizarre white marble city we tried to find a reasonably priced hotel room. In the end we gave up and paid $60 for a shabby Soviet era room - the most we had paid on our trip so far. That evening we scoured the streets for some food. We ended up in an area with some ex-pat bars, the first of which was full of prostitutes, the second, in which we ate, was empty. Walking back to the hotel we popped into a corner shop to buy some bread and jam for breakfast. The shopkeeper followed James around the shop as if he was about to steal something, then short changed us when we paid.

The following day we were determined explore the city. The streets were eerily quiet. Roads were lined with government buildings which had names such as the Ministry of Fairness and each of these white marble monuments had a soldier on duty outside. If we strayed too close to the building the soldier would come running over, blowing his whistle and order us to move away. There was nothing visible to mark the point at which one was too close, so as we walked down the street we were followed by a succession of frantically waving soldiers. Other misdemeanours that we found made the soldiers twitchy included getting our cameras out to take photos. We had read that the police didn't like tourists taking pictures of the Presidential Palace but only so much of a wave of a camera in its vicinity would send a soldier scurrying over. Walking through the deserted parks we tried to find the Arch of Neutrality, on top of which the famous gold statue of Turkmenbashi rotated to always face the sun, but as rumoured, it had been removed and just an empty concrete pit remained. The ridiculous statue which depicts the baby Turkmenbashi on a gold globe between the horns of a bull, sited above the Earthquake Museum (which was closed), does still happily exist.

As we explored the city on foot we were suddenly aware of the sound of thousands of voices all chanting together. Following the noise we came across a military parade on the parade square outside the Presidental Palace. We were not allowed to get too close and could not, of course, take any photos but the police did allow us to watch from a distance. Thousands of soldiers marched in perfect time, platoons and companies of men and women in military uniform. The most spectacular sight, however, was of the Akhal-Teke horses a Turkmen breed of horse. Rarely seen out of Turkmenistan, Akhal-Teke horses were brown, bay and grey but with the most incredible golden sheen, like nothing I'd ever seen before. Their riders were no horsemen, sitting on the animals like sacks of potatoes and flapping at their sides which sent them skittering across the parade square.

Leaving the parade square we were left wondering why a supposedly neutral country needs such a big army. As continued our walk towards Turkmenbashi's World of Fairy Tales we past rows of military trucks which prompted us to be trailed by a not particularly conspicuous army officer. The World of Fairy Tales is a large attraction in the middle of the city. To clear the space for it to be built hundreds of people were evicted from their homes. The day we visited it was closed, apparently it only opened on Tuesdays between 3-5 pm. The guard let us peek through the entrance, revealing a scruffy fairground.

International opinion is that Turkmens are fairly content with the political situation, they get free gas and an allocation of petrol free, supposedly appeasing them into tolerating the dictatorship. The system of free utilities leads to incredible waste. For example, whilst gas is free matches are not and this results in people lighting stoves and leaving them on to conserve matches. With respect to a contented society, we found this not to be true on several occasions. In Ashgabat a taxi driver spontaneously launched into a tirade of criticism about the government. On a second occasion, a driver in a 4 by 4 stopped to give us a lift so that he could tell us his thoughts about the government. "This is no better than Saddam or Gaddaffi," he said, "you must write about how bad it is in Turkmenistan when you get home."

Having seen the sights of Ashgabat we didn't feel like staying another night in an over-priced hotel so headed to the train station to try to buy a sleeper ticket west to Turkmenbashi on the Caspian Sea. The first three cashiers at the station all told us the train was full and the best we could hope for was a seated ticket for our 11 hour journey. Having resigned ourselves to not getting a bed, the forth cashier we spoke to decided that there were in fact sleeper tickets available and we snapped them up.

Turkmenbashi is a tiny town on the edge of Caspian. Hot and dusty it had little to offer the tourist apart from pleasant sea views, crystal clear waters and over-priced hotel rooms. Luckily the notoriously irregular ferry was leaving that evening, so after a day wandering around the town we boarded the ferry and continued west.

Turkmen desert
How to transport a sheep Turkmen style

Someone is watching you James!

Typical Ashgabat municipal building

Park in Ashgabat - note the absence of any people

Ashgabat - marble city, gold statues, empty streets

Me with some women in traditional dress

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