(24) Ashgabat again: What do Mambo #5, Venus, I Feel Good, and Billie Jean have in common?

Why, I danced to them at a night club in Ashgabat.

An interesting evening upon my return to Ashgabat materialized. After returning to the hotel for a rest, I met up with Julica, Marta and Kuba to head for dinner. We exchanged stories (turns out Marta and Kuba have their passport under hostage and have been threatened to be deported by their tour agency) and then exchanged money before looking for food.

An unofficial taxi (read: a dude with a car) stopped near us, and Marta asked him to drive us to a traditional Turkmen restaurant, whatever that might look like. We headed about 5km through town and ended up at an overpriced and underwhelming place that rushed us to order as they were closing in 45 minutes at 10pm.

We ordered 3 dishes that we didn’t know what they were, plus a salad selected from a list of about 30 using the cover your eyes, swirl your finger, and point method.

Five minutes later our server returns to inform us that our 3 choices are not available. We reselect, using more blind pointing. And then are told that we must move inside and downstairs. So much for an evening in the relative cool. The inside reminds us a bit of a vampire den, plus there is the bottom of a boat with oars coming out of the ceiling.

The dinner finally arrives, and it is horrible (though I suppose we can only blame ourselves – we blind swirly finger picked the dishes).

  1. mayonnaise salad with potatoes, mushrooms, and pickled herring
  2. mayonnaise salad with chicken, mushrooms, corn and potatoes
  3. manty – like ground beef pot stickers – served with gobs of mayonnaise (we were expecting a usual topping of yogurt, until we started eating them)
  4. some sort of bird stewed in mushrooms and onions (we found about 4 grams of meat between the 4 of us)

Thankfully bread was served, as this made up the majority of what went into our stomachs.

As dinner ends, Kuba and Marta call the CouchSurfing host they have connected with here. Apparently he lives just around the block, and is shocked that we were taken to this restaurant. He picks us up in a shiny black SUV. He’s a young Turkish guy working here, selling apartment fixings (cabinets, etc) to new apartment buildings being built. The government is the builder, and they order mid-range stuff, but then the builders cancel the orders and take cheap stuff, pocketing the difference. Then, when the new, relatively wealthy owners move in, they rip everything out and order top of the line stuff. A great system. He’s been here 3 years, and says it’s getting better, more open. They’ve opened a movie theatre apparently.

We head to an outdoor cafe, where local yuppies come for a nightcap. Once we finally select drinks that are not only on the menu, but also in stock, the server disappears, only to come back 15min later to tell us that last call has already happened, and they are closing. It’s 10:45pm. Everything here has to shut down by 11pm.

We hang out for a while anyways. CouchSurfing dude has a girl with him. I ask him if it’s his wife. He laughs and shakes his head. It’s his girlfriend. When we are out of earshot, Marta tells me that he had his girlfriend with him last night too, except last night it was a different girl.

Finally, we head out to the nightclub. It’s a booming place, both in music and bodies. CouchSurfing dude’s girlfriend says she knows about 80% of the people there. And she says about the same percent of the women are “working”.

The music is a mix of shitty Russian techno, great oldies, and an eclectic series of Spanish songs. It’s world cup time and the club has soccer fever. The US – Ghana game is playing on the big screen.

Marta, Julica and I have a great time dancing when the songs are good. A lot of the time, the songs are not.

Eventually we are tired and want to go. It’s after 1am and we’re pooped. CouchSurfing dude has just started though. He apparently hops to 5 or so clubs each weekend night. We stay another hour until the US – Ghana games is over. I get dropped off at my hotel.

To find it locked. The front door to a large, seven story, three star hotel, is locked. I contemplate sitting down and lying my head back. I’m exhausted. I knock hard on the door. I look through the windows where I know the front desk is. Nothing. So I stand there. Thankfully, I spot a man on the other side. A guest? He tries the door but it’s locked from the inside too. A few minutes later, a sleep guard comes and opens the door for me. I feel like I’m trying to sneak in past my curfew and have been caught. I get to my room and fall to a deep slumber.

Next morning is bazaar time. The Sunday bazaar is supposed to be the best in Central Asia, so my expectations were high. Marta and Kuba came to meet me at my hotel, and we got a taxi together. My main hope at the market was to spot a carpet, but considering I had less than a hundred dollars with me, I obviously wasn’t going to be able to come back with much. Marta was interested in jewelry. We had also heard about the animal market, which sounded interesting.

At the market we wandered through food, kitchen supplies, automotive equipment. Nothing we were particularly interested in. The bazaar was huge, I’ll give it that. But nothing much more that a usual village market, times a thousand. Lots of people. Eventually we wound our way to the edge of the bazaar to the animal market. Camels, cows, sheep being bought and sold. The camels were most interesting. Mostly because camels are so foreign to me, but also because they have to use cranes to get them into the backs of trucks to transport them away. I checked out the cows. But I stopped short of the sheep. I knew I wouldn’t make it through there without getting incredibly uncomfortable. I first stopped eating mammal after my time on a sheep farm in NZ. Not that they were mistreated on the farm, but because when I helped get the sheep that were ready for slaughter onto the truck, I almost, but didn’t, cry (had to stay strong in front of the men, you know).  So I waited for the others by the cows.

We also ran into Julica here. A market with thousands of people, and you run into everyone you know.

We finally made it to the carpet and jewelry section too. The carpets were mostly underwhelming machine knotted pieces. A few nice silk ones, but I didn’t have a thousand dollars kicking around with me. Marta and Kuba left before me, and I continued to wander a bit further. Picked up a paring knife for about 30 cents to replace my Swiss Army knife, which I left behind at the hotel in Mary.

On the way back I picked up some fruit and veggies, and caught a cramped local bus back to the centre of town. When I got off the driver seemed frustrated when I tried to pay. Eventually I figured out he was asking me how many people I was paying for. Uh, me. The tourist. Is it not obvious I’m alone, with my khaki quick dry clothes and sunscreening safari hat?

Back at the hotel, I stayed in the rest of the day in air conditioned comfort. It was hot, and I was tired. Before I got to my room, the floor attendant tried to make sure I knew that I wasn’t supposed to eat in my room, and to not throw any of the stuff in the garbage here so that the crawly bugs stay away. I tried my best, using an extra bath towel as both my cutting board and my tupperware container for the fridge. I spent the evening listening to the original English underneath Russian-dubbed American movies.

The next morning was my last in Ashgabat, so I had to run a series of errands before we left. First was to finally get money from the only bank in town that does Visa cash advances. The unofficial taxi ride there was eye opening. So many white marble buildings surrounded by green grass. It was too over the top. The government here would be great at designing and maintaining golf resorts in Nevada, but I question the effectiveness of their economic development and social infrastructure.

The bank was, surprise surprise, a huge white marble building. Surprisingly little bureaucracy to get my USD. From there I walked to a monument nicknamed “The Plunger” by expats. It looks like, well, a huge white marble plunger. It was due east of the bank, about 2km I would guess. But to get there, I stumbled into a “real” neighbourhood. Surrounded in overgrown dried grass, were gravel streets of small homes, hanging laundry, small gardens. At first I thought I had stumbled onto a patch of poverty, hidden amongst the wealth on display on all sides surrounding area. But then I shook my head. This isn’t poverty. This is normalcy. Everything else is just so effusive, it can be easy to forget what normal is.

The Plunger did, in fact, live up to promises and look like a giant plunger. I ate icecream and took pictures, all the while expecting to be told by the many guards that pictures were not allowed. Seems like they were.

Caught a random bus that was heading in the direction of downtown, and I was pleasantly surprised to end up a block from my hotel. I ate some more towel-wrapped fruit and veggies, and checked out of the hotel after which I discretely disposed of my fruit and veggie waste in a bin on the street. Next up was internet, a snack, and mail. I was hoping to send a few things still to send home from Iran, but apparently 1/2 hour isn’t enough time to arrange that. I first filled out a form in quadruplicate (no carbon copies here, it was done by hand 4 times). They weighed my items. It was all looking good. And then they told me I couldn’t send home a few of the things. Then they wanted me to supply a bag. By this time I was supposed to be back at my hotel to meet the tour agency rep to pay for my tour. I gave up. And then they charged me 40 manat cents for the forms. About 15 Canadian cents, but I almost lost it.

It was my last interaction with Ashgabat . I tried to stay civil the post office staff. They were just doing their jobs, whatever their jobs were. But I stuffed my Iranian stuff back into my back in a very huffy way. So there.

(22) Ashgabat, Turkmenistan: Unsettled once more

I left Mashhad early. I had sort of expected to see Tom this morning – the guest house owner said a guy from New Zealand was arriving on a 4am bus from Tabas. But not to be. (Tom – was it you?) (Update: turns out it was – we missed each other by 30 minutes.)

I made it to the border with much better time than expected, ready to meet my guide on the other side from 11am. The road to the Turkmen border climbed and fell, through canyons and over broad hills. At the border I met a Polish couple and a German woman heading my way, and a Spanish journalist (his occupation shared with us in a whisper after scanning the room) heading the other way. It took us two unexpected hours to cross, but our guide was waiting, and we headed down the mountains to the flatness  of Turkmenistan that was on the other side.

Entering Ashgabat, the capital, just 10km away from the border, was surreal. Wide treed streets and huge white marble buildings. It was kind of like Las Vegas meets the Jetsons after a nuclear fallout. Very few people on the eerily clean and quiet streets. Police every 100m doing who knows what. Many examples of the government’s work (based on the extensive titles on ministry buildings) but little evidence of where people actually live in this city.

To give you a frame of reference for this country, you should know that there are only two types of Western tourists in this country. The first have a transit visa. They are given 5 days to get through the country, and have their entry and exit point specified on their visa. Most tourists get this visa. Many tourists with this visa are cyclists (of whom I met 6 in Mashhad). These tourists have freedom in the sense that they can travel under their own power within the country, but are trapped in that they have to do it in a straight line from border to border.

The other type of tourist has a full tourist visa. These are available for more than 5 days (I have 12 days if I want to use it) but require a tour guide at all times and a pre-arranged itinerary with a travel agency. I have used a very often referred agency named Stantours, and originally had a simply, four day itinerary booked with them (one that could have been done on a transit visa). However, as I approached my time in Turkmenistan, I wanted more.

I changed hotels (my original one set too far outside the city centre to walk around) and ended up next door to the Polish couple. I started the evening having my usual “first night in a new country” blues. It turns out my desired itinerary change to visit the Yangykala Canyon isn’t possible as guides aren’t available, and my original itinerary has me missing the infamous Sunday market in Ashgabat – one of, if not the best in Central Asia. Euros (my only cash) are also not possible to exchange in the usual venues, and it’s too late to get a credit card advance at the one bank in the country that does them. I wouldn’t be able to get to the bank anyways as I have no local currency to take a taxi. I was under the impression that the travel agent was going to help me with this upon arrival, but it didn’t happen.

So I shed a few “pity me” tears as I stood in my (rather lovely, actually) hotel room without money, food, or an itinerary that fulfilled me.

But then soon enough I was off with the Polish couple and we explored the city briefly in the evening in search of money exchange, dinner, and internet. They graciously lent me money to last a few days, we got dinner (and my first real beer in a month!) and I was able to update my itinerary to include a city and archeological site that I hadn’t really planned to see (thus ignoring my “geography not history” mantra) but which allows me to be back in Ashgabat for the Sunday market. I admit I was a bit jealous of the Polish couple. Their travel agency seemed to be a bit suspect, but this seems to allow them a bit more freedom. I hope their plans (or lack there of) work for them.

So I’m up at 5am for an early morning flight tomorrow, and things (perhaps) are looking up. I caught a bit of the NZ-Paraguay World Cup game over dinner (a lasting infection from time with Tom) and we strolled back to the hotel, getting stopped more than once for taking photos (what are they so afraid of?). May that’s what all the police are for: holding up their arms in an ‘x’ to signal tourists to stop whatever innocent thing they are doing.

Overall so far, this place is strange. It’s nothing like anywhere I’ve been to before. But where ever it is, I’m damn glad not to have to wear a headscarf.