(25) Darvaza and Konye-Urgench, Turkmenistan: Into the fiery pits of hell

I sat waiting to meet the local travel agency rep at 2pm in my hotel lobby. I figured she wouldn’t be late, seeing as we were meeting so I could pay her for my tour.

At 3:15pm I get a call from her via the hotel reception – why wasn’t I at the other hotel? Uh, because you told me to meet you here at 2 and I’ve been waiting for over an hour. Apparently some messages weren’t passed on by reception that I was supposed to meet her at Julica’s hotel at 3pm. Even if I got that message, I wouldn’t have gone. I’m not paying hundreds of dollars not get picked up and to have to lug my bags across the city.

So we get it all sorted, and eventually are on the road at about 4pm.

(Aside: Instead of me drawing this out in a bajillion words like I usually do, let me show you my intermittent blog writing process. Sometimes when I don’t have time or desire to write a complete post, I’ll just write notes to remind me later. Below is the rest of this post, in point form.)

pick up supplies. more vodka.

long drive. desolate. passed two towns.

camels. intermittent sand dunes.

flat tire. road is hot. sand is hot, too hot to touch or walk in without boots.

stop one more time for supplies. this time it’s mixers for the vodka. egg to test on the hot ground. camels tied up in the back yards.

water crater. old gas crater filled with water. small bubbles.

sun is going down, shadows are long, light is golden.

destination down sand road. like driving down a waterslide. set up camp near the burning gas crater. can’t see much other than heat waves.

viewpoint reveals inside the crater. not what I expected, but possibly better. like hell. fire and brimstone. what is brimstone? maybe this.

dinner is chicken shishlak (shish kabobs) and salad. we make the salad. guide and driver sit with the meat. before we eat, vodka commences. a bottle costs about $2. i pass every second round, so as to not repeat last time’s after effects.

moon starts to rise. we leave dinner for the crater and photos. darkness. crater is truly like I imagine hell would be. functioning gas well in the 50s but exploded and not possible to close. setting on fire is the safest option.

guide stays behind as we walk down to crater but Maksad, the guide from Mary, is also here. our guide more interested in vodka than guiding. slept with iPod most of day.

dung beetles attracted if you do the ‘big event’ says Maksad. I don’t understand at first. ah, yes, take a crap.

arrange with Maksad to maybe send my lost swiss army knife with other tourists.

btw, Marta and Kuba still have passport held hostage in Ashgabat. sneaky.

more vodka and chatting back at camp. uzbek tips from australian/french couple. guide keeps interrupting convo with fairly irrelevant commentary.

temperature is nice in wind, but tent a bit stuffy. settle into sleep.

up at 6:30

simple bfast. my stomach is off, but i don’t think from alcohol.

drop of polish couple – hitching back to ashgabat.

more desert.

fish got for lunch from fisherman.

roads bad. better to drive on gravel shoulder than actual road.

more old mosques and mausoleums. yawn. funny hill that people roll down for good luck – fertility, prosperity.

stopped in konye-urgench. finally a real town in this make believe country.

market before lunch. colourful. scarfs. photos. smiles. police give us the “no photos” arm cross, but then walk away. we ignore them.

fish takes a long time, but good. lovely yogurt. where did the rest of the fish go?

hurried out. more time at market? driver needs to go back to ashgabat. phone call with antonina. feeling rushed out of county. our itinerary said 6pm.

walk again, but stopped by julica falling in man hole. no ice. ice cream, frozen vegetable stock, half frozen juice in a bag. limited first aid. accidentally sit on egg i meant to test. comedy of errors in our last hour in Turkmenistan.

finally to the border.

This border was possibily the funniest and easiest border crossing I’ve had yet. We start off on the Turkmen side, where our guide has warned us not to take photos. However, Julica asks the first two guards, hanging underneath a tree, if she can take a photo of them. Instead of the usual stern faced, crossed arms we have experienced so far, we get giggles. They point at each other and say things that must translate to something like “Take a picture of him!” “No, take a picture of him!”

We get to the first main checkpoint, and I’m nervous about the painting I have. I don’t want it confiscated. We get to a room where it seems bags may be searched, and I find that I need to use the toilet. Now. We ask the guards. No toilet they say. I plead, and they laugh. They point to a building behind the room we are in. Oops, I stand corrected. They point to behind the building that’s behind the room we are in. I relieve myself in tall grass. When I come back, I expect the luggage search, but I am waived on. At the next stop the Turkmen guard speaks rather good English, and other than checking our passports briefly and telling us the extra paperwork we have been carrying in our passports for the past 6 days is now our souvenir and not important, he waives away our praise of his English. “I’m just a beginner,” he says with a humble smile.

Just before we cross into Uzbekistan, a final, solemn guard checks our passports. Considering how difficult and stern the other police have been, these four checkpoints have been breezy. Julica suggests it’s because we’re on our way out. They’re happy to see us leave.

In Uzbekistan, the first borderguard makes a remark about the Vancouver Olympics. I ask him which sports Uzbek athletes are good at, and he apologizes that he understands English better than he can speak it, so instead he mimes an array of sports. It’s like we’re playing charades. Uh… downhill skiing? No! Rowing? Yes! Next one. Uhhh…. wrestling, no, no… uhhh.. judo! This goes on for a while.

The next stop is the customs stop. We are given forms to fill out twice. In the “do you have art?” column, I move to check yes, but the guard tells me no. I point to the painting. He still says no. I suspect it’s because it will make more work for him, not because it’s the legitimate thing to do.

He asks sternly to look in our bags; specifically, he wants to see our medicine. I pull out my small ziploc bag of first aid supplies. He slowly flips through my bandaids one by one. He takes out my tensor bandage. “What is this?” he asks. I mime a hurt knee and getting bandaged. At this point I really hope he’s not planning to go through the whole bag. I don’t want to have to explain condoms. But he stops. He’s apparently not interested in the unlabeled pill containers I have.

Then the man checks out my passport again, and suddenly he’s all smiles.

“Vancouver?” he questions. “Vancouver Canucks!”

I start laughing in amazement. “Yes, Vancouver Canucks.”

He continues. “Vancouver Canucks, Calgary Flames, Edmonton Oilers!” He starts listing Canadian NHL teams eastward. This is surreal.

And then, it was over. The now friendly border guard helps us confirm a fair price for a taxi, and we head off. The driver drops us off at our hotel and tries to pretend that the price we agreed on was per person. We walk away. Our first impression of Uzbekistan.

(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.

(23) Mary, Turkmenistan: The Art of Coincidence

The trip to Mary started early. Had to be ready for pickup at 5am to catch. The German girl I was joining, Julica, was staying at a different hotel and we went to pick her up next. The main roads to her hotel were closed off by more of the same police that populate every street corner it seems. I’m told it’s because the President is in one of the buildings (at 5:15am is he sleeping or working?).

Turns out Julica didn’t set her alarm, and we set off for the airport a bit later than expected. I’ll admit she got ready quick, but she still found time to put her makeup on. I barely understand the effort people expend to put on daily makeup in Canada, let alone while travelling in Central Asia, but I suppose everyone carries some comforts with them.

The domestic Turkmenistan flights seem to pooh-pooh international flight regulations. Namely, I could bring my water bottle with me! I’m sure I went through security of some sort, but the amount of seat shifting that took place leads me to believe that the passenger side of things is pretty lax. As long as the pilots and mechanics run a tight ship, I don’t mind. The 45min flight saved us 6 hours driving, served breakfast, and only cost $18.

Our first stop after touchdown was Merv, a old expansive something-or-other, now just ruins. I’m sure it would have been of greater interest to history buffs, but if it ain’t pretty, it’s a bore to me. I can guarantee about every ancient site I see in Iran and Central Asia will probably have been pillaged by either/both Alexander the Great in the 4th century BC or Gengis Khan in the 1200s. One interesting thing was that at one site a Buddha head had been found, and it is thought that this is the most easterly evidence of the expansion of Buddhism.

I did lots of head nodding and made lots of “mm hmm” noises as the guide gave us his script. I could tell Julica was feeling the same. We both asked a requisite number of questions, but soon it was getting hot, and we just wanted to get out of the sun.

We headed to the hotel, which is apparently the nicest in town and popular with Iranian truck drivers (and therefore Russian prostitutes). I suppose I’m painting a pretty grimy picture, but in actually the rooms were incredibly expansive and clean. And really, clean is all I ask. I went to lunch with Maksad, the guide, and Julica picked up some things from a mini mart to eat in her room.

Maksad is 28 but looks older. He blames his military service. I blame the smoking. I thought at first he was Russian, but he’s actually from a Turkmen tribe in the southwest of the country, one of five in Turkmenistan. He has left Turkmenistan twice. Once for 18 months of military service in Pakistan. Another time he was chosen as one of two cadets and two officers to represent Turkmenistan at the 200th birthday of West Point Military Academy in the US.

We eat lunch in a booth of a dark, smoky, air-conditioned pub beside the hotel. It’s still early so options are limited. I have a large bottle of Coke and a minced beef and onion pastry thing. I never drink Coca Cola in Canada, but it’s a godsend when travelling for me. Anytime my meal is too greasy or none-too-appetizing, Coke makes it (almost) all better.

We all rest during the afternoon in our rooms, and meet later to visit one of the major sites of Mary town – the big museum. There are rooms dedicated to the area’s archeology, ethnography, ecology, contemporary artists, and of course, a room dedicated to photos of the exploits of the president. The president playing sports. The president with a dental patient (don’t worry, he is a dentist by profession). The president cooking outside a yurt. The president on a horse. The president shaking hands with various heads of state. Most of the images are (badly) photoshopped. It’s all highly amusing.

While the country contains many gold statues of the former president (self-named Turkmenbashi), all of the enormous posters hanging outside of buildings and inside buildings are of the new president. Why? “Because the people want it,” they say. By ‘they’ I mean the presidents. I suppose one of the white marble government ministry buildings back in Ashgabat is the Ministry of Making Posters of the President Doing Honourable Things in the Name of Nation Building for Display in Prominent and All Other Locations.

The ecology room is also entertaining. Satisfactorily stuffed animals with unreal eyes set up in overly dramatic scenes.

My favourite room is the contemporary art room. Sculpture, painting, prints. In one corner two paintings catch my eye, and I make a note of the name to look up on the internet at a later time. Or maybe I can buy a print of one of them in the gift shop. Julica has a few favourites of her own. Pomegranates are a common feature in the art. We’re told it’s because pomegranates are used to symbolize women. Women’s lives are like pomegranates – sometimes sweet, sometimes bitter.

Julica and I were both interested in checking out artist studio spaces in Mary. There was one listed in the Lonely Planet, and a contact of Julica also suggested a place to visit. After some reluctant phone calls made by Maksad, we found one of them. It was a nondescript old building. We entered with hesitation. Inside was just a long hallway; all the doors were closed. Maksad knocks on the first one. An older man opens the door, and inside is his studio. The paintings automatically look familiar and lovely to me.

He was the artist that I made the note of in the museum.

An amazing coincidence. I see prices on a few of the paintings, and automatically know that I’m going to buy something.

The artist doesn’t speak any English, but through Maksad we learn of some exhibitions his paintings have been featured in around Central Asia and Europe. One painting catches my eye and I make an inquiry on the price. $120. I only have Euros with me, and ask if he will take Euros. I calculate that I should pay about 100 Euros, but he counters the offer with a price of 80 Euros. I don’t think this is the way bargaining is supposed to work, but I’m not complaining.

The painting is entitled “Summer”. To be honest I don’t recognize much of what is in the painting. I see some birds and some trees. It’s pretty abstract, but I love the colours and am attracted to the piece. It’s part of a series of four – one for each season. The “Winter” piece is still on his easel. It turns out he just completed Summer the day before, so parts of it are still wet.¬† I feel bad for breaking up the seasons, but am looking forward to hanging it in my home.

Once the other artists know that we are in the building, other doors open, and we tour other studios. Nothing appeals like Gurbamov’s work. We soon leave.

The original plan from here was to just to go to dinner, but Julica insists that we find somewhere in the town that local people are. Julica and I have similar interests in our travels, so it’s nice to have her along. She’s a bit more demanding and insistent than I am, and I really appreciate it.

Maksad suggests we stop at Lenin Park, a large park near a river with a few restaurants and rides. The park was full with people enjoying a cultural concert that finished just as we entered. Other people were getting on the rides. Others still were just sitting on benches, talking and people watching.

Turkmen women dress so beautifully. The standard outfit is a long, richly coloured, figure-hugging floral dress with a white lace pattern around the neck. Many of them also wear scarves, but they are wrapped around their hair, rather than the face.

I decide to try out the ferris wheel, and Maksad comes along. It costs 25 cents, and affords a lovely view of Mary and the park. We continue through the park and also try out a small roller coaster. It’s a small circular track with rolling hills. The cars are powered by a motor in the middle of the circle. We have to ride back and forth a few times to get the momentum to get over the first hill. But once we got going, it was actually pretty fun, even a bit scary.

We walked to our dinner spot, passing by golden statues of the former president, and old soviet block style apartment buildings with dozens of oversized satellite dishes littering the outer walls and the roof.

And then was dinner. With vodka. Or maybe you could say we had vodka with a bit of food on the side. Vodka is generally had with meat as a snack. The first shot was incredibly smooth. Four shots later we had done dinner, and I was done like dinner. They were my first shots of hard alchohol in a long, long time. Julica and I treat Maksad for the spread.

During dinner we watched a Russian prostitute try her thing across the street. Compared to the Turkmen women, Russian women here generally dressed very provocatively, and it’s hard to tell the difference between a working woman and not.

I have to say that I may be experiencing a culture shock for the first time here. On any other trip that I’ve done, I usually just slip in and out of the culture. I go with the flow when I arrive in a new country, and when I get back home I slide back into my comfortable life, perhaps with a new perspective on life and material things, but no shock.

Here though, having moved from Iran to Turkmenistan, I feel strange. I feel naked and exposed without my headscarf, like everyone is looking at me. I keep trying to pull down the back of my shirt to cover my butt. I’m shocked and disgusted with the short, low-cut dresses and blatant sexuality that abounds. I can’t imagine what it would be for someone who grew up in Iran. No wonder Iranian men can only get visas here if their wives come along.

Back at the hotel after dinner, we go to the hotel bar for more drinks. Maksad didn’t feel comfortable with us paying for dinner so now it’s payback in the form of more drinks. More vodka, with apricot juice chaser. We have fun watching the Iranian truck drivers attempting to make moves on the local working women. There are way more men than women – do the woman do two rounds? They must, and the men must be used to how it works here. I see three men leave with three women. They are back within 10 minutes. Other men, who have been quiet until now, finally get up on the dance floor and start doing their mating rituals to attract the females. It’s all very entertaining. Maksad reads Julica and I well and the next round is a pot of tea.

The next morning we have a surprisingly decent breakfast, served by a woman doing double duty after last night. She was wearing a very ironic graphic t-shirt, based on how she makes her income, but I forget what it said. Breakfast is usually bread with honey or jam, possibly a hard boiled egg, and maybe some sliced tomatoe and cucumber. Here it’s an egg scramble with fried tomatoes, zucchini, onions, peppers. Mm!

We stop back by Gurbamov’s studio to pick up a receipt/certificate, so that I won’t have any problems taking it out of the country. Julica decides to buy a painting too, bargains a little, and pays 10 Euro less than me. She asks me later why I didn’t bargain, and I tell her I don’t usually bargain with artists themselves, as usually I find art is generally underpriced as it is.

We stop by another artist studio space, and the artist of one of Julica’s favourite paintings from the museum is there. She shows him the pictures she took of his painting in the museum, and as she flips to the next photo, a painting of another artist comes up.

“Ayni!” he yells upstairs.

Turns out the other artist also works out of this space, and they happen to be partners.

We head upstairs to the woman’s studio, and she is the artist from the museum who liked to use pomegranates. My eyes fall on one particular painting. Julica is entranced as well. We enquire about prices, and she laughs uncomfortably. She throws out random, high numbers. It’s obvious she doesn’t want to sell. She mentions that she has an exhibition in the fall of next year, and she wants her work to become more well known before then. Her paintings sitting in our homes won’t do much for her. Julica and I both make note of the titles of the works we like, and seriously consider buying them in the future.

Back on the road, I begin to feel vaguely ill. I don’t share in lunch with the others. Six shots of vodka the night previous will do that to me.

On the six hourmdrive back, the road is sparse and dry. The roads are OK, but nothing compared to quality of Iran’s. We stop at two archeological sites, but I’m not really for this kind of stuff. Neither is Julica really, but we oblige our guide. One of the sites was midly interesting as it was an old mosque destroyed in the large 1948 earthquake. Luckily, extensive pictures had been taken by a researcher in 1947. It was interesting to see the comparisons of past to present. The devastation was remarkable.

All in all, Mary was a worthy sidetrip, but not for the standard itinerary. Instead, the value was in what we did above and beyond the usual. Like I expected, archeology – meh; but people, art, and rollercoasters – unexpected yes.

(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.