“After Iran and Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan is going to seem normal.”
– me, after a day in Ashgabat
Let’s take a show of hands. Who can identify Turkmenistan on a map, describe any significant event in its history, or name its capital city? I’ll admit that before we started to plan this trip, I would have failed all of the above. Turkmenistan is unlikely to feature on many travelers’ bucket lists. It has no world-famous sights and its visa regime makes travel bureaucratic and expensive.
From what we could tell, visitors to Turkmenistan fall into one of two categories: overland travelers en route between countries, and aficionados of the weird and wacky. For Turkmenistan’s single most defining feature is its quirkiness. This is a country where the previous leader named the days of the week after his family members, it’s illegal to drive a dirty car in the capital, and the most famous sight is a flame-emitting gas crater.
We organized a four-day, three-night trip across Turkmenistan from the Iranian border at Bajgiran to the Uzbekistan border with Stantours. We spent two nights in the capital, Ashgabat, and camped in the desert near Darvaza Gas Crater on the third night. We found that Turkmenistan was every bit as weird as we expected.
Ashgabat: Disneyland for a Despot
Ashgabat is what you get when you combine oil and gas wealth, a small population, and megalomaniac rulers with absolute power and a taste for neoclassical monuments. Ashgabat today is a city of gleaming white marble, neoclassical architecture, and monuments to the glory of Turkmenistan and its leaders.
You can’t understand Ashgabat without knowing about Sapurmarat Niyazov, aka Turkmenbashi (“Leader of the Turkmens”), the first president of Turkmenistan from independence until his death in 2007. He knocked down the Soviet city and rebuilt Ashgabat as a monument to his personality cult. Turkmenbashi is known for the eccentric rules and regulations he introduced, such as banning ballet and naming the days of the week after his relatives. His chef-d’oeuvre was a book named Ruhnama (“The Book of the Soul.”) For many years it was required reading in schools, and a statue of the book is prominently displayed in one of Ashgabat’s parks.
The current president, Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov, is slightly less excessive than his predecessor, but has a booming personality cult of his own. His portrait is above every shop or hotel counter, on billboards, and rather creepily, on video screens scattered throughout the city.
Not content to use his predecessor’s palace, Berdymukhamedov built himself a brand-new, bigger presidential palace across the street. Unfortunately, the government area is strictly off-limits for photography. This is a shame as it has some of the most surreal city planning that we’ve ever seen: huge white buildings topped with golden domes, rose gardens with huge statues of Turkmen horses, and broad avenues with video screens showing clips of the president and his government at work. It’s hard to describe just how odd it felt to walk around this part of Ashgabat. The streets were absolutely empty except for policemen, one of whom barked at Paul for walking too close to the palace. It was easy to believe that we were being watched on video screens in a control center deep in one of the government ministries.
A dictator’s fantasy city must of course be clean. As we strolled through Ashgabat’s numerous parks and gardens, armies of workers swept the pathways and clipped the hedges. Litter was almost nonexistent. At night, a crew of young men repainted the pedestrian crossings near our hotel in fresh white paint even though the existing paint was barely dulled. The Russian Market, the main food market, was sparkling, with vendors wearing white uniforms.
One of the big differences we noticed coming from Iran was how clean and new the cars were. In Iran, cars are ancient, smoke-belching rattletraps thanks to the economic sanctions. In Ashgabat, every car was shiny and new. I mentioned this to our guide and he said that was because you can get a ticket for having a dirty car!
The other thing to know about Ashgabat is that it is hot. By presidential decree, buildings in the city center must be clad in white marble. In the summer, the sun bounces off marble surfaces with the result that we felt we were being cooked. It was almost painful to be outside for more than half an hour at a time without stopping for a cold drink. Unfortunately, in Ashgabat there are almost no cafes or snack shacks of the kind that are on every street corner in most Asian cities. The streets are almost deserted during the day and the liveliest place we visited was the giant Yimpas mall and supermarket where everyone in Ashgabat does their shopping. Locals are evidently smart enough to stay indoors during daylight hours, unlike us. On our first day, we walked several kilometers in search of a bank where we could exchange money. We took the bus back to our hotel and noticed the temperature reading at the bus stop: 54 C (about 127F).
After rehydrating and resting in our air-conditioned room, we ventured out again after dark. This is when Ashgabat comes to life. Families stroll through its parks, where the monuments are lit up in ever-changing colors. We walked around the Monument to Independence, which is circled with statues of mighty Turkmen khans of the past.
Darvaza Gas Crater: The Desert Gates of Hell
After a day and a half in Ashgabat, it was time to start our drive through the desert. We met our guide, Oleg, and got on the road. As we left Ashgabat, the scenery quickly changed to scrubby desert with more camels than people. Turkmenistan is sparsely inhabited: much of the land is desert where, as Oleg said, you could stick a pipe in a random place in the ground and find natural gas. We passed by a turnoff labeled “Aeroport.” It turned out that the airport in question had been used to transport sulfur from a mine in the 1960s. The airport has been closed since then but the surrounding village is still named Airport!
It was a windy day and sand was constantly streaming across the road: not a good sign for people planning to camp. We made a quick stop at the village of Erbent, where a few hardy nomads scratch out a living from their camel herds. Oleg showed us how the houses are built to glean every last drop of life from this harsh environment: roofs have gutters that collect springtime rains and direct the water into storage tanks. This was a far cry from gleaming Ashgabat. The wind was howling, sand was blowing everywhere, and the camels were moaning. The cry of a camel is low and eerie and made the village seem even more desolate.
We soon arrived at the first of three gas craters. Oleg explained that geologically speaking, Turkmenistan is the limestone bed of an ancient sea. Similar to the cenotes of the Yucatan, the craters are bubbles in the limestone where the roof has collapsed. In Turkmenistan, the abundance of natural gas means that a foul stench rises out of the crater and the floor looks like the Bog of Eternal Stench.
The wind died down somewhat by the time we turned off the highway and followed a sand track to the famous Darvaza crater. Like the other craters, this one is a hole in the ground with natural gas seeping out. Sometime in the 1970s, a shepherd threw in a burning tire to see what would happen. Predictably, the gas caught fire and has been burning ever since. It’s now a popular tourist attraction (by Turkmenistan standards, that is). As we walked around it, gusts of wind would blow unbearable waves of heat and gas fumes at us. The surrounding desert had a harsh beauty with no signs of civilization except a few 4WD tracks.
We then got a lesson in post-Soviet vs. American communication styles. Oleg left us to take pictures of the crater while he scouted a campsite. People typically camp behind a small hill that rises up behind the crater. Oleg said he would see if that area had enough shelter from the wind, and if not, he’d find another spot to camp. He roared off in the 4WD and we wandered around the crater, took some pictures, and waited… and waited… and waited some more.
Another 4WD arrived with a load of Malaysian tourists. By this time we had been waiting an hour for Oleg to tell us where we were camping. The Malaysians’ driver saw that we looked concerned and asked if we were OK. He spoke no English, but in my basic Russian I managed to say that we didn’t know where our driver was, and ask if he had seen him. By this time, we were worried that Oleg had been bitten by a poisonous scorpion or worse.
The Malaysians came back to their car from the crater and said hello. We explained our concerns and they loaned us their cell phone to call Oleg. We couldn’t get through to Oleg, but we got through to our contact Antonina at Stantours, who said she had just spoken to Oleg a few minutes ago. It turned out that he had been no more than 200 yards away the whole time! He had set up our campsite behind the sheltered hill and was wondering why we took so long to get there. This was a useful lesson in communication styles: an American guide would have come back to us after selecting a campsite to let us know where the tent was and what was going on. Oleg on the other hand assumed that we would know where to come looking for him. It seems that the Russian/Turkmen style of communication is to assume that both parties know what is going on and not to communicate anything unnecessarily!
Panic over, the group of Malaysians invited us to join their picnic. We had dinner waiting for us with Oleg but indulged in a little bit of their home-cooked, spicy Malaysian food, a real treat! It turned out that they worked for the gas company Petronas and lived in Ashgabat with their families. They were all extremely gregarious and generous. After experiencing their hospitality and tasting their food, we’re really excited for our visit to Malaysia later this year.
We walked back to our campsite and caught a beautiful desert sunset.
After dinner we went back to the crater for the full effect of red flames against the black night sky. Eye of Sauron or the pit of hell?
Konye-Urgench: Genghis Khan, Paganism, and Giggling Schoolgirls
Our last stop in Turkmenistan was the ruins of Konye-Urgench near the border with Uzbekistan. Konye-Urgench was a booming Silk Road city and capital of the Khorezm empire until Genghis Khan and his hordes razed it and slaughtered its inhabitants. Only a few structures remain, but they’re impressive.
The most interesting thing about the site is the local pilgrims. We were the only foreigners, but large groups of Turkmen streamed through the site, circumambulating the giant minaret while grazing their hand on it.
We were just as much of an attraction for the local groups. Over and over, groups of giggling girls asked us to take pictures with them.
We also got a glimpse of Turkmen popular religious practices. Turkmenistan is officially a Muslim country, but we didn’t see a single mosque and the people retain some of the animist and Zoroastrian traditions of their ancestors. The camel is a sacred animal, and even our guide Oleg, a Russian born in Turkmenistan, had a tuft of camel fur on his steering wheel for protection!
At Konye-Urgench, this stick wrapped in rags was positioned front and center at a group of mausoleums. Parents with young children made their children walk under the stick three times. This is thought to cleanse the child’s soul. We’ve since seen more evidence of rituals involving tying rags to trees or poles in Uzbekistan.
It’s an intriguing example of how the Silk Road was a melting pot of beliefs and cultures.