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AFC Travel Report – Turkmenistan

This is the last of a series of three reports by AFC contributing writer John Enos, who recently spent two months traveling by bicycle, train, and bus across Central Asia from Almaty to Ashgabat. His previous reports detailed Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan/Kyrgyzstan. Feel free to reach out to him at john.a.enos@gmail.com

After concluding my Central Asia trip, I found that most people I talk to have actually never heard of Turkmenistan. "That's a country…?!?" was an all-too-familiar response. A few people knew vaguely of Turkmenistan and its notoriety. With a post-Soviet history of iron-fisted rule by megalomaniacs and strict rules on entry and travel to the country, Turkmenistan is often referred to as the "North Korea of Central Asia". Ashgabat, the capital city, was described in the Lonely Planet as a bizarre desert metropolis where Las Vegas meets Pyongyang.

The decision to even visit the country started several months prior to the trip while having lunch in the Silom neighborhood of Bangkok. I was surprised to see a Turkmenistan Airlines office in the mall complex, and promptly walked in. The handful of Thai employees seemed surprised that I was there to see them and was actually interested in flying back to Thailand from Turkmenistan. Turns out, there are direct flights from Ashgabat to Bangkok and the fares are far more competitive than options from Bishkek or Tashkent. The airline had a 4/10 ranking on Skytrax and lots of cringeworthy customer reviews ("cabin crew were emotionless"…"no alcohol is served. Why?"…"how can you not have in-flight entertainment on an intercontinental flight?!?"). Funny enough, Turkmenistan Airlines has found a unique market niche in catering to Britain's large Sikh population: it offers direct flights from Birmingham-Ashgabat and from Ashgabat-Amritsar (India), providing one of the most direct options for UK Sikhs to get to India. It was quite amusing to see dozens of Sikhs hanging out at Ashgabat's underwhelming airport, transiting through with no remote interest in venturing out to see Turkmenistan.

We entered Turkmenistan overland from Uzbekistan at the backwater desert town of Dashoguz. All travelers must be accompanied by a tour guide when traveling outside of the capital, so we were to be met by our driver and guide once we crossed the border. The Turkmen border crossing was one of the most annoying crossings I've ever done (yes, arguably worse than Somalia to Ethiopia, and that says a lot!) Not only were the Turkmen border guards terse, gruff, and unsmiling, they demanded to search every last item we brought into the country. I've never had my toiletry bag so thoroughly analyzed, and for every tablet or pill, the military garb-clad guard demanded to know its purpose. I'm sure that our austere inspector Ahmed learned a great deal about the different varieties of Western anti-diarrhoeals and antibiotics that day.

Three hours later, we emerged into Turkmenistan and found our guide. Like Uzbekistan, there is a black market for currency in the country, but it is much more discrete and as foreigners, we didn't want to risk deportation or worse. The official exchange rate is 3.5 Manat to the dollar, but we had read worrying reports about the lack of functional ATMs in the country, so our guide helped us change our $100 bill notes into Manat and we left Dashoguz in an off-road 4x4 to drive through the bleak and barren desert of northeastern Turkmenistan, heading south towards Darvaza.


A crowded road somewhere in the Karakum Desert en route from Dashoguz to Darvaza

Darvaza, where we were going to spend the night camping in the desert, was not really a town at all. The main attraction there is the "Door to Hell", which is surely Turkmenistan's most famous and captivating tourist draw. The Door to Hell is an enormous fiery hole in the middle of the desert whose flames have been burning non-stop for nearly 50 years. In 1971, Soviet engineers were drilling for oil at the site and the rig collapsed into a crater with a diameter of 70 meters and a depth of 20 meters. For some fantastic reason, the engineers thought that lighting the crater on fire would help to burn off any poisonous gases that might be emitted and would affect nearby towns. Turns out, the free-flowing gas had other ideas, and the fiery pit of hell has burned without cease for over four decades. Our guide promised us that the pit continues to burn in the winter, even when the desert is blanketed in snow.


The well-trodden tracks leading off the road into the desert towards The Door to Hell

The sight itself was spectacular! There was no one else around except for the three of us, and endless desert stretched in every direction, except for a lone yurt dotting the distant horizon. The roar of the flames was loud and ominous, and as we cautiously walked to the surface of the crater, the wind picked up and we suddenly thought we'd be burned by the scorching gas fumes being blown directly into us.


The fiery gas crater, as viewed from a small hill nearby


The author trying to not get burned by the scorching winds of the Door to Hell

During the day, the fiery pit is still amazing, but our guide assured us that it was much better at night, when the flames glow against the dark and starry Turkmen desert night. We were also instructed to make camp behind a small hill about 500 meters from the crater, so that we would wake up alive and not asphyxiate from unknowingly huffing gas fumes during our sleep.

We made camp, and as the sun set over the beautiful Turkmen desert, we sat on a traditional Turkmen carpet, eating chicken our guide had barbequed, drinking from the oversized bottle of vodka that our guide believed we needed for a one-night jaunt in the desert, and watching the enchanting glow of the Door to Hell.


Our campsite, complete with a Turkmen carpet, BBQ chicken, and too much vodka…

After dinner, with a warm buzz from the cheap vodka (Turkmenistan, like most places in Central Asia, seems to subsidize vodka and petrol), we crept toward the crater, captivated by its gigantic flames. Staring into 10 meter flames while standing on the very edge of a huge fiery pit is almost a hypnotic experience, and after many failed photo attempts, we retreated to our tent.


Hypnotized by the gas-induced flames

In the morning, we set off for Ashgabat, but stopped for a mid-morning break at a dusty village to see the traditional Turkmen way of life. Turkmens, like many of the people we had met in the 'Stans, were historically nomadic, and one still sees yurts today in the rural areas of the country. Visiting the village was a great introduction to many of the most distinctive aspects of Turkmenistan's culture. We were ushered inside a family's yurt, which was draped in beautiful hand-woven carpets, and treated to large mugs of fermented camel's milk. I've had camel's milk before in the Horn of Africa, and unfortunately, my palate doesn't seem to have changed much - it tasted like fermented milk mixed with sour soda water. It's also a notorious laxative, and so I tried to be polite and pretend to enjoy the local delicacy while keeping in mind that there were only squat toilets for 200 miles in any direction.


Waiting for a lukewarm mug of fermented camel's milk inside a Turkmen yurt


The lovely Turkmen couple who hosted us inside their yurt.
Notice the woman's gold teeth - a common sight in Central Asia

After our camel milk ceremony in the yurt, the patriarch of the family proudly posed with his eagle, which had been tethered to the yurt with a home-made leash of sorts. What a spectacular bird to have keeping watch over your yurt!


Protector of the yurt!

We continued onward to Ashgabat, the capital city, which means "City of Love" in Arabic. No clue where that name came from, but I think it should be renamed to something more along the lines of "City of Strange" or "Bizarre White Marble Ghost-town". Today, Ashgabat has a population of just over a million people, and its lavish buildings and immaculate roads are a testament both to Turkmenistan's natural gas wealth and the unusual idea of beauty that the country's former President clearly had.

Saparmurat Niyazov ruled Turkmenistan from 1985 until his death in 2006, and his megalomania is the stuff of stories. His personality cult forced comparisons to Kim Jong-il and the countless examples of his larger-than-life, egotistical rule were everywhere I looked. His self-imposed title, Türkmenbasy, meant "Father of All Turkmen", and during his rule, national media always referred to him in the press as "His Excellency Saparmurat Türkmenbasy, President of Turkmenistan and Chairman of the Cabinet of Ministers". Known as one of the world's most totalitarian and repressive dictators, his personal fortune was estimated to be in excess of USD 3 billion. He renamed months and most days of the week to reflect Turkmen culture or his own history - April was renamed Gurbansoltan, his mother's name. Dogs were banned, and hospitals and libraries outside of the capital were closed. He wrote a book, Ruhnama, intended to be the "spiritual guidance of the nation", and it became mandatory reading in all schools, even appearing on the country's driving test exam.


Las Vegas meets Pyongyang meets The Wizard of Oz in Ashgabat

Ashgabat reflects his cult of personality, and feels like an eerily empty post-modern city straight out of the Wizard of Oz. In 2013, the Guinness Book of World Records announced that Ashgabat had recorded the world's highest concentration of buildings lined with white marble. Every building I saw in Ashgabat was white, and the perfectly-paved streets were nearly entirely empty. Taking photos in most of downtown Ashgabat is forbidden and strictly enforced; apparently many of the buildings are government ministries and photography is a national security threat. As tourists, we were free to walk around Ashgabat without a guide, but it was quite unsettling seeing armed and uniformed policemen and soldiers standing at attention all over the city and keeping watch over nothing in particular while staring in an unfriendly manner at us. It was also scorching hot, around 40 degrees Celsius and the sprawling city made walking less than ideal.

The number of gaudy monuments and buildings blew my mind. In Ashgabat, it seems that every traffic circle is adorned with an ugly, flashy, and enormous structure or monument of some sort, and they all seem out of place. One wonders whether the money spent on the capital's décor couldn't be put to better use in the poor, rural areas of Turkmenistan. Such is life in a gas-rich, Central Asian autocracy, I suppose!


The $12m Monument of Neutrality in Ashgabat. Perched atop the monument is a gold-plated statue of Turkmenbasi,
the country's autocratic president. The statue rotated so that the President would always be in the sun. After his death, it stopped rotating.

On our final day in Ashgabat, we decided to visit the Turkmen Carpet Museum, located adjacent to the Ministry of Carpets (yes, you read that right). Ashgabat is a bit underwhelming in terms of actual attractions, so we figured we ought to give the museum a go. The place was cavernous and completely empty, yet the entrance fee was a whopping USD 20! The part which really made us laugh was that we were told we were allowed to take only 3 photos, but that each photo after that would cost us USD 5. Luckily, we met a Turkmen woman working for the museum who was a historian trained in the US and was overjoyed to meet two Americans looking at carpets in her home country. She gave us a great overview of the history of the different patterns - carpets are so revered by Turkmens that the country's national flag prominently features the 5 patterns from the carpets of the country's main tribes. Best of all, she dismissed the camera fee as nonsense and offered to take as many photos of us as we wished!


The Turkmenistan national flag, featuring the carpet patterns of the country's 5 main tribes


An "illegal" photo taken at the Turkmen Carpet Museum

Finally, our six-week Silk Road journey had come to an end. Almaty to Ashgabat, on bicycle, train, and taxi. We had gone eagle hunting in Kyrgyzstan, lived lavishly thanks to the Tenge's depreciation in Kazakhstan, wandered spectacular Silk Road ruins in Uzbekistan, and camped next to a burning gas crater in the Turkmenistan desert.

Central Asia is certainly the most fascinating part of the world I've ever experienced, and the food, the people, the culture, and the beauty of the region will stay with me forever.

It is also a region that will become increasingly important in geopolitics as China eyes new transport and resource corridors, Russia strengthens its influence, and as the countries in the region continue to emerge from the post-Soviet era and increasingly engage with the rest of the world. It's already happening: Kazakhstan has opened an embassy in Ethiopia, Indians are attending medical school in Kyrgyzstan, European tourists are recognizing the potential of Uzbekistan's UNESCO sites, and young Turkmens are moving to Ukraine, Malaysia, and Turkey to study.

I look forward to visiting the region again soon and would encourage readers to plan a trip to the "Stans" sooner rather than later!