Las Vegas + Pyongyang = Ashgabat

After a night’s sleep in a tent near the Darvaza Gas Crater, I got up early to watch the sunrise, with the company of the lovely Alabai dog who had just come off his nightshift lol.  (I forgot to mention that an Alabai was the mascot of the Asian Games held in Ashgabat in 2017!).

Too soon we were back on the road towards our final destination of Ashgabat, but not before a few stops on the way.  It is worth noting that the Darvaza crater is not the only crater in the region and there have been numerous other cave ins of drilling sites.  We stopped at a couple along the road, neither as large as the Darvaza, or burning.  One had a very distinct sulphur smell to it, and the second was full of water.  Apparently, they continue to get bigger.

This stretch of the road continued through the Karakum desert (80% of the country is desert) with many more camels along the road – and a road sign warning of them (I am loving this ❤️❤️❤️).   Most of the camels we are seeing are dromedary (one humped camel) despite them being native to Arabia.  The original camels of the region were Bactrian (double humped) but as Arabs moved into the region, following the Silk Road over 4,000 years they brought with them their camels.  The camels bred with the native Bactrian camels and their dominate genes meant the resulting offspring were predominately single humped, almost wiping out the local Bactrian population.

After a quick dune toilet stop (not always easy to find a bush big enough to hide behind in the desert lol) we stopped at a small semi-nomadic village.  Most of the people who live here still continue with their nomadic way of life and breed camels for wool, milk and meat.  Camels can be worth between $5-6000! That said, these semi-nomadic villages are pretty well set up these days with running water, gas and electricity, schools and medical centres.

Do you know why camels’ are always looking haughty??  Legend has it, Allah has 100 names, 99 are known by mortals, but the 100th name, a very scared and holy name, Mohammed told to his camel – so they are always looking down on us because they know something we don’t know!

Back on the road, passing more camels along the way (have I mentioned that I am loving all the camels lol), of course our next stop was the car wash – a large industrial place where all the vehicles entering the city could get washed.  As with Dushanbe, dirty cars were not allowed into Ashgabat, the capital of Turkmenistan.  Clearly, they did not care so much about dirty people as we were all pretty dirty by this stage. 😂

Sadly, we had to say goodbye to our jeeps and drivers and the amazing time in the desert and move on to our final days in the incredible city of Ashgabat. 

As I mentioned in my previous blog, Turkmenistan has been populated since ancient times, being conquered by various armies and empires, including Alexander the Great in the 4th Century BC, the Parthian Kingdom (who’s capital was Old Nisa where we visit later), Arabs (bringing Islam in the 7th century AD), the Seljuk Empire, Genghis Khan, Temur and many more until Tsarist Russia invaded in the 1880’s under the guise of freeing Russian slaves. 

After numerous bloody battles, Imperial Russia took control in 1894 and through to independence, Russia followed by the USSR exploited the countries mineral resources. Still today Russia has a monopoly over gas from Turkmenistan – allegedly they buy it for cheap and sell it on as Russian gas at a higher price.

There have also always been tribes of horse-breeding Turkmen who drifted into the area and whose ancestors remain today – again, more about these men and their horses later.

As with other USSR states, Turkmenistan declared its independence in 1991 and today the country is considered a sovereign state. It was ruled by ‘President for Life’ Saparmurat Niyazov until he died in 2006.  After his death, it was decided that his successor would be selected through public elections and Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov was elected (although apparently the election did not meet international standards).

The country remains with limited contact to the outside world, with most popular social media sites banned (e.g. Facebook, Instagram etc.) unless on a government sanctioned domain and the government has full control of all media outlets, however more recently the Government has started to rewrite its legislation with a goal of meeting international standards.

I also mentioned in my previous blog, farming is still managed along the Soviet lines of collective farming, as is most of the economy with industry almost entirely dominated by government-owned entities, including all the incredible construction we see in Ashgabat.

And so, to Ashgabat, were to start … today Ashgabat’s population is around 1 million people although how it got there was an interesting story.  Not so long ago, the population of the city was 400,000.  Apparently, they were awarded the Asian games, but then realised the city was supposed to have a population of over 1 million to host the games … so they just expanded the city borders almost overnight, so the population was big enough!

As we entered the city, we passed another area of government built housing (they all have green roofs so are easy to spot!) and then we were in to the beautiful wide (and almost car free) boulevards and white marble buildings.   Apparently, the president had wanted the ‘whitest’ city in the world – white marble buildings, white lamp posts, white cars (are preferred).  Apparently, Turkmenistan purchased so much white marble (from Turkey and Italy) during the construction, the world price went up by 30%.  The city even made it into the Guinness Book of World records in 2013 for having the highest concentration of white marble clad buildings!  Almost 600 in the city centre.  Lonely planet describes the city as Las Vegas meets Pyongyang and they are not far wrong though I think Dushanbe comes a close second 😂

Most of the city was destroyed in a massive 7.3 earthquake in October 1948, the extent of it was not widely reported by the USSR, but it is believed that more than 110,000 people were killed.  The USSR were also pretty cash poor at the time (due to the funds spent on WWII), because of this, they quickly built an area of cheap, temporary housing with the intention of replacing them when they had more money.  Not surprisingly this rebuild never happened!  This means it is really a city of two parts – the old (built in the 40s-50s) and the new (built in the 90s).   

These days, most people live in the older part of the city and don’t come out till after 6pm because of heat (today is only 33 and it is autumn!).   Although life may seem somewhat controlled based on our ‘western’ opinion it is worth noting  that their life is not so bad … they have very low taxes and cost of living, all forms of public transport is subsidised, free health care (mostly) and utilities (gas, electric and water) costs $16 per year!  Rustam explained that if you have 6 children or more you get given a free house!!! He was on child number two and had great hopes for the future lol.

We arrived at our beautiful hotel, right across the road from the Presidential palace – such a contrast from the night before, spent in a tent in the desert!  Unfortunately, photography of the presidential palace and some other key buildings, as well as uniformed police and or military is forbidden.

With very little time left of our trip, after a brief break for a much needed shower we headed out on some afternoon sightseeing, starting with the National Museum of History which showcases the concise history of the country back to BC3000!!

Here we were introduced to Rhytons – ancient drinking horns, often elegantly carved and sometimes made from ivory like those we see in the museum that were found in nearby Old Nisa (more about that later).

Just outside the museum is what is now the 5th highest flagpole in the world, proudly displaying the Turkmen flag.  It was once the tallest but has now been overtaken, even by the flagpole in Dushanbe which comes in in 3rd place!

Our next stop was at the Arch of Neutrality (not technically an arch lol).  When the Soviet Union collapsed, Turkmenistan was left without any support or protection and with Afghanistan and Iran just over the border (Ashgabat is only 15 minutes to the Iranian border) and people were scared.  So, in 1995, the government declared the country in a state of permanent neutrality to contribute to the “peace and security in the region”.  Ultimately the intent is that no other country can send troops into the country and if they do, it is expected that the UN will defend them, if they are attacked. 

The country is very proud of their neutrality and even prouder of their Arch of Neutrality.  A 75 metre tall rocket shaped tower topped with a gold statue of the first President – the icing on the cake is that the President’s statue rotates so his face always faces the sun.

Our final sightseeing stop for the day is Independence Park.   Beautifully manicured flower beds, marble stairs (of course there is marble), pathways lined by five headed eagles, fountains and statues of national heroes.  Of course, the centre piece is the Independence Monument – the lower part of the monument is shaped like a huge yurt and at the top of its 118m tower is a crescent moon with five stars representing the unity of five Turkmen tribes.

Also, in Independence Park we found a huge statue/model of a book – “Ruhnama (The Book of Soul)”.  This book was written by the first President and is apparently a combination of spiritual/moral guidance, stories and poems, information about Turkmen history and traditions and the definition of “moral, family, social and religious norms for modern Turkmens”.  

The book was initially rolled out in schools and libraries, but then its teaching actually became part of the driving test and potential government employees (FYI the government is the largest employer in the country) were tested on it at job interviews!!  In 2005, part of the book was launched in to orbit so that it could “conquer space” and it is expected to orbit the earth for 150 years

In 2013, the book was removed from the school curriculum and people were no longer tested on it and despite it having been translated in to many (depending on sources somewhere between 45-75) languages today you can’t find a copy anywhere 🤔🤔🤔

Despite the fact the wind brings sand and dust from the desert into the city, the city so sooooooo incredible clean (as of course you would expect from Central Asia lol.

We had dinner in a restaurant with an amazing view  of the sunset and then the neon lit monuments and buildings – it was a beautiful warm night and I would have loved to stay longer as it was technically the last night of my holiday but sadly as no one else wanted to so I had to head back to the hotel and was in bed by 9.30pm again!  One of the down sides of group tours – especially when everyone is so much older!  And apparently, I was also foiled by an 11pm curfew in place in the city (this is normal practice), but to be honest I would have been happy with 11 instead of 9 🥴😂

Stan No. 5 – Turkmenistan

Day 19 of our tour and the day started with immigration documents at the hotel in Khiva as it was only 1 hour drive to the border.  We were also given a briefing as to how to behave at the border!  Turkmenistan is still a fairly closed country and the only one on this trip that we had to get an ‘invitation’ prior to being allowed to request a visa at the border.  Apparently, people are often declined, including Aijan, our Krzygz guide – this was the first time she was given approval so it would be her first time in the country as well.  The instructions were “don’t get in trouble and act like a tourist”. 😂

The road to the Shavat-Dashoguz border crossing was not a good one but fringed by cotton fields being harvested – it looks like back breaking work 🥴. (I have probably mentioned before but cotton is an important commodity in Uzbekistan and we would go on to learn Turkmenistan.

At the border we had several procedures to go through to leave Uzbekistan.  Firstly, we had to hand in the accommodation slips we had been collecting to show where we stayed, followed by 3 passport checks and finally an immigration office to official exit us from the country.  We then caught shuttle bus (an old soviet bus) across the 1km no mans land to reach the Turkmen border.

Getting into Turkmenistan was a little more time consuming and it took about an hour to get our visas issued – thankfully our new local guide, Rustam, did most of the work and we just had to sit around waiting! 

Part of the process included what I wrote at the time as “some weird temperature test with a little gun pointed at our forehead 🤔🤔”.  Of course, writing this 10 months in the future and these ‘weird’ temperature guns are a regular part of our lives – how things change!

The final step was to pay our fee – I had to pay US$100 while all the Australians only paid US$70 – maybe I should have had my NZ passport 🤦🏻‍♀️.  As we passed through, the immigration officer was very cheerful and friendly despite the warnings we were given and all he said was ‘welcome to Turkmenistan’.   The final leg of this amazing trip.

  • Currency:  Turkmenistan New Manat (TMT) US$1 = TMT3.5 (but there is a big black market which has an exchange of more like US$1 to TMT 10 so we did not actually use any cash)
  • Language: Turkmen
  • Size: 491,000km2
  • Population:  6,031,000

Our local guide Rustam took us over to 6 jeeps which were going to be our transport for the next couple of days.  My driver was Dimitri, he looked very Russian (or what my image of what an Russian looks like) and his muscle bound body was completely decked out in desert camouflauge.  We found out later than he was a medal winning ex-Soviet decathlete – having represented the USSR in the late 80’s and early 90’s.  He clearly still worked out from time to time lol.  Luckily, he spoke good English which meant we could chat along the way.

Turkmenistan is still untouched by mass tourism, with only 25,000 tourists arriving annually – unlike it’s neighbour Uzbekistan who gets over 5 million a year!  Tourists cannot come to Turkmenistan without arranging a tour through one of the 5-6 tour companies who are closely monitored by the Government.   Of course, we need to bear in mind these numbers were all in a pre-covid world and who knows what impact that will have on future numbers given tourism was already less than 1% of Turkmenistan’s income!

Our first stop was in Dashoguz, a small town not far from the border where we stopped for lunch.  The first thing we noticed was all the school children in their matching traditional uniforms looking incredibly smart.   School children were wearing green whilst university students were wearing red.

Our lunch restaurant was clearly near a university as there were several students there having their lunch in their lovely uniforms.  We were as much of a novelty to them as they were to us and they were more than happy to chat and pose for photos.

Interestingly there were guards on the street in the small town, apparently to control the ‘order of the city’ 🤔

From Dashoguz we drove around 100km to Kunya Urgench, passing collective farms along the way.  Apparently the collective farming system still operates in Turkmenistan today.  The Government owns the farms and farmers rent the land for 49 years, apparently a similar but more liberal version of the communist collective farms.  The farmers struggle in the area as the fields have a lot of salt in them – a legacy of Aral Sea which is infamous for the fact that it has almost complete dried up!

Kunya-Urgench (of Konye-Urgench as it is also know) is home to two of Turkmenistan’s three  UNESCO World Heritage sites which were once part of the ancient town of Urgench, situated on one of the most important Silk Road cross roads between the east and the west. 

Dimitri (our driver) entertained us with his Russian music – initially I asked if it was Turkmen music and his reaction was ‘you can listen to Turkmen music on the tv – 7 channels, 24 hours per day, why listen to it in the car’ lol

The buildings we see today date between the 11th and 16th centuries but earliest records of the town are from an oasis town between the 5th and 4th centuries BC created by united Nomad tribes who made the most of the nearby river  … before it was conquered by the Arabs in 712.

Much money was spent on infrastructure in the 10th century and it was apparently a very beautiful city until 1220/1221, when the city was destroyed by the Mongols in what was considered one of the “bloodiest massacres in human history”.  Rustam told us that 360 holy men, many famous scholars were killed or taken captive. 

Despite the devastation the city was rebuilt to its previous glory, until Temur attacked in 1373.  Initially the ruler of the city, and the short lived Sufi Dynasty, Yusef Sufi surrendered to Temur, but 6 years later he rebelled which ultimately resulted in Temur razing the city, killing most of its population and destroying its advanced irrigation system and dam.  (Apparently, he did save the lives of the master architects, builders, stone masons etc and took them back to Samarkand with him.)

The city never really came back this second attack and it started to decline in importance until eventually the regional capital was moved to Khiva.

There is no real town layout left to see, just a few stand alone monuments around the area and our first stop was a small complex with 3 mausoleums – Najm-ad-Din al Kubra, Sultan Ali and Piryar Vali. The mausoleum’s range in age from 13th-16th centuries and are so different to the reconstructed beauty of Uzbekistan but no less fascinating 

One of the buildings (from the 14th century) was designed by an architect who was an astronomer and as such there are a number of special touches – 4 windows relating to the 4 seasons, 12 columns for the 12 months and 360 geometrical patterns, one for each day of the year.

Despite them being called mausoleums, this has been brought into question as there appear to be no on buried in them!  Another theory is that they called the buildings mausoleums so that the Mongols would not destroy them they as they worshiped ancestors.  Who knows what the truth really is.

There were more local visitors than there were tourists, and they were praying and walking around the buildings touching the bricks as the sites are now considered holy shrines where the women pray for good marriages (particularly at the one considered to be for a princess).  These old mausoleums appeared to have not had much recent restoration.  There we not many tiles remaining on the outside and many pigeons making homes on the inside – oh the smell 🤦🏻‍♀️!

In the second part of the site, there is much excavation still to happen (currently being done by a group of Italian archaeologists) and many of the structures are covered with 2-3 metres of sand!  What remains are excavated are far less reconstructed and fit in to three eras – ancient, pre-Mongol and post-Mongol.

One of the structures used to be the tallest ancient minaret in Central Asia.  It was 60-61 metres tall and had been covered in blue tiles and with a gold bell.  The bottom was built in the 10th century whilst the top is dated back to the 14th century – in its glory there was a bridge connecting it to a nearby mosque – incredibly 70% of what we see today is original!

It was interesting to see some of the pre-Mongol buildings have a conical dome, there are not many like it in Central Asia.  According to the archaeologists, they have discovered ancient inscriptions in some of the buildings but unfortunately there is not good enough technology in the country to work on them as yet.  It will be exciting to see what they discover in the future.

As this is also a site for local pilgrims and there were a number of beautifully dressed local women and families also visiting the site and Rustam taught us a few phrases in Turkmen to greet them – ‘Hello, let Allah receive your charity’ (phonetically “Salam Kabul balsoon”) and ‘thank you and goodbye’ (sagbol).

Did I mention it was hot!!  Hot, hot, hot – especially exploring around these ruins in the desert!

As we left the Kunya Urgench area, we set off on what is considered the worst road in Turkmenistan!  This continued for about 80 km, passing a brand new 6 lane bridge – it looks very out of place is it has no real road leading to or from it yet 🤦🏻‍♀️lol.

We passed a random 1st century BC fort on the side of the road (crazy how you can just pass something like this as if it is commonplace!), before finally reached a better road – with still 200km to drive it become clear that it was likely we would miss the sunset 😟 which was disappointing.

I took the opportunity of a quick toilet stop in the sand dunes of the Karakum Desert to explore the amazing patterns in the sand and lizard tracks but only saw 1 tiny lizard …. next up was a camel on the roadside but we could not stop to take photos as we were now in a dash to get to the camp before dark!!

We finally reached our destination and camp for the night – the Darvaza Gas Crater, probably the best known spot in the country.  Despite our doubts, we made it just in time for sunset and it was spectacular.

In 2019, mineral fuels (including oil) was 94.5% of Turkmenistan’s total exports and the country possesses the world’s 4th largest reserves of natural gas, along with substantial oil reserves.  This of course leads me to the background of the Darvaza crater that has been burning constantly since 1971!

The site was initially discovered by Soviet engineers as an oil field site and they set up operations to drill.  Unfortunately for them, they ended up finding a natural gas pocket, but it was not long until the ground beneath the drilling rig collapsed into a wide crater, swallowing everything around it.  To avoid the release of any position gases, they decided to set the escaping gas from the massive crater on fire to burn it off, expecting it to burn out in a few weeks.  Almost 50 years later, the crater is still burning!

The sunset was lovely, but the darkness made the crater look even more spectacular.  And then the moon began to rise … just like the sun over the near by hill. Sitting in the campsite (which had already been set up for us) watching it was so special.  Being outside in nature is truly my peace!

We were kept company but a massive Turkmen sheep dog (a breed called Alabai or Polar Bear dog as I named him) named Tsar.  His job was to keep wolves and other predators away from livestock, and in Tsar’s case, also to protect us!  Apparently, their clip their ears and tails so they cannot be grabbed when fighting wolves!   – I would sneak him food as I decided he needed to build up his stamina for his night shift 🤦🏻‍♀️.

(Just an aside, did you know that Australia does not have hedgehogs???  I didn’t!!  The Australians in the group got so excited when a very cute hedgehog ran through our camp during dinner, they didn’t even know what it was??  Oh, the unexpected things you learn whilst travelling 😂)

Before arriving, Rustam had told us to expect a ‘lot’ of people (it is all relative!) at the crater as it is the most popular tourist site in the country but as it turns out there was hardly any really, just a hand full of people  – apparently he had expected 300 people not the 20 or so that were there.  Great for us to have such an incredible site almost to ourselves and after a few drinks we settled in to our tents for the night.