Touring Turkmenistan

I’m Sorry, Where?

Heard of the place? No? Watch this video from John Oliver. You don’t even need to see the full thing to grasp how bizarre of a place it is. SRAS students studying in Bishkek had the opportunity to travel to Turkmenistan for a few days in October.

As freaked out as we were about visiting, we were stoked to receive visas. Visas can be difficult to get; the country is less visited than even North Korea. We’ve spent a lot of time in the Central Asian studies program learning about the politics, economics, and culture of Turkmenistan. The country is filthy rich, thanks to all its oil and natural gas reserves. Human Rights Watch lists Turkmenistan as one of the world’s most repressive countries; two cults of personalities have been running the scene. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the country has been ruled first by President for Life Saparmurat Niyazov and after his death in 2006, current President Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow. As nervous as we were about going to such a controlled country, we were eager to experience the culture firsthand. 

Day 1 – Ashgabat and a Massive Flaming Pit

Getting there was fairly tiring; our flight left Almaty, Kazakhstan at 2:00 am and we arrived at the Ashgabat airport with little information regarding customs. After wandering around, we ended up at the end of the very long visa line. Per program instructions, we had USD with which to pay. The process took a while and it wasn’t until 4:00 am that we had found our luggage and our guide, Maysa, who introduced herself and shepherded us onto a bus to take us to the hotel. We were all pretty groggy and had until 11:00 am that morning before departing on our tour. The five-star hotel was extremely comfortable and we slept soundly.

To begin our first day, we were given a tour of the capital city, Ashgabat. It is famously known as the City of White Marble, which became clear in the daylight. President Berdimuhamedow has a several quirks (you’d know if you watched the video). One of them is his obsession with collecting Guinness World Records. Ashgabat has the world’s highest density of white marble structures. There are 543 white marble buildings that cover a total of 4.5 million square meters.

This place is giving me major Oz vibes.

– Ross, as we cruised through an empty city of white marble buildings

We visited Independence Park, the Neutrality Arch, and the Ruhnama Book Monument. Many government buildings, such as the center for media shaped like a book and the Ministry of Horses, were pointed out to us from the bus as we drove around the city. We had heard that as a capital city, Ashgabat would feel eerily empty. In the new part of Ashgabat, it certainly felt that way. These tourist sites we visited were the opposite of crowded; we were often the only people there aside from the workers cleaning and maintaining the grounds. 

After an informative visit to the National Museum, we had lunch at a small local cafe where it was decided to add an additional excursion to our program. A visit to the famous Darvaza Gas Crater, known also as the “Gates of Hell” wasn’t included in our itinerary, but our guide informed us that if we were each interested in paying 55 USD for the three-hour drive there and back that night, we could modify the next day. We jumped on the opportunity, and that afternoon we met our three drivers and climbed into their SUVs. Our guide Maysa condoned using our dinner stipend on convenience store beer and chips that night, which we stocked up on before we were whisked away through the desert.

With three of us to each car, I rode with another student and Maysa. We tried to use the opportunity to speak with her about her experience as a Turkmen citizen, aware that she would likely be hesitant to reveal her genuine opinion. This prediction was manifested when Maysa told us nicely that we shouldn’t believe everything we’ve seen on the Internet. Our conversation was interrupted as she pointed out the camel caravan meandering through the desert, the first of many we would see on our drives through the country. 

The sun set and under dusty purple skies, we turned right onto an unmarked road after driving straight for two and a half hours. In the growing darkness, we eventually began to see a faint glow grow brighter and brighter – we had reached our destination! The Darvaza Gas Crater is a result of a mining accident at a natural gas deposit. Soviet geologists began drilling at the site in 1971, and after some equipment fell into the 20-meter wide cavern, it was set on fire in an attempt to burn off the gas out of fear that the gas emitting from the hole was toxic. The flames have yet to go out. 

It was the biggest bonfire I’ve ever been to. We had our Turkmen beer, snacks, and some chill tunes; the only things missing were lawn chairs and yard games. After hanging out for about an hour, we began the journey home. We arrived at the hotel at midnight and after a good night’s sleep, were ready to roll onward the next morning. 

Day 2 – A Bazaar and a Bizarre Mountain Village

We started our second day at the Gulistan Bazaar, Ashgabat’s Russian bazaar. It was a good place to pick up little souvenirs. The most interesting part of this was the currency exchange process. Maysa warned us that showing foreign currency in public was absolutely forbidden. We were told to bring USD to the country, and Maysa suggested against withdrawing the local currency, manat, from the ATM because our tour was all-inclusive and we wouldn’t be spending much. The official currency exchange rate is 1 USD : 3 manat, but our driver was willing to cut us a deal with a rate of 1:10. Black market currency exchange is common in Turkmenistan, but we naturally had to be discrete about these transactions.

After finding camel hair bracelets, traditional Turkmen hats, postcards (and in Chris’s case, a small snow globe) we headed to Nisa, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, about 20 kilometers from the capital. Located there are the remains of an Iranian ancient settlement, the location of the Parthian central government. From Nisa, we drove into the Kopetdag Mountains on the border of Iran for a visit to the Nohur village. 

For me, this was the most fascinating part of my time in Turkmenistan. We first arrived to have lunch with a host family. Once we were seated on rugs and carpets and served food, Maysa informed us that the villagers claim that they’re descendants of Alexander the Great. The Nohurli tribe’s isolation has led to development of an indiscernible Turkmen dialect and the continued practice of very traditional customs, such as polygamy.

Maysa turned to us girls and let us know to not be alarmed if someone tried to approach her to offer camels in exchange for us to be their wives. Over some delicious lagman stew, we immediately began calculating how many camels we thought we might be worth. Turns out, the wives are expected to pay back the worth of the camels in housework, so the fewer camels your family is given in exchange for you, the less housework you have to do. Much to our disappointment, no camel bartering took place. (I’m sure the local men took one look at me and knew I couldn’t darn a sock to save my life.) 

Having expressed our thanks to our hosts, we passed by the gnarliest scene I have ever laid eyes on: a huge cemetery with a mountain goat skull protruding from the top of each grave. Mountain goats are considered sacred; their horns are said to ward off evil spirits. After passing the cemetery, we arrived at a pilgrimage site called Kyz Bibi, named after a female deity who is known to grant wishes of women. At the site is a small hole in the mountainside, said to be where Kyz Bibi was hidden to avoid an unwanted marriage. 

oblivious to the thousands of bats we’re sharing the cave with

Next on the agenda that day was a dip in Kow Ata lake. This lake is special in several ways: it is located 60 meters underground in a cave, the warm sulfuric waters are said to be healing, and it is home to Central Asia’s largest bat colony! Several of us brought our swimsuits and spent about an hour swimming around in the freakishly dark and deep lake. 

On our way back to Ashgabat that evening, we stopped at the Turkmenbashi Mosque and Mausoleum, the largest mosque in Central Asia and the main mosque of Turkmenistan. Interestingly, we noticed that along with the traditional Islamic verses from the Koran, text in Turkmen decorates the interior which is fairly sacreligious. The text is from the first president’s book on spirituality and morality and is named for him.  He is commonly referred to as Turkmenbashi, or “Father of the Turks”.

That night at dinner, we had a few beers with leftover stipend money and bonded with Maysa while the venue entertainer serenaded us on the clarinet on stage behind us. Maysa had studied abroad in Europe and expressed her happiness about having her first young tour group – usually, she’s wrangling older folks, but she told us we made her feel like she was a student again. 

We had great conversations with Maysa about cultural differences, especially dating and marriage. In Turkmenistan, it’s very common that once you get to be around 25 and you’re still without a partner, your family finds someone for you. After a few chaperoned dates and usually one or two months, you get hitched.

We let the love come after marriage.

– Maysa, explaining the dating culture in Turkmenistan

We left the restaurant thankful that we weren’t active in the Turkmen dating scene and were on our way to go around the world’s largest indoor ferris wheel once. There was nothing particularly spectacular about this, aside from its position as a Guinness World Record.

Day 3 – Mary and Ancient Merv

The next morning, we began our day with a drive to Mary, a four-hour journey. We stopped part way through to walk around the Anau Mosque ruins and the Abiverd Silk Road town remains. Just past Mary is a town called Merv, where we had a very interesting lunch. We dined on manti, delicious Central Asian dumplings. Maysa also ordered camel milk for us to try. It was bitter, but not as bad as we had expected. We walked around a dilapidated Russian Orthodox cemetery next to the restaurant while our driver did his daily prayers.

 Ancient Merv is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, famous for its role as one of the largest Central Asian cities on the Silk Road. We spent the afternoon traveling between the different monuments and ruins.

Back in Mary that evening, we visited a Russian Orthodox church and then had dinner at a practically empty restaurant (save from the waitstaff and the venue performer singing covers of pop songs) that also had a dance floor. Maysa, bless her heart, bought us three bottles of vodka and juice to chase it with. We had a great night laughing and dancing all together.

Hey Maysa, can we take shots at dinner?

Why not? I don’t drink, but today I will!

– Sam and Maysa, getting our last evening together off to a great start

Day 4 – Borderline Disaster

The next morning, we had a three-hour drive to Turkmenabad located on the border of Uzbekistan. We had lunch at a café nearby and were sad to say goodbye to Maysa. She accompanied us as far as she could through customs as we exited Turkmenistan. After a round of hugs and promises to keep in touch, we were on our own.

We had all our luggage and after being transported to the Uzbek side, we marched right up to the border guide to present our passports.

“Where are your visas?” he asked.

“We don’t need visas!” we responded.

“You need visas.” He did not look like he believed us. The eight of us were stunned. If we could just Google it, he would see! We could prove him wrong if we had Internet access!

I would like to seek forgiveness from the Uzbek border guards who demanded I delete this picture, and from Sam who I was blocking.

“We’re tourists. And American! For a visit under thirty days, we don’t need visas!” We were desperate. Our Turkmen visas that were just stamped on our exit was valid for only one entry. We couldn’t go back. Someone had the idea to call the tour guide that was waiting for us on the other side of the border; we had the number on our itinerary. Thankfully, Turkmen citizens are very, very kind and many young women were helping translate and let us use their phones to call our contacts. Only one of our Uzbek guides ever picked up – the second guide we were supposed to meet. He said he was a freelancer and knew nothing about visas. Finally, we called Maysa. She was alarmed and told us to the Turkmen side and she would come back to meet us.

We did have to sit for about two hours in the middle of the borders, on our suitcases, absolutely panicked that we were going to have to pay a hefty fine to get back into a country we had already exited. Finally, we were escorted back and found that the Turkmen guards had no problem welcoming us back. Maysa, our sweet angel, was there waiting for us and assured us that everything was going to get sorted out.

We had to get back to Ashgabat that night to fly back to Almaty first thing the next morning, before our Turkmen visas really expired. That meant coughing up 80 USD for a flight from Turkmenabad to Ashgabat or go back with the driver – almost an eight-hour drive. We all had $80 in cash, thank goodness. Maysa got in contact with the Minister of Airlines and magically, 8 seats became available on the full flight we needed to be on. We landed in Ashgabat and were taken back to the hotel we had stayed in.

Remember that time we contributed to human rights violations by living lavishly in Turkmenistan?

– Chris, reflecting on the uncomfortably high amount of our own money we spent at the state-owned hotel

We were starving and ordered from the restaurant, which was our only option for food. $30 later, it was time for bed. We woke up to breakfast boxes Maysa had organized for us and went to the airport. After some of us had to explain to the agents why we had two entry stamps on a one entry visa we got onto our flight and landed in Almaty a few hours later. Our London School coordinator and driver were waiting to take us the four hours back to Bishkek.

That last day was upsetting – it was long, tiring, and we were all in shock that both the London School and the tour company they booked our trip through had forgotten that we needed visas to get into Uzbekistan, despite arranging everything to secure our Turkmen visas. We were left between borders, completely unaware of the mistake, arguing with Uzbek border guards. We’re still waiting to get compensated $80 for the flight and for our dinner that night. Thankfully, our Uzbekistan tour has been rescheduled for the last week of November.

The trip was organized by the London School and the tour company Kyrgyz Concept. Everything (besides one important document) was taken care of. Accommodation in five-star hotels, ground transportation, English-speaking guide, flights, and meals were all included. The meals were especially nice: each included a salad, soup, entrée, dessert, and drink. After commenting how special we felt eating a four-course meal, Maysa let us know that the “luxury” tour was booked for us, not the “basic” tour, to our delight.

Despite the shake-up, this trip to Turkmenistan is easily the wildest, most unique experience I’ve had traveling. Maysa was a fundamental part of how much we enjoyed our time there, and I’m so grateful that she shared her country with us so candidly. I wouldn’t want it to have happened any other way, and I think the other students would agree.

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