Following the Silk Road, we crossed Turkmenistan on our way to Uzbekistan. Apparently it’s the least travelled country in Central Asia and there is a reason why. Although the people are very warm, hospitable and curious, you don’t really feel welcome as a traveller in this police state and you might see more policemen in the streets of Ashgabat (‘City of Love’) than the beautiful people themselves. The former dictator president, Saparmyrat Niyazov, a.k.a. Turkmenbashi (‘leader of the Turkmen’) ruled the desert state for 20 years, from Soviet times until his death in 2006. Wherever you go you see him smiling at you from pictures and golden statues. It’s a mysterious place to say the least.
Cities we have visited:
Ashgabat – Konye Urgench – Dashoguz in 5 days (from 13 to 17 November 2014)
What strikes you immediately:
Colour, especially as we came from Iran. Women wear very colourful floral headscarves and outfits. Second are the gold teeth of lots of people.
Third is the music you hear everywhere. Even at a fancy restaurant there would be a TV tuned to the music channel. Music was banned by the former president so I guess people are making up for that time.
An old Turkmen lady who came to us at the border gate. We had just crossed the Iranian-Turkmen border and waiting at the checkpoint with some Turkmen women. Suddenly an old lady with gold teeth, dressed in a beautiful turquoise outfit came to us. She didn’t speak English, we didn’t speak Turkmen. But it was so cute that she couldn’t resist her curiosity and was keen on finding out where we came from and tried to find a way to connect.
How to move around:
We mostly travelled by cab but took a marshrutka or minibus once. An entertaining ride as the bus helper was trying to catch the attention of a Turkmen lady at the back of the minivan by singing and acting. The 3 ladies at the back were giggling, so were the rest of the passengers.
Off the beaten track:
Turkmenistan is not a country where you are allowed to go wherever you want, so we just stuck to the known path.
Being the first and only guests in a big 5* hotel in Dashoguz. We paid for a room and got an entire hotel to ourselves. In the morning, breakfast was waiting for us on a table in the banquet hall. Everything got cold though as they brought it from elsewhere. The kitchen in the hotel wasn’t in use at that moment.
Ashgabat, the capital of Turkmenistan is a weird city on its own with impeccably clean boulevards, many white marble buildings but no one entering or coming out from them and a huge number of golden statues of the former president (never did I see so much gold in a city). While you are strolling around, you really wonder where the people are. On top of that, we found ourselves in a weird situation on our first day there. We were walking to Yimpaz, a shopping mall, when a car stopped 200m in front of us. A man jumped out of it, just to stand there like a statue. We walked towards him and asked for the way to Yimpaz. When he replied in fluent English (which is very rare in Turkmenistan), I knew he was working for the state. We continued to the mall, had lunch there and were surprised when we walked out. Men were lined up every 100m, holding walkietalkies and just waiting till we passed by. It continued for some kilometers. I have to admit that we were imagining all kind of scenarios while we were passing by and wondering whether a car would wait for us at the end of the row. It suddenly stopped after about 2 km.
The national dish is plov: rice fried with meat, onions and carrots. Meals often start with shurpa: a meat and vegetable soup. You’ll find grilled meat or chicken too and several dumplings often filled with meat. Not an easy place for vegetarians.
Euphoria in Ashgabat is definitely my favourite. The pumpkin soup was served in a bathtub-like bowl. The grilled vegetables, catfish with walnuts in a lemon sauce and the zander rolls with spinach were so good. We even got live music and a nice atmosphere on top of the delicious food.
What left me speechless:
The Darvaza gas crater, known as the Door to Hell, in the Karakum Desert. The crater, which is 72 meters wide and 20 meters deep, and has been burning for more than 40 years, is unique and fascinating. You see its glow from a distance and when you arrive there and set your eyes on the flames, it feels surreal. As if you step into a SF movie. A big burning hole with thousands of small fires in the middle of a vast desert… it really takes your breath away.
Good to know:
– We travelled with a transit visa which gives you a max stay of 5 days. That’s the only way to see the country independently. Otherwise you will have to take a guided tour for the entire stay.
– Be careful when taking pictures of certain buildings in Ashgabat. If they say you can’t take a picture, you really can’t!
– Euros are useless. Take US dollars with you.
Read here about my adventures in Iran. See you at my next trip!