Turkmenistan on a tour package
Trip Start Jun 27, 2006
60Trip End Mar 28, 2007
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Sam, a Russian speaking American English teacher, and I crossed the border from the northwestern Uzbekistan to northern Turkmenistan. The border guard told us that, on average, there are one or two foreigners passing through that border crossing.
Our guide, from Turkmenistan Department of Tourism, met us as soon as we entered the Turkmenistan border. She helped us with all kinds of paperwork - there was a lot!
We were then given a tour of the monuments around Konye-Urgench: mausoleum, minaret, mosque and a facade of either a palace or a caravanserai - all constructed between the 12th and 14th century
After a quick lunch at the bazaar, we started driving south through the Karakum Desert. After about 3 hours of driving, we came upon a fresh accident scene. A speeding BMW that passed us earlier must have flipped a few times and landed on its wheels. The father died in the single car crash. He was only one year older than me - I held his passport and driver's license for a while. The son, with broken legs, was in pain. Our tour guide (God bless her) ordered some other drivers to take him to the next village a few hundred miles away. Our guide and driver then found a couple of towels and covered the father's body. We waited next to the wreck and the dead body for the next two hours - no police or ambulance came despite the numerous messages that were passed along to the drivers going in both directions. We continue our journey when some other driver was willing to take over guarding the body (a wake?).
That night we set up tent 200 yards away from a gas crater in the middle of the desert. A few craters were created when the Soviet gas exploration team depressurized the gas that was holding the land, and with the collapse of the land, the crater-looking voids were created. Somehow this crater was lit by fire, and the enormous inferno has been blazing away day and night like a volcano on ground level for years
Our guide and driver prepared a delicious dinner. Unfortunately, the sand got into most of the dishes - it was very windy.
Using Mary (the 3rd largest city in Turkmenistan) as the base, we visited a few interesting sites in the eastern part of the country.
Ancient Merv consists of a few cities built in different eras ranging from 6th century BC to 12 century AD. All these cities were built next to each other. Due to the vastness of the region, we had to drive for a few hours to the various ruins (some were reconstructed).
Another, may be even more, interesting site is Gonur Depe, some 40 miles away. In November, Russian-Greek archaeologist Viktor Saranidi, will try to convince, at a conference, archaeologists from all over the world that the site that he has been excavating for some 35 years is the 5th ancient center of civilization (the other 4 known ones are Egypt, Mesopotamia, China and India)
In fact, I'm now confused about the various names used: Mary, Merv, Margiana, Margush, Murgab.... The settlement was vacated because Murgab River changed its course, depriving the settlement of valuable water source.
Nokhur is a mountain community west of the capital. The Nokhuri claim to be the descendants of Alexander the Great's army.
We stayed with a local family, enjoying their cuisine and hospitality. This was the closest that I got to the Iranian border.
The next day, we drove further west for quite a few more hours, crossing the desert (most of the country is desert). We camped on top of a plateau some 100 miles from the Caspian Sea. The plateau looks like a three-layered cake from a distance. Each layer is 10 millions years older than the next, we were told
I was very lucky that the temperature was quite decent during my stay in Turkmenistran, even though it was still hot (in the 90's). The temperature at the end of August - just 2 weeks prior to my visit - was hovering around an unbearbale 130 degree F.
Before boarding the ferry to cross the Caspian Sea, I had a swim in the lake/sea by the city of Turkmenbashi. The water across on the other side in Azerbaijan would have been too oily for swimming.
Capital and the President
Ashgabat (population 600K) , the capital and by far the largest city, is a unique place. A big part of the city is showcase of the country's wealth (petroleum boom). There are huge government buildings, enormous parks, giant water fountains (world's tallest one is found here) and elaborate monuments and statutes.
In sharp contrast to other Central Asian cities, most of the parks here are missing an important ingredient: people - locals or tourists
I went to the Carpet Museum which hangs the world's largest hand woven rug. It is bigger than a basketball court. Someone unlocked the Earthquake Museum for us (remember, there were hardly any soul in the city) just for us. It shows pictures of the 1948 earthquake that wiped out most of the city and killed 110,000 people. The National Museum set me back $10, even though it costs the locals a mere $0.25.
I was wrong about the guides. Even though they were either employees of Department of Tourism or a licensed tour guide (there are only 25 or so of them in the entire country), they did not tell us things that the government wants us to hear. They seem to be quite frank about their feelings towards the authorities - positive or negative. They did tell me that I was "not allowed" to walk the streets (very bright and safe!) one night at 10pm, after we had dinner (sturgeon) together
It was no secret that the president is very into himself (just like leader of North Korea). There are pictures of him and the wording "Turkmenbashi the Great," all over the country, mostly on huge buildings and billboards. Most statutes in the parks are his.
During the Soviet time, he was the leader of Communist Party of Turkmenistan. After the collapse of USSR, he changed the name of the party to Democratic Party of Turkmenistan and banned all other parties. He then changed his own name to Turkmenbashi, meaning the "leader of the Turkmen."
He finished writing the book, Rukhnama (Book of the Soul), in 2001. It details the country's history, culture and spirituality, according to him. It is compulsory reading for all citizens. Students cannot enter university without first passing a Rukhnama exam. "Rukhnama" is a mandatory subject in university, regardless of one's major.
He converted to a Muslim and built himself the largest Mosque in Central Asia
The citizens love him for the free and heavily subsidized stuff. Water and gas to every residential household is free. Electricity is practically free (averaging some $4 a year). The highest grade of petroleum costs $0.08 a gallon! Flights (on Boeings) to anywhere in the country will not cost more than $1.50. He also built (and is still building) a lot of luxurious high rise condominiums. At a price tag of $25K, 90% of them stood unoccupied because the locals cannot afford them. A good paying job earns $90 a month.
An interesting country!