04.28.2019 - 05.27.2019
I went to my tent quite early last night, looked at my sweatshirt substituting for a pillow and thought I was in trouble, that I was going to be awake and probably coughing all night. Then I put my head down and was asleep in moments. I slept all night, the best sleep of my entire trip.
Since I had gone to sleep early, that meant that I was awake early. The sun was just coming up. And I needed to use the toilet facilities, the ones that did not exist. As per my last post, there are zero facilities here. But there is a lot of desert. I walked up the hill where I had lots of privacy and enjoyed the early morning desert sky.
And it was a great desert sky.
We had a nice camp breakfast, although for those of you who grew up camping in North America, there was no pleasant smell of bacon frying. There are certain things you do not get in Central Asia. We did get some good coffee since Begaim had been reunited with her coffee press.
After breakfast, Slava suggested that we walk down to the crater while the drivers packed everything into the vehicles. I had seen a tent and a motorcycle near the crater. The tent was now packed, but the owner was still there. I expected some big guy, but instead I met this lovely lady. She is driving solo through Central Asia. She and the bicycle rider in Bukhara are reminders of how cushy my travels are.
I took a few more shots of the crater, although I once again was more interested in the desert sky.
The sides were unstable so the crater could expand at any time. There was a barrier around the crater to keep people away from the edge, but that did not stop everyone. I was ready to capture the moment when the bank gave way and he plunged into the fire. Luckily that did not happen. He just picked up his beer bottles and walked away. It was much better that way.
The vehicles arrived and we took off. We drove just a short way before pulling over. There was another crater formed by the oil and gas exploration guys. There was not much fire, but the mud was bubbling. It reminded me of a visit many years ago to Rotorua, New Zealand which has thermal springs and bubbling mud. Not surprisingly Rotorua has a place called Hell’s Gate. Both are great places to visit, but maybe just one time.
There was still another crater. Those Russian guys were busy. This one was full of water.
We left the gas exploration area and drove on through the desert. About 40 minutes later we turned off the road into Erbent, the largest settlement between Dasoguz and Ashgabat. It is a town of shepherds. No one seemed to be walking. Young and old were riding motorcycles, which is what they use for herding their animals. Unlike every place else on our tour, there were no friendly greetings. We were simply ignored.
I had another great time on our ride through the desert. There were two separate tracks of paved road, but no markings, and the drivers weaved back and forth between them. Unlike in Uzbekistan, these drivers just turned on the air-con, so I was quite comfortable. I was not sure about the others. I would not have enjoyed the ride as much if we had the windows open and warm air (and dust) coming in.
We stopped at a gas station. There was a camel strolling down the road.
As we got closer to Ashgabat the road was finally divided into a proper two-way highway. There were many check points. I guessed that this was to control the movement of the people. The driver had several traffic radar detectors which were constantly buzzing. Because of that we were no longer racing.
We did see several more camels.
Just before Ashgabat we stopped so that the drivers could wash the vehicles. Apparently, a dirty car gets you a hefty fine in Ashgabat.
A few minutes later we arrived in the Emerald City and began our search for the Wizard of Oz. (How many of you know that one?) It seemed like that, but since we had missed the yellow brick road and had taken the modern divided highway, we instead had arrived in Ashgabat, the White Marble City. But the transition was just as jarring. From the desert with its camels and shepherds we were driving past giant marble cladded buildings, monuments and sculptures.
Slava told us that the president likes marble so much that was made it a requirement for all buildings. Even the old Russian buildings get covered in a faux marble. The marble is all imported from Turkey and cut at a factory on the edge of town. Ashgabat is in the Guinness Book of Records as having the highest concentration of white marble buildings.
We passed the airport with its falcon. We would get a closer look at it tomorrow night when we leave Central Asia.
We began our ascent to the Yyldyz Hotel which is certainly the most amazing place that I have ever stayed. It is 116 metres tall and shaped like a teardrop. My king-sized bed was lost in the vastness of the room.
Now was time for the big test. I had not installed the VPN software. Would I be able to use WhatsApp and Facebook and access my emails? I signed into the Wi-Fi and immediately loaded up Facebook. My emails arrived. WhatsApp came up with some texts and photos from Po, but it was too early to check if I could talk to her. So far it looked like everything was available. I have no doubt that these things were blocked in the past as Sasha had told us, but they were definitely working now. But will they be listening? Will it be safe for me to tell Po that I find the place more than a bit strange?
This is the photo that came through when I connected. It is iceberg season back home in Pouch Cove.
Slava warned us about the prices in the hotel. Previous clients of his had run up a huge bill getting their laundry done. There is a machine to make expresso. A note says that they cost $5 US.
We had lunch in the 18th floor restaurant with a view of the golf course. It looked like a great course but the only living people we could see on it were the maintenance crew. We never saw anyone actually playing golf.
The food was good, typical international hotel catered meal standard with the staff serving everything, filling our water glasses, etc. Any thought of alcoholic beverages ran into the exchange rate issue. At the official exchange rate, the drinks were ridiculously expensive. We did not want to get involved with black market exchange, so everyone just decided to stay dry.
Kalpak planned its 5 Stan tour to have us start our tour in the ultra-modern and somewhat strange city of Astana (Nur-Sultan). Astana was something to be seen (maybe once in your life) but was hard to love. We were now ending the tour in the ultra-modern and even stranger city of Ashgabat. Ashgabat can be translated as literally the “City of Love”, so I will see if I find love for it while I am here.
Like some other cities we have visited in Central Asia, Ashgabat began as a Russian fortification although it is located close to an ancient city which flourished on the Silk Road and then was destroyed by the Mongols. The city became the capital of Turkmen SSR in 1924. A major earthquake in 1948 destroyed the city and killed well over 100,000 people, two-thirds of the population.
We had our Ashgabat tour in the afternoon. We walked out of the hotel and found our very large tour bus. I think it could have held at least 60 people, so the 8 of us had lots of room. Thomas always went to the back of every van. He did the same on this bus. We could hardly see him. We rode in our giant bus back down the hill into the main part of the city.
Our first visit was National Museum of History. We were not allowed to take photographs inside so were left with a couple from the outside.
The no photos meant no cameras. We had to leave them at the entrance. There were several staff and few visitors, us and another small group of tourists. Our guide had a heavy Russian accent and spoke really fast. At every exhibit she would start with, “Dear guests,” and then rush through her story before quickly moving on. I could not understand, let alone absorb, anything that she was saying.
It may have been the desire to get away from the museum tour more than actual necessity, but I whispered to Begaim that I needed to use the toilet. I assumed that I would just sneak away to the stairway where we had passed some facilities. Instead, Begaim spoke to a lady standing next to the railing who called down below. From all that I understood that I should just go to the same stairway, but I found the door to that toilet locked.
A couple of cleaning ladies came by. One gestured for me to come with her in the elevator and took me downstairs where the door was not locked. This had been an excessive number of ladies helping me on my quest to take a pee, and everything had seemed to take place in slow motion. It was a good thing that I was not desperate.
I was now on the ground floor. My group was someplace upstairs, and I did not really want to find them. Just then a lovely young woman came up and asked if I spoke English. She then asked if I would be willing to be interviewed. I have to admit that I would have done almost anything she asked as long as it sounded somewhat ethical and would not cause me to be thrown into a Turkmenistan prison. And I might not have set high standards. I readily agreed to the interview, not having any idea what it was about, although logically it had to be about tourism.
My new friend brought me over to a cameraman and hooked a microphone to my collar. The equipment seemed a bit dated, like something from the 90’s. I had only been in the country a day, so I was not prepared to answer many questions. I knew that I could not say what was really on my mind, that I found the place a bit strange. Instead I said that everyone was really friendly, even though I had hardly met any local people. The key question was about Turkmen carpets, since unbeknownst to me, National Carpet Day was coming up. I knew nothing about the carpets and was too slow to make something up. I doubt that I gave them much useful footage.
My group appeared just as my interview ended. The guide then explained about the carpets and pointed out a giant one on the wall which might be in the Guinness Book of World Records for largest hand-woven carpet. Anyway, it was big. Now I knew about the carpets, but it was too late. They were filming us during her talk, so that might give them something more than my scintillating interview to show on their newscast.
Begaim later told me that she had been keeping an eye on me but thought that I was doing fine, so did not interrupt.
My friend and the cameraman walked out with us. I really regretted that I did not ask for her photo once we had reclaimed our cameras at the reception. I will never know if I made the local news. But I really enjoyed my little time with the local media. It was a funny highlight of my trip, certainly of Turkmenistan.
From there we visited the Independence Monument. I thought the tower at Kunya Urgench was tall at 60 metres high. The column here is 118 metres high. The bottom part is in the shape of a yurt. There are 27 large statues of Turkmen leaders in the area around the monument. The statues were huge. The scale of everything was quite overwhelming. They build big things in Ashgabat.
Other than maintenance staff, there were no people around. We asked Slava about that. He assured us that they were people, but that they were all working and would be out later.
We did not have time to visit everything, so all I could do was snap a quick shot of Ashgabat’s Ferris wheel. It furthers their quest to dominate the Guinness Book of World Records as it was deemed the world’s tallest Ferris wheel in an enclosed space. Yes, things are big here.
We got out of the bus at the Neutrality Monument. It is dedicated to Turkmenistan’s recognition as a neutral country by the UN. That is the ex-President Niyazov on top. The ex-president used to be on top of a Neutrality Arch in the middle of the city and his golden statue rotated to face the sun. The current president had the arch dismantled and moved his predecessor to the suburbs where he is stuck looking in one direction.
We saw a group of schoolboys. Maybe people do live in this city.
Our last stop was at the Wedding Palace which was built in 2011. There is a place to do the legal paperwork as well as many rooms to hold the ceremony. The building is dominated by its big disco ball. Slava said that he once had a tour group invited into a wedding, but that was not happening today since it was Ramadan, and there were no weddings. We only took photos from the outside.
This is the view of Ashgabat from the wedding palace. Note the number of new trees. I was very impressed with the reforestation efforts in the city.
We went back to the room where I reviewed my photos and updated Facebook. I made a call to Po which confirmed that WhatsApp worked fine. I hope anyone listening found it interesting. I apologise for calling the country a bit strange. I kept thinking that I should go for a walk but was so cool and comfortable in my luxury room that I never made it outside until it was time for dinner.
We climbed back into our giant bus for the ride down into town. We arrived at another funky building, the Altyn Asyr Shopping Centre, which has a terrace restaurant at the top. We now saw that some people do live here. A few (not many) were sitting outside on blankets, although it seemed like there should be better places to sit than next to the parking lot of a mall when there was a big park nearby.
We took some photos of the area, including a nice sculpture. As I was walking back, a car pulled up and four young guys jumped out and shook my hand. What will I do when I get home and the most you get is a nod from strangers?
The restaurant was on the seventh floor. We went straight for the outdoor patio where we took many photos of the fabulous view, especially of Independence Park where we had visited in the afternoon. I was a bit disappointed that Slava got us a table inside, since the ones outside looked so nice. We ate a great salad and an even better Turkmen noodle soup. The main course was supposed to be Chinese and was not as good, but the pastry at the end was nice. Russian pop music was blaring away the whole time. We jumped up during the meal to get some sunset photos and after supper the night skyline of Ashgabat was really amazing.
As we left the hotel there was a little boy and girl showing off on their scooters on the edge of the parking lot. Their family was sitting on the grass just above them. It was fun until they almost got run over by a car. Slava got them back to their parents in one piece. As I noted earlier, that spot next to the parking lot seemed like a strange place to sit when there was a massive park next door.
We returned to the hotel through the bright lights of the City of Love. I had not exactly found love for the place (although I had a crush on the nice reporter). But it had been another marvelous day in Turkmenistan.
Now I just hoped that I could sleep as well in my fancy hotel room as I did in my little tent in the desert. This will be my last real sleep in Central Asia since I have a late flight tomorrow night and any sleep will be on Turkish Airlines.