A Travellerspoint blog

My New Blog - Searching for Newfoundland Lighthouses

I was to leave on May 4 for my annual "trip of a lifetime", this one was to be a 35-day trip to Russia and Mongolia, all by train. Of course, that trip is not going to happen for a long time, if ever. Instead I am staying home.

Since I will have no trip to write about, I have decided to create a new blog about the lighthouses of Newfoundland and Labrador.

Please check it out:

https://bobbrink-lighthouses.travellerspoint.com/

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Posted by Bob Brink 13:55 Archived in Canada Comments (0)

Central Asia Trip Videos


View Central Asia 2019 on Bob Brink's travel map.

I hope that a few people out there enjoyed reading about my trip to Central Asia.

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In addition to the blog I always document my trips with videos showing my favourite photographs and some video clips. These videos begin with my layover in Istanbul and end with my flight from Ashgabat.

Posted by Bob Brink 15:23 Tagged uzbekistan kazakhstan kyrgyzstan tajikistan turkmenistan central_asia kalpak_travel Comments (2)

Four Flights, Amsterdam, and Home to Pouch Cove

I Am Doing This for Fun?


View Central Asia 2019 on Bob Brink's travel map.

May 26

My last post took me from the hotel to the airport in Ashgabat. I could end my blog right there, but I provide a door-to-door from Pouch Cove, Newfoundland experience. I am not sure if I am trying to show how terrible the getting there and back is, or to show that no matter now bad it is, that you make it through in the end. Anyway, here it comes, my two days of travel back home.

I had a long wait for my flight to Istanbul. This flight is about four hours, just a small part of the 24 hours of flying and airport time that I had ahead of me over the next two days. At least I had scheduled a day in Amsterdam to recover from the first two flights and do a little sightseeing.

The new Ashgabat airport might be pretty, but we were still in regular airport seats. Those are never comfortable.
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There was finally some activity at the gate, and we began our chaotic boarding process. There were no announcements. Everyone just started moving to the plane.

I met a nice Turkman in the line. He asked where I was from and immediately informed me that Canada was in the gold medal game at the World Hockey Championship. He told me that he was on his way to New York, that he has his Green Card and was ready to move to the US. This was his third or fourth trip to look for a job. When we got into the plane, he helped me put my bag in the overhead bin.

We took off about thirty minutes late, but with my two-hour layover, I was going to be okay. This flight turned out to be the most unpleasant of the trip. It is redundant to mention that we were all packed into our seats. There was no in-flight entertainment. The big guy in the middle seat was torturing himself trying to cross his legs. Since I considered it still the middle of the night, I passed on the breakfast offering.

This was my third time in the brand-new Istanbul airport. It was another long walk to security and passport control, but there were many people giving directions, advising us to keep walking to the open desks. Rita and Silvio appeared behind me, and we said our goodbyes.

I found a desk with no line and passed on through into the terminal area. I was patted on the back and turned to see Michael who said goodbye and went off to find his next flight. I ended up at the same coffee place where I had stopped on my way out of Istanbul. I had a latte that was too hot and a stale croissant. Maybe I will try another place on my next flight out of Istanbul. I could not get Wi-Fi since you need to be able to get text messages.

I did not bother to finish my latte. I walked to my gate where I joined another disorganized boarding process. There was a line, but the sign mentioned both Athens and Amsterdam. The line next to us was for Kiev. My two seatmates from last night's flight were there, so I walked over and said hello. They asked me why I was going to Kiev. I pointed to my flight. They had been in Turkmenistan on oil and gas business. I talked to them longer in the line than I did during the four hours on the plane.

I talked to a Filipino man. He was travelling with his wife as part of a group going to Athens and on to Israel. I am not sure what amazed him more, that I had visited the 5 Stans or that I live in Newfoundland. But they found that the line was definitely for Amsterdam, so went off to find their flight.

I was standing behind a group of three women and one man. Two of the women were wearing chadors (a cloak that covers the entire body). The other woman was dressed quite western. In fact she had a cat tattoo on her neck and colored hair. It was quite warm as our line moved slowly into the tunnel (with never any announcements). Suddenly one of the women collapsed. The man spoke to the airline staff, but they did nothing to help. The woman sat on the floor for awhile before she was able to stand up and move forward. Everything was moving so slowly that her sitting on the floor had no impact on the lineup.

Yes, I am doing all of this for fun. I find myself repeating that every time I board a plane. I do have fun on my trips. I survive the flights.

I lucked out this morning with no one sitting next to me. I had my regular place on the aisle. I chatted with my seatmate next to the window. He was originally from Pakistan but was now living in the Netherlands. He was returning from Mecca after accompanying his father on the hajj. He discussed the spirituality of doing a hajj with 500,000 people. It was a very interesting, albeit brief, conversation. He then left to catch some sleep in one of the empty rows in the back of the plane. That gave me the three seats to myself, which is the best of all cheap seat setups.

I thought about watching the end of the Ruth Bader Ginsberg movie, but could not find it, so I did what I always do on my flights home, listen to music and flip through my many photographs, remembering all the great things that I had seen.

My new friend returned as we began our descent and we continued our conversation. He had worked for the World Bank but left and moved his family to the Caribbean to live on one of the Dutch islands. They recently moved back to Holland. I told him of my work that involved World Bank funding back in my Botswana days in the 70’s. It was one of my most interesting and enjoyable airplane conversations.

No, I do not talk if my neighbor indicates that they want to be left alone. But I find it part of the strangeness of air travel to be stuffed into a plane next to people and not talk to them.

After landing, we were held up in the corridor. The lines were too long in the immigration area, so we had to wait at the top of the escalator. Only EU citizens could keep going. We were only delayed for about 10 minutes. Down below it took another 10 minutes to get through. So even a backed up Schiphol airport immigration line was way better than Heathrow.

I left the arrivals area and went downstairs to find my train to the center of Amsterdam. There was a line at the information desk, so I decided to just use the machines and sort things out on my own. I bought a one-way ticket and found my train. The car was fairly full, but several people had bags on the seats which no one seemed to want to move so that the rest of us could sit down. I finally asked a young man to move his bag. I had never seen anything quite like it.

The train took me into Amsterdam Central Station. I then had a hard time getting out of the station. I kept scanning my ticket, but the wicket would not open. I tried a couple of times at different places until someone reached over and scanned for me. I did not know who they were but was grateful to escape.
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I exited into a different world than my last visit. That time I was in the Museum District. During my one day in that area, I kept thinking about how civilized everything was. Now I was in central and all my thoughts were about how crowded everything was. There were locals going to work and tourists, so many tourists. The bicycles which seemed so quaint last time were now a menace as I tried to walk without getting run over. And there are the even more dangerous silent assassins, the scooters and the trams.
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My hotel, City Hotel Amsterdam, was about ten minutes from the station and easy to find. I was pleased that my room was available. But after the fine hotels of my Central Asia trip, I had obviously fallen on very hard times. The hotel looked great from the outside, but the rooms were quite basic and my view of the wall was a bit depressing.
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I took a short nap before venturing out for some coffee and lunch. I stopped in the maze of crowded streets wondering which way to go. I glanced to my right and was a bit startled to find that I was standing next to a lady in her underwear. There was a window in between, but she was only a few feet away. Being ever so polite I did not stand and stare. And I knew the etiquette that said no photos. I had found my way into the red-light district. Yes, I will admit that I was planning to visit the area, but at that moment I really just wanted a latte.
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I found a little café so I got my latte along with a sandwich. Before long I retreated back to my room for a bit more sleep. A couple of hours later I woke up not feeling very refreshed but wandered out again to get something for supper. Once again I had to navigate through the many tourists, including maybe a bachelorette party?
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I found a restaurant with a nice patio where I could watch the tourists rather than bump into them. I ordered a pizza and a glass of wine.
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I walked a bit afterwards and decided that I should try a waffle for dessert. I should have known better as the sweetness just about knocked me out.

As I walked down the canal to get back to my hotel, I heard someone talking to me. I turned and there was another lady in her underwear. She motioned for me to come closer. I decided that she was not trapped in her window and in need of help to escape, so I just shook my head and walked on. A few steps later I was hit with the overwhelming aroma that emanates from the many “Coffee Shops”. These establishments sell coffee, but they primarily sell pot, much of which is consumed on site. That creates a powerful smell which I did not find very pleasant.
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Back at the hotel I chatted with the receptionist for a few minutes. She was from Italy and did not like the damp Amsterdam weather. I noticed an espresso machine and asked if she could make me a latte. It might not have been smart to drink one just before going back to bed, but it did help to get the very sweet waffle taste out of my mouth.

Back upstairs, I managed a call to Po and a quick video to see Bella. I closed the curtains as best I could, as it was still very bright outside, and attempted my last sleep of the trip.

May 27

It is almost all over, day 30 of my trip. Today I will take my 9th and 10th flights and end my day in Pouch Cove.

I slept quite well, but with the time difference and after an early to bed found myself awake at 5 am. I then encountered my first stomach issues of the trip, something to worry about before my 11 hours of flying. I decided that I would take some Imodium just in case.

I was the first one at the buffet which was better than many of the ones at the fancy hotels on the tour. They had a nice cappuccino machine and some fresh croissants. I added some fruit and cereal.

As I was checking out the desk clerk told me that the trains will be on strike tomorrow. That would have been something to deal with, but no worries for me, since I will be in Pouch Cove when that happens.

I walked over to the station, dodging bikes and scooters. I used a machine to buy a ticket and then needed to find my train. I saw a guy in what looked like a uniform and tried to ask him. He ran away. Maybe he was not an employee. I could not find anyone to ask but finally found the track number on the overhead screen.

My ticket worked this time, and I walked up to platform 14 where there was a train pulling out. It did not say Schiphol, so I did not rush. Another one arrived. It was from Schiphol, but I was not sure if it would just return or go on. A young guy assured me that it was the train I needed. I got on and was soon joined by many people with suitcases. Finally, there was an announcement that the train went to the airport. I could definitely relax. The train was not crowded, and it was a fast trip of less than 20 minutes to the airport. I was quite early, just the way I like it.

I went to the electronic kiosk to get my boarding pass. This had not worked on my Turkish Airlines flights, and I always had to go to the check in desks. But it worked fine for Air Canada and my instructions were to go to the gate.

I then had the worst security experience of my trip, worse than any security over the past three big trips. They said to take everything out of your pockets. They really meant it. I had left a couple of things in my pockets such as tissues and some cough drops. It all went downhill from there. I had to go into the body scanner but afterwards, for the first time on this trip and including last year’s trip, I had to remove my money belt. I felt that my pants were halfway off as I was patted down.

Yes, I am doing all this for fun.

At the passport control I ended up in the line for a live person. She asked me about my name, my nice Dutch name. At that moment I was not feeling so warm and fuzzy about my Dutch heritage.

I stopped for a quick latte at a place called Joe’s. It had no lineup. There was a long line at the Starbucks on the other side. Joe's coffee was quite okay.

Unlike the past many flights, there was an actual announcement about boarding. There was a big line to board, but Air Canada was more organized and called out zones. We had to take a shuttle bus to the plane. I stood next to a couple from St. John’s. They were also sad that they could not take the direct flight from London to St. John’s. I discussed all of that in a post before I left.

The flight seemed to go quickly, but I kept thinking that if I was on the direct flight from London to St. John’s I would have been home before we reached Toronto. I wonder if that flight will ever come back.

Once on the ground I followed the signs for domestic transfers. There was a passport control which seemed almost cursory. There was no line; I just showed my passport and handed in my customs form and was sent through. I made my first purchase in Canada, some Fisherman's Friend lozenges, my favorites. I had been missing them since Uzbekistan, and unfortunately still needed them. My second purchase was a latte.

Now that I would be on a Canadian domestic flight, I knew that there would be no meal service, so decided to sit down and have a meal at the restaurant right beside my gate (or what I thought was my gate). When I finished, I looked around and decided that since there was no one at the gate nor my flight number above the desk, that maybe this was not my gate after all. Sure enough, it had been changed, it was a long way away, and it was almost time for boarding.

There were some rough looking guys waiting for the flight. I wondered if they were bikers. Then I overheard that they were a British rock band, The Cult, on their way to play in St. John’s.

Once on the plane I experienced something that has never happened to me before. I sat back in my seat and fell asleep. I woke up when they announced that we had begun our descent into St. John’s. I went back to sleep until the announcement that we were landing. I guess I was tired. It had been a long trip.

Po was there to meet me. She asked me to drive home, perhaps not the best idea considering how tired I was. It is quite straightforward to get from the airport to our house. You turn left, then left, and finally left, and keep on going. I missed the second left. But I did not crash.

Bella was suitably excited to see me. She shot out the door and ran around in circles. She kept her eye on me for the next few days to make sure I did not go anywhere. I took this photo the next morning. I was gone during iceberg season. There were still a few around.

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Postscript

It took me a couple of weeks to get rid of my cold. It was definitely one of my all time worst, maybe up there with the "90 Day Cough" from Beijing. My doctor confirmed that it was virus, and that there was really nothing to be done but wait it out.

I was reading one of my New Yorkers that came during my absence. There was a story about Georgian food and said that one culinary organization has called it the Cuisine of the Year. Another omen?

I have a list of three trips to consider for my next travels: Georgia and Armenia, Trans Mongolian Train-Moscow to Beijing with a stop in Mongolia, or Bhutan via Nepal. I will start looking into those once I sort out everything from this trip. Anybody want to comment? Or sign up?

Posted by Bob Brink 06:59 Archived in Netherlands Comments (7)

More Ashgabat on My Last Day in the Stans


View Central Asia 2019 on Bob Brink's travel map.

May 25

I woke up in my fancy hotel room on this, my last day in Turkmenistan, my last day in Central Asia. We will have a full day of sightseeing today, followed by dinner and then some of us will be catching a 3 am flight.

After last year’s trip to Namibia I vowed to make my trips shorter and even put it in writing, “My next trip will be a few days shorter. I think for me a three-week tour is a good. By the last few days I just wanted to get on the plane for home.”

After that vow I still ended up with a trip of 30 days. How has that turned out? I actually would love to stay a little longer. Yes, I will be happy to get home, but I will be very sad to leave the 5 Stans. Of course, it helps that I have been staying in nice (often luxurious) hotels rather than freezing in a tent like last year. But there is more to it. The Stans were someplace new and different and each is distinct from the other. Turkmenistan certainly has its charms, a certain “je ne sais quoi” with its burning craters, giant monuments, empty golf courses, many world records and charming news reporters.

The buffet was not impressive for such an opulent hotel. I tried their croissants and crepes, what I have been having nearly every day. Begaim organized a cappuccino for me. I will really miss her.

I have mentioned the lack of people on the streets. Maybe, as Slava told us, they are too busy working. Or maybe they do not exist. Apparently census information is not easy to acquire.

Turkmenistan has had two presidents. Saparmurat Niyazov became the president at independence. He ran a repressive regime but was also known for his many eccentric decrees such as banning the use of lip syncing at public concerts, banishing dogs from the capital, banning long hair and beards for men, and outlawing opera, ballet and circuses. He also disliked gold teeth, so people had to visit their dentists. But he was a good son. He replaced the Turkmen word for bread with his late mother’s name. People may have eaten more bread during April, which was also given his mother’s name, one of many changes to the names of days and months.

A bigger problem for the rural populace was the closing of all hospitals outside of Ashgabat, stating that everyone could just visit the capital. He also closed all libraries outside Ashgabat since the people only needed two books, the Quran and a bestseller that he wrote himself, the Ruhnama, a spiritual guide for the Turkmen nation. The book was mandatory in all schools including universities. Knowledge of the book was required for government employees and even to get a driver’s license. He had a two-story Ruhnama installed in Independence Square which I think is still there, but for some reason we did not visit. I have my suspicions.

Niyazov’s reign ended with his death in 2006. The second president, Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow, reversed some of the decrees such as changing back the names of months and days, and reopening the rural hospitals and libraries. But he has his own peccadilloes such as his love of white. I have mentioned the use of white marble for all the buildings. Black cars were impounded unless their owners got them repainted white or silver.

Like certain leaders of other countries, he likes to show off his athletic prowess, such as participating in horse races. That wonderful golf course that I mentioned in yesterday’s post? When it opened in 2017, President Berdimuhamedow managed a hole in one from 246 feet. Or so reported the government news. How do you know it did not happen? He could have a great tournament with Kim Jong Il, another great athlete, who is said to have scored several aces in a round of golf. Throw Trump into the mix, and I would pay to watch that competition.

Throughout the trip I kept thinking, as I looked at giant statues and murals of presidents, “I hope Trump doesn’t find out about this, because he will want to do it himself.” Can you imagine giant golden Trumps everywhere? Sorry about the politics, but I do see some scary similarities.

In 2015, a golden statue of Berdimuhamedow riding a horse atop a white-marble cliff was erected in Ashgabat. We passed by it on our way to the hotel yesterday but did not stop.

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Our first visit of our last day was at the nearby Halk Hakydasy Complex, which since 2014 has housed an ensemble of memorials. It is a beautiful spot. The complex is huge. So are the monuments.
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The Ruhy Tagzym Monument is dedicated to victims of the 1948 Ashgabat earthquake. It consists of a mighty bull shaking a globe. On top is a woman holding a golden child. The golden child is the former president who was the sole survivor of his family in the earthquake. Yes, it is big.
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Next door is the Baky şöhrat (Eternal glory) Monument to the fallen in the 1941-1945 Great Patriotic War which consists of a group of very tall towers. We kept looking up.
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From there we walked to the Milletiň Ogullary Monument which commemorates heroes of other battles for Turkmenistan and consists of an arch with two kneeling soldiers and a large mother or angel figure. Or is she the Angel of Death? I found her a bit scary looking.
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In case that’s not enough, there is a huge mural which is a Monument to the Battle of Geok Tepe, when the Russians took the fortress and solidified their takeover of Turkmenistan.
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We were only there for about 15 minutes which is not enough time for such a large complex. I hurried to get a few decent angles for my photos of the very big things and had to rush to get back to the bus. You might want to stay longer to really appreciate the place. Or maybe not.

From there we drove out of town to the Nisa Fortress. Slava pointed out the “Path of Health” which is a paved 36 km long footpath into the mountains that was built to improve the health of the citizens. I would not mind walking part of it, but there was no time for that.

He also discussed the tree planting that is everywhere. He said that there is drip irrigation for the trees and at first the people were asked to do the planting but that there are now government staff to look after them. Slava said that they are finally planting trees other than pine. The effort is impressive.
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The Old Nisa Fortress is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It dates from the 3rd century BC and was home to the royal family of the Parthian Empire. It is a beautiful place with a view of the Kopet-Dag Mountains. I quite enjoyed walking around the area, especially when we had a few minutes on our own.

But once again, I had to rush to catch up with everyone as we were ready to move on to our next stop. Much of this tour, especially in Uzbekistan and here in Turkmenistan, has consisted of rushing from place to place. Our Russian guides were especially good at keeping us moving.
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We had a view of a town from the old ramparts. All the roofs were green. Back on the bus I asked Slava about it and was not surprised to hear that it is a rule that new roof tiles must be green.
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The next stop on our whirlwind tour was the Russian Bazaar. We drove through an older part of town to get there, and I found it refreshing that the buildings were not all white marble. Unlike all the other markets on this trip, we were not supposed to take photographs from inside. Slava lent us a little money so we could use the pay toilets. We took a quick walk through the market. It was great to see real people. A woman told me, “Welcome”. A man shook my hand.
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I took a few quick shots as our bus rolled along, including an interesting sculpture and another Ferris wheel. This one would not make the Guinness Book of World Records, but the fountains are part of the record for 'most fountain pools in a public place'. In case you are wondering what the record for most fountains is, Ashgabat has 27. Now you know.
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Our lunch was at a restaurant with little dining rooms in yurts. We were first served a great beef soup. The main course was plov, which was the second time that we had it on the trip. I had thought that we would be having plov almost every other day, since it is such a staple in Central Asia. I found this one as plain as the other time in Samarkand. Maybe it was a good thing that we only had it a couple of times.
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We found our bus driver surrounded by a group of children. He had them convinced that they were able to open and close the bus door with verbal commands while he was clicking the remote in his pocket. One boy ran off to find his friends so that he could show them this amazing thing. I really wish that I had made a video of that.

We passed many large apartment complexes which Slava explained had been built to replace small private homes. There is generous financing for the flats. We wondered if they were occupied, and Slava said that they were. He kept vouching for the existence of people. I really liked Slava. But I also felt a bit sorry for him. I think we all understood that he was in a difficult situation and could not speak about certain aspects of life in Turkmenistan. He knew that the country’s two presidents were beyond eccentric. But he could not say that. He only went as far as referring to the late president as, “Our Trump.”
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We drove out of town to visit a horse breeding operation. We got close to the farm but had to stop and wait for a smaller van since our big bus could not navigate the road to the farm. This prompted more questions about why we were travelling around in such a big bus.

We watched a woman cleaning the road. It seemed like a big road to be cleaned with a broom.
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The owner of the horse farm told us about the Turkmen reverence for horses. We had eaten horse in Kazakhstan. It is a common food in the other Stans but not here in Turkmenistan, where horses are considered sacred.

They breed the Akhal Teke, a horse known for its light thin legs, silky skin, and long, upright neck. The horse is adapted to the harsh conditions of Turkmenistan where it must live with little food or water. They have great endurance. He mentioned a special marathon when an Akhal Teke ran 4,500 kilometers to Moscow in 84 days.

I asked the man if Genghis Khan had tried to acquire their horses. It was a fun moment because he walked right up to me and answered quite passionately. He told a legendary story of emissaries sent by Genghis to buy some horses. The Turkmen replied by cutting off the visitors’ heads. It did not end well for the Turkmen.

I am not a big horse fan but found the demonstration quite interesting. The horses were beautiful.

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They brought out a mare in heat to see if she would be nice to a stallion. After a brief encounter they were separated. We were not sure how it had turned out but were told that she would have been okay with everything. That seemed a bit unfair. Maybe they were given some privacy later.

After meeting up with our big bus, we headed back towards the city. We stopped at the Saparmurat Hajji Mosque which was built in 1994-95 on the site of the former Geok Tepe fortress, where in 1881 some 13,000 Turkmen soldiers and civilians were killed by the Russian army in a decisive battle for control of the territory.

We just had time for a quick photograph before getting back into the bus.
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Our final stop of our 22-day tour was at the Turkmenbashi Ruhy Mosque which can hold up to 10,000, making it the largest mosque in Central Asia. Next to it is the Turkmenbashi Mausoleum where Niyazov, his mother and two brothers are buried.

The white marble mosque is a huge monument to the former president. It cost over $100 million, probably way over. The walls of the mosque are inscribed, in addition to the expected words of the Quran, with passages from the first president’s own book, the Ruhnama. There is even a quotation that claims that his book is the holiest. Not surprisingly, this was not popular with Muslim clerics.

The mosque is an impressive piece of architecture. But it really seemed very sterile. We had visited some old holy places that were no longer places of worship and many that were still in use. But you still could relate to them as places of worship. This one was just built to worship the president. It was just a bit too much, especially after seeing so many other oversized, tacky monuments and buildings.
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Maybe it was time to be leaving Central Asia. And this was it, we had no more stops on this tour. We returned to our fancy hotel.

Dinner was back at the upstairs restaurant. But first our group gathered in the lobby to discuss our last tips, this time for both Slava and Begaim. It was one great advantage of being with a group so that I did not have to decide on my own how much to pay.

We were in the same room as yesterday. The golf course was still empty. We were pleased to see bottles of wine. I had mentioned that we had avoided wine since it was ridiculously expensive at the official exchange rates. We thanked Kalpak at first, but eventually understood that it was provided by Slava’s company. There were many toasts at this last group dinner. The ice cream at the end was a good way to end our meals.

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We chatted for a long time. Then the waitress came and surprised us by taking away our remaining bottles, including a red that we had just opened. (Actually, I had just opened it, which maybe I was not supposed to do.) Slava investigated and found out that they had supplied too many bottles. I wondered what happened to the open bottle.

I needed to finish packing. I was worried about my connecting flight in Istanbul and wanted to be sure to have my bag with me. I knew that it was slightly over the cabin limit. I used the bathroom scale to check if I had moved enough things into my small pack.

I made a quick call to Po and started coughing again. This has turned out to be one really bad cold, maybe the worst I have had for several years. Now I had to get through four flights to get home. Yes, I do this for fun. But the flights will not be.

I left my swanky room for the last time and found that the driver was already waiting in the lobby, along with my three flight mates and Thomas and Begaim who were there to say goodbye. There were lots of hugs. I have said all along how much I like Begaim. By the end I decided that I liked Thomas most of all the tour members (except of course for Silvio).

It was after midnight as we drove to the airport. Although we were quite close, the roads were not direct, and we seemed to stop at all the traffic lights. It is apparent that no one is allowed to drive quickly, even late at night. We discussed again whether the apartment blocks were occupied. But it was late, so it was natural for them to be to be dark at this hour.

The giant falcon airport finally came into view. At night the bird shimmered, making it look like it was moving. Yes, it is impressive.
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I had no problem with my bag at check in when I asked to carry it on the plane. I was not sure if photography was allowed inside but took a couple of quick shots with my phone.
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At passport control I had to show my passport to a person, then scan it and finally show it to another person who asked me which place I liked better, Uzbekistan or Turkmenistan. I told him Turkmenistan. At that moment I would have told him that it was the greatest country in the world.

Posted by Bob Brink 12:04 Archived in Turkmenistan Tagged turkmenistan central_asia kalpak_travel Comments (7)

Ashgabat - A City to Love?


View Central Asia 2019 on Bob Brink's travel map.

May 24

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.
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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.
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I took a few more shots of the crater, although I once again was more interested in the desert sky.
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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.
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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.

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There was still another crater. Those Russian guys were busy. This one was full of water.
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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.

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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.

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We stopped at a gas station. There was a camel strolling down the road.
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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.
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Just before Ashgabat we stopped so that the drivers could wash the vehicles. Apparently, a dirty car gets you a hefty fine in Ashgabat.
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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.
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We passed the airport with its falcon. We would get a closer look at it tomorrow night when we leave Central Asia.
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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.
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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.
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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.

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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.

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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.
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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.

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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.

Posted by Bob Brink 17:56 Archived in Turkmenistan Tagged turkmenistan ashgabat central_asia kalpak_travel Comments (8)

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