Turkmenistan is very much a police state. I came in through road borders and getting a visa was tricky but not impossible. You have to first apply for a letter of invitation, which costs, and then you can fill in the very detailed forms to apply for a visa.
Turkmenistan is an odd place. We were so lucky to be able to explore Ashgabat and the Davarza gas crater as many travellers are unable to do so. As “tourists” we had to be accompanied from border to border by a guide. In total I spent 3 days in Ashgabat, drove North to the Davarza gas crater, then crossed into Uzbekistan to continue Stanning (travelling through the ‘Stans) on the Silk Road and then Pamir Highway.
When? August 2015
Where? Ashgabat, Turkmenistan
With whom? Alone
The marble city of Ashgabat is beautiful, but the political state of the country meant that it was empty. I shook of the guide and went exploring for my first day there. The former supreme leader had put all tax money into creating this completely white marble city, so if you do ever find yourself in Ashgabat, make sure you have sunglasses. As well as this he had constructed a solid gold statue of himself that rotates to face the sun… It has been removed from its podium and placed in a park so I made it my mission to find it.
This is a state of perpetual paranoia. And under no exaggeration do I compare it to George Orwell’s 1984: in every direction pointed a camera and on each corner stood a police man and a military man, both with weapons. Their purpose was to tell us where we could cross, not to take photos and on which side of the street we could stand. Each day the rules vary, as it was more about enforcing the rules than anything else; a reminder of the oppression. [Disclaimer: due to illegal photos being taken, sometimes the angle/position isn’t quite right, but I am sharing what I do have of Ashgabat.]
During my exploration I found Yimpas shopping centre, which had the only escalators in Ashgabat, so it would have been impolite not to do a complete circuit of the escalators. Due to the lack of humans in this capital city, public transport was minimal and taxis didn’t exist. Instead you can hail down random cars and drivers seem pretty happy to take you places for a small fee. I jumped out at the independence column where I saw guards standing regimented in ranks before they performed a ceremony whereby weapons were thrown around skillfully like cocktail shakers with legs kicked up to above waist height.
After the show, I walked towards some pretty-looking fountains and as I did, cars pulled up and a bridal party got out. The groom was wearing a sheep wool bearskin-style hat and the bride was completely covered by a less than flattering red and white vale (there could have been anyone under there!). They beckoned me over, so willingly I advanced just as the band started up and all of a sudden the area was filled with dancing. The accordion, drums, and oboe made for an interesting genre as people began to get more into the vibe. At first it was just a few friendly foot taps and arm wobbles, but that quickly escalated to me having a dance off with one bloke, everyone forming a circle around us clapping, heckling, and cheering us on.
A few rounds of dancing passed and we joined forces and showcased some full-on wedding moves, complete with twirls and impressive footwork (mostly from him). It’s now all on their wedding video!
Time in Turkmenistan was limited. It was hard enough to get a visa and it only gave us days to get from the Iranian border to the Uzbek border. So after only a few days in Ashgabat we headed North to camp in the Karakum Desert (to read about adventures in other deserts here is the shit spitting competition in Namibia, and here is how I got smuggled into Wadi Rum). We pitched up next to a camel skeleton, cooked ourselves a BBQ and then drove to the Darvaza gas crater.
This part of the world is very rich in natural gas, and under USSR the Soviets mined for the resources. Occasionally they’d come across a pocket of gas which would kill the environment. In 1971, some genius came up with the idea of setting it alight to burn off the gas and give the wildlife a chance to survive. The intention was that it would last a couple of days. Decades later it is still alight and is now known as the Gates to Hell.
I spent so much time patrolling the crater, looking into it. I was mesmerised, and afterwards felt cooked to medium-rare. Epic experience!
Info: In terms of freedom, Turkmenistan is almost on a par with North Korea. It’svery difficult to get in, and you may have to pretend that you are transporting goods across the country. Any form of effective medication like paracetamol or ibuprofen is illegal, and there are thorough searches at the border so it’s not worth the risk in trying to take them in. Be careful. The authorities appeared indoctrinated by the State, and I wouldn’t be surprised if they used their weapons.
Tip of the week: If you have poor vision, invest in prescription sunglasses. One of the best things I ever bought for all of my trips, but particularly when everywhere around me is super reflective white marble. The locals (when we saw any) had sunglass tan lines!
Product of the week: A decent headscarf. Turkmenistan uses a different form of oppression from Iran and women are allowed to wear whatever they like. Still, it’s worth having something like a headscarf to cover up shoulders or neck where appropriate, or even use as a blanket when cold. Multi purpose. I can recommend this pashmina scarf, which is rainbow coloured and beautiful!
Other things worth visiting nearby: The Pamir Highway and Silk Road routes are easy to add on to the back of a Turkmen visit.