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TURKMENISTAN

A dictatorship isolated from the world, mainly deserted, with antique bazaars and weird modern buildings
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IMPRESSIONS FROM TURKMENISTAN: travel itinerary and trip report

There are definitely countries that are more famous, more visited, more entertaining. Indeed, Turkmenistan is not very open to the world and to tourism. However, visiting a so strange and restrictive dictatorship can be an interesting experience, not to mention the charm of the post-Soviet country and of the historical Silk Road that passed here centuries ago. I don't know if this can be enough to attract tourists, but, certainly, we are going to talk about a really original country.
By the way, if one doesn't get discouraged by the lack of activities, the censorship on Facebook and the internet, the curfew of 11 pm and from the expensive and difficult to obtain entry visa ($ 320), it is possible to meet nice and kind people.
Here below some photos taken during a "holiday" to Turkmenbashi (on the Caspian Sea) and in the capital Ashgabat; under the photos, you'll find trip report, information and travel itinerary.

bazaar Turkmenbashi, Turkmenistan
Bazaar of Turkmenbashi, Turkmenistan

TURKMENISTAN: TRIP REPORT AND TRAVEL INFO

Let's tell the truth: most people don't go to Turkmenistan on holiday. They go for work, because they have to cross it, or because they have already traveled, as tourists, in almost all other nations on the Earth. Of course, also Turkmenistan has its own charms. However, it is more likely that a stay here is combined with a journey along the Silk Road to the other "Stans" (especially Kazahkstan and Uzbekistan), maybe coming by sea from Baku (Azerbaijan).
Turkmenistan consists largely of large flat deserts. To the west, Turkmenistan is right on the Caspian Sea and here the main town is Turkmenbashi, an industrial and commercial town (here arrive the ships from Baku).
Turkmenbashi, Turkmenistan
Turkmenbashi
Turkmenbashi, Turkmenistan
Turkmenbashi
In Turkmenbashi modernity comes mainly in the form of highly polluting factories that spread disturbing odors. The most fascinating part, to be visited, is the bazaar.
bazaar Turkmenbashi, Turkmenistan
Bazaar of Turkmenbashi, Turkmenistan
Near Turkmenbashi the government is building Awaza, a touristic area with modern hotels build as Dubai-style skyscrapers. This was, at least, the idea. Work is still ongoing and the hotels for now are sort of white elephants. Yes, there are fake-luxurious rooms, and, even swimming pools, bars and pool tables. However, outside the hotels there is nothing. During a holiday in Awaza you'll meet mainly Turkmen tourists enjoying the swimming pools, the beach on the Caspian Sea (the water is cold and hardly attractive) and, above all, significant amounts of vodka.
Awaza beach, Turkmenistan
Awaza beach, Turkmenistan
Caspian Sea, Turkmenistan
Caspian Sea
Awaza hotel, Turkmenistan
Hotel in Awaza
But where did Turkmenistan get all this money to build skyscrapers? Turkmenistan is one of the leading methane producers and has large oil fields. The government gets the money and gives water, gas and electricity for free to the citizens, who are rather poor. Gasoline costs abour 20 eurocents per liter.
About the Turkmen's life, it's interessing to notice that the censorship blocks many websites and media. In addition to the Turkmen they speak Russian (as a second language), but they also know Turkish pretty well, as they are quite similar and on TV there are often Turkish shows.
Typical Turkmen TV programs are very characteristic.
TV program, Turkmenistan
Typical TV program of Turkmenistan
While I was staying in Awaza for work, in a luxurious hotel that wanted to resemble the Abu Dhabi Intercontinental (but in reality the quality was quite low and the services almost nonexistent, as it was hard to find even someone who could speak English, for example), I asked the receptionist to call a taxi in order to visit the bazaar of Turkmenbashi mentioned above.
Actually in ex-USSR countries taxis are often just private persons who own a car... it's a kind of payed hitchhiking. In this case, the "taxi driver" was a security guard of the hotel. By gestures (virtually no one speaks English in Turkmenbashi, but he knew a dozen words, thus making him well above average) explained that he was twenty-seven years old, he had a wife, two children, several lovers and was in contact with beautiful prostitutes.
Turkmenbashi, Turkmenistan
Turkmenbashi
Turkmenbashi, Turkmenistan
Turkmenbashi
I liked walking around Turkmenbashi: the market was lively, and the gray houses with barren mountains in the background were not beautiful, but definetely more picturesque than Awaza. I felt like travelling more in Turkmenbashi than in the mega-hotels of Awaza.
Turkmenbashi, Turkmenistan
Turkmenbashi
bazaar Turkmenbashi, Turkmenistan
Bazaar of Turkmenbashi
The night I met the security guard to play pool. Later I found out that he also wanted to propose me a night with a prostitute for 100 dollars. I refused, but I came to know about a job that is very common in all major hotels in Turkmenistan, even if they say that prostitution is illegal, for foreigners. (Tourists eager to pay for sex beware, though I believe that this law is not applied in the hotels). Turkmenistan is full of strange laws and I recommend you to read them on Wikipedia. In my opinion, the weirdest laws are: it is forbidden to sing in playback; it is allowed smoking indoor but not outdoor; libraries are illegal; male homosexuality is illegal (but not female).

I left Turkmenbashi with the following image in my mind... not very attractive, maybe, but with a deep, undeniable sense of Russia and Asia: a meeting between the Eastern cultures and East Europe, as it should be on the Silk Road.
Turkmenbashi, Turkmenistan
Turkmenbashi
Turkmenbashi, Turkmenistan
Turkmenbashi
After Turkmenbashi I spent a day in Ashgabat, the capital, that was rebuilt after a terrible earthquake in 1948. The style is imposing, megalomaniac, as you can expect from a dictatorship. For tourists ti is almost inevitable to pass through Ashgabat during their journey to Turkmenistan, as almost all international flights land here. Ashgabat is very different from Turkmenbashi!
Ashgabat, Turkmenistan
Ashgabat, the capital of Turkmenistan
Ashgabat, Turkmenistan
Ashgabat
It is possible to live unique experiences in Ashgabat. Since one of the pleasures of travel is to discover different customs and ways of thinking and meet distant realities, I will tell you about my memorable stroll through Ashgabat.
I was staying at the Sofitel, a superb hotel in the center of the capital (if you are not paying, try to sleep here!).
Ashgabat Sofitel, Turkmenistan
Sofitel hotel of Ashgabat
In the afternoon I walked, alone, in the direction of the bazaar, along an impressive road. There was a police officer every 50 meters. At a certain point, one of them whistled and signaled me to move away. I got off the sidewalks and walked in the streets, although it didn't seem a great idea. He gestured me again to move away. Obviously he didn't know a word of English, so he shouted incomprehensible sounds. I said "bazaar". He ordered me again to move away, in a driveway, and to hide behind a tree. So I did, thinking that he would come to ask me money (or to get naked).
Instead, his purpose was to leave the road empty as the president of Turkmenistan was about to pass. I waited a little bit, along with a Turkmen lady, but the president was late, so in the end I continued along the driveway and got lost. After some random wandering, I arrived at the bazaar.
Ashgabat bazaar, Turkmenistan
Bazaar of Ashgabat
Ashgabat bazaar, Turkmenistan
Bazaar of Ashgabat
Ashgabat bazaar, Turkmenistan
Bazaar of Ashgabat
My adventures with the cops of Turkmenistan were just beginning, but in the meantime I enjoyed the Russian market, the quaintest thing of my short holiday in Ashgabat. It was a colorful bazaar that made me want to buy fruit and cakes. Instead, I bought a backpack after some bargaining that approximately halved the price.
I continued my explorations until I reached the railway, that attracted me for no good reason... or maybe the reason was that I liked the idea that those tracks could connect East and West. As a travel lover, I was fascinated by that thought and I went to walk along the tracks (there was no barrier). Then a kilometer-long freight train passed.
Train in Ashgabat, Turkmenistan
A train crossing Ashgabat and Turkmenistan
Ashgabat train station, Turkmenistan
Train station of Ashgabat
Ashgabat, Turkmenistan
Ashgabat
I walked around for an hour and a half. Then I wanted to return to the hotel from a different way, between imperious white palaces. As I got closer to the city center, the palaces became more and more white and impressive.
Ashgabat, Turkmenistan
Ashgabat
Suddenly, a policeman shouted something and waved me that it was forbidden to carry on. I tried to cross the road and continue, but nothing, other whistles and a scream. Reluctantly, I turned back.
I had to walk at least one mile more to find an alternative route, then I finally found a street that allowed me to go to the hotel, passing between monumental and megalomaniac architecture.
Ashgabat, Turkmenistan
Ashgabat
Ashgabat, Turkmenistan
Ashgabat
Unfortunately, somewhere I took the wrong road, probably because I didn't understand the whistles of another policeman. As I walked I shot some pictures - a terrible crime, in Turkmenistan. In fact, at some point, two policemen saw me and yelled at me repeatedly. Calmly, I began to walk somewhere else, but it seemed like every direction was wrong. In fact, around me, in those immense streets and in that gigantic square, there was no-one but the policemen. It was an area forbidden to Turkmens and tourists.
The cops ordered me (by gestures, of course) to walk towards them. I tried to act like a stupid (smoething I am good at), by getting close to them while taking a slightly different direction, but it didn't work, in the end I had to go to them.
They said lots of Turkmen words that I didn't understand. &Quot;English?&Quot; No, impossible (maybe they knew Russian and Turkish, I am not saying tht they were ignorant... they just came from a different world). In short, they seemed pretty irritated. By their gestures it was clear that I couldn't be there. And they also complained saying "no photo no photo". I shrugged my shoulders: "Work, tourist, I didn't know." I was unsure what to do, but I suspected they wanted to delete my photos. So I pulled out my cell phone with the excuse to show a map of the city, indicating them where I was and where I wanted to go (the hotel). They put their hands on the phone, but I held it close. We talked for a minute and no-one understood the other. (At one point I said "Italy, I don't know" and they laughed) but eventually they insisted: "photo photo!". At that point I showed them the photos taken with the phone. "Oh no, oh no," they complained when they saw a a ministerial building. They were shocked, as if on my phone there was the image of their mothers in provocative poses. I had to delete that picture and another.
Ashgabat, Turkmenistan
Ashgabat
Satisfied, they let me go. I was happy of my little trick: by immediately showing them my cell phone, they didn't check my bag where there was the camera with which I had taken almost all the photos.
After finishing my ten km walk, from a certain point of view as adventurous as a jungle-trak, I relaxed at the hotel's spa. When darkness fell, I opened the window of my hotel room and I snapped a few night pictures.
Ashgabat, Turkmenistan
Ashgabat
Ashgabat, Turkmenistan
Ashgabat
Meanwhile, I heard a policeman whistle. They never stop! Shortly after I got back to the window and the whistles resumed, together with some screams. A guy came under my room (I was on the sixth floor) and shouted something unintelligible. So I realized that my presence at the window was the problem! I was very surprised... a truly unique situation! The president was about to pass again and my behavior had them suspicious.
So, this is my weird experience in Turkmenistan. Definitely a trip here is something unique! But probably not a dream holiday.
While walking around Ashgabat I felt like a brave explorer, maybe not exactly like the time we entered a school in the Indonesian jungle, but similar... How many Western had walked alone along those tracks? How many had been in that square forbidden to ordinary citizens? Certainly few enough to make me proud of my useless, but funny endeavour.

TURKMENISTAN: travel info

Finally, some practical advices.
American dollars are accepted everywhere, and usually with a good change (officially ir is $1 = 2.85 manat).
When to go? The climate is dry and temperate in spring and autumn. Instead, you are likely to suffer the heat in summer and the cold in winter.
Getting around? Public transport, domestic flights by Turkmenistan Airlines, taxis and drivers. The country is apparently very safe, but you must have all the necessary requirements (passport, visa and invitation letter) to show the police in order to avoid any problems.
Other destinations? Sure! With a driver or with an agency you can visit the Hell's Door, a surprising crater spewing flames. What is it? In short, in the seventies the Soviets were looking for oil. They dug a hole and there was an explosion that created a chasm exaling methane and poisonous gases. What to do? They decided to burn everything to prevent poisonous gases from reaching the nearby villages causing death and illness. So the Soviets gave fire to the gas and returned a few days later to check if it was extinguished. But no, the crater continued to burn. They returned after a little bit more, but fire and flames persisted. Today, after more than 40 years, the flames are always there, shining in the night.
This is a photo from Wikipedia (unfortunately I couldn't visit the Hell's Door).
Door to Hell, Turkmenistan
Door to Hell, Turkmenistan - Photo from Wikipedia
In conclusion, if you happen to spend a few days in Turkmenistan, it may be interesting. But if you are going to spend few weeks there... well either you are a very patient persone, or you could really get bored!
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