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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
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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!).
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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).
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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