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Ashgabat 'City of Love'

Dazzling marble and manicured walkways

A loose translation(from farsi) of the name of Turkmenistan’s capital city is ‘the City of Love’.

As a tourist, even a transiting one, it is only polite to respect the country being visited, not to take a chance to take a pop at it. Turkmenistan has an ancient, nomadic history. The Russians took an interest in the middle 19th century and the country later became part of the Soviet Union. It was the very last country to leave it in 1991. I’m told it didn’t want to and it was only the then disintegrating Russia that dropped it, rather than the other way round.

The USSR had a tacit policy of spreading populations around the Soviet Union. So there are many Turkmen in Russia and Uzbeks in Ashgabat. The same policy held true of industry.

Turkmenistan, the size of Spain, has the 6th largest gas and oil reserves in the world. But, to keep it dependent on the Union, no refineries were built – they could only export the raw product. The same was true of cotton. The country has sorted that now!

In 1948, more than 100,000 inhabitants (60% of the then population) were tragically killed in a catastrophic earthquake.

Until the mid-1990’s it was ruled by a virtually ‘lifetime President’. He died 10 years later and the current President (Berdimuhamedow) is in charge, re-elected in 2012 with a 97% majority.

As well as statues, his photograph is everywhere.

There are no calls to prayer heard but Turkmenistan is broadly muslim, though not apparently conservatively so.

I’ve mentioned the proximity of my hotel to the Presidential Palace. Well, at 5pm in the evening, no hotel guest is allowed out of the hotel entrance or to walk outside. This is explained as if it’s OK and perfectly normal (OK, Eamonn, that’s enough…). The only option is to leave by a side entrance and catch a taxi, or (in my case) hop in the car.

I had arranged for someone to clean my car during the afternoon and I decided to go for a drive around the city. It is eerily quiet. No horns, music, shouting. No disobedience of any kind. The roads weren’t even busy and when they were, everyone seemed to avoid revving their car. Speaking of which, a few Ladas were about but not really in the city. This is Toyota Carina country. Bosses drive Lexus’ (or should it be Lexii?) or Landcruisers. There is little parking in the centre and Police stand on every corner. But I found a parking spot and walked about.

I was trying to be very sensitive about not taking pictures of government buildings, policemen, military etc etc. But everyone seemed to prefer to stop me taking pictures than to exercise discretion. So, to avoid getting into trouble, I will show a few pictures that I copied from the web – in other words, already in the public domain – any copyrights acknowledged.

I’ve thought about writing a full review of Ashgabat. I think I will hold my thoughts awhile. I hope to visit on my way back so with a bit of luck, I’ll be able to absorb some more of what it has to offer.

All rather stunning

So many parts of it are beautiful, peaceful, immaculate and the people so very helpful. I would recommend a visit for the experience. I’d suggest a web read up first and then make up your own mind. It is very, very different.

I needed to go North to reach the border with Uzbekistan at Konye-Urgench. Halfway up, is a good overnight stopover. It is in Dawesa and is called the ‘Gates to Hell’. It’s difficult to know whether it is just a tourist attraction or an ecological screw up. Engineers, seeking oil/gas fields tapped into it and the fire began. Rather than cap it off, they thought it safer to let it burn itself off. 40 years later, it still is. It has now formed a large crater. It is now something of a right of passage for tourists to the country. Most drive up and stay the night, others are driven from Ashgabat (about 4 hours), see it and then return to the city. There have even laid out 3 helipads for those seeking the executive option. But we are not talking massive crowds. When I visited, there were possibly 30 tourists visiting.

No idea what the sign means ....

The drive up there is fairly comfortable with the road generally in good nick, loads more camels and some proper sand dunes if you wanted a Lawrence of Arabia look.

One of the problems of doing the trip on your own is that you can have a photo idea (which of course, I think at the time is utterly brilliant) but there’s nobody to hold the lens. And if I were to dress up in a white sheet with a camera some distance away set on an auto timer, I think I might be sectioned. And I’m not sure my selfie stick would do it justice, given the wonder of the idea, obviously.

I stopped for petrol. Just as well I did because it was the last station for about 150 miles and I would have run out of fuel the next day.

The 7km track to the crater is not signposted but I had added the GPS coordinates, just in case. This was then serious offroad driving. The 2 GPS’ bleeped scary warnings about being off road. Being an action man hero, I continued. Not once did Kerrching falter, even through some very soft sandy bits. I was a bit disappointed as I had packed gripper mats and a shovel and watched endless videos about how to rock out of a trench using a jack. Darn’it. Near the crater, two companies have set up 3 or four yurts. I had packed my tent but the thought of more comfort was appealing and not having to wrestle with giant scorpions a fairly major point in the yurt option’s favour too. I approached the larger ‘settlement’. A heavily tattoed Russian guy approached. I asked how much would it be to stay the night. They said that if I wanted a private yurt (i.e. just me) it would be $40. I said that I have a tent so would prefer not to pay that much (see, getting a bit better at this trading malarkey).

The thought of shared accommodation following the cargo ship experience was a mental scar which was far from healed. He made a phone call and asked me to follow him in my car, with him demonstrating mountain biking prowess through the sand, up the hill to the other settlement. There I met ‘Turkish’ (strange name, but there you go) who could let me have a private yurt for $20 and this would include dinner and breakfast. Not a bad deal!

Even though the crater is most impressive in darkness, I just had to walk to it earlier, just to have a peek.

The heat is noticeable as it is approached. Close up, it’s decidedly hot. Flames all around can be seen, and the whooshing noise of the gas escaping though the rocks is clearly audible.

At 7, I was served dinner. It was a traditional cabbage soup. I had some of it (pick yourselves up from the floor, Charlotte and Holly!) but it was a bit oily for me. Tiny whole cucumber and tomatoes then barbequed chicken portions, a chilli sauce and less traditionally but welcome, chips.

Just after dusk and the glow is intensifying

One walk back to the crater and then to bed...

Only an owl and a cat disturbed the total silence. The desert seems a strange place for them to elope. Didn't see the pea green boat either.

I was beginning to understand why I came to these faraway lands. Experiences like this reminded me.

Welcome to the Gates of Hell

Breakfast was at 7. Coffee, toast (yes, really), yogurt, and a soft-boiled egg. In the middle of the Karakum desert. Not bad for £16!

Next blog will be the journey to Konye-Urgench and the border crossing into Uzbekistan.

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