Welcome to Turkmenistan, the country where flat roads came to die. The roads, if you can call them that, are by far the worst we have encountered. Bumping around in the back on the truck is much like being on a roller coaster, great fun for about five minutes, utterly exhausting for the next 8 hours. When our guide, Artem, suggests that the roads are only five years old I laugh but this is not a joke, no weight restrictions, overloaded trucks and a lack of maintenance have destroyed a perfectly flat tarmac road in a matter of years. Artem assures us that the President is now aware of the problem and is directing money to sort it out.
Our second night in Turkmenistan is spent camping next to some underground thermal springs. We rush to set up camp and grab our swimming gear before the cave is shut for the night. At $15 for half hour this isn’t a cheap experience but one I am unlikely to repeat. As we enter the cave we can hear twittering above us, pigeons, I’m sure you can get any number of diseases from pigeon droppings but we carry on regardless. The deeper into the cave we get the stronger the smell of ammonia and sulphur. Not entirely sure that this was a good idea we strip off and make our way down the last few slimy steps into the delightfully warm water. The cave is famed for the number of minerals in the water which can be used to help any number of skin problems. Swimming around in a deep, dimly lit cave with bats hanging above you and no idea what could be below you is quite disconcerting but the warm water is relaxing and well worth a visit.
The next morning we make our way to the capital, Ashgabat, a striking city in the middle of the desert. After a couple of days of exploring it has certainly left an impression on all of us, not all of them good. The plush marble fronted buildings and shiny cars (it is illegal to drive with a dirty car in Ashgabat) certainly give the impression of wealth but the city is frustrating. We quite often feel like the only ones there, no one walks the streets which could be because fuel is free so no one feels the need to walk but it could also have a lot to do with the tight restrictions placed on everything. Guards line every corner telling you where you can and can’t walk. We are shouted at constantly for taking photographs. Tourists have a curfew of 11pm and hotel rooms are bugged which mean that sensitive conversations need to be held outside. The internet is restricted and emails are monitored. This is the first police state I have visited and although the country feels very comfortable, we don’t see any poverty, it is very difficult to gage how the people feel because none of them will talk to us.
The independence monument in Ashgabat
Paparazzi at the independent monument
During our time in Ashgabat we visit the Arch of Neutrality a monument adorned with a huge solid gold statue of the Turkmenbashi, the late leader of Turkmenistan. Turkmenistan was recognised as the world’s first neutral country by the UN in 2011. In this case neutrality seems like another word for insularism, it feels like another way to shut out the rest of the world and maintain control over the people of Turkmenistan.
Turkmenbashi on top of the Arch of Neutrality
The declaration of neutrality
The Presidents Palace by night
It is a relief to leave the city after two days and head back out to the desert. Just outside of town we stop off at the largest market in central Asia. Packed with carpets, fabrics, sheep, camels, furniture, and food we wander around trying to find a trinket from Turkmenistan. We soon find ourselves lost in the endless rows of goods and end up late back to the truck.
Livestock at the market
We arrive at camp late afternoon and prepare for our trip into the desert but not before a major truck clean. Jobs are divided up and everyone gets involved scrubbing and sweeping so the truck is spotless once more. It’s a shame the same cannot be said of us. As the sun begins to descend it’s time to make our way to the crater, a huge burning hole in the middle of the Karakum desert, it is known locally as the ‘Gates of Hell’. Apparently the result of gas exploration in the Soviet era in the 1950s, the crater is man-made and was set alight to burn off the natural gases found there to avoid poisoning the surrounding environment. The crater has now been burning for more than sixty years. It is quite something to behold and seals Turkmenistan’s fate as the strangest country I have visited to date.
Our final day in Turkmenistan is spent at Konye-Urgench, once the center of the Islamic world and the capital of Uzbekistan. Today, due to Stalin’s determination to divide the people of Central Asia it now belongs to Turkmenistan and boasts ancient ruins of mausoleums and minarets, dating back to the 12thcentury. We spend an hour wandering around the ruins in the searing heat of the desert before we head for our longest border crossing yet and the wonderfully relaxed Uzbekistan.