Apparently my WinZip trial has expired. It happened ages ago – like a few years – but my computer likes to remind me. Still, somehow I manage to unpack the odd zip file when I need to. Oh… I haven’t really started on topic here, have I?
Turkmenistan. I thought ‘d blog a bit about my experiences there now that I’m home and it’s been a little while since I was there giving me time to think about everything that I saw and everything that happened. I had a comment on one of the blogs I wrote in Turkmenistan likening it to North Korea, at least in terms of how it’s isolated from the world, and certainly it was a place that I didn’t always feel at ease in.
But at the same time I didn’t encounter a situation where I was particularly worried. My first worries were crossing the border. My guide met me before Turkmen immigration, which surprised me but I was very thankful for too. Along with the visa fee I also had a bunch of other fees to pay, the total of which was $77US. I didn’t expect it to be so high, to be honest (the majority on top of the $55 visa fee was the bank fee) but really it wasn’t that much.
What did concern me was the bunch of medications I had with me. One in particular which I need to take daily and if it wasn’t allowed, I was not sure what I would have done. I think I probably would have had to turn back to Uzbekistan because I guess they would have taken all I had and then I wouldn’t have had it for the next five weeks. As it turned out the medication was not on this banned list, which contained a number of drugs including some pain killers.
Doing Turkmenistan as a tour is considered the only reliable way of seeing the country. It’s the only way to get a tourist visa, the transit visa is possible but is given at the whim of the consulate you approach and research and word on the ground is that it is very rarely granted. I did meet three Germans though who got it in Tashkent on the first night. They would have been afforded more freedom obviously than I, however you can’t really confirm travel plans until you have the visa, given for a maximum of five days. They were to take a boat across the Caspian Sea to Baku, which I had at one point hoped to do. The boats can be very infrequent and they planned that if they ran out of days they would basically be able to wait in immigration detention for a boat to take them. I sure hope that worked out for them as they were giving themselves a day and a half to catch a boat.
For my part, I spent the first two days with a guide and driver by my side. It wasn’t until they left me at my hotel in Ashgabat for the night on the second say that I realised that I had been on a leash for that time. This is not a reflection on the people I must add. Merely on the rules. In that time my original guide had been rushed to hospital to have her appendix out and I received a new guide – in less than 15 minutes too! I will dissect the tour in greater detail at some point.
The tour company had their own café we had lunch in on the way and not too far from Konye Urgench. It was quite strange, the place wouldn’t have opened if it wasn’t for me and then most of the menu was unavailable. There can’t be too many tour companies in Turkmenistan – this wasn’t the tourist season either so it was hard to get a feel for how many tourists do visit, but I only saw the odd group at an historic site. And the three Germans at Darvaza Crater, otherwise it was me, my guide and driver most of the time. And guides in museums etc.
From what I gleaned whilst in the country, modern-day Turkmenistan has been built on the back of their first President, Turkmenbashi. Presidents are like much-loved dictators it seems in Central Asia, Tajikistan another case in point, and after the fall of the Soviet Union they needed someone to give them (the people of Turkmenistan) a sense of self. Why? Because Turkmen history was denied in Soviet times, not taught at all, only Russian history. The country was and is a Muslim country, but in Soviet times the country saw almost all of its 450+ mosques destroyed. In fact, only three survive today from pre-Soviet times.
Turkmenbashi built Ashgabat into this shining white city by spending a lot of the country’s money on marble. The city holds the world record for the most marble in a single city. Monuments are huge, and it has to be said, quite Soviet in style, and there is a strong element of communism in the way the county is run today – it’s difficult to visit, the state basically appears to build everything and then the citizens can by it from the state.
There’s a whole post in Turkmenbashi, he passed away around 14 years ago now. It’s important to note though that there has been a lot of positives for the people of Turkmenistan, and that throughout Central Asia people take a lot of pride in their cities and there is no doubt that people think of Ashgabat as a beautiful and special place.
I was always asking if it was ‘all right to’ do this or that, and usually it was. No pictures of soldiers or police, okay, fair enough, and strangely the market in Ashgabat was a no picture zone (inside). In the market in Mary I could take photos, although in one space I was asked to delete a photo I took without any real reason given. Once the day ended and I was back at the hotel, usually around 5 – 530pm, I was free to wander around and find restaurants etc. We were to meet usually 9am the next day. The net was censored and I believe monitored from everything I read and heard before going into Turkmenistan, and it wasn’t very fast. I could use Google and Gmail, and WordPress too, but Facebook, Youtube, Instagram and even Dropbox were blocked and I had no access. If I had really needed them I could have downloaded a VPN though.
All in all, I didn’t get to meet so many people which was my biggest disappointment. I felt mostly restricted to the people taking me on my tour. Apart from the occasional chat it must be said. And certainly there were no issues with tourist numbers. Curiously, the latest Lonely Planet was well out of date, the author of the Turkmenistan chapter chose to remain anonymous, and it seems didn’t do any on the ground research for the latest edition. My guide chastised the book for being very inaccurate on more than one occasion.
And then I was there in the very early hours of the morning in the huge, shiny Ashgabat Airport to fly on to places that would leave me with not quite so many questions. Turkmenistan is an enigma, it’s quite unique, and I’m glad I got to go. May the Journey Never End!