life through the lens
The Hojeli border crossing was relatively straightforward, if a bit longwinded. Uzbek formalities were quick once the border opened at 09:00, while Turkmen guards contacted my tour agency's driver to verify me before stamping my passport. There was a bit of form filling and only a brief search of my bags. I'm in! - October 2018.
The country is best known for the Darvaza gas crater and a very quirky former president, Niyazov aka Turkmenbashi. Among a long list, he renamed the months of the year including one after his mum; banned lip-syncing at concerts, make-up on news presenters, dogs from the capital for their 'unappealing odour' etc. Current leader President Berdymukhamedov has peeled back some of these laws, but is gradually becoming more eccentric - banning black cars from the capital and calling himself Arkadag ('Protector').
The country known as the 'North Korea of Central Asia' isn't the easiest visa to obtain, so to maximise chances of success I booked a private tour via Travel Notoria. It's one of the cheapest but still costs plenty of dollars! I went for decent hotels in Ashgabat which bumped up the price, and obviously it's more expensive travelling solo. The visa process required approval from the Turkmenistan foreign office (or similar), after which I received a letter of invitation via email from the tour agency. Only then could I apply for the visa at the embassy in London, all in all a bit over 2 months. Check Caravanistan forums for current feedback regarding the visa situation, including success rates for obtaining a transit visa which allows independent travel. For info, many websites are blocked though the app versions often work. WhatsApp was inaccessible as was Facebook. Try the US embassy's info centre.
There's a huge black market operating. The official rate is US$1=3.5Manat, but it was 18.1M at the Russian Bazaar, the difference between a cheap or very expensive night out
..and the Manat back in the days of former president Niyazov, aka Turkmenbashi
After the border there's a 10min walk, past this sign, to a roadblock where officials check your passport. I was met by my driver Sascha at the border. He looked thoroughly bored but perked up later in the day - Konye Urgench
First stop was the World Heritage Site of Konye Urgench, 14km from the Hojeli border
Most buildings date from the 11th to the 16th centuries, this one being the 14th century Turabeg Khanym Mausoleum - Konye Urgench
The inner dome of the mausoleum - Konye Urgench
The 14th century Kutlug Timur Minaret is the tallest medieval building in Central Asia and was 62m tall, though it's slightly smaller now. But still mighty tall! - Konye Urgench
Pilgrims walk around the base of the minaret three times. Love the skewy ladder by the way - Konye Urgench
The main site is set over a wide area but there's a 2km path linking the monuments, and 2 or 3 hours is sufficient - Konye Urgench
The Kutlug Timur Minaret and a distant Turabeg Khanym Mausoleum on the right - Konye Urgench
Separate from the main complex and close to the town centre are three more mausoleums - Konye Urgench
The most impressive of the three mausoleums is the 14th century Nejameddin Kubra Mausoleum - Konye Urgench
More pilgrims walk around the monuments - Konye Urgench
Time for a tasty spicy, Korean-style lunch at a signless restaurant. The jug and glass contain a local equivalent of ayran but made from camel's milk yoghurt and soda water. Driver Sascha said it would clear the stomach and sure enough I felt a but dodgy later that evening - Konye Urgench
A 3.5hr drive along a decent, then potholed, road through the Karakum Desert to the highlight of Turkmenistan, Darvaza
Yurts and tents are spread around the site but there's no electricity, save for one section with a generator. I got a yurt for the princely sum of $3 - Darvaza
And this is the reason for coming to the desert: the Darvaza gas crater, aka the 'Door to Hell' or 'Gates of Hell' - Darvaza
The true effect is only seen at night when the flames can be seen for miles around. Turkmenistan has the sixth largest proven gas reserves in the world, and has oil revenues too. So where does all the money go? See my photos of Ashgabat for an idea.. - Darvaza
The 70m wide gas crater was created when exploration rigs, looking for oil rather than gas, collapsed into the crater beneath. Workers lit the methane gas thinking it would burn itself out in weeks. That was in 1971! It's been burning ever since, despite ongoing rumours it would be extinguished - Darvaza
The railings are an annoying safety addition prior to the 2018 Turkmen Desert Race - Darvaza
It's an incredible sight. And yes it's pretty warm! At least it is if you climb over the railings - Darvaza
This is me gazing at the flames. There were very few tourists in Turkmenistan, but it felt like all were gathered at the crater - Darvaza
To give a sense of perspective, spot the people on the ridge. The lights to the left are a car, probably my driver who, after drinking a teeny bit of vodka, picked me up and drove me into the desert searching for a nearby hill to star gaze. Instead we got temporarily lost in the desert. At night. Mmm.. - Darvaza
You can also see someone on the ridge looking down. You have to visit here, only a 3-4hr drive from Ashgabat - Darvaza
No thanks! A cesspit, yes fine. But sit on a plastic chair with a hole cut in the middle? Yuck! I chose the desert - Darvaza
The next morning we visited two smaller and far less impressive craters. This one had a tiny fire burning with an amusing security barrier dropping straight into the crater (pictured middle right, above the fire) while the other was a water-filled crater littered with plastic bottles - Darvaza
Camels are a common sight driving through the Karakum Desert
Before we entered the Ashgabat city limits a 'compulsory' stop was at Bokurdak (I may be wrong about the name), on the edge of the Karakum Desert
We were here for the car wash. Why? It's all down to President Berdymukhamedov, who banned dirty vehicles from the capital. He also loves marble and everything white, so also banned black cars from Ashgabat. The whims of a dictator! Though he hasn't quite reached the extremes of his predecessor Turkmenbashi. Yet - Bokurdak
Local women at Tolkuchka bazaar in the far northern outskirts of Ashgabat, relocated from a more central position in 2010
It's a sprawling but organised and sterile place, apparently much different from the chaotic and atmospheric original - Ashgabat
I spent my first night in the capital at the Ak Altyn Hotel, close to the circus, which has good, spacious if somewaht characterless rooms. Apparently the UK and German embassies are also in the complex but I didn't see them - Ashgabat
President Berdymukhamedov loves his horses. He took over from Turkmenbashi after his death in 2006 - Ashgabat
The view from my hotel room, framed by the Kopet Dag Mountains separating the city from Iran - Ashgabat
In warm weather a good place for a drink and a bite to eat near the Ak Altyn Hotel is the Iceberg Bar, aka Berk Bar (Berk being the name of the beer they sell) - Ashgabat
First off was a taxi ride to the Arch of Neutrality on the southern edge of the city, beneath the Kopet Dag Mountains - Ashgabat
It features a golden Niyazov, the former president who bestowed upon himself the name Turkmenbashi, or 'Leader of the Turkmen'. The monument used to be in the city centre and the statue would rotate to always face the sun, alas this no longer happens and the Arch has been relocated to the outskirts - Ashgabat
Take the lift to a small museum and a bird's eye view of the southern part of Ashgabat
The south of the city is a sterile government area with lots of white buildings, monuments, wide roads and boulevards but very few people.
After some discussion I was allowed to take a photo of the president standing in front of the Independence Monument - Ashgabat
I've never seen posher bus shelters than in Ashgabat.
I hadn't got my bearings on my first day in the capital so rather than take a bus I waited for a taxi to pass by - I waited and waited, walked a bit, waited, but nothing. I'd seen a few people just flag down what looked like any car and get a lift within a minute. So after an hour getting nowhere I did the same and was on my way within 30secs - it turns out drivers operate as unofficial shared taxis, picking up & dropping off on the way.
The National Museum comprises three museums and as they were $10 each (payable only in dollars) I plumped for just the one, an amusing set of photoshopped images of the president enjoying himself in various settings, being a man of the people. Also on display is his wining rally car (would anyone dare beat him?!) - Ashgabat
The Independence Monument is set in Independence Park - Ashgabat
Guards keep an eye on me - Ashgabat
Various Turkmen heroes surround the monument. Turkmenistan gained independence from the Soviet Union on 27 October 1991 - Ashgabat
Of course Turkmenbashi makes an appearance - Ashgabat
These two are Alp Arslan and Malik Shah, sultans of the Seljuq Empire in the 11th century - Ashgabat
One of the ghostly subways in the Berzengi area of the capital, all sparkling clean - Ashgabat
The bizarre Ruhnama Monument in Independence Park is a homage to Turkmenbashi's book the Ruhnama (Book of the Soul), which espouses 'the spiritual guidance of the nation'. Niyazov made it part of the driving test, government job interviews, added to school curriculums etc. Then Niyazov spoke to God and said if you read it three times you'll be sent to heaven. Hold on a minute... Anyway, if you're lucky, on 19 February the book may open, with recitals over loudspeakers - Ashgabat
I couldn't find an English copy of the Ruhnama in Turkmenistan, only the poorly formatted version above from Amazon. Not to be outdone by Turkmenbashy, President Berdymukhamedov has written several books, including The Doctrine of Arkadag. Arkadag (Protector) is the title he's bestowed on himself - developing a cult of personality seems to be intrinsic for Turkmen leaders. I managed to buy the latter, as well as posters of the presidents, from Miras bookshop near Park Number 1.
Also in Independence Park is Altyn Asyr Shopping Centre summer, a rather empty shopping centre but with decent views from the top floor restaurant - Ashgabat
From the restaurant it's clearer to see why the Independence Monument has been nicknamed the toilet plunger. Behind the plunger is the Palace of Knowledge which houses the library. I went there in search of the Turkmenbashi Museum but was told it's moved to Gypjak, the nearby town where he's buried - Ashgabat
Ashgabat hosted the 2017 Asian Indoor & Martial Arts Games and constructed an Olympic village with monorail, stadium (topped by a horse head, left), training complexes and hotels, at an estimated cost of $5bn
A distant photo of the Halk Hakydasy Memorial Complex from the car. The complex commemorates the 1948 earthquake in which up to 110,000 died, as well as Turkmenistan's WWII dead - Ashgabat
The small gold statue is said to be of a baby Niyazov, whose mother and much of his family died in the earthquake - Ashgabat
Nearby, the Yyldyz Hotel looks pretty luxurious - and expensive - from the outside - Ashgabat
The first gold statue of President Berdymukhamedov, as his cult of personality moves on apace. The country is often accused of lavish spending on monuments, buildings and events, while neglecting an impoverished population - Ashgabat
The futuristic Wedding Palace hosts exactly what you'd expect, weddings - Ashgabat
The starry, 21m tall Turkmenistan TV Tower stands alone on the lower slopes of the Kopet Dag. It's the world's largest architectural representation of a star (?!) - Ashgabat
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www.advantour.com - Central Asian tour operator but website has a wealth of information
https://caravanistan.com - Main resource for all things Central Asian - extremely useful
https://en.hronikatm.com - Stories from both the goverment and what's really happening (click Our News). Something tells me this website is blocked in Turkmenistan..
https://habartm.org - more real stories from Turkmenistan - put into Google Translate
www.turkmenistan.gov.tm - Government site
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