Ashgabat, Turkmenistan

Other than the gas crater, if there’s anything Turkmenistan is known for, it’s… how little everyone knows. The country has a reputation comparable to North Korea in more ways than one. Foreign visitors are heavily restricted, with visas subject to arbitrary rejection and guides mandatory (although, to their credit, transit visas without guides are allowed). According to Reporters Without Borders, press freedoms in Turkmenistan rank third-last in the world. (The bottom five are China, Syria, Turkmenistan, North Korea, and Eritrea in dead last.) But most notoriously, until his death in 2006, Saparmurat Niyazov Turkmenbashi was the dictator president of the country, forming one of the most bizarre personality cults in the world around himself.

This is a man who wrote (or possibly ghost-wrote, as an electrical engineering dropout purportedly not fully literate) a book, the Ruhnama, calling it the spiritual guide for all Turkmen people, and cut subjects from schools like physics and algebra while making Ruhnama study a mandatory part of the curriculum and a tested subject, and closing libraries around the country since “only the Qur’an and Ruhnama are necessary”; who renamed the Turkmen names of the months and the days of the week, some after himself, his book, and even his mother, and required all media to use them; who renamed himself as Turkmenbashi (“leader of the Turkmen people”) and used it in the country’s motto (“People, Nation, Turkmenbashi/Me”) and named a city after himself; who issued arbitrary decrees banning lip syncing, owning cats, facial hair on teens, ballet, smoking in public, and hospitals existing outside of the capital city (?!) in this very large country. That’s only the tip of the iceberg.

And there’s no greater showcase for Niyazov than the capital city of Ashgabat, home to the largest concentration of marble buildings in the world. Not only is it blindingly white, it’s also blindingly full of gold, most of which is used in statues of Niyazov, commissioned by the man himself. (North Korea-like in more ways than one!) Government buildings are decorated with gold-laid carpet patterns — Turkmenistan’s most famous export, even displayed on their flag. And at night, it all lights up impressively too, like some sort of Las Vegas, except all the hotels are made of marble and they’re all empty.

Whew. That’s a lot (of crazy) for a country I just said people know little about. But how is it actually? We know a lot about its presidents (and more on the current one later), but what about everyone else?
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 Darvaza, Turkmenistan

Turkmenistan’s hellish bureaucracy and its uncertainty have been the source of many troubles this trip. It’s the reason why I’ve missed two weddings, why I had to stay in Uzbekistan for weeks longer than intended, why I ended up backtracking great distances to Tashkent twice, why I had to line up at 6:30 am at an embassy three times, and why I rushed through Kazakhstan. Needless to say, it’s incredibly difficult to score a visa, and indeed, it’s likely one of the most difficult places to visit in the world for that reason. All of that effort over the course of seven weeks resulted in a mere four-day transit visa (not even the usual five!) with fixed entry/exit dates and border crossings, and I was only able to apply for it after getting visas for both Uzbekistan and Iran, my origin and destination countries. Better than nothing: many people I met were rejected for no reason, time and effort wasted, trip plans forced to change.

Rather than being brusque and abrupt like their bureaucracy, Turkmen people are very warm (at least if they speak Russian and then realise you can understand at least a little), and that even includes all the staff and soldiers I dealt with at the very time-consuming border, some of whom were more eager to chat than search through my belongings. Crossing the border on foot without my own transport, I was nearly immediately picked up for a free ride 15 km to the share taxi station in Konye-Urgench, and a fellow passenger even invited me to his home the next time I’d be around, audibly and visibly dismayed that I only had four days. (Sadly, with the way things are, it’s not likely I can ever come back…) Other than the people at the border and those working in hotels, locals seem oblivious to how difficult it is for foreigners to get in and for how long they can stay.

Unfortunately, I went against the advice of a nice soldier at the border, who gave me a pretty blatant “hint” about the money situation. While Turkmenistan has an official pegged exchange rate of 3.50 manat to US$1, there seems to be a black market rate somewhere between 6 and 7, far less open and “more” illegal than the one in Uzbekistan. The man who picked me up at the border tried to drive around asking people surreptitiously to exchange money with me, to no avail. All I could get was the bank rate, which hurts in a country as expensive as this one. (Not to mention I can’t use ATMs or credit cards in this country or the next, so cash is tight!)

More egregiously, I vastly overestimated the time I needed to reach Darvaza, completely skipping the UNESCO-designated mosque/mausoleum complex in Konye-Urgench, which the soldier also suggested I visit. While also Khorezm in style, they’re far older than those in Khiva and in a heavier state of ruin, dating back around a thousand years, which fellow passenger Davranbek told me as he implored me to take a photo of him. Our share taxi briefly stopped outside one of the mosques in the complex, and the rest of the passengers said a quick Islamic prayer before we headed off.

Off to where? Hell, of course!
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