Turkmenistan

There’s not too many places I’ve been that I’ve left with a mental promise to never set foot there again. Turkmenistan tops the list.

Our tour there was enjoyable on some levels but there’s an undercurrent of repression and corruption that isn’t even hidden beneath the dusty surface. With over 70% of the country being desert and mostly flat, a little wind creates a whole bunch of dust.

As we crossed the boarder from Uzbekistan, we quickly understood that while Uzbekistan has rolled out the carpet to welcome tourists, Turkmenistan isn’t that excited about the prospect of foreign eyes peeking at their country. Foreign cameras are particularly unpopular. We had to be very careful about where we pointed the lens. For sure there were no pictures allowed at the boarder.

We were ferried across the Uzbekistan side of no man’s land in a nice little van with seats. On the Turkmenistan side, the vans were deplorable filthy rust buckets with benches tied down with loading straps. The guy who accepted payment for our visa tried to short change us, but we were wise to his tricks so made him cough up the rest of our change. 

Our guide Batyr appeared and took over. Soon we were in a nice vehicle driven by a manic. We quickly discovered that this type of driving is normal in Turkmenistan. The only place where there is some degree of caution is on the main highways that are monitored by cameras and gates at intervals. Speeders arrive from one gate to the next too quickly and are pulled over to pay their fines or bribes – whichever. While we were driving on the highways the speed was within normal parameters. On the side roads our drivers drove as fast as possible down the centre and slammed on the brakes for pot holes, cows, camels, oncoming traffic etc. Very uncomfortable.

We spent two nights in Mary – in a Turkmenistan version of a three star hotel. It was disgustingly filthy. The first room Pat and I had reeked of smoke so we were moved to nicer single rooms. Despite the revolting conditions of carpets and bedspreads we caught no bugs. We each had a fabulous view of an enormous mosque across the street and were treated to the call for prayer a couple of times in the evenings and at an ungodly early hour both mornings.

From Mary we took a long day trip out to the ruins of Margosh. For me the highlight was feeding the left overs of our picnic lunches to the resident dogs who were delighted. 

We stayed a night in Ashgabat. It is a showpiece city of gleaming white modern buildings set within treed parks. The roads are wide and pothole free. Crossing them as a pedestrian is nearly impossible as vehicles are not required to stop at crosswalks. The only places we crossed were crosswalks supervised by policemen who stepped out into traffic and stopped it.

Yes I said policemen. That was not a slip up. We saw no police women. However our guide’s mum was a retired military major, so clearly some women get jobs in male dominated fields.

This brings me to what disturbed us most about Turkmenistan.

The systematic subjugation of women.

Have you read Margaret Atwood’s “The Handmaid’s Tale?” If not maybe you’ve seen the series.

In Turkmenistan, school girls must wear green dresses and wear their hair in two braids. Female university students must wear red dresses and wear their hair in a variety of styles. Both age groups wear the national beaded cap. The dresses for both age groups are full length – to the ground. They are not shapeless. In fact the women’s curves are evident beneath the somewhat clinging fabric. A State mandated dress code that both de-individualizes and sexualizes its educated women. Wow. How is that OK?

Back to gleaming Ashgabat. We went for a walk to a mall in search of an ATM, and crossed a wide section of land where it was obvious an older part of town had been torn down and flattened. Where has that community been moved to? There is no doubt that they have been moved to make way for another grand white edifice. Once at the mall we decided to buy a few snacks but quickly changed our minds. The prices were much more than what we’d pay at home. The next day our guide explained that all imports are priced high to encourage people to buy local lower priced products. 

We did find an ATM. Here’s another remarkable aspect of Turkmenistan. At the ATM our official exchange rate was approximately 3 Turkmen Manat to 1USD. At a hotel desk the day before our guide bought us 200 Turkmen Manat for 20 USD. No one in Turkmenistan wants to receive local currency from tourists and in some cases – such as buying our 100 USD ferry ticket, as tourists we had to pay in USD. There are numerous reasons no doubt but none of them good.

One morning as we were finishing up breakfast, a person slipped into the otherwise empty dining room. Looking anxiously towards the kitchen the person quietly said, “I have five children.” The person then proceeded to remove all the bits of food we’d left. A scrap of stale cake, some stale bread, a couple of pats of butter, a hard boiled egg… this all went into pockets, before the person slipped away. I am deliberately not giving the gender or the city.

I don’t know what sort of internet monitoring goes on once a tourist has left the country but that person is still there and I want to preserve their safety. So why tell you this story? Because I think it is the reality of life for many people who live/survive under this rigid regime. 

In contrast to in hand around Ashgabat, where there is a great deal of irrigation and millions of pine trees planted, the countryside is parched. We saw camels grazing in the sparse scrub. Sometimes we roared past shepherds riding donkeys as they herded sheep, goats or cows in clouds of dust from one grazing area to another. We drove past salt flats stretching to the horizon. At times the road was particularly covered with blown sand. At one point a large plot was clearing the sand, just as plots at home clear snow. We saw a couple of small nerds of wild horses eking out an existence from meagre desert fodder. 

The traders of Silk Road fame crossed this land by camel train. We saw a few reminders that Alexander the Great had come here before that, and other ruins attested to various conquests through the ages. After the wonders of Uzbekistan, and the richness of ancient sites there, the ruins we saw in Turkmenistan were underwhelming.

Our seven days there did produce a couple of highlights.

One was a visit a farm for Akhal-Teke horses. These are a special breed of Turkmen horses known for their speed and beautiful glowing coats. We all had an opportunity to ride but the horses were very frisky and definitely one-person mounts. Pat decided to watch the shenanigans from the safety of the ground. Helen was walked around the ring and I went for a longer ride away from the farm but with the security of a lead rope as the horse did not respond well to my feeble attempts to command it. I eventually did get a few short canters within the ring, but only under the close supervision of two escorts. While the riding wasn’t quite what we’d expected, the horses were fabulous creatures. They pranced around, reared and spun on their hind legs. We enjoyed a show of superb horsemanship by their regular riders and were suitably impressed.

Another highlight was our visit to Yanykala Canyon. I’m not sure why the area is called a canyon. What we saw was heavily eroded white and red chalk cliffs which were once a sea bed. The cliffs rose out of the brown desert scrub land in bands of brilliant striated rock. We camped in three little tents on the flat top of one and enjoyed a desert sunset with our fire cooked kebabs. Despite everything getting thoroughly coated and impregnated with fine sand, it was the best night of the trip. We weren’t too keen on sharing our camping area with poisonous snakes – we saw one – but we coped. We’d spent the previous night sleeping on inadequate lumpy mats on the floor of a home stay so the tents in the desert were a treat. It was warm enough to have the tent doors open so we could watch the stars circle over head until the moon rose and then we admired that from behind the screens. The screens necessary to keep the scorpions and snakes outside!

I’ll send another blog about our departure from Turkmenistan as that is a story in itself.

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