Visiting the old caravanserais along the Silk Road and following in the footsteps of famous explorers of yesteryear were the primary reasons why I decided to visit Central Asia. The whole area has a fascinating, complicated and colourful history of conquest and reconquest, of tyrants and great rulers and finally of long, winding caravans transporting various goods (including the famed silk after which the road is named) from East to West and then back again. Cities were razed to the ground repeatedly by a succession of tyrants only to be rebuilt again so that they exceeded their formed splendour, astounding everyone from Alexander the Great to Genghis Khan. The glory days of these cities have well and truly passed though. The Silk Road went into decline with the advent of shipping which considerably lessened the time and increased the quantity of goods that could be taken to and from Europe to Asia. Cities such as Samarkand had more people living in them during the 13th century than they do now. I have since discovered that this area of the world has so much more on offer but it was now time to discover the faded glory of once-great citadels such as Khiva, Bukhara and Samarkand.
I made my way north to the old city of Konye Urgench on my last day in Turkmenistan and checked out the ruins there. All very stock standard except for an interesting superstitious ritual that I witnessed. I climbed up a tall burial mound to get a good look at the surrounding ruins. Once I got up there I saw a small crowd gathered at the other end of the mound all laughing away and so I went over to see what was going on. Well, I saw a ridiculous fertility ritual in full swing. Several women of childbearing age were being forced or coerced by their mothers to don on a drab green fleece jacket over their dress and then roll down the far side of the burial mound. These poor girls would roll over about 15 -20 times in the dirt before coming to a stop at the bottom. I really felt for them as they lay there at the bottom like a dirty rag doll, most of them lying inert for several seconds before recovering and getting their bearings and then walking dizzily back up the hill so that the next person in line could have their turn. No doubt all of them are now pregnant with triplets as I sit here typing this.
I then took a minibus to the town of Dashogus where I crossed the border from Turkmenistan to Uzbekistan with considerable ease. The immigration officials and customs agents were cheerful and friendly, probably because I got there just before closing time and they were about to head home. Anyway, I got ushered through quick smart and then hitched to the town of Shovot before I attempted to hitch again to the town of Khiva. As I was waiting by the side of the road attempting to flag down some transport in Shovot a drunk driver stopped his car, got out and then proceeded to pick a fight with the guy standing right next to me. They even came to blows before a few people interjected. He obviously knew the guy from before and wanted to settle some sort of dispute right then and there. He then saw me staring at him and advanced towards me as if to pick another fight and then stood there threateningly in front of me with his fists cocked. A few people then immediately told him that I was a tourist and that he shouldn't embarrass himself in front of a guest. This obviously meant something to him even though he was considerably inebriated because he immediately started apologising profusely. He kept shaking my hand and humbly apologising repeatedly (whilst wafting hot vodka breath on my face) even after I told him that all was good. He then got it into his head that in order to make it up to me he would give me a lift to Khiva for free. This was certainly not an option for me because firstly the guy reeked of alcohol and secondly he looked like he had escaped from a mental asylum. I kept refusing his offer but this just made him all the more insistent because he felt that he had to make it up to me in front of all the people watching. He kept annoying me for about 20 minutes. In the end I got really irritated with him and stormed off and chose to pay for a private taxi instead just so I could get away from him.
I eventually arrived in Khiva late in the evening. The last trace of twilight was still evident and it softly reflected off the brickwork and the fat turrets of the outer walls of the Ichon Qala, or the inner city. The old part of the city was devoid of people though because not many people actually lived in there. Most of those present were peddling wares of some sort in stalls and in antique stores. I went for a walk at night. There was no moon and the unlit streets were dark with only the occasional blue or green light illuminating the side of an old building. I heard the sounds of revelry in the distance and so I followed my ears and soon came across a wedding celebration. There were a lot of people sitting around and eating and in the middle of it all was a bellydancer who was shimmying away fantastically. She was surrounded by a bunch of about eight guys who were crowded around her and dancing away aggressively in her personal space. She was cool as a cucumber though and, as impressive as her bellydancing skills were, it was even more impressive to watch the way that she easily managed to fend off all of the considerable advances from the bunch of rabid men whilst still dancing away rhythmically. I was mesmerised for an hour as I stood in the shadows watching.
The next day I walked around some more around the UNESCO old town of Khiva. The main avenue was a treat for the eyes. There were several magnificent and tall tiled minarets, mosques and medressas and it was a magical feeling walking through them, the colours of their intricate mosaic tile work resplendent against the sunlight. Ceramic art has always been one of Uzbekistan's fortes since ancient times and all the tiled patterns I saw lining the various old buildings as well as all the ceramic ware for sale in the streets were exquisite. If anyone's looking for tiles for their new bathroom then Uzbekistan is definitely the place to go shopping for them. I walked into a few different medressas to watch pupils learning artisan and crafts skills just as they would have several centuries ago, whether it be carpet weaving, painting, metalworking or pottery.
I headed along the Silk Road by shared taxi to the city of Bukhara next, enjoying mind-numbingly boring scenery of the Kyzylkum desert along the way. The UNESCO old town here (actually pretty much all the old towns of the major cities in these parts are UNESCO protected) had a lot of old fabulous architecture and I spent a couple of days walking tirelessly under the hot sun during the day and sitting by the ancient mulberry trees lining the central pond sipping tea or beers in the chaikhanas during the evenings. The old town here was a lot more authentic and there were a lot of locals actually living in the town centre. There were a lot of burial mounds in quiet corners of the city. The burial sites of great or holy men were identified by the fact that they had a large pole with a horse-mane talisman hanging on top of them. I once again ran into the Italians (Fabio, Paolo and Chiara) that I had visited the Darvaza gas crater in Turkmenistan with and hung around them for a while. Like every other Italian I've known they talked more with their hands than their mouths.
There were also a dozen or so requisite medressas to wander through and browse the crafts that they contained. I succumbed to temptation and bought a couple of miniature acrylic paintings beautifully etched onto leather. I got them for a steal - only six dollars each. I keep telling vendors here that I'm Indian and they instantly treat me with a bit more respect when it comes to bargaining skills. Its laughable. I guess Indians must have a worldwide reputation for being spendthrifts. A lot of Westerners, even travel-hardened ones, here get swindled so much that there should be a law against it. The thing is though that the locals rip you off with so much charm that you don't realise you're being ripped off half the time or if you do then you don't seem to mind so much. I also managed to get my boots fixed by a cobbler in Bukhara for a dollar. A few seconds of hammering away with a few nails and a few expertly placed stitches and the tears in my soles and the sides of my boots disappeared. I should really have bought a new pair of boots seeing as I'll be doing some hiking in the Tian Shan and the Pamirs in the coming weeks but I figure I've only got a few months left and the idea of finishing a trip with the same pair of boots that I started with (something I've never managed to do before) has a certain appeal. Only time will tell if being a tightass Indian will prove to be a wise decision or not. Either way, the two-inch gash on the inside of my left boot has been expertly sewn up. The soles are well and truly bald though with very minimal grip. I'm sure that this will be OK , until I suddenly lose my footing and fall off the side of an icy precipice high up in the mountains in Tajikistan, that is. Oh well.
I tentatively climbed up an old disused water tower for a good view of the city the next day. The rickety spiral stairs leading up would have made any acrophobe instantly curl up, assume the foetal position and suck his thumb, but I persevered to the top nevertheless. The views of the Registan (public square) and the Ark (fortress) were nice and in the near distance you could make out the signature turquoise blue Timurid domes that characterised all the grand old buildings here. Executions were often held in this public square whenever the resident ruler wanted to provide a bit of entertainment for the masses, especially during the era of the "Great Game" when Russia and Britain jostled for control and influence over the region.
One of the endearing customs of this area is the fact that locals generally tend to introduce themselves or offer their gratitude with their hand placed on their heart. What a magnificently warm gesture. I've started to do the same as well. Another custom that has taken hold of me is the propensity for consuming copious amounts of chai. I have drunk more pots of tea in the last month that I have in the last decade. Easy. I generally don't drink tea back home. There are all sorts of faux pas that you can easily commit when serving or drinking tea with locals here and I committed a couple of embarrassing blunders when it came to tea etiquette when I first started. Luckily, my hosts were gracious enough to recognise the fact that I was just a dumb foreigner and let my blunders pass. I'll also have to get my teeth polished when I get back home as they probably have more than a few tannin stains which are undoubtedly tarnishing my killer smile.
In Bukhara, I stayed at a guesthouse owned by the crazy Mubinjon. I'd heard about him previously from other travellers and so was prepared for his eccentric personality when I first checked in late at night. Not a single person knew quite what to make of the guy when they first met him and several people simply turned around and left after thinking that he was a crazy old fool. His unique blend of sarcasm and schizophrenia could only be appreciated if you got to know him over a couple of days though, and we soon discovered that he was a warm old man behind the abrasive front. I spent a whole afternoon in Bukhara with a couple of guys laughing hilariously whilst watching him interact with all the new backpackers in town and confusing the hell out of them by first ignoring their questions and requests and then suffocating them with his hospitality. The place did have a nice courtyard and beautiful inexpensive rooms that always ensured that it was always full, despite the psychotic personality of the proprietor.
I had some great news the other day. The parcel that I sent home from Johannesburg, over three months ago, has eventually made it back home. I had well and truly given up on this one, especially since the parcel that I sent home from Baku made it to Australia within six days. That makes it three out of three for parcels that I've sent home on this trip. On previous trips, I've always had a couple of parcels not make it back, especially the ones sent from Africa. Maybe this trip will be the first one where everything gets back safely. There is definitely a noticeable difference in my backpack every time I send back some miscellaneous crap that I've managed to accumulate. However, one thing that I'm not game to send back is my coin collection. I have a stupid obsession for collecting one specimen of every coin that I come across in the countries I visit. This has reached epic proportions in this trip so that currently two kilos of my 13-kilo backpack consists of a large bunch of coins. I just don't trust any mail system enough to send them back because as soon as I do I just know that that will be the parcel that doesn't make it back.
The tall Kalon minaret was one of the architectural monuments that I used as a landmark when walking around in Bukhara. When Genghis Khan first saw it in the midst of ransacking the city in the 13th century he was so impressed with it that he ordered it to be spared. A French guy I spoke with in Bukhara said that he climbed up the minaret early one morning and got much more than a beautiful view of the old city from the top. As well as the beautiful views of the old town from up above, he copped an unexpected eyeful of several naked women running around the women's hammam located immediately below. Now, I'm not sure which genius decided to strategically place a women's hammam directly below the highest tower in the city but he no doubt holds a special place in the Pervert's Hall of Fame. Obviously, most of the female tourists coming here for a bath were oblivious to this, or maybe they assumed that the minaret would be closed to tourists in the early morning, and so several of them would wander around carefree in their birthday suits whilst a bunch of tourists would gawk away in surprise whilst simultaneously clicking away with their cameras from above. Either way, stay in the indoors section of the hammam if you're a female planning to visit Bukhara or if you're the resident pervert in Bukhara then you probably now have a new favourite place to hang out after reading this.
I decided to give myself a treat and stay in a caravanserai on my last night in Bukhara. The rooms here were drop dead gorgeous and not all that expensive considering what I was paying for and you could sense the traders of olden days sipping chai as they took a breather from the rigours of travel on the Silk Road. I got bored with not having any company at night though so I went for a walk around the old town. I heard some singing from the largest mosque in the old town and so I crept in for a look seeing as it was the first day of Ramadan.There was a large crowd of men praying in the front half of the massive inner courtyard at night. They were being led by an imam who was reciting the prayers. Everyone else followed his movements, alternating between prostrating themselves or kneeling in the direction of Mecca. I watched for about half an hour as the imam's beautiful voice reverberated around the walls of the buildings surrounding the courtyard sending chills down my spine.
The food so far here in Central Asia has been interesting. I've had a lot of plov and shashleek and laghman. All vary tasty although the shashleek got a bit tedious after a while, especially since you invariably had chunks of fat squished in between all the meat. Incidentally, there is an abnormally large amount of fat in the meals here. This is especially evident when you finish off your meal and see that your plate is lined with a thick layer of congealed grease that you can scrape away with your spoon. Despite this (or probably because of this) the meals all taste absolutely delicious.
There's a black market in force in Uzbekistan and US dollars are highly craved. You get 25% more bang for your buck if you exchange US dollars on the street instead of withdrawing money from the bank. There is a problem though in that the largest note here is worth only $US0.30. I changed $US100 on the street and ended up with a thick wad of bank notes that filled up all 6 pockets of my cargo pants. Only in Zimbabwe have I come across a worse situation (I needed a large shopping bag to fit in $US100 in Zimbabwean currency there). The moneychangers here refused to even look at any US dollar notes that had a slight tear or a pen mark on them. This was in contrast to the ragged and torn Uzbek som bills that you got back in return. Changing money on the black market is also illegal here and I had to conduct deals in many a side alley or duck into a shop or house to conduct the trade.
I took the high speed train from Bukhara to Samarkand. This was faster and a lot cheaper than taking a bus or a shared taxi and I couldn't frankly think of a reason why anyone would take any other form of transport when travelling between these two cities. Another French guy actually paid $US60 for a four hour taxi ride between the two cities whereas I paid $US4 for a three hour train trip. No contest. As soon as I arrived in Samarkand station I got accosted by a horde of taxi drivers. I informed then that I would be taking the cheaper bus into the centre of town to which they all replied, in unison, that there were no buses into town and that I should just hop into their taxis that happened to be waiting right outside. Of course, I didn't believe them and walked straight past them to the side of the road. They followed me though and continued harassing me to take a taxi, all the while insisting that I was wasting my time waiting for a bus. Amazingly they continued persisting with their taunts that there was no such thing as a bus even as a bus pulled up in front of me and I got on it.
I checked into the Bahodir hostel in Samarkand, a very relaxing place with comfy divans to recline on everywhere in the central courtyard and an infinite amount of free chai and melons to feast on daily. All of this did not compensate for the grotty showers and toilets though. Every single backpacker would come out in a wonky daze after relieving themselves in the facilities here.
Samarkand provided a good reminder of the faded glory of this area of the world with all its numerous ancient monuments. The city was glorious primarily because of Timur. This guy was a tyrant's tyrant. His armies ran rampant all over Central Asia during the 14th century and all of his looted booty was brought to Samarkand and installed there, making it the cultural capital of the world.
There was a big clean-up going on in Samarkand. The local Government was in a mad panic because the city was due to host the international Sharq music festival in a few days and the city was in a shambles. In fact, the President, Narimov, had visited the city a few days earlier and had gone into a bit of a rage at the shoddy state of the city centre. Well, if Narimov was having a tantrum then something had to be done quick smart and it seemed that every citizen in town had given up their normal jobs and was involved in beautifying the city centre. They were either paving roads, repeatedly sweeping the streets, planting lawns and trees, fixing roofs or tarring the road. There was also a heavy police presence in the city centre which was understandable because the President was once again due to visit in a couple of days. However, they went overboard with all their passport checks and crowd control, so much so that you had to take large detours all over town if you wanted to go to a grocery store only a couple of blocks away.
I watched the first day of the cultural festival in the central square of the Registan from afar. The public weren't allowed close because this space was for the dignitaries. Narimov was present as well. There were performers from over 15 countries present, each presenting some sort of traditional song and dance. The President left a quarter of the way through the proceedings and as soon as he left there immediately followed a ridiculous mass exodus of all the other dignitaries as well. It seemed that they were only present because the President decreed that they had to be there and as soon as he left, so did everyone else. The contestants in the second half of the contest played to an empty grandstand consisting of about five people, all of whom were no doubt sound asleep.
I snuck into most of the sights in Samarkand for free just by visiting them after hours. The security guards in Samarkand were notorious for getting a bit of cash on the side by letting in people after hours for a small fee. So, I just waited until a small group of tourists turned up to every sight and then waltzed in along with them pretending that I was part of their group. One of the advantages of sneaking in after hours was that there weren't the daytime crowds to contend with and you could appreciate the sights a lot better. The Registan medressas were exquisite but the architectural highlight was definitely the mausoleum of Timur. There was so much golden gilding in his mausoleum that everyone literally gasped as they walked into it. I think that I like the concept of a mausoleum. Its something that stands as a tribute to a person's greatness long after they are dead. Needless to say, I'll try and somehow configure my (great) life so that the entire population will feel that it will be highly essential to erect a mausoleum for me upon my death. Wouldn't that be cool? The funny thing though is that there were a lot of minor mausoleums in Samarkand where no one was actually sure who was buried there. Even though the mausoleums survived the onslaught of time, the inscriptions on them had long since worn away.
I also visited the tomb of the prophet Daniel on the outskirts of town. His corpse allegedly grows by an inch every year so that they have to keep lengthening the tomb. It currently stands at 18 metres in length (and growing).
I next headed off towards the modern day capital of Tashkent. My plans were to stay there for a couple of days and then head up north towards Kazakhstan but I was about to have an encounter that would change my plans.
I boarded the overnight ferry from Baku, Azerbaijan to Turkmenbashi, Turkmenistan after fending off attempts by immigration, customs and the ferry employees to rip me off with blatant requests for bribes. I alternated between relaxing in my dingy cabin and reading a book on the deck during the the 18 hour trip across the Caspian Sea. The Caspian Sea was full of oil rigs, so much so that at night the sea was well lit in several places because of all the lights from the numerous oil platforms and tankers. The ferry was a cargo ferry and there were only a handful of Azeri travellers on board, none of whom spoke English and all of whom kept to their cabins anyway. In the evening I got invited to dine with the crew of the ship because they were curious about me. It started off being an innocent meal but then descended into farce at the end when they all wanted individual photos of them and me. I had to pose for about 15 photos in the dining room and then about 15 photos by the table tennis table and then for more photos on the deck. As soon as I posed for a photo with one of the crew in one location every member of the crew ended up wanting a photo in that location as well.
Later that night I got invited for some chai out on the deck and under the stars of a clear sky with a few younger members of the crew who knew some passable English. Luckily, I had gone shopping before the ferry trip and so was able to provide biscuits and some sweets which went down really well with the crew. We had a great old chat and laugh as I answered all the usual questions about my life and fired out lots more about their lives in return. Just like every other Azerbaijani I've spoken to, they eventually got around to the question of what I thought about Armenians and after I'd provided my usual diplomatic answer they proceeded to spit and curse and, just like their countrymen, say that all Armenians were evil and murderers and that they stole their beloved Kharabagh from them. This is a very common reaction from the Azeris in general and normally sane and polite Azeris will instantly morph into hateful bigots when speaking about the Armenians.
We arrived at Turkmenbashi, Turkmenistan early the next morning. I started to pack my bag and get ready to leave the ship when I realised that we had dropped anchor in the bay and weren't going ashore anytime soon. There were a few other ships in the bay that were waiting to be processed and we would have to wait until the backlog was cleared. There was nothing to do whilst waiting about on the ship and so I resolved to do as many pushups and situps as possible all day. I even finally caught up on this blog as I typed away furiously on a laptop all day and ended up writing the previous five instalments back to back (phew). Well, it turned out that we waited all day and all night and well into the next morning just lying inertly in the bay as we progressed up the line of ships. I ended up playing table tennis for a lot of the day with the ship's crew and earned a lot of respect by defeating all comers.
The guys got their revenge later on though. There were only three women as part of the cargo ferry crew and one of them, a cook, had taken quite a fancy to me. The problem was that she was by far the most ugliest and fattest of the three, and that is saying something considering that the other two women were far from being glamour models themselves. Well, anyway, the younger guys had a great old time spreading a false rumour that I was interested in her as well. We all had a good laugh about that but later that night I was reading in my room when there was a knock on my door and Big Bertha entered my unlocked cabin. She was wearing a slip that she no doubt thought was very seductive but nearly sent me puking from the masses of mottled flesh that it failed to cover. I actually momentarily feared for my life because she was much bigger than me and there was a fair chance that she could rape me if she wanted to. I made it clear at once that I was not interested at all. Luckily, she sheepishly left my room and went back to her cabin as I breathed a big sigh of relief. All the other sailors had a grand old laugh at my expense the next morning as I recounted the story.
When we were finally let off the ship, a day late, we had to go through immigration. Everyone else got let through but I, being the foreigner, apparently had to get special permission from the consul to be permitted into the country. The problem was that the consul was nowhere to be found and it was only three hours later that he turned up from whatever errand (or whichever mistress) he had been performing (for) in town. I had to fill out so much paperwork for Turkmenistan that it just wasn't funny. This was despite the fact that I had already got my transit visa approved prior to arriving in country. In the end I left the airport with six separate documents and receipts that I would have to carry with me at all times if I was to avoid getting in trouble with the police whenever they performed any random checks.
I caught a shared taxi from Turkmenbashi to the capital, Ashgabat. The trip took two hours longer than it should have because we had a flat tyre along the way thanks mainly to the bumpy road. The driver had a spare tyre but I swear it looked like it belonged on a motorcycle rather than a car, so thin was its girth. Anyway, we had to limp along at a tortoise pace after that in order to avoid another flat. It had been ages since the last flat tyre on this trip (over two months, I think). The scenery along the way was all stark desert with arid mountains in the near distance. The colours of the rocks and the earth were very vivid and they more than compensated for the long ride. There were wild dromedaries and asses interspersed throughout the desert as well as villagers who materialised out of nowhere and set up stalls by the side of the road selling watermelons. I have no idea where they grew these melons given that the area was so desolate. I also realised that there were no such things as anti-smoking laws or etiquette over here judging by the way that all my fellow passengers chain-smoked in the car for the whole trip. They didn't even wind their windows down to blow the smoke out because they wanted to preserve their air-conditioned comfort. A couple of the men also placed some sort of green snuff powder under their tongues so that they could get a bit of a buzz from it. We had to keep stopping the car so that they could spit it all out after it had been under their tongue for about 15 minutes. I tried a little bit when they offered me some and I discovered that it stung because it was very spicy and so I had to spit it out after a couple of minutes. It definitely got my heart rate up though. The stuff is called nasvai if you're interested, by the way, and chewing it is prevalent all over Central Asia. I later found out that it is sometimes laced with opium as well.
Turkmenistan is another one of those countries that currently poses headaches for tourists because it has a dual currency. The currency is being switched over from the old manat to the new manat and both of these are currently in circulation. You have to divide the price, which is most often listed in old manat, by 5000 to get the price in new manat. I had expected there to be a black market for US dollars in Turkmenistan but this had apparently long been abolished and I could only exchange my US dollars at the official rate, not at twice the official rate that I had been led to believe that I could have. And I had expended so much time and effort stocking up on US dollars in the Caucuses.
Ashgabat was unique. It was a crazy capital city, sort of like a combination of Dubai and Las Vegas except without the people. The entire city was completely destroyed in an earthquake in 1948 and then rebuilt. The buildings that were currently present all looked very impressive. They were all, without exception, tiled with white marble along with minor trimmings in other colours. Most of them were reportedly empty though. Throughout my walks through the centre of the city I barely came across a single soul. All I saw were lots of cleaners, all female and dressed in orange or pink floral dresses with veils covering their faces. I actually think that this was their uniform. The thing is that they were basically only sweeping leaves because there was no litter whatsoever seeing as there were no people to put the litter there in the first place. I also saw several cleaners on the highway in the middle of the desert sweeping the roads clean of sand. There were also a lot of police on the streets and street corners, the vast majority of them young recent recruits into the force who all looked as if they still belonged in school. When I went to sit down on a park bench or in a square a couple of times in the city centre I was always approached within two minutes and told to move on. So, what the hell were all these benches doing there in the first place then? I guess the officials didn't like people congregating in public places. Turkmenistan is very definitely a police state. No wonder there were no people on the streets of Ashgabat.
I went to use the internet at one of the few internet cafes in town. The speed of the connection was faster than I had been led to believe but I was also assured that everything that I did online would be monitored. I also went to send a couple of postcards but couldn't find a single postcard for sale in the entire city. I eventually placed three letters inside envelopes before mailing them to Australia and have no doubt that they went through three sets of screening eyes before they were let through (I'm assuming they were let through). When walking around, I had to take all my photos very discretely in order to not get into trouble with the police. I was also told that every hotel room as well as places such as expensive cafes and bars where foreigners congregated were also bugged. Have I mentioned yet that this is bit of a police state?
The most spectacular monument (and there were a lot of spectacular monuments) in Ashgabat was the Arch of Neutrality right in the centre of town. It had a golden statue of the late Niyazov, with his arms raised, that rotated slowly throughout the day as it followed the sun. The Arch itself was constructed to celebrate Niyazov's decision that Turkmenistan would be a neutral country, a decision that was supported by 90% of the population if you believed the polls without a grain of salt. The streets of the whole city, all of which were labelled with 4-digit numbers instead of names for some unknown reason, radiated out of this central monument. In fact you could accurately say that the whole city of Ashgabat was a narcissistic tribute from the late Niyazov to himself. The narcissistic obsession was evident in all the ubiquitous statues, posters, busts and other reminders of him all over the city, all of them showing him in different poses, either overlooking a vast field of grain with satisfaction or dressed in regal military gear or dressed as an Olympic athlete. The latter one was located outside the Olympic stadium, of course.
There were a hundred and one fountains in between all these streets and white buildings. The whole city was built on a large scale and there was a lot of construction work going on indicating that it was definitely a work in progress. It was only when I took the cablecar up a mountain on the outskirts of town that I got to fully appreciate the spectacle of the city. It was an oasis of tall, white buildings in the middle of nowhere completely surrounded by the harsh Turkmenistan desert.
There was also the Walk of Health, an 8km long pavement that wound its way through the desert hillsides. The idea was that you should be able to walk this comfortably if you were in good health. There was even a 32km version. The late Niyazov used to force his entire cabinet to walk this route once a year whilst he would take a helicopter up and meet them at the end of it. In contrast to this, I've been told that the current Prime Minister actually does the walk along with his cabinet.
There were only a few traces of the Soviet era here. A nice statue of Lenin graced a park near the Soviet memorial, whose eternal flame had gone out (and this in a country that has almost unlimited supplies of natural gas). There was also a busy Russian bazaar. An just like in Moscow, any car here was a potential taxi. You just stood on the side of the road with your arm extended until a car stopped before you negotiated a price with the driver. I also walked past the curiously named Ministry of Fairness, something that you would probably only find in an ex-Soviet country.
The people in Ashgabat were all very nice. A lot of young people had rudimentary knowledge of English. The women all wore the traditional dress of long robes although there was definitely the Russian influence visible every now and then in the form of a woman with lots of flesh exposed. There used to be a 2300 curfew in place here but this had recently been abolished and so we were free to wander around the streets of Ashgabat without any danger of getting in trouble with the police.
The bookshops here were all devoid of books. The only book that you could be guaranteed of finding anywhere was the Ruhnama, also known as the Book of the Soul, authored by the previous President, Niyazov, of course. It was part myth, part spiritual tome and part false history. It contradicted a lot about what is objectively known about Turkmen history. Knowledge of this book was required to pass everything from driving tests to university exams. Any other book that contradicted his ideology was banned. No wonder the book shelves in the stores were so bare. I also read in the guidebook that a copy of the book has been blasted into space to orbit the earth for the next 150 years and that reading the book 100 times will guarantee you a spot in heaven.
The costs of living in Turkmenistan have gone up dramatically in recent years. All water, petrol, electricity and natural gas used to be much more heavily subsidised in years gone past. In fact, I read that the cost of natural gas for the Turkmen people was so ridiculously low that a lot of people would leave their stoves on at all times of the day and night because the cost of buying matches was more than the cost of leaving the gas on perpetually. Petrol here is still heavily subsidised at $US0.20 per litre with every driver getting their first 120 litres per month for free.
I have long made the observation that if you travel overland slowly you don't notice big changes in people's appearance as facial features, dress, mannerisms and religion change ever so slowly. Things don't dramatically change just because you cross an international border and there has always been the intermarriage and interbreeding of people over generations regardless of modern borders. I was told to expect that in Western China the people almost looked like they were from the Middle East. Well, I was seeing the reverse phenomenon in the facial features of the people here. Despite the claims of almost every proud Turkmen citizen that they were never colonised by the Mongols, there are definitely a lot of Mongol and Chinese genes that had been carried either dormantly or actively through centuries of conquest and interbreeding.
The cotton industry is big in Turkmenistan. This is entirely due to Soviet era planning where it was decreed that the arid lands of Turkmenistan would be irrigated with water from the Aral Sea in Uzbekistan and the deserts converted to lush cotton farms in order to create, of all things, a textile industry in the fledgling country. Large irrigation canals were built to harness this water for crop cultivation. Turkmenistan currently boasts the world's largest irrigation canal at about 1370km in length. Well, the cotton industry is flourishing at the moment but the bad news is that the Aral Sea isn't. The sea has been drained so much that towns that were once on its shores now lie 150km away with rusted fishing trawlers left stranded in the middle of what is now white salty desert where there was once an inland sea. The whole Aral Sea management project has been a giant ecological disaster.
Cotton clothes were ridiculously cheap in Ashgabat and I replenished my underwear at a few outlet stores. I now have three sets of boxers, that resemble large grandma undies more than anything else, to supplement my existing underwear. That'll teach me to buy underwear that come in sealed plastic packets. They look nothing like what the guy depicted on the package picture was wearing.
I thought I'd seen the last of the Mongol rally mob but after returning to the guesthouse after a long day's walking in Ashgabat I found a Skoda plastered with Mongol rally stickers parked outside on the road. I initially though that they were stragglers who had experienced problems with their car but Charlie, Ellie, Greg and Henry (all Brits) had been taking their time along the rally route, stopping and relaxing at several of the stops along the way, making the most of the great countries that they had been through on their rally route. They had just arrived from Iran and regaled me with wonderful stories of Iranian hospitality. We went out for a meal that night and then searched for some nightlife but all we found was a British pub full of prostitutes and serving overpriced beer. It was interesting seeing the reaction of the three guys to the local girls as they walked past. Being in Iran for the previous few days, they had been deprived of the sight of any exposed female flesh and they were literally drooling at every girl that walked past on the streets or any waitress that served us a drink. They had also made a pact to not engage in any self-abuse for 40 days and 40 nights (with the 28th of August being their day of glorious release) and so that didn't help their cause any.
The Brits were nice enough to give me a lift the next day to the Kow Ata underground lake. This was located about an hours drive west of Ashgabat. Along the way we passed a couple of ornate mosques, one of them housing the burial site of the former President. He had chosen to be buried next to his mother and his brother who had been killed in the earthquake of 1948. After a small detour we eventually found the underground lake. We were a bit aghast at the $US15 entry price tag, especially because it was twenty time more expensive for foreigners compared to locals. There was a sign outside espousing the invigorating properties of the lake water and apparently you could be cured of everything from the common cold to syphilis to leprosy but we all agreed that you probably had more of a chance of catching these after swimming in the communal waters rather than being cured of them. We then proceeded to descend the 65 metres underground to the lake waters and swam for about 20 minutes in the heady, sulfurous waters. The lake was a naturally heated one and the water temperature was about 35 degrees Celsius. Parts of the lake were lit but other parts were pitch black with bats flying around and hanging on the ceiling. Although the waters were pleasant enough, it wasn't worth the steep admission price even though the guidebook claimed that it was a unique experience.
During the afternoon I headed up north through the vast wasteland of the Karakum desert consisting mainly of arid scrub and massive sand dunes. My destination was the town of Darvaza near where the famous Darvaza gas crater lay. As hitching to the crater was a hit and miss affair, something I couldn't afford with only three days being left on my transit visa, I decided to join an organised tour with three other Italians. At first I was told second-hand by the tour manager they were against the idea of me joining their private tour even though I was going to pay my share of the expenses and compensate them for their trouble. However, when I met them face to face I managed to convince them that I was just another traveller like themselves who was also interested in seeing the unique gas crater and they then changed their minds and invited me along as well. Just as well, because the crater turned out to be in the middle of nowhere. I would definitely have been stuck on the side of the road for ages if I'd tried to hitch back from there by myself.
Massive sand dunes lined the side of the road and after a while they completely blocked off the tar road so that all the vehicles had to go cross-country across the sand before rejoining the road further on again. It just goes to show that you can never really fight the shifting sands of the desert. The desert always wins. We stopped at a couple of other sights along the way including a couple of other minor craters. There was also a vivid desert sunset to enjoy and not even the ramblings of our dreary and boring guide could spoil the moment. We also stopped at a nomadic desert camp at Jerbent where scores of yurts were erected in the middle of the desert. I saw several guys taking sheep home from the local markets here on the back of their motorbikes and women repeatedly rolling large sheets of full back and forth so that they eventually became carpets after a couple of hours work.
We arrived at the Darvaza gas crater a couple of hours after sunset. The crater used to be a vast underground reservoir of natural gas. During the Soviet era, a large natural gas plant had been built on it but it had collapsed when the ground between it and the cavern had suddenly given way one day, creating the crater. Due to the fact that a lot of poisonous fumes were being released into the atmosphere, the authorities had made the decision to set the gas alight and so let the poisonous gases harmlessly burn away. They had thought that the gases in the crater would eventually burn out after a few weeks. However, they had badly miscalculated. Forty years (!!) after they had set the gases alight the 200 metre diameter crater was still blazing away.
I remember the feeling that I got when I first saw the crater as I exited the car exactly because I wrote it down on paper soon afterwards. "Wow. What a feeling of euphoria. This is the reason why I travel. It is the singular most spectacular attraction by far that I have been to on this trip. And, yes, I'll make the call, maybe ever." I was mesmerised and stunned into silence as I sat there and stared at it. Normally when I see something spectacular, I'm all "Wow" and "Fucking Hell". This was way beyond all that and I couldn't find any words to do justice to this. My travel buddies were the same. To think that I didn't even suspect that the thing existed until very recently.This is what travel is all about and it made every single hassle I had to go through with visas and border guards and getting ripped off absolutely worth it.
There, in the middle of the Karakum desert, was a giant pit whose floor and walls were lit up by a thousand small and giant flames of burning gas. You could feel the heat emanating from the fiery crater and your face would get extremely hot if you stared at it for a while. We dared not get too close to the rim of the crater for fear of falling into it. Certain death awaited there. Several places on this planet can justifiably lay claim to being the gates of hell but, for me, the Darvaza gas crater wins hands down. We could see the flickering glow from the crater from about 20 kilometres away, like a beacon drawing us closer and closer. It reminded me of the scenes from The Lord of the Rings where Sam and Frodo slowly approached the fires of Mount Doom. The crater has also been likened to something out of Dante's inferno. Several large spiders arrived out of nowhere at night and rushed into the fiery crater for reasons best known unto themselves. We set up camp about a hundred metres from the rim of the crater. No stars were visible on one side of the sky because the light from the crater obliterated everything. However, on the other side, the Milky Way was visible as well as numerous shooting stars. The cool desert air at night was only partly tempered by the heat emanating from the crater and we all had to dig our warm clothes out from our luggage. A couple of shared bottles of vodka also helped with warming us up and we all soon fell asleep under the clear desert sky.