Travelling in Turkmenistan: road stories #13 – from Ashgabat to Konye-Urgench
Staying in Ashgabat: the capital city that felt like an abandoned theme park
We arrived at the main train station in Ashgabat and made a phone call to Olga our next couchsurfing host. We had heard couchsurfing was illegal here so we were a little apprehensive about the logistics of our meeting but the wait gave us some time to reflect on what we had seen so far.
The taxi ride here had been a little surreal, not so much for the journey itself, but what we saw out of the window. The city seemed deserted, perhaps not so strange but it stood in such contrast to the magnificent white buildings lining the main thorough-through. Deserted by ordinary people I should say. There were two groups that were everywhere. Firstly, policeman, on every corner, directing non-existent traffic and pulling over the odd car that did actually seem to use the roads in this city. Secondly, cleaners, predominately women, brushes in hand sweeping the roads. Why? I had no idea, as the city looked spotless and there was nobody to create any mess.
While waiting for our host to arrive I left the train station, to go and partake in a cigarette. The boy next to me reacted quickly.
‘You can’t‘ he whispered urgently in Russian.
‘You can’t. It’s illegal. The police will come. If you want to smoke I will show you where.’
I turned down his offer for lack of time but it was the first lesson I had to learn in this strange country. Smoking in public is forbidden.
Our host Olga, was a friendly, educated Russian who despite being born and raised in Turkmenistan in no way felt like a Turkmen and spoke none of the language. She lived in a flat with her grandmother and son and was forever torn between her dreams to live in another country and the roots she had here.
Over the following days of our stay in the Turkmenistan capital she proved to be a model and charming host. She took us on a trip to the UNESCO listed Parthian Fortresses of Nisa (interesting to historians like me, not so much for everybody else) as well as cooking for us tasty Plov and taking us to the local bar. We enjoyed our time with her and her family and it helped to soften the blow of entering one of the world’s worst dictatorships.
It is hard to put into words just how strange Ashgabat is. Perhaps it is the golden statues or the giant opening ‘Ruhnama’ (the book written by Türkmenbaşy, the now deceased former dictator) in a park enjoyed by no-one. The giant portraits of the new dictator, the monumental government buildings or the expensive follies. The place is a fairground more than a city, celebrating the whims of the elite and the projection of the state’s oil and gas based wealth. The contrast between these ostentatious signs of money and the actual living conditions of normal people made it all the worse.
We met up with a Turkmen girl through Couchsurfing, in order to try and met as many people as we could in our limited time in the country. She was also warm and friendly, giving Ania a traditional Turkmen dress, and although she was relatively well-off, the conditions in her house were not exactly what you would call European.
That is not to say that we disliked the city completely, however, and there was something impressive about the grandeur of the enterprise, it just made us a little uncomfortable to know that for all the wealth under the ground, so little of it actually went to the vast majority living on top of it.
Travelling to Konye-Urgench: accepting the inevitable on a boring bus ride
Turkmenistan was proving to be a lot more interesting than we had given it credit for. The people were nice, even in the face of the oppressive regime they had to live under and it would have been great to spend a lot more time in the country to fully get a feel for it.
Unfortunately, this is still Turkmenistan and the government really didn’t want us to be here for long. Five days is not enough to explore a region, let alone hitchhike across the whole country so, we were forced to do something that we always hate doing – we had to take a bus. Buses are boring, uncomfortable and always feel like a waste of time and it was all these things and more.
We had decided, when applying for our visas, to avoid taking the main road through Mary and Turkmenabad and to strike north through the desert instead. Our original aim was to visit the site of the eternal flame at Derveza, but for a variety of reasons, namely cost and the fear of getting stuck in the desert alone, we decided to head directly to the northern city of Konye-Urgench.
The journey on the bus is not really worth describing in much detail as it passed in a haze of attempted sleep and a landscape that featured nothing but sand punctuated by an occasional road-side cafe that bought new meaning to the word basic. We watched a few episodes of a well produced Russian detective series and we were surprised that we managed to follow the gist of what was going on even with our basic Russian. Then another Russian series that we couldn’t understand a word of. One step forward two steps back.
written by: Jon