One of the least visited countries in the world possesses a number of world records, most of which are so obscure as to be completely redundant. The country’s enigmatic leader Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow’s list of credentials for the job appear to consist solely of the fact that he was the dentist of the previous, now deceased, also inscrutable leader. If you’re not impressed by the world record high density of white marble buildings the capital of Ashgabat has to offer, you should probably at least look like you are, you’re possibly being watched, and they are proud of that record. Welcome to Turkmenistan! As far police states go, at least this one has nice parks and has a place to get a flat white, and mercifully, our first beers after being in Iran for nearly a month.
Crossing into Turkmenistan from Iran couldn’t have been easier, greeted with a smile, we were waved through with no fuss at all, and as we wound down the hill to the capital city of Ashgabat, thankfully it was easy to be impressed by the gleaming white city that sat on the floor below. Turkmenistan has recently been the butt of jokes on Last Week Tonight with John Oliver. The bumbling President “shooting targets” while sycophantic subjects clap at his non-existent marksmanship (also on display at border posts), his new rap career and all too deep love of horses are hard not to laugh at, but his brutal regime, repression, and lack of leadership ability, coupled with declining gas prices, is all too real for the citizens of the country as it teeters on the brink of economic disaster. In light of this, one can’t help but wonder about the wisdom of building an insane amount of white marble buildings, including the worlds biggest indoor Ferris wheel instead of actual infrastructure.
As a tourist however, thing are actually not too bad, and it’s hard to argue Ashgabat, and Turkmenistan as a whole, isn’t an interesting place to spend a few days. We’d managed to get ourselves a transit visa, unfortunately only allowing us 5 days to get through from Iran in the south, to Uzbekistan in the north. Outside of the main expensive hotels, there is one you can stay in. The Kuwwat hotel is a little run down, with a sprinkle of soviet charm, but serviceable, even if it is over priced at $15USD p/p. Either way, economic downturns aren’t always bad for foreigners, with $1usd officially worth 3.5 manat, it will fetch you up to 18 manat on the black market, so as with Iran, things suddenly become incredibly cheap if you’re buying local.
Our first day we were able to meet with a local resident, but to meet people here is a little sketchy for the individual involved, however it was extremely interesting to hear about what it can be like to live here, and that unfortunately you cannot trust anyone, as there is every chance they can inform on you at anytime, or, a cherry picker could arrive and take away anything on you’re balcony, why? Because Berdi doesn’t like to see them, he also doesn’t like black cars, which is precisely why you won’t see any on the road, because he banned them. Strolling through the perfectly manicured parks you’re struck by how few people are enjoying them, anywhere else in the world they’d be jam packed, here you’ll be lucky to see someone on the park bench, and, if you do, they might just be talking into their shirt sleeve for some reason.
We unfortunately lost most of one day, with Mark struck down with a stomach bug, and left hugging the (ironically enough almond ivory) toilet bowl. The next day however we got to take the number 20 bus. Undoubtedly the best in all of Ashgabat, it will take you past all the important ministry buildings, massively over-sized for their station i.e. the 10 story Ministry of Horses, or the Dental Ministry building, shaped like a tooth, say what you will, they do not lack imagination. But go a little further down the under utilised highway, past the smartly dressed men hand painting the gold trim on one of the endless variations of white-and-gold lamp post designs, past the building with a globe on the roof and you will reach the piece de la resistance, the indoor Ferris wheel.
It is massive, and with no-one else around you take the walk up, and can’t help but be impressed, but we assumed it was closed. We took a walk around, and to our surprise the door slid open. Also to our surprise a huge arcade parlour appeared, eerily devoid of laughing kids and filled with carnival music which takes on a sinister feel without people to enjoy it. Turkmen people, despite being understandably reserved, are extremely welcoming and friendly, but even then, the fact that they started the Ferris wheel just for us caught us by surprise. For the princely sum of 10c, we got to ride the worlds biggest indoor Ferris wheel! Sure, the view was highly obscured on account of the support structure, but it was quite an experience, and topped our To Do list in Ashgabat.
The other must do in Turkmenistan is the Darvaza gas crater, AKA the “Door To Hell” or “Gates of Hell”. In a natural gas field, it collapsed into itself, geologists set it alight to prevent it from spreading, they assumed it would burn a while and go out on its own accord, that was in 1971. Initially, it was seen as a national shame, but in recent times, noticing that people actually seemed to enjoy this geothermal oddity, they have embraced it, even setting up yurt camps you can hire. When you first arrive, it’s actually hard to see the crater itself. But as you get closer, you feel the heat before you see the flames. During the day, it looks interesting, but at night it shows its full splendor. Glowing under the star, we even had a harvest, or “blood moon” rise in the back ground. Mark found this all suitably “grim”, and demanded he get a black metal ‘stancing’ shot at the gates to hell, much the curiosity of the other tourists standing behind the fence. It was extremely worthwhile the effort to get there. With that our 5 days came to an end, and we bumped our way towards the northern frontier on the horrifyingly bad road, whereby most of the trip is spent, off the road, to avoid the actual road. One might suggest, for the price of one presumably under utilised and over priced vanity project, perhaps an indoor Ferris, the road could be finished, to the benefit of the citizens, but that wouldn’t get in the record books now would it!
How to get to “The Gates of Hell” at Darvaza:
We enjoyed our time in Turkmenistan, and highly suggest trying to get through. The key attraction, and in our opinion a must do, is the gas crater, or the “Gates to Hell”, and if you’re going to the effort to get there, you really should stay the night. While caravanistan.com is the bible around Central Asia, we found the suggestions to catch public transport and rely on getting a ride in Darvaza, or hitching (we saw very few cars on this road, and usually they are share taxis, already burstingly full), to be more effort than they were worth, and tour companies can charge an extortionate USD$220+. This is for Ashgabat to Konye-Urgench, but to go the opposite way the prices remain the same, but instead of the intercity taxi stand in Ashgabat (where you’ll get dropped off) from the border head to the K-U bazaar, where the taxis are waiting.
So here is how we did it: Firstly, catch a city taxi in Ashgabat up to the intercity taxi stand, which is about 10kms out of town, past the airport, and the nice new bus terminal, it should cost 30 manat at the most. Once here, the fun begins. Head to the middle taxi bay where there is a bunch of drivers heading to Dashoguz/Konye-Urgench loitering about. They are all wanting to get home, so someone will want to take you. Thankfully, Martina speaks enough Russian we were able to get our message across Ashgabat-Darvaza-Sleep 1 night (spat adin notch) -Konye-Urgench border control (gran-iza). We got descended upon, but try to seek out the younger guys, as the older guys are probably less likely to want to spend a night in their car at the crater. Prices started at $55usd and but we managed to get it down to $36usd for the trip, stress it’s for both/two people (Za dvaigh). It might seem cheap for 500km, but on average, drivers earn $120 per month. Its a petty good deal for both sides, a French couple we met came the opposite way for $25usd, but they negotiated for 1 hour, we were at it about 20mins.
Another aspect we found hard to get info on was the accommodation, if you have your own camping gear, no problem, you can sleep whereever you want near the crater. When we arrived, around 3pm, we were the first ones there, this meant we got approached by the yurt owners, for USD$28 we got our own private yurt in a camp with showers and flushing toilets, with a generous dinner and breakfast. It was perfect, we could wait out the hottest part of the day in the yurt and venture out to the crater in the afternoon. If you have your own tent, you can approach the yurts and get dinner (which was very tasty) if you negotiate a price, otherwise bring your own food, as there are no shops at the crater! Then, all you have to do is enjoy the crater by night and after breakfast you’re off to the border. At the border, despite having said it was $36usd for the car, our nice-until-that-point driver tried to get double. He was clearly just trying on and didn’t look overly serious. It’s a common ploy in this part of the world and we’ve had it multiple times. Stay calm, stand your ground, and tell them that’s not the deal we agreed on, he moved on without too much fuss, and the border guards got a laugh. We hope this helps a couple of people feel a little more confident to do it themselves.
@catchustravelling on Instagram as we continue deeper into The Stans