Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Turkmenistan Border and Ashgabat (June 27-30)

We made it through Iran! It was a great adventure and now for the next adventure: Turkmenistan! While everyone has heard of Iran and has their preconceptions, opinions and offered their advice to us, few people I know have even heard of Turkmenistan.

The contrast between Iran and Turkmenistan couldn’t be stronger. It is as sharp as the difference between how much news coverage these two countries receive. I’ve found that most borders are pretty soft, where although there is a well defined border, the cultures of the two countries blend gradually across the border. But this is a “hard” border.

Stepping from Iran into Ashgabat, the capital of Turkmenistan, is a shock. Iranian cities are filled with people, packed with tiny shops, have traffic jams and crazy driving, religion plays a huge role in people’s lives, cities grow organically and there doesn’t seem to be a much central planning. Ashgabat feels empty, is centrally planned and very controlled with countless police and road-side check-points, has gleaming white marble buildings with huge spaces between them, has wide straight freshly paved boulevards with almost nobody driving on them (and when they do they stay in their lanes!), and women wear long, beautiful, colorful dresses and don’t cover their hair. Sadly, much of Ashgabat is built for show, to impress. Kind of like Las Vegas done in white marble. Iran impresses with 3000 years of history and the mish-mash of what this has left; Ashgabat is a capital that is being built from the ground up.

Turkmenistan is a nation of mountains and desert, lies on the east side of the Caspian Sea, has a history of nomadic and semi-nomadic tribes, was part of the Soviet Union until it dissolved in 1991 when Turkmenistan became an independent country. People are predominantly Sunni Muslim, but religion plays a much, much smaller role in most peoples’ lives than it does in Iran.

It takes us two and a half hours to cross the Turkmen side of the border. Not because there are many people, but because of the tangle of red tape and no concept of efficiency. Eventually, after a great amount of waiting, confusion, yelling by one of the officials (louder doesn’t help me understand!), more confusion, more waiting, help from Angela (from our inviting organization), more confusion, waiting and running back and forth, we get our visas, entry travel passes (from Angela) car liability insurance, car entry permit and car obligation, each with its proper stamps. The main delay is that we want to drive to Ashgabat and Darvaza, then turn around and backtrack to Ashgabat before driving to Turkmenbashi and north to Kazakhstan. Our car entry permit, which must list the places we will visit, only has one line and it and does not allow for a change in direction. So in the end we get an car entry permit only to go to Ashgabat and will have to file an car entry permit amendment in Ashgabat (where the form has tons of lines for visiting multiple places).

From the border it is a short drive to Ashgabat, Turkmenistan’s capital. We check into Hotel Aziya, which is a nice place with a huge foyer and large, well equipped rooms. Strangely there are only 20 rooms in this huge building. We organize our things, eat in the Chinese restaurant downstairs in the hotel and I catch up on my journal.

The next day, on June 28th our Turkmenistan adventure begins. In the morning a driver from our inviting organization takes us into town and helps us fill out a car entry permit amendment so that we can see Darvaza, change direction and exit into Kazakhstan. Back at the hotel we give him our entry travel passes and passports and he takes them away for the proper stamps. Antonina from Stantours (our tourist agency – they were great) gives us a lift to Independence Park. Then we spend the rest of the day exploring the city. We are free to see Ashgabat on our own but need to travel with a guide after today when we leave the capital.

In the park we see the Turkmen Independence Monument surrounded by some very impressive Turkmen statues. The photo below shows some of these facing the National Museum.

There is a triple wedding celebration and photo session taking place as we walk past the museum.

From the monument we walk along at least a kilometer of fountains (see photo below). Ashgabat is in the Karakum desert and water for the fountains, irrigation, etc., must be brought in from the Aral Sea, which has shrunk dramatically and is causing massive environmental damage. The temperature is well over 100F and the sun is blazing so we stop and drink a liter and a half of lemon drink at a shopping mall with a huge water cascade on the outside. On our way back to the hotel, along Turkmenbashi street there is a row of huge marble buildings (almost skyscrapers) that appear to be totally empty. We later learn that each building is full of apartments for one government agency. But the apartments are expensive so few employees choose to live there. Since the apartments are only for employees of that agency the building are mostly empty.

After rehydrating at the hotel we drive to Yimpash shopping plaza (photo below). Turkmenistan is full of surprises and this is one of them. This place is awesome! The first floor is groceries, the second floor is clothes, and the third floor is restaurants, internet computers, bowling, pool, ping-pong, an arcade and a kid’s gym. We buy a ton to drink, lots of food, and a memory stick. This place is as probably the best grocery story we’ve seen on our trip and the first really good store since Germany! We feel like we’ve arrived in an oasis! We drive back to the hotel and drink, drink, drink, then rest a little and have a grocery food dinner in our room.

After dinner we drive downtown to see the main sights of Ashgabat. On the way there I realize that I don’t have my international driver’s license, Turkmenistan insurance, car entry permit, entry travel pass and obligation. I consider going back to the hotel but we are already downtown so we just park and sightsee first (more on this later).

We see the Arch of Neutrality topped with a 12 meter polished-gold statue of President Niyazov, the first president of independent Turkmenistan, which revolves so the former president always faces the sun. Photo of the Arch and Niyazov is shown below.

Next to the arch is a touching earthquake memorial to the victims of the 1948 earthquake (9 on the Richter scale) that killed over 110,000 residents of Ashgabat (2/3 of the population) and a total of 160,000 people in the province of Ashgabat. There is a nice memorial flame and plaque, but above these stands a huge statue of a bull head-butting the earth with destruction and bodies on its top half (photo below). On the top of world sits a Turkman woman (Niyazov’s mother who died in the earthquake) holding up a golden child (Niyazov) to the sky, facing the Arch of Neutrality. Humility was not one of Niyazov’s characteristics. Next to the memorial is a Soviet WWII Memorial and further down the pedestrian park is Ashgabat State University.

It is getting dark and there are police everywhere (that we hear like to check one’s papers and look for any reason to issue a fine) so I suggest we take a taxi to the hotel to pick up our documents before driving our car. After the taxi driver unsuccessfully tries to swindle us into paying double the rate, we are back at our car.

We get into our car and start to head for the hotel but notice that the police on every corner have closed all the roads in our direction. I’ve never seen so many traffic police! At one point I turn left on a street with no one-way signs and no police but 20 m later a police signals me to pull over. I give the young policeman my driver’s license, international driver’s license and my passport. He speaks no English or Russian (I think) because he can’t read my license or Russian page on my international driver’s license. He signals he must write me a citation for going the wrong way on the street I pulled onto and calls someone on his radio, presumably to translate my information. He is very nice and offers us water. 20 minutes go by and nobody shows up to help him. He gets more and more antsy and we ask him if we can go to our hotel. I give him the name of our hotel and repeatedly ask how we can get to Turkmenbashi Street. We are obviously just trying to get home. After another 5 minutes he thankfully lets us go. Phew! I very carefully continue to drive and thankfully find a bigger street with traffic that I can follow past several dozen police check points. After going in the opposite direction of our hotel for a while I can finally turn south and we make it home to our hotel. The next day Maksat (our guide) tells us that maybe the president (Mr. Berdymukhamedov) may have been passing through and this is why all the streets were closed. Happy to be in our hotel we have dinner, watch some Russian MTV videos and go to sleep.

The next day we meet Maksat (our guide) and head north for the Darvaza gas crater but I’m going to jump ahead to June 30th when we return from Darvaza and spend a few hours in Ashgabat again. We buy lunch and groceries at the really cool Russian market, then see the Turkmenbashi Ruhy Mosque on our way out of town (photo below). The mosque has 4 huge minarets, a 61m dome, gleams with white marble and has room for 10,000 worshipers but oddly there is no parking for visitors so Maksat directs us to park our car right on the highway in front of the mosque. We are not allowed to park in the 400 car parking garage but are allowed to park on the highway – different logic than what I’m used to. We admire the mosque but are stunned (especially after spending 2 weeks in Iran and seeing how much religion is a part of peoples’ lives) that there are absolutely no worshipers or visitors in or around the mosque. The only people there are some soldiers guarding the mosque, a man that lets us in and three women vacuuming the carpets. It’s sad that this place was apparently built just for show and that people don’t come here. Next to the mosque is President Niyazov’s mausoleum but other than some soldiers guarding it nobody is here either. We walk back to our car and continue our drive out of the city.

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