Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Yangykala Canyon, Turkmenbashi and Border Crossing (July 2 - July 4)

On July 2, I woke up at 5:00 a.m. and found a nicely wrapped birthday present from Stani waiting for me. It was a beautiful silver tree necklace pendent that he bought in Iran. I can’t wait to wear it! We ate breakfast, packed up and left the nice homestay early because we had a long slow drive ahead of us to Yangykala Canyon. Before we left, Enebai gave Stani and I each a pair of socks. I told her thank you and that she helped to make my birthday very special with her nice gift. I was also surprised that Maksat gave me a birthday gift - a colorful pretty Turkmen scarf. With the phone calls from my parents and Stani’s parents and all the Facebook and email birthday greetings from family and friends, I felt very special and filled with happiness.
Maksat had spoken with one of his colleagues who drew a map of the route to the canyon and advised that it may take us 12 hours. It ended up taking us 14 hours.

Road to Yangykala Canyon


Our map to the canyon

As we headed into the canyon, we met a caravan of camels coming the other way. I’d say there were about 75 camels walking on the road to meet us! “Welcome to Yangykala Canyon”, they said with a smile. Soon their herder showed up on a motorcycle and wanted some water. Maksat gave him one of his bottles and the herder drank it all but complained it wasn’t cold. Maksat commented to us, “What can I do?”

One of the friendly camels

This phrase “What can I do?” uttered by Maksat was a favorite saying that we heard repeatedly each day. It annoyed me the first time I heard it. It was such an apathetic and defeatist sentiment. I really felt like this is what he would say if something bad actually happened to us. There was a big difference between our thoughtful and caring Iranian guide, Darius and Maksat. It’s not that Maksat was a mean guy, I just think he’d rather be doing other things than being our guide. On our way to the canyon, we learned the origin of this phrase. He picked it up from a German tourist who came to Turkmenistan with his own vehicle. During a long rough day of driving, they stopped for a break and the German took out a beer to drink. Maksat told the German that there was a 0% tolerance for drinking and driving. The Germans response was, “Maksat, what can I do? I want a beer.” He then opened it and drank the beer. This made me dislike this saying even more!

We arrived at our camping spot for the night, the top of one of the canyon plateaus, just as the sun was starting to set. It was an incredible landscape. The canyon walls had bands of pink, yellow, white and brown brushed across them. After a nice dinner and several toasts of vodka, we sat under a canopy of black sky filled with millions of twinkling stars - as many stars as I think I have ever seen. A pretty cool way to celebrate your birthday!

View of Yangykala Canyon

The birthday girl

The next morning, Stani and I walked a little to explore the canyons in a different light. When we came back to camp, I spotted a little lizard hiding under some plants. I was glad it was a little guy and not one of the huge scary monitor lizards called varan, whose bite is really painful. According to Lonely Planet, we should also be on the lookout for cobras, vipers, scorpions, black widows and tarantulas while in Turkmenistan, so walking around was never just a casual walk in the park.

The little guy

We left Yangykala Canyon and drove 165 km west on bad roads to the city of Turkmenbashi (formerly known as Krasnovodsk before President Niyazov decided it should be named after himself. In the early 90’s Niyazov ordered that everyone call him Turkmenbashi, which translates to “Father of all Turkmen”) rather than his real name. After driving past police checkpoints at nearly every intersection in the city and being stopped by one, we checked into Hotel Turkmenbashi and then drove to a newer section of town where hotels and tall buildings are quickly being constructed. Here there are nice beaches lining the Caspian Sea. We found a nice spot and splashed around in the Caspian like little kids. It was so fun!

Entering Turkmenbashi

Turkmenbashi is where the ferry from Baku, Azerbaijan lands. If we hadn’t been able to get visas for Iran, we would have driven through Georgia and Azerbaijan and then taken the ferry to Turkmenbashi. This ferry is notorious for having an unpredictable schedule and a sketchy sailing history. A few years ago one of the ferries sank and all the passengers and crew died. Nowadays instead of repairing the ships, the solution was to simply limit the number of passengers per route. Obviously this then lowers the potential casualties. I was glad we didn’t have to take that option.

On the 4th of July, we got up early again to begin our journey to the border of Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan. Little did we know just what a journey this would be! It was a long drive on acceptable roads from Turkmenbashi to the town of Bekdash. Here we stopped at a gas station with really old pumps and got yelled at by the attendant when we filled up with gas. Maksat said “Welcome to your first encounter with a Kazakh!” As we left the town, we were stopped by yet another police checkpoint.

Stani and the old pump

We continued on and soon the road disappeared and turned into dirt tracks that split and went in many different directions. Which was the right way? Take a guess and try it. It was a bit unnerving driving and really not knowing if you were on the right path. How crazy that this was the only border crossing into Kazakhstan! Maksat had never been here before either, so it was all just a guessing game. After hours of driving on these dirt tracks, we finally saw another car and asked if we were on the right path. Happily we were and soon we could see a gleaming white building with gold domes off in the distance. Maksat said that this border crossing was recently moved so that you wouldn’t go through the poor villages. There was a big race that was televised and the government didn’t want to have unflattering images shown of Turkmenistan. So, here we were again, another act just for show!

The Turkmenistan border

We were happy to be at the border and soon to be on our own again without a guide. We wondered how it would go with the language since neither of us spoke Kazakh or Russian, but we were up for the challenge. Turkmenistan, what a place. Lavish buildings and monuments, streets and apartment buildings empty of people, police on nearly every corner, camels, desert landscape and the blue waters of the Caspian. All these images come to mind when I think of this unique country.

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