After a week with Ben and the YPT group, I was alone again, getting only 4 hours of sleep before having to wake up and be picked up by a random driver at the hotel for a 6am flight to Mary.
The check-in and flight went without a fuss, and I arrived in Mary, Turkmenistan’s 4th largest city, at 7am.
I was immediately picked up by Mohammed at Arrivals, where he promptly drove me 30 minutes out towards the ancient city of Merv.
Listed by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site, Merv was a major oasis-city in Central Asia located on the historical Silk Road. As several cities have existed on this site, it gained significance for the interchange of culture and politics at a site of major strategic value throughout history.
Our first stop was to check out the Gäwürgala’s (aka “Fortress of the Zoroastrians”) walls or defensive installations.
From there we drove inwards where I paid a 31 manat joint entry and photography fee. Adjacent to the tourist office is a small museum explaining the history of the site.
The most famous iconic site of the Merv oasis is the great Kyz Qala or kepderihana (from Persian, “Kaftar Khana, or “pigeon house”, i.e., the columbarium).
This mysterious building is among the best-preserved in the whole Merv oasis. Theories of its use include that it was a residence of royalty, a library, a treasury, a residence for the women, and finally a giant roost used to raise pigeons.
Huh? Why pigeons? Why to collect their poop so they could grow some melons for which Merv was famous, of course.
Facing the great Kyz Qala is the smaller Kyz Qala:
You can climb ontop of the little Kyz Qala for views of the Merv plains:
Nearby is a restored mosque and mausoleum:
Climb on top of the tallest hill for views over the entirety of the Merv oasis:
We then stopped by another mosque-mausoleum complex, filled with Friday worshippers:
Behind is a free kitchen where you can cook your own meat for free:
We then drove to the best-preserved of all the structures in Merv: the 12th-century mausoleum of Sultan Sanjar.
The largest of Seljuk mausoleums, this structure is also the first dated known mosque-mausoleum complex and has stood its ground despite multiple invasions given its exceptional double-domed architecture.
Our last stop was the Mausoleum to Mukhammad ibn Zeyd:
Mohammed then fed me some lunch and dropped me off at Mary hotel where I crashed for 2 hours on their couch to recharge.
After also doing some work here without anyone’s care in the world, Mohammed picked me up again in the later afternoon for a quick exploration of Mary, which included its mosque…
…and its Pokrovskaya Church:
Then I had one more meal at the local megamall before being dropped off back at the airport for an 8:10pm flight back to Ashgabat.
I arrived back at the capital city at 8:50pm.
I was then picked up by the same driver who picked me up earlier this morning, taking me to the international terminal 5 minutes away for my 3:30am Lufthansa flight out of Turkmenistan for Azerbaijan.
Given I was at the airport 6 hours early, I crashed on the café couches in the back, getting in another good 2 hours of sleep.
I tried to get another hour of sleep at the gate, but to no avail given the predominance of Jackie Chan movies and Turkmen music videos playing in the background.
My onward flight boarded promptly at 3:15pm, taking off on time at 3:30am where I got in another hour and half of sleep before landing in Baku at 4:30am local time to begin the next monsoon.
Wow Turkmenistan. After 5 days here I feel like I need a drink or have had one too many.
- At time of posting in Merv, it was 28 °C -
Humidity: 23% | Wind Speed: n/a | Cloud Cover: clear
After a morning driving through the splendor of Yangykala Canyon, we arrived at the city of Türkmenbaşy, named after Turkmenistan’s first president.
Satellite dishes are banned in Turkmenistan due to its potential for receiving feeds from outside countries, but some places are doing well fighting back:
We grabbed lunch at the local bazaar and meandered around for an hour.
After that we dropped ourselves off at the parking lot leading to Awaza, a zone “dedicated to tourism” in Turkmenistan.
Located at the east side of the Caspian Sea, 12 km west of Turkmenbashi city, the existence and aspiration to be the next Dubai was soon criticized by the British Daily Telegraph as “ill-conceived.” And you could see why.
To this day since its inception, it remains to be a total ghost town. We found this out the hard way when we waited for nearly half an hour under the sun for a bus that no longer existed (our cars did not have these “special permits” to enter Awaza), moved back and forth by government officials who had no idea how to get inside the resort.
We then took over a random bus at the last minute, only to be dropped off at a few sites to take photos before we camped out at the resort’s only restaurant for 3 hours as the rest of the resort suddenly became on “lockdown” soon after we arrived.
We were initially worried that we wouldn’t make our evening flight back to Ashgabat as being on “lockdown” meant we couldn’t get out and nobody could get in, but then we were informed it would be lifted for another hour as we finished our early 6pm dinner.
We rushed out of Awaza via random taxis to get into Türkmenbaşy, after which we had to get into random locals’ cars to get to the airport as you also need special permits to get inside the airport complex. Hm.
We then arrived at the airport 3 hours early as our 9pm flight would be delayed by another 1-2 hours.
But the drama soon ended as we boarded our 10:30pm flight and returned to Ashgabat by 11:30pm. By midnight I said my goodbyes to the rest of the group and turned in for a 4:30am wakeup call for a 6am flight the next morning to Mary.
- At time of posting in Awaza, it was 27 °C -
Humidity: 24% | Wind Speed: 27km/hr | Cloud Cover: partly cloudy
After camping out overnight at Darvaza, we returned to Ashgabat in the afternoon for a few hours at ultra-hipster and swanky Berkarar Shopping Center.
Presenting itself as such a stark contrast to the rest of the country, Berkara holds itself up to international standards with world class food courts, high-end fashion, and grocery supermarkets. This is where we recharged after a night out in the desert.
We then headed out at 6pm to the Ashgabat Train Station.
Everyone on the platform was curious to our presence:
Boarding an overnight 7pm train to Balkanabat, we hung out for a few hours chatting before settling in by 9pm.
We arrived the next morning at Balkanabat train station by 5am:
We were picked up by 4 cars, after which we made a long, bumpy 3 hour drive to Yangykala Canyon. Here layers of pink, red and yellow rock splash across the sides of steep canyon walls; Yangykala is one of the most spectacular natural attractions in Turkmenistan.
Given its solitary isolation in the desert, few Turkmen are even aware of its existence.
Get a shot of yourself doing your best balancing act at “The Crocodile” – if you dare!
Climb down to the 2nd level for an extra layer of danger:
After about an hour driving around and taking photos, we headed onwards to Türkmenbaşy.
Don’t forget to stop by to admire some random desolate bus stops from the days of the USSR along the way:
- At time of posting in Yangykala, it was 29 °C -
Humidity: 22% | Wind Speed: 26km/hr | Cloud Cover: clear
After taking a naked dip and lunch at Kow Ata, we headed into the desert to visit the infamous gas crater of Darvaza/Derweze, arguably the country’s most famous tourist attraction.
Approaching the gas craters, we first stopped by a desolate village to grab some supplies and drinks for the overnight stay:
The gas crater was accidentally formed in 1971 during the Soviet construction of a gas pipeline. After Soviet geologists tapped into a cavern filled with natural gas, the ground beneath the drilling rig collapsed, creating this 70m wide gas crater.
After odorless gas fumes from the crater led to the asphyxiation and deaths of 2 shepherds who camped out nearby, the Soviets decided to set the entire thing on fire, thus giving its look as “The Gates Of Hell.”
Geologists had hoped the fire would burn up all the fuel in a matter of days, but the gas is still burning more than 40 years later today.
Given that there are billions of gallons of natural gas in the area, it is believed that the crater will burn for at least another couple of centuries before any thought of this natural phenomenon will go away.
Although the president of Turkmenistan had once made 2 efforts to close the gas crater, it seems that the country has made an about-face; the gas crater has now been prominently featured it as the front page of an international tourism marketing push.
Linger here as the sun begins to set and just take it all in.
It gets better later at night when you see the glow from afar.
And if you’re feeling a little cold, move a little closer so the heat from the craters can keep you warm throughout the night:
We had a DIY dinner where we prepared and cooked some shashliks by open fire.
And if you can camp out here overnight like we did, you can say that you survived a night at the gates of hell. Har har.
After a few hours of sleep we woke up at 7am for a quick and perfunctory breakfast:
Then we took one last look at the craters in the morning light:
…before heading back to Ashgabat.
If you’re keen on geological oddities, there are 2 other but less impressive gas craters in the vicinity:
- At time of posting in Darvaza, it was 24 °C -
Humidity: 29% | Wind Speed: 23km/hr | Cloud Cover: clear
After a morning in Kipchak by the capital Ashgabat, we drove out of the city for the Kow Ata Thermal Springs:
Known for its mineral spring waters and healing effects, it’s a 160m journey into the darkness where you can take a quick dip in its dark and yet comfortably warm waters.
Watch your step! It’s a long way down. About 2/3 of the way, there’s a few minimalist stalls where you can get some privacy to change into or out of your swimsuits. No lockers though, but there’s hardly anyone here to steal anything.
We spent about half an hour wading around in the warm waters before heading back up.
Right next door to the springs is an outdoor restaurant where you can have a fantastic BBQ lunch:
We then headed on north towards the Gates of Hell in Darvaza.
- At time of posting in Kow Ata, it was 28 °C -
Humidity: 31% | Wind Speed: 11km/hr | Cloud Cover: sunny
How do I begin? When people ask what I found to be the most fascinating countries in the world, my usual reply would always have been “North Korea and Myanmar.”
5 hours in Ashgabat was enough to shoot Turkmenistan to the very top.
Known as “North Korea but without all the press,” Turkmenistan was similarly ruled by a “President for Life” Saparmurat Niyazov (also known as Turkmenbashi) until his death in 2006. Little changed under current President Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow when he was “elected” president in 2007; according to Human Rights Watch, “Turkmenistan remains one of the world’s most repressive countries. The country is virtually closed to independent scrutiny, media and religious freedoms are subject to draconian restrictions, and human rights defenders and other activists face the constant threat of government reprisal.”
Furthermore, according to Reporters Without Borders’ 2014 World Press Freedom Index, Turkmenistan has the 3rd worst press freedom conditions in the world, just before North Korea and Eritrea. In its campaign to remain closed off to the rest of the world, Turkmenistan has also taken a neutral position on almost all international issues and remains to be the only country with a declaration of “permanent neutrality” that has been formally recognized by the United Nations in 1995.
With a reported 1 in 3 people being an informant for the government, it nevertheless boasts the irony of also being the safest and most crime-free countries in the world for tourists. With presidents who have embraced cult-of–personalities as Renaissance Men, Turkmenistan also enjoys for having the Guinness Book Of World Records title for having the most Guinness Book Of World Records. I’ll leave that there.
It would be no surprise I would have had a difficult time given the nature of what I do — I’ve been meaning to visit Turkmenistan for the past 4 years, always being banned from entering for various reasons. The first time was the entire country deciding to shut down its borders to tourism when I first made a serious attempt 4 years ago with a group of 20 people, then it was the “traitorous” nature of being an Asian American (The nationalistic Turkmen people abhor the idea of immigrating outside your home country, let alone “hyphenated identities”), and finally, simply for writing a very “popular” blog (as I was informed) that could influence others in a negative way about their country.
But when I got a last minute notification that they would finally approve my visa, I dropped everything to go as a guest of my partners and once co-leaders Ben and Eilidh of Young Pioneer Tours Central Asia.
With only 2 weeks before I was due to be there, I snagged 3 free business/first class flights on United.com with only 70,000 miles from NYC to Ashgabat via an Austrian Airlines flight to Vienna, a Turkish Airlines flight to Istanbul, and finally a Turkish Airlines flight to Ashgabat.
And so departing on August 18 at 5pm in the evening on an 8 hour flight, I begin with the highly regarded hospitality of Austrian Airlines business class. They’re known for their sexy thick blankets where you can purchase them from the airline; proceeds go to charity.
The free amenities come in a simple rump sack that I now have been using as a laundry bag:
Standard amenities kit otherwise: sleeping mask, socks, lip balm, ear plugs, with a single use toothbrush and toothpaste.
What Austrian Airlines is known for, however, is having some of the best airline food in the industry:
There’s even an onboard chef to take down your orders and food preferences!
We landed the next day in Vienna at 8am local time, where I had an 6 hour layover to once again meet up with my friend Daniela for a wonderful brunch outdoors at Tian Bistro. This is turning out to be our 3 month tradition!
I then flew 2 hours onwards to Istanbul, arriving at 5:30pm the afternoon and returning to one of the world’s best business class lounges for a 2 hour layover. I had profiled the experience more thoroughly when I was there last year.
Finally I boarded my 3.5 hour flight from Istanbul to Ashgabat.
We departed at 8:20pm and arriving at 1:55am local time to an airport that belonged in the future.
Like Oman, I was immediately taken aback on how beautiful their airport was.
Make sure you have your visa permit printed out beforehand and rush to the front of the line if you can as it’ll make things much easier.
You first make a stop on the right on the visa office, who will then take your passport for processing and direct you to the bank kiosk next door where you’ll then pay for your visa on arrival ($88 USD and they do accept credit cards…you just have to be very insistent)
Then you go back to the visa office with the proof of payment and then they’ll give back your passport with your new visa inside.
Afterwards you head up towards an electronic kiosk to have your pictures taken and your fingerprints processed.
Finally, you go up to one final kiosk to be let inside the country.
And after 4 years of being banned, it’s an amazing feeling to finally be let in!
The rest of the airport is pretty standard, with an escalator heading down to baggage claims right before heading out into arrivals where our drivers were waiting for us.
After waiting for the others to arrive from the same flight, we were then driven 7 minutes away to our accommodations at Ak Altyn Hotel. We crashed soon afterwards at 3am.
With a 9am wakeup call (I woke up at 6am and had a hard time sleeping afterwards for some reason), Ben got us on our yellow submarine bus and we began our tour of Ashgabat.
This is truly an empty city of monuments and you can do all of them in any particular order; there’s hardly any traffic, pedestrians, or simply any people to bother you. It paints a bizarre atmosphere, and extremely surreal how it felt to have the entire city to yourself.
Despite a population of 650,000 people, it felt like we were exploring a whitewashed evacuated Las Vegas of a dystopian post-apocalyptic future. I’ll juxtapose some of the memorials with how they light up at night to give a sense on how different the city becomes — therefore another tour by night is warranted.
Here’s a list of what to see —
Halk Hakydasy Memorial Complex featuring 3 monuments: one to those killed in the Battle of Geok Tepe during World War II, another to the victims of the 1948 earthquake, and a third to commemorate those who fought other battles for the Motherland (Turkmenistan):
The ancient city of Nissa (also known as Parthaunisa), 18 km southwest of Ashgabat, is described by some as one of the first capitals of the Parthians:
The Russian Bazaar:
Lunch in a yurt at a restaurant called Merdem:
Memorial To The Ruhnama.
The Ruhnama is a book of poems, ideologies, philosophies, stories, and revisionist history written by the first President of Turkmenistan that was meant to be the “spiritual guide of the nation” and the basis of the nation’s arts and literature and the “centre” of the Turkmen people.
The Arch of Neutrality:
Take the elevator for 3 manats to get these rooftop views!
The Monument To The Constitution:
There’s an elevated platform on this memorial to get these views down the city:
If the front door is open like it was for us, sneak up to the rooftop if you can!
Wheel of Enlightenment – an indoor theme park known for hosting the “largest enclosed ferris wheel in the world.” Except for one ecstatic kid running around, we were the only people here.
Snoop around and you’ll find an unused food court on the 2nd floor…
…and an abandoned space museum and bowling alley in the basement.
They city becomes even more likes Las Vegas at nighttime:
Then we had dinner at the country’s swankiest Ylydyz Hotel. They’re known for their huge golf course that Turkmenistan is using to practice for the Olympics.
They also have a rooftop that gives you an idea of this bizarro world:
If that’s not enough for you, set off in the morning for Kipchak and the Turkmenbashy Mosque.
Built by the country’s first president, its existence as a mosque is controversial for featuring passages from his book the Ruhmana instead of the Qu’ran. Thus they were briefly shunned by the likes of Saudi Arabia and Dubai for this wayward interpretation of Islam, and much to possibly poetic justice, the mosque’s dome is now cracking on all sides, as the land upon which it was built is slowly sinking into the underground parking lot that he built below.
Next door is his Mausoleum where he and his family are currently buried. Crediting to a sense of ominous luck, it was built 2 years right before his death from a heart attack.
You’ll need a drink after a few days here, so prepare yourself.
- At time of posting in Ashgabat, it was 27 °C -
Humidity: 31% | Wind Speed: 11km/hr | Cloud Cover: partly cloudy