Mecca Wasn’t “Ta’if” on Us!

Mecca Wasn’t “Ta’if” on Us!

Ta’if

About a 2 hours’ drive north of Jeddah lies Ta’if. Located within the Mecca region and one of the oldest towns in Saudi Arabia, it has been famous for its rose production and views over Mecca itself:

 

 

Along the way we stopped to say hi to the numerous baboons that live here and amongst the mountains. The young ones, if they’re not busy fighting each other, can be a little feisty in trying to steal your stuff from the car. 

The older ones are calm as Zen:

 

 

… also enjoyed some charcoal mint tea by the side of the road:

 

 

Once in Ta’if proper, we got ourselves acclimated with a view over the Mecca region:

 

 

We then toured the Al Gadee Factory and learn how roses are distilled to produce rose water and oil:

 

 

Afterwards at the recommendation of one of our beloved monsooners from Egypt, Karthik, we boarded the cable car at the top from the Ramada Hotel (also know as the “Jeju Island” honeymooners’ spot for Saudi newlyweds):

 

 

Each way takes 18 minutes. Once you near the bottom of the cable car ride, you may notice a barely unused (at least when we saw it on a hot Tuesday afternoon in October) waterpark guarded by a very lonely and bored-looking lifeguard.

 

 

During sunset, we opted for an al fresco dinner with a view at BelleSoire:

 

 

Afterwards we strolled along one of the numerous parks in the area, filled with families:

 

 

And from there we drove onwards into the hills for our hotel.

 

 

The next morning we drove back into Ta’if’s city center, first stopping at the Al Katib and Kaaki House, which architecture combines Roman style with Islamic motifs:

 

 

We then began our morning stroll at the Bin Abbas Mosque:

 

 

Nearby is the local souq, where you can sample some of the area’s naturally harvested honey and halwa:

 

 

We then had breakfast up on a rooftop overlooking the souq before driving out into the Al Shafa mountains for another local rose farm:

 

 

After having fresh pomegranate juice there all by ourselves (I swear we are the only tourists in the entire region), we headed back into Ta’if again for lunch.

And “when in Rome,” we were suggested the camel meat; a cross between a lamb rump and pork shoulder, it was just as good as how I remembered when I last had it a decade ago in Shiraz, Iran:

 

 

And after lunch, we returned for our last night in Jeddah. . . .

Mecca/Makkah

 

This deserve a section in of itself; I have yet to go into details HOW we got back and forth between Ta’if and Jeddah.

The short story is as much as we did NOT need or want to, our local Saudi driver — a devout Muslim and local Saudi born and raised in Jeddah and hailing from a generation of Saudis also based in the Mecca and Jeddah region — insisted that we SHOULD drive through Mecca/Makkah, the holiest city in Islam.

Local Saudi from Jeddah & Mecca (and our driver): “The fastest way between Jeddah and Ta’if is through Mecca. Are you okay with that?”

 

Me: “Are you joking? No!”

 

 

Driver: “No I’m serious. We go through Mecca. It’s fine.”

 

Me: “What? But we’re not allowed…isn’t it illegal? I don’t want to get into or you into any trouble” (I pull up Wikipedia)

 

Driver: “I’m Saudi. I know. I’m from here. Look at second line: ‘loosely enforced.’ It’s fine now. It’s okay. You just can’t go inside to see Kabbah because you need clearances for that. Special papers because of COVID. Even I cannot see Kabbah now because I don’t have clearance papers. But rest of Mecca city okay! No traffic, much easier and faster Insha’allah!”

 

Me: “Haha, you’re funny. Stop joking around! I’m going to take a nap. See you in Ta’if.”

(I then fall asleep in the car as we begin our drive)

15 minutes later I wake up only to freak out at the sight of sailing through the multiple checkpoints towards Mecca without any checkpoint guard bothering to stop us (and they’re looking in every car including ours!):

 

 

Whether it was me with my mouth agape underneath my surgical mask because COVID-19, or Mihaela as an American/Serbian brunette who didn’t even think of covering her hair up with her makeshift abaya (our driver never reminded us to), every guard at every checkpoint (I counted at least 2-3 throughout our drive) indeed looked inside our car and waved us all through. I can tell our driver was totally judging our anxiety and shock.

For the record, we drove through Mecca and all of these checkpoints twice over between Ta’if and Jeddah on the roundtrip, let alone both on separate days at different times with nobody seeming to mind on either day.

Have times really changed? I’m confused. I’m speechless. I’m left dumbfounded and shooketh.

 

 

Even as we protested at least 4 times before our drive that we did not want to disrespect the rules, our driver didn’t even let us negotiate as he began to suggest that we would be disrespecting him as a local who’d know better than we would. And the last thing we wanted to be was to be one of those disrespectful entitled foreigners who’d assert that we would know more about a country than our very own hosts.

Oddly I’m therefore also grateful that he insisted so much. As if the universe, or some energy “up there” really wanted us to be here, or that they really wanted to show us things are changing. And who are we as mere mortals to really know how the universe really works anymore?

Driver: “I told you. Look, it’s ok. It’s fine now.”

 

Me: “…this is not so you can get a better tip right?” (half joking tone)

 

Driver: “No tip! Jeddah, to Mecca, to Ta’if is just better and faster drive for us all. Look, relax, Google says so.” (Indeed, it says so)

Uber — 5 star rating for all the reassurances? Our driver even told us to look at our Google Maps for any places to get coffee.

Driver: “Before we leave the city for the next stop, do you want coffee? donuts? We have 3 Starbucks by Al-Haram…but can’t stop too long; have to keep driving.”

 

Me: “…(what is going on)”

 

 

As we officially entered the city our driver points out the Burmese neighborhood that is home to an older, more established Burmese community of 250,000:

 

 

Although at every exit I had thought we we would take a turn to leave Mecca, our driver continued onwards into the city center. He seemed intent about getting his Starbucks fix. This was a screenshot from his phone:

 

 

Who were we to stop him?

 

 

We began to see signs for Al-Masjed Al-Haram, the location of the Kabbah and the holiest site in Islam.

 

 

Our driver kept onwards to Al-Haram:

 

 

We then crossed a long tunnel:

 

 

And then I saw it. I recognized all the buildings.

 

 

Once we reached the King Abdul Aziz Gate . . .

 

(Wikipedia)

 

. . . I knew we were at the feet of the holiest site in Islam, the world’s most expensive building valued at 100 billion US dollars, and the crossroads of history during its second expansion:

 

(Mine)

 

And I definitely recognized the Makkah Clock Royal Tower, the world’s second most expensive building in the world valued at 15 billion dollars.

This photo is from Wikipedia:

 

 

And this photo is from me…because I just drove right underneath it:

 

 

And inside you can find pilgrims performing Umra:

 

 

I ask a friend for context as our driver stopped to get a Frappucino:

 

 

With that and a Frappuccino in our hands, we headed onwards past Al-Haram:

 

 

We even stopped to see some of the other mosques in Mecca:

 

 

…as well as an all-girls university:

 

 

We then continued onwards our respective destinations, whether it was Ta’if or Jeddah:

 

 

…and as I’m posting this where I am in my hotel, numerous Saudis have already walked by looking at my photos, and giving me a smile. They know.

And I’m still confused. And grateful. Something or someone is watching out for us. Or times really have changed.

 

–EDIT–

The response so far has been 100% unanimously positive. I was so worried. Thank you to my Muslim supporters around the world:

 

 

- At time of posting in Ta'if, it was 21 °C - Humidity: 38% | Wind Speed: 5km/hr | Cloud Cover: clear

 

During The Terrorist Attack in Pul-e Mahmood Khan, Kabul, Afghanistan….

During The Terrorist Attack in Pul-e Mahmood Khan, Kabul, Afghanistan….


09:30AM

As I’m writing this a few explosions just occurred within our vicinity a few km away (it’s already on the news). Still hearing some gunfire in the distance where the plumes of smoke are.

 

 

We just went up to the rooftop to take a look:

 

 

What is more remarkable is how the hotel staff and even some of the people in our group remain so blasé right now as if we had heard a car accident just happened a few blocks away. We’ve been here a little over a week and the desensitization is very real, even though nothing close to this has happened during our 7-8 days here.

We even went out for lunch outside an hour later. As our guide informed us, most of the attacks occur between 7am-10am at the same places to target the morning commutes of VIPs and foreign workers. Tourists are never a target.

 

12:10pm

Another explosion has just occurred during the call to prayer at the OMAR Landmine museum, which we had visited just yesterday afternoon. It appears that the Taliban has stormed and occupied the TV station that situated on the same site as the OMAR Landmine museum, and has been fending off outside attempts to re-secure the building by Afghan military and police forces.

The Taliban has now claimed responsibility for today’s attacks on Kabul right now where a series of bomb blasts and sporadic gunfire are still occurring outside from where we’re staying.

 

02:00pm

I’m going to write this from the entire perspective of both my past week (which has been otherwise uneventful and very safe) and what has been going on the past few hours.

Because for security reasons I chose to post this on my last day in Kabul, and especially given that just as I finished writing this we heard a series of explosions and sporadic gunfire occurring a few kilometers away from our hotel, I’m writing this both from the perspective of my first and last day in Afghanistan after 7 days here. And although it took awhile, Afghanistan surprised me in ways I could not expect.

I expected to be throttled, shocked and awed, stumbling to the ground believing it would be a feverish experience from the moment I arrived. Instead pleasant surprise prevailed. Walking on the streets of Kabul on my first day felt immediately comfortable and familiar, and I never once experienced any sense of heightened tensions I had been warned to expect. At many moments I felt like I was back in Pakistan, gallivanting without a care other than the occasional tout and curious child. Like our initial concerns coming here, even military forces soon evaporated within the din of rush hour traffic.

Then I traveled to Mazar-e Sharif, Samangan, and Hairatan for 3 days — and despite the reported threat of the Taliban lurking around the corner — Afghanistan’s ocean of grandeur remained in wait, its beauty slowly unraveling like the beginning of an epic tale. Not until my return to Kabul for my final 2 days did this country finally reveal a tapestry of countless beautiful complexities.

Yes, before I go on, I must take a sense of responsibility and acknowledge the inherent dangers that could happen — even the one within a few minutes at the time of writing. However, I also cannot ignore the tens of thousands other minutes and moments where we felt completely safe, privileged to witness a place past the filter of Western media. Where a degree of the negativity bears truth, most of the positivity remains unrecognized. I know I still go to work hearing gunshots outside my ER back home.

To know Afghanistan is to know patience; the first impression can sometimes be the wrong impression. And sometimes the first impressions stick. Either way, you cannot judge a place or a person until you have experienced it for yourself. All I can conclude is that Afghanistan takes its time, lies in wait, rewarding only to those willing to look past the trauma porn of violence and war at its surface. It may take ages, demand repeat viewings, and should never be considered as n simply packaged, single-serving experience.

What I had witnessed this past week was resilience. Resilience in a country and people proud of its deep history — scars and all — while forging ahead towards an uncertain destiny.

 

 

- At time of posting in Kabul, it was 26 °C - Humidity: 16% | Wind Speed: 31km/hr | Cloud Cover: partly cloudy

 

Dodging The Taliban in Samangan

Dodging The Taliban in Samangan

 

Well this just happened; and the Taliban just missed us only by 30 minutes: Bomb blast in Afghan mosque wounds 11 worshippers.

 

 

AhlulBayt News Agency (ABNA): A bomb blast inside a mosque wounded at least 11 people Friday in northern Samangan province, Afghanistan, a provincial official said.

Sediq Azizi, spokesman for the provincial governor, said the blast took place during Friday prayers as dozens gathered in the mosque in Aybak, the provincial capital. He said the prayer leader of the mosque was in critical condition and was transferred to neighboring Balkh province for further treatment.

No one immediately claimed responsibility for the attack.

Separately, the Taliban’s shadow governor for eastern Logar province and two deputies were killed in an airstrike, the Afghan Defense Ministry said in a statement. Afghan forces carried out the airstrike Thursday night in Charkh district, it said.

The Taliban made no immediate comment on the attack.

In eastern Ghazni province, Taliban attacked Afghan security checkpoints, killing four police officers, said Arif Noori, provincial governor’s spokesman, AP reported.

Noori said three other forces were wounded and seven Taliban fighters were killed during Thursday night’s battle in Dehyak district.

The Taliban have stepped up attacks across the country as Afghan president Ashraf Ghani visits neighboring Pakistan, where he has praised Pakistan’s efforts to advance the peace process in the region. Ghani has reached out to Islamabad for help in bringing the Taliban to the negotiating table with the Kabul government.

Ghani’s first visit to Pakistan since elections brought Prime Minister Imran Khan to power last year is also seen as an attempt by Ghani to reset the often-strained relationship between the two neighbors amid the stalled peace push with the Taliban.

The Taliban have refused to talk directly with Kabul, considering it a US puppet. The insurgents, however, say they will sit down with any Afghan, even a government official, but as an ordinary citizen and not as a government representative.

 

Samangan (formerly known as Eukratidia, Aybak, or Aibak) is a medieval ancient town and major Buddhist centre during the 4th and 5th centuries under the then Kushan rulers. It also happens to be located only 10-15 miles away from Taliban-controlled territories, so our goal was to slip in and out of that area as quickly as possible without drawing any attention.

 

 

To make things more dodgy, we were informed that support also has been recently growing for the Taliban in our area, so we wanted to minimize staying too long anywhere or befriending too many locals. Fair enough.

 

 

There seems to be a surveillance drone here too.

 

 

We drove out at 9:45am to Samangan, first stopping through a few checkpoints screening for Taliban fighters.

 

 

Halfway through we had a rest stop in the middle of the unreal Tashqurghan Gorge:

 

 

After about 2-3 hours of driving from Mazar-i-Sharif, we reached the ruins of Takht-i-rustam, located on a hill above the town. Standing on top here was when I first felt like I was really in Afghanistan.

Our guide Alem got a little nervous that we were presenting ourselves as sitting ducks to the Taliban on top of a naked hill.

 

 

Takht-i-Rustam derives from Rustam, a king in Persian mythology, and is a hilltop settlement dated from the 4th and 5th centuries located 3km southwest of Samangan.

To my left was the actual preserved Buddhist stupa hand carved out of the rock, with the “Harmika” (a building that once held relics of the Buddha) sitting on top:

 

 

You can get right down to the stupa and walk around it.

 

 

Afterwards we walked downhill the steppes towards the mound, aka the monastery complex.

 

 

Th stupa-monastery complex is also fully carved into the mountain rock with five chambers inside.

 

 

2 chambers inside are proper Buddhist sanctuaries, raided thoroughly by the Taliban:

 

 

My favorite was a third chamber with domed ceiling with an intricate lotus leaf beautification that may have had Zoroastrian roots.

 

 

After about 20 minutes here, our local guide began to get nervous that our presence would be reported to the Taliban by curious onlookers. Then to add to his concerns, our driver got a phone call by from a police officer saying they got a report that the Taliban was going to “bomb something.”

So we decided to skip having our planned lunch in Aybak, ran back into our cars, and sped our convoy back to Mazar:

 

 

Outside the city limits of Mazar by the city of Kholm, and in a much safer area, we stopped at an abandoned palace for a quick stretch break and tour:

 

 

The palace has been converted to a de-facto public swimming pool for locals.

 

 

Because we skipped lunch and rushed against time to avoid any chance encounter with the Taliban, we finally had our first meal at the day back in Mazar at 5pm:

 

 

Although the situation seemed nerve-wracking, we did not once notice anything being amiss other than our guide’s slight concern. The checkpoints were pretty expedient, nobody stopped to question us, and there was no increased military presence other than the standard armored truck every few hours.

Still safe and sound at the time of posting!

 

- At time of posting in Aybak, Afghanistan, it was 29 °C - Humidity: 27% | Wind Speed: 10km/hr | Cloud Cover: burning hot

 

So I’m In Kabul, Afghanistan Right Now… (Updated July 1, 2019)

So I’m In Kabul, Afghanistan Right Now… (Updated July 1, 2019)

 

(Given the ever-changing security situation here, this post will be updated as circumstances develop so check back often)

 

Travel Warnings

A helpful warning as I set off for Kabul today:

Do not travel to Afghanistan due to crime, terrorism, civil unrest, kidnapping, and armed conflict

 

Travel to all areas of Afghanistan is unsafe because of critical levels of kidnappings, hostage taking, suicide bombings, widespread military combat operations, landmines, and terrorist and insurgent attacks, including attacks using vehicle-borne, magnetic, or other improvised explosive devices (IEDs), suicide vests, and grenades.  

 

Terrorist and insurgent groups continue planning and executing attacks in Afghanistan.  These attacks occur with little or no warning, and have targeted official Afghan and U.S. government convoys and facilities, local government buildings, foreign embassies, military installations, commercial entities, non-governmental organization (NGO) offices, hospitals, residential compounds, tourist locations, transportation hubs, public gatherings, markets and shopping areas, places of worship, restaurants, hotels, universities, airports, schools, gymnasiums, and other locations frequented by U.S. citizens and other foreign nationals.

 

The U.S. Embassy’s ability to provide routine and emergency services to U.S. citizens in Afghanistan is severely limited, particularly outside of Kabul. Evacuation options from Afghanistan are extremely limited due to the lack of infrastructure, geographic constraints, and the volatile security situation.

 

Family members cannot accompany U.S. government employees who work in Afghanistan.  Unofficial travel to Afghanistan by U.S. government employees and their family members is restricted and requires prior approval from the Department of State.  U.S. Embassy personnel are restricted from traveling to all locations in Kabul except the U.S. Embassy and other U.S. government facilities unless there is a compelling U.S. government interest in permitting such travel that outweighs the risk.  Additional security measures are needed for any U.S. government employee travel and movement through Afghanistan.

 

Due to risks to civil aviation operating within or in the vicinity of Afghanistan, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has issued a Notice to Airmen (NOTAM) and/or a Special Federal Aviation Regulation (SFAR). For more information, U.S. citizens should consult the Federal Aviation Administration’s Prohibitions, Restrictions and Notices.

 

Yep, even 5 hours ago after arriving and driving around something just happened here:

 

 

But to be perfectly honest, we drove right by this police convoy that was apprehending the Taliban and we heard no commotion whatsoever. Just a lot of cars honking in a typical traffic jam.

In fact, other than the usual security precautions of not posting until after we left the place  — and an attack a few minutes ago on our very last day here (more on that later) — my entire week at Afghanistan personally felt completely safe and remarkably uneventful. Tourists are never a target. The locals have been friendly, the sights have been beautiful, and all in all, not once did I ever feel the least bit of worried for my well-being during my time here.

Except for a handful of minutes on my last day in the country, the most surprising thing about Afghanistan was how normal it felt to be here.

 

Arriving (The Airport)

On Monday I took the 2.5 hour Emirates EK640 flight from Dubai to Kabul departing at 11:10am:

 

 

As we approached our landing:

 

 

We disembarked at 2:30pm.

 

 

Unlike obtaining my visa for Afghanistan, getting through immigrations took less than 5 minutes. They simply take a photo of you and your fingerprints.

 

 

Given the understandable security situation in this part of the world, I was instructed to obtain a temporary ID card from the small blue booth facing baggage claims. I had prepared two 2×2 passport photos ahead of time so I could expedite everything.

 

 

However, it occurred to me I would be the only one in the group to have this ID card as everyone else reported that the booth was closed when they arrived.

 

 

Once I had my temporary ID card (which took 3 minutes for them to make), I left the terminal, turned left and followed the rest of my fellow passengers.

 

 

Non-flyers are not allowed into the terminal building so I had to leave the airport entirely to reach my greeters and guides who had a sign with my name and his own special ID card with clearance to be there.

I had mistakenly wandered into the diplomatic area first, but it seemed nobody cared about my presence before I re-entered the airport and exited the normal way.

 

 

And with that I was on my way!

 

 

Money

Regarding money, there are a number of moneychangers within two minutes walk of our guesthouse that changed USD to local Afghanis at a good rate at 80 to 1.

It is recommended that you bring all the cash you need for a time exchange; ATMs are understandably scarce and the existing ATMs usually never work…except for a few that I found in hidden grocery stores!

 

 

Food & Drink

We chose lunch and dinner at various heavily guarded restaurants during the day as our guide arranged everything ahead of time. Afghan cuisine has been a clear intersection of recognizable Persian/Iranian and Pakistani staples.

Alcohol is obviously banned and is difficult and expensive to find.

 

 

My favorite place was a café called Tea Time that served great shisha, fantastic food, and even better tea and fresh mango juice:

 

 

Much to my surprise, the entire group generally has been feeling fine the entire week with Afghan cuisine. There has been one exception of someone who vomited once on day one and felt fine since, and another whose diet simply couldn’t get used to the change in Mazar-e Sharif. I’ve been totally fine despite me eating everything in sight; TMI, but so far not a single episode of diarrhea!

 

Lodging/Power

I recommend choosing a hotel/accommodations that’s NOT The Inter-continental, The Serena, or any of the world-class hotels that are frequently targeted by terrorist groups. We’re staying at a secure hotel complex and conference center inside the Kabul city center but it’s completely hidden away by tall walls and unmarked doors. 

I can’t tell you where we are exactly to preserve the safety of future travelers (it doesn’t even have an official name or show up on Google Maps!), but you can privately message me if interested. 

In fact our hotel is so secure that a TV crew came by after our breakfast to set up a shoot here for a broadcast on government-sponsored female contraceptives!

Power was also pretty reliable in Afghanistan. Other than a rolling blackout that happened once or twice (and was barely noticeable), everything was chargeable. I barely used my portable charger at all this past week.

At least most hotels have great WiFi if anyone wants to stay connected; in our rooms I was able to upload photos at 4G/LTE speeds!

 

 

Cultural Faux Pax

As we arrived, we were given our choice of clothing. As Afghanistan remains a conservative Islamic country, women are required to wear a headscarf and long sleeved clothing that obfuscate the shape of their bodies. Men wear long trousers. Luckily given the weather, Afghan clothes are light and breathe very well.

When I got my clothes, they felt so light and freeing I wore the same outfit everyday for a week.

 

 

Despite hearing of the infamous conservatism, we found Afghans to be extremely forgiving for any cultural faux pas. There are a few following things we made sure to do, however:

  • Always ask before taking photos, especially regarding to women and people praying
  • Asian households! Take off you shoes if entering a mosque or someone’s house. Hold soles together.
  • Never walk in front of someone if they are praying.
  • Never directly expose the bottom of your feet to anyone
  • Don’t talk too loudly
  • If you are of the male persuasion then do not start talking to/interacting with local women unless they approach you first.

 

 

Security and Safety

Yes, to get this out of the way: As I’m writing this a few explosions just occurred within our vicinity a few km away (it’s already on the news). Still hearing some gunfire in the distance where the plumes of smoke are.

 

 

We just went up to the rooftop to take a look:

 

 

What is remarkable is how the hotel staff and even some of the people in our group remain so blasé right now as if we had heard a car accident just happened a few blocks away. We’ve been here a little over a week and the desensitization is very real, even though nothing close to this has happened during our 7-8 days here. We even went out for lunch outside an hour later. As our guide informed us, most of the attacks occur between 7am-10am at the same places to target the morning commutes of VIPs and foreign workers. Tourists are never a target.

And regarding overall security and safety, the areas we otherwise have been visiting in Afghanistan are where our guides feel comfortable that they can take us without any unforeseen or undue risk. There really have been no other incidents.

On another note, narcotic drug use is unfortunately publicly rampant on the streets of Kabul. The users tend to keep to themselves, so they won’t bother you if you don’t bother them.

 

 

FYI, speaking of security you will always notice the 24/7 all-seeing surveillance blimp (aka the “dirigible“) the USA has set up over Kabul:

 

 

The following things are important should you find yourself visiting Kabul at this time:

  • Never discuss your itinerary or name of hotel with anyone you meet. While the question may arise in curiosity, please keep the schedule to as few people as possible as a precaution
  • Never take photos of any military personal, vehicles or installations.
  • Take early starts on the days if you plan to travel long distances. In the case of a breakdown, you do not want to be stuck on the road after dark.
  • Register with your foreign office. If you go to your countries foreign office website there is usually a form you can complete to let them know where you are. This is so if there are any problems and you need their help, your embassy will be much more helpful if you have registered with them
  • If you get invites for tea or for dinner from people, which is one of the great things about visiting Afghanistan, stay cautious. Follow your guide’s lead if he feels taking up such an invite may be inappropriate
  • Watch and listen to your guide. He has a lot of experience in Afghanistan and may see signs that things are not as they should be before you do.
  • If you disagree with your guide, the time to argue and discuss what to do is later in the hotel. So if your guide asks you to do something, do it and then argue about it later.

 

 

Military Presence

They may be everywhere, but they’re not menacing. Most are local Afghani troops and police forces. I only noticed coalition/Western forces stationed at the airports and inside bases.

 

 

Nevertheless, get used to the sound of Osprey/Chinook helicopters every 5 minutes and the constant traffic jams due to military and police checkpoints at the roundabouts.

 

 

Packing

This was my packing list (and this is overdoing it):

  • Comfortable clothes for wearing around the hotels
  • Conservative, loose fitting clothes for when you first arrive (or buy them on day one)
  • Headscarves for women
  • Plastic carrier bags. Very useful for dirty washing, dirty shoes, rubbish and keeping stuff dry.
  • Spare passport photos for use at the borders
  • Flashlight
  • Flip flops/thongs for bathrooms
  • Small packs of tissues and wet wipes
  • Money belt or secure pouch
  • Sunscreen
  • Sewing kit
  • Sunglasses
  • Writing materials
  • Plenty of spare film or memory space
  • Some small gifts can be nice as presents
  • Umbrella or Keffiyeh for small bouts of rain
  • Towel

 

 

What To Visit

That said, what did we see in Kabul? There’s so much! On my first day arriving when I bought some local clothes to blend in, I found myself at a street shop outside the largest mosque in Kabul, built 6 years ago.

 

 

We then strolled down Chicken Street, formerly the most hip place in town and more notoriously the site of the recent Taliban ambulance bombing on January 27, 2018 that killed 103 people and wounded 235 others.

 

 

Now you can’t tell if anything ever had happened here:

 

 

There are street shops here selling everything a tourist would want in souvenirs including this gem:

 

 

In fact we walked up and down this street more than one occasion each for an hour doing some shopping. Locals greeted us without a care, we wandered in shops without feeling the pressure to buy anything, and perhaps the most dangerous thing that happened to us on the trip were cute children following us down asking us to spare a few Afghanis.

 

 

If you hike up to any viewpoint, you can’t miss the sprawling USA embassy:

 

 

A few times we drove past the Shah-Do Shamshira Mosque, built during the time of Amanullah Khan and unique for its significant European influence in its architecture:

 

 

This site is unfortunately the site where the murder of Farkhunda Malikzada took place; a woman was falsely accused of burning the Quran by a mullah, leading to a crowd of Islamic extremists lynching her. She was beaten, stoned, run over and dragged 300 feet by a car, before being set on fire by the banks of the Kabul River. Her death would lead to the formation of the modern women’s rights movement in Afghanistan.

A memorial to her has been built nearby:

 

 

We also visited the Kabul museum, largely restored after its demolition by the Taliban:

 

 

We paid our respects at the British cemetery, home to hundreds of foreign nationals who died in Afghanistan (The USA have their own private cemetery but that’s restricted access).

 

 

One of my favorite sites in Kabul was the Bird Market, arguably the most dodgy part of the city for tourists since there are reportedly many Taliban sympathizers here, but we felt fine shopping here for clothes in the frenetic frenzy of locals around us.

 

 

We drove up to the hills of Bibi Mahru that overlook the Wazir Akbar Khan neighborhood, where the novel The Kite Runner took place:

 

 

The country’s largest flag, donated by a joint venture between India and Pakistan, sits on top:

 

 

There is unfortunately a well known (for the wrong reasons) swimming pool here where the Taliban executed their prisoners by pushing them off the diving boards:

 

 

That said, if you’re into this kind of morbid stuff, we drove by the infamous football/soccer stadium numerous times:

 

 

Driving back down into the city we took photos of the remains of Darul Aman Palace, “the dwelling-place of peace,” a crumbling symbol of what was once supposed to be the modern future of the country.

 

 

When we returned to Kabul after 3 days in Mazari Sharif, we finished off our sightseeing in Babur’s Gardens – the final resting place of the first Mughal emperor:

 

 

The Qale’H-Ye-Balahissar, an ancient fortress dating from the 5th century AD.

 

 

The OMAR landmine museum, dedicated to the still continuing efforts to remove the hundreds of landmines in this country. It unfortunately shares the space with a television studio constantly threatened and attacked by the Taliban.

We had a close call here as it’s been just attacked by the Taliban again today, literally the morning after we had visited. Yikes.

 

 

The Mausoleum of Zahir Shah:

 

 

The views from here are some of the best:

 

 

The Shah M Book Company, run by a Norwegian book collector who curates a wide and diverse collection on paraphernalia and books pertaining to Afghanistan including controversial items that the Taliban would consider pornography. Photos are not allowed here as he already had to move numerous times after constant threats and attacks:

 

 

And the one of the most surreal, batshit but positive moments of my week in Afghanistan: a brief 10 minute visit to Zablon Simintov, the last remaining Jew living in Afghanistan and the caretaker of the only synagogue in Kabul.

His wikipedia and Atlas Obscura entries are incredible.

 

 

You have to find his hidden synagogue somewhere behind a shisha café and up the stairs on the second floor:

 

 

He speaks no English so we had to use a mixture of basic Russian, Hebrew, and Dari. Eventually for a fee he agreed to open up his synagogue for a visit:

 

 

Oddly he always asks for payment for to be in his company but otherwise to be inside a hidden synagogue and seeing Stars of David everywhere after a week in a place like Afghanistan was a true shock and humble privilege.

 

 

Final Thoughts (Addendum on July 1st, 2019)

Because for security reasons I chose to post this on my last day in Kabul, and especially given that just as I finished writing this we heard a series of explosions and sporadic gunfire occurring a few kilometers away from our hotel, I’m writing this both from the perspective of my first and last day in Afghanistan after 7 days here. And although it took awhile, Afghanistan surprised me in ways I could not expect.

I expected to be throttled, shocked and awed, stumbling to the ground believing it would be a feverish experience from the moment I arrived. Instead pleasant surprise prevailed. Walking on the streets of Kabul on my first day felt immediately comfortable and familiar, and I never once experienced any sense of heightened tensions I had been warned to expect. At many moments I felt like I was back in Pakistan, gallivanting without a care other than the occasional tout and curious child. Like our initial concerns coming here, even military forces soon evaporated within the din of rush hour traffic.

Then I traveled to Mazar-e Sharif, Samangan, and Hairatan for 3 days — and despite the reported threat of the Taliban lurking around the corner — Afghanistan’s ocean of grandeur remained in wait, its beauty slowly unraveling like the beginning of an epic tale. Not until my return to Kabul for my final 2 days did this country finally reveal a tapestry of countless beautiful complexities.

Yes, before I go on, I must take a sense of responsibility and acknowledge the inherent dangers that could happen — even the one within a few minutes at the time of writing. However, I also cannot ignore the tens of thousands other minutes and moments where we felt completely safe, privileged to witness a place past the filter of Western media. Where a degree of the negativity bears truth, most of the positivity remains unrecognized. I know I still go to work hearing gunshots outside my ER back home.

To know Afghanistan is to know patience; the first impression can sometimes be the wrong impression. And sometimes the first impressions stick. Either way, you cannot judge a place or a person until you have experienced it for yourself. All I can conclude is that Afghanistan takes its time, lies in wait, rewarding only to those willing to look past the trauma porn of violence and war at its surface. It may take ages, demand repeat viewings, and should never be considered as n simply packaged, single-serving experience.

What I had witnessed this past week was resilience. Resilience in a country and people proud of its deep history — scars and all — while forging ahead towards an uncertain destiny.

 

 

- At time of posting in Kabul, Afghanistan, it was 13 °C - Humidity: 41% | Wind Speed: 3km/hr | Cloud Cover: partly cloudy

 

Knock-Knock-Nakh-chivan On Heaven’s Door: 2 Days In Nakhchivan

Knock-Knock-Nakh-chivan On Heaven’s Door: 2 Days In Nakhchivan

 

It’s time to shift monsooning back into higher gears — today we’re visiting Nakhchivan!

A landlocked exclave separated from Azerbaijan by Armenia (or as some say, physically located within Armenia), but an otherwise autonomous region under the control of the Republic of Azerbaijan, Nakhchivan is similar to exclaves like Alaska (thanks Alan Sedgwick!) and on a level less extreme than Transnistria and Kurdistan, in that this region has its own elected “federal” government that largely functions independently and yet remains a dependent within another sovereignty. Whether you count it as a separate country depends if you think places like Alaska should be considered separate from the USA (aka if you visited Alaska, can you really say you visited the USA? Or if you visited Hong Kong, can you really say you visited China?). 

Nakhchivan first gained international recognition in January 1990 when it became one of the first “nations” to declare independence from the USSR as it was collapsing. Unfortunately, despite being one of the pioneers of independence from the Soviet Union as well as the birthplace of Azeri hero and president Heydar Aliyev, Nakhchivan could never keep up as it has continue to suffer from the turmoil of the Armenia-Azerbaijan War as well as a mass exodus of its locals to Baku and Turkey. Whereas Baku is teeming with growth and wealth, Nakhchivan has remained forgotten in stagnation since the 1990s.

FYI, Nakhchivan’s pseudo-counterpart in Armenia is Nagorno-Karabakh (aka Artsakh) — although that region physically lies in and internationally recognized to be part of Azerbaijan, it functions as an “independent” state that Azerbaijan no longer exerts political control over since the Karabakh movement in 1988. For many travelers Nagorno-Karabakh can be accessed easily but illegally overland via Armenia, and such an action will lead you to being banned from future travel to Azerbaijan if they ever found out.

On the flipside, Armenia does not care if you visit Nakhchivan; so if you have any wishes to visit both regions either head to Nakhchivan first, or enter Nagorno-Karabakh legally by applying for permission from the Azerbaijan government.

 

 

Beginning our journey, Brandon, Elizabeth and I got up at 5:30am and hailed a 10 manat Uber ride to the airport to catch our 8:10am Azal Air flight from Baku to Nakhchivan.

Make sure you get dropped off at Terminal 2 and not the fancy International Terminal (or Terminal 1).

You can tell the difference because where Terminal 1 is super fancy and won 5 stars from Skytrax…

 

 

….Terminal 2 has seen better days.

 

 

If you end up at Terminal 1 anyway, it’s about a 5-10 minute walk through the parking lot. 

When you enter Terminal 2 at the main entrance, turn left. Flights departing to Nakhchivan has its own board and separate terminal. 

 

 

At this point staff and locals will try to usher you to the other terminal thinking that you’re making a big mistake. Reassure them or pay them no heed; insist that you’re going to Nakhchivan and you’ll get a variety assortment of looks ranging among confusion, amusement, bafflement, and dismay.

Either way we were initially confused too; we went through security checks 4 different looking for the right desk to check in (it’s hidden in a corner somewhere upstairs) until we decided to be assertive and insist on flying to Nakhchivan despite protests from the staff.

Once at the right check-in desk, the agent didn’t think I was serious. However, I had already booked our flights on Azerbaijan Airlines’ website prior to the trip as the option of purchasing them remotely had just became possible last month. The only catch is that you have to have the physical credit card you used to purchase the flights on you when you check in. So when I showed the ticket agent my confirmation and passport, he relented and asked if I had that credit card on me.

After checking us in and being relaxed with the baggage restrictions, we had to remind him to print us our tickets. He insisted he had no clue what we were talking about…eventually, he got it. What is going on here?!

 

 

Nothing much else to do otherwise; they do have a business lounge posting a sign that allows Priority Pass holders to enter, but it was closed when we were there.

 

 

Boarding began promptly at 7:30am and we took off without delay at 8am. A legion of officers in military fatigues boarded with us; they may shoot you quizzical looks as well as remind you where you’re going is a war zone. Oh well. I guess you can thank them for their service.

The whole flight takes about an hour. It would’ve otherwise been much shorter if it were not for the ongoing conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan; our flightpath had to be redirected around Armenia and through Iranian airspace to get to Nakhchivan:

 

 

We landed at 9am.

 

 

Disembarking was quick as we were in arrivals within 5 minutes, hailing a cab to our hotel in the city center for 5 manats (apparently this is the morning rate — it can be up to 8 manats later in the day) without any haggling needed. Love this place already!

 

 

We got to our lodgings at Tebriz Hotel in 10 minutes, quickly checking in and then scurrying up to their rooftop restaurant to snag their free breakfast before it ended at 10am.

 

 

After settling in for a bit and vegging out after a whirlwind morning of traveling, we headed back out to explore the rest of the city at noon, beginning with signing the guestbook at their cozy but empty tourist information center. 

The staff there was very surprised at our presence and it seemed their guestbook entries were spaced out from every few days to weeks at a time.

 

 

While walking around, I couldn’t help but notice how the streets are nearly always empty, wide avenues have not seen cars in days, and there is a calm, pervading silence wherever you roam. 

From the tourist information center we walked south, entering a large park and walking past what seemed to look like an outdoor movie theater.

 

 

We then headed downhill from here towards Maiden Fountain, an esplanade with a pleasant footbridge leading around to a natural spring and small waterfall.

 

 

 

We then headed back upstairs and into the southern half of the park to visit the Momina Khatun Mausoleum, one of many you can find in Nakhchivan:

 

 

Each mausoleum has one entrance for its basement crypt:

 

 

…and a regular ground level entrance that usually hosts an exhibition about the burial grounds:

 

 

Next door to the mausoleum is an open air museum and sculpture park:

 

 

Down the steps from the mausoleum will lead you to the former Khan’s Palace, now converted to a simple carpet museum:

 

 

Afterwards we headed out of the park and walked southeast to the Mausoleum to Yusif İbn Kuseyr:

 

 

Unlike the previous mausoleum to Momina Khatun, this one is completely empty:

 

 

We then walked further south from here, entering the huge city cemetery from the north. 

The goal was instead of walking around the entire cemetery to our next destination (as Google Maps would indicate), we hoped that there would be a shortcut via an exit on the south side of the cemetery…however, we instead made due with what previous like-minded souls had created for us:

 

 

Much to our dismay, later on we’d found out just steps away is a legitimate southern gate. Oh well. Fences are meant to be overcome, rules are meant to be broken.

 

 

Our shortcut through the cemetery nevertheless saved us 15 minutes of walking in the midday sun, as parked right by the cemetery is the Naxçıvan Qala Tarix Memarlıq Abidəsi fort complex:

 

 

It was completely empty and devoid of souls when we entered through the open door. No guards, no security, no tickets, and totally open. It felt like I was playing a game of Myst/Riven.

 

 

You can go inside the central dome structure for a free exhibition on the excavation findings in the area:

 

 

You can also climb the fort walls for an elevated view of the fort and its surroundings, as well as the cemetery we just strolled through:

 

 

We then exited from the fort from its southwestern gate and walked a few steps down to the Mausoleum to the Prophet Noah.

Yes, that Noah, of Noah’s Ark fame. It is believed that the ark had finished its journeys in this area where Noah then settled until his death. His assumed remains were found right in this spot and thus, a mausoleum was fashioned over his tomb:

 

 

The mausoleum closes from 1pm-2pm for lunch so we waited about 30 minutes outside for someone to arrive and show us in. We didn’t come this far to give up so easily!

At around 2:05pm a girl came by and opened the door for us, giving us a great rundown of the history of the mausoleum. Totally worth the wait.

 

 

You can head down into the basement crypt; right beneath is Noah’s tomb.

 

 

With that, we were done with our entire tour of Nakhchivan City! We then walked 20 minutes up Heydar Aliyev Street north back to our hotel, where we had lunch at the adjacent Zumrud Restoran and recharged for 2 hours.

At 5:30pm we returned to the lobby and hired a driver to take us to Alinja Fortress for 40 manats.

 

 

About a 35 minute drive outside of Nakhchivan, the 2,000 year old Alinja Fortress — or “The Machu Picchu of Azerbaijan” — is inexplicably unmentioned in any travel guides to Nakhchivan, but don’t be fooled: this was the main event. 

Dating back to the 1st century, the fortress was formerly known as an Armenian fortress called Yernjak and was one of the most impenetrable in its time. It currently now exists as an open park that local villagers and their families venture to freely in the evenings. 

 

 

Why they would choose this spot as a place of leisure baffles me — it’s a 1600+ step climb up 100+ flights of stairs! That’s not what I call fun with the family on a Tuesday evening! But alas, we found tons of kids with their families running around when we climbed back down.

 

 

Take your time, drink lots of water, and know that the end result will be worth it. If that doesn’t help, some of these views will mitigate any effect of the battery acid pumping from your muscles during your long climb up:

 

 

Don’t be surprised if local families next to you ask for a photo — months to years can go by before they see another tourist in these parts!

 

 

One even added me on Instagram.

 

 

About 2/3 of the way up you can walk around and through the fortress “ruins” themselves, although it now feels more like a renovated public park than a sacred historical site.

 

 

Views from the fortress:

 

 

Climb up a little more and you’ll know you’ve made it when you see this:

 

 

But why stop here? More stairs await you.

 

 

Even when you’ve reached the last step (which ends suddenly and arbitrarily), you can climb up some more up a well trodden hill. Because why not? You’ve gone this far already and when will you ever be back here again?

 

 

This is physically as high as you can get:

 

 

Photo credit: Elizabeth Silberholz

 

We spent about 20 minutes here taking it all in and hanging out with a local villager who came up with us, before heading back down:

 

 

And from here we admired Alinja in all its majestic beauty as the sun began to set behind it (more photos here). Linger a little longer and Alinja lights up suddenly in the night at around 8:10pm:

 

 

Take it all in and take your time; like every other thing we saw today whether they be mausoleums or museums, Alinja is free to enter. Moreover, Alinja is open 24/7!

We headed back down to the car park at 9pm, rendezvous’ed with our driver who waited for us patiently all this time, and had dinner back in Nakhchivan city at Deyirmanci Kafe, where they were so shocked and grateful to our presence they gave us free tea and dessert when we asked for the check.

After a workout like that where we walked 22,700 steps over 12 miles up 102 flights of stairs (thanks Apple), it was a dinner well worth the wait.

 

 

We then returned to our hotel at 11pm and crashed, hard. I woke up about 8 hours later for the free breakfast and enjoyed a few hours using up our hotel’s basement gym, spa, sauna, and swimming pool.

After check-out at noon, we decided to make a run for the last thing to see in Nakhchivan, Duzdag, a massive salt cave converted into a sanatorium. And like every other place we’ve been to in Nakhchivan, it’s free to enter.

Built in early 20th century, Duzdag was designed to house various clinics/hospital beds for any patient eager to treat (or cure, as they say here) their chronic bronchitis and asthma from the salt emanating from the mines. It’s much like how you go to a fancy spa featuring sauna rooms that have been built with salt lining the walls.

 

 

The similarities otherwise end here, however, as it’s not exactly a full on spa where you pack a swimsuit on you, change, and lounge around. Rather it’s more of a place to stop by, walk up and down, and spend as long as you like. Whether you chill in the café or sit on the various benches parked along the path, imagine as if your lungs are being cleaned out.

 

 

It’s about a 10 minute walk up and down. You’ll know when you reached the end when a bunch of staff members cross their arms telling you you’re being too loud or that “patients only” are allowed through.

 

 

From here we walked back and with the rest of our hour we had some tea for 2 manats total at the indoor café.

 

 

After that we headed back to our hotel, had dinner back at the adjacent Zumrud Café, and hailed one more cab ride back (whereas it was 5 manats when we took a cab from the airport yesterday morning, this time we paid 8 manats for a cab to the airport at some kind of apparent afternoon/evening rate) to the airport for our 8:40pm flight back to Baku.

 

 

Despite what other travel blogs say about this airport being so basic you shouldn’t arrive early lest you’d be bored to tears, my recommendation is to either arrive early before the crowds or risk the stress and come at the very last minute: Checking in at Nakhchivan for Baku can be a shitshow; when we arrived to check-in there was no semblance of a queue as dozens of families mixed in to drop off a huge number of goods for their folks back in Baku. 

 

However, there does exist a separate section all the way to the right for people without any check in luggage, as a helpful local directed us there (the sign displaying this is in Azeri and not in English, so we wouldn’t have known). Either way, even when we switched over and waited in this particular line, we still had to assert ourselves and fight our way through the stampede to get our tickets.

After receiving our boarding passes, we then had to present those and our passports to a separate “Migration Desk” by security for a recheck and verification. They then give you a tiny sliver of paper that you have to hold onto for security to let you through. Looks like a wifi password.

 

 

Once you’re go through security, it’s another stampede at the gate to board your flight.

 

 

Despite a chaotic ending to an otherwise ethereally pleasant 48 hours, I’m going to miss you Nakhchivan. 

For the record, everywhere we went we’ve been showered with overwhelming hospitality by everyone, as well as having the rare opportunity to explore a gorgeous land filled with beauty and awe-inspiring sights totally alone — it felt like we had this place all to ourselves with not another tourist in sight. And despite the border conflicts around this region, we never once felt like we were in danger.

 

 

We landed back in Baku at Terminal 2 by 10pm, where we were picked up by an Uber driver who initially refused to take us and instead took another passenger right in front of our faces. Oh boy, this was the moment when I knew I was far removed from the hospitality of Nakhchivan and back in the hustle of Baku.

Knowing that it can take up to another 30 minutes to get an Uber to come to Terminal 2 (most are parked outside Terminal 1 and refuse to move, making you walk to them), I responded by showing the driver that he was supposed to pick me up, with his license plate number displayed on my phone/Uber app. He then asked me to cancel, and when I refused, he asked again. Eventually the other passenger got out of the car and we were begrudgingly driven back to our lodgings at Stay Inn Hostel. That was pretty weird.

This otherwise concludes the official itinerary through Azerbaijan! We now have a full free day tomorrow in Baku before Brandon and Elizabeth head out on night flights and I depart for Japan early the following morning for the next monsoon!

 

- At time of posting in Nakhchivan, it was 24 °C - Humidity: 34% | Wind Speed: 36km/hr | Cloud Cover: sunny with periodic clouds

 

Aghast At Ashgabat | Flying Austrian Air Business Class

Aghast At Ashgabat | Flying Austrian Air Business Class

 

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:

 

 

 

Independence Monument:

 

 

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