Ashgabat: The City That Never Wakes
Turkmenistan’s capital city, almost entirely constructed of marble, sits largely empty. It is a husk of a city, yet a beautiful one, constructed to be the public image of the nation. As our group tours many of Ashgabat’s most popular attractions, it was not unusual for us to be the only tourists at any given site. The city’s Türkmenbaşy Ruhy Mosque, built by the 'secular government' to demonstrate their 'commitment to freedom of religion,' felt especially eerie as we were accompanied only by a handful of armed guards and our tour guide, in a building constructed to fit 10,000 people. The Mosque, much to the dismay of many Muslims, also contains quotations of the Ruhnama on the ceiling. This is the book was written by the nation's former dictator and provides its own spiritual lessons dictating how citizens should behave. It was meant to be a guide for all Turkmen, and so the quotations are displayed in the mosque as if they are watching over the praying Muslims, telling them to think of nation over religion. Historically, new government employees, as well as those sitting for their drier's license exams, were quizzed on the book. Since the death of the nation's dictator, much of Ruhnama culture has disintegrated.
Of all the stops we make this morning and early afternoon, we only come across two private citizens of Turkmenistan: one is another tour guide, privately taking one tourist around a statue of a national hero, and the other was an Imam at a smaller mosque in the city center of Ashgabat. Incredibly welcoming, he chats loudly in Russian to Svitlana and I, to the point where he drowns out our tour guide’s voice, much to my amusement. ‘Perhaps he rarely sees tourists,’ I think, ‘and is just really grateful for someone to talk to.’ When we leave, he says a prayer and bids us safe travels.
Thankfully, our guide, also named Anton, takes everything in stride. While he tells us many fascinating things about Turkmenistan, I am much more intrigued by what he wouldn’t say about his country, and what he says about other countries. He quite literally wears his love for other cultures on his sleeve, as he dons a “USA” shirt with a giant bald eagle on it for the duration of his time with us, as well as a New Jersey Devils baseball cap to keep the harsh Central Asian sun out of his eyes. He has traveled to the United States twice, once to take part in an international crafts fair in New Mexico, and once to visit New York City, and he peppers his tour with thesaurus-borne words I have never heard a native English speaker use in real life, let alone someone from the remote deserts of Central Asia, like “squelch” and “circumlocution.”
Throughout our morning in Ashgabat, Anton is happy to answer our questions, but draws the line when we asked about politics. He wouldn’t even tell us Turkmenistan’s system of government, not to mention weigh in on any of the controversial parts of Turkmen life. The entire day, the group finds it difficult to separate fact from fiction as every person we encounter seems amiable and happy, but the places we are allowed to go are limited. For lunch, we visit a restaurant that looks inside like any craft beer bar in Brooklyn and Berkeley, but with kebabs on the menu instead of grass-fed beef burgers, and stewed eggplants and tomatoes instead of Caesar salad.
In late afternoon, Slavik—the same Slavik who brought Nena and I to the hotel that morning—pulls up with two friends, each with their own larger-than-life SUVs. We drive for several hours north to the Darvaza Gas Crater, known to many as “The Gates to Hell.”
Burning in Hell
If the sun is broiling Ashgabat at 109 degrees, the desert is surely worse. In fact, when we stop by a roadside shop to purchase drinks for our camping expedition to hell, the air is so hot that we may as well be inhaling steam. Anton, that is to say our driver not our guide, thankfully keeps the air-conditioning running. But what we really need is a refreshing river, perhaps a Styx or a Lethe, to dip into and forget the hellishly hot martian landscape of central Turkmenistan. Instead, we arrive at the Darvaza Gas Crater, where an natural gas fire has been burning for nearly fifty years, earning the site the well-deserved nickname of “The Gates of Hell.”
Though the sun sets over the starkly magnificent dunes and rock formations, waves of flame-scorched wind ripple over the sands surrounding the crater. The unpredictable winds make standing near the man-made sinkhole for a prolonged period of time challenging; most of us only approach long enough to take a few pictures then seek refuge back at camp. In the evening, a quarter-mile from the crater, we sip mordant 10-cent shots of local vodka on a large rug comprised of several bed rolls and yoga mats. The tour company provides grilled vegetables, kebabs, and naan, which differs greatly from the Indian bread of the same name. In the central Asian region, naan comes larger than a frisbee, thick as a brick, and pressed with the baker’s unique stamp. The daily bread of Turkmens is considered incredibly important, and those who bake it are treated with utmost respect.
Sleep mostly graces those entranced by moonshine, as the desert cools to a suitable seventy-five degrees for the night. I do not even unpack my sleeping bag, and instead use it as a pillow; I awake with my neck tense from craning over such a large pillow. A morning buffet of packaged croissants, slivers of kielbasa, juice, and coffee are provided until the heat trickles in and the desert becomes unbearable once more. Everything is coated in dust, and the only person who seems fine with that is the young woman on our tour who went to Burning Man last year. The guide and drivers break camp, turn on their air conditioned vehicles, and we pull out of nowhere onto the sandy roads that lead north.
Four 4-by-4 vehicles form our convoy, and driver Anton is determined to be the first. The two American English teachers in my car begin to look ill around the second or third time we fishtail on the sand, but the driver looks as if he has been waiting all week to take a spin out here. Though we start in last place, it is only a few minutes before Anton turns off the main road, pushing the accelerator all the way to the floorboard to pull in front. I am having a ball, so I decide not to translate the complaints of my fellow passengers to the driver, but instead let him know he’s the “nachalnik”--or “boss”--when he takes the lead. The dirt road turns to patchy asphalt after a half hour, and the boss begins swerving to avoid the road’s numerous potholes and violent ruptures is the pavement. He does not slow down.
Eventually, we slam into a pothole at full force. The tire pops, but the vehicle’s suspension makes it so we hardly feel a thing. We are only on the roadside for about fifteen minutes, as that is all it takes for Anton and the other drivers to lift the vehicle, replace the tire and stow away the old one. They are professionals, even if they do not all drive like it. A few minutes’ journey in the pleasant AC brings us to a gas station, where gasoline is nearly cheaper than water, and then a few minutes later we are stopped at a rest stop where the specialty is “fitçi,” a meat pie smothered in cotton oil and served as hot as the Gate of Hell itself. When it cools, however, the savory flavor is perfect, and reminds me of my French Canadian grandmother’s Christmas pork pie. We drink coffee, the water and caffeine easing our harsh hangovers which come courtesy of cheap Turkmen hooch and coarse desert dehydration. The numberless grains of sand have been inundating our nostrils since we left Ashgabat, and none among us--man, woman, or child—goes unseen picking sawdust-like mucus from deep in our noses. No one says anything. All are culpable; all go unprosecuted.
Kunya-Urgench to Dashoguz
Near the town of Kunya-Urgench sits a minaret dating back to the 11th century, towering high over the desert landscape, a mausoleum, and a mosque. The area is registered as a UNESCO world heritage site, as it was also the location of the ancient town of Urgench. In the mausoleum, we struggle to pay attention to the guide’s history lesson, as our presence is incredibly distracting to many of the fellow tourists. Clearly, we “westerners,” if one can use such an inane distinction without offending anyone, were a rare sight; most of the Turkmen and Turk-women in the mausoleum ask us for photos, and we happily oblige. It is not every day that a crowd of Central Asian women in gorgeous scarves and dresses come up to little old me and ask for a photo. If my face is red in the photo, it’s not just from the sunburn.
The forty-minute, mostly-outdoor, excursion at Kunya-Urgench evaporates virtually every drop of water from our pores, like steam from the holes at the bottom of an iron, and when we arrive at the gift shop all sixteen of us rush to the refrigerator and buy nearly all of the store’s bottled water. The ride to that night’s hotel runs less than half an hour, and when we get there our guide tells us we are encouraged, though not necessarily forbidden, to leave the hotel’s property. We have the afternoon at leisure, and the remoteness of the hotel makes it so that there is no real reason to leave. There is a pool, a restaurant, a cafe, and a “dukan,” or general store. The hotel lobby is fairly upscale, with marble floors and walls, though we quickly realize we are the only group staying there, aside from a few seemingly independent businessmen who are likely affiliated with the ever-successful natural gas industry.
At 8:01 pm, nearly the entire group of 16, save one person, invades the hotel restaurant and sits down at the only table large enough to accommodate it. For ten minutes, all are so enamored with their new friendships that no one realizes there is no waiter, no chef, and no maitre d’hotel in the entire restaurant, not to mention there are no other customers eating or waiting to order. Eventually, the group pressures me into walking into the kitchen, inquiring as to whether the restaurant is open and acquiring the menus. There is one person who appears to be working in the kitchen, and she is arguing with someone else, a man who I distinctly recall was stationed at the reception desk a few hours before. To make a long story short (which is one of the many purposes of this blog; believe me it is best for both of us if I keep this all brief), we walk out of the restaurant a hair before 11 pm, after that one unlucky woman took all of our orders, made all of our dishes, and served all of our drinks by herself. Turkmenistan is a land of mystery. Turkmenistan is a land of miracles.
After hours of bumping the extensive Turkish Airlines in-flight music catalog, I arrive in Istanbul Airport where I head to the bathroom for a haircut, to keep busy during my 3-hour layover. Some of the men in the bathroom look at me funny, but others take my abandonment of the status quo as evidence they can do whatever they want. In the breast-high sink, I see people clip toenails, wash feet, and drink. When I emerge, I feel my hair and beard are much neater, as I have hardly trimmed either since my return to Connecticut, and when I meet long-haired James at this terminal he compliments my handiwork. We board.
Another several hours of seatback stereo songs, ranging from Nena to The Moody Blues to Kendrick Lamar, drops me in the hot, dark Central Asian desert a few minutes after 2 am. James applied for his visa in London, so we part ways at the visa-on-arrival desk and I wait for over an hour as my fellow underprepared fools chat back and forth, trying to find people who are on the same tour as they.
Only one person on that line is with my tour, a Filipino- American woman from Los Angeles who implores me to wait for her. For the sake of anonymity, let’s call her Nena, after the German pop-star and cornerstone of the Turkish Airlines music library most reknowned for her antiwar protest song “99 Luftballons.” I agree to wait for Nena, as I did not book a hotel room in Ashgabat that night and frankly had no where else to go. Besides, she waits in line only three people behind me, which promises to only grow my waiting time by 15 or so minutes. I sit comfortably in the airport seating, and watch as Nena approaches the friendly-but-firm visa agent, clad in a uniform suitable for a captain or admiral in some small seafaring nation’s navy. I am fiddling with my phone, which gets no reception, as Turkmenistan is well-known for limiting communication to the outside world. In a few minutes, Nena comes up to me, and informs me her visa is not valid, and that the man will not issue a new one.
As I used to do when I worked as a passport agent, I interrogate the tiny Filipina, who has a son older than I, for about five minutes until I understood her situation completely. I have never appeared at some foreign airport, let alone in a country often said to be as enigmatic and secretive as North Korea, without the necessary documents to enter. In fact, I occasionally have nightmares to this effect. Nena seems quite calm. Buying another ticket to the next stop, somewhere in Uzbekistan, seems like a reasonable option that she entertains readily. To enter Turkmenistan, one must have a valid visa, or else a letter of invitation that shows the guest is allowed into the country. Nena had purchased her visa ahead of time, but has since renewed her passport, making the old visa (linked to the old passport) invalid. To make matters worse, her passport number on the letter of invitation still reads as the defunct one, and so the visa issuer cannot confirm if she is the same person printed on the letter which specifies name, passport number, and nationality.
Nena and I return to the visa-on-arrival desk, now vacated. Nena previously expressed that she struggled to understand the Russian-speaking guard’s advice, and she looked surprised when I happily volunteered as not only her passport specialist but her translator as well. The man simply explained that he would consult his boss, who could come by in forty-five minutes and hopefully assist. Despite her regular pleas for me to go to the hotel and get some sleep, I told her I would not leave her side. My kindness originated partially from the fact that I am a kind person, but I mostly wished to stay with her because the vacated airport seats were likely more comfortable than sleeping in the hotel lobby, where a receptionist would surely be eyeing me through every toss and turn.
I did not get the chance to sleep, however, because Nena and my introductions, chats about travel, and generic babble that always emerges between two countrymen who meet in a foreign land, last until the boss enters through the booth’s back door. Neither of us notice, but after about half an hour, a small woman in a hijaab sits down at the payment booth, placed directly to the right of the visa booth, and reaches through the hole in the glass to rap a few times on the drywall, beckoning us forward. She takes a quick glance at Nena’s passport, letter of invitation, and invalid visa, and agrees to issue a new visa for $99, the same price I was charged. My new sidekick agrees, relieved she will not be missing the first of five ‘Stans.
A too-cheery-for-3:30-a.m. immigration control officer, clearly bored and realizing we are the only arrivals in the whole terminal, eagerly asks me where I am from, where I am going, and where I learned Russian, as we exchange pleasantries in Russo-English. His only job is to give us stamps, but the hold up bother neither me nor Nena, who also has nowhere to go but the hotel lobby. On the other end of immigration and customs, an ethnically Russian Turkmen name Slavik, who seems he is about to fall asleep standing up, holds up the sign for the tour company. We greet each other, and he leads us outside to his pristine white SUV outside. The truck is raised so high over the ground that Nena has trouble climbing inside.
Even in the wee small hours of the morning, Ashgabat is hot and getting hotter. The forecast predicts a high of 109 degrees Fahrenheit in the early afternoon, so I am grateful Slavik’s air conditioning functions properly. Thankfully, I exchanged a few dollars at the airport, and Nena and I each tip our nearly-unconscious driver a few Manats before stepping into the hotel lobby.
On the couch, a Ukrainian woman in her thirties, named Svitlana, browses her cell phone until we introduce ourselves and sit down in the adjacent armchairs. Just as I expected, the receptionist stares from across the lobby, tolerating our existence but almost certainly wishing we weren’t cramping the style of what was otherwise a loose and casual nightshift crew. Nearly five hours remain until meeting the rest of our group near the couches, so I walked into the hotel’s 24-hour restaurant after inviting my two new friends for a coffee. Nena sleeps, but Svitlana stays awake with me until the restaurant begins serving their breakfast buffet. 'Lana teaches me Russian and asks what I liked most about my trip to non-Chernobyl Ukraine. When I tel her I loved the people and food of Ukraine, she lights up, tired of hearing how her nation’s biggest disaster has become internationally recognized as the only valid reason to visit her country. After gallons of all-you-can-drink coffee, we are getting along fine.
Victor Bernabei is just another millenial travel blogger. But here's the twist: He isn't a millenial! His goal is to see as many countries as he can, and spread the message that the world is not as scary as the news wants you to believe, and that there is beauty in all people, places and things.