Day 77: Back in the USSR!
Ashgabat Travel Blog› entry 110 of 260 › view all entries
Thanks to the people I met here and/or travelled with: Arthur (Germany)
Reaching the Turkmen border at Bajgiran Howdan, I felt the usual pang of excitement. A new country, yay! After 4 weeks in Iran it was quite nice to feel to be 'on the move' again. The border guards were surprisingly friendly. Turkmenistan is considered one of the most closed countries in the world (second only to North Korea), but the border crossing showed no evidence of this. The guards were friendly and helpful.
It was striking to see how the people have completely different facial features here. On the other side of the border, the Iranian border guards look Middle Eastern, but here the people have much more distinct Asian features.
Once through customs formalities I had to cross the 20-odd kilometres of no-man's land.
Once at the lower border gate I was expected to cough up a similar amount in order to get to Ashgabat. There used to be buses running between the border and the city, 10 kilometres away, but these have now all but disappeared and private taxis have taken over. I tried to hitch a ride with two Turkish business men travelling across the border, but they would have none of it.
I managed to bargain a fare down to the equivalent of $7 in Turkmen manat and got in the brand new Jeep Cherokee for the 15-minute drive to the city centre.
The contrast with Iran could not have been any greater. Gone were the dirty, black smoke belching, petrol guzzling Paykans. They had made way for sparkling clean, loud music blaring, petrol guzzling SUVs. Turkmenistan is an oil country, like Iran, and like Iran much of the wealth trickles down to the common people in the form of subsidies on petrol and gas. Like Iran there is also quite a bit of wealth wasted, not on on religious fundamentalism, but instead it is wasted on 'beautifying' the cities and Ashgabat in particular.
Former president Saparmurat Niyazov was a bit of a lunatic, to put it mildly. After Turkmenistan became an independent nation the former General Secretary of the Communist Party emerged as one of the biggest megalomaniacs of the 20th century.
Niyazov changed his name to “Turkmenbashi”, which means “Leader of the Turkmen People” and he changed the law so that he would be president for life. He also changed the names of the days of the week and months after members of his family.
Another 'interesting' law he enforced was a nation-wide ban on smoking in public places and on the street, a rule he enforced after his wife quit smoking.
He padded his legend by writing poetry books as well as the famous “Ruhnama” (book of soul), a bizarre account of Niyazov's version of Turkmen history, culture and spirituality.
According to Niyazov, reading Ruhnama 100 times will guarantee you a place in heaven, so why not head over to www.ruhama.com and secure your ticket.
But Niyazov is now dead and power has passed to Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov, who bears such an uncanny resemblance to Niyazov that many people believe he is Niyazov's illegitimate son. Berdymukhamedov started out as a somewhat more moderate president than Niyazov.
One of Niyazov's famous monuments is a giant version of the Ruhnama, which opens every night and sings passages from the book. This monument is now closed. Apparently Berdymukhamedov has also written a book, so it seems the Ruhnama will be phased out.
All this comes at a price, of course. The people enjoy little freedom, media is strictly controlled and travellers wanting to visit the country will have a hard time securing a visa.
But it is sad for the people. Turkmenistan never existed as a country until about 80 years ago, when it was annexed into the Soviet Union. So you could say that the Turkmen people, originally nomadic, don't really know any better.
Compared to Iran the people do enjoy some freedom though. While Islam is the state religion, hejab is not compulsory and at least superficially women seem to enjoy at least a bit of equality.
Speaking of women, after four weeks in a repressive Islamic country, I was delighted to be back in a country where women are at least allowed to look like women, rather than penguins.
During my short walk through the streets my jaw was literally on the floor for most of the time. The women are gorgeous here! And I am not talking about the slutty-dressed Russian population (though, granted, they are no punishment to look at either), but I am talking about the local Turkmen girls. It is not that all of them are such lookers, but the way they were dressed. Traditional Turkmen women wear long, tight, colourful dresses and wear their long black hair in braids. Very nice and very feminine. I can now understand why so many Islamic men are sexually frustrated. I'd been in an Islamic country for only four weeks and was absolutely shocked by the amount of flesh on display on the streets and on TV.
Later I was told that while beautiful, the Turkmen dress is also a compulsory thing.
The hotel I wanted to stay in turned out to be full and I was advised to go to the next best thing, the hotel Syyahat, a drab, dilapidated, ugly Soviet place if there ever was one. Ah well, it was only for a couple of days, so I guess it would do. It surprised me that all staff in the hotel was Russian. There is still a small community of Russians living in Ashgabat, but I had not expected them to be all working in a hotel. And staff aplenty they had! Every floor had its own attendant, basically a cross between head of housekeeping and reception. The downstairs reception only took my money and passport, the upstairs attendant gave me the room key and showed me my room.
I wondered if my hotel room was bugged. Apparently most hotel rooms and restaurants where many foreigners come are bugged by the secret service. No idea what for, but I wasn't worried too much. I have nothing to hide. Right?
After check-in I set out for a walk through the city. My hotel was situated in one of the 'old' sections of the city, i.e. the Soviet part. (there are no pre-Soviet buildings left in the city, as these were all destroyed in an earthquake in 1948). It didn't really look all that much like a capital city, but more like a provincial town. Not unlike Irkutsk in Russia, really.
But then I reached the administrative centre and came across the first white marble buildings. One even bigger than the other, with wide boulevards in between.
Bizarre, briljant, awful, fantastic, Ashgabat is all that. People described it as a cross between Pyongyang and Las Vegas, and that description is not that far off, really. Most of the Turkmenbashi buildings do look like Vegas casinos.
One of the most recognisable buildings in the skyline is the Arch of Neutrality. A use monolith on a tripod, topped with a 12m polished gold statue of Niyazov which revolves 360 degrees to follow the sun. If there is one monument to sum up the absurdness of this city it is the Arch of Neutrality.
The city is just surreal. Yet I can't say it is an ugly city. Sure, Ashgabat is over the top and completely ridiculous, but the place is quite pretty in its own quirky way.
It was just a pity that so many buildings could not be photographed. Many of them had guards outside telling me photography was not allowed. I couldn't understand why. I mean, what's the point of megalomania if you don't want to show it?
Many sights were also closed for public. Several parks had been cordoned off by fences and were closed for refurbishment or demolishing (no one ever knows in this city). The Arch of Neutrality had a fence around and the elevator up looked broken. There are rumours the monument will be taken down to make way for a new one.
A leftover from the Soviet days is the Russian bazaar. A concrete building with very little aesthetic value. But bazaars are fun, and here in Central Asia, on the cross-road between Russia and the Middle East it is interesting to see how the two cultures meet.
I was surprised at how many Russians still live in Ashgabat. Many Russians moved away after the country gained independence and with Turkmen now being the only official language in the country it becomes increasingly hard for the remaining Russians to live their lives. I found it hard to feel sorry for them though. During 80 years of Soviet Union the ethnic groups of Central Asia were discriminated against by Russian settlers, and now it is the other way around. Yet the Russians do very little to integrate though.
The Russians in the city eyed me with a mix of suspicion and indifference, and tried to avoid me as much as they can. Ah, that lovely Russian attitude towards foreigners, how I missed that. The Turkmen people on the other hand treated me with curiosity and respect. While few stopped me in the street (as is so customary in Iran), the ones who did all seemed genuinely surprised to see a tourist out in the wild and they wanted to know why on earth I had come to their place.
Getting around in Ashgabat is very easy. Basically every car is a taxi. With petrol so heavily subsidised (every car owner gets 4 litres free per day, after that you pay about $ 0.30 per litre) every unemployed car owner uses his car to earn some extra money. So all you need to do is stand by the roadside and hold out your hand and a car will stop. 20 cents later you are at the other side of town.
When I was in Baku last month I had met a Norwegian lady who had introduced me to a German friend of hers, Arthur, who now works in Ashgabat. I met up with Arthur at a nice open air bar where we had a nice shashlyk dinner and several beers. Ah, beer! After four weeks of abstinence I had forgotten how good a cold beer can taste on a warm summer evening!
The shashlyk tasted good.
The weather took a turn for the worse and a huge thunderstorm raged over the city. We exchanged the open air restaurant for an indoor bar. An English pub, no less, probably built to satisfy the expat population. The beers here were expensive but tasty, and we had an excellent time.
When I got back to my hotel everything was dark. The storm had caused a power cut. Ah well, part of the adventure, I guess. The only downside of a power cut is that the air-conditioning is also off. I got to my room and went to sleep.
About half an hour later I woke up because I felt something crawling on my arm.
Now I can live with a dilapidated, ugly room. Even one that isn't as clean as I would like. But bugs, that really goes too far.
I went to get the floor attendant and showed her the bugs on the wall. It seemed she had dealt with this situation before as she immediately told me to get my stuff and move to another room. Get my stuff, that is easier said than done in the dark. Much of my luggage was unpacked. How I could I be sure there weren't any bugs in my clothes that lay on the second bed (as it would turn out, I couldn't...).
The room they gave me seemed nicer than my previous room, apart from the fact that it was far from clean.
Can't say I slept really comfortably after all this.
One of the biggest shortcomings of communism is that it makes people lazy. They can't be bothered as they will get their money anyway, whether they work or not. I'd already had similar experiences with hotels in Cuba.
Welcome back to the USSR indeed. Whoever said the Soviet Union was dead?