Saturday 5 October – Sylvia
We landed in Ashgabat at about 2am in the morning after transiting through Istanbul. I had read horror stories about long waits at the visa queue but for us it was a remarkably painless process. We handed over our passports and letter of invitation, the passports were stamped and we were sent to the bank next door to pay, then returned to collect our passports. There was very little queue at immigration itself and the staff were all friendly and returned our smiles brightly. I wish the immigration staff everywhere else were as friendly.
As we had come in to land we had great views of this city of huge white buildings and coloured lights. The airport itself was a huge shiny white building – about two years old with stylised falcon wings for the roof. Inside it was immaculate and spacious with high ceilings and lots of marbles decoration.
We were met by our guide, Slavl, and driver for the twenty minute transfer to our hotel, The Yyldyz. What we had seen from the air was even more impressive in the ground. Huge, wide streets dotted about with large marble buildings, decorated with different coloured neon lights. Lots of monuments and fountains stand imposingly in their spots. We can see our hotel, which is shaped somewhat like the Burj in Dubai, from quite a distance but we have to pass the most incredible looking building first – apparently a wedding hall!
Our hotel is just as impressive inside with huge marble columns and friendly service. In no time at all we are in our large suite and settling in for the rest of the night.
After a decent sleep we were picked up again just before midday and driven to the museum. Another incredibly imposing building that was built about three years after Turkmenistan gained independence from the Soviet Union in the early nineties. There are three museums in one but we focused on the history section. I was struck again by how much of a baby New Zealand is. This part of the world has had human habitation in some for for nearly 100,000 years – NZ for only about 3,000. The exhibits were well laid out with clear and detailed explanations in multiple languages including English.
Next we headed into the older part of the city for lunch in a traditional Turkmenistan yurt restaurant, where we try some traditional dishes including a mutton soup, a type of mutton pie, pumpkin pastie and spinach dumplings.
It is generally pretty quiet out – I don’t know where the million inhabitants of this city spend their time. At many of the bus stops around the city we see groups of young women in long red dresses and young men wearing suits – apparently the university uniform. They all have an embroidered type of skull cap on their heads. Further on we see younger people, the boys dressed the same and the girls in green dresses, school uniforms.
In 1948 a massive earthquake devastated the city. It measured 7.3 on the Richter scale but had a Mercalli intensity of X and completely destroyed the city. Over 100,000 people lost their lives. The Soviets repopulated and rebuilt the city which in part explains how it is so well laid out. Since gaining independence as a country in 1991 there has been a concerted effort to upgrade. All new buildings are completely clad in white marble. The wide roads have been planted with trees creating a significant green belt, and there are ornate lampposts and other decorations. It also seems to be the city of monuments with many massive monuments dotted about the city commemorating different historic events. The scale of everything is extremely impressive. The eight-sided star features heavily in the decoration, one of the main symbols adopted but the state. The Kopet Dag mountains provide a fitting backdrop for the city and act as the key border between Turkmenistan’s and Iran, only about 30km away. It is definitely the most different city I have ever been to and it is really hard to describe it adequately – either in words or pictures.
We headed out towards the desert, as we go t further from the city centre the houses got bigger but all the houses in any area are identical: row upon row all with neat tidy lawns, and all in white.
We left the city completely behind and drove for mile after mile with only sand dunes and scrubby bush for scenery. The Karakum desert extends for miles. The road is wide but it entirely smooth and we hurtled along at about 90mph. In some places thick straw has been ‘planted’ in clumps to prevent sand blowing back on to the road.
After about 270kms we reached our destination, the Darvaza Gas crater. In 1978 the Soviet geologists were drilling for gas. Unfortunately the underground water in this region made the drilling unstable and the ground collapsed creating a massive crater and swallowing the rig. In order to avoid an ecological issue due to the gas they set a fire expecting it to burn out in a couple of days. Forty years later it is still burning and is now attracting tourists from all over the world, many of whom camp out in yurts overnight.
Our driver prepared a BBQ meal with the local shepherd’s family while we explored the area. The crater is really quite impressive with temperatures inside apparently reaching 400 degrees. You could certainly feel the heat up on the surface. It was impressive enough in broad daylight but after dinner when it was nearly dark it was really at its best.
We were not staying though and had to make the return drive to our hotel in Ashgabat. All in all a long day but a good day.
Sunday 6 October 2019 – Roger
Breakfast on the 4th floor of the hotel was a bit of a slow affair as the bloke that was making the omlets had done a runner. While they were trying to find him I decided to go out onto the deck to take a couple of pictures. I got as far as opening the door when intercepted by the waitress. She spoke not a word of English and me even less than of the local language but it was obvious that no way was I stepping out that door. We had had a notice not to open any windows before noon in the hotel!! The English speaking waiter came over and explained that it was Memorial Day and the president was at the local memorial and no one was allowed to open the windows or go onto the decks overlooking the memorial some 500m away.
At 10.30am our guide, Slavl, was waiting to take us on a tour of the city. I remembered that 61 years ago today this city with a population then 198,000 lost 110,000 of its people to a 7.3 earthquake – hence the Memorial Day. The city, then built mainly of brick and mud block houses, was basically flattened. The Soviets sent people from Russia to rebuild the city with a promise of a free house if they settled here. The city was rebuilt and over the next 40 years various styles of buildings were constructed, often known by the Soviet leader of the time, Stalin, Gorbachev, etc. In 1991 when independence was granted apparently a bunch of Turks visiting the new leader and government made a persuasive suggestion that future buildings in the city should be clad in white marble from Turkey. They must have been bloody good salesmen as that is exactly what happened.
Interestingly this whole part of the world, until formed into states by the Soviets a in 1924, was just known as Turkistan. It was only when the Soviet block collapsed that they kept the names given by the Soviets and became independent countries.
We headed off from the hotel along the wide streets, past the wedding hotel, which two night’s ago changed colour several times as we drove from the airport. There is definitely no shortage of electricity or water around here as this city has more lights and fountains per head of population than any I have seen. In fact the whole place makes Las Vegas look somewhat of a beginner when it comes to space, fountains and lighting. The electricity is gas powered and with large reserves of natural gas in the country is partially funded by the sale of such to neighbouring countries like Afghanistan and Russia, and also to China.
Across town the first stop was the Turkmenbasy Ruhy Mosque, built as a memorial to the first post-Soviet president,. He and his family are laid to rest here in a mausoleum which is part of the complex. The main mosque with its 60m gold dome has a massive carpet covering the whole floor with a space or prayer mat marked out for each of the 7000 worshipers. There are another 3000 such spaces upstairs on the balcony where the woman sit and pray. The complex is surrounded by water features, paved areas, trees and gardens.
Heading off to the outskirts of the city, still on wide roads, we eventually headed down a side road past a small market and some trucks loaded with hay. I am sure my mate George back home in the South Island could get much more hay on his Mac truck if he stacked it like this.
We arrived at the local horse stud farm to be offered tea and bickies and a parade of nags brought from the stables, mostly one at a time. On the occasion a mare and a stallion were brought out together there was a bit of a scrap, maybe part of the show.
The Ashyr stud has been around for 300 years and was one of the few to survive the Soviet area as most were taken over by the government. The horses, although very thin in the forequarters, are used for mainly racing, some dressage and a bit of showing. It is illegal to export them from Turkmenistan although some have been given as gifts to various world leaders. One nag presented to us was apparently valued at US$100k. The last came at the gallop from the stables, rider on board, did a couple of circuits then stopped in front of us the rider leaping from the saddle. This one Sylvia was supposed to take for a ride, but I think having seen the previous stallion roll around in the dirt it was all I could do to get her to sit on it, although she did look the part in the costume provided.
Next stop was the Saparmurat Haji Mosque. which was built as a memorial to the 12,000 people who were massacred here by the Russians in 1881 when they took over this part of the world. Back then Russia was wanting to invade India and take it from the British but were stopped in Crimea. They still took over this part of area, which then was not a seperate country . The Russians didn’t really invade but the area became a protectorate and it was the objection to the building of the railway line linking Russia that sparked off the war and siege of Gokdepe where the massacre took place. Until recently there was a memorial day for this event every year but now not wanting to offend Moscow it has been shelved.
A drive back across town took us to Old Nisa, a fortress that was occupied around 200AD and discovered by a Russian general in the late 1800’s who recognised the shape of the area as a fended area. It is now a UNESCO Heritage site and parts are being reconstructed as the excavation takes place.
Just over the hills in the background about 30ks away is the border to Iran – “yes tempting”, but not this trip.
History in this part of the world is long and complicated but for those interested we did manage to extract a summary from our very helpful and knowledgeable guide.
- 6-3c BC: Part of the Persian Empire
- 3c BC – 3c AD: Part of the Greek Empire
- 3c AD: Part of the Parthian Empire (This is the era Nisa is from)
- 3-7c AD – Part of the Sasanian Empire (Persian)
- 7-10c AD – Part of the Arabian Empre
- 10-13c AD – Part of the Seljuk Empire (which became the Ottoman Empire)
- 13-15c AD – Part of the Mongolian Empire
- 15-16c AD – Salor Confederation – Large Tribal Union
- 16-18c AD – Ruled by Khiva and Bhukara (Now part of Uzbekistan)
- 1800’s – Russian leadership
- 1920-1991 – Part of the USSR
We stopped for lunch at the local Nusay Restaurant, enjoying some nice local food. I had the sturgeon, which is rather tasty but actually not local.
As we headed back into town our hotel stood out from lots of locations and on the hill nearby was the local TV mast that looked more like a monument than a transmitter.
As we headed down Bitarap Turkmenistan Avenue, which with 4 lanes plus another two lanes off to the side in each direction, is the main street, but not the only one this big. Five water tankers head down the road in a staggered formation cleaning the already clean street. We cut down the side lanes to pass them. This, our guide explains, is also part of the green belt where they are planting millions of trees. From what we saw the green belt runs through the whole city.
Each ministry has its own large marble and often domed building, as do universities, medical centres and more. Below in the background is the Ministry of Culture and the University of Gas and Petroleum exploration.
Our next stop was the Monument of Independence with large grounds and many water features, plus the ceremonial guards on duty as with all of these sites.
Passing many more marble buildings and apartments Slavl explained that a government worker stays in the job for ten years and then qualifies to get an apartment at half price. No shortage of workers in the government here. Apartments start at two bedrooms of about 100sqm and go up in size from there.
Last stop of the day was the Memorial of Neutrality. As you have gathered by now they are big into statues and memorials around here, which include a statue of the first president. I think the current president is only the second one since independence.
Its quite hard to do this place justice with a few words and pictures but I have added in a few more photos from around the town to help give one an idea of the grandness of this place.