Dawn came at the Door to Hell in the Karakum Desert and I could hear the guides moving about making the cooking fire so I climbed out of my tent to watch the sunrise and to sit beside the fire, it was really, really cold. Tea was made, toast too, though not much conversation was attempted, sore heads all round after the previous night’s vodka. Eventually camp was struck and I set off with the Argentinean’s guide, Vladimir, in the Argentinean’s car, bigger than Mr Ishan’s, a Land Rover in fact. I didn’t see them leave but assumed they went back to the border with the brothers Ishan. Incongruously Vlad’ started playing music from what is described as the New Romanticism period so we bounced out of the desert to the tunes of Duran Duran, Spandau Ballet, Flock of Seagulls, that sort of thing, it was quite a nostalgic trip back to the 80s. The Kiwi couple was in another car in the convoy and we sped, once again flying over the ruts and potholes, on through the desert in the direction of Ashgabat, the capital of Turkmenistan. There was a small village on the edge of the desert where we stopped for water and amazingly a replacement brake light bulb for the Land Rover. The drivers also took the opportunity to wipe the dust off the cars and clean the windows in preparation for the capital where I can only assume dirty cars are not approved of.
I had done some research on Turkmenistan before the trip and determined from various guides and blogs that Ashgabat resembled a cross between 1930s Germany and 2017 North Korea and I wasn’t too far off the mark. On leaving the desert we were stopped at a police roadblock about every ten miles where we were photographed and on occasion had to produce passports and papers. On arriving in the capital I was advised to only take photos when the Vladimir said I might, on one occasion he quickly lowered my arm as I was about too click. Photographing policemen can land you in jail and there were frequently four police at each intersection. Ashgabat has been described as the white marble city of the world. This is an understatement; there were enormous white marble faced buildings everywhere I looked. The airport roof was a vast white marble silhouette of a bird; actually there were three vast birds, one for each terminal, but no planes. Vladimir pointed out the library, ten stories high, filled he said, with books in Turkmen. I couldn’t help but raise an eyebrow and wonder how many of the people riding donkey carts out in the countryside appreciated a ten story, white marble faced library.
I was abandoned at my hotel that proudly proclaimed ‘Hotel of Ministry of Internal Affairs of Turkmenistan’ on a plaque outside. Vladimir said he would return at 9.00am the following day, told me not to take photos and pointing to the plaque said jokingly that I would be well protected. After the usual mime pantomime with the rather surly receptionist I determined that there was no wifi but if I strolled about a mile down the street to the Grand Turkmen Hotel I may be allowed to use theirs. I walked down the street in Ashgabat gazing about in typical newcomer fashion but nobody would look me in the eye, no hello mister, no smiles, it was all a bit unnerving. But I did find the five star hotel, helped myself to the wifi password from the reception desk because nobody wanted to talk to me and logged on briefly. Texts to family back home to assure them I was safe and well, I tried the usual Social Media sites but they were all blocked.
There was an element of the Handmaid’s Tale that I noticed, a large percentage of the women were all clad in a sort of red uniform tunic type of garment. Vladimir said they were students but they were everywhere, going in and out of the buildings and now I come to think of it he never showed me a university. I couldn’t get that dreadful song out of my mind, a Lady in Red earworm, ghastly. Ashgabat has been created to show the world and presumably the populous how great Turkmenistan is and how well developed it is. There seemed to be only one TV station that was showing a large conference center with rows and rows of gentlemen with long beards and the president as it were, presiding. Everyone was watching it. The event was called the Maslahat and is held as a demonstration of the democratic process in action. It is not. It turned out that what I thought was a conference center was in fact a massive yurt, set in the desert outside the city and holding up to two thousand people. Quite a yurt! The basis for the system of government seems to be based on the cult personality of the president who displays portraits of himself all over the city and names schools and streets with the names of his relatives. There is only one political party, dissent is not tolerated and freedom of speech is non-existent.
Ashgabat is a very strange place.
More reading here: http://bit.ly/2kQF1Dn
Kettle’s on for tea at dawn.
The bakery in a desert village.
White marble with President.
A bit of color and white marble.
A lady in red.
Ladies in red.
The big yurt in the desert. Putin had just visited apparently. Those mountains are in Iran.
Just some of the papers I had to carry.