Early in 2014 I received an email from Koryo Group, which is the tour company that hosted my 2012 tour of North Korea. Normally I delete all junk mail, but this one caught my attention. The ad described a tour of Turkmenistan and hyped up something called a fire crater. I had no idea what a fire crater was, nor did I know anything about Turkmenistan, though it did sound interesting, so I signed up. Phil and Pamela also signed up.
Near the end of September we took the 9-hour flight from Cape Town to Dubai, then the two-hour flight to Turkmenistan, flying over the Persian gulf and tracing the Iran-Iraq border. While boarding the second flight I experienced a small-world moment when I ran into someone I knew, which of course I did not expect traveling the Dubai-to-Turkmenistan route. Yet there was Sarah, whom I had met two years ago in North Korea, and who instantly recalled my blog about that country. Most of the other passengers on this flight were a team of young, well-behaved Turkmenistan soccer players.
We land in the small but attractive airport of the capital city of Ashgabat on a warm September afternoon. We go to the immigration desk to obtain our visas. We wave our iPhones at them, but nothing happens. Clearly we are not in Starbucks, where a wave of my iPhone entitles me to 99,000 ways to drink coffee. We dig through our bags and find the letter of introduction that Koryo had given us before the trip. We hand our letters to the immigration officers. They huddle for a few minutes, occasionally looking up at us through jaundiced eyes. I mentally practice my Jason Bourne moves, ready to make a run for it if necessary. But after the requisite stern looks, they decide we are legit. We each pay the $107 visa fee, they stamp our papers, and we become accepted visitors.
Past immigration, we are met by Ruskam, who will be our local guide for the week. Although he is not on horseback and does not carry a spear, Ruskam reflects the long shadow of Genghis Khan, bearing a strong resemblance to the Mongolian invaders that dominated this region eight hundred years ago. Indeed, we can usually distinguish between the Turkmen and Russians by their degree of Mongolian heritage. Ruskam is an educated young man, married, with a 3-year old daughter. He speaks passable English, Russian, and his native Turkmenistanian (or whatever they call it). He is nominally a Muslim, though much more secular than religious. As he notes later in the week, “I love Allah, but I hate his fan club.”
As we wait for our group to gather, Ruskam explains that this is just a temporary airport, that a larger, nicer airport is being built nearby. “We are all just temporary,” I exclaim. Unfazed by my wit, he continues: “Ashgabat is very close to the Iran border, and not too far away from the Afghanistan border. We have very interesting neighbors.”
After a week in his country, I conclude that their neighbors are indeed more interesting. We tour the capital city of Ashgabat, the aforementioned fire crater, the city of Dasoguz, and the seaside resort town of Turkembasy. We take two cross-country flights, and spend quite a few days driving through desert. There are very few tourists here. Even at the attractive 5-star resort on the Caspian Sea where we stayed one night, the place was nearly empty. So while tourists here are safe and prices are very low, there is not much to see or do. The main reasons to visit this country are: 1. you really love sand, 2. you enjoy vodka-sipping contests with Russians, 3. your inner voice commands you to visit a fire crater, 4. because it exists.
If none of those prospects float your boat, then you need not visit this part of Asia. I am a sucker for the ‘because it exists’ ruse, thus this blog post. And since I did spend a week here, you need not bother – simply read my travel notes and save the airfare.
Turkmenistan is a safe place, at least for those who are not enemies of the president/dictator. The food is bland but mostly passable, prices are low, and the country has an official and actual policy of neutrality. Their small military exists only to defend their borders, never to act as the aggressor. The nation is secular, although most of the citizens are Muslims. Ruskam characterizes them as “Sunday Muslims,” and his description fits with what we observe walking around.
Most of their money comes from natural gas and some from oil. They also grow cotton and have a viable textile industry. Most of the citizens are poor, though everyone seems to have adequate food and housing, as all of the basics are heavily subsidized by the government. We are told that gas is about 20 cents / liter, or 90 cents / gallon (currently about $3 in the U.S.). All drivers are entitled to a certain allotment of free gas each month.
Fire Crater History
In September 1971 a team of Soviet petrochemical engineers traveled to the Karakum desert in western Asia, suspecting the area to be rich in natural gas. Shortly after setting up their drilling equipment, the ground under the rig collapsed, forming a crater the diameter of a football field. No one was injured, though the crater released dangerous amounts of methane gas. The engineers figured that if they ignited the gas, it would probably burn off in a few days. They did so, and to their surprise the gas kept on burning, forming a large bowl of fire in desert.
The engineers eventually returned home, abandoning their fire crater. When the Soviet Union went out of business a few decades later, that particular stretch of the Karakum desert became part of what is now the country of Turkmenistan. The newly formed nation inherited the Soviet cultural legacy, a quirky, megalomaniac president/dictator named Saparmurat Niyazov, and the world’s fourth largest known gas reserve. In the bargain they acquired 488,000 km2 of sand, plus the world’s largest fire crater.
This unusual spectacle is unofficially known as the ‘door to hell’. We spent one night camping in the desert next to the crater. It is indeed a unique thing to see – mesmerizing like a camp fire, but from a crater the size of a football field. However unlike a campfire which burns wood, this fire simply shoots flames right out of the ground. It’s especially attractive at night. There are no guard rails or warnings of any type, so there is a bit of vertigo feeling as you get close to the edge. Apparently the government is not concerned about litigation risks.
Tourism is relatively new here, and indeed we saw very few tourists. Niyazov died in 2006, and as is typical in dictatorial rule, left a temporary vacuum of power. While the body was still warm, the deputy minister at the time, who was a former dentist and less extreme than his predecessor, threw his hat in the ring. With an impressive 97% of the vote and to the horror of spelling bee aficionados, Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow became Turkmenistan’s second president. Today the Soviet legacy slowly recedes while gas reserves continue to grow, as do markets for this country’s fossil fuels.
Turkmenistan is situated on the eastern shore of the Caspian Sea. Its neighbors include Iran and Afghanistan to the south, and Uzbekistan and Kazakstan to the north and east. It is officially a secular state, though most of its citizens are what Ruskam calls “Sunday Muslims” – while born into Islam, religion plays only a minor role in their lives. Most do not regularly visit mosques. Women dress conservatively, though do not cover their faces and do not wear the shapeless abayas found on the Arabian peninsula. Instead they wear long dresses with patterned fabrics and cinched waistlines, with hair tied up and wrapped in a scarf. Alcohol is widely available.
Ruskam mentioned some rules in his country. Smoking is forbidden in all public places, though there are still many smokers. In restaurants it is considered polite to ask before smoking. I was sitting in a tiny cafe when three middle-aged men gestured to me to ask if I minded if they smoke. Not speaking Turkmenistanian, I gestured back that no, I didn’t mind at all. They were so appreciative of my good will that they then invited me to join them for some vodka. Since I never drink vodka before 10 am, I thanked them, then politely declined.
The entire nation is camera-shy: photos of public buildings are forbidden, photos in most markets are forbidden, and in general before taking anyone’s picture, you should ask permission. We did this a few times, and most people said no, though a few seemed happy to pose. People outside of the big cities are less constrained by this policy and are more likely to both take photos and pose for them.
Depending on who you ask, Turkmenistan has 5 million residents, or maybe 6 million. The country suffered a devastating earthquake in 1948 when under control of the Soviet Union. At the time, the news of the quake was kept secret. Some sources say that the quake, measuring 7.3, was really caused by the U.S.S.R detonating an atomic bomb underground. Later the official U.S.S.R. death toll was listed as 10,000 persons, though most sources cite much higher numbers. Ruskam tells us that 176,000 people in and near Ashgabat were killed by that quake, which represented 90% of the local population, and about 10% of the Turkmen population.
Saparmurat Niyazov who was just a boy living in Ashgabat at the time, lost his entire family to the quake, thus becoming an orphan. He later became a leader in the U.S.S.R., and then Turkmenistan’s first president. Adjacent the Grand Mosque in Ashgabat, we viewed an ornate memorial to Niyazov, which included tributes to his lost family.
Our tour of Ashgabat included their Grand Mosque. The fact that we were allowed into the mosque shows part of the sharp contrast between Turkmenistan and other Muslim nations. In most devout muslim countries, non-muslims are not allowed into mosques. Not so in Turkmenistan. The building is very large and ornate and we are told it holds 20,000 worshipers. When we visit it’s empty. In addition to some of the words of the Koran, there are sayings of the first president inscribed or painted on the walls. Clearly this founding leader had more regard for his own vision than for any religious teachings.
The architecture of the city is fairly attractive, though obviously the result of central planning. Almost all buildings are faced in white marble and have classic lines. One exception to this pattern is that some government buildings are designed to appear as the function they represent. So for example, the building that houses the ministry of dentistry is actually shaped like a tooth. It does not take long to realize that this strategy becomes problematic or inappropriate for some professions.
Throughout the city the most frequently used colors are white and green. We are told that white represents wealth and success, and that green represents youth and Islam.
During their empire years, the Soviet government did make contributions to the area, including the construction of important canal projects to irrigate that desert.
Touring and walking around the cities, we notice there is almost no trash. The markets are not particularly crowded, and the range of offerings is very low. Multiple vendors sell the same products under the same roof. Prices are low, there is not much negotiating. The whole affair seems dull and there is no salesmanship going on here. There are a few outside influences: in one outdoor market, we saw a woman pushing her toddler in a stroller, as the young child kicked the air joyfully to the tunes of his ‘gangnam-style’ doll.
This part of the world seems obsessed with one-upmanship in some odd ways. Turkmenistan once boasted the tallest outdoor flagpole in the world. Then Azerbaijan built a taller one, which was soon eclipsed by the nation of Tajikistan. Today Turkmenistan boasts the tallest indoor ferris wheel in the world. We rode in that wheel, and noted that at least on the inside, the white marble is not real – it’s a plastic laminate. We could not find any good reason for aspiring to build the world’s tallest indoor ferris wheel.
Traffic is not pedestrian-friendly. From one of the Indian members of our tour we learn the New Dehli way to deal with aggressive traffic, which is to walk right in front of oncoming traffic, maintaining a comfortable pace and appearing confident that they will actually stop (or at least swerve). I try this a few times and it does in fact work. I assume it will continue to work until one time it doesn’t work.
In the city, most of the bigger streets have two dashed lines painted in each direction of traffic. From my western perspective, two lines create three lanes of traffic, but Turkmen drivers have a more nuanced view of these lines. Sometimes they drive between the lines and other times they drive over them. When over the lines, there are actually four lanes of traffic. I never asked anyone there so cannot be sure, but it appeared that the lane lines operated as a sort of option on two lanes, giving the driver the ability to easily move left or right as needed. After a few nerve-wracking hours on the road, I finally adapted to this method and learned to put my fate into the hands of our chain-smoking Russian drivers.
Being firmly in Genghis Khan territory, Turkmenistan has a strong and proud equestrian heritage. One morning we visited a horse stud farm and were entertained by a short demonstration of their horsemanship, featuring their handsome Akhal-teke breed.
One night we stayed in a new luxury resort in the seaside town of Turkembasy on the Caspian Sea. This large body of water, really a lake, is cold and dirty and filled with sea-snakes, so it’s not conducive to swimming. We were there in early October so the weather was cool and rainy. The resort was very comfortable and modern and the food was much more international then the other places we visited, as this resort town caters to foreign visitors. Still, the place was operating well below capacity, and we assumed that the other 20 resorts along the coast of this town also had few visitors.
We wandered around the town of Turkembasy for a few hours, including walking a few miles from the main market to the train station near the water. To return to our group we decided to try the local transportation system. This works by standing on the edge of the road, sticking out your arm pointing slightly downward, and waving your hand. There are no taxis or buses here, so many drivers simply look for this gesture and will pick up passengers. It worked perfectly on our first try – like a tech-free Uber. A small sedan stopped and the three of us piled into the back seat. The driver already has a passenger in the front seat, whom he dropped off after about a mile. Then he continued to our destination for a total of two miles. Total cost was $2. Thanks to iPhone maps for bridging our language gap, as the driver spoke only Turkmenistanian.
One surprise in this town was the existence of a Japanese cemetery. Turns out that in WWII there were many Japanese here, during the waning years of Japan’s imperialist thrust through Asia. Today there is still a small presence of Japanese people here, who have now made Turkmenistan their home for over three generations. The Turkmenistan people have good relationships with Japan and in fact recently have awarded industrial contracts to Japanese businesses.
We left Turkembasy by taking the short flight to the capital of Ashgabat. Turkembasy has a brand new, very attractive international airport, obviously trying to attract foreign visitors. The place was nearly empty. Our 45 minute flight cost $28. We spent our last night back in Ashgabat, then the next morning flew to Dubai, relaxed and satisfied at having moved up a quarter notch on the index of world knowledge.
Thanks to Pamela for providing these photos:
Akhal-teke horse at stud farm
People at edge of fire crater at night
300 steps to underground hot springs
Grand Mosque in Ashgabat
Desolate area in desert
Pamela in signature trick photography