If North Korea and Las Vegas had a child

After seeing similar themes emerge in multiple countries, you might convince yourself that you’ve seen it all. And then… you visit a place so off the radar weird that you’re reminded of just how much there is to see in the world. Turkmenistan is one of those places. Over the years, my blog posts have gotten more and more abbreviated. Since 2011, they’ve shrunk from daily posts, to city/region posts, to now single country posts. Most of the recent posts have been an interesting story or two, a synopsis of what we did, and a photo gallery. For Turkmenistan, I’m going to try to give everyone a more thorough recounting of the adventure.

First of all, as I see it, there are only a few reasons that you should ever be going to Turkmenistan. If you have family or short-term business obligations there, by all means go. You probably don’t need any advice. Otherwise, unless you’re a lunatic like us trying to visit every country in the world, or you have a fascination with police states and dictatorships, you’ll probably want to skip this one.

Our guide in Uzbekistan, Takhir, was a consummate professional. He was always punctual, never rushed us, and he anticipated our needs and adapted to changes and requests. He has been a professional guide now for decades, but he mentioned offhand once to us that he was Soviet military in his younger years. It seems like he has held onto that military discipline. Our time in Uzbekistan only hit the highlights of Tashkent, Samarkand, and Bukhara, but Takhir has experience touring all throughout the region. He even facilitates day tours of Maser-E-Sharif, Afghanistan. We all agreed that Takhir (with Central Asia Travel) is a guy we would trust to take care of us on even that kind of excursion. With all of that in mind, as we made our way from Bukhara to the Oybek border crossing into Turkmenistan, it was a little sad knowing that our week with Takhir had come to a close and we would likely be embarking on a very different guided experience.

As you approach the Uzbek passport control, the road gets worse and worse, forcing you to drive in an erratic, zigzag pattern to avoid massive cracks and potholes. Then the road gets narrower. It goes on like this for miles with empty desert in all directions. When we finally got to the end of the road, we said our farewells and approached the awning where a lone Uzbek guard manned a heavy gate that brings you into a long walkway. 

Oybek border crossing from Tajikistan to Turkmenistan

A large group of Chinese tourists had gotten there minutes before us and it took a little while for the guard to process them. When he got to me, he studied my passport thoroughly, something I’ve gotten used to in this region. When they see an American passport and they study the name, sometimes it seems like they’re just taking the opportunity to practice a little English. Also, I’ve realized that our first names are just as unusual to them as theirs are to us. After the guard looked over my passport and nodded approvingly, he said, loudly and confidently…. “Mik-hail”… pause…. “Miguel”…. pause… “Michael” pause… “Michael Tyson” pause…. “Mike Tyson” I laughed a bit “Yes, Mike, thanks” and he waved me through. Greg’s name has gotten tons of interesting treatment all throughout Central Asia. First, everyone thinks he’s Russian and it’s “Grig-ohree”. We learned all the Russian nicknames for Gregory and liked “Grecia” the best. Guides called him “Gorg”,  “Goguerly”, “Yakob”, “Grackob”, and numerous other hard to decipher variations. We never corrected them. 

The moment of truth for Uzbekistan customs came and went uneventfully. I had mailed my humble little Mavic Pro drone home back in Kyrgyzstan because of the overzealous Uzbek border agents I had read about. At this point, it was already home safe. As it turned out, we did have to pass our bags through an x-ray scanner as we prepared to stamp out of the country. I didn’t think the guards were very attentive. I think the drone would’ve made it in and out of Uzbekistan, but I guess I’m still glad I didn’t make that bet. Once we finished with the Uzbek portion, we got dumped out onto a covered dead-end sidewalk with a saturated sponge to walk over at the end (antiseptic?). The road ahead curved off beyond our line of sight. The tiniest little clown car minivan you’ve ever seen was ferrying people forward to the next stop. One Chinese straggler got left behind after the van pulled away a second time and he piled into it with us. An obese, middle-aged local woman tried to shove her way ahead of us into the van, but the driver yelled at her and got her out of the van. We never learned the price until getting in the van, and found out it was $1 per person (for foreigners). We had small bills of half a dozen currencies on us, but they wanted greenbacks only. We only had USD in large denominations, and no way we’re forking over one of those for “change”. Been there. Well, it was fortuitous that the Chinese guy got stuck with us, as he had no problem giving me change that included a stack of crisp $1’s. It wasn’t until days later that we fully understood just how valuable those $1 bills are in Turkmenistan. 

Luxury border taxi selfie

The drop-off from the first clown car was not passport control. It was a no-man’s land. A military checkpoint with a small shack and a lookout tower with hammocks draped underneath the top platform. The guards had their blood-type embroidered next to their name tag, just like their neighbors. One soldier took our passport and yelled to a few people and then left. I could recognize the word for “American” mixed into some of the yelling and a radio call. After a while of waiting in the sun, they let us past one fence and into a dilapidated sunny courtyard to wait more, for yet another van. In the distance, we could now see a real building. It was dry and deceptively hot. You could make the walk fine, probably, but it would be a hot, thirsty walk. The van that arrived this time was bigger and we were packed in now, shoulder to shoulder with locals of all ages. Everyone else paid in Turkmenistan currency, we paid in USD. $3 more.

Now we were at a real building. Inside, it was business. Different windows, doors, multiple guards and a room and anteroom totally packed with people, including the full Chinese tour group, now at a passport control counter. We had an “invitation letter” provided by our tour company, and nothing else. Everyone there had another paper filled out by hand, but at first we couldn’t figure out where one got this paper. It turns out that step one is to wait in a line in order to go through an unlabeled wooden door in order to see a gruff lady, show her your passport, and have her give you one of these blank customs and immigration  forms. It was not in English. We watched some others and filled them out as best as we could, all while having one person hold a place in the “real” line that leads to (we thought) getting your actual visa. After far too long of this, a lady shows up, doesn’t introduce herself, and says she’s our guide. She had been there, and been watching us, it would seem. This chick was no Takhir. She looks at our forms and says they’re all wrong and we need to get new ones. She gets them and then asks us, wait for this curveball “do you have a green ink pen?” Seriously? This is Turkmenistan for sure. As it happens, blue ink is acceptable as well, so whatever. So she fills out our forms and we keep our place in line. She starts asking questions at the desk and gets a paper and tells me to go a window to prepay for our visas. An angry, overweight older man has his back to the window and when I finally get his attention and give him the paper, he starts angrily asking questions in Turkmen. Our guide comes back and after more arguing the guy starts going to work stamping and filling out more forms for quite some time. Eventually I’m told my total is $203 USD, which I can pay exactly. In return, I get handfuls of stamped and signed forms for all sorts of taxes and fees that I couldn’t possibly explain to you. Eventually, we actually make it to the window after shoving multiple locals out of the way that tried to cut in line. At this point, we have visas…. actual, stamped, full-page holographic Turkmenistan visas in our passports. Then it’s on to the baggage search. It was thorough. It was a little scary. However, the agent’s ability to harass us seemed to be mitigated by their very limited command of English. They were particularly interested in my having multiple camera lenses and tried asking me something, but gave up after a few minutes. Finally, we headed out of the building and into a waiting vintage Soviet van.

Was it over at this point? No. That’s because, in Turkmenistan, it is never over. That’s something you learn quickly. The Soviet van was actually yet another “taxi” through no-mans land and into an empty parking lot where our real tour van awaited. But wait…. Another checkpoint, of course. There was a checkpoint at the parking lot where our passports were examined again and our guides questioned for a while longer. Afterwards, heading down a lone, straight road through empty desert, there were more police checkpoints, seemingly every few miles. We would be waved over to stop, the driver would get out, and more questioning would ensue. If the checkpoints aren’t enough of a clue, the police there wear absurd oversized hats that make sure you know you’re in an ex-Soviet dictatorship. They’ve been carrying on like it’s still 1991. 

Our first stop was for a break at a little outpost that had a restaurant. The bathroom was an outhouse behind the junkyard that was behind the restaurant. Inside it, you’ll find a state of the art squat toilet… a hole in the concrete with metal rebar in the hole to keep children from falling in. Because of all the visa delays at the border, we were running a little later than expected, so we wanted to keep the “break” there short. Our guide told us about the variety of hot dishes on the menu here, and while Martha was ready to dive right in to some mystery noodle dish, I put the brakes on it. Rude or not, places with no running water are a bad idea. We did encounter one oddity there with the drinks though. Throughout the other four Stan countries, it is extremely rare to be able to find Coke Zero, or any type of diet soft drink, anywhere. At this outpost, when we asked for a Coke, we were given Coke Zero. That’s what it was, but the labeling just said Coca-Cola and a subtle mention of zero calories. Coke Zero was all that they carried there. Throughout the country, we found next to no soft drinks that were NOT diet. Ask for a Fanta or Sprite, and it’s a Fanta Zero or Sprite Zero. The local drinks were all diet too. As best as we were able to figure out, the poor money management in the country may have created some raw materials issues that made the prices of sugary drinks skyrocket. Anyway, after getting used to regular drinks in all the other countries, it was weird to have diet be the ONLY option.

Our first day was fairly typical sightseeing around the ancient city of Merv. We toured some archaeological ruins and were basically by ourselves at all of the stops. That was true at a lot of places, as there are far fewer tourists visiting Turkmenistan. We took a short domestic flight from Merv to Ashgabat, and I’m surprised that I basically have nothing noteworthy to say about that. Their airports are unnecessarily extravagant, probably because they are public amenities that the ruling class also need to utilize. We really weren’t scrutinized very much at the airport, which was curious given how many police checkpoints we’d been through.

The next day, we visited a horse breeder for a rare breed of horse, exclusive to Turkmenistan. None of us are knowledgeable about horses in any capacity, but they put on a good show for us and the horses were definitely very beautiful in the bright sun. They all went nuts at the prospect of crunching sugar cubes out of your hand.

Around town in Ashgabat, you can basically take a never-ending tour of garish monuments, parks, fountains, and gaudy white-marble and gold buildings. Upon arrival into Ashgabat, we witnessed a spectacle that really encapsulates the absurd waste of labor and resources spent towards entertaining the whims of the ruling dictator. Several times per week, roads around the city are closed down to be cleaned. No, not like a street sweeper. The roads are literally scrubbed. By hand. Trucks go by power washing the roads and gutters, and teams of people scrub the street and especially all of the paint lines by hand with cloth. So, when I say that the city is “clean”, I don’t mean in a relative sense, compared to other cities. I mean that the city is actually clean. In the “New” Ashgabat, everything is immaculate white marble with gold trim. I personally think it’s ugly, but there is no disputing the fact that the place is cleaner than practically anywhere. It’s cleaner than Singapore. When you enter Ashgabat by car, it is mandatory that your car is power washed and be freshly cleaned before driving on Ashgabat roads.  We spent about half a day touring New Ashgabat and taking in all the perfect propaganda monuments and buildings. Later on, we visited a surprisingly normal shopping mall. Monuments and pictures of the president are absolutely everywhere. We had been seeing them really since the border crossing. They have pictures of him doing all manner of things, dressing up to play soldier, pretending to play the guitar or jog, riding horses, etc. Many pictures are just ridiculous photoshop jobs. 

Totally not photoshopped picture of dear leader just relaxing on an average day

A few noteworthy things I’ll mention for anyone that might be considering a visit. First of all, bring more than enough USD for the entire visit, just like you would for a country like North Korea. Once there, DO NOT change any USD for their garbage money at the government rate. That also means don’t withdraw any from an ATM, which would give you that completely fake rate of 3.5/dollar. At the Russian market across the street from our hotel, you can exchange it (as a tourist!) at a black market rate, as of this writing, possibly in the 40s/dollar. You are getting absolutely robbed changing at a hotel counter or ATM withdrawal. Our “guide” skimmed over this and changed $20 for me at the government rate, giving no heads up. Guess what she was tipped in? Turkmen garbage money! Anyhow…. another tip I would give is to bring some non-perishable snacks, maybe more than would be typical. The food there is pretty bad. We did manage to have one decent meal on our last night in Ashgabat, and we blew through as much Turkmenistan money as we could over-ordering there. Out of all the Stans though, the food in Turkmenistan is BY FAR the worst.

The highlight of our Turkmenistan visit, and ironically, maybe even the entire Stan trip, was the visit to Darvaza gas crater. The “Gateway to Hell” is a pit of fire due to a Soviet natural gas mishap that has been burning since 1971. It a big, open burning chasm in the middle of the desert. I’ve seen pictures before. I seen video before. I still wasn’t prepared for the experience of being there, feeling the ground rumbling and hearing the strangely peaceful sound of this huge fire. It’s really incredible. And the pictures…. we took quite a lot there, and I really love a lot of them. We spent the night out there in the desert in tents and stayed up pretty late stumbling around taking pics of the night sky under a new moon. The light pollution from the pit completely negated the otherwise completely dark sky and desert. It was still incredible though. If you could just visit this place by itself, maybe that would make the visit worthwhile. Unfortunately, there’s quite a bit of headache and annoyance to get there. For sure though, for anyone that visits this country for any reason, it’s worth overnighting at Darvaza Gas Crater to see this spectacle.

As I mentioned above, our Turkmenistan guide was pretty deficient, so that meant venturing around on our own, winging it to not get arrested. It worked out fine. We spent our last day and night on our own and stumbled upon a real highlight in Ashgabat, a park and fair open to the public. It was really active and surprisingly normal. For our tour, we had only been brought around to these completely sterile settings during the daytime. If that was your only exposure to Turkmenistan, you’d think it was a totally fake showcase city like Pyongyang. Go out on your own as we did and you can actually see some fairly normal city life. Well, normal except for the surveillance cameras everywhere and police on every corner. I could definitely imagine getting a false sense of security and overstepping and being detained in this country. We were plenty happy with a few days and were ready to get the hell out of there. We have a flight back to Dubai that leaves at 0400 and we’re gonna be out of the hotel at 0200. Stay tuned.

2 thoughts on “If North Korea and Las Vegas had a child”

  1. Love the Watching the World Burn Photo. Also, I sighed us up for some guitar lessons with Dear Leader. We will learn to shred!!

    Also also – that last camel photo is just great!

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