The Turkmenistan Enigma

After exploring the fabled Silk Road to Samarkand, things take a turn for the bizarre for Kat Hart upon entering Turkmenistan.

Turkmenistan is, without doubt, the least known of the Stans. Sandwiched strategically, somewhat precariously, between Iran and Afghanistan, this state which fought the advances of the Russians so fiercely and suffered for it so brutally, is ... a complete anathema.

Our arrival in the regional capital of Mary yesterday, having crossed the lazy, sun-drunk border from Uzbekistan, had all of us utterly awestruck. We'd been expecting to find Uzbekistan's poor relation. In the first thirty minutes of being in Turkmenistan, I had seen more imported Italian marble and gleaming gold on more stupendously imposing buildings than I had seen in the rest of Central Asia combined. This is a journey clearly designed and managed to make An Impression.

Wider than wide boulevards with a huge array of imported cars (markedly, no pedestrians ANYWHERE), lined on both sides by buildings of staggering opulence. Grand titles and purposes but clearly empty and barely used. Enormous portraits of Turkmenbashi staring down at you from every flat surface as you travel the streets ("there is no cult of personality here, not unless you count the one that the people themselves started") and the national flag flying ubiquitously, if not in real life, then projected continually from vast LCD screens on all major intersections, complete with patriotic soundtrack on a loop. Lest we forget how good we, in Turkmenistan, have it.

Our guide, buoyed with unwavering but maybe exhausted national pride, tells us that here, Praise God, the citizens do not pay for electricity, gas or water. They are buying fuel for rates equivalent to 6 litres for one US Dollar, and only paying this after they have used their FREE personal annual allowance of 1000 litres issued from the government to every individual. We pass vast 4 storey buildings with adventure playgrounds billed as "Kindergartens"... One for every town. Talk of "Orphan Palaces" donated by one of the Gulf States (and so a picture starts coming into focus). Free education (including university) for all. Pensions rivalling any in the world. Healthcare to beat any other you could find to challenge it.

And yet, walking the streets of "downtown" Mary after dinner last night... In 4km we found no shops, no restaurants, no cafes, no bars, no people doing people things. I'm at a total loss as to what one does here. The population of Turkmenistan is 6million. This town of 100,000 has a library the size of The White House. The theatre (the size of the Houses of Parliament) advertises no programme of events for any time, ever. The mosque (bigger than the blue mosque in Istanbul) has nobody in its vicinity. Even on a Friday. The maternity hospital alone (the second of our afternoon's drive) is the size of a shopping mall. The horse racing stadium (a national obsession) celebrated a horse festival last week and rumour has it bets were totalling $30million dollars from this one stadium, on this one day alone. Every town has a stadium. (Our hotel would have any architect laughing themselves to an early grave about use of space vs cost of materials... The blueprints must have been drawn up in crayon by someone with a literally unlimited budget and with the actual brief being "if I was ruler of the universe...") Nothing in the city "centre" falls below this completely ridiculous standard.

Our guide has met every comment we have made in awe of the buildings, the scale and the sheer lack of restraint with "This is not even the capital. Wait until you see Ashgabat". It now feels more like an ominous warning than a statement of national pride. This place lends easily itself to paranoid thinking.

Today, we drove out of town, 100km into the desert that claims 90% of the territory, on desperately pot-holed almost-roads, to visit Gonur Depe... A site which *easily* sits at the top of any archeological site I have ever seen, anywhere (below). Dating to 23rd century BC, it is now thought to be the birth place and centre of one of the world’s oldest religions - Zoroastrianism - and potentially one of the world's most important civilisations, if the theories being developed around the excavations currently underway here are proven correct. We spent the morning tripping over urns and bowls and pottery kilns, fully intact and still in situ in the clearly defined ancient city, recently excavated and equally perfectly intact burial sites with sacrificial animal and human skeletons... all of game-changing significance to the history of the region and the development of religion. It is a truly amazing morning and we all return to Mary with our minds blown. Tomorrow we head to Ashgabat. I'm almost scared at what we will find there as I'm already struggling to keep my bearings on reality here.

Ashgabat is a city completely rebuilt in the barely 20 years since Turkmen independence, from apparently infinite resources of its oil and gas money (it boasts the 4th largest reserves of both on the planet). Zero restraint has been shown in the building of this Mega City - and we are talking on a scale that EASILY rivals Dubai in its opulence, and showy excess. Ashgabat must be single-handedly keeping the Italian marble industry afloat. The cities lighting rivals the Las Vegas Strip... The road markings, we realised tonight, are not painted, but are LED light boxes inset into the polished, gleaming tarmac - every white line on the road within the city limits.

Even ONE of the most "modest" (a word that has no bearing here at all) of Ashgabat's new builds would be an impressive centre piece to any large town in even the most developed country on the planet. One after another after another after another monstrous buildings - a city’s worth - "ministry of carpets", the department of education - a 12 storey building built to resemble an open book (right), the ministry of gas and oil - shaped like a cigarette lighter (really), the world’s largest indoor Ferris wheel (verified by Guinness Book of World Records) - a Ferris wheel literally clad in a ridiculous marble exo-skeleton and more actual gold than you could imagine... An enormous ice hockey stadium. A brand new district of dozens and dozens and dozens of gleaming marble apartment blocks - most of them empty by our reckoning.

There are none of the usual signifiers that would accompany this show of wealth... no clues anywhere, no designer brands (the shoes being sold in the recently relocated Sunday market on the city limits are the same factory quality as you'd find for sale in the one show shop we saw in the gleaming city centre), no bill boards, no shop signage, no business people... Nothing that defines a living city can be found here. No reading material that didn't have the one and only public figure smiling back at you from every page. Our attempts to step inside the national public library was shot down in flames, the only staff member on site turned us away, telling us, in no uncertain, unsmiling, terms "Is Closed" - this has become something of a catchphrase for our time here so often have we heard it. Nobody on the streets. We were indisputably the only people inside any of the buildings we visited in two days. It is completely paranoia inducing. This is a city of 700,000 people. Turkmenistan is the 7th least visited country on earth. Thankfully (we hope) our guide is interpreting our dumb, wide-eyed and gobsmacked silence on driving through the centre with pride. I have genuinely never felt less sure of my place as a tourist anywhere else in my travels.

The contrast between Ashgabat and Davaza where we are to spend tonight - 300km north, could not be more dramatic. Following the trucking route due north on the only "road" through the desert, we paused at a semi-nomadic village... huddles of ramshackle shelters, improvised from rusting train bogeys, the odd tatty yurt, and a scrapyard's worth of scattered debris, camels being guarded by fully-wild chained dogs in makeshift pens, all of it half buried under the shifting sands. A gang of kids who were playing in a derelict truck cab, pulled a litter of tiny kittens out from where they were hiding under the seat to show us as we braved the ferocious midday sun.

Another very bumpy couple of hours has us arriving at our night stop... The Davaza gas crater. Out in the desert, in the gas fields drilled and piped since Soviet times, an industrial accident occurred and the huge explosion blew a vast bomb crater at the drilling site... Maybe 150m in diameter, 40m deep. The gas pours through the surface and the crater has been spectacularly alight ever since, burning off enough gas every day to supply a small towns annual needs. It has been burning every day since 1973. It is estimated that costs to stem the flow and end the wastage to be around $30 million US. (Probably what the empty car park of any of Ashgabat's empty buildings cost.)

So tonight, we are sitting around the inferno-glow of the world's most expensive campfire. (Not verified by the Guinness Book of World Records... I personally think they are missing a trick there). Desperately trying to make sense of all that is Turkmenistan. Shame we didn't have any marshmallows. Or long enough sticks.

Kat Hart is a tour leader for Wild Frontiers who led their "Cities of the Silk Road" trip through Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan in May 2013. Wild Frontiers is a multi-award winning independent travel company specialising in stylish and original tailor-made holidays and small group adventure holidays to some of the most interesting countries in the world including Ethiopia, Pakistan, India, the Congo and Georgia.

For more information on travel in this region, see our guides to Turkmenistan and the Silk Road.

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