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Posts from the ‘Turkmenistan’ Category

Konye-Urgench Site and Basic Cooking

I slept very well in the sand of the Karakum Desert. It wasn’t cold at all and I even had to take off clothes during nighttime. Unfortunately I couldn’t see as many stars as I usually see when sleeping in the desert since the burning gas of the Darvaza crater was lightening up the sky.

We continued our drive towards the border of Uzbekistan. The roads in this area of the country were in pretty bad condition. They weren’t covered in tarmac and had many potholes which made the ride somewhat bumpy. The drivers of our jeeps were quite funny and I started to call them “товарищ” in English “comrade”, another useful word I learned in my Russian class at Eastern Germany times. After a while the drivers made a laugh out of it to call me “товарищ” as well.

At lunch time we stopped at a little restaurant right next to the road. There was a choice of three dishes: a Turkmen type of pizza, dumplings and soup. I ordered the pizza and dumplings and shared them with Jason. The pizza looked very interesting. It was more a big piece of bread flavored with onions. Since I like warm bread I really much enjoyed it. The dumplings were very similar to Japanese Gyoza just the meat inside was a bit chewy.

While us having lunch a bridal couple showed up to celebrate their wedding in the restaurant. Since the restaurant was very small we were right in the middle of the action and the locals seemed not to care. The bride was very beautiful wearing a white wedding dress. The couple was supposed to sit down at the small table where my fellow travelers Paul and Mike were having their lunch. They quickly stood up so the bridal couple could have a seat. Afterwards the doors of the restaurant were closed, the light switched off and the whole restaurant received a nightclub type of atmosphere. They played loud dance music and everybody was dancing. I simply stood up and joined the people on the dance floor and a few others in my travel group were following.

In the afternoon we stopped at Konye-Urgench. I don’t know if this is just the name of the historical site in the area or the name of the small town next to it as well. However, I and a handful others volunteered to go shopping on the town’s market and cook tonight’s dinner. There wasn’t much choice and so we bought a bunch of vegetables and some bread to prepare a salad. We also bought some more bread, jam and fruits for breakfast.

After shopping we had a look at the historical site of Konye-Urgench which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It’s the site of an ancient town featuring a number of ruins. First we had a look at the Törebeg Hanym Mausoleum with a colorful dome in blue tiles. Next was the Gutluk Temir Minaret which has a height of 60m and looked like a big chimney. Minarets are visual focus points and used for calls to prayer, so no chimney but a big loudspeaker. Also on the ground of the site was the Il-Arslan Mausoleum with the tomb of Mohammed II’s grandfather. It’s a holy place so we weren’t allowed to go inside but just relaxed a few minutes outside the building.  The last building we saw was the Soltan Tekes Mausoleum with a small blue dome covered in a scaffold.

Next to the mausoleums was a small hill. In front of it were two wooden sticks in the ground and it’s said if you walk through them three times in counterclockwise direction one of your wishes will come true. Just for fun I used this opportunity and made a wish. On top of the little hill was another place with special power. It was a round object on the ground consisting of small handmade baby cribs. It’s said you need to circle it three times for each baby you want to receive and since I still want a bunch of kids at some point in my live I circled it a few times as well to be on the safe side. I just wasn’t sure about the direction and thought counterclockwise will do. The last thing to see at the small hill were some old Russian graves.

Around 5pm we set up our camp at the Amu-Darya River. While some used the opportunity for a swim, I and a handful others prepared lunch. Same as last night we had no cooking equipment available. We reconstructed an old cardboard box and covered it with plastic bags from shopping to serve as a large salad bowl. Chopping the vegetables with a pocket knife to make a salad for 21 people was quite painful but we somehow managed it. Cooking tonight somehow felt like a teambuilding exercise and I really much enjoyed it since it was very much basic.

Since there were many mosquitos right next to the river I decided not to sleep under the stars tonight since I caught already a number of bites during dinner. Instead I shared a tent with Helen, a fellow traveler from Australia now living in Sweden.

Darvaza Gas Crater or Gate to Hell

After a long clubbing night I was still very much sleepy this morning. The first big smile I was running into was the one of the Turkmenistan president whose picture was decorating the wall of the lobby in the hotel, so my day was made. It’s actually quite hard to walk more than 20 meters in a public building without seeing the smile of the president so popular are pictures of him.

After breakfast my body was still in sleeping mode so I decided to use the free morning in Ashgabat to go for a run around the city’s station which was very close to our hotel. I quickly changed into some comfortable clothes, grabbed my iPod and went running for an hour. It was very hot and sunny so it didn’t take long until I started to sweat. Back in the hotel I showered and since the run made me even more tired than awake I went back to bed and slept until lunch time.

In the hotel I was also running into Kurt, one of the new people who joined our trip yesterday. He’s an American citizen and since the US embassy is situated on the fourth floor of our hotel he went there to have a look around. They even invited him to use the internet access of the embassy since the one in our hotel wasn’t working. Kurt offered me to introduce me as friend of the United Nations and so I might be able to use the internet as well. Since there wasn’t much time left until our departure and I had no desperate need to use the internet, I didn’t made use of his offer.

We all met in the lobby of our hotel at 1pm. Our leader Jason did actually manage to hire five jeeps for the cost of 150 USD per jeep and day as well as ten tents so we were able to continue our travel through Turkmenistan. Some people, including my roommate Isabella, had volunteered to go shopping this morning since we will be camping during the next two nights and therefore need to prepare our own food.

Each jeep had one Turkmen driver and so we just needed to take place in one of the vehicles and enjoy the ride. We headed east in the direction of the Karakum Desert and the border to Uzbekistan. The desert is pretty large and covers 70 percent of the country. Therefore, Turkmenistan isn’t a popular spot for tourists since despite from sand, bad roads and small villages there isn’t much to see in this country.

I chose to sit in the jeep right next to Kurt I’ve got to know closer this morning. He’s an accounting professor from the US and even when accounting isn’t my favorite, Kurt is a very nice guy and its fun talking to him. We even discovered a few similarities such as Kurt knowing my accounting professor from Fuqua and we both are members of BGS.

After driving for a couple of hours we stopped at a shop in a small village. The people there were very shy and not used to foreigners being around them so it was hard to start a conversation with them. Especially the women were beautiful and dressed in colorful clothes. The schoolgirls had a very special uniform consisting of a long green dress, a white apron and a small colorful hat.

During our travel through the Karakum Desert we also stopped at three gas craters. They are remains from the Soviet time when geologists where drilling for gas reserves. While the first crater we saw was just a massive hole in the ground the second one had some burning gas and bubbling mud at its ground. The highlight was the third crater we visited near Darvaza. Here geologists hit a cavern filled with natural gas. In order to avoid the gas to discharge the idea was to burn it off in a couple of days. This was already in 1971 but the crater is still burning today. It has about the size of a football field and you can come very close to feel the heat and smell the gas. Seeing this massive burning crater made me aware of me sleeping on a kind of massive gas bottle tonight.

We set up our camp approx. 200-300m away from the burning crater. Since there wasn’t enough space in the tents to have boys and girls separated, Jason proposed I’m sharing a tent with our local Turkmen guide Batsy since he saw me kissing him last night. I wasn’t keen on him why I decided to better sleep outside in the sand which I enjoy anyhow when being in a desert. There were only a few bugs crawling in the sand but probably they will not be walking over my face and I will be fine. At least there is no rain in the desert.

Preparing dinner was a kind of adventure too since we didn’t have any cooking equipment and therefore needed to use our pocket knives and cook over the open camp fire. Isabella did a fantastic job in guiding the people cooking and so we had some very delicious Shashlik consisting of meat and vegetables.

At nighttime the burning crater really appeared like the gate to hell. Kurt and I went down to have a closer look at it. The both of us stood with open eyes and mouth at the rim and enjoyed the natural spectacle.

Ashgabat City Tour and Party Night in the Hotel

After a delicious breakfast in the hotel we met at 10am to get introduced to the new people joining us on the next leg of the trip which is from Ashgabat to Tashkent. While all seven travelers, who have been on the trip from Istanbul to Ashgabat, will continue to Tashkent we will be joined by 12 new people bringing the total number to 19 travelers plus one leader and one local guide. The key reason while this leg is so crowded is because it has only a length of two weeks which also attracts people on a normal 2-3 week vacation and not just long-term travelers like us. There are also only two nights camping and Uzbekistan, where we will spend the most time on this trip, is the heart of the Silk Road with many historic sights to see.

At the group meeting our leader Jason briefly explained the situation of the truck to us. Basically after the truck got fixed, Sam drove only 10km before it broke down again. He and our local Iranian guide Mehdi needed to spend the night in the truck next to the road. Currently the truck is towed to Mashhad, the second largest city in Iran and the closest city to where our truck broke down. Towing the truck to Mashhad will take approx. two days. Sam is hoping to get the necessary spare parts there in order to repair the truck. The issue is not just a problem with one of the cylinders as we thought initially but a crack in the head of the engine. Fixing it will cost a few thousand dollars, at least one week time and is only possible in either Mashhad or Tehran. Sam will also need to extend his visa and find a translator in Mashhad since our local Iranian guide needed to leave him yesterday since he has new customers to take care of. Our leader Jason is already working on a contingency plan. His aim is to not interrupt the trip and he tries to hire jeeps and camping equipment so we can continue our journey through Turkmenistan.

After the group meeting, we went on a city tour with our local Turkmen guide Batsy. The weather was very hot and sunny and I was glad to exchange the fully covered Muslim outfit, I was wearing during the last two weeks, against a mini dress. Ashgabat has only 900,000 inhabitants and therefore it’s quite easy to get around. The city’s main attraction is supposed to be the Sunday market and so we went there to have a look at it. The market is really large and you can spend hours walking around. It’s said to be the largest market in all of Central Asia. The market consists of many buildings, each dedicated to a specific range of products such as fabrics, furniture or carpets. Here people bought different things: Alistair and Andrew bought a big red plastic sheep for Chris named Chelsea since Chris loves football but not this particular club, Lauren bought a pair of roller-skates which she will probably not be able to use much on this trip and I bought a silly hat as a birthday present for our driver Sam. The market also contains a special livestock section where all kinds of animals are traded, including cattle, pigs, chickens, sheep, goats, horses and camels.

After walking around for 1.5 hours at the large Sunday market we continued to another market called the Russian market where we spent the same amount of time. The Russian market was primarily dedicated to food products and I used the chance to purchase a watermelon which is one of my favorite fruits. I also bought a German / Russian phrasebook to be able to have some basic conversations with the locals. Since I grew up in Eastern Germany I actually had to study Russian for eight years but I can’t remember much since I never had the opportunity to speak the language. At least I’m still able to read Cyrillic script and remember a few words including “сельскохозяйственный производственный кооператив” which means “agricultural production cooperative” or so.

At the way back to the hotel we stopped at a couple of sights. There is actually not much left from the imperial Russian city of the past since nearly all buildings were destroyed by a massive earthquake in 1948. Today the center of Ashgabat appears very futuristic, modern but also sterile. Most buildings and monuments shine in white and golden color. Even the benches and lanterns in the park have golden color attached to them. It feels very weird to see the entire splendor concentrated here in the capital for representation purposes only while the remaining country hasn’t even proper roads.

Although we are staying in a four star hotel the internet isn’t working. My roommate Isabella and Jason even went to a five star hotel to use their internet but same story there. The internet café around the corner of our hotel is closed on weekends. Isabella and Jason even drove to a shopping mall with an open internet café but were also not able to use their services. The reason is they wanted to see their passports in order to allow them using the internet. The problem was we needed to hand in our passport and two passport photos in order to get registered in the country and therefore had no access to our passports, so no internet access for us in Turkmenistan.

The country also has a set of other rules which appear kind of weird. For instance smoking isn’t allowed on the street which I don’t care much since I don’t smoke. For some strange reason you are also not allowed to be out on the streets after 11pm otherwise you need to pay a penalty. Exceptions are only made for people who need to work during night time and can prove it. Therefore, nightclubs are located in hotels so people who go out clubbing can sleep there. It also happened yesterday that all nightclubs were not allowed to open since some foreign delegation was in the country.

Since the nightclub was closed yesterday, we needed to go out tonight. We started our nightlife excursion in the same beer garden we have been yesterday. There I had some chicken for dinner which very much tasted like minced lamb. It was also time to bring my bet with Jason to an end (see post of May 4). Back then he said: “I bet you I have your name tattooed on my ass” and now it was time he’s dropping his pants to prove it. Actually he was right since I couldn’t read “Katja” on his ass but “Your name” so the first round of drinks was on me. After we had a couple of vodkas we changed the location to the nightclub of our hotel. There my fellow traveler Lauren, who’s beginning of twenty, was rocking the dance floor in a flashy techno outfit and moves. She has lots of energy and probably spent all night dancing.

In the meanwhile I enjoyed a conversation with our local guide Batsy and somehow ended up kissing him. There were also a number of hookers around trying to make some business with Western tourists. They charge 150 USD per job but at least I could enjoy a free dance with them.

Border Crossing into Turkmenistan and Beer Garden in Ashgabat

We had to say goodbye to Iran and enter a new country, Turkmenistan. We were ready for departure in the lobby of our hotel in Shirvan at 8am. Unfortunately our truck didn’t arrive as expected. Our leader Jason found out the truck got actually repaired last night but after driving for 10km it broke down again. Sam and our local guide Mehdi, who was helping him translating to the mechanics in the workshop, needed to sleep in the truck on the road. The issue seems to be more severe and it will take a couple of more days to repair the truck.

Jason quickly arranged a minibus for us which was supposed to bring us to the Turkmenistan border. The minibus arrived at 8:30am and it took three hours to drive to the border. On the way we saw an accident.  A bus was completely burned out and smoking quite heavily. There was nothing what we could have done since the firefighters and police had already arrived and the situation seemed to be under control.

When leaving Iran we needed to follow a three step procedure. First our entire luggage was inspected. I have no clue what customs was searching for. They didn’t use an x-ray machine but everybody needed to open their luggage and an officer was searching it by hand. Next was a passport check where Jason collected all our passports and submitted them as a group. Unfortunately this didn’t speed up the process so we ended up waiting 1.5 hours for our passports getting processed and we getting stamped out of the country. While waiting Jason was standing right next to the counter hoping his presence will speed up the process and everybody else was sitting in the waiting zone watching some Iranian TV. The program wasn’t too exciting. We watched people praying in a mosque and after 1.5 hours I had enough of it and was glad to move on to the last check. It was a health check but strangely the officer was only checking my passport without having a look at me. I didn’t even saw the officer since the counter window was very high up so I had to stretch out my body in order to submit my passport.

Upon entry of Turkmenistan we went through a high fence and two meters after it an officer wanted to see our letters of invitation before we were allowed to proceed to the building. There we needed to wait from 1pm to 2pm since all officers went for lunch and the border was closed. As soon as the officers came back everybody except for me used their letter of invitation to obtain their Turkmenistan visa. I had already obtained mine with the help of my friend Michael and a visa service back home.

While people trying to get their visa Batsy, our local guide for Turkmenistan, showed up. He has never worked with Dragoman before and we hope he will prove himself helpful during our travel in Turkmenistan. His first task was to help translating so people manage to get their visa. It still ended up in some confusion since Chris from New Zealand needed to pay 225 USD for his visa and Emilie from Australia 195 USD. These amounts seemed extraordinary high but after a while we figured out Chris and Emilie both paid not just for their visa but for three visas each so other people in our group needed to pay them back. Payment needed to be done at a bank in the same building which charged a two dollar bank fee.

In addition to the visa and bank fee everybody needed to pay a 10 dollar immigration fee for the work of the immigration officers. So far I never had to pay an immigration fee at a border crossing and the services of immigration have always been free of charge. At least the information I provided with my visa application in Germany was enough and I didn’t need to fill out an arrival card upon entry of the country. Interesting to know is also Emilie tried to change her remaining Iranian Rials into Turkmenistan Manat but nobody, even the bank, wanted to change her money. So Jason ended up buying the Rials from her and changed them later on in Ashgabat on the best available rate which made him loosing 20 USD on the change of Rials worth 60 USD. The last step at immigration was an x-ray of our bags and then we were free to enter the country.

Ashgabat was only a short drive away from the border. According to Jason, driving into the city felt like driving into Las Vegas since there were many new and fancy buildings around. I would compare the drive into the city more with a drive into Brasilia. The modern part of the city seemed to be built from scratch in order to create a capital representing Turkmenistan to the world. Everything was in white, golden and very shiny. We stayed in a four star hotel named “Ak Altyn Hotel” which was situated in the heart of the city. Usually we stay in less posh hotels while overlanding but there is no real budget accommodation in the city. The only cheaper hotels are said to be very bad and dirty so we went for the more comfortable option.

Since this was our first night outside of Iran and we are actually allowed to drink alcohol and party, we went into a beer garden right next to the hotel which was recommended by our guide. There we had Shashlik which is the Russian version of the Kebab we had in Iran. The main difference between Shashlik and Kebab is the Shashlik has bigger and fattier pieces of meat than the Kebab. Also the Shashlik I know from home is a mix of meat and vegetables on the same stick but the version here had no vegetables but meat only.

While eating we saw many local people showing up with empty Coca-Cola bottles which they got filled with beer from the tap. Maybe the beer here is really good or cheaper than the one in the supermarket. We also had lots of beer and vodka with it. My roommate Isabella even went to the supermarket close by to purchase more vodka which we mixed with the one we bought in the beer garden. All of this ended up in us getting pretty drunk. Jason and Patricia even jumped on the table to dance on it but were stopped by the staff. Around 10:30pm everybody disappeared suddenly, probably because in Turkmenistan you are not allowed to be on the street after 11pm. Patricia and I were the only ones left from our group. While I was kind of tipsy, Patricia was very much drunk so I had to walk her back to the hotel, give her lots of water, find out her room number and deliver her there.