Turkmenistan: Ashgabat, the bastard child of Las Vegas and Pyongyang – and the trip to ‘The Gates of Hell’
It is pitch black night as we land in Ashgabat – the ultra-modern capital city of Turkmenistan. From the outside the airport looks like a giant bird – perhaps it is the most beautiful airport building I have ever seen. When the ruler of the country – we will get back to him – built the original airport he decided to locate the control tower on the wrong side of the airport building. This resulted in air traffic controllers not being able to see the flights on the runway(!) The dictator just thought ‘that positioning the control tower here looked better’. Inside the newly (2016) modernized airport there is shining white marble everywhere and seemingly thousands of spotlights in the decorate ceiling above. Right now the history or the architecture of the airport however is not what is occupying our minds. We are about to get our visas on arrival and we are a little anxious about that.
‘Freedom’ of press would not be an accurate description of how things work here. I know several fellow travel writers who have been repeatedly denied visas over yearlong periods (one had 5 tourist visas and one business visa denied over a two-year period – the other had 6 tourist visas denied). I am super nervous someone will have found out that I write for the Danish newspapers and not let us in. Now I do not know if the Turkmen secret police are reading Danish newspapers or if they are able to do a proper search for someone who has the Danish letter Ø in his surname, but still I have put a lot of effort in to removing any digital and public trace of my articles from many other countries.
In order to optimize our chances my girlfriend Charlotte and I have both bought a 4 days trip including, transfers, accommodation and an excursion to the ‘Gates of Hell’-Darvaza gas craters through the company Stantours. I even thought about bringing the kids to optimize our chances but even though I had loved to bring them the rather high price tag of flights and the organized tour prevented us.
Fortunately, in advance and in the first attempt Stantorus has helped us to obtain pre-approval and get the infamous official ‘Invitation Letter’. In the airport immigration the originally stamped and approved invitation is waiting for us and after just 15 minutes of wait and with no problems whatsoever we easily get our visas stamped in our passports.
I am so happy that I almost – very stupidly – change a hundred USD in the next-door travel exchange booth. I have been so busy and preoccupied by the visa issue – that I have forgotten to research about the black-market rate. The official rate is 350 Turkmen Manat to a 100 USD. Fortunately no one is working in the middle of the night – and the next day we manage to change at the Russian market for 1800 Manat to a 100 USD – or a more than 5 times better rate. This suddenly makes Turkmenistan one of the cheapest countries I have ever visited.
Until his death in 2006 Turkemenistan was ruled by Niyazov: president and leader of the governing (and back then the only) political party. He declared himself ‘President for life’ and had golden statues galore of himself built all over the capital city. After Niyazov died deputy prime minister Gurbanguly Berdimuhammedow took over after ‘elections’ that were condemned by international observers. Rumors has it that Berdimuhammedow who looks very much like Niyazov is in fact the illegitimate son of the former leader.
Appropriately one might say we stay at the “Hotel of Ministry of Internal Affairs” in the heart of the capital city. “most tourist hotels will most likely be bugged” my eight year old Lonely Planet Guidebook informs us laconically. The hotel is right next to the Presidential palace or rather the presidential palaces since for this president obviously one palace is not enough. Scattered around the 5-6 palaces are huge parks and marching grounds with enormous fountains guarded by uniformed and serious looking guards who prevent the public access to the otherwise very public looking parks.
Directly translated Ashgabat means ‘the city of love’. Maybe that is why every building in the centre – apartment buildings as well as ministries – are constructed with white marble surfaces. Many of them also feature roman looking pillars. The expensive and very heavy quality marble is imported from Italy we are told. Street sweepers work around the clock and make sure not a single fallen leaf is polluting the streets. Even the pavements have marble stripes that are regularly cleaned and washed – making for some of the most slippery pavements worldwide. Everything seems rich and well-functioning. Every house is white and so is most of the cars. ‘The police may confiscate your car if it is black’ one of our guides later tell us. No one seems to dare criticize anything in public and the only remotely critical thing we hear is a man who says ‘that he doesn’t like marble’.
Six kilometers in a taxi to the National Museum costs us 50 US cents. The museum is actually three museums and we opt for the ‘Presidential Museum only’. It is a three storey building made of marble and gold. It shows photos of president Berdimuhammedow controlling a rearing horse with one hand while waving casually to the public with the other. Photos of him as a brain surgeon (he is a dentist) riding cars and boats and planes and shaking hands with the leaders of the world (Pic of him and Putin obviously in the place of honors)
Almost all of Ashgabat was wiped out by an earthquake in 1948 which is believed to have killed no less than 2/3 of the population of the city (official Soviet reports said that far less people were killed). As darkness falls the city is lit by neon. Long rows of exactly identical marble apartment blocks can be seen everywhere. On their roof they feature neon signs with the names of the buildings making it easier to find the right one. Huge LCD screens show news and sports in trafic crossings. Roads are wide, clean and well maintained with few and far between cars. Spotlights are illuminating white marble surfaces everywhere. Ashgabat is like no other city on the planet. Like a bastard child of Pyongyang and Las Vegas.
‘You are gonna have to turn the ignition key for me’. Our driver Shamurad plays it cool even though he has now tried to fire up the engine five times with no result. In his modern Nissan pathfinder 4WD he is supposed to take us on a 2days/1night trip to the ‘Gates of Hell’ – The gas crater of Darvaza – around 4 hours driving time from Ashgabat. It is raining very hard and the engine is nowhere near starting. In the end he takes of the gas injection hose (I think) and while gas is pouring out on the ground I turn the ignition, the car starts and Shamurad hurriedly reattaches the hose. We are good to go.
In the outskirts of Ashgabat we pass big residential neighborhoods. Every house is identical. White house. Green roofs. Marble surfaces. Rows and rows of houses that look just the same.
On our way we stop in the village Yerbent. Here are no marble houses and nobody to wash or sweep the streets. Just ordinary and very worn brick houses. ‘They will get new houses when the president decides to renovate the village’ Shamurad tells us. We buy firewood from a local family and continue spotting occasional dunes, camels and sheep through the otherwise dull landscape of the Karakum dessert.
The Gas Crater at Darvaza has to be one of the most strange tourist attractions out there. In 1971 Soviet engineers were drilling for oil when they hit an underground gas pocket and the ground beneath them collapsed. The result was a crater with a diameter of almost 70 meters and a depth of 30 meters. Gas was leaking straight from the ground and to prevent local villagers from poisonous fumes the engineers decided to set the gas on fire expecting it to burn out in a few weeks. 47 years later the gas is still burning making the crater looking like a volcano. All efforts to put out the fire have been fruitless.
It is freezing cold (extremely few travelers come to sleep in the dessert in the winter season we are later told) but as opposed to the capital the sun is shining and skies are blue as we arrive at the ‘Gates of Hell’. Fortunately the crater acts as a huge camp fire and heat us if we stand near enough to the hole. Not freezing too much however requires climbing the little fence that has unfortunately recently been raised (possibly because a local and very drunk Turkmen man recently fell down the crater – apparently he survived ‘by curling up like a ball’)
When we leave the crater after sunset to walk the 400 meters back to our yurt in the flat and open dessert terrain it feels colder than the meanest Scandinavian winter night. With windchill factor our guess is that the temperature feels like around minus twenty degrees. Inside the rather big yurt is a camp fire. There is no chimney, so the smoke goes straight up into the roof of the yurt. But Shamurad assures us that the yurt is constructed with permeable roof cloth so odds are that we will not suffocate during the cold night. Dinner is Chicken Shashlyk (grilled and skewered chicken), bread, salat and vodka. Shamurad says that he will be sleeping in the car since ‘when there is wife there might be romance’. I assure him that as long as temperatures are sub-zero no romance will occur and finally he tugs himself in his sleeping bag next to the fire. We have rented Russian sleeping bags and sleep with all our clothes on. Every two hours Shamurad gets up and adds firewood to the fire making us all able to sleep a little before it again gets too cold.
The next morning the water in our bottles is frozen. A few sporadic clouds help making the sunrise much more intense and colorful than last nights sunset. Four Turkmen tourists have set up two cheap looking tents behind their 4WD right next to the crater. Empty vodka bottles lie scattered around their tents. Only one out of four is able to get up in time for sunrise.
Back in Ashgabat we take several taxies to get around to the sights. With a few Russian words and google maps with offline maps and Turkmen manat in our pocket we fairly easily navigate to the Zoo, The Hippodrome (the president is a huge fan of horses), the ‘Bagt Kuschke’ – the surreal ‘Bride Palace’ that looks like a giant three dimensional star. We end up dining at the 18th floor scenic restaurant in Yildiz Hotel. The hotel looks like the Burj al-Arab in Dubai and is build by the same architects who build the new triumphal arch in Paris. We get Carpaccio and rabbit in whithe Wine Sauce and beef for mains with two draught beers and end up with a total bill of around 18USD in what is perhaps the finest restaurant in the whole country.
We have seen a lot in just four days in this country that seems so different from all the others. Heading home to our hotel for the Yildiz we have to wait a long time for our taxi to arrive ‘since the president was going home so they closed all the roads for an hour’. The taxi drops us a couple of kilometers from the hotel and we walk through the giant and totally deserted city parks. There is fountains and marble and golden statues of presidents and horses galore. But no people ‘since Turkmen people don’t like to walk’. It is a more than a kilometer-long detour to walk around the presidential grounds. Fortunately, we manage to convince a couple of guards that it is ok for us to walk on the direct road between the palaces. Every hundred meters we pass new guards – many of which send us stern looks like we shouldn’t be walking here. After a couple of hours sleep in our – probably bugged – hotel of Ministry of Internal Affairs we are ready to go back to the impressive airport that looks like a giant bird and head home to our sweet children.
Price examples Turkmenistan – based on USD to Manat rate 1 to 18
• 1/2 liter draught beer restaurant CIP: 5 manat = 25 US cents
• Steak mushroom sauce restaurant CIP: 43 manat = USD 2,5
• Taxa 7 km to national museum: 13 manat på taxameter = USD 0,8
• Private taxi three hours 100 km: USD 11
• Two icecreams and two cups of coffee hotel restaurant total price: 11 manat = USD 0,6
• Kebab (lamb or chicken): 10 Manat = USD 0,5
• Yildiz hotel resturant two persons, 2-course meal and drink total: 330 Manat = USD 18
• Flights – CPH-IST-ASB return: app USD 740 USD each
• Stantours 4 days trip incl. 2days/1night Darvaza and invitation letter: USD 430 each.
• Visa Turkmenistan Danish citizens: USD 100