In 1971, Soviet engineers were prospecting for oil in Turkmenistan’s immense Karakum desert when suddenly the earth opened up out of goddamned nowhere and swallowed their entire drilling rig into a vast, yawning chasm. A rare magnetic anomaly then sent them back in time to- wait, sorry that was Lost.
Once the engineers got done yelling “Holy Fuck!” in Russian, they gradually realized there was deadly methane gas pouring out of the giant crater, aching to suffocate them. After an hour of yelling about bees and trying to punch the moon, they realized they’d been huffing gas, put their clothes back on, and buckled down to address this urgent issue.
Yelling incoherently amongst themselves, they eventually decided fuck it, let’s light this bitch on fire. They figured the gas would all burn off within a few days, which would give them enough time to come up with a plausible story to tell their boss about how they'd lost yet another oil rig.
Some anal retentive pricks might suggest that the crater still being on fire 47 years later is a sign that the engineers may have slightly underestimated the amount of gas there was down there, but fuck those monsters.
And so we have the Darvaza Gas Crater, a.k.a. the Doorway to Hell, Turkmenistan’s #1 tourist attraction.
One of the funniest things about Turkmenistan is that they don’t seem to think their #1 tourist attraction is anything anyone would actually want to see.
“Uhm, let’s see. We have dirt, our country's basically a huge cult centered around worshiping a dentist, and OH! Shit! We have a hellmouth. I totally forgot about that thing,” and the next minute the laser printer is spitting out a stack of Turkmenistan: The Desert Is On Fire For Some Reason posters.
That conversation never actually took place because Turkmenistan has F-you gas money and doesn’t give two shits about tourism, ruining my dream job of coming up with tourism slogans for Turkmenistan, like Turkmenistan: Come, See Our Flaming Gashole.
Instead, the tourist is left to hire some rando with an SUV to drive them across the flat, empty desert, blasting Michael Jackson and a very short, looping playlist of 90s rave music (Turkmenistan just got the 90s) until suddenly you turn a corner and there it is! A giant, mesmerizing hole in the earth, raging with fire. There are no informational plaques, no gift shop and no safety railing. You can just walk right into the fire if that’s your jam.
Turkmenistan’s president reportedly visited the crater for the first time in 2010, a fact that I honestly find amazing. Dude, it’s Turkmenistan. You have three things! How could you not have-
Nevertheless, he was not impressed.
“You assholes! You're wasting all my gas!” the president shouted at his assholes. Then he ordered all of his identically dressed lackeys to fire up a dozen helicopters and fill in the hole with dirt and gypsies and white marble.
Thankfully, everything in Turkmenistan moves at the speed of rust, so they hadn’t got around to filling in the crater by the time of our visit.
Even before getting to the gas crater I already loved it. How can you not love that in a country where people leave their stoves running 24/7 because gas is free but matches cost money, there’s a giant stove burner flaming perpetually out in the desert?
We all stood silently around the crater, the flames reflecting in our eyes, soaking in the spectacle. Photos and video don’t do this thing any justice at all. The violence of the giant plume of fire leaping out of the black hole at the bottom of the crater is balanced by the hundreds of flames burning delicately around the rim, seeming like a CGI effect or a magic trick as there’s nothing visible that’s on fire, the fire just is, like a platonic ideal.
This might be the coolest thing I’ve ever seen.
We all spent a few hours walking around the crater, taking photos from every possible angle and hiking up the two nearby hills where you can see the whole thing from above. While I was up on the hill I noticed the rest of our group standing in a ring around the crater, evenly spaced. Jesus. Were they doing that on purpose? Was it some kind of Masonic ritual? Was this just some weird coincidence caused by gas crater voodoo? Were they high from the fumes?
It turned out that my new friends Ant and Hannah from Australia were trying to get drone footage of everyone lined up around the crater, but the drone wasn’t cooperating. I think everyone was just curious to see what would happen if you tried to fly a drone over the crater, with its massive column of hot air shooting straight up into the sky. It seemed a recipe for entertaining disaster. Up above us, falcons hovered over the crater and turned in tight arcing circles, riding the thermals high up into the sky.
Our guide gathered us together to give us information about the crater, every last bit of which was false. But it did add some charm to hear the folk tales the locals pass on about nomads who slept by the side of the crater and never woke up or the guy who fell in but somehow survived after his friends ran and got a rope to pull him out. Looking down into the crater, it seems highly unlikely anything could survive in there for more than a few seconds before bursting into flames. There are urban legends about a tourist who fell in and was incinerated. This seems more plausible than the rest of the stories, given that the edge is just crumbling sand and we were all balancing our desire to peer down into the bottom of the crater with our love of not being on fire.
Down in the bottom of the hole there was a strange menagerie of trash. Dozens of booze bottles had been tossed in by visitors hungry for a Cinnabon diversion or a machine that stretches your penny into a souvenir shape. But more intriguing were what looked like pipes and some kind of coiled steel wire, charred down amongst the flames. Were these parts of the original drilling rig, or had there been some kind of safety railing around the crater at some point that eventually fell in? I asked our guide this and she answered an entirely unrelated question. Okay.
With the cold of the desert at our backs and this roaring furnace at our faces, we joked that we should have brought a fishing rod to make s’mores. The wind whipped around, shifting directions rapidly, chilling as it blew into the crater from the desert behind us but absolutely searing when it shifted and blew across the flaming crater and into our faces. Dust devils magically swirled around the ledge of the crater. Mike tried to throw a cup into the hole only to have it shoot back out like it had been rejected by the devil himself. Several other members of our group tried with the same cup but every time it eerily shot back out, sometimes several minutes later, like a comedy routine.
As our group gradually wandered off to get something to eat at our campsite nearby, I sat on the crater’s edge and meditated, staring down into the flames. There was something special about the energy of the fire that I couldn’t quite put my finger on. As I watched the flames and cleared my mind I started to see the various colors within the fire, the white hot center and the orange edges, but within that, blooms of purple and green unfolding. As the flames poured out of the central chasm, they appeared one moment like a river, water flowing and rippling, then like a time lapse of clouds morphing across the sky.
Clearing my mind of scientific thoughts about chemical reactions and fuel sources I watched more closely and could see glimmers of personality, little celebratory leaps at the edges of the flames. This became clearer and clearer as I meditated on the nature of fire and began to see it as a being in and of itself, each burst of flame a consciousness celebrating its moment of existence in the world of the air above. Such intense joy in that moment, such joy in being.
I’d had various spiritual experiences in nature in the past where I’d seen earth elementals, air elementals, and water elementals. So, this was the domain of the fire elementals. Fire is usually such a fleeting thing, where else do they get to exist like this, out in the open, perpetually? What a place.
This reverie was broken as dark figures materialized out of the blackness around the crater and the OONSK OONSK OONSK of their dance music swelled. Hmm, I thought. Some assholes are here, okay. I imagined them to be Russian tourists. Then the figures came closer and I realized oh hey, it’s my friends! These are my favorite assholes! Hey guys! I greeted Julien, Jean-Sebastien and Francine and they OONSK OONSK OONSKed their way to the other side of the crater. This probably isn’t going to get any more surreal, I thought. Probably.
Caroline snapped a photo of me sitting on the edge of the crater.
“You looked like a little Buddha meditating on heaven and hell.”
We walked the few hundred yards to our camp for dinner, then a few of us succumbed to the crater’s magnetic pull and wandered back to it through the black desert. On the way, Dan, a lovable Brit who’d instantly become a part of our circle, turned on his headlamp and we marveled at the sparkling lights sprinkled across the desert expanse. What are those? We got closer. Oh, giant spiders! Okay.
Approaching the crater with your eyes dilated to the dark of the wide open desert, the fire was so bright, it was like being born. The flames blindingly roared out of the black. We’d only been away from the crater for an hour or so, but it was still “Holy shit!” all over again.
I stayed up late into the night, talking with well-read Jack and well-traveled Alex from the UK at the edge of the crater. At one point the wind suddenly picked up Alex’s bag of chips and shot it straight up in the air. I watched for where it came down, so we could pick up the bag on our walk back, but it just kept climbing, eerily up and up into the night sky until it disappeared from sight as it entered low Earth orbit.
Walking back to the camp I got lost in the dark and almost entered some totally unrelated person’s yurt, which I think would have answered the question of whether or not people carry guns in Turkmenistan. Eventually I found our camp and the tent I was sharing with my friend Mike from Australia.
I climbed in, bonked my head on the side of the tent and laughed out loud. The tent was not quite five feet square, which was going to make sleeping interesting. I reluctantly moved my bags and shoes out onto the sand outside the tent so I’d have space inside to lie down. Generally, leaving your shoes outside in a desert full of scorpions and spiders is not desirable, but there just wasn’t any room for them inside the tent.
As I lay down, my head pushed against one end of the tent and my knees pushed into the opposite side. Add this to the list of times not to be 6’ 3”. I contorted my body into a compact sprawl and tried to find an angle where my shoulder blade wasn’t digging into the rock hard scrub of the desert floor beneath us.
“You should open the flap and stick your feet outside,” Mike suggested.
I seriously considered this for a moment until I remembered the scorpions and spiders.
As I started to drift off, a small commotion outside our tent set my imagination running. All my money, my passport, and a decent quantity of food were in my bag, sitting unprotected out in the open desert. Do they have coyotes out here? It’s probably just the wind. Right?
Something imitating sleep happened in blurry haze of about five hours of desert wind, snores rippling from the nearby tents and me occasionally fumbling out into the dark and hopefully remembering to shake the scorpions out of my shoes before putting them on and stumbling out into the pancake flat desert to pee.
Just before dawn, Francine and I met up to go watch the sunrise from the edge of the crater.
The cloud cover made the sunrise brief but it was beautiful to watch the glow of the fire fade as the desert lit up all around it. And Francine almost fell in the crater, which was hilarious.
Leaving that morning, we stopped to visit two other less-famous craters in the area, with similar backstories. One had either a safety railing or an oil pipe running half-way around it, which then collapsed into the chasm on the other side, either by design (if it was an oil pipe) or by calamity as the crater gradually expanded (if it was a safety railing). At the bottom, the earth boiled as less-impressive flames crawled their way up out of the mud.
The third crater was filled with water, gas bubbling out of one section like a Jacuzzi. At the other end, a huge trashy gyre of water bottles rotated slowly in the breeze.
The flight from Istanbul to Turkmenistan was leaving from gate 700, a number which seemed like a typo. Walking through endless corridors into quieter and quieter disused corners of Ataturk airport, the Subway sandwich counters grew less and less frequent until there were none at all. A half an hour passed as I walked on. This can't be right, they haven't used this entire wing in years. “Fuck you, you’re going to Turkmenistan,” the airport mocked. “Jagoff,” the airport added.
It gradually became clear we were going to be taking off from some broom closet or back porch. Possibly a shed.
And then, not at all suddenly, there it was. Off in the distance. The last gate in the known world. Where the sidewalk ends.
Inside, literally roped off from polite society, sat a few dozen Turkmen and Turkwomen, distinguished by their traditional dress, head wraps, and horse themed paraphernalia. I can't swear to this but a chicken may have run through at this moment.
Inside this corral, I met up with my friend Julien from France and quickly surmised that he had absolutely no idea where we were going. This was going to be fun.
After our trip to North Korea last year, Francine and I compared notes and realized we were both keen on visiting Turkmenistan next. Somehow we roped our friends Mike, Jean-Sebastien and Julien from the North Korea tour into this plan as well. I’m still not sure how this happened.
At the gate we met Alex from the UK and Ryan from Washington D.C., all of us obvious to each other as fellow members of this tour due to being the only white faces in the crowd.
The gate emptied us out onto the dark runway, where we boarded a bus that took us even further from the airport. For legal reasons we may not have actually been taking off from Turkey. Eventually we reached the plane and shuffled on board. I was flashing back to our Air Koryo flight to Pyongyang. This seemed less like a commercial flight and more like an eccentric billionaire had chartered a plane at the very last minute and filled it on a whim with everyone who happened to be in the Wal-Mart parking lot at that moment.
The moments before we took off were a chaotic free-for-all of seat switching. The two Turkwomen sitting in the row in front of me were orchestrating a power play to get rows to themselves, and they gestured for me to switch seats to help make this happen. I figured, sure, whatever. Their body language seemed to indicate I’d be trading up. The first woman led me to a row near the front of the plane and I sat down. Sure this will be- oh balls. It was an anti-exit row seat, that didn’t recline and with armrests that didn’t fold up. So much for sleeping on the flight. My naïve belief that the Turkwomen of the world were looking out for me would never recover.
The very nice stewardess asked me why in the hell I was going to Turkmenistan. I said something polite in case she was from Turkmenistan, but she was Turkish and she didn’t believe me at all. “Oh, you travel a LOT,” she concluded, which I think is service industry for “Oh, you’re effing crazy.”
The Ashgabat airport gleams in white marble with gold accents, and is shaped like a giant falcon. It was built for $2.5 billion 2016 with the stated goal of making Ashgabat a major travel destination. The inherent unlikeliness of this scenario is made even funnier by the fact that Turkmenistan is one of the most isolated and difficult countries in the world to enter, requiring a letter of invitation before you can even apply for a visa, which makes entering on a guided tour essentially mandatory. Visas are denied arbitrarily for mysterious reasons based on the time of year, Vedic astrology or whether or not the immigration official’s horse likes the cut of your jib. They won’t let you in if you have a beard in your application photo. My initial photo was rejected because I had a very light 5 o’clock shadow. I had to run to the bathroom, shave, and take another photo immediately before my hair follicles had time to react. Turkmenistan approves less than a thousand tourist visas per year. After being there I’m kind of surprised they approve that many. This is for a country of 5.6 million people.
So, somewhat less than shockingly, the majority of the traffic through the gleaming, vast, empty Ashgabat airport are Indians traveling back and forth between India and the UK, with an incidental layover in Ashgabat. They’re not leaving the airport.
Taking photos of official buildings in Turkmenistan is forbidden, and the airport qualifies. I ached to take photographs of the blindingly bright empty marble corridors, adorned every two inches with a gold Rub el Hizb, the eight-pointed Islamic star we’d see on literally absolutely everything in Turkmenistan. But, every 20 yards all through the airport there was a solider posted, each wearing a wonderfully hilarious gigantic hat, and I got the distinct vibe that their primary duty was photo prevention.
All the photos here were taken on my way out of the country, when I was feeling far more brazen and had figured out the secret of Turkmenistan. More on that later.
In time we reached immigration, went through the automated kiosks that take your photo and scan your passport and fingerprints, and an officer was asking me where my receipt was. What receipt? I was booted out of line and directed to a soldier standing off to one side. Without speaking he gestured for me to follow him around the corner, to a counter with two lines: Banky and Wiza. But I already have my Wiza! It’s quite impressive and takes up a whole page in my passport! The soldier became annoyed when I didn’t enter a line, so I got in the Banky line.
Before long, Julien and Alex were rejected in similar fashion, and I gradually pieced together that you needed to pay an immigration fee at the Banky before you could enter the country. This wasn’t posted anywhere or indicated in any way. Mike showed up, fresh with a sunburn from Dubai, and got in the Visa line. When I got to the front of our line a woman with her hair up in a two-foot head wrap (indicating her married status) took my passport and looked at me expectantly.
This was profoundly a no-English scenario and I’d only learned how to say “Hello” in Turkmen. She waited. I dug through our tour documentation and found the immigration fee mentioned in there, $12. I handed over 12 US dollars and she shook her head and indicated that no, it was $14. I laughed as this was not posted anywhere, you were just supposed to know. I had a $2 bill in my wallet, left over from giving them out as good luck charms to superstitious North Koreans, and I deeply regret not having the presence of mind to put it in play at this point.
Back at the immigration counter the heavily accented official was asking me what hotel I was staying at. Oh crap. I dug through the tour documentation on my phone as he rattled off the names of various hotels. No, no, no, oh here we go, the Ak Altyn. Hot dog, I’m granted entry into Turkmenistan.
One more redundant passport check later, I got downstairs to baggage claim and waited for Julien. Oh shit, Julien. Julien’s English is excellent but it’s still his second language. And I could barely understand the immigration officer’s English. And I was pretty sure I was the only one who wrote down the name of our hotel. How is- Hey, there’s Julien. Hey man, how did you know what hotel we were staying at?
“Yeah, when he asked you the name of the hotel.”
“He asked me the name of the hotel?”
That’s when I realized Julien had just answered yes to every question the guy asked, confirming that we were staying at whatever random hotel the guy had happened to mention first. Awesome.
We filled out long customs forms with the address of the hotel and declared whatever we were bringing into the country, forms that no one ever asked for at any point. The customs officer asked me if I smoked and if I’d ever been to Turkmenistan before, then ran my bag through a big scanner and hot dog twice, I was in.
At the hotel they opened the restaurant for us in spite of it being 3 in the morning, and in the dim lighting we ordered the few random things the waiter knew the English words for. Gradually the rest of our group rambled in, Jean-Sebastien and Francine with photos of the horrific food on their Belavia flight from Belarus, and the whole batch of new friends we were about to make.
As we were ordering food I realized I’d forgot to get cash from our driver. We’d had the option before the trip to exchange dollars for Turkmen manat at the 3.5 to 1 official rate, or arrange to get them from our driver at the black market rate of 6 or 7 manat per dollar. The only stipulation being that you can’t ask for your money at the airport, wait until you’re in the car, dummy. The short drive from the airport had been far too disorienting to even think about this, so I flagged down our driver in the restaurant and he produced a backpack stuffed with cash.
“You changing $200?” he asked me. Yep. He handed me a preposterously large stack of 50 manat bills. Whoa. “What exchange rate are we getting again?” I asked him. “11 to 1. Right?” “Yeaaaaaaah,” I answered, looking at Mike like “Holy shit let’s not screw this up.” And that’s how we ended up with more cash than we could possibly spend in Turkmenistan.
Our tour guide launched into a running narrative about the countryside in her adorably impenetrable accent:
“They grow weed in Bali, as the romance did Khartoum. This bidding constricted of Muppets.”
Google Translate’s new “Wild Ass Guess” feature: “They grow wheat and barley, as the Romans did cotton. This building is constructed of mud bricks.”
Sitting in the back of the tour bus with Mike, Francine, Jean-Sebastian and Julien, it was North Korea all over again. The feeling of deja-vu was overpowering. These are just the people I hang out with in weird oppressed dictatorships, no biggie.
We were headed to take part in the Nowruz festival, Turkmenistan’s New Year’s celebration. Eagle-eyed readers may have noted it was not January at all, but they celebrate New Year’s on the first day when there is more sunlight than dark, their marker for the beginning of spring. Not a bad idea, really.
Allow me to make it perfectly clear that we had absolutely no idea what was going on at this point, the very first morning of the tour. We’d all been up all night, flying in from all corners of the globe. I’d been up for going on three days at this point, having left Minneapolis on Monday afternoon. It was Wednesday. I’d somehow worked a full day on the plane and spent half a day wandering around lost in Istanbul before this story even began. The tour was supposed to start at 9am, but an imposing Turkwoman who turned out to be our guide had come into the restaurant and corralled us onto the bus at 6am with very little warning. It turns out we had a British guide from our tour company on the bus too, but no one figured this out until well into day two, we all thought she was just on the tour with us.
What even is a Nowruz Festival? We figured we’d be swinging by some BBQ in the park for an hour or two, which didn’t seem too challenging in spite of the fact that we hadn’t had any chance to unpack or catch our breath or get our bearings at all.
The first sign that something was weird was that our bus had a police escort. I still don’t know why. The bus wheeled us through Ashgabat’s bizarre monument landscape and parked alongside their World Trade building. We were given special badges on lanyards that were supposed to grant us special access to special Turkmenistan things. It was made clear that no foreigners had ever been given these badges before. Whatevs. An announcement was made that they’d found Francine’s camera left behind at the hotel. Mike had already lost his phone in Dubai so we were off to a hot start. After waiting there for a half an hour for no apparent reason we were off again, and eventually reached their Nowruz grounds, an area out of town that I presume sits empty every other day of the year.
We disembarked the bus and were led up a big, empty street that stretched out to a huge building shaped like a massive yurt, backed by the Kopet Dag mountains in the distance. One side of the street was lined with seemingly every young woman in Turkmenistan, dressed in their finest traditional dresses. The other side was all the young men, in suits. Everyone was holding flags. Where the fuck are we?
We walked slowly up the middle of the street as the hundreds and hundreds of Turkmen lining the sidewalks eyeballed us silently. Why are we on parade here? Why are they here? Is this all for us? God, I hope not. But what’s it all for, if not for us? No one explained a goddamned thing and we walked.
The Turkmen-lined street stretched on and on as we walked. This is shooting to the top of my list of my most surreal experiences. It could have been worse, however. I could have been Mike. Mike desperately had to piss.
“This is like a nightmare, man.”
“Just go right here in the street. You’ll be on the news.”
We walked on and on forever. I was giving it 50/50 odds that they were going to cook us in a stew in that giant yurt-shaped building at the end of the road. Eventually we reached the end of the procession and were led off into the festival grounds. There, mock-ups of Turkmenistan landmarks stood in a field with Turkmen dressed in traditional costumes. Small bands played traditional instruments in covered booths, like a swap meet.
We were led into a vast open field full of more people in costumes, wearing giant furry hats in spite of the hot early morning sun already starting to beat down on us. Two groups of men in costumes engaged in a listless tug of war. Huge swing sets erected in the field swung back and forth, men standing on one end of the swing and women on the other. I took swinging as some kind of courtship ceremony, like swinging in America in the 60s only not at all. Later I learned that was the right idea, swinging together is sort of like announcing you’re engaged. Anyone can ride the swings, however, with the local folk belief holding that you lose one sin for each sway of the swing. We’d later see these swings in every village in Turkmenistan, no matter how lacking it might be in every other signifier of civilization or simple basic services.
And so we waited in this field. What the hell is going on here?
I looked around at all the locals. No one was having any fun. There were no children running around, playing. No one was laughing. Nothing in the least bit spontaneous was happening. They weren’t here for themselves. It was clear they had to be here, putting on this show. But who was the show for?
It quickly became clear it wasn’t for us, as we baked and sunburnt waiting out in that field. A few of us attempted to move into the shade, and were yelled at and told to get back to our spot. What the? I sat down. Nope, get up, you can’t sit here. What? Francine took out her iPad and started reading a book to pass the time. Some guy came over and yelled at her in Turkmen to put her iPad away. Okay then. No phones out. No sitting. Just stand here and wish you’d gone to Bali.
Hours passed like this. Somehow the people on the swings were still swinging. At one point when no one was looking I laid down in the grass and was half-asleep when we were yelled at again to get up. One of the only small children I saw was covertly playing a game on his mom’s phone until he was caught and scolded by the festival’s Aunt Lydia.
At some point a local offered Francine a seat in the shade, then someone higher-up came by and scolded her for sitting in it. Back to standing.
All of my friends on the trip wasted no time reminding me that this was all my idea. Yep, my bad. I thought Central Asia dictator hell would be more fun than this.
After four hours of this low-grade torture, there was a sound off in the distance. Everyone turned in anticipation. A helicopter emerged from over the mountains and hovered down into the festival village, touching down.
Oh shit. The president is here.
So that’s who this is all for. You poor sons of bitches.
Turkmenistan’s president, Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow, made the rounds with his Secret Service-like security detail, taking in all the traditional Turkmen goodness. Riders did horse tricks for his pleasure, riding standing up and two at a time standing on each other’s shoulders. We could only barely see any of this as we were clearly being hidden from the president’s view behind one of the swap meet booths. We peeked around the corners and took in what we could. So much for our all-access passes. Apparently the unprecedented honor we were experiencing was being this close to the president, who I could have hit with an apple had I decided I’d had enough of free living and had an apple.
After a preposterously long time, the president went into a yurt to eat and we were allowed to come out of our hiding spot and tour the fake buildings of the festival grounds. We were all far beyond giving a shit and this point and desperately wanted to leave, but no one was allowed to leave before the president left. No one.
We wandered around, taking in the impromptu swimming pool full of dying fish. A stand served fried fish “Fresh from the Caspian!” which is notorious for being one of the most polluted bodies of water in the world. We were pretty sure they were just cooking the floaters from the pool. I found a pen of camels brimming with hilarious attitude and hung out with them for a while.
Mostly I wanted to find a place to sit down. I eventually found some steps in front of a small stage and sat down there. Not two minutes later, men in costumes came by, broke down the steps, and carried them away. I walked over and sat down on a stage. As if on cue, costumed swordsmen came over, broke the stage apart and carried it away. FML.
Eventually Francine and I found a hidden away, shaded yurt to sit against, and she quickly fell asleep. Locals came over and talked to me, clearly eager to interact with a foreigner. “Why did you come here?” was the most common question. This was not a good time to ask me this question.
One local asked if we wanted some water. We hadn’t drank anything all day. Yes, please. I’d read the advice to only drink bottled water in Turkmenistan, but that wasn’t an option at all during our captivity. He came back with two Dixie cups of water and we knocked them back.
After a few more hours of this, we were gathered up and told we could finally leave. We paraded to the exit and were stopped there. Wait. The president hasn’t actually left yet. Wait here.
Two more hours passed.
“What are we doing? Are we still waiting on the president?”
“YES. Fuck that guy,” I answered. Ryan’s eyes got huge and he quickly got as far away from me as possible, while looking around for microphones.
“I don’t like dictators,” Oddbjoern from Norway confessed, offering up the understatement of the day.
Sitting there, leaning against a fake column, I had mixed feelings about the day as a whole. Without a doubt, it was completely miserable. And I didn’t even know that later that night I would come down with a wicked bacterial infection from that little Dixie cup of water and would spend most of the next day hoping to die. But a part of me was also glad to experience the real Turkmenistan. This is what it’s like to live in an insane dictatorship, where the desires of thousands of people mean nothing in the face of propping up an illusion for the sake of one man. You want to leave? You can’t. You just can’t. This isn’t really something we have any experience with in the West.
Finally, the roar of the president’s helicopter sounded overhead and he disappeared back over the mountain, back to whatever high maintenance fairy tale he lives in the rest of the time. How long had we been there? Eight hours? Ten? We were free to go.
We walked en masse with the costumed Turkmen back to the buses that had brought all of us there. The women’s traditional jewelry all loudly clanked and tinkled as we walked, like a cross between windchimes and the sound of sleigh bells.
Getting back to the hotel, we were all deeply questioning our decision to visit Turkmenistan in the first place. Many members of the group went straight to sleep, but we had an unexpected free evening in Ashgabat and I had things I wanted to see. #1 for me was Turkmenbashi’s Land of Fairy Tales, a theme park referred to ironically by the locals as Disneyland. This turned out to be the perfect antidote to the day we’d just been through.
I was mostly just expecting to take photos of a sad and bizarre abandoned theme park, but it actually ended up being a lot of fun. Nothing cuts across language and cultural barriers with the locals faster than all being upside-down on a rollercoaster together.
After taking photos of all of the rides festooned with highly unlicensed Mickey Mouses and Yogi Bears, we climbed aboard a strange roller coaster, the car of which appeared to be a screaming yellow guy with his pants falling down. I somehow got on first and the entire coaster was me and a bunch of Turkmen kids. The little boy sitting next to me wasn’t sure about me and wore a concerned “WTF?” look on his face right up until we hit the coaster’s first drop and we screamed in unison, at which point he realized I was okay and wasn’t some kind of roller coaster narc.
The next ride over looked like its primary function was making people sick, fun be damned, so we skipped it. After some bumper car fun with Ant, Hannah, Julien, JS and Dan, Mike and I boarded some kind of face-exploding upside down torture device which was both painful and fun and left me with bruises for days.
Most of the locals seemed to regard us as curiosities best ignored, but a few had mastered enough English to shout “HELLO! WHERE YOU FROM!” “Australia!” “YAY!” as we walked by.
Toward the end of the night I finally found the Fairy Tales section of Turkmenbashi’s Land of Fairy Tales, a strange, Disneyland-on-acid walk-through exhibit featuring animatronic figures from Turkmen folk tales yelling jibberish at me that I didn’t understand at all. It all started with this chicken nugget with a face on it telling us a long story:
Strange bass noises thundered out of the walls as I walked through the exhibit with a pack of bewildered 5 year olds.
The last room featured huge demons threatening to cook us in a pot, I think.
I ran into my friends again outside and told them what I’d seen. None of them believed me at all.
A bit of Turkmenistan history. Turkmenistan has spent its entire history being conquered and occupied by one foreign force after another: Alexander the Great, the Arabs, the Turks, the Mongols and finally in the 1880s, the Russians. There are all kinds of interesting stories here.
The Turkmen city of Merv was the biggest city in the world and a major center of culture and learning in the 12th centry, a major Silk Road trading post with beautiful canals and a population of over a million. Until Genghis Khan’s son Touli came to town and murdered absolutely everyone in 1221, because YOLO. Now no one’s ever heard of Merv, utterly forgotten in the dust. I find that entire concept fascinating.
In 1881, the Russian invasion culminated in the last of the Turkmen forces falling back to their impenetrable fortress of Geok Tepe, which lost its impenetrable reputation when the Russians tunneled under the thick fortress walls and set off a gigantic mine, blowing apart the wall and sending the Russian troops streaming in. And yes, that is exactly the plot of The Two Towers so I guess Tolkien knew his Turkmen history.
One of the things that amused me the most about this trip was that last year, every person I knew was utterly terrified that I was going to North Korea. Now I was going to Turkmenistan, a place with essentially all the same dangers: crazy dictator, arcane rules, isolation and an utter lack of transparency. But no one cared at all, because they’ve never heard of Turkmenistan. It’s all about the PR.
I did learn that there is a right way and a wrong way to answer everyone’s immediate response of “Turkmenistan? Where the F is that?” The right answer is “Central Asia,” which is helpfully vague and immediately ends the conversation as that person goes into a shame spiral with the realization that they know absolutely nothing about Central Asia. The wrong answer, which I gave more than once, is “It’s between Iran and Afghanistan,” which is 100% accurate and also 100% guaranteed to convince the person you’re talking to that this is the last time they will ever see you alive.
After the fall of the Soviet Union, Turkmenistan gained independence in 1991. Their First Secretary, Saparmurat Niyazov, took control, exiling all his rivals to remote prisons in the desert and executing all of the country’s gangsters, displaying their bodies on television to show off what kind of dude he was. He then wasted little time in putting together a cult of personality unrivaled anywhere outside of North Korea.
He declared himself “Turkmenbashi,” meaning “Head of the Turkmen” and renamed the town of Krasnovodsk after himself. This was just a warm-up as he went on to name everything in sight after himself and members of his family. He renamed bread after his mother. The month of January was renamed after Turkmenbashi and April was also renamed after his mother. Eventually so many things were renamed after Turkmenbashi that it became difficult to describe certain scenarios, like if you were drinking Turkmenbashi (brand vodka) with Turkmenbashi (the dude) in Turkmenbashi (the month) in the Turkmenbashi (hotel) on Turkmenbashi (street) in Turkmenbashi (the town).
You can pretty much make up any kind of strange story you want about Niyazov and it’ll either be true or less strange than the truth. He reportedly kept all drugs confiscated in Turkmenistan for himself, and would shoot his pistol at imagined enemies in the dark when he was high, sometimes shooting his own bodyguards.
Niyazov arbitrarily banned anything he didn’t like, including gold teeth, dogs, the opera, ballet, circuses, and lip syncing. If you were unlucky enough to already have gold teeth, you had to have them pulled, which was one more option than the dogs got. He forbade television anchors from wearing makeup because he had a hard time telling men and women apart. After he quit smoking, he banned it across the entire country. I’d thought the restriction on beards in my application photo had been some measure to keep out Muslim extremists, but it turns out Niyazov just didn’t like beards. So he banned them across the entire country.
He recommended the Turkmen people should chew on bones to strengthen their teeth, like dogs. But not too much like dogs. Dogs have to go.
Countless gold statues of Niyazov were erected across Turkmenistan, in concert with numerous bizarre monuments.
The strangest was the Arch of Neutrality, a giant white marble rocket with a 40 foot tall golden statue of Niyazov signaling a touchdown at the top. I know you’re wondering if the statue of Niyazov rotated all day to always face the sun. Don’t worry, it did.
When we visited the Arch of Neutrality, I looked up at the observation deck and decided that’s where I wanted to be. I approached the first of the monument’s three legs. Inside was an elevator that was obviously missing several crucial parts. I walked over to the leg on the opposite side, careful not to make eye contact with the soldiers stationed in telephone booths at the front of the monument. This elevator seemed to be intact, but when I stepped into it and pressed all the buttons like a small child or a chimpanzee trying to fire up a nuclear reactor, nothing happened. Hmmm.
I made my way to the third and final leg, in the back, with my fingers crossed. This one contained a staircase instead of an elevator, but the doors at the base of the stairs were locked. However, the sides of the staircase were only about five and a half feet high. Hmmm.
I looked around. Nobody was looking. I’m pretty sure I can climb over this wall and get up those stairs before anyone notices. But if that Niyazov statue on top is actually a member of the secret police in gold body paint, like one of those street performers who doesn’t move until you grab their tip basket and start running, I’m going to be screwed. I looked around again. I’d really like to get up there. I think I can-
My friends came around the corner.
“Sean, you are the wisest of us, I was wondering-” JS began, and I laughed and told him I was debating climbing over that wall while the soldiers weren’t looking, so he may need to recalibrate his assessment of relative wisdom.
When Niyazov was eight years old, the Ashgabat Earthquake of 1948 killed his entire family, along with 2/3rds of the population of the city. Ashgabat was so utterly destroyed that the Soviets considered just abandoning it and making a different city the capitol of the region.
The earthquake lives on today in Ashgabat’s Earthquake Monument, a huge statue of a bull shaking the world on its horns. At the top of the collapsing globe, Niyazov’s mother holds a golden baby (dude was eight, but whatever) up away from the fray with her dying breath, sacrificing herself so the chosen one could surviv- sorry, just threw up in my mouth.
My guidebook said the bull in the statue had huge balls, but they seem normally sized to us. I’m not sure what our local guide made of the fact that we entered this pavilion of somber monuments and went straight to take pictures of the bull’s balls.
Everywhere around Ashgabat, there were workers continually sweeping up the desert sand off the roads and mopping the walkways. Some were wearing matching jumpsuits. Others were wearing scarecrow masks just to give any dreams you had while in Turkmenistan some extra spice.
On the way to Darvaza, we stopped and visited the highly depressing desert village of Erbent.
In 2004, Niyazov visited the nearby village of Derweze and declared it a shithole. A few weeks later, the president’s assholes arrived and burnt the village to the ground. Derweze’s former residents now live in shanties in Erbent, hoping the president never blesses them with another visit.
The president published his masterwork in 2001, a book called the Ruhnama (“The Book of the Soul”), which is basically Turkmenistan’s Scientology. Want to pass a job interview? You’d better be able to answer questions about the Ruhnama. Want a driver’s license? You’d better have the Ruhnama memorized. Schools stopped teaching algebra and physics and taught the Ruhnama instead. Niyazov claimed he’d made a deal with Allah so that if you read the Ruhnama three times, hoofuckinray, you get right into heaven. Solid deal.
Niyazov launched a copy of the Ruhnama into orbit around the Earth in 2005, so it could conquer space. Yep.
Near Ashgabat, we visited the spotless marble mausoleum where Niyazov and his close family members were buried. We debated if the large book on a stand next to the tombs was the Qur’an, the Ruhnama or the Necronomicon, in case they ever needed to bring the Niyazovs back for special occasions. From our vantage point on the balcony upstairs we could see down into the circular crypt, like we were about to watch Jean-Claude Van Damme splits a guy to death. We unanimously decided that the earthquake deaths were just a cover story to hide the Niyazov family’s poor showing in Bloodsport 5: Monumental Fury.
Nearby, a gigantic mosque sat utterly empty.
The entrance to the mosque was adorned with quotes from the Qur’an on one side, and the Ruhnama on the other. Our guide told us that locals didn’t pray at this mosque because it was too grand for their small minds and they preferred their shitty little mosques out in the country. In actuality, most Muslims find the blending of Qur’an and Ruhnama to be entirely blasphemous. Many mosques that refused orders to display the Ruhnama as prominently as the Qur’an were demolished by the state.
Inside the mosque, a beautiful, trippy pattern on the domed ceiling seems to curl and twist as you lie on your back on the floor, staring up at the curving lines and feeling like you’re flying through space. Man it would be great to get a photo of that.
The mosque, like almost everything we saw in Turkmenistan, was built by the French company Bouygues. The company came under fire after Wikileaks revealed that they had built over 50 buildings in Ashgabat by inflating their bids by 30% to cover the cost of bribes to local officials. Turkmenistan was recently ranked as one of the 13 most corrupt countries in the world. Get a new entry ready, Guinness Book!
In central Ashgabat there sits the wackiest thing in the entire country, the Ruhnama monument. This is a huge copy of Niyazov’s book, surrounded by fountains. It’s broken now, but when it worked, at 8pm each day the giant book would open and play a recording of Niyazov reading particularly choice nuggets from the Ruhnama.
At this point in our monumental tour we hadn’t seen a bathroom in hours and I was suffering from a devastating need to pee. The gurgling, splashing Ruhnama fountains were not doing me any favors whatsoever. I seriously considered ducking behind one of the highly-manicured trees surrounding the fountains for relief, but it seemed like there was at least an 80% chance one of those trees was a secret police officer in a tree disguise, and I hadn’t studied the Ruhnama well enough to pass the entrance exam at the county jail.
English copies of the Ruhnama are difficult to find, but apparently the book’s contents are shockingly pedestrian, cruelly disappointing anyone who was hoping for paranoid rantings and tales of Xenu. The book seems to be more of a collection of inspirational kitten poster quotes about eating your vegetables and getting a solid eight hours of sleep each night. Somehow this makes the whole thing even funnier to me.
Oh, also, Niyazov couldn’t read. So yeah.
Shortly after declaring himself “President for Life,” Niyazov hilariously died in 2006. He was quickly succeeded by his Minister of Health, former dentist Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow. Berdimuhamedow is badly in need of a snappy “Turkmenbashi” style nickname for my own sake in typing this if nothing else. Actually, I’m just going to give him one: Gurby. I like that it makes him sound like a talking bear puppet that came to life.
Gurby is rumored to be Niyazov’s illegitimate son. Technically, Chairman of the Assembly Ovezgeldy Ataev was supposed to succeed Niyazov after his death, but Gurby had Ataev and his wife imprisoned instead and no one knows what happened to them. After taking over, Gurby began dismantling Niyazov’s cult of personality, lending hope that Turkmenistan was opening up to the modern world. But in time it became clear that Gurby was just clearing room for his own cult of personality and his own gold statues.
I’m left wondering if Gurby was always the man he is now. Did he really just take his time in revealing himself as the next Niyazov, or is this just what inheriting absolute power does to a person? Once the interpersonal checks and balances are gone, would we all twist ourselves into this shape eventually?
Today there are giant portraits of Gurby everywhere, to the point where every couple getting married is required to take their wedding photos with a portrait of Gurby behind them, so he can get into the Guinness Book of World Records for the most photobombs.
He is on the cover of virtually every magazine. I’m not kidding:
Gurby is a bit of a neat freak, and so it’s illegal to drive a dirty car in Ashgabat. On our way back from the desert, our drivers pulled over and spent an improbably long time and an unconscionable amount of water power washing every last trace of the desert off of their SUVs before we entered Ashgabat. Recently, the president banned black cars. Any owners of black cars had to pay to have them repainted white or silver.
So if you’ve ever wondered what it would be like to live in Steve Jobs’ kingdom, there you go.
Gurby’s big passion, however, is for white marble. Over the course of several years he gradually had every building in central Ashgabat rebuilt out of Italian white marble, to where now the entire city looks like Donald Trump’s bathroom. In 2013, the Guinness Book of World Records recognized Ashgabat as having the highest density of white marble buildings in the world, a category of record that could not have possibly existed before this. The Guinness Book clearly exists at this point solely to egg on dictators to do stupid shit like this. I have no doubt the first three copies published each year go to Kim-Jong Un, Gurby and the crown prince of Saudi Arabia, so they can sit and stew late into the night that some asshole built a taller flagpole.
That’s not a joke, we drove by the 436 foot tall Ashgabat Flagpole, which was the tallest in the world until it was later rudely surpassed by even more phallic flagpoles in North Korea, Azerbaijan, Tajikistan and Saudi Arabia.
The white marble center of Ashgabat is both beautiful and utterly empty. Very few people live or work in the gleaming office buildings, apartments and hotels that line Ashgabat’s main streets. The parks and squares are empty. This is reportedly both due to the cost of living in this area and the circular fact that no one wants to live in an area where no one lives.
You know a country is not effing around when their bus stops look like this:
It’s air conditioned, and inside there was a TV playing footage of the Nowruz festival. Hey, that’s us! We’re on Turkmenistan TV! Oh Mike you should have peed.
Possibly the craziest thing Gurby has banned during his presidency is the apartment air conditioner. During a presidential procession through the city, somebody’s air conditioner fell out of their window and slammed to the earth with a loud bang, leading to moments of confusion where the president thought he was being assassinated by a lip-syncing dog with gold teeth. Gurby responded to this scare in a completely sane fashion, sending work crews to tear down all the window air conditioners in a city where summer temperatures get up to 120 degrees. Savvy residents moved their air conditioners to the back alley sides of their apartments, then when those were questioned, they moved them again to interior hallways.
As part of his efforts to replace Niyazov’s legacy with his own, in 2010 Gurby had the Monument of Neutrality moved from the center of town out to the suburbs. Seeing as how the monument is 312 feet high, we were all baffled at how this was even achieved. I prefer to believe it involved a dozen helicopters and a single unicycle. However they moved it, they managed to break the statue of Niyazov so that it doesn’t rotate any more.
Turkmenistan: Come, see our crazy rotating wait never mind sorry.
While attending an event in New York in 2009, the car rental company wouldn’t let Gurby drill a hole in his limo to mount a Turkmen flag. So he just bought the damn limousine for $500,000, promptly adding two Turkmen flags and his suction cup window Garfield.
After Turkmen students started coming back from Western universities with weird ideas about not spending all of your money on gold toilets, Gurby began to block students from leaving the country and heavily censored the internet. Most social media is still blocked, and Google search results are a weird crapshoot. Our second night in Turkmenistan, wrecked with a bacterial infection from that Dixie cup of water, I was Googling on my phone to find the best course of treatment. Here we go, this link preview looks perfect: “If you have these symptoms of bacterial infection, just-” Tap. Nothing. Page won’t load. Again and again.
After Gurby came into power, there was a brief period where the borders weren’t being watched very closely, and large numbers of Turkmen left on tourist visas and never came back.
Now, Turkmenistan has an extensive blacklist of the people and types of people who are not allowed to leave the country. Political dissident or civil activist, or their family? Nope. A student who has been accepted into a foreign university? Nope. Grammar school teacher? Nope. Government official or bank officer? Nope. Doctor? Journalist? Nope, nope. Good horse breeder? Hell nope. Anyone tired of Turkmenistan’s lousy medical system who wants to seek treatment abroad? Nope. No need, silly person, our care is the best. We’ve saved you a pointless trip. You’re welcome.
Driving outside the city, our driver was frequently required to stop at police checkpoints and hand over our permits and possibly a bribe for us to enter the next region:
The acronym for the road police, displayed proudly on every checkpoint, is, I shit you not, PYGG.
In 2017, Gurby spent 5 billion dollars building a shiny new sports complex in Ashgabat for the 2017 Asian Indoor and Martial Arts Games. Keeping in mind this was a one-time event in a country that is almost impossible to visit. Locals sarcastically refer to the facility as “The Olympics.” Turkmen are pretty awesome at sarcasm. Every time we drove by, the complex sat empty, its monorail motionless.
Despite all of this craziness, Gurby remains extremely popular, receiving 97% of the vote in Turkmenistan’s not at all sketchy 2017 election. I’m kidding their election is total bullshit.
Turkmenistan’s many ministry buildings are all decorated in extremely literal fashion, like the Wedding Ministry with the big wedding ring on top or the giant coin on the roof of the Ministry of Banking. This was a really considerate touch for illiterates and non-Turkmen speaking tourists alike.
We drove by Turkmenistan’s Ministry of Horse Breeding, a gleaming office building with a giant horseshoe on the front, and I attempted not to picture office after office inside full of strewn, broken furniture, collapsed cubicle walls and knocked out ceiling tiles as horses boned awkwardly and secretaries ran for cover, repeatedly submitting fruitless requests to be transferred to the Ministry of Shoes.
All of this means nothing, however, in the face of the Alem Ferris Wheel, Ashgabat’s pièce de résistance.
This is, have no doubt about it, the world’s largest indoor Ferris wheel. Thanks for inventing another made-up category, you Guinness bastards. Depending on whom you ask, the name of this Ferris wheel translates to either “The Universe,” “The Wheel of Enlightenment” or “Crazy Star Trek Bullshit.” It is all three.
Inside, Mike and I somehow totally bypassed the line for tickets and ended up heading up the empty ramps to the Ferris wheel capsules alone.
“This would be a terrible country to get high in,” Mike mused. “You’d never know when you’d come down.”
There was some kind of gilded service tube that led up into the guts of the Ferris wheel and it took everything I had to not climb up that ladder, desert prison be damned.
The capsules rose up as the wheel turned, giving us fantastic Rub el Hizb-framed views of Ashgabat’s utterly empty parks, squares and streets.
The capsule in front of us was also empty, and looking closer we realized it was decked out with luxurious leather upholstery and it had a TV inside. This was clearly the VIP capsule. Did the president have his own capsule that sat empty for the 99.99% of the time he wasn’t riding this Ferris wheel? Fabulous.
Francine screamed from below us as a bee flee into her capsule. I stared out across the desert at the mountains in the distance. The inner windowsills of the Ferris wheel’s massive white and gold enclosure featured a frankly alarming number of dead birds.
Beneath the Ferris wheel there was an arcade that was absolutely bananas. I had to delete apps off my phone to make room for photos of all the weird shit in there:
The only thing in Turkmenistan that could compete with the sheer awesomeness of the Doorway to Hell was Yangykala canyon, a dramatic former seabed of multicolored buttes that wouldn’t be out of place in Arizona or southern Utah, but that has an alien strangeness all its own. Francine, Mike and I will be returning to Turkmenistan in October as part of a larger tour of Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan, and at first I was thinking that tour’s two days in Turkmenistan might be enough to get my fill of the country. But then I saw photos of Yangykala canyon, where the October tour didn’t go, and immediately I had no choice but to go to Turkmenistan twice in one year.
Driving through the empty desert all day to get to the Canyon, Alex and I discussed politics and solved all of the world’s problems while our driver occasionally looked over to see if any of the yak yak yak nonsense we were speaking was foreigner for “Pull over I have to pee.” Wild camels wandered the desert as we drove by, occasionally inspiring us to pull over and photograph their belching majesty.
The pinnacle of any Yangykala visit is the Crocodile’s Mouth, an overlook where the cliff juts out like a diving board and provides a great spot to take some photos with the canyon’s dramatic buttes off in the distance behind you. It’s a hell of a drop straight down from that spot, and it was crazy windy when we were there, so we all tiptoed out not particularly close to the edge for the first round of photos.
I managed to get into a yoga tree pose without major incident, but that felt a little anticlimactic to me. Once everyone had a photo done I went back out and Francine took a photo of me with my legs dangling over the edge.
That was cool. What else can we do? Oh, let’s try this!
With each jump the wind blew me back from my starting point and I heard Ralph’s hilarious commentary in the background.
“Oh God. Oh dear god!”
“I want to take a jumping photo!” Hannah announced enthusiastically.
“Please don’t take a jumping photo,” her husband Ant requested, fruitlessly. I got some great shots of Hannah suspended in mid-air. They also took this adorable photo:
Oh, and Dan did a headstand! Cheers Dan:
After the photo shoot we separated to wander around and take in the view from different vantage points as it spread out around us in all directions. I found one spot on the opposite side with a particularly good view. Parallel to the cliff I was standing on, there was a rock pillar even further out that was only separated from the cliff by a gap of a few feet. I bet the view from out there is really great. I looked down. It was an easy jump, but getting it wrong would mean falling hundreds of feet to your death. I had no doubt I could make it, but as I looked at the crumbling cliff face below me I realized it might be tough to jump back. Probably better not to chance it.
I had no idea of this at the time, but Mike had actually had the exact same idea as me 20 minutes earlier, and had jumped out onto the pillar to get a photo. When he jumped back and grabbed onto the crumbly cliff face, part of it broke away and he was left hanging by one hand.
Thankfully he was able to pull himself back up, but I couldn’t help but laugh at the dark comedy of the two of us potentially falling off the exact same cliff 20 minutes after each other. “Welp, I guess we need one fewer hotel room now.”
On the way back from the canyon, our SUV stopped suddenly and our driver gestured for Alex and I to get out. What the- Oh, we have a REALLY flat tire. Huh. There was some kind of “no man left behind” buddy system amongst the drivers of our six SUVs that was foiled somewhat by how goddamned slow our driver was. Eventually one of the other drivers came back for us, as Alex and I shivered out in the cold wind and our driver fruitlessly attempted to figure out how to use his jack.
Thankfully the other SUV also had a driver who also didn’t know how to use a jack. They tried the jack from the other SUV, to equal result. We were sitting in the other SUV embroiled in an intense game of 20 questions when I saw our driver walk by with two large rocks he’d picked up from the side of the road, which I shit you not, they combined somehow with the two jacks to finally Fred Flintstone our SUV up off the ground.
The blown tire had a massive ten-inch spike through it. Normally you’d wonder where in the hell that came from, but looking around the roadside at the random scrap desert garbage strewn everywhere, I was more surprised we’d only lost one tire. A bald, completely desperate-looking spare tire came off the back of our ride and after much futzing around, they’d tossed the demolished, filthy tire on top of our suitcases in the back and we were roadworthy once again. The entire affair took about two hours.
My co-workers seemed concerned when I told them I’d be swimming in a cave with Central Asia’s largest bat colony.
“I’m pretty sure the bats will be asleep. And I got my rabies shots.”
As we entered the crack in the rocks and started down the alarmingly steep staircase down in the cave, the overpowering stench of sulphur filled our lungs. I really hoped I wasn’t the only one jumping into the lake, because I didn’t want to be the only person making the van smell like rotten egg salad on the way back.
Down in the cave, the ceiling was carpeted in squeaking bats and the occasional out of place cooing pigeon. Down, down, down into the dark until we reached the changing area, which was just a couple of curtains strung above a concrete pad.
Trunks on, I made my way down the wet stone steps and immediately wished I’d kept my shoes on as my toes fruitlessly attempted to grip the slimy steps, which were all slanted forward, down toward the dark water.
Into the warm mineral water with the locals, who did their best to ignore us. Traditionally, soaking in this lake was believed to cure you of all kinds of ills. I wondered what the break-even point was between the medicinal qualities of the mineral content and the bacterial load of guano-soaked cave water.
I waded out, toe-touching the bottom, until the point where the floor suddenly dropped away and the lake became dramatically deeper. I pushed off and instantly shot straight down like an anchor. Okay! We’ve got some reverse Dead Sea action here, I do not float in this strange water.
Ralph, Alex and Mike joined me in the lake, while Dan, who had gone to great lengths to buy bottled water, soap and a loofah to scrub the sulphur stench off with after the swim, took one look at the murky water and said “Oh yeah fuck that.”
We’d been warned to not swim too far out into the lake, as there are only lights at one end, once you get around a corner in the cave you’re in the pitch black and can easily lose your bearings and not know which way to swim to get back. My lack of buoyancy and I were in no danger of chancing this. Mike dove in off a high rock and yelled something about getting guano in his mouth as he swam into the deep.
Reaching beyond the “this is really only good for you in moderation” recommended time limit, we got out and climbed our way back up out of the cave into the sunlight.
Up top, the others went for beers at a nearby food tent, and I went to find a restroom. I found one, but the finding was just the beginning.
The restroom building had one door on each end. One end was marked with and E, the other was marked with an A. One of them was the men’s room and one the women’s, but there were no stick figures or color cues, just the letters. Without being able to speak Turkmen, there was no way to know which was which. Shit.
I eenie meanie miney moed my way into the door on the right. Inside was a squat toilet, which is a nice way of saying there was just a hole in the floor for you to do your business into. The inside of the restroom smelled like death, but bad.
Leaving the restroom after I was done, a little girl was waiting outside. She promptly went in the door I had just exited. Damn you eenie meanie, you’ve failed me for the last time.
One of the first places we visited outside of Ashgabat was a horse farm where the owner gave us a very long spiel about Turkmenistan’s special horses.
We had no idea if the horses are actually special by any worldwide standard or if they’re “Kazakhstan has superior potassium” special. After the horse guy finished, he opened the floor for questions. I raised my hand and asked what the crazy birds were that were running all over the farm with their multi-colored faces, making strange noises. He looked at me like I had just asked which flavor of paste tastes the best. Trish from our group explained that they were Guinea hens, in the tone you’d use if someone asked you what a squirrel was. The horse dude agreed.
I honestly didn’t care about the horses at all, but they had a fantastic huge mellow dog that I could have hung out with all day.
They also had a great camel who was in love with bread. If you needed someone shot or shivved in prison I’m pretty sure this camel could have made it happen for some bread.
We took turns feeding bread to the camel, which it devoured like it was air. Alex lingered a bit too long while feeding the camel and was repaid in a quart of smelly camel drool all over his shirt. Awesome.
Inside the house we were served lunch. It was only our third day in the country and I was still feeling out Turkmenistan’s vegan options. Generally, the countries where it’s hardest to find vegan food are the ones that have absolutely no concept of veganism (check) and where you can’t speak the language, so it’s impossible to explain the concept to whoever is providing your food (check). So we were two for two in Turkmenistan.
“Don’t worry, they have option for vegetarians,” our guide reassured me and the three vegetarians in our group.
Soon after, it came, in the form of stew. The vegetarian option was the same lamb stew everyone else was eating, only when they ladled out your bowl they tried not to get any hunks of lamb in that scoop. Hmmmmkay.
We wheeled into Awaza, Turkmenistan’s swanky resort town on the shores of the Caspian Sea. This is one of the strangest places I’ve ever been. As empty as Ashgabat is, Awaza is ten times emptier. As far as I could tell, our 16-person tour group were the only guests in the entire town. And yet all around us, they were building even more resorts, resplendent with elaborate water slides and theme park rides we badly wished were open.
In 2013, Jennifer Lopez caught a giant rash of shit for performing at Gurby’s 57th birthday party in Awaza. When asked how she felt about performing for a dictator with so many human rights abuses on his record, she replied “They paid me $1.5 million, which felt really good.”
No expense has been spared in building Awaza’s countless vacant hotels and resorts. Everything gleams, emptily. The neon shines for no one. Our SUVs were required to park on the outskirts of town and we had to load all of our luggage into a bus for the short ride to the hotel, for absolutely no reason whatsoever.
Inside, the hotel was all gleaming marble and gold. Mike played the piano at the base of the grand staircase as Gurby looked on approvingly from a portrait on the wall.
Entering our room was a “Damn, now THIS is a hotel room!” moment, as everything was glitzy in white and our bathrobes were folded into the shape of a flower or something. But the hotel also had a healthy dose of North Korea to it, which quickly became apparent as we struggled to open the sliding door out onto the balcony. Inside the bathroom, the water came out brown and smelled foul. Are we the first people to stay in this hotel this year? That’s why the water’s brown, right?
We had some difficulty getting back downstairs from our room, as the elevators refused to stop on our floor. Mike, Sarah and I explored the floor looking for a way out, opening several doors to reveal eerily identical hallways to nowhere. Eventually we found a hidden elevator that was willing to do us a personal favor and take us down to the ground floor.
Down in the restaurant, we swapped room stories (“Is your water brown, too? I looked down and was like, damn, I thought I flushed that toilet.”) as the hotel’s only employee very slowly took our orders and returned with the food within a snappy tight window of about three and a half hours. I only got half the things I’d ordered but was very used to it by this point, since every meal I’d ordered in Turkmenistan either didn’t come at all, arrived in some very compromised state, or they just brought me an entirely unrelated entrée. It had become a running joke that I was a travel disaster magnet.
As the sun went down outside I remembered that one of my goals for the trip was to swim, or at least wade into, the Caspian Sea. This was complicated by a couple of factors. I was planning on full-on swimming until I read about the high degrees of industrial pollution in the Caspian, to where it’s not recommended to swim in the sea at all. Okay, so wading then. Even this was complicated by the revelation that the Caspian Sea is both freezing cold and absolutely packed with sea snakes.
I don’t think I’m afraid of many things, but snakes in water are very high up on the list. There’s just something unfair about the idea of encountering a snake in that environment, it’s like if sharks or spiders could fly. I read a blog by a guy who traveled to Awaza determined to swim in the Caspian Sea, and the second he waded into the water, several Caspian Whip Snakes popped up out of the water all around him, like Medusa’s hair. GAAAH.
I believe in facing your fears, though, so I planned to wade on in, and then punch a snake in the face and run if I had to.
Unfortunately, we’d arrived at Awaza so late that it was now dark, and we’d be leaving again early in the morning. I guess I’m wading into the Caspian Sea at night. Ryan wanted to put a pinky in the sea, so we headed out from the hotel together.
Walking out across the pier, the sea swelled darkly beneath my feet and the wind blew. The resorts on the shore pulsed in changing neon colors. Our hotel was the most boring one on the beach, just a big white box. The one next to us was straight out of Blade Runner and another one down the strip looked like a giant birthday cake. I shivered in the wind. It’s probably not going to be any warmer when I get in the water.
I took off my shoes and waded into the water. Kind of cold. Like, icepick in the balls cold. Wow. The kind of cold where all the blood rushes to the surface of your skin and you actually feel deceptively warm for a second. I rolled up my pants above the knee and waded in deeper. Nothing I was stepping on in the dark felt like a sea snake. Actually this is probably the best time to do this. There are surely snakes in this water but hell if I can see them. A wave came in and hit me at mid-thigh, and I involuntarily screamed. Okay, this is hypothermia cold. I think I’m good on the Caspian Sea experience.
I waded back out of the water and as I was brushing the sand off my feet, Ryan marched over and touched the surf with the tip of his pinkie finger.
Ryan’s a highly entertaining cat, a self-described princess whose intense aversion to anything dirty or uncomfortable is matched only by his apparent compulsion to put himself into dirty and uncomfortable situations over and over again in the name of travel.
Ryan held his Caspianed hand out and held it away from his body with his other hand, like this appendage was surely going to have to be removed.
“Are you okay if I just leave you here, I have to go bathe in Purell, fun times,” he walked by, not pausing for an answer, and held his infected hand away from his body like it was a bomb, all the way back to the hotel.
Back at the hotel, half of our group still hadn’t received their food. After their orders finally came, we set out to explore the hotel. There’s an indoor soccer field! We played an impromptu match and I did my best to keep up in spite of not having played soccer since I was seven years old. Our team won in spite of demonstrating repeatedly that beer and intense cardio sports are a terrible, terrible combination.
After this we somehow ended up on the roof. I think it was Jack who had gone exploring and found a secret pathway to a long-abandoned roof deck. From there, there was a metal ladder on the wall reaching up into the black, to some higher, roofier level of roof. I started climbing up and half way up the ladder began to wobble back and forth, seemingly eager to come off the wall altogether. I paused to consider my options and suddenly someone was yelling at us in Turkmen. Oh hey, they have a security guard. Wait, we’re not supposed to be up here? Now you tell us!
In the morning we headed to the nearby port town of Turkmenbashi, to Turkmenbashi International Airport, which absolutely does not service any international flights whatsoever, for our domestic flight back to Ashgabat.
Here’s JS with his new Turkmen family:
Here we were, in the middle of nowhere, and up in the mountain above us there was some kind of temple we were here to see. Our guide said something about a woman disappearing in the mountain as explanation and wished us luck, as walking up the steps wasn’t her thing.
The locals here were younger and seemed intrigued by our presence. Several even knew enough English to say hello and wish us a good morning. This is fun. Up the mountain we went, until we reached the temple. Mike and Jack each hurdled the safety railing in opposite directions and began exploring the fairly sketchy and steep mountain sides. I was curious what was going on inside the temple, so Jean-Sebastien and I took off our shoes and followed the locals inside.
Once in the tiny room inside, were each handed a piece of tan cloth. JS and I looked at each other. This is for… we have absolutely no idea what to do with this. The locals kneeled for a prayer that appeared to have some relation to Islam but seemed to me to tie more into Turkmen folk beliefs, as much as I could tell from not understanding a single word of it.
After the prayer, the locals lined up at the entrance of a tiny hallway at the back of the room that headed straight into the mountain. We got in line. People were disappearing into a dark hole at the back of the hallway and then walking out backwards, in two minute shifts. We waited our turn awkwardly, stooped in the low, cramped hallway. Once we reached the front of the line we entered a tiny cave roughly the size of a bedroom closet. Four people could kneel shoulder to shoulder on the cave floor. Once inside, it was pitch black and utterly silent.
I closed my eyes, then opened them. It was the same either way. Kneeling in the cave felt a bit like floating in space. It struck me that this was like a form of meditation, all the senses cut off in this dark void. I closed my eyes again and cleared my mind. An eerie energy vibrated through the cave as we kneeled. Huh, very interesti- Oh! Time to go!
We awkwardly backed out and then stood in the other room, not sure if we were supposed to leave the tan cloths somewhere. The Turkmen leading the prayers tried to give us more tan cloths until we showed that we already had some. Huh, seems like we’re supposed to keep these. We backed out of the room and into the sunlight.
Walking back down the mountain, I met the curious glances of the locals coming up the hill with a hello.
“SALAM!” they’d respond enthusiastically, and happily. Knowing one word in Turkmen is quite an icebreaker.
Part-way down the mountain there was a rock pillar off to one side that women were walking around in a counter-clockwise circle as some kind of ceremony. I decided to give this a shot and got in line. Each woman was walking up to the stone, putting her forehead against the rock, reaching each hand into two holes in the rock, and saying a prayer, before walking up and around the pillar in a circle. The women who were finishing the circuit were all looking at me like I was a giraffe wearing a top hat.
Is this only for women? No other guys here. Maybe they’re praying for fertility. Hard to say. Well, it doesn’t matter, I’m never going to see any of these people again.
When my turn came, a woman gestured for me to take my turn at the rock, which seemed to indicate this was for guys too, they were just looking at me like I was an alien from another planet because I was an alien from another planet.
I walked up and put my forehead on the rock, higher up than the worn spot at Turkmen forehead height. I reached my fingers into the slots in the rock and said a little prayer. Counter clockwise circle, don’t push any old ladies off the mountain, and there you go, back on the walking path with the locals and the cows.
One local woman on the parallel path kept looking over at me as we both walked down the mountain. At the point where the two paths met, she approached me.
“Hello. Where are you from?”
She was an English teacher. We talked for a while about why we were there and what we’d seen so far. She seemed amazed that we were all from different countries and yet had come to Turkmenistan together. It turned out that people were reacting like they’d never seen a foreigner before because they’d never seen a foreigner before.
Jack and Caroline came down the mountain and joined the conversation. More and more teenage girls were gathering around us. One of them worked up the nerve to ask for a selfie and then the dam broke and we were locked into a long series of selfies with young Turkmen ladies.
Finding out that I was from the US inspired no reaction at all, but as soon as they heard that Jack was from the UK, the young ladies were all over Jack like camel drool on Alex’s shirt. I was fascinated by this. Was the UK a more realistic green card option for them? Maybe I was carrying the burden of America’s reputation on my back, hard to say. I didn’t have any time to feel rejected as I was too busy trying to figure out why the UK revelation had set their hearts aflame. The English teacher was asking Jack how old he was and it was clear she was pleased that they were a match, age-wise. Oh man, this is hilarious.
It’s at this point that I should mention that my friend Jack is wonderfully, unambiguously gay.
For some reason the teacher exchanged WhatsApp numbers with Caroline, who was otherwise utterly ignored in this entire exchange and beyond ready to get off the selfie train. The fantastic part of the story that I didn’t find out until a few days later is that the English teacher proceeded to text Caroline daily.
“How’s Jack?” “How is Jack doing?” “How come I haven’t heard from Jack?”
I could not get enough of this story and checked in frequently with Caroline for the rest of the trip for updates.
The Bazaar at the bottom of the hill sold all sorts of assorted crap, and two gems. One was a pudgy Korean doll thing that sang Gangnam Style. The other was a cover for your passport that made it look like a Turkmenistan passport. I quickly bought the latter.
I still had it on my passport when we were leaving the country. At one of the five redundant passport control checks on our way through the airport, the guy flipped out and flagged me down.
“Turkmenistan??” he asked, looking at my passport.
“Nah, man, it’s just a joke.”
His eyes were wide, clearly I had broken his brain by being a white dude with what appeared to be a Turkmenistan passport. He didn’t know what to do.
“It’s just a cover, see, it-” He didn’t speak English so I don’t know what I was hoping to accomplish.
Eventually he either figured it out or went into a reboot cycle from the shock and I was free to get into the next passport control line.
This guy was a bit more savvy and smiled when he saw my passport.
“Turkmenistan?” he smirked, approvingly.
After a long drive through the desert, we spent the night in the town of Balkanabat in the heart of Turkmenistan’s oil-producing region. The air was thick with a grey haze that we spent our entire time debating over whether this air soup was oil refinery pollution, desert sand or fog.
In spite of being in the midst of a white marble Ashgabatization, Balkanabat is really fucking depressing. Not even our giant yurt-shaped hotel could distract from the fact that this would be a super depressing place to live. Our hotel had a pool, but there was no water in it. It had a ping pong table, but only one ball. The ball was cracked in half. The hotel employee taped it back together for us, like that was a thing.
Beyond the monument district...
...it’s all depressing grey concrete in the shadow of the mountains.
One thing I found fascinating is that everyone in Turkmenistan has a satellite dish, regardless of their otherwise apparent level of poverty.
As we walked around town I started to spot the blue windowed buildings I’d read about. In certain areas, the buildings are required to have blue windows for aesthetic purposes, which the residents naturally hate since it makes everything inside their house blue, like an under the sea dance that never ends.
We wandered around the town until we found the Monument to the Desert Explorers:
The monument was fun since it’s supposedly honoring the Russian prospectors who found oil in the region, leading to the creation of this city, but everyone except the Turkmen guide in the statue is clearly a dumbass who is in way over their heads.
Walking the town freely was fun both because this kind of thing had been impossible when we were in North Korea and because technically it was supposed to be impossible here too. Foreigners are free to travel around Ashgabat on their own, but everywhere else around the country you’re supposed to have a local guide with you. Five minutes after we got into town our guide said you mofos are on your own and went to bed. This perfectly illustrated the major difference between North Korea and Turkmenistan.
Both countries have a similar set of repressive and arbitrary rules. But in North Korea, everyone seems to be a true believer, or else they’re terrified of not appearing to be a true believer. So everything is passionately enforced. But in Turkmenistan, nobody really gives a shit. The universal attitude is much more like “Yeah, we have this stupid shit we have to deal with, what are you gonna do?”
After figuring this out, I was free to do things like take pictures inside the airport, which every guide book makes sound like an instant death sentence. I’d started with covert hip shots, then gradually got more and more brazen. I was taking about my 20th photo of the ceiling of the Ashgabat airport when one of the guards finally noticed.
“Hey! Sir!” he called over. Uh oh.
He made an “X” gesture with his arms, and shook his head. That was it. No questions, no interest in deleting the photos I’d already taken.
In a bizarre way, this was sort of disappointing. I mean, of course it’s fantastic for the people that all of this bullshit is falling apart and they’re much more free to live their lives than we expected. But purely as a tourist there to experience the quirk, you do feel slightly cheated. And then you feel a little dirty for feeling cheated.
On the street in Balkanabat, we were openly gawked at by the locals. Whatever small quantity of foreigners do make it to Turkmenistan, they sure as hell aren’t jetting up to Balkanabat to see the dirty concrete. Giving a passing car a thumbs up for their choice of music was enough to inspire them to peel out around the traffic circle in their shitty little Soviet car and cheer. God, that was adorable.
Headed back to our hotel, we ran into a gang of Russian-speaking Turkmen teenagers. A few members of our group spoke either a little Turkish (which is similar to Turkmen) or a little Russian, but we never seemed to have the right person with us to contend with the fact that the more educated locals spoke only Russian, while the less educated only spoke Turkmen.
The teenagers knew some English and seemed primarily interested in talking to me, either because of my Chinese-approved approachable energy or because the rest of my friends had more effectively brushed them off. I ended up hanging out with one kid and meeting all of his friends.
“This is my friend Vlad. He is bitch!”
Vlad naturally took offense at this characterization, in a kind of bitchy way.
My new friend showed me around town, naming all the landmarks and ministry buildings. He showed me countless photos on his phone of all his friends, schoolmates and teachers.
“Your English is pretty good-”
“No, my English teacher is shit. See photo? This is History teacher. He is bitch too.”
He showed me photos of his family vacation to Awaza and told me about his car. Our conversation was regularly interrupted by the chirping of his phone as his friends checked in. It was nice to see this kid having a relatively normal teenage experience in spite of living in the asshole of Turkmenistan.
He was in the middle of arranging for more of his friends to come over when I realized I had no idea where my friends were. I said my goodbyes and set off to find where in this big dirty city my friends had gone off to.
After the bat cave, we made our way to Nohur, a small village in the mountainous region northwest of Ashgabat. I don’t know if the itinerary was intentionally giving us a stark contrast to the preposterous glitz of Ashgabat, but they accomplished it. Nohur was dirt poor, and it was honestly shocking seeing people living in dilapidated mud shacks so soon after touring Ashgabat’s endless streets full of utterly empty white marble hotels and gleaming, unoccupied office buildings. If you didn’t already think Ashgabat’s grandeur was a stupid way to spend money, Nohur really drove it home.
Nohur’s fascinating cemetery featured goat horns on top of nearly every tombstone.
“Wow, is this a cemetery for goats?” Mike asked. I’m not sure our tour guide liked us very much.
We wondered out loud if all the goats in town said “Oh, fuuuck” every time a person died. Was it that person’s own personal goat who supplied the horns on their gravestone? Or just the low goat on the totem pole who had fallen out of favor for his can-eating antics?
In town we visited a mythical hollow tree that you can climb inside to make a wish. We respected local tradition by fitting a bunch of us in there for a selfie:
There was some crack up in the mountain that we climbed up to see. Some woman was supposed to have disappeared into there, don’t worry, none of that made any sense to us either.
Walking around Nohur, I felt my own good fortune intensely. Looking around, I reflected on the likelihood that none of these people will ever leave Turkmenistan. It’s probable they will never know anything other than life in this tiny town. As someone who has gradually come to define true wealth as the freedom to have a variety of new and different experiences, I was struck by their isolation even more than their lack of material comforts. No doubt they have joy and happiness in their lives, but the thought of deleting everywhere I’ve been and everything I’ve done from my own life really chilled me.
That night we all stayed with a local family out in the mountains. Dinner was served on the floor in the main room. I’d painted myself into a corner by getting sick from the local water on the very first day, which meant that uncooked fruits and vegetables (washed in that same water) were off the menu for me as well as the usual meat, dairy and eggs. So there wasn’t much for me here. Our guide eventually noticed the vegetarians didn’t have much going on and offered to have the hosts make us something.
“What do you want? You could have rice with onions and carrots?”
“That sound great, thanks.”
A half an hour passed. Then a little boy walked in and handed me a bowl. Inside was rice, with onions and carrots, and a huge hunk of chicken on top. Mmm. Maybe they’re making this dish for everyone and this is just the omnivore version? I handed the bowl off to someone else and waited. A few more bowls of the same came out, then nothing. Huh. That rice looks good, if they could just do a bowl with no chicken… another half an hour passed. I mentioned to our guide that the dish she’d mentioned never came out.
“Oh! I’ll have them make you some.”
Another half-hour later, the boy came back with a bowl. Inside was some kind of soupy white gruel. No onions, no carrots. It wasn’t even the same kind of rice. He then brought me second bowl of the same stuff. Huh. The rice with the chicken looked fine, what was this stuff? I took a bite. OOF. It was crunchy, undercooked white rice, completely unseasoned and wet. I retched involuntarily and hoped the host family hadn’t noticed.
Shit. I’d brought enough food with me on the trip that missing a meal or two was no big deal. But now I was in a bind where if I didn’t eat any of this special meal I was going to offend the host family. When they were out of the room I dumped one bowl of rice into the other and stirred it around so it looked like I’d eaten some, and snuck out.
That night we slept side by side on the floor of that same room, my friends snoring in surround sound all around me. Lying in the dark I had one of those moments when you suddenly realize where you are. On the floor of some strange family’s house in the mountains of Turkmenistan. God, life is crazy.
I wanted no part of an awkward breakfast in the morning, so I got up early and set out to hike up the mountain behind the house to see the sunrise. There was much loose shitty scree on the way up but eventually I made my way to the lip right below the mountain’s ridge. Little mountain birds swooped below me. Our host house sat tiny at the foot of the mountain. Across the valley, on the opposite mountain plateau there was a large cattle operation waking up for the morning.
I looked up at the ridge. I’d have to rock climb a bit to get to the very top- I looked back over my shoulder and saw our bus rambling up the desert road toward the house. Oh shit. Time to go.
I ran down the mountain, laughing at the déjà vu of running down the mountain to catch the tour bus in North Korea. This was a far less cultivated peak, I wasn’t sure if anyone had ever climbed up here before. Running down was actually much harder than climbing up had been, as the rock kept sliding away beneath my feet. At one point I put a foot wrong and fell, putting my hand down right into a thorny dead shrub of some kind. Ouch. I scrambled the rest of the way down and jogged back to the house.
I ran into Jack on the way and he mentioned that everyone was looking for me. Uh oh.
I came around the corner.
“There you are! Everyone’s looking for you! The family made you a special breakfast and they were very upset that they couldn’t find you.”
I ran into the house, drenched in sweat. Everyone was loading their luggage into the bus, we’d be leaving in a couple of minutes. Our guide told me about the breakfast and that the family would be very offended if I didn’t eat it. Goddammit, I didn’t ask for- Okay, I just need to deal with this.
I ran into the living room and the little boy handed me a tray. On it were two bowls of that disgusting rice gruel from the night before and some kind of soggy cut up squash. Fuuuck.
Running down a mountain does not really optimally prime your body for immediate breakfast, whether it’s disgusting or not. I stuffed some of the soggy squash into my mouth- Oh man, that’s not good squash. I grabbed some kind of roll off the floor to get the squash taste out of my mouth. A spoon of the rice- Oh yeah, I remember that from last night. Oof. I swirled it all around on the plate and ran for the bus.
“Did you eat the breakfast? They’ll make us bring it with us if you don’t eat it-”
“Yep, ate, let’s go.” Go. Go. Go.
One unique quirk of Turkmenistan is that basically everyone is an Uber. You can stick your hand out standing on the street in Ashgabat and random cars will pull over for you. The toughest part is negotiating your destination and the price without sharing a common language at all. The money is the easy part, counting on your fingers or holding up denominations of bills is generally enough to get it done. Communicating your destination is a bigger challenge.
The first time we tried this, getting to Turkmenbashi’s Land of Fairy Tales, it worked fairly well. The first few cars rejected us, but the third one knew where “Disneyland” was and we were off. There were too many of us to fit in one car, so the rest of our group flagged down a different car that took them to an entirely unrelated park for an ice cream before they finally joined us at Disneyland.
Back in Ashgabat at the end of the trip, things got more complicated. We were having no luck flagging down a car on the street, so we had our hotel call us a taxi. Eventually a guy pulled up, but we couldn’t tell if he was our taxi or if he’d come for some Russian tourists staying at the hotel. Eventually he agreed to take us to the café where we were meeting our friends for lunch, based on a packet of creamer we had that had the café’s address on it.
There were five of us and it was a very small car, but since it was only going to be a five minute cab ride, we figured we could make it work. Alex got in the front seat while Ant, Hannah, Mike and I all Tetrised our way into the back. Twenty minutes later, we began to grow concerned that this guy didn’t know where the fuck he was going. Hannah had the map of Ashgabat downloaded on her phone, which revealed that we were way the hell on the other side of town, headed in the wrong direction. We tried to explain this to our driver, who promptly pulled over and asked a couple waiting at a bus stop for directions.
Accounts differ on whether he was headed to a different café with the same name or if he had no idea where he was going, I tend to side with the latter.
Turned back around, we were nearing the right part of town when we suddenly hit dense traffic. There was some kind of police checkpoint. The girl at the front desk of our hotel had told us that some roads might be closed because the president of Iran was in town. We sat at the roadblock for several minutes, then our driver sensed our growing boredom and started driving up the street backwards just for the hell of it. A police officer came to the window to ask what the fuck he was doing. Our driver shook the cop’s hand and turned over his driver’s license.
What’s going on, is the driver in trouble? None of us were wearing seat belts since we were all sitting on each other’s laps in the back. At this point we just wanted to get out of the cab and walk, but if our driver was being arrested it was probably going to make things a lot worse if we all suddenly bailed out of the car and took off.
Eventually the driver finished negotiating with the cop and drove us up the street to the roadblock, then turned up a side-street, headed away from the café. We all yelled in unison and he let us out to walk the rest of the way.
We walked into the café 40 minutes after we’d left the hotel. Our friends were halfway through lunch, they had walked there directly from the hotel in 15 minutes. You guys suck.
Hilariously, this was only my second worst taxi mishap in Ashgabat. After lunch we made a quick visit to the Lenin monument, which had famously been Ashgabat’s secret gay pick-up spot for years. No one did any picking up while we were there, though a soldier we were walking behind did suddenly whip out his cock without any warning. I prayed that he was peeing as I awkwardly walked around him, attempting desperately to not make eye contact.
From there Alex and I wanted to catch a ride to the TV Tower way up in the Kopet Dag mountains outside of town, from where you could see all of Ashgabat.
After our Turkmen Uber (Tuber?) mishap earlier, I was keen on flagging down an actual cab, but it being rush hour, every one that passed on the street was full. Eventually I decided we’d need to settle for anyone with a car.
We repeated the same scenario three or four times where someone would pull over, I would say “Gokdepe Yoly,” Turkmen for TV tower, and Alex would attempt to talk to them in Turkish. The person would invariably look at us like “You crazy!” and speed off, annoyed. This happened several times until one young man who had pulled over thought about it for a second, then gestured for us to get in the car. All right! I was starting to think we weren’t ever going to get to that goddamned TV tower.
We drove away from the center of the city and out into the outskirts. The TV tower was out of town to the northwest, and I was thrilled to see that we were actually driving in the right direction. Then the driver started to talk to me extensively in Turkmen, none of which I understood at all. Hmmm. This doesn’t seem good. Then we pulled over. Hmmm.
He talked some more. Yeah dude, I still don’t speak Turkmen.
Then I started to understand his hand gestures. Oh shit. This is as far as he’s taking us. We got out.
So now I know the Turkmen for “Here is where I leave you for dead.”
I leaned in the window and slowly realized he was telling us we’d have to catch a ride the rest of the way from someone else, and that I shouldn’t pay them more than 20 manat. Thanks for the advice guy, but- We’re in the middle of-
He drove off.
We looked around. Yep. Middle of nowhere.
Okay, I guess we keep trying? We stood by the side of the road and attempted to flag down the few cars that sped by. They seemed to accelerate when they saw us. I’m not sure this is going to-
A car pulled over. All right! We started to walk toward the car. A young woman dressed like a hooker approached from the opposite direction. Uh-oh. She got in. Uhm-
Now I was close enough to see inside the car, and the driver was wearing a police uniform. Uhm-
He sped off with the probable hooker.
Okay yeah fuck this, this isn’t going to work. We crossed the street and waved ineffectually at the occasional car that passed, headed back into Ashgabat. After a few failed negotiations, a driver finally agreed to take us to the Russian Bazaar back in town. Goodbye TV Tower. You’ll have to be big and weird without us.
Incidentally, this turn of events did absolutely nothing to deflate the growing meme among my friends that I am a magnet for weird shit on our trips.
“We can’t take you to Uzbekistan, Sean. We’ll never get out alive.”
I had to go and get all philosophical at the end of my North Korea post, and now it feels anti-climactic if this one ends on “Well, a bunch of funny shit happened and then I went home.” Great.
It’s hard not to compare Turkmenistan with North Korea, as they have enough in common that Turkmenistan is often referred to as “The North Korea of Central Asia” and people call Ashgabat “Pyongvegas.” The aspect that fascinated me the most was the similar history of foreign occupation in both countries. Korea passed from the Manchus, to the Japanese, to the Russians, while Turkmenistan went through the Arabs, the Turks, the Mongols and the Russians. Is there something about this experience that leaves a people susceptible to bizarre dictators and personality cults? Are Kim Jong-Un and Berdimuhamedow just filling the role of an oppressive, capricious occupying force for a people who have, for generations, never known anything else? They say you marry your dad, right?
The main thing being in Turkmenistan made me think about was the toll in human suffering that comes from individual unconsciousness. The lives of five and a half million Turkmen would be radically different if one man could see himself more clearly. Rather than papering over the holes in his ego with white marble and gold statues, those billions of dollars could be spent on education, decent housing, clean water, and silver toilets for the people. I mean, you still need nice toilets, but gold? Come on Gurby.
It seems improbably perverse to me that this could be so, so much hinging on one man’s weird hang-ups from something someone said to him when he was a kid, or his mom not breastfeeding him, or whatever the formative experience was that left him incomplete. But then you realize it has always been this way. How many millions of lives would have been radically altered if Hitler had a therapist, or Genghis Khan had worked through his shit?
The world seems so complex when you delve into the details, but then so simple when you look for the root causes. As Pascal said, “All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.” I feel like this is something massive we’re completely ignoring when we think about the problems of the world. We just accept that we’re incurable assholes and try to mitigate the external damage.
I suppose that’s why someone like the Dalai Lama can sound so glib and out of touch when he’s asked about political issues and his response is something about empathy or the ego. We tend to think of our emotional substance or the blind spots in our psychology as ephemeral concerns, not quite real or tangible, a personal sideline and at best something to think about on your own time. Maybe when you’re old and have no real work to do. But at the end of the day it seems like lack of self-knowledge is the driving force behind every huge external event that happens, every injustice, every war, every man-made tragedy.
And of course it’s nothing unique to Turkmenistan. The 1% in America are, for all intents and purposes, little Berdimuhamedows. They’re pushing back against their insecurities with mansions and private jets and rare cars, too trapped to recognize the positive human impact their wealth could have. We probably all do this to some extent, in our own much smaller ways. We’re all perpetuating for each other the world that we live in.
And, of course, our own president is no less glaringly in need of therapy.
But Turkmenistan is like a children’s book illustrating all of this for us in easily digestible terms, with colorful characters and lots of pictures.
Turkmenistan: The Little Golden Book of Income Inequality.
In that sense, Berdimuhamedow has fallen ass-backwards into usefulness by modeling for us an extreme version of a human flaw we all have. An opportunity to cringe and reflect. Thanks Gurby.