Chapter 1: Turkmenistan: The Return

Visiting Turkmenistan for the second time in a year, I was shocked by how normal it felt. The same airport, the same ride to the same hotel, which I had spent gawking at in wide-eyed wonder seven short months ago, now felt pedestrian. Almost like I was in my home town. Ho hum. Oh yeah, there’s that giant billboard of Turkmenistan’s dictator Gurbanguly “Gurby” Berdimuhamedow posing with Turkmenistan’s weird special horse and their weird special dog. That thing again. It is deeply fascinating how our brains adjust and can normalize anything.

I’d met up with my friend Francine in Istanbul, where we received the news that our friend Mike had to return to Sydney due to a family emergency, so it would just be the two of us braving the wilds of Central Asia with whatever other hosers signed up for this trip. We were dropped off at the hotel at 3am and slept awkwardly on the leopard-print couches in the lobby with our new friend Pete until the tour started at 9am.

Photo by Kinga Iwaniuk

First thing in the morning, we returned to Turkmenbashi’s mosque and this time I was able to get photos of the bitchin’ ceiling:

We’d already seen everything our group was going to visit on the Ashgabat city tour that day, so Francine and I hired a driver to take us to some of the things we hadn’t been able to visit last time: the National Museum and the Kopet Dag Cableway. I briefly considered trying to get to the TV tower again but decided we weren’t likely to survive that adventure.

In front of the museum, the former tallest flagpole in the world sat sadly.

The museum has two main wings, one for the history of Turkmenistan and another dedicated to the president himself, which was supposed to be hilariously kitschy and this was the entire reason I wanted to go there.

The museum did not disappoint in the slightest.

The presidential museum is a monument to the fact that Gurby is fucking great at everything. It was surely created by his mother. Can Gurby win a racecar race? Yes. Here is a huge photo of him doing just that. Wait, what’s with that janky shadow? Was this whole thing Photoshopped? Move along immediately and stopping with these ridiculous questions.

Can Gurby ride a horse? I mean, like, really great like a horse riding hot dog man? We’re glad you asked. Here’s Gurby doing a wheelie on a horse. And just in case you thought that might be a fluke that only happened one time, here are seven more huge photos of Gurby doing a wheelie on a horse.

Here is Gurby looking at an X-ray of somebody’s lungs. Is he saving lives? Who knows? He is probably saving many lives. Wasn’t he a dentist? Why would a dentist be looking at somebody’s lungs- Moving along to the photos from the concert.

The concert? Yes, Gurby apparently performed a concert at some point. Here is him playing a white guitar and here is the guitar and the case for the guitar. Here is Gurby DJing. Here is Gurby DJing again.

Gurby must really like DJing. Remember that famous time Gurby played the accordion? Here is the photo. Oh man, wouldn’t it be incredible if they had the actual accordion from that time he played the accordion? That would be amazing but life doesn’t work like that, you can’t just see the accordion because you want to see the accordion WAIT OH MY GOD THEY HAVE THE ACCORDION. This is fucking amazing. My mind has been completely blown by this accordion.

The overall effect of all this just made me think of Barbie. Barbie has all these outfits so she can career swap and be a doctor or a stewardess or a Hooters waitress. And in that same way, you can walk around this huge room and see Gurby in whatever career you like. Can he play hockey? You bet your sweet ass he plays hockey, and he is the best. Here’s him riding an incredibly gaudy gold and green Turkmenistan bicycle, and I’m fairly certain he can switch the gears without making the chain fall off because he is incredible.

Here he is riding an ATV. And here he’s advising the cotton farmers on how to farm more cotton. I wish there was another photo of him doing a wheelie on a horse. Oh wait, there it is.

One of my favorite things in the museum was the car. This was near Gurby’s golf cart, which was next to some photos of Gurby swinging a golf club like someone who heard about golf at a party one time and decided to give it a shot at 3am in spite of never having seen anyone play the sport before and possessing the hand-eye coordination of the Elephant Man. I once hit a golf ball completely over the windmill at Golf ‘N Stuff on accident and I have an objectively prettier golf swing than Berdimuhamedow.

Anyway, the car. Next to the photos of Gurby winning various races there sat his actual race car. It was, unquestionably, far too small of a car for any adult to be driving in any situation. It was like something a rich seven year old would get for his birthday. Is this what they race in Turkmenistan? Or is this just what they tell Gurby race cars are so he can’t hurt himself? Next to the car there was a cardboard cutout where you could get your picture taken with Gurby in his jumpsuit. I was deeply hurt that this was roped off when we were visiting.

There are whole other wings to the presidential museum that I can’t even begin to adequately explain. One area details his family history, which includes some heavily and terribly Photoshopped pictures of Gurby as a child. I have no idea why you would need to Photoshop anyone’s childhood photos. One featured Gurby and two other young boys in front of a nondescript “forest” background that obviously wasn’t where the photo was taken. Where the hell were these kids originally? In a smoking crater? A strip club? Hell? I was fascinated trying to imagine what childhood setting was so offensive they had to Photoshop it out.

Another section featured endless, endless, endless gaudy little diorama trophy things. I can’t help you understand what these things were because I don’t understand them at all myself. One had a lobster on top. Another had a crab.

They seemed to commemorate various departments within the Turkmenistan government, like if the Department of Fish and Game made themselves a bowling trophy with a mandatory minimum budget of $100,000, so it’s encrusted with jewels and the president’s face and a bunch of flags and shit. There are hundreds of these things.

I had taken approximately my 12,000th photo when the entire museum staff suddenly descended upon us.

“I’m so sorry, you can’t take photos in here!”

“You just charged me 50 manat for a photo pass when we came in.”

“Yes, sorry, our mistake, you can only take photos in the national history part of the museum. You cannot photograph here because this is our leader.”

“There are 12 million photos of your leader in here, the guy who is on the cover of every magazine in Turkmenistan and who requires there to be huge paintings of him behind the counter of every hotel in the country, and now he’s camera shy?”

“No, no, no photos. So sorry. Please, I need you to delete them now.”

Ha, okay Turkmenistan. I swiped to highlight the hundreds of photos I’d taken, held up my phone to show the girl, and hit delete.

“Thank you so much!”

“No problem!”

Outside on the sidewalk I restored the photos from my phone’s “Recently Deleted” folder. Turkmenistan, you will be forever linked to North Korea by your weirdness and for not understanding how cell phones work.


From there our driver took us up to the cableway stretching up the Kopet Dag mountains to the border with Iran. We’d had the same driver when we visited Turkmenistan seven months before, but he didn’t seem to remember us or the way we’d turned off his shitty music and synced our phones to his SUV’s stereo to play our own less-shitty music every time he got out of the car to pee or threaten a camel. Probably for the best.

The cableway took us slowly, slowly, slooooooowly to the top of the mountain range.

The view from the top was quite nice, though blurred somewhat by the desert sands between us and the gleaming marble buildings of Ashgabat. Behind us, the mountains of Iran loomed.

After a torturously slow cable car ride back down the mountain, we discovered that everyone else had left for the gas crater without us. No worries, our driver would take us all the way there. That’s- that’s good? I imagined owing this guy some kind of horse by the time we got there.




Chapter 2: Yep, Still on Fire

In the time since our March visit, Turkmenistan had built a safety railing around the Darvaza Gas Crater, a move surely inspired by my blog. This news made Mike, Francine and I extremely glad we’d got to visit it when there was nothing but open desert and massive flames beckoning you to your total annihilation.

Thankfully, the railing ended up being less of a big deal than I’d feared, since it was several feet away from the actual rim of the crater and there was no one there to make sure you didn’t just slide awkwardly over the top the railing, mashing your balls into a paste so you could enjoy the flames just as up close and personal as you had before. It really only wrecked distant photos of the crater, and I already had several hundred of those from our last visit.

Like Turkmenistan itself, the crater was a bizarre place to have been to twice. This is the very definition of something you expect to only see once in your lifetime. It was every bit as impressive the second time, the orange flames leaping up out of the ground and melting into white flames after the sun went down.

Photo by Francine Amat-Shapiro

After spending a few hours commiserating with the white doom below us, we decided to turn in. I crawled awkwardly into my tiny tent as our drivers contentedly carried on with getting hammered while listening to bizarre Central Asian party music, which I can best describe as polka with a very raspy Russian guy yelling over the top of it. Not any musical kind of yelling, mind you, there was no hint that these men on the recordings were singers or rappers of any persuasion. I think it’s just a thing in Turkmenistan to have your boss yell at you over polka music.

The next morning we tore ass across the Karakum desert to the ancient ruins at Konye Urgench in northern Turkmenistan. This was an entire region we hadn’t seen during our previous visit. The most famous site at Konye Urgench is the Kutlug Timur Minaret, which stands out from the immense, flat desert literally like a sore thumb.

The thing I hadn’t expected and didn’t realize until I was standing right underneath the tower, though, is that it’s leaning. Like, crazy leaning. Like, I don’t think it’s safe to stand next to this thing. I commented to Erik from Norway that if we were in any other country I’d be thinking “Well, that looks scary but I’m sure they’ve got this under control.” But this is Turkmenistan and that tower is definitely going to fall down. Like, maybe tomorrow.

There was a preposterously janky and lopsided wooden ladder leaning against the tower, which looked like it had led up to the tower’s raised door at some point before everyone stopped giving a shit. Now it just dead-ended into the side of the tower at a random point. In almost any other scenario I’d be thinking “I want to climb that ladder and go up that tower” but there was no way in hell I was going anywhere near that thing.

I carried on to visit the monuments nearby in Konye Urgench’s trendy suburb, Konye West. Thank you, thank you, I’ll be here until they let me leave.

We left Konye Urgench for Dashoguz, a city near the border with Uzbekistan, and checked into our gleaming hotel in a considerably less than gleaming city. We all decided to go into the “city” for dinner at 7.

Getting from our hotel to the restaurant required that particularly Turkmenistani form of transportation, the hitchhike Uber. It would be a large stretch to say I’d mastered this artform during my first trip to Turkmenistan, but I had some experience. Basically you stand on the street looking sad and lonely and random people will pull over in their own cars and ask you where you are going. They will ask this in Turkmen. You will speak no Turkmen. You will try to make them understand where you need them to drive you to and they will try to make you understand how much it will cost. Most of these interactions end with a frustrated Turkman peeling out and leaving you standing in the street in a cloud of their cheap car farts.

After being passed by several cars in front of the hotel, we argued about how the restaurant name is actually pronounced and considered hiding most of our large group behind a bush to increase our chances to being picked up. Then suddenly and without warning, Francine, Rachel and I were picked up by two men in a tiny car.

The two men turned out to be twin brothers. This was highly surreal. They spoke English fantastically well for Turkmen, which means about as well as that guy at the dry cleaner who just throws your shirts in the trash as soon as you walk out the door. They were on their way to the gym. One of them explained his dream of going to school in a rich country.

“Like France?”

Fuck no! Like America or maybe Canada. Then they asked with great earnestness how they could get into college in Canada. None of us were from Canada. This was very awkward but they were lovely men.

Their car radio played a jaunty tune in an impossible to identify language. “Anwar Sadat is such a twat, I bought a cot from a robot-” I have a tendency to sing along with my own lyrics in these kind of situations and part-way through this I suddenly realized it was probably impolite to mock their jams.

At dinner we realized every single person at our large table was from a different country. This was pretty cool.

Photo by Pete Cram

The restaurant was recommended to us for having menus in English and an English-speaking wait staff. Neither of these things were true. I ended up with a Fanta somehow and the 809th bowl of lentil soup I have personally eaten in Turkmenistan.

Our ride home from the restaurant went more smoothly. I had observed from the locals the proper body language for getting picked up Turkmen-style, which is to stand royally in the middle of the street and point decisively to the pavement, like the whole exercise is beneath you, your entire body language screaming “Stop HERE, motherfucker!” And they will. I pointed imperiously at the blacktop and a tiny car quickly pulled over. A nervous dude and his laid-back wife took us back to the hotel. The clock in their car said 12:28 in spite of that not being within four hours of the actual time.

All the lights were out at our ritzy hotel and without power the elevators weren’t running. Ah, this is the Turkmenistan I remember. I guess we’re taking the stairs? Where are the stairs? I began to wander around, using my phone as a flashlight. I found a dark gym, some people eating in a dark room, and the offices of Turkmenistan Airlines, but there were no stairs. Well then. I hope there’s not a fire.




Chapter 3: How Bazaar

In the morning we visited the bazaar in Dashoguz, which was fantastic. This is the kind of thing that is highly disappointing if you are looking for beautiful one of a kind hand-crafted souvenirs made by earnest craftsman with sweat on their brow and inspiration in their hearts. It’s mostly Chinese bullshit. But, if you’re there to dive into the deep end of the shittiest bullshit on Earth, the rewards are profound in this wonderland of crap.

The first gem I found was a sack of plastic mold-injected teddy bears that was officially labeled: Children Toy.

The small print made clear the unfortunate fact that this piece of shit is now your best friend.

Then there was the tiny snooker table “sport game” that wanted to make it absolutely, unquestionably clear that this was a toy for winners and best and the best winners at winning:

Brazenly unauthorized use of licensed characters is always a highlight. I loved the “Frozen” stethoscope set that packaged a completely unrelated shit stethoscope toy with a piece of cardboard featuring the Disney movie characters. If you looked closely, Elsa and Anna’s drawings were very modestly modified with crudely pasted-on nurse’s hats. I also like that the hanger hole had so thoroughly given up the ghost that they just stabbed some wire through the logo.

There were many toys featuring a little girl and a bear, which seemed to connect to some kind of Turkmen fairy tale or perhaps I’ve been out of the country too long and it’s the new Pixar movie. All of these also had the characters from Bambi on the packaging for no reason whatsoever.

Why would you even want three identical dolls of the same girl in the one package? The mysteries of Turkmenistan.

All of the weaponry toys were great, like this Military Weapon:

Let it be understood that this is the Man & Machine play set, representing for all the world powerful struggleing power. But whatever you do, don,t shoot at any human and animal. Except the human-shaped targets with the really cheerful lion and tiger on them that come in the package with the gun. Also, why is the military dude a cowboy?

Almost as great was this “Best Glaive” Weapon of Sword and shield set, which is also somehow modern style and good toy.

Perhaps my favorite was this Animal Puzzle:

If you can figure out how this assortment of generic plastic animal toys is in any way a puzzle, you have solved the puzzle.

But the bazaar isn’t just about the finest toys one dollar can buy, you can also buy nice things there. Like, let’s say you want a bike. But, like, a REALLY nice bike. Don’t worry, we’ve got you covered:

Me personally, I only needed a Move the Type Electric Outlet, but the bazaar still had me covered.

I think maybe the highlight of this visit to Turkmenistan for me was suddenly realizing I could buy a chainsaw and bananas at the same place:

I also deeply enjoyed browsing through several washing machines and HDTVs and then turning around to consider a pair of jeans with some kind of zombie girl and a bear lovingly sewn onto them.

Is that the Turkmen Fairy Tale Bambi girl? Good God, what happened to her?

From there it was off to the border. Crossing over to Uzbekistan was a simple three hour process of having random people ask for your passport over and over again, one of them a doctor in a smock who I tried really hard not to cough in front of. I’d carried my Gollum cough all the way from New Zealand and I really preferred for it not to be the reason that I live in Turkmenistan forever now.

The immigration official in Uzbekistan looked at my passport and said “English?” I figured he meant the language I speak, so I said yes.

Then he opened my passport and scowled.

“Americanski?”

“Yep.”

Now he was convinced I was just saying yes to everything he asked.

“Mexican?”

“Huh? No?”

Hmmmm. He realized with great regret that I had outsmarted him this time, and let me pass. Welcome to Uzbekistan.


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