SRAS students in Bishkek travelled to Turkmenistan from October 21 to October 25. We were so excited about this unique and rare opportunity to visit the country. Visas can be difficult to get and the country is less visited than even North Korea. We had spent a lot of time in the Central Asian Studies program learning about the politics, economics, and culture of Turkmenistan. The country is technically rich, thanks to all its oil and natural gas reserves. However, it has struggled, due in large part to its political economy, to develop and even provide basic goods to its population.
Further, Human Rights Watch lists Turkmenistan as one of the world’s most repressive countries; two cults of personalities have been running the scene since the collapse of the Soviet Union. The country was first ruled by President for Life Saparmurat Niyazov (better known as “Turkmenbashi,” a title he took that means “Father of the Turkmen People”). After Niyazov’s death in 2006, current President Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov took over. As nervous as we were about going to such a controlled country, we were eager to experience the culture firsthand.
Getting there was fairly tiring; our flight left Almaty in Kazakhstan at 2:00 am and we arrived at Ashgabat in Turkmenistan at 3:00 am. We had been given little information regarding customs and, after wandering around, we ended up at the end of the very long visa line. Per program instructions, we had USD with which to pay. The process was long, and it wasn’t until 4:00 am that we had found our luggage and our guide, Maysa, who introduced herself and shepherded us onto a bus to take us to the hotel. We were all pretty groggy and had until 11:00 am that morning before departing on our tour. The five-star hotel was extremely comfortable and we slept soundly.
To begin the day, we were given a tour of the capital city, Ashgabat. It is famously known as the City of White Marble, which became clear in the daylight. President Berdimuhamedow has a few interesting quirks, one of them is his obsession with collecting Guinness World Records. Ashgabat has the world’s highest density of white marble structures. There are 543 white marble buildings that cover a total of 4.5 million square meters.
We visited Independence Park, the Neutrality Arch, and the Ruhnama Book Monument. Many government buildings, such as the center for media shaped like a book and the Ministry of Horses, were pointed out to us from the bus as we drove around the city. We had heard that as a capital city, Ashgabat would feel eerily empty. In the new part of Ashgabat, it certainly felt that way. These tourist sites we visited were the opposite of crowded; we were often the only people there aside from the workers cleaning and maintaining the grounds.
After an informative visit to the National Museum, we had lunch at a small local cafe where it was decided to add an additional excursion to our program. A visit to the famous Darvaza Gas Crater, known also as the “Gates of Hell” wasn’t included in our itinerary, but our guide informed us that if we were each interested in paying 55 USD for the three-hour drive there and back that night, we could modify the next day. We jumped on the opportunity, and that afternoon we met our three drivers and climbed into their SUVs. Our guide Maysa condoned using our dinner stipend on convenience store beer and chips that night, which we stocked up on before we were whisked away through the desert.
With three of us to each car, I rode with another student and Maysa. We tried to use the opportunity to speak with her about her experience as a Turkmen citizen, aware that she would likely be hesitant to reveal her genuine opinion. This prediction was manifested when Maysa told us nicely that we shouldn’t believe everything we’ve seen on the Internet. Our conversation was interrupted as she pointed out the camel caravan meandering through the desert, the first of many we would see on our drives through the country.
The sun set and under dusty purple skies, we turned right onto an unmarked road after driving straight for two and a half hours. In the growing darkness, we eventually began to see a faint glow grow brighter and brighter – we had reached our destination! The Darvaza Gas Crater is a result of a mining accident at a natural gas deposit. Soviet geologists began drilling at the site in 1971, and after some equipment fell into the 20-meter wide cavern, it was set on fire in an attempt to burn off the gas out of fear that the gas emitting from the hole was toxic. The flames have yet to go out.
It was the biggest bonfire I’ve ever been to. We had our Turkmen beer, snacks, and some chill tunes; the only things missing were lawn chairs and yard games. After hanging out for about an hour, we began the journey home. We arrived at the hotel at midnight and after a good night’s sleep, were ready to roll onward the next morning.
We started our day at the Gulistan Bazaar, Ashgabat’s Russian bazaar. It was a good place to pick up little souvenirs. After finding camel hair bracelets, traditional Turkmen hats, postcards (and in Chris’s case, a small snow globe) we headed to Nisa, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, about 20 kilometers from the capital. Located there are the remains of an Iranian ancient settlement, the location of the Parthian central government. From Nisa, we drove into the Kopetdag Mountains on the border of Iran for a visit to the Nohur village.
For me, this was the most fascinating part of my time in Turkmenistan. We first arrived to have lunch with a host family. Once we were seated on rugs and carpets and served food, Maysa informed us that the villagers claim that they’re descendants of Alexander the Great. The Nohurli tribe’s isolation has led to the development of an indiscernible Turkmen dialect and the continued practice of very traditional customs, such as polygamy. Maysa turned to us girls and let us know to not be alarmed if someone tried to approach her to offer camels in exchange for us to be their wives. Over some delicious lagman stew, we immediately began calculating how many camels we thought we might be worth. Turns out, the wives are expected to pay back the worth of the camels in housework, so the fewer camels your family is given in exchange for you, the less housework you have to do. Much to our disappointment, no camel bartering took place. (I’m sure the local men took one look at me and knew I couldn’t darn a sock to save my life.)
Having expressed our thanks to our hosts, we passed by the gnarliest scene I have ever laid eyes on: a huge cemetery with a mountain goat skull protruding from the top of each grave. Mountain goats are considered sacred; their horns are said to ward off evil spirits. After passing the cemetery, we arrived at a pilgrimage site called Kyz Bibi, named after a female deity who is known to grant wishes of women. At the site is a small hole in the mountainside, said to be where Kyz Bibi was hidden to avoid an unwanted marriage.
Next on the agenda that day was a dip in Kow Ata lake. This lake is special in several ways: it is located 60 meters underground in a cave, the warm sulfuric waters are said to be healing, and it is home to Central Asia’s largest bat colony! Several of us brought our swimsuits and spent about an hour swimming around in the freakishly dark and deep lake.
On our way back to Ashgabat that evening, we stopped at the Turkmenbashi Mosque and Mausoleum, the largest mosque in Central Asia and the main mosque of Turkmenistan. Interestingly, we noticed that along with the traditional Islamic verses from the Koran, text in Turkmen decorates the interior which is fairly sacrilegious. The text is from the first president’s book on spirituality and morality and is named for him. He is commonly referred to as Turkmenbashi, or “Father of the Turks”.
That night at dinner, we bonded with Maysa while the venue entertainer serenaded us on the clarinet on stage behind us. Maysa had studied abroad in Europe and expressed her happiness about having her first young tour group – usually, she’s wrangling older folks, but she told us we made her feel like she was a student again.
We had great conversations with Maysa about cultural differences, especially dating and marriage. In Turkmenistan, it’s very common that once you get to be around 25 and you’re still without a partner, your family finds someone for you. After a few chaperoned dates and usually one or two months, you get hitched. She explained it with a heart-wrenching phrase: “We let the love come after marriage”. We left the restaurant thankful that we weren’t active in the Turkmen dating scene and were on our way to go around the world’s largest indoor ferris wheel once. There was nothing particularly spectacular about this, aside from its position as a Guinness World Record.
The next morning, we began our day with a drive to Mary, a four-hour journey. We stopped part way through to walk around the Anau Mosque ruins and the Abiverd Silk Road town remains. Just past Mary is a town called Merv, where we had a very interesting lunch. We dined on manti, delicious Central Asian dumplings. Maysa also ordered camel milk for us to try. It was bitter, but not as bad as we had expected. We walked around a dilapidated Russian Orthodox cemetery next to the restaurant while our driver did his daily prayers.
Ancient Merv is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, famous for its role as one of the largest Central Asian cities on the Silk Road. We spent the afternoon traveling between the different monuments and ruins. Back in Mary that evening, we visited a Russian Orthodox church and then had dinner at a practically empty restaurant (save from the waitstaff and the venue performer singing covers of pop songs) that also had a dance floor.
The next morning, we had a three-hour drive to Turkmenabad located on the border of Uzbekistan. We had lunch at a café nearby and were dreading saying goodbye to Maysa. She accompanied us as far as she could through customs as we exited Turkmenistan and there was a round of hugs and promises to keep in touch.
The trip was organized by the London School and the tour company Kyrgyz Concept.. Accommodation in five-star hotels, ground transportation, English-speaking guide, flights, and meals were all included. The meals were especially nice: each included a salad, soup, entrée, dessert, and drink. After commenting how special we felt eating a four-course meal, Maysa let us know that the “luxury” tour was booked for us, not the “basic” tour. I tried to find information about the differences on the tour company’s website, but couldn’t locate it.
The trip to Turkmenistan is easily the wildest, most unique experience I’ve had traveling. I wouldn’t want it to have happened any other way, and the other students agree. Maysa was a fundamental part of how much we enjoyed our time there, and I’m so grateful that she shared her country with us so candidly.