The beauty and hospitality of Turkmenistan – Part 2
I started the second part of the story with this proverb for a reason. Perhaps, someone having read the first post was surprised why I describe my trip to Turkmenistan in a little laudatory style and keep silent about a number of things.
My task during the trip is to see the best of it and to show it to other travelers who are about to go there. I believe that unhelpful criticism, and sometimes bitter truth, offends the locals. In Turkmenistan, I have heard this from a number of people who have read online and in the press notes about their country written by some bloggers.
The latter, above all, need to understand that for some it is just money, PR and likes, but for others it is their homeland, where they live with their kin, in the soil of which their ancestors lie.
Any Turkmen is ready to give his life for keeping peace and sovereignty on his Motherland (like other eastern nations), so any word can cause a deep wound in their heart.
There are problems everywhere, but not every state is able to solve them. In Turkmenistan, after gaining independence, a lot has clearly succeeded. First of all, I want to note that the drug problem has been solved successfully – there are no more drugs in the country. Mothers and fathers don’t cry for their children, who died of this trash.
Although not everyone likes it, but there’s a total fight against smoking. Even tourists can bring in no more than two packs of cigarettes. The current generation will have to suffer a little on the weaning stage, but the next, will be healthier.
I liked that the streets of cities in Turkmenistan do not even smell of crime. It is noticeable that the little children walk home alone after school. And the schools look like palaces. By the way, we are passing another kindergarten. And it’s in a province far away from Ashgabat.
Perhaps, not all people know that Turkmenistan is a neutral state (according to international law, it means non-participation in war, and in peacetime it refuses to take part in military blocs). I think this factor and the availability of natural gas (the 4th largest country in the world in terms of reserves) allows them to develop in the right direction. At least judging by the external picture it is noticeable.
For information – from 1993 to November 1, 2017 in Turkmenistan there were limits on free electricity, water use and gas consumption, which had no analogues in the world.
So on the whole, everything is fine here. And with the rest of social issues they will sort themselves out in due course.
Now, let’s move on to our familiarization trip. After Ashgabat and Darvaza we took a minibus to the west of the country towards Balkanabad (see a map in Part 1). The distance was 430 kilometers. This was the fourth day of the trip.
The first stop was at a place called Kov-ata. Everyone knows it as Baharden Underground Lake. The name in translation from Turkmen means “father of caves”. The total length of the cave, where the lake is located, is 250 meters.
The width of the lake is 23 meters, depth is 14 meters. The water temperature ranges from 33 to 38 ° C all year round. This is the entrance to the cave.
Bakhardena cave belongs to the number of fairly ancient geological age of cavities, its lower part is now filled with thermal waters. A long illuminated staircase of 350 steps leads to the lake.
The lake’s healing water contains 38 chemical elements. Here you can treat diseases such as rheumatism, colds, skin and kidney diseases.
While I was downstairs, I missed the colorful wedding event. Dozens of cars arrived on the square in front of the cave entrance. Relatives and guests of the newlyweds were dancing to live music.
I caught only the last moments. I went over to take a picture of the bride and groom, but they had already gotten into the main car and a minute later everyone left to walk on. Weddings here are cool, fun and, by the number of people invited, very large-scale.
Next, we had a little more than 300 kilometers to the final point. In the program of the tour there was nothing else of interest on this day, only a healing lake and a long drive.
I like accidents and road surprises. The day before, while visiting a gas crater, the driver of one of the jeeps told me about the beauty of his homeland in a very interesting way.
Everybody thinks that Turkmenistan is a desert country, but it turns out there are mountains, forests, waterfalls and other things. We haven’t seen much of it, but I know very well that it exists and I paint virtual pictures in my imagination.
So my idea of a country is always the sum of three factors. The first is what I know about the country from different sources, the second factor is what I saw with my own eyes, the third is information from locals. Sometimes the second is not the most important for me. It simply subjectively complements the other two.
So, the driver, after finding out where we were going tomorrow, told us about one populated place, which was not too far from the highway. It was not on our itinerary. It is worth noting right away that the journey through Turemenistan follows a strictly pre-agreed upon route and deviations are not permitted.
Despite the ban, we began to persuade our wonderful guide (he was also the companion and leader of the host country) to stop by the village quickly. In the end we succeeded. It took about thirty minutes when the bus turned right off the road and climbed a little bit in the mountains, and here we entered Nohur.
This region is unusual in its beauty and culture, populated by Turkmen of the mountain tribe Nohur, who have preserved and carried through the centuries their distinctive culture, traditional crafts and architecture.
Noghur has been included in the list of “100 Most Romantic Places in the World”. Colorful villages Old and New Nohur on the mountain plateau – it’s rough beauty of two-storey houses of distinctive architecture, laid on the slopes of the mountain stone, among picturesque vineyards, almond and pomegranate trees.
The same driver in the jeep yesterday told me that he once drove a tourist from Japan, who had visited all over the world. He had come to Turkmenistan for Nohur, and specifically he wanted to see a unique cemetery. He had never seen such a cemetery anywhere before.
Our bus could not go to it on a dirt road, although the distance was only one kilometer, so we caught a local car and four of our group visited this sad but very interesting place.
The fact is that many Noghur tombstones are decorated with mountain goat or argali horns. Neither the cult of Turkmenbashi, nor Islam could oust the ancient pagan beliefs and rites.
The villagers sincerely venerate these animals, and they believe that the spirit of the ibex associated with the horns will help the spirit of the deceased villager to get to heaven after death. Some consider the horns as a kind of amulet, others say that it is a symbol of a true unruly warrior. In more detail, I will try to understand the history of this tradition in a separate post.
The scenery outside the window that day was almost monotonous, but as we approached the city of Balkanabad we saw such colorful views and stopped to take pictures.
I was excited because I knew that the filming of my favorite movie “Kin-dza-dza” took place near the town of Nebit Dag (now Balkanabad).
Our guide was from here, and as a ten-year-old boy he had seen famous Soviet actors here. He told me how they dismantled the ferris wheel in town and then transported it to a movie set in the desert.
Also in this area, in the late ’60s, episodes of “The White Sun of the Desert” and “The Golden Calf” were filmed.
The city itself was founded in 1933 on the Trans-Caspian Railway, in connection with the development of the oil field. It is a sculptural composition “Pioneers”.
We were accommodated in a very nice hotel. We marked our arrival with a grandiose dinner with plenty of local dishes and tasting of excellent Turkmen cognac. At the end the hosts gave us souvenirs as a keepsake. It was very nice of them (chef, guide, and manager) to thank them very much!
Balkanabad was a small but cozy and beautiful town. The view from our hotel on one of the suburbs.
In the morning, before we left, I had time to take pictures of all the monuments and sculptures within a kilometer. But most of all I remember the moment at the hotel, where the peacocks were walking. For the first time I saw a male diligently wooing a female, opening his hypnotizing tail in front of her while making alluring noises.
Surprisingly, not only did she not want to watch the feathery spectacle, but after a minute she went about her business altogether.
Day five gave me my second geological gift (the first was Darwaza). The hired jeeps picked us up again and we drove to quite remote parts of the country. The trip was a bit tiring. On the way back one of the cars even ruptured a tire on a pothole. All in all we drove more than 600 kilometers that day.
We saw a lot of camels along the way, most of them wild. This shot is an exception. I photographed them every time, because for the residents of central Russia it is exotic.
Other animals are not so rare, but they looked no less harmonious here. A horse in Turkmenistan, like a cow in India, is almost sacred.
In this and the shot above are wild horses, and they have come to quench their thirst at the artificial watering hole. On seeing the cars, the mother and child hurried away.
There was another “dune” stop along the way. Walking in the sand – nice thing, but you have to be careful – scorpions, snakes. I was not lucky, I did not meet a single creep:)
I don’t know when I’ll see something like that next time. Although I lie, I know, soon, and maybe even in Russia:).
In April the desert is beautiful in spring. In summer the hot and merciless sun will make changes and there will be a completely different picture.
Finally, we approached the goal of the day – Yangi-Kala Canyon. It is one of the important natural attractions of Turkmenistan.
The cars climbed the high plateau and then we stopped for a picnic at the most extreme point, where you can enjoy mind-boggling views.
Lovers of geological sites and connoisseurs of the “naked history of the Earth” will be absolutely delighted here.
I look at something from this opera every time and can’t believe I’m on our planet. I would love to stay here for a couple of days.
The color of the canyon rocks is dominated by red.
I want to warn you, if you come here at a bright time of day (as we did), wear sunglasses – it will be better and more contrast all the details and shades will be visible. It’s just that the bright light whitens out all the dark colors.
Don’t come at sunset or dawn, or I’ll be very upset and offended with you:)
Saying goodbye to the canyon, personally, was hard for me. If I get another chance, I’ll be back here again – there were unfulfilled desires.
Part of the way we returned along the old route, then along a new road, as we moved to another city, located on the shore of the Caspian Sea…
In the next and last part I will describe the remaining two days of our promotional tour through hospitable Turkmenistan, summarize the trip and give some practical advice.
Closed countries: 5 days in Turkmenistan
Turkmenistan is considered one of the most closed countries in the world, despite the fact that only 30 years ago it was part of the USSR and to get there was not difficult. Now getting a Turkmen visa is a real roulette. The result does not depend at all on how many countries you have traveled to or traveled through before, and how many thousands of dollars are on your card, everything is decided by fate. Evgeny Chudayev, a traveler with 7 years of experience, is one such lucky man. He managed to get a transit visa for five days and get at least one look at this closed country. He shares what he has seen with 34travel.
The exchange rate of local currency: $ 1 – 3.5 manat (official) $ 1 – 18 manat (black)
The purpose of my trip was not Turkmenistan itself, but in general the countries of Central Asia, which I decided to hitchhike. Turkmenistan was on my list but I wasn’t sure if I would make it there because it is very hard to get a visa. However, I was lucky in the end, I gave it a shot and it worked.
I hitchhiked into Turkmenistan via Uzbekistan (Farap checkpoint). In order to get transit through Turkmenistan I needed to have a pass to a third country, that is why I had an Iranian visa in Kazan.
I applied for a Turkmen visa in Tashkent. The cost of an urgent visa was $155, the processing time – 10 working days. Later it turned out that I could have gotten an ordinary visa for $ 55, the processing time would have been longer – 20 working days. At the consulate no one told me about this, and it seemed to me generally that the consulate staff did not have some information. During the visa application, they were on the phone for every occasion, apparently discussing with management what to do.
In general, for the visa I was asked for a copy of the Iranian visa (now it is electronic), 2 photos, a written itinerary on a piece of paper, and an application that is issued on the spot.
Officially one can get a tourist visa to Turkmenistan, but in fact very few people get it. In general it is not difficult to get to the country: there are daily direct flights from Moscow, there are also connections. The cheapest round-trip ticket will cost you from $ 300. Flying Turkish Airlines, Hahn Air, “Turkmen Airlines”, S7.
If you ever travel to Turkmenistan, just forget about such civilization benefits as Booking, AirBnb, etc. I have been able to check into a hotel right on the spot. For example, I would ask cab drivers where I could spend the night, and they would tell me the address.
“In Internet cafes I had to buy traffic through locals, because foreigners were simply refused the service.”
In the same capital city, Ashgabat, there are not a single hostel. Before my trip I had found on TripAdvisor that the cheapest hotel was the MIA hotel in Ashgabat, but it turned out to be a regular hotel. The prices for accommodations were simply cosmic for me. For example, the price of the cheapest room started at $ 20 + $ 2 tourist tax. And this for a shabby room with Soviet renovation!
Such an achievement of civilization, like free Wi-Fi, did not exist in Turkmenistan at all. In general, the Internet situation was very bad: YouTube, Facebook, VKontakte, WhatsApp, and Odnoklassniki were blocked all over the country, but all these bans were circumvented with the help of a VPN. In Internet cafes I had to buy traffic through locals, because foreigners were simply denied the service.
The cuisines of Central Asia are similar in principle. First of all it is plov of all kinds. Traditionally it is cooked right in the street in large quantities. I was told that a small café can sell about 200 kg of this dish a day.
The pastries are lavash and samsa from tandyr. Also in Turkmenistan I tasted the most delicious lemons in my life. Usually I don’t eat them, but add them somewhere. Here I could not get enough of them and ate several lemons at a time. They were very juicy and flavorful!
“A small café can sell 200 kilos of pilaf a day.”
Turkmenistan is another planet in terms of prices. There are 2 exchange rates: the official exchange rate and the black exchange rate of the manat, which differ from each other several times. You can immediately forget about the official exchange rate: it is extremely unprofitable. It is best to come to Turkmenistan with dollars, because they can be exchanged almost everywhere, for example, I was changing at the market. But exchange your money carefully, because it’s officially banned and you might get in trouble with the police.
In general, with $100 in your pocket you can feel like a wealthy person in this country. For example, a bus fare in the capital of Turkmenistan, Ashgabat, costs less than one cent! And the train from Turkmenabat (the border city with Uzbekistan) to Ashgabat (it is 500 km) – almost $ 1. Airfare from Turkmenabat to Ashgabat will cost a little more – $ 5. A hearty lunch in a cafe will cost you $1.5. The only thing is the hotels, as I told you earlier.
“The airfare from Turkmenabad to Ashgabat will cost a little more – $5.”
In the countries of Central Asia and the Middle East, the attitude to the traveler is quite different than in the West. The hospitality there flows like a river: the traveler will never be left hungry or cold.
After traveling through Central Asia, I noticed that the best hitchhiking and immense hospitality happened to me in Tajikistan. Turkmens seemed a little closed to me in this regard. Yes, there is good hitchhiking and people stay well, but I still felt some closedness and wariness in the conversation.
Russian is spoken here only by the older generation, born in the Soviet Union, and people from the villages and young guys understand almost nothing in Russian. Because of this I had almost no contact with the local population. The language barrier is to blame.
Throughout the five days in Turkmenistan, I never met any tourists, but I did see a couple of European-looking people.
Day 1. Border crossing
My introduction to Turkmenistan began at the Farab checkpoint. The crossing took about an hour and a half, because the Turkmen border guards started picking on my visa. They didn’t like the fact that it was a transit visa and that I was hitchhiking. They didn’t want to put a stamp and gave me my passport back, and then asked me to wait. Then the border guards took my passport away again, started calling somewhere, talking to each other in Turkmen. Only after that was I given a sheet of paper, where they asked me to write a detailed itinerary and in which hotels I planned to stay. At the same time, when they saw that I had included Ashgabat in my itinerary, they began to ask me why I was going there, if there was a shorter route to the border with Iran, then they began to ask me why I came to Turkmenistan in the first place. That was the end of the questions – I was sent to the cashier’s office and told to pay for my registration ($14). Then they put my cherished stamp and wished me a safe journey.
We crossed the border with an Uzbek who had come to Turkmenistan on business. When the bureaucratic stuff was done and we passed the border, we caught a cab to Turkmenabat together. The cab driver drove us to the exit of the city, and there we caught another cab that drove us around the city looking for a hotel. We drove around for about an hour, looking for the cheapest place to stay. In the end, we found a place where we had to pay $40 for two people plus $2 each as a tourist tax. We stayed there.
Day 2. Turkmenabad
In the morning my new friend dropped me off at the train station where I immediately bought myself a train ticket to Ashgabat. I paid only $1 for the almost 12-hour trip. The train left at 4 p.m., and before that time I took a walk around Turkmenabad. First I went to the bazaar, a very colorful Central Asian market. I didn’t buy anything there, but I took a lot of pictures. One of the women came up to me and told me that it was forbidden to take pictures in Turkmenistan because I could get in trouble with the police, but I disobeyed her and kept snapping. In the end I had no problems at all.
After that I went to an internet cafe and convinced a Turkman to buy me internet access using his passport. He agreed and I got the cherished code which allowed me to spend my free time on the internet before the train. After that I went to the train station. By the way, the trains were surprisingly very modern and clean. On the train, no one, not even the conductor, did not speak Russian, so I had only to sleep.
The next day, early in the morning, I arrived in the capital of Turkmenistan – Ashgabat. I immediately went to the hostel that I had previously found on the Internet, but it turned out to be a regular hotel. I paid about $20 (including $2 for the tourist fee) for two nights, threw my stuff in and went for a walk around the city. I found the capital to be the most beautiful city in Central Asia. All the houses are made in white. By the way, in 2013 the city for the fifth time was included in the Guinness Book of Records as the most white marble city in the world. Here I saw one of the most beautiful airports in the world – in the shape of a bird. There were so many fountains at every turn.
“Ashgabat seemed to me the most beautiful city in Central Asia.
It’s worth understanding that Ashgabat is a modern city. In 1948, one of the most devastating earthquakes in history occurred here, which destroyed almost 98 percent of all buildings. That’s why the capital has no old city or historical buildings, everything here is modern and rebuilt.
In Ashgabat I went to the Orthodox cemetery right in the center of the city, went to the market, exchanged dollars for manat, and took a bus ride. The bus stops in the city are very interesting – they are made in the form of pavilions, which you can enter while waiting for the bus. It’s warm inside in the winter and cool in the summer. In general, there were very few people on the streets, and in the evenings the city was practically dead: no one was there.
In the morning, I decided to hitchhike to Darvaza, a popular gas crater 250 km away from Ashgabat. People were eager to stop and drop me off along the way. Unfortunately, again almost no one spoke good Russian, only the most basic words. The driver of the second car I caught took me to the bus stop and advised me to wait for the bus, which cost about 16 cents. I agreed and in just a few minutes I was rushing toward the crater.
The bus took me to the village Darwaza, after which I had to walk about 10 kilometers. While I walked there was not a single soul around, only sheep and cows grazed. Near the crater itself there were a couple of yurts where I understood shepherds lived. As I was getting ready to go back, one of the shepherds came up to me and offered me a ride back to the village for money – I refused and had to walk. It had already started to get dark by the time I got there. There were practically no cars, after all, I was in the middle of the desert, but one driver soon stopped and gave me a ride back to Ashgabat.
Day 5. Deportation
In the morning I took a train to the city bordering Iran, and then hitchhiked all the way to the border.
My transit visa was open until January 27, when I arrived at the Iranian border checkpoint in Serakhs. It was already 6 p.m. on the clock. It turned out that the checkpoint was open until 4pm, and the consulate in Tashkent assured me that it was open late.
The border guards ended up refusing to let me leave and took me to a cafe to spend the night and then brought me back to the border in the morning. I spent about three hours there, while I wrote four explanations and signatures. In the meantime the border guards drew up a protocol under which I had to pay a fine and get a new transit visa for 5 days right at the border. I refused to pay the fine, and I was deported from the country with a stamp in my passport prohibiting me from entering Turkmenistan for 3 years. They gave me a free second transit visa and let me go on to Iran. This is how my adventures in Turkmenistan ended.
Before you go to Turkmenistan, install a VPN, so you can use the usual sites and social networks.
It is best to go to the country with dollars, they will be easiest to change. No way do it in a bank, better at the market.
Keep in mind that Turkmen checkpoints are most often open from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m.
tourism.gov.tm – The State Committee of Turkmenistan for Tourism.
Turkmenistan travel guide by Ilya Varlamov and Artemy Lebedev.
Turkmenistan in the guide from Lonely Planet.