The other Hermit Kingdom

It ain't so easy to get to Turkmenistan, the "North Korea of Central Asia."  Hardly anyone flies there, and to even buy a ticket you need a visa or a Letter of Invitation.  To get a tourist visa, you must be on a fully escorted tour.  The company that runs the North Korea tours also runs two trips a year to the other hermit kingdom, and I have signed up for their fall tour.  Since I will be in the neighborhood, I will take advantage of my still-valid India visa and stretch out the trip.  I was able to snag a roundtrip in business class for frequent-flier miles at the minimum redemption level, no mean feat these days.  Air France to Istanbul, then open jaw to India, then back from Delhi via KLM.

Air France flies a 777 to Paris from Atlanta.  Way better than Delta in every respect.  I don't care for any of the seven cheese choices, but the food is superb.  I have barely finished dinner when it's time for too much breakfast. If did this more often I would look like King Farouk.  The entertainment options have improved since last time I did this: instead of having to watch Master and Commander eighteen times, I have a choice of about eighty-five movies.  And instead of surly union thugs and grumpy sky-grannies, these stewardesses are lookers; mine is completely convincing when she invites me to ring her anytime, even if I "just want to talk."  At seven hours, the flight is way too short.

In Istanbul, there are long lines to obtain a visa, which consists of handing over some cash to buy a sticker for one's passport.  I still need to buy my onward ticket to Ashgabat. There is no ticket office in the airport, and the one in town is closed.  I don't even have reliable information on the time of the flight (there is no schedule posted on the internet).  When I made a reservation over the phone, the guy told me the flight would be at 8:30 AM.  I check with airport info: according to them the flight is at 6 AM; however, there is a flight tonight so I can come back at 9 PM and check.

It's cold, rainy, and dark.  The Airport Hotel is horrendously expensive, and others nearby aren't much better. I park my big bag in left luggage and take the metro for $1 to the bus station, 15 minutes away, where the terminal hotel is not quite as nice, but one-fifth the price.  Later that evening, I return to the airport and learn that scheduled departure time is 8:55 AM.

I'm back at the airport at 7 AM.  In front of the check-in counter is what looks like a line of refugees: everyone has huge bundles secured by yards of packing tape. Not having a ticket lets me jump the queue, where I learn an upgrade to biz class is only $100, not a bad deal for a four-hour flight.  There is something unseemly about the guy writing my name on a boarding card, handing it to me, and simply tossing the cash into his briefcase.  Say, isn't that supposed to be the mark of a terrorist, buying a one-way ticket for cash just before the flight?  Apparently not, since I encounter no enhanced security measures.

The plane is an aging but clean 737.  Not since North Korea have I encountered a plane with a framed portrait of The Leader affixed to the bulkhead.  For my morning welcome beverage I am asked whether I would like vodka or cognac.  Breakfast is meat, pasta, and vegetables, with corn flakes and orange juice on the side.  I think the back is full, but there are only three of us up front.

From the air, Ashgabat is flat, with nearby mountains, and very dry.  The plane is met by a number of uniformed officers wearing the huge pizza-sized visored hats characteristic of the Soviet Union and its offspring.  Inside many civilian employees are wearing surgical masks, just like at the Moscow airport during the SARS scare.

Turkmenbashi The Great International Airport is spartan but modern.  There are about seven Boeings parked in front, all part the Turkmenistan Airlines fleet.  Inside the terminal I am the only one who turns left towards the sign that says, "visa"; everyone else heads right to the transit area.  At the first window they stamp my Letter of Invitation and exchange it for a visa sticker in my passport and a colorful entry card from the Ministry of Tourism and Sport.  The second stop is the State Bank to pay for the visa.  At the third a guy stamps my visa and gruffly says, "welcome."  I collect my bag and proceed to customs, where oddly enough, they weigh your luggage on the way in.  The guy asks for my passport, and, recognizing is as US, smiles broadly and says "hello, good morning!"  (although it is late afternoon).  Two more passport checks, and I am out.  My guide is waiting (one of the conditions of the visa is that I be fully escorted) and brings me to the five-star Grand Turkmen Hotel, smack in the center of the city.

Across the street from the hotel is the "Russian Bazaar."  As I approach, a group of shady-looking characters begin chanting "change, change" like they are at an Obama campaign rally. There are no ATMs here, so I use the opportunity to convert leftover rubles.  Local time is three hours ahead of Turkey (EST +10), so by the time I get checked in the day is done.  I turn on the TV: all women wear the national costume, making it look like a folk-dancing troupe has staged a coup.  The room has a view of Independence Square dominated by the Arch of Neutrality topped by the rotating Turkmenbashi Statue (more on that later) changing from purple to white to green to gold. 


In the morning we get a late start because we must wait for the bulk of the group to arrive after an overnight flight from London.  We total twelve, from eight countries.  The tour company is the same one that runs the North Korea trips, so we are all DPRK veterans. For transport we have been provided with a full-size touring bus.  The placard in the front window translates, I am told, as "foreign tourists." 

On the way to the first stop, Musa, our guide, gives us some basics on Turkmenistan: two hundred thousand square miles; six and a half million population, majority of Turkmen ethnicity.  The capital, Ashgabat, was founded in 1880 by the Russians concurrent with their conquest of the autonomous tribes in the region.  The city was leveled by an earthquake in 1948 (kept secret by Stalin despite perhaps 175,000 dead, three-quarters of the population), and all buildings are either Soviet-era or post-independence.

Outside of town is Nissa fortress, built by Alexander the Great and later serving as the capital of the Parthian empire.  It was abandoned in the third century and is mostly ruins.  The mud brick walls have collapsed.  Although not much to behold, the site is important archeologically and has yielded significant artifacts.

Lunch is al fresco beside a rushing stream in a scenic gorge.  Just moments before we arrived the flow changed from clear water to a raging torrent of mud from early morning rain in the mountains above.  Those mountains form the border with Iran; the frontier post is just six miles away from Ashgabat and the border just ten miles further.  Turkmenistan is a Muslim but secular country; they are very nervous about the influence of a fanatical Iran, with a population ten times larger than their own, and the Taliban to the east in neighboring Afghanistan.  The Turkmens, at least those in Ashgabat, are thoroughly Russified: they just want to get drunk and chase women.

The next stop is a large mosque built in 1995 on the site of the last stand of the Turkmen against the Russians.  With swords against guns, it was a massacre.  The anniversary is now the national Memorial Day, one of several national-identity-building holidays that include Horse Day, Grain Day, and Melon Day.   On May 8th, Victory Day, The Turkmen Red Army soldiers lost in The Great Patriotic War (WWII) are also remembered.

Then we visit an underground lake.  Discovered in modern times, it is large cave of naturally heated clear mineral pool beneath a mountain.  Steps lead down 250 feet to a platform from which one can enter the water.  At a year-round temperature of 93, it is perfect for swimming.  I have my swim trunks ready.  We are the only ones there, which would not be the case were this country more touristed.

Between the late start, the shortening length of day (seven weeks to the winter solstice), and the London folks being tired, that's it for the day's program.

Ubiquitous is the name and likeness of Turkmenbashi, the soviet apparatchik who was in charge when the USSR imploded. He immediately changed the name of the Communist Part to the Democratic Party and banned all others.  He changed his name to Turkmenbashi, meaning "father of the Turkmen."  In the ensuing years he became increasingly megalomaniacal: inter alia, he renamed the days of the week, the months of the year, and the port city on the Caspian after himself.  The wealth of the country's vast gas reserves was devoted to a building spree of grandiose monuments to himself.  This cult of personality was unmatched anywhere except perhaps North Korea.  He dropped dead unexpectedly in 2006 (heart attack), but his successor has been cautious about normalizing affairs, although the months and days have reverted to their prior names.

The next morning our first stop is the Arch of Neutrality, a 250' high tripod topped by a 40' golden statute of Turkmenbashi that rotates to be always facing the sun.  (He faces my hotel room during the night.)  There is a viewing platform at the top of the tripod, but we are unable to go up because the elevator is broken.  Too bad ? they say it offers the best view of the city because it's the only place from which you can't see it.

Opposite is the Earthquake Memorial and Museum.  The future Turkmenbashi was orphaned by the quake and sent to Russia for schooling.  Opposite that is the Presidential Palace, a huge gold-domed, marble-clad affair, where numerous guards make sure you don't approach too close or point your camera in its direction.

We proceed up Turkmenbashi Blvd (formerly Lenin Blvd.), past the Children's State Library (formerly the Karl Marx State Library) to the Carpet Museum, housed in a two-month building that, like almost everything else in Ashgabat, is huge, domed, and clad in white marble.  Inside are the world's largest carpet  (a gift to Turkmenbashi) and too many examples of the well-regarded Turkmen carpets.  Some of the extreme carpets have 800,000 hand-tied knots per square meter.  The national flag features carpet designs on a field of green.

We have a photo stop at the monument to the tenth anniversary of independence, an over-the-top design that has been nicknamed (by irreverent foreigners) as '"the plunger."  Nearby is the monument to the fifth anniversary of independence, a multi-story pyramid with water cascading down the sides -- billed as the world tallest fountain -- housing a mostly-vacant shopping center.  Also, another statute of the Big Man attended by an honor guard (with an hourly goose-stepping changing of the guard ceremony) and a huge monument to the Ruhnama, his incoherent collection of stories, personal history, national history, political philosophy, general musings and ravings that is the subject of universal mandatory study


The world's largest freestanding flagpole (450') stands in front of the National Museum.  Inside are many of the artifacts unearthed at Nissa Fort and elsewhere, and a bunch of stuff of lesser interest.  The experience is dampened by a guide who confesses that this is only the second time he has done the tour in English.

For lunch we take a 3-mile cable car ride to a mountaintop restaurant overlooking the city.  It's hazy, so no good pictures result.

We return to the hotel before dark, enabling me to strike out to see the statue of Lenin (hasn't been removed or moved), the Obelisk to the Glory of the Turkmen Warrior Who Bled for the Motherland in the Great Patriotic War (more commonly referred to as "The Soviet War Memorial"), and the new war memorial, built to honor the father of Turkmenbashi who served with the Red Army but never returned, missing in action.  I also purchase my first souvenir, a Turkmenbashi wristwatch.  Unlike Mao, he does not wave to mark the passing seconds.


Everyone else on the tour has opted for an overnight trip to the Darvas flaming gas crater, the aftermath off Soviet exploration that has been ablaze for some fifty years.  I don't relish the prospect of camping in the freezing desert, so I stick with the standard itinerary, a trip to the ruins of ancient Merv.  We begin too early with a 6:40 AM flight to Mary.  The air ticket, on a new Boeing, cost only $15.  A waiting car takes me and accompanying guide for the half-hour drive to the archeological park.

Merv was a major stop on the Silk Road.  There were actually five separate cities built in succession in separate locations.  The earliest was used as citadel by Alexander the Great and a later one was the capital of the Seljuk Empire (before they moved on to Turkey; this is where the Turks originated).  All the cities were built of mud brick so not much is left after millennia of rains.  It takes about two and a half hours to tour the park, after which we drive back to Mary for a visit to the museum housing many of the artifacts excavated here as well as from even more ancient Margush, which flourished from 2000 to 1000 B.C.  There are also ethnographic exhibits on the Turkmen tribal culture prior to the Russian conquest.  I asked the Russian-speaking guide if the soviets had difficulty disarming the warlike tribesmen; in reply she sniffs "This is not Afghanistan."

At lunch I am surprised when I am offered pork.  I comment to my guide, who responds, "We are Muslims, but we are not fanatics."

We are completely done by 2 PM, but our overnight train is not until 10.  The guide is going nuts, completely unprepared to amuse himself, but I am content to sit and read a book.  The sleeper car, of standard Russian design, sets a new record in travel bargains: the ticket costs less than $3.  The tour company has booked all four berths in the compartment for the two of us, although the guide has his work cut out defending our turf.  I provide a convenient foil as he vehemently insists to the conductor, who wants earn some side money by selling the empty berths, that, as a foreigner, I find the prospect of sharing the cabin completely unacceptable.

We are back in Ashgabat in the morning.  The campers don't return until the afternoon so I have the day free.  I visit the Turkmenbashi Museum, constructed to house gifts given to The Leader and to tell His Glorious Story.  Admission is a steep $10 (the tourist economy is completely dollarized).  I have the entire museum to myself.

As might be expected, the gifts set a new standard in tastelessness.  Were photos permitted, I could show you such gems as a giant carpet depicting the Ruhnama as a rocket ship blasting into the cosmos or a large ceramic plate depicting The Big Man shaking hands with Vladimir Putin.  Lots on biography and achievements.  As a boy, when not astride a rearing charger, he is under a tree with a book in hand.  Among his dozens of honorary degrees is a doctorate from the University of Bridgeport (located in Bridgeport, USA) awarded in 2000.  Guess who was the first President of the Humanitarian Association of Turkmens of the World?

The tone is bombast and over-the-top rhetoric.  In case I hadn't noticed, one display informs us that, in the 21st century, Ashgabat has become one of the most beautiful, perfect, and comfortable cities of the world.  Its beauty and architectural peculiarities strike the whole world and Turkmenistan became one of the most beautiful states of the world.  This is because "Turkmenbashi the Great take care of the happy life of the future generation."  He decreed that citizens are entitled to free natural gas, free electricity, free water, and free salt.  Interestingly, there is not a clue that He no longer walks among us.  This place is Pyongyang with money.

The rest of the group returns with tales of their campout at the flaming crater.  Not only was it cold, it was raining.  I'm glad I didn't go.

The next morning we drive out to the Sunday market, reputedly the largest bazaar in Central Asia.  Lots of everything for sale, and very crowded.  The giant hat I bought in Uzbekistan that I thought came from Astrakhan turns out to be a Turkmen hat; I don't need another, so no sale.  The most interesting sight is a flying camel: when you buy a dromedary your purchase is loaded onto your truck by a crane.  The beast is not happy during the process and makes sure you know it.

Next stop is the Hippodrome for the last day of racing of the season.  They don't run thoroughbreds, but the smaller Akhalteke breed.  Gambling is forbidden but the police tasked with enforcing the prohibition watch passively while we openly conduct our own betting pool.  On the first race I pick a nag owned by the Ministry of Oil and Gas, but lose to an entry owned by a Turkish construction company.  Considering that it also beat a horse owned by the President, perhaps they can look forward to a rigorous health and safety inspection on their jobsite tomorrow.  From the program it looks as if many of the entrants were sired by Turkmenbashi himself (at this point, I am thinking there is no limit to his talents), but I am informed that the reference is to an eponymous stable.  The horses are light but the jockeys aren't, 125+ lbs; I guess they don't have many Mexicans here.  The racing experience is incomplete because after losing on all the races I don't have any betting slips to tear up and toss in disgust.

The elevator on the Arch of Neutrality is working again so we return for a panoramic view of Ashgabat.

Our tour of the capital is completed by a visit to the Mausoleum of Turkmenbashi.  If you've been to Napoleon's Tomb, this is it, only in white marble.  Another difference: Napoleon didn't claim to have found the remains of his mother, brothers, and father after fifty years in mass graves so they could be reinterred near him.  Unfortunately, no cameras allowed.

Next to his tomb Turkmenbashi built the largest mosque in Central Asia (white marble, of course) that features a 165' dome.  It holds 20,000 worshippers and offers parking for 400 cars.

That evening we fly to the northern city of Dashoguz.  It feels like the North Pole.  When we first arrived, Ashgabat had T-shirt weather but the temperature since has been dropping.  When we land in Dashoguz, it is below freezing.  We check into the delightfully heated Hotel Uzboy (as in "hey Uzboy, yo mama calling!"), where I check what's on TV: a commercial for the Goa Tourism Board showing everyone having a great time and no one suffering from malaria.

By morning the front has come through and it is sunny, clear, and COLD, with a bitter wind.  We drive to see what's left of Konye-Urgench a major city leveled in the 14th century by Tamerlane, who wanted no rivals to his capital at Samarkand.  The modern city of Urgench is just over the border in Uzbekistan.  (Much of the remote parts of Uzbekistan I visited in 2003, including the Aral Sea, are relatively near.)


What's left are a couple of buildings called tombs, though they were probably built as something else (there are no records), and a tall, lonely minaret (the tallest in Central Asia) looking like nothing so much as a factory chimney.  A good photo op, but otherwise a long trip out for very little.  To top it off, our flight back is three hours late.  The consolation prize is that is only about five minutes elapses between stepping off the plane, collecting our luggage, and stepping on to our waiting bus.

That's it for the tour.  We are all departing on various flights tomorrow.  Mine is at 7:30 AM.  The departure experience tops a completely weird week.

I arrive at the airport at 6:15.  The flight was completely sold out in steerage, so I have sprung the shekels for business again.  The check-in counters are located beyond immigration and customs.  There are about a half-dozen counters, only one of which is open but is marked "Istanbul."  I ask the gal about Amritsar and she says "five minutes." Sure enough, after five minutes she gets up and disappears.  I am standing alone in a huge gallery.  About ten minutes later a foreign-looking guy comes up and asks me about the Amritsar flight. We keep each other company as the scheduled flight time approaches. He is managing director of the local subsidiary of Petronas, the Malaysian state oil company, on his way back to Kuala Lumpur.  I know that the rest of the passengers are in the transit lounge: Turkmenistan Airlines offers the cheapest seats from the UK to Amritsar so they fill the flights with thrifty Sikhs.

The minutes tick by.  Finally about 7:10 a guy walks out, shouts "Amritsar!", and leads us to the transit lounge.  He collects our tickets and passports and disappears.  We later locate them behind the transfer counter and reclaim our passports.  What about boarding cards?  "No boarding cards, free seating."  How about checking luggage?  "At the plane."

By now pretty much everyone has boarded so we go through the unmanned departure gate.  At planeside, there is no one to take my very oversized bag.  So I lug it up the steps.  To the right, the main cabin of the 757 is Sikh bedlam but we turn left into the entirely vacant business class cabin. The stewardess greets us and invites us to take any seat.  The overhead bins are empty and spacious enough to accommodate our luggage. The seats are comfortable, the service fine, and the flight two and half hours.  The curious thing is that between the transit desk where we found our passports and the end of the flight not a single person has asked to see our tickets or for identification.

Trip date: November 2009