Country #107. Most of you won’t know anything about Turkmenistan. I certainly didn’t before I set off to go backpacking in Turkmenistan. But the country, and more specifically its capital, Ashgabat, is one of the strangest places on Earth. Fittingly, the city has been given this prestigious title by multiple travel magazines.
For some context: Turkmenistan is a relatively new country, which (like most countries in the region) came to be when the USSR collapsed in the early 90s. While most other countries in the region still sit in the pocket of Vladimir “tremendous guy” Putin, Turkmenistan opted against it. Instead, it took a leaf out of North Korea’s book, and has become not so much a country, as a leadership cult.
Great Name, Great Leader
And who is this country’s amazing leader? Well, he goes by the name of (and this is his genuine name)… Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow. Let’s hope he lets his friends shorten it to something like ‘Gurby’. Although doing so without his permission would probably result in your swift execution in Turkmenistan. The similarities between backpacking in Turkmenistan and North Korea were striking. For starters, you can only visit both places on a strictly managed tour. As in North Korea, the Turkmen president’s image was everywhere. And in the images he’s usually doing normal presidential things like signing documents, opening new industrial centres, making children laugh, playing ancient musical instruments, riding horses while brandishing giant swords, shooting machine guns, wearing lavish robes, etc. You know, all of the things generally required by a national leader in the modern world.
Turkmenistan is running out of money. It has suffered since the price of gas collapsed in 2014. With fiscal concerns mounting, Turkmenistan decided to up the ante and spend any remaining funds (tens of billions of dollars) on turning Ashgabat into the self-anointed ‘City of White Marble’ or the ‘City of Light’ (although Paris would probably have something to say about this).
Ashgabat – The World’s Strangest City?
The result? Ashgabat is the mutant love child of Pyongyang and Las Vegas. It’s the most bizarre city on Earth. Ten-lane roads, flanked with ornate gold-leaf streetlights and impeccably manicured trees, lie empty. There are almost no pedestrians walking the streets. On second thought, there didn’t appear to be anyone living in the city at all. The town centre is a giant mass of garish white monuments and horse sculptures. All of them as impressive in sheer scale and ambition as they are for their lack of subtlety. The city didn’t feel real. And from an existentialist perspective, I loved it. Indeed, it made all the hassle involved with backpacking in Turkmenistan worth it. At night, the city becomes a gigantic lightshow, with every building flashing different shades of blue and purple. It’s quite a spectacle. Or would be, if anyone was actually there to see it.
When I touched down, on my completely empty flight from Baku (there were six passengers, sorry environment), I met up with the rest of the Oasis Overland group. Perhaps unsurprisingly, most people on the trip had travelled extensively. Central Asia was a missing part of various people’s scratch maps, and backpacking in Turkmenistan thus was too. After checking in at a hotel which wouldn’t have been out of place in 1960s Moscow, we began with a guided tour around the city, and all of its sights.
Turkmenistan: A Backpacker’s Delight, Sort Of
The sights on our tour included: the largest indoor ferris wheel in the world; the Ministry of Horses; the Ministry of Carpets (both actual government ministries); the Olympic Park, which is conspicuous for being one of the most expensive ever constructed and the only one built when the country seemingly has no plans to host the event; the largest flagpole in the world. Azerbaijan finished its larger flag last year, in what must have been a massive blow to Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow’s ego. But our guide was at pains to reassure us that the pole is still the tallest in the world. It’s fair to say we all breathed a large sigh of relief.
After spending a few days in the eerie, decadent capital, we jumped on the Oasis Overland truck and headed north into the arid Karakum Desert. I wanted to mention that one of the guys in our group got punched in the side of the head by a Turkmen man for no reason at the pool bar one day, but couldn’t find any way to weave it into the overarching narrative and structure of this article. So I have mentioned it just now, as an illogically positioned statement. But at least now you know.
Darvaza Gas Crater
Heading north, it felt like we were really backpacking in Turkmenistan for the first time. There was more freedom than in the capital. We soon realised that the money the president has spent on large white elephants could perhaps have been put to better use elsewhere. Investing in some less flashy things like running water, electricity, and paved roads could have been useful. To be fair, he did win 98% of the vote in the last election, so I’m sure he probably knows what he’s doing. We headed for the country’s best-known landmark, a giant, burning gas crater. The Soviets were drilling for gas 40 years ago. They rolled a burning tyre into the crater, to burn off excess gas. Four decades later, the Darvaza Gas Crater is still burning.
The government allegedly still denies that this crater exists, and claims it was extinguished years ago because of justified complaints from environmental groups. It’s quite a sight to behold, and the heat generated by it is scarcely believable. We sat on the crater edge for hours. Watching the flames was mesmerising. So much so, that we took the potentially unwise decision to camp next to the inferno, in our highly flammable tents.
I would have liked to get to know the Turkmen people a bit more, but North Korean-style restrictions made this impossible. This is the downside of backpacking in Turkmenistan, and other unfree places like it. We had a guide/government minder called ‘Max’, allegedly. He was informative, amusing, friendly, and from what I could see, a raging alcoholic. On hot nights camping in the middle of the desert, it was extremely handy that he brought along local vodka, which was actually a pleasant nightcap to share with others. It certainly beat drinking beers that were almost boiling due to the 45-degree daytime heat.
On more than one occasion, when we had all retired to our tents, you could hear him stumbling around a hastily constructed fire, singing atmospheric local Turkmen songs to himself. And also Do you believe in life after love?, the Cher song, which didn’t quite have the same ambient effect as the Turkmen songs. Either way, he appeared to be having fun so we felt it was probably best just to leave him to it.
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