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Visit to Turkmenistan

It is 3 o'clock in the afternoon and finally, from the deck of the "Azerbaijan" the captain signals land ahead. Turkmenistan at last. It has been a long journey from Baku, but the sight of Turkmenbash' s Caspian coastline revitalizes me and I go back to my cabin to pack. I am one of just 5 passangers on board this cargo ship that has clearly seen better days. Relations and trade with Turkmenistan have declined, mostly due to arguments over the Caspian oil fields, and now the ferry hardly fills its hold.
But just as I rejoin the deck to watch our approach into Turkmenbashi port, we inexplicably drop anchor. In my best, but broken Russian, I try to find out what is going on, to which our captain just replies, "we have to wait". When I enquire as to how long, his response is unhelpful: "Sometimes up to two days". He smiles, revealing a neat row of gold teeth and so we waited. 1 day, stuck within frustratingly close reach of our destination.

Nobody can claim that the land beyond this port ranks high on the list of holiday makers and travellers. The difficulty of obtaining a visa and perpetual bureaucracy encountered can put many people off. But those who brave the officialdom and who have a bit of luck along the way are in for some wonderful and intriguing surprises. The country lies at the southernmost part of the former Soviet Union and since independence in 1991 has been under the rule of Saparmurat Niyazov, Turkmenbashi "head of all Turkmen". All over Turkmenistan his face stares down at you from large portraits or golden statues. It watches you as you walk the street, it gazes back at you as you read the state-controlled newspapers and observes you when you drive. There is no escaping this personality cult, which is reminiscent of North Korea. Turkmenbashi has even named the month of April after his mother and has built a large golden statue of himself in Ashgabat that revolves to greet the sun in the morning and wave it goodbye at sunset.
Turkmenistan is a country that sits on vast natural resources of oil and gas. It is, for example, the second largest exporter of natural gas. It's resources are so abundant that my driver (and government-approved guide) fills up our car for the 580km ride to the capital Ashgabat, for just under $2. Turkmenistan has the potential to become a major world player and yet the majority of its population live on less than $1 daily. The drive to Ashgabat takes 7 hours, through a stunning desert landscape, flanked by the Kopet Dag mountain range. About as many one and two humped camels can be seen wandering the road as cars and one feels as though the Silk Road days are not such a distant memory. Despite the harsh conditions, over 5 million people inhabit this mostly desert country, fed life-sustaining water by the 1200km canal that was built under the Soviets and directly taps into the Amu Darya river.
My reason for visiting Turkmenistan is not for its bizarre politics, nor just to transit but for its rich history. Turkmenistan's Karakum desert once played host to passing trade caravans making their way along the great Silk Road towards the now Uzbek cities of Bukhara, Khiva and Samarkand. The country boasts a number of famous historical sights, most notably at Merv, Nissa and Kunya-Urgench. Whilst these sights currently require a little imagination, archaeologists are slowly uncovering just how important these oasis towns were as centers of trade. This region, once renowned for its mighty horses and fierce warriors, also profited handsomely from the Silk Road. As trade in Central Asia opens up, it is strategically placed to prosper once again, not necessarily from silk but oil and gas.
Turkmenbashi has been incessant on providing a modernized state for all the world to see. Ashgabat itself is a city that is changing every day and construction cranes dominate much of the cityscape. So many new buildings are being built in fact that no-one bothers to publish a map of the city and my guide, who has been away just one week, hardly recognizes it. A large strip of mostly empty hotels lines the Berezengi region of the city. Despite the desert environment water flows out from innumerable, large fountains as though it were abundant. It seems hard to believe that in a country where a drop of water is a grain of gold and honored along with melons and horses as a national holiday, the government can be so profligate. Here things are done on such a scale that one could imagining himself in Las Vegas.

The highlight of Turkmenistan however has to be its people. If Turkmenbashi's self-authored book, the Rukhnama (his spiritual guide for the Turkmen people), is to be believed, Turkiman translates to "made from light". Whilst it can be hard to talk to locals in public (foreigners are considered suspicious by the government and therefore talking to them is seen as a risk), those who do reveal a wonderfully gentle, kind and cultured nature. The further away from the capital you get, the more the locals will open up and the more freely the vodka will flow, a Russian hangover that still remains here. We visit the tiny community at Erbent village, stuck right in the middle of the desert without water or vegetation. Somehow a farming lifestyle still continues and modernization hasn not quite reached here. The residents still live, under the sun's blazing heat, in traditional yurts set amidst towering sand dunes. The children seize the opportunity of investigating a lone tourist and come out smiling and shouting to show me proudly around.

Whilst it is not easy to get locals to talk to you in public those who do reveal a wonderfully gentle, kind and cultured nature

They are full of wishes and dreams and one just hopes that they too can take their slice of the wealth that Turkmenistan is sitting on.
I find it difficult to sum up my few, brief days spent in such a wonderful, yet unusual country. It has been full of crazy contrasts, eye-opening, frustrating and inspiring all at the same time. Turkmenistan is a country where traditions and modernity live together. It is a country that is only 15 years old and when the Soviet Union broke up was neither ready for nor wanted its independence.
Either way not to visit, even briefly, would be to miss out on a historical, fast-changing, adapting, warm (in more ways than one!) and friendly country.

Discovery Central Asia #17

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