Tuesday, October 01, 2002

Golden Statues and Sand Blasted Gas Holes 2

First off, an explanation, since lots of those unread emails seem to be people asking how I'm getting from A-B. I was travelling with a group of about a dozen people (more in Kyrgyzstan beacause the Eastbound and Westbound trips overlapped), in an overland truck with a company called Dragoman. Now that I'm in Istanbul, I've left the truck behind and exploring Istanbul on my own until the 6th when I meet up with a different group - the ominously titled 'economic
expeditions' to travel down to Cairo via Syria, Lebanon and Jordan. When I get to Cairo (9th Nov) I'm planning to make my way south on my own to Aswan then back up, flying home at the end of November. So yes, Karl, I have come from Tashkent all overland (except for the ferry from Turkmenbashi to Baku) and will finally get to Cairo all overland too.

Picking things up again after the desert city of Jerbent...

We left Jerbent, sand-filled houses and cheesy camel milk behind and headed south to Ashgabat, the capital of T├╝rkmenistan whose name means 'city of love'. The travellers I met in Kyrgyzstan all spoke of Ashgabat's 'Florida bar', home of the most beautiful women in the world and very little else, so we were intrigued to discover if the legends were true...

However, first we arrived in Ashgabat (driving on the wrong side of a dual carriageway until the traffic police started shouting at us and blowing whistles), driving through the gold and marble (well, white stone) gates. For those of you who don't know much about Turkmenistan's political situation (like me before the trip) here's a quick summary:

Gained independence in the early 90s like all the other CIS countries. Kept communist ruler, as head of a renamed party (like many CIS countries). However, he also renamed himself, to "Turkmenbashi" which means head of all Turkmen and published a big pink bible about the future of the country and how all the tribes should unite behind him. This is now the second most important (and studied) book in Turkmen schools, after the Qoran. He also promised
enormous wealth that would come by selling Turkmenistan's oil reserves to foreign markets. Shortly after his first election victory, he called another, got about 99.5% of the vote and declared a 'period of stability' for Turkmenistan - no elections for 10 years.

In the past decade or so since independence the economy has fallen apart, unable to trade through Moscow as in the USSR days. There are plans for oil pipelines and railways to connect all parts of the country, but the pipeline is still a pipe dream and the railway is 1/3 built in the past 10 years (our local guide claimed that there was too much sand (in the desert) and they have to keep digging out the tracks). However, what the people of Turkmenistan do have is Ashgabat. Fed by a canal all the way from Uzbekistan (the longest canal in the world I think?), which loses about 50% of its water through evaporation and is heavily blamed for the rapid shrinking of the Aral Sea (it takes its water from the main tributary of the Aral). And in amongst the fountains (inc. the biggest fountain in the world) and the neatly mown lawns
there are statues. Statues of Turkmenbashi. Often at the top, or backed by, giant marble monuments. Oh yes, and all the statues are gold. Of course. Fountains, gold statues and neat lawns - in a desert country...

It's a personality cult par excellence. And to complement the gold statues, there are posters of Turkmenbashi in various poses all over the country. Maybe not in Darvaz or Jerbent, but in Dash-Orguz at the north-eastern edge of the country, on the edge of the desert, there he is. In carpet pose 1a. In Boris Yeltsin, recovering alcoholic pose 2a. In sickle harvesting the wheat pose 1c. And so on... something new for me, and it puts Fidel to shame. More posters, sir, and some gold statues please! One more thing. Turkmenbashi has taken a leaf out of the French Revolutionaries' book and decided to rename all the months of the year and do away with the current un-scientific Roman hangover that is our current naming convention. So now we have Turkmenbashi (January), February named after his wife, March named after his mother, one named after his son, one after his dog, and so on... much better!

Anyway, once we accustomised ourselves to the randomness of Ashgabat's green and gold spendour there was enough time to gatecrash two weddings (and get invited to the front of the official photographers to take photos) at the 5-legged monument (there's a 3-leg, 5-leg and 8-leg monument - named after the number of buttresses on their sides.); visit the 'olympic stadium' - not sure when Ashgabat had the olympics though; visit a neon lit ice-cream parlour
inside the 8-leg; take a look around the carpet museum and see the two largest carpets in the world and then... ...an evening at the Florida bar.

And it was all we were promised. Some of the most beautiful women in the world, outnumbering the men more than 5-1, all strutting their stuff on the dancefloor. However, the majority of them were pros so it was all look and no touch, but what a sight. :) If Turkmen visas weren't so difficult to get hold of, I'd recommend Ashgabat as a great place for a stag weekend! Not only would you go to Florida bar on the Saturday night, but on Sunday there's the culturally flavoured sensory delight that is Ashgabat market. One of the biggest in the world, where allegedly you can buy anything from spare parts for a lada to carpets, turkmen hats, live animals, live munitions and ex-soviet military vehicles. Unfortunately I didn't see any of the latter, but it could have been because I only got 2 hours sleep the night before... Did
see flying camels though. (I'll show you the pics when I get back!)

Florida bar, golden statues, carpet museum and Sunday market. Then, with four new passengers in tow, we headed West once more, towards the coastal port of Turkmenbashi (named after the eponymous leader, perhaps), stopping off at an underground, geothermally warmed, sulphur-smelling lake on the way and camping overnight between a spaghetti junction of pipelines in the middle of the desert.

Turkmenbashi town involved a VERY long wait for customs (almost 8 hours), during which they confiscated everything woven that they found on the truck - quoting the 'no export of antiques or carpets more than 6 sq metres in size' rule, but impounding a kitsch Lenin carpet (coffee table sized) and about a 8 carpet bags (made from tattered carpets) bought for less than $10 each.

Fortunately all the real carpets were well hidden and escaped their eagle eyes.

So, finally to the ferry and we sailed off into the night (after a long and very loud argument between our drivers and the Bubushka in charge of cabins on the ferry, her shouting only in Russian and them only in English), leaving Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, indeed 'Central Asia' behind us as we headed for the Azeri port city of Baku.

But that's a different country, with different stories in the next post !


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