Turkmenistan – from dust to white marble

Day 1,849 since October 10th 2013: 161 countries out of 203. No flight, no return home and min 24 hrs in each country.  

(The opinions expressed on this site are my own, and do not reflect the position or policies of the Danish Red Cross)

 

What comes of wild horses and majestic carpets

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Only few will understand the accomplishment of visiting Turkmenistan and coming overland from Afghanistan. Fortunately for my visit to Turkmenistan many of those who understand live in that country. Have you ever heard of it? You’re in for quite a ride!

I left you a few days ago as I walked into the dust having been left at the Afghan/Turkmen border. The last few blogs have been delayed for various reasons. The most recent one from Afghanistan was delayed because the Danish Red Cross (DRC) had requested that I would not post anything while in Afghanistan for security reasons. At that is perfectly in line with the security measures of Once Upon A Saga as it was in e.g. Libya and Yemen. The one before that was delayed because I will not pull out 5-8 hours of blogging while my fiancée is around and that was the case in Armenia. And now here we are. In Turkmenistan. Which by the way is not a country which is famous for widespread internet connections. It is however a country which is famous for having played a significant role within the ancient Silk Road, it is famous for breading some of the most beautiful horses in the world and it is certainly famous for its magnificent handmade carpets. Let’s see what else I can tell you ;)

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As I mentioned (twice) in the previous blog, Turkmenistan is a hard country to visit for a man with a Danish passport. It has got nothing to do with Denmark and I imagine it is equally hard to get a visa if you hold a passport from most other nations. I’ve asked around and the answer is probably to be found in Turkmenistan’s not too distant past. I heard that not too long ago it was quite difficult for the Turkmen to move around and before 1991 Turkmenistan was a part of the Soviet Union, which kept this wonderful country a well hidden secret for the rest of us. Now you simply can’t boil an egg in a few seconds. Anything worth doing right takes time and Turkmenistan is a developing country. In fact a very fascinating one at that in my opinion. So the difficult visas are in other words likely a remnant from the countries past and the progressive development of Turkmenistan will more than likely make visa procedures a lot easier in the future. But do not be deterred by the possible struggle of providing your diploma (?) and a lot of other details which might have you scratching the back of your head. Because I would argue that Turkmenistan is worth it and that this pearl of a country actual will provide you with something worth seeing.

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I have built up more than my fair share of experience with “no man’s land” which is that speck of dirt found between two bordering nations. And there was really no need for adding a sandstorm to the experience! But I got a good one between Afghanistan and Turkmenistan at the Towrgondi border coming from Herat. It had me wondering how much grinding from the sand and dust my eyeballs could take before…uhhh…better not think too much about the consequences of that!! And I’m quite positive that I in a very real sense am carrying a solid mix of Afghanistan and Turkmenistan in my stomach. Needless to say the Afghan immigration was surprised to see me but they stamped me out of the country after I paid my $20.00 USD exit tax. It wasn’t a bogus tax as I had to pay it at the “bank” and got a receipt. Having processed that I was told to go to another window which read “exit”. At that window a man invited me into his office and said that he was some sort of section head. After some small talk in his office a matter of $15.00 USD, which I needed to pay according to him, came up. That was obviously not a real thing and it was kind of fun to deal with this kind of light corruption after the last many proper borders. However this poor man had no idea who he was dealing with. I wonder how many of his “clients” have crossed every land border on four continents…and then some ;) I didn’t pay him anything and we departed as friends. Minutes later another fellow showed up wanting to check my bag. Yes. Not my bags…just my one bag. So I let him look in it while it drew a crowd of other curious border personnel. That was really mostly what his drive felt like: curiosity and not security. Then I was finally permitted to go while the section head of something offered me tea which I kindly declined as I walked back into the sandstorm.

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After a while I came across a small guard house with three Turkmen soldiers which all wanted to shake my hand. That was nice. Then after a while more I began to approach a proper large border complex. I entered the glass door and was immediately pointed towards a doctor who took some details from my passport. Meanwhile I was looking out through the window at the crazy weather. When the doctor was done with me I continued deeper inside the modern complex and met an immigration officer who began handling my case. He was really nice and it turned out that we share the same blood type. It’s a slightly amusing thought, and very reconfirming as well, to know that a man from Denmark and a man born in Turkmenistan share the same blood type. In fact I share the same blood type with more than two billion people but this was listed on the front of his uniform next to his name. He also spoke English quite well which he had taught himself through internet courses. After some calculations he told me that I had to pay $105.00 USD which I was more than happy to given the nature of the difficult visa. But then ten minutes later he corrected himself and I only needed to pay $91 USD. That’s when I knew I was entering a good country. Regarding entering Turkmenistan a lot of people choose to apply for a transit visa which will buy you five days within the country. That could have been a good option for me if I felt sure that I would get it. Unfortunately the Saga couldn’t quite bear the risk of being denied the Turkmenistan visa at which point it gets profoundly more difficult getting it after that. Keep in mind that I do not fly and that would complicate matters further. I would assess that Turkmenistan’s visa is among the five hardest for me within this project and the other four are behind us. I got the Letter of Invitation (LOI) for Turkmenistan by approaching the Turkmenistan Red Crescent Society (TRCS) long ago and telling them that they would become country number 161 within a grand promotion of the worldwide humanitarian movement. Generally I find that receive a lot of warmth from National Societies these days and much more recognition than previously for my efforts to promote the Red Cross and Red Crescent. It has however been a hard road to get to this point and I would love to see someone else try…so I could laugh at them! ;) Nah, there is some truth to the laughing part but this journey within the movement has also been rewarding at times. And on a personal level I have built up an enormous knowledge on the world’s largest humanitarian organization.

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Farmers picking cotton. It's a major industry in Turkmenistan.

Once I was done with immigration and customs (who were also super nice) I was ready to walk back into the sandstorm. To my surprise I was immediately met by two representatives of the TRCS. Said-Allah who’s the branch manager and Mohammed who I’m still not sure I understand what does? Apparently they had been waiting for me for four hours!! I had been communicating with the TRCS HQ in Ashgabat (Turkmenistan’s capital) and as I would need to pass through Mary on my way to Ashgabat I had agreed that I could interact with the TRCS branch in Mary if they wanted too? I guess they wanted too because that was a three hour drive to Mary! So let’s recap on that: they drove three hours to meet me, waited four hours and then had three hours back again! That is ten hours right there in what I would call extraordinary hospitality. Unfortunately we couldn’t really speak as I know next to nothing in relation to Russian and just as little Turkmen. We did communicate a bit on the road to Mary but eventually we all fell asleep while the sandstorm was roaring outside the 4WD. A whopping 80% of Turkmenistan is desert.

room

My hotel in Mary looked fabulous! However there were more than a few things that you could point your finger at ;)

I had set up a place for me to sleep just outside Mary through a couchsurfing host but that was out of the question for Said-Allah and Mohammed who took me to a large and impressive hotel. Then they took me out for local food and brought an English student as a translator for us (Rouch). We had some local food and they were proud to announce that Turkmenistan has the world’s best meat! I’ll add that to the long list of countries claiming that they have the world’s best drinking water ;) However the meat was really good. The night ended with them dropping me off at the hotel.

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Volunteers and staff at TRCS branch in Mary. Women tend to dress traditionally but not all of course.

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That is Said-Allah on the right and Rouch on the left. Great guys.

food

These dumplings are called manti in Turkmenistan and closely resemble khingali in Georgia. They taste good in both countries.

The next day I was picked up again and brought to the local TRCS branch where I got to meet the key staff members who had been waiting for me the day before under the impression that I would have crossed the border from Afghanistan four hours earlier? However I was delighted to meet with them and especially as it was a Sunday which was their day off. They were really kind and there is no doubt that they do a really good job with dissemination of movement values, first aid training's, youth engagement and disaster management. They especially have focus on setting systems in place which can alarm the most vulnerable people ahead of a natural disasters. Afterwards Said-Allah informed me (through Rouch) that they had purchased my train ticket from Mary to Ashgabat on the night train and that I better check out of the hotel. Then we drove out to the nearby UNESCO World Heritage site known as Merv. It is one of Turkmenistan’s many historical sites and the ancient city dates back around 4-5,000 years. Unfortunately it was raining slightly which made it both cold and very muddy. So we basically just checked out a few sites and then headed back to the hotel.

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Merv is an amazing archaeological site and a place I would love to explore more of some day.

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Mary

Now don't think for a second that all of Mary looks like this. However the city center is this flashy and according to the plan the rest is to come.

Both Said-Allah and Rouch had to excuse themselves as it was Sunday and their day off. So they left me at the hotel lobby along with my train ticket…and Mohammed? Apparently Mohammed would be traveling to Ashgabat with me?? We had a good five hours at the hotel before the train left and I tried to get some work done. However in all honestly with the stress levels off traversing Afghanistan a few days before suddenly dropping along with the new impressions and cold moist climate I was feeling pretty week and tired. And don’t forget that I spent hours in a dust/sandstorm the day before all of this. When the time came we boarded the train and went to sleep…kind off.

trainstation

At Mary's train station I did some people watching. Fun thing about Turkmenistan is that married women cover their hair while single women often do not.

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Early next morning the train reached Ashgabat which is quite a city. I’m fairly sure I’ve seen nothing like it before and neither has anyone else. It is a true accomplishment of mankind. Functioning fountains everywhere in spite of no rivers in the area. A white city largely built out of marble imported from Italy at first and later on from Turkey. Surely among the world’s cleanest cities, possibly one of the safest and most definitely the whitest!! I tried to picture all those building blocks in a grey concrete color and it would have been significantly duller. The white color turns the city almost majestically. Ashgabat is flanked by a tall mountain range with Iran on the other side and you cannot climb to the top as it is prohibited by the military. The streets are wide and traffic does not appear to be a problem. The traffic which exists is mostly made up out of white vehicles and even the city buses are white. The sidewalks are wide and there are parks everywhere in an effort to terraform the desert which the city lies within. There is plenty of glorious architecture which would have ancient Romans drooling as much of it is adorned with gold as well. Sometimes actual gold! The city is home to multiple Guinness World Records which makes me compare it to Dubai in the UAE or to Doha in Qatar which are also impossible cities under impossible conditions. It is a vision that all of Turkmenistan with its six million beating hearts will someday live under such extravagant and futuristic conditions. However Turkmenistan is a developing country and there is still some way to go. It is however an impressive beginning and Mary actually also had a bit of it although not as much as Ashgabat.

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I told you so!! In Turkmenistan there is definitely something to see!!

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This photo has a lot of Turkmenistan in it: the president, a horse and a carpet!! :)

Gas has made Turkmenistan a rich country which enables it to leapfrog as a developing country and into grand visions. The most famous example of Turkmenistan’s wealth must be a blowout of a gas well in Darvaza which they lit on fire in the 70s but still burns today out of a gaping hole in the ground. It is supposedly a spectacular sight and has earned the nickname “gateway to hell”. Tourist who make it to Turkmenistan often venture there but it unfortunately wasn’t on my ticket for this visit. In spite of having only six million citizens Turkmenistan is a rather large country. More than ten times the size of Denmark which also has around six million beating hearts. Did you know that gas and electricity is supplied by the government of Turkmenistan to its citizens FOR FREE? Well that is true up to a certain level and within reasonable consumption. Turkmenistan is even supplying Afghanistan with electricity FOR FREE! The electricity is mostly generated via turbines on a river in the east of the country. And during Soviet times a canal was dug leading water from the east to the west which explains how Ashgabat can have all those fountains switched on.

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In front of the TRCS in Ashgabat together with Rustam. He is a great guy.

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As a biking man from Denmark I took interest in this Turkman in a suit on a green bike with the word "Turkmenistan" across it :)

Well, Rustam Babayev works for the international department of the TRCS and was there at the train station to pick Mohammed and me up. And then we spent a few hours driving around the glorious capital in search of a low cost hotel for me. I had spotted something online for $10 USD but when we showed up they didn’t have any rooms ready and the actual price was actual twice as much. Rustam is a really good guy who found his way to the movement from a career within the gas industry. We had no luck finding a cheap room and when we finally did it turned out that the rooms were all taken due to the upcoming world heavyweight championship. So we decided to head to the TRCS HQ. As soon as we reached the office Mohammed, who had chaperoned me on the train, said farewell and headed to the airport so that he could fly back to Mary. After a while I had a meeting with the TRCS in which I sat across from the TRCS Secretary General and President who are two very lovely and profoundly capable women. And once we were well acquainted they gave me a ton of gifts such as a towel, blanket, coffee cup, candy, backpack, t-shirt and cap. There might have been more stuff but you get the idea :) And then they wanted to set me up in a hotel at their expense. I tried to back out of it by saying that I was there for their benefit and also that I couldn’t really carry all that stuff. Just imagine if ten countries national societies all give me a coffee cup then how would my backpack then look!! And I would be more than happy to make my own accommodation arrangements. However there was no debating with the Secretary General and all the stuff went into my new backpack :)

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From the engagement party.

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The day continued as we drove out to an engagement party at which a bunch of traditional dancers had been hired to entertain in elaborate costumes. And then there was some group dancing which included a national dance which has been included in the UNESCO word heritage list. And there was the unwrapping of gifts which was a huge ceremony in which the ones unwrapping the gifts also got gifts. And the unwrapped gifts were held up high so that everyone could vote for or against if they didn’t like the quantity or quality. At one point a woman was symbolically throwing toys at all of us and the amount you could catch would amount to how many children you would have. There was also a lot of food and laud music along with plenty of dancing.

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I might be a Goodwill Ambassador...but it is just a tittle. I really identify with the volunteers and these ten were fantastic.

We soon rushed off to meet with ten TRCS volunteers who had been waiting for us and I briefly got to interact with them while a man from national TV filmed it all. Then we finally reached the hotel and I got connected to some wifi internet. Someone once suggested that I must need wifi like oxygen and I suppose that’s is about right. I texted my fiancée that I was fine and had arrived and then I fell asleep. The next day continued with more filming along with the same ten volunteers and I did my best to motivate them by telling them all which I had been though to come and meet with them. I concluded that if I was able to do all which I have done as a single individual them how much would they be able to do as volunteers when they worked together? And for the rest of you reading along just imagine how much the movement’s 12 million volunteers are capable of doing on a global level! It is one big family you know…all working towards a common goal for more than 150 years. And yeah…this entry might be a little Red Cross Red Crescent heavy by I guess you understand why ;) I was dropped off at the hotel early afternoon to rest a few hours before some afternoon sightseeing but I soon had to call in sick with nausea, headache and stomach issues. Nothing too serious but I was definitely better off in bed. My fiancée who’s a medical doctor suggested that it could be a lot of things but that high stress levels across Afghanistan and pulling it off as well as I did might have influenced my health. Yeah, Afghanistan and Turkmenistan were two biggies within the Saga and I’m happy it went well. I slept ten hours straight and woke up in the evening to work a few hours until the Afghanistan blog was online. Then back to bed.   

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This is the most expensive hotel in Ashgabat. And you can see the terraforming efforts ongoing around it.

The next day I was game again albeit weak. I met up with the volunteers once more as we visited the carpet museum and the national museum. The TV guy was there again so we must conclude that the TRCS got excellent visibility of my visit which makes me happy. I had lunch with Rustam at a cool little restaurant which Ashgabat has many of and then I was dropped off at the train station again. Rustam admitted that there was a certain level of control with my movement since I was in the country on a business visa and that the TRCS was directly responsible for me in a country which is bureaucratically strict. So fair enough.

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Another night train got me to Turkmenabad which is ancient city which got a new name when the Soviet Union collapsed and Turkmenistan became independent. It is also a city which played a great role in the ancient Silk Road and it is furthermore very close to the Uzbekistan border. Vepa and Bairam where at the train when it arrived, ready to welcome me to Turkmenabad. The two are good friends and Bairam is the head of the TRCS branch in Turkmenabad. Vepa is second to the principal at a school and speaks English so he acted as our translator. It was early morning and Bairam wanted to know if I wanted the $60.00 USD hotel or the $20.00 USD. With my budget it’s always the cheaper option. They asked what I wanted and I replied that I would appreciate some sleep so I got three hours of shuteye before they picked me up to go and visit the local TRCS branch. I once again interacted with staff and volunteers before we took some group photos and selfies and left again. We were on our way to lunch when Vepa wanted to know if I drank “hot drinks”? What did he mean: tea, coffee? He meant alcohol. I replied that I enjoy alcohol now and again as I am Danish but not in Islamic countries. I try to follow the traditions and cultures of where I am. Vepa assured me that it was no issue as Turkmenistan is a secular country and those who want to follow Islam can do so while those who won’t do not have too. For lunch we pulled up to a place which would have been “Bada-bing!” if this was an episode of Sopranos. However the food was decent and while it did not look like a family environment I saw a few senior ladies dinning there too. Along with our food we had a bottle of Arak which is 40% spirits and I was hoping we would stop at one or two shots. But the three of us finished that bottle. I do not know if women can understand that there are situations like these in which a man has to drink and cannot say no? Man my weak body felt that Arak and more followed… A toast was said every time and Vepa, Bairam and I were soon brothers.

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Our "Bada-bing" lunch.

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Arak is a part of life in Turkmenistan.

astanababa

Astana-Baba is a sacred place and dates back around 800 years. The architecture is spectacular but I was not allowed to take photos inside so use your imagination.

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Turkmenistan is a great country and not all of it looks like Ashgabad yet. But give it time. This country can definitely make it!

Yeah, we are already on six pages here so I’ll cut the blog short. The women are beautiful in Turkmenistan. Every country has beautiful women but some tend to have more than others. I like Turkmenistan. It has a pretty firm structure but maybe that is what it takes to get things in line. The cotton picking farmers may be far from the white buses of Ashgabat that pull into the white bus stops. However Rome wasn’t built in a day and neither was Turkmenistan. The day after Vepa and Bairam invited me out and poured some Ararak into me it turned out to be Bairam’s birthday so after some sightseeing at Astanababa in Kerki, which lies about three hours driving from Turkmenabad. I think you can easily account that road trip into more of Turmneistan’s hospitality. And on the way   back we had to celebrate Bairam’s birthday with lunch and more Arak which is really not my favorite game. I’m almost forty years old and that drinking stuff is way behind me. Needless to say I felt the alcohol in my body and still had to maintain operational. Not just because I’m in a foreign country but also because this project is demanding beyond what I ever imagined. And here I am at an internet café trying my best to get this entry online in spite of internet not being the most developed aspect of Turkmenistan. Happy birthday Bairam. Now let’s get to the next country…let’s just keep on keeping on!

soup

 

Best regards
Mr. Torbjørn C. Pedersen (Thor) - Ready for "stan" three.
"A stranger is a friend you've never met before"

 

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