Our early morning was interrupted by the loud sound of engines revving up near us probably trying to get across the sand. I was already gathering myself, so did not find it a problem – but knew there were others in the group who would be less sanguine about the rude awakening!
Following breakfast, we struck camp and set off for the Turkmenistan capital. Ashgabat has something of an interesting press. It is variously described as ‘the Las Vegas of Central Asia’ and ‘strange’. It was wiped out by a huge earthquake in 1948. It is thought 198,000 people died but no- one really knows. It was rebuilt by the Russians who effectively divided it into two parts – Russians and others. It remained part of the soviet ’empire’ until 1991 when it was declared an independent state. Since then it has had some interesting leaders. The current President whose picture is seen everywhere used to be a doctor and is continuing the grand plan started by his predecessors. Apparently the plan is to dig up the old Russian city and replace it, so the guidebooks say – in marble.
At one point we turned off the highway to get petrol. There was a small settlement around the petrol station and we saw motorbikes for the first time since China, mostly ridden by young boys who could not have been much older than 12!
We travelled on. A train came into view running parallel to us on the on the horizon – we had no idea there was a train line. All that could be seen from the truck was sand.
Then I suddenly noticed that green was beginning to appear in the sand. Short scrubby bushes at first and then the odd tree. Planted fir trees in various stages of survival next materialised and then we were into factories and a new ‘bazaar’ – we were in the outskirts of Ashgabat.
A futuristic bus station came into view, glinting silver in the sun as it’s exposed metal caught the light. Smart new looking apartments then started to line the road, white houses with green roofs. A high school appeared, the children in the playground all wore immaculate uniforms – the boys in black suits, the girls in a bright green (none of that dreary bottle green of my Hall Road school uniform!).
Then came housing estates, uniformly neat. No washing hanging out. No people.
We crossed a new motorway bridge into the city proper. We had arrived in the most peculiar city I have ever experienced.
Our hotel was in, what we came to realise, was the peopled part of Ashgabat. It was a modern hotel, with a few quirks eg we were to find that to get your bed made you had to put out a sign to request the room to be made up. No sign – no room made up. However, I digress. As we left Penelope the heat hit us with some force. The truck had gradually been getting hotter during the morning. The temperature outside must have been circa 100 degrees.
We walked into the air conditioning of the hotel and had found sanctuary, following two days of desert. We were dirty, we had a bag full of dirty clothing. Keith and I went to our room and stayed there for the rest of the day. We just literally and metaphorically chilled. We took advantage of no requirements of us, ordered food from room service, decided to splash out on the very expensive hotel laundry (I bet they were thrilled to receive our laundry bag!) and just chilled.