Saturday – Ashgabat to the Caspian Sea

It was an early start. By 7.30 we were on the road. When we started out it was with the intention of staying overnight at a bush camp and then set out for the Caspian port first thing. Apparently it is not possible to book onto a ferry in advance. You have to be there to get your place.

The plan had been to visit hot springs on the way, but as no-one fancied the hot spring opportunity, we cracked on. Leaving Ashgabat we passed the largest mosque in Central Asia on the outskirts of the city and a long row of buildings which I think was military accommodation. It was not long before the mountains that separate Turkmenistan from Iran were running parallel with the road. A railway line ran along between the highway and the mountains.

The road was pretty grim. There is a new road in the process of being built, although we saw no-one working on it, and in some areas it was complete but frequently there were long stretches where it was not and we bumped along the old road, which was a single lane in each direction. It was a long day. I read a complete book!

The desert closed in on either side. The mountains to our left towards Iran disappeared. Mountains then appeared to our right – the Minor and eventually the Great Balkan mountain ranges came and went. A very soviet looking oil town appeared, and was then left behind.

At about 4.00 pm news came through to Kurban that there was a ferry due to dock in the early hours of the morning and we may be able to get on it, so the decision was taken to keep going to the port and camp there. (How are we going to get tent pegs in I thought to myself?) We kept going. At about 6.30 pm we got our first sighting of the sea. By 7.30 we were at the dock side. The sun was setting. Penelope was parked comfortably amongst her trucky chums but looked a little less at home when we got out our cooking gear and started to cook supper! The other lorry drivers looked a bit surprised as they discretely opened up food compartments cunningly built into in the side of their vehicles. It is another world!!

The good news was that we had been accepted on the ferry -which apparently also takes a goods train across…….. Hmmmmmm thinks I – Penelope and a goods train. Pretty heavy stuff.

In the end Keith and I, plus one or two others, decided not to battle with getting tent pegs into the asphalt but to sleep on the truck. Although I have not bothered too much with reports on ‘facilities’ in my writings, the standards of the toilets on the dockside were nothing short of horrific. They were absolutely disgusting and we had no idea how long we would be there. Everything was pretty ‘elastic’. No-one knew what time the ferry would actually arrive or indeed if and when it did arrive, when it would leave. Meanwhile, we and all the lorry drivers who continued to arrive all evening, plus the other foot passengers, plus the border staff, plus the port staff were all condemned to use the same loos, which were unspeakable. I will move swiftly on…….

We adjourned to the truck to sleep.

Friday – Ashgabat

Although we had all read about it and Simon, who had been before, had made some comments, nothing had prepared us for Ashgabat.

Unusually for this trip, it was a cloudy day. As it turned out – thank goodness! The 100 degree heat of yesterday would have been disastrous for our tour. As it was, at 9.00 am our people carrier and driver turned up as did young Kurban, our Turmenistan guide, with his file of words. We all piled in – and we were off.

First of all we were warned that no photographs were to be taken of government buildings….. How can you tell what is a government building?!

Before very long we were passing huge official looking buildings with large formal gardens in front or a vast expanse of parking. There were rarely cars parked. Kurban would say ‘….. And this is Turkmenistan’s Ministry of Sport’ or ‘ Turkmenistan’s Ministry of…..’ He then read from his script some blurb about the wonders of that particular ministry. The roads were smooth to the point that every corner made the tyres squeal. The pavements were immaculate. I am not sure how long it took before we realised there were no people. Not one. Very occasionally we saw a woman sweeping the very clean road. There were few cars. There were air conditioned bus stops but no-one in them. There were no buses.

Our first stop was, I think, the independence memorial. We parked in an empty car park. We walked across to the base of the very tall edifice. It had four legs leading up to something that most closely resembled a concrete Eiffel Tower or perhaps a rocket launcher, with a gold figure of the first president post independence, complete with batman cloak, on the top. There were several ladies with brushes and brooms cleaning what looked like the totally immaculate marble pavement beneath it. Two soldiers stood to attention in sentry boxes. Amusingly two mongrel dogs trotted past oblivious to the perfection they were spoiling! They happily padded through the water running off the ladies brooms.

There is a lift going up one of the ‘legs’ of the structure and a beautifully attired lady accompanied us up in the lift. We were at the first landing stage. It was all very plush. She opened a door and we were out on the first balcony and looking out over a rather startling landscape. Beneath us were the formal gardens with white lamp posts. Then the closest surroundings were covered with freshly planted short fir trees. Some of them flourished. Many of them were clearly dead or dying. They had been planted in the desert sand and I am not sure the desert was ready for planting. It was fighting back!

Beyond the plantation in the haze of the far distance there is a sky line of apartment blocks, but between us and them were large white classic buildings, futuristic towers, then there was the world’s second largest flag pole(?), weird shaped modern building blocks, pillared frontages, gold spires all were represented but in isolated splendour. Immediately around the base or surrounding each edifice was a garden but then there was a gap of empty desert. Deserted road ways led to each building or tower. It was literally indescribable.

From this higher perspective we were able to gain an overview of what was to become our tour. We drove past a blue building that soared into the air in the shape of a cobra. The hospital is designed to look from a distance to be in the shape of a gigantic hyperdermic syringe, the wedding palace (of which more later) with its 8 sided star and globe, a hotel in the shape of a grey shimmering sail. The Ferris wheel. Large petroleum offices, the gas ministry, it went on and on. Kurban read us the official commentary on every building. Occasionally the vehicle stopped and we were tipped out onto the pavement to look at a square or stroll around a particular piece of architecture or ‘sculpture’ eg the large painted replica of the first president’s ‘great book’. ???????!!!!!!!

One of the ‘hghlights’ of the trip was the wedding palace – a huge building incorporating seven wedding suites each of them with different themes, with register offices, large ballrooms with thrones and twinkly lights all laid out ready for the brides and bridegrooms and all their entourage to sweep in at a moments notice. The building also contained shops for the purchase of wear for bride and groom, a gift shop to accommodate the wedding list – in fact everything for a perfect and expensive wedding – but there was no-one there. Well dressed cleaners swept the very shiny marble floors. Bored shop assistants walked around the merchandise in the shops. Outside we did see one bride and groom with a band of local musicians and a few ‘guests’ real or posed, it was difficult to tell. Overhead on the top of the building loomed an intricate concrete eight sided star with a globe inside it with Turkmenistan picked out in gold relief…..

Our next excursion was to try out the Ferris wheel. This was particularly bizarre. The wheel, similar in design to the London Eye, is actually inside a building, making it very difficult to see out. As we entered the doors into the building lobby we were confronted by crowd control barriers and the security man. No visitors except us. We went up in the lift and zig zagged up to the point to enter the pods to go round on the wheel. A young man rushed up to set things in motion and we were off, occasionally through the ‘meccano’ like white iron work that held the wheel and its workings we could see outside. It was all very odd, but even more odd was leaving the wheel and going through the children’s playground area around its base on the way to the cafeteria. There were toy trains to sit in and a roundabout, a carousel and all sorts. Empty. The music played but all was still.

The cafeteria? A complete commercial kitchen sat behind a counter. Chairs and tables stood in readiness. But there was no-one there except the staff – who were having their lunch and said there was no food available……

We left the Ferris wheel scratching our heads. What is this place all about. It was lunch time and our car took us back into what felt like ‘the real world’, with people, full buses, cars – to a place for lunch. It was as though we had spent the morning in someone else’s fantasy world. Almost in someone else’s head.

As I said at the beginning nothing and no-one could prepare you for the Presidential area of Ashgabat.

The afternoon was spent at the Russian market getting supplies for our ‘cruise’ on the Caspian Sea. What that will involves we are not quite sure, but supplies were recommended.

We had a wine and cheese gathering with our Australian ladies for supper. Tomorrow we leave Ashgabat for the port……

Thursday the route to Ashgabat

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.

Wednesday – desert and fire

Yet another beautiful day. We breakfasted on toast and then set off. For some way the sand was piled high on both sides of the road.

We had to stop off for supplies for our truck lunch, so pulled off the road to visit what was described as a ‘market’. Now markets have taken many forms on this trip but this was certainly the least market looking. We were confronted with two white buildings, which when you opened the doors looked like offices. On closer inspection, doors off of the main entranceway revealed ether a large room with people displaying their rather frugal wares or small shops. The people behind the counters looked back at us shyly. Some smiled but others just stared. My recollection of the whole thing is of shelves of goods – jars and tins – neatly laid out in rows with gaps between each item to make the shelves look as full possible…….. There were no other customers.

We managed to find a bottle of cold drinking water and someone found the bakery. We piled back into the truck. The day wore on and got hotter and hotter.

We pulled off the road at lunch time onto a track into the sand, with the truck as our only shade. Tufts of a mauve tinged dry grass was the occasional thing growing.

Early in the afternoon we came to our first crater. I was not aware of these craters, but knew others talked of the ‘fire crater’, the final crater of the day, as one of the highlights of the trip. I was totally unaware of their existence, so I did my homework.

It appears that the craters are a bizarre combination of human error and natural phenomenon. In the soviet era of gas exploration in the 1950’s they dug a number of very large holes in the desert and as a result have created three large craters of increasing size with three different outcomes. This first one was perhaps 15 foot across and contained water about 25 feet blow ground level. The edges had been concreted.

After inspecting the crater from every angle, we all piled back in the truck and some twenty minutes later came to the second crater. This had a larger diameter and we peered down on bubbling mud.

Before we reached the third crater we had set up camp in the desert. A four wheel drive vehicle had been arranged to take us to the crater site. It was not big enough to take everyone together so the cooking group went first (of which I was one) so they were able to return first to start cooking supper. A rather battered vehicle arrived and we piled in. The guidebook makes it clear that you should not attempt to get to the crater on foot as finding your way out would be difficult. The whole excursion got more and more intriguing…..

We bumped along over the sand dunes at speed (supposedly so we did not sink) and kept going for about twenty minutes, passing what looked like a drilling camp on the way. As we went over the final hill we were confronted by an enormous crater. A yawning hole in the ground which, as we neared it revealed the fire – or more accurately – many fires that burned within it. The heat shimmered above it in the setting sunlight. It was incredible. The Russians had unexpectedly found this seam of gas, in the ’70’s and no knowing quite what to do next (?!) so thought the only thing to do was set fire to the gas – and it is still burning! We neared the edge and saw that in the centre huge flames shot up. The heat was immense. It looked like the original inferno.

We walked round the circumference trying to photograph it to show how impressive it was but it was impossible. Meanwhile it continued to roar and the flames flickered. There was no smoke and no smell, just a fearsome heat. What a sight! The sun set behind us and we eventually set off back to the camp. It was truly one of the most exceptional experiences of the trip thus far.

It is the 24th September. Just one month left of this incredible journey.

As darkness fell we were to have another treat. The Milky Way emerged – one of the clearest experiences of it I have ever had. What a day!

Tuesday Khiva to Turkmenistan

Another border day. Again we were cautioned to expect delays and be prepared for them. Just before the border we said ‘goodbye’ to Rusthom who had been our guide in Uzbekistan. He had been pretty underwhelming, but it was not necessarily his fault but more likely to have been imposed by the higher authorities , but I felt a bit of ‘sparkle training’ would not have gone amiss! In addition, he missed no opportunity to be totally disparaging towards women – not a good idea with six women in your audience! However, we had seen some incredible cities with him.

As we left Uzbekistan we had travelled approximately, 10,600 Kms from Beijing. Not many people have visited Turkmenistan and few know much about it. It was definitely on some of the routes of the Silk Road. Today it has a rich economy. It has both oil and gas to offer the world. Both are free to its people. Petrol is very cheap. The rich are booming. The poor are very poor. We were about to enter Turkmenistan.

We arrived at the border at 9.45 am. Initially things took their normal course of getting our passports stamped as we were leaving Uzbekistan. Things were pretty smart and efficient, if not very chummy. We were first inspected by a man with a gun over his shoulder and then entered the border office. Forms had to be completed and these were all fairly smoothly handled once a man with three pips on his shoulder arrived and took over from a man with two pips who was obviously struggling a bit. From here we literally walked – say – 100 meters to the outside and the Uzbeck border post barrier, a very smart if isolated area. There don’t seem to be many people who want to leave Uzbekistan or perhaps want to get into Turkmenistan. I am not sure which. The next step was for Penelope to catch us up, two border guards to get on the truck and help themselves to beer from the ‘fridge, under the guise of searching it, and we were out of Uzbekistan.

Next we drove perhaps half a kilometre to the Turkmenistan border post. The sun blazed down on a very, very smart building with a large picture of the Turkmenistan president with a big sign saying ‘Welcome’. When we entered the building we were personally welcomed by Kurban, our Turkmenistan guide. He was very smiley. More forms were issued and we waited while visas were sorted. They had all been previously prepared but had to be paid for. Interestingly after we had handed over the initial fee required – 45$ for everyone else and 85$ for us Brits – there came another demand for a 10$ administration charge…….. By this time the handful of other tourists and the two other local people had gone and there was just us. There were just four chairs and a desk in the room where we waited. No-one was allowed to sit on the desks so we arranged ourselves around the walls on the floor, making the place look a bit untidy I have to confess. After about an hour of a lot of comings and goings with Emma and Simon, we all had to sign for our visas.

Now the difficulty was that when we left the truck we were told just to take hand luggage and passports, which is what most of us did, not knowing that we were not going to be allowed back into the truck for some time. This meant that after we signed for the visa, had our hand luggage checked and our passports stamped we were then ushered out of the other end of the building to await Penelope with, in my case no IPad, ergo no book. Needless to say there was no seating outside and the heat bounced back off the concrete forecourt of the building, as we huddled in the shade. Then they announced it was lunch time and the office would close for one hour.

We were allowed to rescue the food from the truck and we set up our camp lunch on the steps of the border post. Out came chopping boards, bread, cheese and tomatoes. You could not help but to sense the outrage emanating from those inside the building, but there was little that could be done as they were ‘at lunch’ and we were hungry! By the time 2.00 pm came our stuff was packed away in its boxes. Once again we settled down on the floor to wait. This we did until, at 3.30 we were told we could go. Turkmenistan here we come – or not quite. We next had to go and register at the first town’s tourist office.

The town was reached in about 20 minutes. Already we could see the noticeable difference wealth difference. The cars were very upmarket – I saw the first Lexus seen since leaving the UK – the buildings of the town were immaculate high rise affairs with designer air conditioning plants on the side. There was a two lane highway through the middle of the town, designer shops appeared.

We waited an hour to be registered with the tourist office and found out that the President had visited the town earlier – could that have been why a rather bedraggled group of tourists together with a rather obvious ex Sainsbury’s truck was better off at the border post until he had gone?!!

Eventually we continued on our way out of Dashhowuzi and in the direction of the Karakum Desert, the hottest desert in Central Asia. On the outskirts of town we passed a number of amazing buildings of the white concrete variety. One was described as a ‘wedding palace’. It was all extremely swish with a sculpture of a couple in gold under a gold coronet held aloft by four concrete ‘arms’. There was also a race course,

As things became more rural, large fields, tilled and ready for planting lay back on either side of the road. Later we moved unto the desert. Occasionally we saw a lonely camel in the distance, but mainly there was just sand as far as the eye could see.

Not too far into the edge of the desert – there were still elements of green and some trees – we pulled off the road to set up camp for the night.

We are getting quite slick at this camping business now. Keith made a fire and we quite enjoyed being out of town.

Monday – Khiva!

It was a night spent in one of our more interesting bed linen arrangements. I do not usually bore you with such minutiae but this was special! Each of the counter panes on our beds (and those of the rest of the group!) had a large circle of material cut out of the middle of it! Literally a hole about 12 inches in diameter cut out with the frayed edges exposed. Very odd. At one point in the middle of the night I got my foot caught in mine……. Despite enquiry we could not establish why this was.

After a night of this sort of excitement, I for one was keen to set out for our tour of Khiva. Keith and I, on our previous evening’s walk , had decided the town had the feel of Aigue Morte (spelling?) the old walled town on the edge of the Camargue in the south of France.

Khiva is a delight! The morning sun showed it in all its glory, although our morning tour time did not do justice to some of the coloured tiling due to the light for our photographs. It is once again a very old city with the chequered history that seemed to befall many of these old locations. Demolished by Genghis Khan, an emirate capital in the 17th century, it outgrew its city walls and another city wall was built as it expanded. It has two fortresses, one inside and one outside the city wall and four gates. It is a place far less renovated than the other Silk Road cities as you get the impression that it did not just ‘roll over’ for the Russians. Khiva has many madrassahs, like Bukhara, some are now hotels – a use they lend themselves to very well. A ‘not so illustrious’ aspect of its past, was Khiva’s large slave market.

One of the many minarets was commissioned to be the largest minaret tower in Central Asia, but the builder, becoming aware that he was doomed to die so he could not make another one when it was finished, did not complete the job. It’s stump still towers over the town but not quite at the anticipated height!

On our route around the town we tried on some of the many fur hats for sale and looked in on the wood carving madrassah. Young boys sat outside, looking very busy when we arrived, but you felt as soon as we had disappeared they would be back to chatting – as all teenaged boys would.
We also dropped in on the Susannah Madrassah, set up by an English man and supported by UNESCO, it provides traditional carpet weaving and embroidery training and work for women, often those with disabilities. The chap has written a book about it which Keith is reading. Although now based in London, he was actually there, talking about what the madrassah produced. It had a very nice atmosphere and we resolved to go back later in the day to make some purchases. Regrettably, by the time we got back, the things we had identified had been sold. Another missed retail moment. The moral of the story…….!

We visited the large mosque which was of the ‘many wooden pillared’ variety. Apparently following the destruction of the original (I think young Genghis was to blame) there was a call for each family to contribute a new pillar which is why all the current pillars are different! I have to say it is a veritable forest of pillars – but lovely and cool inside.

We left the tour – it was by now mid-day – and retired to the hotel for a break and then set off out again for the only wifi connection in town – the nice day bedded restaurant where we had eaten supper. Here we drank cool sparkling water, wrote and sent our blogs (although photographs proved problematic) and chatted to our chums and happily whiled awaĆ· the afternoon. It almost felt as though we were on holiday!

We set off tomorrow for an overnight bush camp prior to crossing the border into Turkmenistan, where there is said to be no internet connection at all. In these circumstances, I am going to close down, so that I can send this from the restaurant tonight. We are not sure when or where our next wifi will be, but rest assured that I will continue my missives and keep taking the photographs and they will be dispatched in due course. Normal service may not be resumed for some time……..