After we crossed the border, we couldn’t believe that we were with our own car in Turkmenistan. It was only 25 kilometres to the capital: Ashgabat. We were curious what we would find there. Ashgabat developed during the rule of the Russian empire after she was connected to the trans-Caspian railway between Tashkent and Dushanbe. In 1948 the city was largely destroyed due to an earthquake. Ashgabat was rebuilt after that as the city it is today and is known for its government buildings, statues of the president and marble. What would lie beyond the empty streets and squares, how do people live, are they free? We were hoping to find out a little bit about this in the five days we can spend here.
Turkmenistan’s capital: Ashgabat
The first day we arrived and explored a little bit of the city, many shops including the bazaars were all closed. After we walked around, we decided to get our first beer after Iran in one of Ashgabat’s pubs. The bartender was unable to inform us why everything was closed, but he thought that things would open again the next day. The pubs are all in English style and in most of them you can smoke inside, which is strange because it is not allowed to smoke outside. Turkmenistan wants to be a smoke-free country and sales of all tobacco products is made illegal. That is why most Turkmen will ask you for a cigarette if they see you on the street, and that is why we bought some packs, to give it to them.
After a cold night in the van we went for a cup of coffee (and to warm up) in a western-style coffee place nearby. After that we went for the Russian Bazaar, where you can buy about everything. The salesmen were very nice -and besides some that try to sell you silly stuff they were sincere. The bazaar is filled with delicious cookies, tea and other food. We stopped at a stall with two ladies selling pancakes. They demanded me to take a photo of them. The three cheapest things to eat in Turkmenistan are cookies, pickled vegetables and rice. This is also what we saw most people eating. Of course, they sell meat -or fish, but I think this is quite expensive.
The bazaar and neighbouring streets were filled with people. It is striking that everyone has a very proper look. The women have bright, colourful long traditional dresses on with a lot of jewellery. They also wear a distinctive headpiece we haven’t seen anywhere else in Central Asia. They have an embroidered cap with a hijab on, the hair underneath is often braided. They are obliged to wear traditional clothing when working in a public place. Contrary to the busy bazaar, the white, marble streets with governmental buildings, statues of the president and gigantic open squares are empty. There was a gigantic empty street near the presidential palace that we were not even allowed to enter on foot. The only people we encountered on the street were policemen, government officials and many, many cleaners. The city is amazingly clean because the government hires hundreds of people that clean every little item of dirt. Even trashcans throughout the city are empty.
Turkmenistan is considered the most expensive country of central Asia. That is true in a sense, because our border crossing and transit visa were not cheap. It is also true for cyclists or people that don’t have their own vehicle. This is because transportation and hotels are expensive. First, there are currently no youth hostels available in Turkmenistan. Second, a double room in a bad hotel can cost around $40-$60. If you decide to go for a decent one the price is $60-$100 and if you prefer a good hotel prices are even higher. Luckily, we had our campervan. In Ashgabat we could stay in the parking lot of a luxury hotel for free. The parking lot was secured, and we could use the toilet of the hotel. We always laughed whenever we walked in our shabby clothes past a few rich businessmen to brush our teeth in the hotel bathroom.
Darwaza fire crater
The reason why we chose to take the route from Ashgabat to Konye-Urgench through Turkmenistan was so we could visit the “door to hell”. Situated in the Ahal province this crater has been burning since 1971. The krater lies in the middle of the Karakum desert and it is a 260 kilometre drive up from Ashgabat. The area is home to one of the largest gas reserves in the world. The krater is about 60 metres wide and 20 metres deep. During drilling practices in 1971, the Soviets stumbled upon a big underground cave filled with gas. The ground underneath the drilling platform collapsed and left a big hole in the ground. To avoid poisonous gas to escape, the government lit the fire. It has been burning ever since.
We were not sure if our car would make it all the way up to the fire crater because there is no official road leading towards. Also, we don’t have a four-wheel drive. We decided to try anyways because there are no towns or hotels in the neighbourhood and we knew it was possible to camp near the crater. Luckily the road was no problem and we made it up to the crater. We left the car at a safe distance because sleeping to close to the crater can make you sick because of the toxic gas. It was one of the coldest (-10), but one of the most special nights camping. At night we walked up to the crater and in the dark, with only the light of the burning fire it really seems like this is the gateway to hell.
Towards -and in Ashgabat the quality of the roads is extremely good. All new tarmac, often with five lanes, and not much traffic. The maximum speed on the empty highway from Iran into Ashgabat is 60, even though it is a five-lane street with tarmac in perfect condition. However, when you get further away from Ashgabat, the condition of the roads deteriorates. The first fifty kilometres towards Konye-Urgench were fine, there was just one lane for both ongoing and upcoming traffic. Because the roads are so empty, it works without problems.
The route is surrounded by desert and we passed maybe two towns on our way to Konye-Urgench. One tricky thing is to watch out for camels passing the highway. We saw a lot of dead camels on the side of the road. I can imagine that when you drive these roads at night, you don’t always expect a camel to cross your path. There is not light whatsoever so obviously you might hit a passing camel. For this reason, it is highly discouraged to drive at night here.
Staying with a local family in Konye-Urgench
After we passed the Darwaza fire crater the roads ceased to exist. Everything that was left was something that once might have been a tarmac road. It was only small rocks, holes and sand. Our average speed was around 30 km/h, so when we arrived in Konye Urgench it was already late.
We decided to pay a short visit to the bazaar to spend the money we had left and have a drink in what seemed the only café in Konye-Urgench. After a while we were asked for a cigarette and joined by a Turkmen guy. We tried to converse using our best Russian and a phrasebook. When we finished our drinks, we were invited to have dinner with his family. He lived close by the bazaar in a house consisting of three rooms: a kitchen and two empty rooms with carpets on the floor. His wife was already preparing dinner and his kids were playing around. We got to sit on pillows on the floor with a low table. They had an old television in the house where they played a cd featuring Russian pop music. His wife was not of his first marriage, and it was not her first marriage too. He told us he met his wife in Moscow and later they moved back to Turkmenistan where he was from. They had three young kids together and she had an older son of 17 from her earlier marriage. They were very friendly and extremely happy to have us as their guests.
Apparently, there are not a lot of jobs available in Turkmenistan so they both didn’t really have a fulltime job. Their eldest son was working in construction in Kazakhstan most of the year. Because they didn’t seem to be a particularly rich family we gave them our last Manats for everything they provided for us.
For dinner we got some rice with pickled vegetables and cookies. They also got a lot of beer and vodka. One thing I was happy about, was that also his wife was drinking. In a lot of countries, I saw that mostly the men will drink alcohol, whereas women stay sober to do chores and watch the kids. We had a brilliant night and ended up watching their wedding videos and having a dance-off in their living room.