Ashgabat: The City of Love
Well, we woke up early in our weird hotel, ate the rest of the picnic/junk food left from last night's rather poor dinner and walked with our rucksacks back up through the weird border village to get to the Turkmen border. The high street was a long line of stationary trucks; drivers hanging about making tea and playing cards in the shade beneath their trailers. At the top of the high street was a large barrier-gate. The army guard called to us from his window at the gatehouse. He beckoned us over and asked us where we were going -
"You'll need to get a taxi".
So he made us some tea and we all sat watching the sports channel which was showing some kind of wrestling. It was a Turkmen sport which I'd read about. It's very much like suomo wrestling but without the fat men in nappies. Instead it was healthy men in lycra! Not sure which I prefer. We were amused but a bit concerned that we weren't going to get through the border in time to meet our state nanny/tour rep on the other side at 11.00.
After a little while a car came through and took us. We got separated. Hannah and our bags went in a different car. We were a bit concerned but it was OK and we all met up at the top of the hill by the Iranian customs house. Outside the building was the small English hatchback covered in stickers that we had seen at the hotel the night before. Oh, and I forgot to mention there was also an old converted ambulance also covered in stickers at the hotel last night. The same lads were all there crossing the border. We chatted. They told us they were part of the Mongol Rally. A charity rally that happens every year. Participants drive generally unsuitable vehicles from London to Ulaan Batar in Mongolia to raise money for charity. These ones were doing it in four weeks off from their jobs. Very good!
We also met a lady from London who was 70 years old, on her own, travelling around Iran and Asia by train! Although she had to use a taxi for this part of the journey because there is no train track. She was a legend!
We went in and gave our passports in to a man behind a desk. We were told to go and wait. We then had to go to another window, answer some questions and fill out some forms, wait some more. Then we got our passports back and had to go into a little medical room and answer some basic questions about our health.
After that we then went through to the Turkmenistan border building. It was nice. The people there had different uniforms with big hats. They had very different features to the Iranians. Some of them had definate Asian features and others were White Caucasian. There was a big picture of their leader on the wall; Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov. Try saying that with a mouth full of ...whatever it is they eat there.
We met more young Europeans who were all doing the Mongol Rally.
We had another medical, answered more silly questions like 'are you a terrorist?' 'do you have any explosives or drugs on you?' etc. And eventually we got through.
There was a door leading outside. We walked out into the bright pale sunlight. It was surreal like the moment in the sci-fi film Logan's Run or The Island when someone escapes from Utopia and sees the 'real' world for the first time. But I guess it was in reverse!
There was an empty road leading away down the mountain and out of sight. We were surrounded by mountains. Empty bleak mountains. No trees. Not even any rocks. Just ..weeds. brown weedy mountains and tall rusty fences that stretched as far as you could see. Army watchtowers scattered the horizon. There was no other building in sight. We were still high up in the Kopet Dagh even though we had seemed to be travelling downhill for a couple of hours the night before. We weren't sure whether this was the place that we were supposed to be meeting our government nanny/tour guide or not but there didn't seem to be anywhere else we could go. We saw the Mongol Rally ex-ambulance drive out from the back of the customs house and down the hill. After about 10 minuites we saw a shiny new white people carrier come driving up the mountain. It pulled up and a White Caucasian lady with dyed burgundy hair approached us and introduced herself as Angela. She was our guide. She was surprised and really happy that we made it on time. Usually she has to wait.
We hopped in and the minivan drove 35 km through empty no-man's-land. Just bleak mountains and rusty fences. A couple of army checkpoints. The road descended down and down all the way. When we reached the bottom there was a pair of big fences with the final (?) army checkpoint and people waiting on the other side to go in the other direction. The mountains stopped abruptly here. The road ahead was now straight and descended a gentle steady incline. In front was the hazy vast plain of the Karakum and straight ahead was a mushrooming mass of stark white buildings and domes. Ashgabat.
Angela explained to us Ashgabat means City of Love or White City - because it is white.
"And here is the city gate".
A huge gate towered across the road, which was now a 3-lane highway and empty.
As we approached Ashgabat Angela started to point out various buildings; the Library, The University. These buildings were right on the edge of the city. We hadn't seen any apartments yet, or people or traffic to mention.
These buildings were grand. Really grand. Huge golden domes and pillars. And they were brand-new. Everything seemed to be brand new. The style was completely different to Iran. We still didn't know what to expect of Ashgabat.
Within minutes we arrived at our hotel. Hotel Asia. It was a modern hotel and the theme was China. It had a Chinese restaurant in the corner of the lobby and it smelt of delicious Chinese food as soon as you walked in.
Angela spoke to the people at the desk and then she had to go and arrange our registration with the police; some kind of formality called OVIR registration. She told us to wait at the hotel until she came back with our registration. We seemed to be the only people there apart from the staff. Who seemed to have little to do.
The entrance lobby of Hotel Asia. The room numbers were all four figure numbers. But the hotel wasn't that big! It was a strange and empty place.
Our rooms were really nice. Modern and spacious with high ceilings. Luxury compared to alot of the places we'd been in. We still hadn't had proper food though. We waited for Angela.
On TV a Turkmen was playing his instrument. For a long time! It goes bling, bling bling. Its a bit like a saz which they play in Turkey but the style is slightly different. Harsher, less accessible.
We gave in to our hunger (Ruth and Hannah gave in to me!) and ate in the Chinese restaurant. It was very good.
After a while Angela came back with our registration sorted and we had to go and find a bank to get some money to pay her. This was the first time we had been able to use our bank accounts in a month or so! No banks for us in Iran. We had been carrying all our cash with us. Now it was beginning to get low. We set out on foot to find a bank. Angela had described to us how to get there. It was further than we thought.
This is the street right outside our hotel. A wide street. In fact there were four individual carriageways and a total of 12 lanes of no traffic. Did the people in these big building never go anywhere? Or were there no people really in them?
This, we were told, is the largest flag in the world! I could believe it. It was very big. The lamp posts are near. The flagpole is far away.
Near. ...Far away.
(It's a reference to a TV show called Father Ted in case you're wondering. It's very funny. Everyone should watch it).
We were really looking forward to seeing this. Unfortunately they are in the business of taking it down. It used to be the Arch of Neutrality. On top of it a giant gold statue of the former president and spiritual leader Niyazov or Turkmenbashi used to rotate slowly so that it was always facing the sun. Like a flower. There were little sci-fi capsuley things that you could ride in up each of the tripod legs to get up to the tower.
Western media criticised Turkmenbashi as one of the worlds most totalitarian and repressive dictators. According to Wikipedia he changed the Turkmen word for bread for the name of his mother and changed the names of the months of the year for names of members of his family.
They are taking it down now because Turkmenbashi died and they have a new leader. The former president established a massive cult of personality. It seems the new leader wants to get rid of all this and presumably replace it with his own image?
A street in Ashghabat. Empty. Clean. Peaceful. Weird. A real contrast to Iran. Its hard to believe that Iran is just over the other side of those mountains that are visible everywhere in Ashgabat.
What are these buildings? What goes on in there? We never saw anyone go in or out. Are they offices? Apartments?
Ah! The Ruhnama! The Book Of The Soul. We were looking forward to seeing this too. But alas! This also was also fenced off and being rebuilt. This giant book of the Ruhnama used to open its pages slowly for everyone to read. It was part of the Independence Park. But this seems to be being rebuilt too.
The Ruhnama is a book written by the former leader Turkmanbashi. It is a book of spiritual guidance, an autobiography and a dubious history of the Turkmen people. Turkmenbashi said that anyone who reads it 3 times is guaranteed a place in heaven. Turkmenbashi ensured this by personally negotiating an agreement with God. First of all the book was placed in libraries and eventually there was an exam on the Ruhnama as part of the driving test and for job interviews. Knowledge of the Ruhnama is compulsory, imposed on religious communities and society generally. The work is the main component of education from primary school to university. Subjects are harshly punished by dispossession, imprisonment or torture for disrespecting the Ruhnama!
A big gold statue of Turkmenbashi guarded by ...guards. Real gold! They must have got really hot and thirsty standing dead still in the roasting hot sun for who knows how long!
The esplanade up to the 100 m tall gold plated monument. Very impressive! There was hardly anybody about though!
Some statue of some Turkmen hero. There were 12 of them. I'm afraid I don't know anything about them.
Thats the library in the background. Also very impressive. Closed though. Some things are the same the world over!
Inside the base of it is a large exhibition hall. We popped our heads in but it was too late in the day and they were closing. It was amazingly lavish and exuberant inside.
View from the top. At 11:00 all the lights went out one by one. The end of another day in Ashgabat!