Tuesday, 22 October 2019


CENTRAL ASIA ADVENTURE – PART IV

After a nice visit in Khiva, we said goodbye to nine fellow travellers and our guide, Aktilek, and seven of us set off into the unknown, Turkmenistan. Our new guide, Arslan, explained to us that all we needed to know about the country is that it is a good country and that the President, Gerbanguly Berdimuhamedow, is a good President. No more questions! While the country is open to visitors, it’s not easy to travel there. You need to be with a recognized tour group at all times and a visa costs $67 US. Turkmenistan will welcome 20,000 visitors in 2019. To put that number into perspective, Charlottetown welcomes 10,000 passengers and crew on a day when three cruise ships call at the city.

Our first night in the country, we stayed at the luxurious Dashoguz Hotel, clad in white marble on the outside and just as fancy on the inside. There was internet but, since many sites are blocked by the government, it was of little use. Whatever! It’s what we expected.
Next morning, we were met by a convoy of three late-model Toyota 4x4s. All bore government license plates and were driven by what looked like ex-military men. The drive to Kunya Urgench took about an hour. While there, we visited ruins of the ancient capital of the Khorezmian Empire, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Kunya Urgench is an important pilgrimage site for the people of Turkmenistan. The minaret in the photo is the tallest in Central Asia at 62 metres.
After a delicious lunch, we headed south on the main road between Dashoguz and Ashgabat. We drove on the road, on the shoulder, and in the ditch; sometimes it seemed like all three at once! The condition of the road defied description. Finally, after about 100 kilometres of bouncing around, we hit a stretch of better pavement, still nothing more than a base coat of asphalt though. One of our vehicles died but was soon replaced by another. Our drivers hit speeds of 120 kph as we hung on for dear life. The objective seemed to be to get us to the gas crater at Darvasa at sunset. The last part of the drive was off-road over sand dunes. We made it just in time!

The crater, known as “The Gates of Hell”, is one of the most unusual sites we’ve ever seen. The Soviets drilled for oil here in 1971 but hit only natural gas. The gas had formed a pocket and, upon being released, the pocket collapsed into itself, creating the large crater. Since it’s normal to burn off a pocket of gas, they set fire to it believing it would flame out in a couple of weeks. To everyone’s surprise, it’s still burning 48 years later with no end in sight.
 
The yurt camp that housed us for the night was clearly the most luxurious of the four we stayed in. it even had a bar. Unlike the first three, we had a yurt all to ourselves! But again, we damn near froze! 
Although the Karakum Desert is warm during the day, the temperature drops to 5 degrees C or so at night. Next morning, our three-vehicle convoy drove south through the desert until we reached the capital of Turkmenistan, Ashgabat, surely one of the strangest cities in the world. After over 3,000 kilometers on some of the worst roads ever, we were glad to see the driving part of our adventure come to an end. Our lodging for the next two nights was the Wedding Palace. The photo says it all! Everything here is over the top.


In Xanadu did Kubla Khan
A stately pleasure-dome decree…

I was reminded of the opening words of Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s poem (remembered from high school) as I tried to absorb the marvels of Ashgabat. Block after block of brilliant white marble buildings, all erected since the country gained its independence. Enormous monuments adorn the centers of every roundabout. The broad boulevards and spacious monuments are cleaned every day and the parks are immaculately groomed. We drove past the Olympic Village, complete with 55,000 seat stadium, monorail, athletes’ village, and all the venues needed to hold major sporting events. Each of them spotless but apparently empty. I dared not ask how many international sporting events have been held here since they opened.

I can say this about Turkmenistan. It is a land of stark contrasts; from the desert that covers 80% of its land area to the fertile irrigated plains; from the poverty in rural areas to the conspicuous wealth displayed in Ashgabat’s high-end shopping center; from the controls imposed on travel and internet access to the government’s stated intention to increase visitation and private investment. And I could go on. The photos below show the high-end hotel just up the hill from ours, a small copy of Dubai's Burj Al-Arab, and an empty boulevard that would be ideal for a Formula 1 Grand Prix. We had coffee on the eighteenth floor of the fancy hotel and looked down on a Jack Nicklaus-designed golf course, also empty.
Winston Churchill, speaking of Russia in 1939, called it a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma. A description that fits Turkmenistan to a tee. Still, we’re glad we experienced this unusual country. It’s one that should be on every intrepid traveller’s list.
 
We said goodbye to Arslan and to our travel companions and spent a few days in another former Soviet Republic, Azerbaijan. The capital city, Baku, has a population of 2.5 million, about one-quarter of the country’s total. We arrived at our hotel at 4:30 am, dead tired, after taking the red-eye from Ashgabat. The night manager, Shahin, must have pulled a few strings to get us an early check-in; a much-appreciated gesture. The Boutique 19 Hotel is located right in the center of the old city and within walking distance of the waterfront. It’s the nicest hotel we’ve stayed in since we left home four weeks ago.

We strolled through the narrow streets in the walled section, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, made our way down to the waterfront boulevard, and visited the beautiful national Carpet Museum, a real masterpiece. Watching women make the carpets was dizzying. The process is extremely complex, kind of like watching someone calculate using an abacus: impossible to follow. We ended our day with a hamburger and fries at the Hard Rock Café, a welcome return to a familiar meal after four weeks of local food. (By the way, the third photo is not a painting, it's a carpet.)

 
It’s evident as soon as you step onto the sidewalk that Baku is a European city. The prices are definitely European as well! The Ural Mountains run north-south from the Arctic Ocean to Kazakhstan, dividing Europe from Asia. So Azerbaijan is geographically part of Europe, certainly more European than Asian; perhaps more accurately a crossroads between the two.

Azerbaijan is a rich country, far better off economically that any of the five Stans, mainly because of its significant reserves of oil and natural gas. Agriculture and tourism are also big here. Average per capita income is about twice that of Kazakhstan (richest of the Stans) and about half that of Canada.

The more we saw of Baku, the more we liked it. It’s a very walkable city and very clean. We climbed the Maiden’s Tower and visited the Shirvanshah Palace. Elva did some shopping and we played tourist for a few days. We climbed the hill to see the Flame Towers up close and took the metro to visit the magnificent Heydar Aliyev Center, a signature landmark of modern Baku. Close by, I found a barber shop and ducked in for a trim. The guy was an artist. For the first time in my life, I had an ear waxing! I considered a Brazilian but thought I’d had enough trauma for one day.


On our last day in Azerbaijan, we joined a Viatour group for a visit to a few of the top tourist attractions outside the city: the Gobustan petroglyphs, the mud volcanoes, and the fire temple. It was a nice way to end our short visit to this fascinating country. A word of advice to people who are looking for a stopover alternative in this part of the world. Dubai may have all the superlatives (tallest this and biggest that), but don’t overlook Baku!

Central Asia is huge, even by Canadian standards. The total land area of the five Stans is equal to that of Québec, Ontario, British Columbia, and Alberta combined. Our experience exceeded our expectations. This little-known corner of the world is a treasure to be discovered and experienced. We didn’t feel crowded by tourists everywhere, but their presence is being felt in the region, particularly in the historic cities of Samarkand, Bukhara, and Khiva. It’s clear that the government of Uzbekistan recognizes its tourism potential; city centers of Bukhara and Khiva are busy construction zones. Go now before these places are overrun.

Having seen enough mosques and madrassas, Paul, yours truly, and Jeff sat down one day to work on the world's problems.
We can’t say enough good things about the people in these countries. They are friendly, polite, industrious, and curious. They seem genuinely proud of what each of their countries has achieved since independence and are hopeful for the future. We saw no graffiti, no idleness, and few signs of homelessness. Not once were we approached by someone asking for money. The countryside may be poor but there is little garbage lying around and the cities display a level of cleanliness that would be the envy of many first-world countries.

Tourism infrastructure and service levels are in need of improvement; no question. Few of us on the tour escaped at least a mild case of la touristique. The food varied from quite good to just passable and accommodation standards were all over the map. Every day, I gave thanks for a firm stool! Elva wasn’t always so lucky… Eventually, our intestinal microbiota adjusted and their variety is, I’m sure, vastly improved!

As for their systems of government, twenty-eight years of independence is not a long time. Each of the five has developed its own system, some more repressive than others. However, one thing we’ve learned in our travels is that democracy is not always the best form of government and dictatorship not always the worst. The people of the Stans see their present situation as much better than what they experienced under the USSR — the Bolsheviks as they call the Russians — and more secular than would be the case in an Islamic republic like Iran or Afghanistan. In every country except Turkmenistan, where we were not allowed to ask probing questions, the people displayed a hopeful attitude. They’re not looking for radical change, just slow and steady progress.

As for G Adventures, this was not our first experience with the company. Eight years ago, we did Machu Picchu, the Amazon jungle and the Galapagos Islands with them. Our CEOs, as well as local guides with Panjakent Intour and Owadan Travel, were eager to please and did their best to make our visit enjoyable and informative. We would not hesitate to recommend this tour, the Five Stans of the Silk Road.

2 comments:

  1. Thanks for part IV! Heard there were some crazy tourists in Turkmenistan?
    Fun times, thanks for being great tour mates,
    Katherine.

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  2. Hope you had a nice visit to Dubai. We're on our way to Hawai'i. It was great traveling with you. Wishing you many more adventures!

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