When you’re at a border, it’s always interesting to see what changes. In this case: everything. The faces, the looks, the food, the cars, the streets. Women hardly wear headscarfs. The ones who do have a matching traditional Turkmen dress to go along. But the biggest change is in the mentality of the people. While the Persians were ever-approaching, the Turkmen are way more reserved.
Our Turkmen welcome were fees that rounded up to about 150 US Dollar just for entering the country. That’s on top of the hard-to-obtain 5 day transit visa. In fact, Turkmenistan is one of the few countries that do not encourage tourists to come by for a visit.
The first kilometres were on a beautiful mountain road. We were not supposed to stop: “There’s wolves.” said the officers. Sadly, we didn’t see any wolves. Just their food: groups of black-tailed gazelles crossed the street back and forth rapidly.
When we reached the outskirts of Turkmenistan’s capital Ashgabat, this road led towards the city center. There were no cars around and no pedestrians either. Only policemen and soldiers.
After a fatal earthquake of 9,0 on the Richter scale, Ashgabat was rebuilt in Soviet style. But in the last 20 years it was completely rebuilt again – in white marble.
Our guidebook called it “a weird combination of North Korea and Las Vegas”, “one of the world’s weirdest places” and “surreal” – all of it is true.
All these monumental white marble buildings are somehow impressive, but the thing is: you’re not allowed to take photos of them. The omnipresent police makes harsh use of their whistles and demands that you delete shots of all public buildings. That’s why you so see so little photos of this gigantic ghost town here. For more impressions follow this link.
The whistles also resound when you’re trying to cross a completely empty street. There’s underground crossings for that.
The police’s uniforms and behaviour gave us a little glimpse of what living in East Germany might have been like. We decided to leave Ashgabat for a trip to the nearby site of Old Nisa.
The excavations of this designated UNESCO world heritage site demand a great deal of imagination. This fortress must have been quite something back in the days, but there’s not much of it left.
Shortly afterwards we hit the road again. Direction: east. Destination: Mary.
To be honest, there was not much to see at the side of the road. The police was everywhere again and tried to fine us for alleged speeding. We talked them out of it. At some point they realized we had more time than them.
For the rescue, we took one of the less travelled back roads.
As a reward, we met this guy who made our day.
Unfortunately, Mary was like a small version of Ashgabat. Wide alleys with monumental architecture and policemen everywhere.
Turkmenistan’s first president called the time of his reigning “The Golden Age”. And even though that time is over – we live in the “New Era” now – golden statues are everywhere.
See how pretty they shine.
When we were looking for the Turkmen life that must be out there somewhere (and found the state-run internet café of Mary!), we bumped into this group and had a little “Iranian moment”.
Later we made it to Owadan Studio and had some pictures taken. How’s that for “personality cult”?
From Mary we went north east to Turmenabat. There’s only one road leading there. Straight through the desert.
From Turkmenabat it’s only a short trip to the Uzbek border. Turkmenistan was the 14th country on our trip. We thought, maybe this is on us. Maybe we had too high expectations. But we were happy to meet two backpackers after the border who had the exact same impression as us: It’s hard to follow up on Iran. But Turkmenistan isn’t even trying.
With all that being said, why do we call this country Torquemenistan? Because if you’re on the Silk Road like us, you cannot bypass this country easily. You have to go through Torquemenistan - you have to go through with it. And since our time on this planet is limited, we recommend you do it fast.