Turkmenistan at a glance:

Bordered by the Caspian Sea and largely covered by the Karakum Desert, this mysterious and strange country in Central Asia is almost the size of Spain, yet has a population of only about 5 million.  Known for its fine carpets and horses (that’s where the famous Arabian stallions come from!), it is still a fairly poor and underdeveloped country, despite the billions – generated by the extensive oil and gas reserves – spent on modernization. Here is the world’s sixth-largest pool of natural gas resources.

White marble and black sand dessert

So, here I land in Ashgabad – the capital city with a somewhat clean, yet strange look of a  post-Soviet architectural mix. Bombastic city centre, with a gargantuan statue of the Nations’ “father” and „President for Life” Saparmurat Niyazov (also known as Turkmenbashi), who died in 2006.

There’s a lot of construction in Ashgabat, yet most of the downtown high rises appear empty. The most curious for me, though, is the marble slabs covering building and streets in project-style suburbs, typical for Communist era. Is Turkmenistan rich of marble? No, it’s all imported from Afghanistan, but that’s how the authoritarian rulers envisioned the display of current prosperity.

The traditional life of the Turkmen was that of nomadic shepherds and the high value of a good horse remains strong. Turkmens will tell you: ”These are NOT Arabian horses! They are OURS! Arabs just stole them from us!” Arabic conquerors, by the way, brought also Islam to the region, but today’s Sunni Islam in Turkmenistan is soft and unobtrusive, moderate and relatively open. There are big mosques, almost empty, the ladies don’t wear burkas and drinking is quite legal. Local food is meat-dominated (huge herds of goats and sheep), the drink is… naturally, vodka (the Russian influence, comrade).

The famous horses – Ahal Teke is the name of the breed

Most of the country (nearly 80%) is covered by the Karakum (Black Sand) Desert. Due to the abundant natural gas resources, since 1993 citizens have been receiving government-provided electricity, water and natural gas free of charge. So there’s no actual democracy, yet people are somewhat happy and content. The portrait of the country leader is on the wall of every home and wigwam…

According to official data, only… 7000 tourists visit Turkmenistan per year! The total number of foreigners is about 20-25 000. The attitude is: “Do you want tourists? Oh, yes, we’re an open country. But… don’t bring them in such and such period, coz’ we have a national holiday. That other period is no good either. What? The month after the next? Mm-hm, not quite sure about that, either…” So, once you have gas reserves, why would you bother with tourists as well?

But I’m already here.

And, once in Turkmenistan, we’re going to the famous hole…

The Gate to Hell – Darvaza

the Darvaza gas crater. Known locally and internationally as the “Door to Hell” or ”Gates of Hell”. Its legend may appeal to heavy metal fans and such, but it was actually created by a natural gas field in Derweze, that collapsed into an underground cavern, becoming a natural gas crater. Geologists set it on fire to prevent the spread of methane gas, and it has been burning continuously since 1971! The diameter of the crater is 69 m, and its depth is 30 m, and what boils underneath – remain for your fantasy to visualize.

Karakum (Black Sand) Desert

Naturally, the crater is a popular tourist attraction, and almost the sole point of interest in the country for a typical tourist (not like me, lol…).The surrounding area is also popular for wild desert camping.

To reach the crater we crossed the Karakum (Black sand) dessert, which is partially fruit of the ingenious anti-eco-vision of dictator Stalin who, in the late 40s decided to turn the flow of the rivers the Syr Darya and the Amu Darya and irrigate the drylands in Central Asia, turning them into a cotton-producing hub. The idiotic project continued all the way in the 60-ies, after the dictator’s death and with such total lack of ecological strategy Soviets managed to drain the Aral Sea – once the fourth largest lake in the world. To this day it remains the biggest crime against nature in human history…

Anyway, what’s done is done… and we venture closely to Darvaza or the Gates of Hell…

In my mind, I quickly try to count my sins and blessings, estimate good deeds vs. bad deeds, and hope some red guy with horns and tail won’t emerge from the Gate and drag me into it… Did I peek down, over the edge? Well, you can’t approach the very edge, as the heat is so strong… like Mr Devil, or whoever inhabits the fiery bowels of Earth, pumped the heat to the max. But you can definitely get an idea where AC/DC drew their inspiration from.

It’s an impressive phenomenon of nature to see. Don’t miss it.

The tourist service is quite standard – you arrive with the SUV, locals build you a tent, dig a hole for… you know, personal needs, cook a barbeque, and the next day… everything is collected, packed and moved out. You saw the Gate of Hell, right? Give us your Western money, and bye. Fair deal.

Years ago the tourists didn’t even get tents. But… the dessert snakes were tending to seek heat and crawl into the sleeping bags, so…

Next stop is Konye-Urgench, ancient city, full of history and in the list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites. In the past it was situated on one of the most important medieval paths: the Silk Road, the crossroad of western and eastern civilisations, and today there are still plenty of mausoleums, mosques, and fortress remains that are interesting to be seen.

A few more interesting facts: here I saw… a pink horse for the first time in my life!  Beautiful animal, with skin so delicate that you can see the capillaries underneath.

Last, but not least, the major event in the country is… a wedding. Yes, one of those three-days-non-stop eating, drinking and dancing jamborees, where cocky jigits had to have a horse competition with acrobatic tricks on galloping stallions… In modern times, the jigit show is replaced by a… car race, and guess which make and the model appears to be the best for drifting? The good old Soviet Lada! You put the pedal to the metal, you crash it and… just leave it there, that useless piece of junk…

The wedding palace

In conclusion, is Turkmenistan worth visiting, considering the distance, hard-to-obtain visa and everything? In my opinion, yes, definitely. If you want to experience something totally different, curious and cool – in its own, awkward way – go and check it out. But don’t forget – I’m an extreme world traveller, not your average mushy tourist guide…

You know, actually, I’m a famous horseman at Turkmenistan

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