The most mysterious and least travelled of Central Asia's "Stans", Turkmenistan is a country of stark contrasts. The short travel from the ancient city of Merv to the futuristic and ultra-modern Ashgabat, via poverty stricken villages, makes you wonder if you’ve actually travelled in time instead of distance.
For the first time on our adventure we had to travel through a country under an escort. The escort was required in order to obtain the invitation to enter Turkmenistan, the tourist visa on arrival, and permission to travel overland. We had arranged all this in advance with StanTours during the planning phase of the trip. We had mixed feelings about what the guide/escort experience would be like - a great local insight into the country and an amazing cultural experience or just a cash grab? We were relying on the former as we had done little advance research but the latter proved to be a more accurate assessment.
Bukhara (Uzbekistan) to Mary (Turkmenistan)
First impressions count and the border crossing into Turkmenistan was not positive. We spent four hours in administration moving between different counters and forking out cash for visas, fuel tariffs and motorcycle registration. We also had to contend with a mass of impatient truck drivers trying to jump queues. Our guide made a great first impression by assisting greatly with the paperwork and the process. However, this was dashed when we realised that he also had a driver (so he could sleep between sights) which we had obviously funded as part of the StanTours fee.
We left the customs office at about 2pm into oppressive heat with 200 kms to travel to our first stop - the ancient city of Merv. On route we had to cross a floating bridge which was basically a number of barges strapped together. The steel surface was slick and the gaps between the floats were wide enough to easily slip a wheel into. We arrived at Merv in the late afternoon.
During the peak of the Silk Road in the 11th - 12th centuries Merv was one of the great cities of the Islamic world and was equivalent to the more well-known major commercial and religious centres of Cairo, Damascus and Baghdad. Today Merv is mainly ruins, with restoration of the more major sights underway. The heat of the day had sapped all our energy, and our guide was hard to understand. We tried to be enthusiastic but struggled with interest, and trying to fathom what the city must have been like was tough.
We spent the night in a nice hotel in Mary and had shashlicks for dinner with our guide.
Mary to Ashgabat
The 600 km ride through the Turkmenistan desert was long. The temperature was in the mid 40's and our guide who was travelling in air conditioned comfort tended not to stop for water/rest as frequently as we were accustomed. We travelled through a number of small poverty stricken towns and villages. This was not uncommon for the "stans" - we'd travelled through hundreds on the trip so far. However, one doesn’t expect to pass through these types of villages and around the next corner find yourself in the equivalent of "Las Vegas".
An absolutely bizarre experience. The holder of the world record for the whitest city, Ashgabat gleams in the desert sun. Marbled buildings line arrow straight boulevards with gold domed palaces and government buildings on every corner. There are vast expanses of manicured parklands where armies of gardeners make sure there isn’t a leaf out of place. We spent a night and full day exploring this fascinating city and our pictures (attached) will tell a thousand words.
The extravagance of Ashgabat has been funded off the back of Turkmenistan’s oil and gas revenues. The government is attempting to create a showcase city for the post-soviet republic and is even heavily subsidising commercial ventures like shopping centres. One example is the Bukhara complex which is full of flashy western stores but is nearly completely empty of people. Sustainable?
We left Turkmenistan with mixed feelings. Up next - Iran.