Category Archives: Turkmenistan

Turkmenistan – Land of the Most Helpful People Ever

Before I arrived in Turkmenistan, I heard from other travelers that Turkmenistan was their least favorite place, that Turkmen were really inhospitable people. To my wonderful surprise, I had the absolute opposite experience! Everywhere I went people looked after me and always helped me get what I needed despite language barriers. Truly, I found their spirit to be reminiscent of their nomadic past–always sharing food, drink, shelter, and helping others find their way.

I arrived in Ashgabat off the train about 5pm, and went off to look for a place to stay. The Lonely Planet recommended a certain guesthouse, but warned that it might be bulldozed in the near future because of the new construction of white marble buildings everywhere. It was hard to imagine so many white marble buildings, but turns out–they were right. The guesthouse was indeed bulldozed and roads everywhere were closed for construction. The map in the Lonely Planet proved utterly useful. At a loss for what to do, I circled the neighborhood for awhile, observing Turkmen life in the city. Then, a car drove up with a driver and a passenger. “Can I help you?” they ask. Turns out, the passenger is the director of one of the main travel agencies in Turkmenistan — Owadan Travel. When I said I needed a place to camp, he said “Here, no problem! I live here; I talk to security” He pointed the grassy manicured lawn in front of a white marble apartment building and then spoke to the security guard, a wonderful Turkmen lady. They set me up with a bathroom, shower, and then fed me dinner of Turkmen plov (rice), the national dish.

P1010461P1010445Ata, the Director of Owadan Travel, lets me camp in front of his apartment building, and feeds me the national dish of Turkmen plov (rice fried with meat and veggies)

6/21 Ashgabat

The next day, Ata takes me to his office where I plan my journey to the Uzbek border. In the middle of the day, a few of Ata’s employees went in a car to run errands around the city, and Ata let me join them. This car tour was actually the best way to see the city because 1) the city is spread out with wide boulevards and 2) you’re not allowed to take photos of the white marble palaces (government buildings), but in a car you can be stealthy!

P1010450P1010451

After the tour, I rushed to the train station, hoping to take the overnight train north, but turns out all the tickets were sold out. So I went back to Ata asking about other transport options. He arranged for me to take the bus the next morning and also arranged a couch for me to sleep (at the dorm where his young employees stay) that night. So I walked around the city a bit, hung out with his employees (a bunch of really great, friendly Turkmen guys in their 20s), and had many wonderful conversations where I learned a lot about Turkmenistan.

Some interesting facts:

– water, electricity, and gas is absolutely free everywhere in Turkmenistan (Can you imagine, no monthly utility bills? Unthinkable for an energy nerd like me!). The utilities are paid for completely by the government; the idea was spawn by the First President, supposedly to ease public dissent about the government.

– the few internet cafes in Turkmenistan are state-run, meaning anything you send can be read (hence, I was weary of posting on the blog in Turkmenistan)

– the government is very concerned about its image, so there are laws to keep everything in Ashgabat spic-span clean and orderly. There are police everywhere to enforce the rules. For example, you can get fined for driving a dirty car in Ashgabat, so you always see people in Ashgabat washing their cars.

– the First President was so influential (if not mildly obsessed with building gold statues of himself in Ashgabat) that when he stopped smoking for health reasons, everyone in Ashgabat stopped smoking

P1010459P1010460P1010464touring Ashgabat

P1010465even the bus stops are fancy and glittered in gold in Ashgabat

P1010467the bazaars are dripping with delicious watermelons all over Turkmenistan

P1010468the employees dorm (I slept on the couch)

6/22 Ashgabat–> Dashogus –> Konye-Urgench

There was no direct bus from Ashgabat to Konye-Urgench (where the border post to Uzbekistan is), so I first took the bus from Ashgabat to Dashoguz. At 5.30am, Ata came to the dorm to take me to the bus station. He packed me food and water for the road, and at the bus station he stayed until the bus departed, making sure I made it safely on the bus with all my bike and luggage. He also gave me the phone numbers of travel guides I could stay the night with in Dashogus and Konye-Urgench.

On the bus, I sat next to Enesh, an 18-year old from Dashoguz who just finished high school and is hoping to study abroad for university. She spoke English well and we became instant friends. We discovered how similar our hopes and dreams were–of career, of family, of life–and I felt so grateful, yet again, of what amazing people this journey has brought me. What an incredible world that I share the same hopes and dreams a girl living in Turkmenistan and almost 10 years younger than me!

P1010470Enesh on bus ride Ashgabat to Dashoguz

 

P1010473P1010472from Ashgabat to Dashoguz is 600km of desert

P1010475After getting off the bus in Dashoguz, Enesh sends me off in a martshurka to Konye-Urgench, town of border post with Uzbekistan

P1010478martshruka ride from Dashoguz to Konye-Urgench with this family of Turkmen sisters (they practiced speaking English with me on the ride)

Finally arriving in Konye-Urgench in the evening, the martshruka dropped me off in the center of town, where a few bazaar vendors were still lingering around, but otherwise the street was pretty empty. As I unloaded my stuff from the martshruka, I was instantly bombarded with locals curious about me. “Ah, tourist!!!” they exclaimed. The watermelon seller sliced open a huge watermelon for me, the bread lady and her husband gave me bread, and others gave me water. Slowly more people showed up to welcome me. When they learned I needed a place to stay, to my surprise, the vendors started fighting over who would host me! One guy started pushing my bike (I’ll push your bike for you!), another lady gestured to a street corner (I live closeby!), another guy hailed a taxi (we can take a taxi to my home!), and another couple smiled a lot (just look at us smile, we’ll take care of you!). I felt bad that I could not accept all their offers, as they were all so friendly! Eventually, I ended up staying with Zumra, a divorced woman living by herself, also an ethnic Uzbek living in Turkmenistan. Because Konye-Urgench and Dashoguz are just kilometers from the Uzbek border, many ethnic Uzbeks live in this region. We spent the evening watching Uzbek TV and chatting. She was very patient with my basic Russian, and allowed me time to look up words in the dictionary. AFter a night talking to her, she definitely helped me improve my Russian!

P1010484Zumra (in the orange dress), my host in Konye-Urgench

P1010479P1010480Zumra’s humble abode. Here tea is served in teapots along with rock sugar and candy. Tea is also usually served with local bread. The other plate is macaroni with veggies for dinner. I definitely feel I am in Central Asia now!

P1010482Zumra sleeps outside in the fresh air

P1010483Zumra gives me a Uzbek-style velvet dress for pajamas

6/23 Konye-Urgench, Turkmenistan –> Nukus, Uzbekistan

It was my last day in Turkmenistan. I just had to make it 20 km to the border. But there was another reason why I came to Konye-Urgench–it used to be the biggest city on the Silk Road. Now there is not much left of ancient ruins because when Timur the Great conquered Konye-Urgench in the 14th century, he destroyed everything to the ground. But there were still a few minarets and mauseleoms to visit. This morning I found myself yet again, not knowing how I would get to there, and yet again, people found me a way to get there.

Leaving out of Zumra’s front yard, I was instantly bombarded with the bustle of the Konye-Urgench bazaar. People and donkeys and carts were pushing and shoving everywhere, and everything from fruits to fabrics to carpets to ropes were being sold. The colors and smells were dazzling, just as I imagined life on the Silk Road to be! Unlike other bazaars in the main cities of Ashgabat which are now housed in enclosed plazas, the bazaar in Konye-Urgench was open air and out in the streets among peoples homes.

P1010487P1010489P1010488P1010491P1010492the really amazing bazaar in Konye-Urgench

As I meandered my way through the bazaar, to my surprise, I bumped into the same vendors from the day before who were fighting over me! Again, they offered me delicious bread, ice cream, cake, colas, melons, and sat me down in the shade. When I then mentioned I wanted to visit the minarets and ancient ruins, the bread lady took off her bread selling coat, and said she go together with me in a taxi.

P1010494P1010500P1010501bread lady from bazaar takes me to Konye-Urgench’s ancient ruins

P1010508bread lady selling bread out of her van at the bazaar, with her mom (left) and husband

P1010512P1010511so many vendors at the bazaar feeding me and taking care of me!

After visiting the ancient ruins, I spent lunchtime getting to know the vendors who were so kind to me. Finally at 2pm, I had to say goodbye. It was 20km to the Uzbek border, and I wanted to cycle there before the border closed at 5pm. “Deport!” I said, and they understood the consequences. “go go!” they urged.

P1010513 nothing too interesting on the 20km from Konye-Urgench to Uzbek border. a lot of cotton production.

P1010519befriending camels before the Uzbek border

P1010527even the border post looks like a palace!

Oh Turkmenistan, how I will miss you

 

 

The Quest for Parau Bibi

Arriving in the morning of June 18, I had 13 hours to kill before my visa started at midnight on June 19. Most people would find this a bore and annoying, but it was actually really nice for me to have some downtime alone. Traveling turns out to be a much busier life than most people expect–between running around to embassies, planning onward travels, and keeping your hosts company, you hardly have time to get enough sleep! To pass the time at the ferry, I caught up with my journal writing, got a lot of sewing done (making extra pockets for my panniers to carry extra water), and did some bike maintenance. With so many projects, time passed quickly. The officers were nice despite my constant request for the bathroom key. They would check up on me from time to time asking if I was ok, but largely they left me alone to my projects.

Turkmen immigration let me in at midnight, and by the time I got through customs, it was already 1.30am. Not wanting to find a campsite in the dark, I slept in the waiting room of the ferry terminal at Turkmenbashi. There were other passengers also sleeping there, waiting for the ferry in the opposite direction to Azerbaijan. At 7am, the sun was already shining bright and warming up the room, so I packed my things and got out to greet this little known country.

Turkmenistan! It felt like a whole new world. The women wore beautiful bright colored traditional dresses; the streets were impeccably manicured; and government buildings and monuments were a whole lot of white marble and gold–like modern palaces. Apparently white marble and gold was a bit of an obsession of the First President (as everyone refers to him as), and continues to characterize any new construction in Turkmenistan. But regardless of goverment, the Turkmen people  seem to have continued with their traditional lives more or less, with still the spirit of nomads. I came to discover this as I traveled for 5 days through the country.

The Turkmen transit visa only gave me 5 days to travel through the country, and word has it that if you overstay your visa, you will be sent back to Ashgabat, and deported on the next flight back to your home country at your own expense. So, I had to plan my travels carefully. The plan was to go from Turkmenbashi to Ashgabat (capital) to Konye-Urgench (the westernmost border post). Since I would be traveling moslty by train and bus, I hoped to visit some places that I dont normally get to see when Im traveling on my bike. As I flipped through my Lonely Planet guidebook on places I could go, I set my eyes on one particular place that was sort of on my way–Parau Bibi.

Being a fan of girl power, the mausoleum of Parau Bibi caught my eye because it is a holy shrine for young women. According to legend, Parau Bibi was a beautiful woman from the local village. When the village was attacked by invaders, Parau Bibi prayed that the mountain would swallow her to protect her from the invaders. Her prayers were answered, and the locals paid tribute by building a fertility shrine in a small cave on the cliffs. Women from all over Turkmenistan come here on pilgrimage (especially those trying to conceive children).

But there was one problem–I had no idea how to get to there! Parau Bibi was set in the hills of a remote village. Not knowing what transport options there were and speaking almost no Russian, it would be very difficult to get there. And if I got there, would it allow enough time for me to get to the border in 5 days time? I didnt know. The simpler option would just be to take the train from Turkmenbashi to Ashgabat to Konye-Urgench. For several hours, I debated what to do, when finally I decided, we’re here for an adventure…lets try for Parau Bibi!

First I talked to some taxi/ martshruka drivers about driving me there. Nope, too expensive (and maybe Im bad at negotating). Then I went to the train ticket office and had an extended conversation with the lady about my plans. After a lot of miming and some really poor Russian on my part, I was able to derive a plan. I would take the train from Turkmenbashi and arrive in Serdar (the closest town to Parau Bibi) at midnight, somehow get to Parau Bibi in the middle of the night, then the next morning make my way to some other village where there is a different train that goes to Ashgabat. Because the train is only once a day, and I had limited time on my visa, I had to make that train. How to get to/from the train station from Parau Bibi? I didnt know. But I figured, if women from all over Turkmenistan go on pilgrimage here, there’s gotta be a way for me.

I had some time to kill befor the train left Turkmenbashi at 3pm, so I biked around Turkmenbashi trying to figure out life on this side of the Caspian Sea. Being in such a new landscape was mesmerizing, and all the hassles of getting the visa were forgotten.

6/19 Turkmenbashi –> Serdar

P1010338P1010339P1010361white marble and gold monuments in Turkmenbashi

P1010359P1010353P1010341ornate and manicured streets

P1010347cutest girls in traditional Turkmen dress — I think there was a festival that day

P1010344P1010345government buildings in Turkmenbashi look like palaces; this is a stealth picture–it’s often forbidden to photograph government buildings in Turkmenistan. Caspian Sea sparkling in the background

P1010354

P1010358me=kid at heart=hanging out at the playground

P1010362P1010363while waiting for the train, buying food at the cafe. the round pastry is called fitchi, filled with meat and onions. yummy.

P1010366P1010367Turkmenbashi train station

P1010373P1010374train ride

P1010372P1010375P1010376Turkmenistan is 70% desert, which also means CAMELS

P1010378loving all the colorful dresses that Turkmen women wear!

P1010381P1010384sharing a cabin with this Turkmen family. Mom gives me food (a delicious meat pie) and drink (fermented camels milk, called chal)

When I arrived in Serdar at minight, I still wasnt sure how I would get to Parau Bibi. But the Turkmen family that I shared the train bunk with also got off at Serdar, and Mom gestured for me to come to her home to sleep for the night. I was too tired to make any decisions at this point, so I accepted her offer. At her home, there were several other young women from her family, along with the most adorable sleeping kids.

 

P1010390P1010392P1010393Train Mom’s family at her home. Mom feeds me the most juicy delicious watermelon after walking home from the train station (1am!) and gives me place to sleep on floor.

6/20 Serdar –> Parau Bibi –> Ashgabat

P1010395In the morning (6am), Mom walks me through the streets of Serdar (city/town) to get me on the bus to Parau Bibi. Luckily, also on the bus to Parau Bibi was a really nice old man who spoke some English. I explained my plans that I must catch the train to Ashgabat from Janahir-Aje village at 11am. He made sure the bus driver was clear of my plans, and I was on my way to Parau Bibi! (When I asked the English-speaking man how he learned English, he replied: “secret question”. Turkmenistan is full of mystique! He also said “But if you need anything, you can ask, and I can help!” Turkmen are so friendly)

P1010398P1010399On the bus from Serdar to Parau Bibi (remote shrine in the middle of nowhere), with other women pilgrims.

P1010400Pilgrim tents at Parau Bibi. Families who travel across the country to visit Parau Bibi stay here overnight.

P1010404P1010406P1010407Women performing rituals on the way up to Parau Bibi shrine (praying to conceive children)

P1010409P1010410P1010412More rituals–woman inspecting stones, model crib offerings, women combing hair in front of mirror

P1010416P1010414Amazing view from Parau Bibi of the 70% desert that is Turkmenistan.

P1010421P1010424P1010429Pilgrim camps and resting areas

I arrived at Parau Bibi at 9am and had an hour and a half to climb the 300 stairs to the shrine and back. I could not believe I managed to get myself here in the middle of the desert. Afterwards, the bus driver took me to the train station with a bunch of other women who were taking the same train.

P1010431Waiting at the train tracks in Janahir-Aje village

P1010434P1010435train to Ashgabat–Soviet style.

P1010441this train worker took care of me on the train ride to Ashgabat. Everytime he passed my seat, he made sure I was comfortable. He spoke very little English, but was able to explain he learned his English from an American guy who came to Turkmenistan working with the Red Cross. The American guy was a Sean from Boston. (Hey, I know a Sean from Boston! I think he’s following me :D)

P1010442Arriving in Ashgabat, capital city of Turkmenistan

 

 

Crossing the Caspian Sea

Baku, Azerbaijan –> Turkmenbashi, Turkmenistan

Ferry: 100 USD, 18 hours

On Monday morning, I went to the embassy and managed to get my visa. But it was already 11am, and I knew usually people arrive at the ferry at 10am. I hurriedly took a taxi to the ferry terminal, where the ticket lady was just closing the office. ‘Ferry today?’I ask. ‘Yes, where are your bags? bistra, quickly!’ So without any time tospare, I ran back to the apartment, grabbed my things, and returned to the ferry. No time for internetting :(

Customs took longer than expected–one officer asked me a lot of questions. Why did my passport look so old? Why did you go to Armenia? Other questions about Armenia…Do I really look that suspicious?

Finally I got on the boat and within a few hours, we were off to sea!

P1010307 P1010308 P1010309 P1010310 leaving Baku port

P1010316 this Turkmen family were the only other passengers on the boat, and they took care of me as part of their family, even though I spoke no Russian or Turkmen

P1010315 P1010317 P1010313 P1010320 P1010321portable water heater

P1010324the ship’s manager has a lot of Azerbaijan pride

P1010326 P1010327arriving in Turkmenbashi the next morning

P1010331since I arrived on the morning of June 18, and my visa didnt start until June 19, I camped out at the waiting area in the Turkmenbashi ferry terminal. The officers let me in at midnight.