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!


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



22 Thoughts on “Turkmenistan – Land of the Most Helpful People Ever

  1. Yuki on July 5, 2013 at 6:12 pm said:

    Against the backdrop of the desert, your pictures are so bright! All the colors and cheery people and camels…and what marvelous hats! All different kinds of hats, I love it. I can really tell that you are in a whole different world :)

  2. I’m catching up with your trelavs, it’s a good read. The only picture I’ve seen of Dan suggests he is going for the Bluto look but Ed needs some more Spinach. Enjoy. James

  3. Whoever edits and publishes these articles really knows what they’re doing.

  4. That’s the perfect insight in a thread like this.

  5. I can’t hear anything over the sound of how awesome this article is.

  6. That’s way more clever than I was expecting. Thanks!

  7. Slam dunkin like Shaquille O’Neal, if he wrote informative articles.

  8. Full of salient points. Don’t stop believing or writing!

  9. Good point. I hadn’t thought about it quite that way. :)

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