As usual the response from people who don’t know me that well when I mentioned that I was going to the Central Asian country was “why?” Those who know me a bit better already knew, “because it’s there, it’s slightly mysterious and well, why not?”
It is indeed a little mysterious to us in the West. With rich gas and oil reserves, the officially neutral state that is 80% covered by the Karakum Desert and has a population of under 6 million, is very well off. And don’t they show it in spades in their gleaming white marble capital of Ashgabat.
From the moment you arrive at the brand new palatial airport with its incredibly wide walkways, shining marble and glinting gold, you know that you have arrived somewhere nouveau riche and flashy, depending on your taste either in your face bling or stunning architecture.
Going through security was interesting. Firstly automated passport control where not only were you photographed but also had your finger prints read as well as no doubt your irises, DNA and IQ.
You then had to get your visa sorted. We had the requisite letter of invitation that we had obtained from our tour agency, Anur Tours of Uzbekistan, already having shown it in London & Istanbul en route.
It passed inspection for a third time and a $99 payment later we were in to be met by our wonderful guide Aziz.
Turkmenistan is probably the most tricky of the Stans to visit, also requiring you be accompanied by a guide if you want to go further afield than capital Ashgabat as we naturally did. I will blog more about our trip all the way to Tashkent in Uzbekistan, but here are a few facts about the country.
It was founded in the 11th Century by the nomadic Seljuk Turks, who became known as the Turkmen and who form the majority of the country’s current population, the rest being ostensibly made up of Uzbeks, Tartars, Russians & Iranians.
Conquered by the Russians in 1881, they became independent in October 1991 following the collapse of the Soviet Union, but they are only on leader number two in Berdymukhamedov.
Their founding father was Niyazov who died in 2006 and had held a grip on the country as leader first of the Socialist Republic from 1985 and then the newly formed state.
Determined to leave his indelible mark, he erected thousands of statues of his likeness and changed the names of the days of the week & months of the year to those of names of his family!
Turkmenistan remains a one party country so elections are somewhat unnecessary, the current leader returning 97% of the vote last time around.
The Sunni branch of Islam is the main religion, but all faiths are welcomed in a country that is officially neutral as part of its constitution.
The nation’s riches are used to subsidise petrol, gas and electricity as well as providing accommodation for its citizens, who repay the cost of their home over a period of 30 years.
The locals are therefore very content and having never had access to social media, they do not miss Facebook, Twitter and the like which are all banned.
As well as fossil fuels earning hard currencies from China & Russia, Turkmenistan is also a huge cotton exporter.
In ancient times it was an integral part of the Ancient Silk Road and has many historical sites dotted about from that golden age.
Bordered by Iran and Afghanistan to the South, Uzbekistan to the East and Kazakhstan to the North, its Western border is dominated by the Caspian Sea, also a rich source of fuel and not forgetting caviar producing sturgeon of course.
The future looks bright for Turkmenistan. Tourism is yet to really take off as it surely will, especially if they make it easier to enter.
The people are hugely colourful (especially the women who all wear traditional dresses as well as headscarves if they are married) and are ever so friendly, delighted that you have paid their country a visit.
Go soon for a unique experience and memories to last a lifetime.