Blog in English, Keski-Aasia, Turkmenistan

The Stans of Central Asia: Turkmenistan

See the Finnish version with pictures

Considering between different routes I wanted to go to four of the five Central Asian countries this time. Although I really like Tajikistan, this time I had so many plans for the other neighboring countries that it stayed off the list. The intention was to go from Helsinki Finland by train to Kyrgyzstan, but definitely also to Turkmenistan. 

I was planning a train route through Russia via Volgograd and Kazakhstan, but felt that for visa reasons I should fly to a closed country like Turkmenistan, rather than wander in somewhere on the land borders. After the flight I would mostly travel down on the ground and come back to Finland by train via Kazakhstan.

I was about to book a flight via Istanbul when I spotted a Turkmenistan Airlines relatively cheap flight from St. Petersburg to the Turkmen capital Asghabat. The arrival in the morning was a few hours more humane than in flying via Turkey. 

To St. Petersburg by Allegro train

I took the Allegro train from Helsinki to St. Petersburg Russia where I had three hours time to change from the train station to the airport. I congratulated myself when in St. Petersburg from the railway station to Moskovskaya metro station and by express bus 39E to Pulkovo airport I managed to travel in 55 minutes.

That was where the speed ended. I passed through the first security check, but after that I stood in the check-in line for more than an hour for the Turkmenistan Airlines. There was no understanding about the order in the queue and it was slow as if on a sandy road. But I would have to get used to this kind of queuing style for some time now.

Fortunately after the Turkmen check-in everything went well with passport and security checks. Nobody was interested in my Turkmen visa invitation. I had asked for the visa support letter from a Turkmen travel agency. I had the idea of traveling there at the ITB travel fair in Berlin, where the representatives of Turkmenistan raced to praise how easy it is nowadays to get a visa there. 

The flight was nice and comfortable. In addition to non-alcoholic drinks, a nice hot dinner, buckwheat and chicken was served onboard. I even had a nice moment of sleep before landing on the Turkmenistan ground.

Asghabat, the capital of Turkmenistan

Arrival in Asghabat was at five in the morning. I estimated it would take a long time for the border inspections in the morning dawn. I was wrong, everything went well and really fast. 

Before the passport control, there was a counter on the right with a big sign “VISAS” above it. I went there and first tried to say I have an electronic invitation. A friendly male visa officer was sure I could present a paper document, so I dug it up. He asked to pay a visa to a cashier sitting a couple of meters away, whose credit card terminal was well accepting a Finnish Visa card.

After receiving the visa, as the only visa applicant around, I was the last to move into the passport control queue, which however went comfortably smoothly. There were a dozen inspection booths and almost all of them were occupied. 

They took a photo shot of me at the passport counter, my thumbs were scanned and I was kindly welcomed. At the airport one could understand right from the interiors that the national color of the country was light green.

I had no local cash and asked at one counter where the ATMs would be. To my surprise, the man said he could exchange money for me. He gave 50 manats for 20 euros, which was a slightly better rate than the 50 manats I received later from the hotel ATM. I did not get a receipt, but I did not think such a clerk at the airport would have cheated on a rate or banknotes, as was not the case.

I had booked a transfer from a travel agency, a city tour and hotel reservations. Nothing was required to be reserved, but I thought it was appropriate to book from them because they did not charge anything for the visa support letter. 

I had informed them that I was going by train from Asghabat to Mary, and had also planned taking a train across the border to the Uzbek side. But there is no passenger traffic across the borders of Turkmenistan, even though there are railway tracks. Within Turkmenistan it is convenient to move around by train and I plan to travel so next time.

I was delighted that the travel agent had saved my money and took me to her home for rest for a few hours, so that I did not have to pay for the hotel for a couple of hours for accommodation. I was embarrassed by such kindness, but luckily I had a small box of Finnish chocolate to give to my hostess whose mother was offering me tea and sandwiches for breakfast.

I slept for a few hours, so right from the hotel I was ready for a sightseeing tour of the city. I was at first taken to the ruins of Nisa fortress outside Asghabat. 

I like the local way of rebuilding the ruins to much of what buildings have been in antiquity. You can clearly see what is new and what is old. At home we do not always like that, but I think it nicely gives some life to sometimes gloomy ruins.

We were touring around the white and golden city and also visited the mausoleum of president Niyazov, who died in 2006. I should not have photographed there, but I still took some pictures of the beautiful golden-domed mausoleum on the outside. It was the only place in Turkmenistan where I was told not to take photos. 

The family members were also buried next to the president. There were the father and the mother and two brothers around the president. I did not see the tomb of his wife, but she is reportedly still alive. Everyone was under large stones and not visible or embalmed, as is sometimes the case in other countries.

The air was dazzlingly bright and sunny and the temperature +25 degrees during the day, even though it was the Christmas week. When I asked when it is the best time to come to Turkmenistan in terms of weather, they said they always have good weather. 

The beach season on the Caspian sea coast is May-October, but it is always reported to be sunny. However, after the sunset in the evenings, the temperature dropped near zero in December. The mornings were also chilly, but the day temperature rose quickly.

Asghabat has reportedly reached the Guinness Book of Records as the whitest city in the world. It is really so. Everything built is white, when it is not golden.

In Central Asia there is a competition going on with who has the largest flag in the world. I thought I saw it last year in Tajikistan, but now they said it was here, erected a while ago. You can get some idea of ​​the size from the photo below when you look at the people standing at the base of the flagpole.

The people were friendly and social. Of course Russian was spoken everywhere, and English was offered a little at times. The challenge of course is that the world here is Turkmen and Russian, from the movies to the news, so learning English just happens without really hearing the people who speak it.

The women wore beautifully high-topped scarves and long dresses. A high scarf was a sign of marriage, but the use of it is not entirely mandatory, to the extent that the husband is allowed to decide whether the wife will wear it or not. It is reportedly a traditional habit, but not a law. 

The clothes were colorful and patterned in many decorative ways. My driver was a young wrestler who was not yet married. He could not tell if it would be important for his future wife to wear a scarf. In general, the whole idea of ​​choosing a wife was still frightening for him.

The place for lunch was a nice yurt restaurant, where according to the local custom we sat on the floor. The table was about 40 cm high. Of course I remembered filming the meal only after the tasty lamb plov and delicious beetroot-corn-salad were eaten.

I had asked the agency that sent me the visa invitation to book me a mid-range hotel. Their mid-range hotel, Hotel Asghabat, was pretty high level. The location was kind of great, great views from the hill for many directions. I had however been expecting to get closer to downtown, where there would be more people. Anyway I went for an evening walk and also rode on a bus.

In the evening, I marveled at the wrestling young sports teams in the hotel corridors and tried to socialize with the barmaid girl. The Wifi in the lobby next to the reception worked quite reasonably.

The next morning there was still time before the train to visit the center and the market square. I was astonished about the Turkmen market because I had nowhere seen market counters in Central Asia in such a good order. While admiring it I heard that all the market places they have are equally clean.

There was still little time to wander around the mall, which also sparkled with its tidiness and colorfulness. And there were many people at the mall which indicates that people have money to spend.

Finding the train and wagon at the train station was easy. The electronic ticket worked by phone just like anywhere else. The train itself had already seen its best days, or how would I know, maybe a brilliant future lies ahead if tourism increases in the country.

By train to Mary and historical Merv

I said goodbye to Asghabat. I got clean flower decorated sheets and blanket for a seven-hour train ride to Mary. At the end of the wagon was a neat so-called, footprint toilet.

The wagon attendant kindly put up cheerful oriental music to play in my cabin. The young man in the neighbor cabin later saved me from an overdose by showing where the volume knob was in the doorway.

At the end part of the trip from a small village Turkmen couple Sangbeg and Lilya appeared to my cabin. Of course, they were thrilled to hear that they were traveling with a real foreign Finn. 

Sangbeg was confused how I was able to travel to the other side of the world alone without a man, and was inspired to kiss his wife to show me how to love. At first the lady was a little embarrassed about her husband’s behavior and stopped him, but clearly enjoyed the attention she received.

Arriving at Mary I had booked a driver to take me to the hotel in the dark evening. Chari was already at the door of the train carriage and took me through the town to the hotel, which this time was really mid-modest Yrsgal, but very comfortable.

I sat still in the evening at the reception in the Wifi area drinking tea. In the morning I would leave with Chari to the ruin city of Merv towards Turkmenabat and the border of Uzbekistan.

The city of Mary was a modern gold-domed oasis similar to the capital. Chari was born in the city to a father of four sons. He said that in recent years construction in the city had accelerated sharply, after the new president came to power. 

There were pictures of the new president everywhere as in Asghabat. I wonder why do I not have a decent picture of him in my phone, even though he was actually looking pretty charming.

We drove nearby to the ruin town of Merv. Chari said we would be there for an excursion about three hours. Definitely not more than an hour, I was sure of my opinion. We were in Merv for the one hour like I wanted, but I do understand where that three hours came from. 

Merv is a huge area of ​​50 acres with districts of different ages from different eras, both the achievements of Alexander the Great and Genghis Khan and the Mongols. Quite a huge impressive area and nowhere have I seen such a large concentration of ruins.

There were no people in the whole area, except maybe two other cars of tourists. Instead, there were camels around, I saw a herd of probably totaling two hundred individuals. 

The pictures didn’t really work out, but Chari stopped the car and told me to go among the camels to take photos. Then he came out to jump into the field for my safety, which would not have been necessary, as the camels ran away fearing my peaceful attempts of contact.

We continued a long distance of 250 km from Merv towards the country border. On the way we stopped for a picnic in the desert. We ate tasty plov from the back of the car and drank tea. A funny moment of peace and about the best in Turkmenistan after all the shining gold exhibition everywhere.

I will tell you about the crossing of the land border between Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan in the next part, such a many-sided process it was: )

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