Tour leader Jude Holliday has just returned from leading our Journey Around the Caspian Sea group tour. Below Jude looks back on her time in Turkmenistan and the contrasts between its glittering capital and rural village life...
Ashgabat has a new airport. It opened in September 2016 and cost $2.4 billion.
The terminal building is surprisingly elegant, given Ashgabat’s penchant for brash and bling; in the shape of a falcon – the country’s national carrier and a nod to the country’s historical love of falconry – it appears to glide above the ground with a smooth, streamlined ease and is extremely pleasing to the eye.
Purported to be able to process 17 million arrivals per year, one would imagine Turkmenistan welcomed visitors with open arms but the reality is somewhat different. Obtaining a visa requires letters of invitation, and un-guided travellers must pass through the country in five days unless escorted by an official guide on a designated tour. The year 2011 saw just 105,000 tourists, making Turkmenistan the 7th least visited country in the world.
The new airport is part of a major revamp due to the fact that Turkmenistan is hosting the 2017 Asian Indoor & Martial Arts Games, which open in September and will be attended by 64 countries. A vast sports complex has been created – in the centre of the city, destroying all that stood in its way – and did elicit from us gasps of awe and incredulity as we drove past (no stopping allowed).
A gleaming white marble sports stadium and an assortment of unidentified structures spread before the eye, a dazzlingly white monorail insinuates its way through the complex and will take attendees and competitors to and from their accommodations, the purpose-built restaurants, cafes, entertainments. Heaven forbid they wander off into the city itself; but not to worry, the CCTV cameras that constantly watch the city will be on hand should they get lost in the growing sprawl of white marble multi-story apartments, the majority of which appear to be empty. And how much did this sports wonder cost? A mere $7.5 billion.
Leaving the cowed atmosphere of the capital, we headed north into the desert. We stopped in the village of Yerbent located just an hour from the city where friendly folk greeted us and wanted to be photographed with us, school children watched us with keen interest as they made a beeline for the only shop in the village with its freezer of ice cream. Women beat their carpets in the desolate road, doors of long-drop toilets flapped in the desert wind, broken vehicles littered the sandy terrain, goats and camels stood tethered in litter-strewn compounds.
Yerbent’s seeming poverty in contrast to Ashgabat should have saddened us but to the contrary; the place had an uplifting air of freedom and individuality after the crushing oppression of Ashgabat.
Our journey took us deeper into the desert. After eighty kilometres of desert scrub tracks we forded a brow in the dunes and, below us, spread the village of Damla where time seemed to have stood still and was as far removed from the city of Ashgabat as to seem like another country altogether.
Mud-walled huts stood on the valley floor, interspersed with animal corrals, aged vehicles, bore wells. Young men rode past on rusting motorcycles, off to herd their camels and goats, while a group of small children raced to meet us. They followed us on our walk around the village, stopping to ask for photos, laughing, chatting. No mention of sweets, money or any of the usual requests frequently found in poor villages in many other countries. We left feeling happy to have met the people of Damla who, as a tribe of Turkmenistan, have managed to maintain their traditional lifestyle and appear to enjoy a simple life. That? Or the alternative of Ashgabat? I know which one I’d choose!
Turkmenistan elicits a reaction. Fascinating, absurd, bizarre, outrageous, stunning, the adjectives are endless. It is definitely a place that has to be seen, yet leaves one with a feeling of having seen something beyond belief.