Inside Dubai International Airport ready to check-in for my Emirates flight. It had been over a year since I had last been to been to Terminal 3, opting instead for other airlines at Terminal's 1 & 2 for various reasons.
Grabbing a turkey sandwich air-side. I was using my UK passport for this trip after having my initial Turkmenistan visa application rejected with my New Zealand passport. The original plan was to visit Turkmenistan with my friend Jason, and full credit goes to him for sussing out a reputable tour company (compulsory for getting a visit visa) and organising the great itinerary for the whole trip. After running into problems with the notoriously fickle Turkmenistan immigration authorities though, it unfortunately ended up just being a solo trip. There is a daily direct flight from Dubai (DXB) to Ashgabat (ASB) on LCC flydubai (FZ). However for my journey to Ashgabat I elected to take an indirect route flying via Moscow's Domodedovo International Airport instead (DXB-DME-ASB).
The first flight to Moscow was on Emirates (EK) and the onward connecting flight to Ashgabat was on Russian carrier, S7 airlines. Although it meant having to fly over four times the distance than a simple direct flight to Ashgabat, it meant arriving earlier at 7:30am in the morning as opposed to 4:30pm in the afternoon on the flydubai flight. The price for the indirect flights was also the same as flying direct, and as I am a bit of an aeroplane geek, getting to fly a new airline (S7) and visit a new airport (DME) was also abit of a plus. For the return to Dubai I did however take the direct flydubai flight as it was the most convenient.
For the trip I also had two return domestic flights, both on Turkmenistan Airlines (T5). From Ashgabat to Türkmenbaşy (ASB-KRW-ASB) and from Ashgabat to Mary (pronounced Mah-ree) (ASB-MYP-ASB).
Boarding the EK777 on time for the flight to Moscow.
And taking my seat back in economy. The flight was ~70% full with a few spare seats including one next to me.
Chicken and potatoes served for dinner about an hour after take-off.
Enjoying the latest Terminator movie. Wasn't quite as bad as the reviews and I actually enjoyed it, for an 'airplane' movie anyway.
After arriving at Moscow's Domodedovo International Airport I initially took a wrong turn and managed to join the queue for immigration. After quickly realising my mistake I managed to find the security check point for transit. I was the only person from my flight on transit so was through in less than a minute.
Domodedovo Airport seemed smaller than Sheremetyevo Airport, the other Moscow Airport I had been to, but had everything available. The free wifi was super quick too, so definitely helped pass the time on my 3 hour layover.
About to board the A320 for the 1:30am flight to Ashgabat. The outside temperature was in the single figures and I was only wearing a t-shirt!
The flight was <50% full, and I managed to have a row to myself. Great for stretching out and getting some sleep on the red-eye flight.
Only a cup of orange juice was served and perfectly adequate given that everyone just wanted to sleep.
After a short but good ~2.5 hour sleep, I woke up to see the sun rising over the Karakum Desert.
And descending over the outskirts of Ashgabat, the capital of Turkmenistan.
The new $2.3 billion terminal under construction at Ashgabat International Airport, in preparation for the 2017 Asian Indoor and Martial Arts Games. The new terminal will make Ashgabat the biggest airport in Central Asia, and for comparison will cost three times more than the new airport built in Sochi for the 2014 Winter games.
Disembarking and only a short walk straight to the terminal.
After lining up to hand over my passport and invitation letter and then queueing up again at the cashier to hand over $98, I finally got my 'Wiza' on arrival. Citizens of all countries require a visa to visit Turkmenistan, so the queue was quite long with the whole process taking ~45 minutes.
After managing to get past customs (and politely declining to bring in a box of cigarettes for a local) I met up with Artem of Travel Notoria and we were soon off for my tour of Ashgabat. I had been corresponding by email with Artem quite a bit after all the visa troubles (unless you can score a transit visa, all tourists must book a tour to get a visit visa), so was great to finally meet him in person.
First stop of the day was to get some local currency, Turkmenistan manat, at about ~3.5 to the US dollar.
We then drove out of Ashgabat to the village of Gypjak to see the Türkmenbaşy Ruhy Mosque.
The mosque opened on October 22, 2004 and is purportedly the largest mosque in Central Asia. The mosque is also very unusual in that as well as scripture from the holy Quran, it also features words from the Ruhnama, a spiritual book written by Turkmenistan's former President, Saparmurat Niyazov. Words from the Ruhnama can be seen on the minarets below, which are 91 metres high, to correspond with the year of independence of Turkmenistan (1991).
And the magnificant interior. Above the main door is the text, "The Ruhnama is a holy book and the Quran is the word of Allah". The mosque has understandably upset many Muslims that the Ruhnama is placed as the Quran's equal, and perhaps why although the mosque can hold up to 10,000 worshippers, it usually sits empty.
The mosque was constructed by the French company Bouygues. Rumor has it that the mosque would be built by a Turkish company, but once they found out the sacrilegious nature of the mosque, they quickly bailed, leaving the French construction company to pick up the 100 million dollar check. The very close (and corrupt) relationship between the French company and the Turkmenistan government was detailed in US Embassy cables released by Wikileaks.
A Turkmen lady in traditional dress. Almost all the women I saw in Turkmenistan wore traditional clothing, which was quite unusual after visiting Kazakhstan several weeks prior where jeans seemed to be the preference. Next to the mosque is a golden domed mausoleum (left) for the former 'President for life' Niyazov, who died of a massive heart attack in 2006.
We then went for a quick drive through the village of Gypjak, the former President's birth place. Niyazov was Turkmenistan's first President, ruling from 1990 to 2006. His leadership had many eccentricities, and as well as many golden statues, he renamed the months in honour of members of his own family, outlawed ballet and opera, banned men from listening to car radios, and ordered the closure of all hospitals outside of the capital of Ashgabat.
We then drove to see the remains of the ancient city of Nisa, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Also visiting Nisa were some British tourists.
In the background is the Kopet Dag, a mountain range between Turkmenistan and neighbouring Iran.
Nisa was first capital of the Parthians, and was totally destroyed by an earthquake during the first decade BC.
We then drove up to TV tower hill. The view south from the hill with the Serdar Health Path in the foreground, and the Kopet Dag in the background. The border with Iran was only ~10 kilometres away from where we were.
The Serdar Health Path again in the foreground along with the Turkmenistan Tower. I did try to get a bit closer to take some photo's of the tower but was yelled at by some soldiers. The 211 meter tall tower is the tallest structure in Turkmenistan and is visible from almost anywhere in Ashgabat.
The Health Path (or Hell Path, as Artem said it was often referred to as) winding through the hills into Ashgabat. The Health Path was another of former President Niyazov ideas. After it was built in 2000, Niyazov ordered all ministers, members of parliament and civil servants to hike the 37 kilometre walk once a year. Niyazov himself watched his staff start the walk, and later flew in his helicopter to the final stage of the walk to greet them on their successfully completed walk.
We then drove back into Ashgabat. At the Independence Monument, where there was a lively wedding underway, with dancing and music.
Although the groom seemed to be celebrating the moment, the bride was stooped over, all covered up in a big veil, head bowed and shuffling forward with the help of the groom and another lady.
The Independence Monument was surrounded by historical Turkmen figures and had a 91 metre (again for the year of independence, 1991) tall tower. My Lonelyplanet guidebook also said that it is commonly refered to as the 'plunger' by foreigners for some mysterious reason.
We then drove though the Berzengi part of Ashgabat, where the plethora of white marble buildings has been recognised by the Guinness Book of Records with the most white marble than any other city in the world!. Artem said the apartments (on the right) in the area sell for ~$300,000, quite alot considering the GDP per capita is ~$8,200. On the left is a monument to the Ruhnama, Niyazov's spiritual book. Supposedly each evening the cover opens and a recording of a passage from the book is played. Learning parts of the Ruhnama used to be compulsory for things such as getting a car licence, but Artem said that under the new President, it was now purely voluntary.
After the tour of Ashgabat, we then went to check in into my hotel, the Ak Altyn Hotel. .
Complete with a portrait of the current Turkmenistan President, Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow, in the lobby. A former dentist, he was Health Minister under former President Niyazov, and was tasked with implementing the controversial decision to the close all hospitals outside of Ashgabat. According to US diplomats, he is also "vain, suspicious, guarded, strict, very conservative", a "micro-manager" and "a practised liar".
My room on the seventh floor. The Lonelyplanet said that hotels in Ashgabat are often bugged, but mainly for visiting diplomats rather than innocent tourists like myself.
I then went for a walk to a nearby Café for some tasty beef shashlik for lunch.
Back at the hotel where I went for a dip in the pool. I also tried the wifi in the lobby but it was almost unusable and took ~10 minutes to send just a text-only email. Nowhere else on my trip in Turkmenistan had internet also
Cleaners. After having a nap after being exhausted from the red-eye flight and sightseeing, I then went for a walk on the streets.
Outside a theatre. I was soon approached by someone from the theatre asking why I was taking photo's. I tried to reassure them that I was just a tourist but they were still quite suspicious.
The traffic on the streets was a mixture of old Lada's and new Japanese cars.
Turkmenistan school girls in uniform. They all had long hair platted into two ponytails. The boys wore white shirts with black ties and trousers.
After the sterile white marble in the new part of Ashgabat, it was quite refreshing to walk around the old part of town. Definitely alot more character and a little more 'human'.
Mother and child.
At a local supermarket to buy some water. They also had bottled water shipped all the way from Dubai. Much cheaper than back in Dubai too!
After relaxing back at the hotel, I went for dinner at the hotel restaurant, which was decorated with pictures of all of Ashgabats marvellous white marbled buildings.
Beetroot and cheese salad to start.
And roast chicken for the main.
At 8pm I met up with Artem again for a night tour of Ashgabat. Driving through the white-marble tower blocks of Berzengi. Berzengi used to be low rise cottages, but was demolished in Niyazov's quest to build his 'White City'.
The first stop was at a golden statue of the current President, Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov, riding high on a horse on a 20 metre outcrop of white marble. The statue was unveiled in May 2015. The President has written a book about Turkmenistan’s famous Akhal-Teke horses and is frequently pictured on horseback or taking part in horse races. He is reportedly also quite an accomplished race car driver.
The Yyldyz Hotel, built in 2013, and suspiciously similar in shape to Dubai's iconic Burj Al Arab.
Another hotel all lit up. While the white marble construction was started under former President Niyazov, his successor Berdymukhammedov set out in 2009 to leave his own mark on this city, ordering up scores of identical apartment buildings and imposing government ministries. Some 2,000 new hotel rooms are expected in the capital of a country that now welcomes barely 20,000 tourists a year.
Outside the Wedding Palace. The palace has a room where newlyweds are required to pose in front of a portrait of President Berdymukhammedov. Radio Free Europe subsequently dubbed Berdimuhamedow "Photobomber-in-Chief"!�
The Neutrality Monument, also locally known as "The Tripod". On top is a 12-metre (39 ft) tall gold-plated statue of former President Niyazov which used to rotate so that he always faced the sun. The monument was originally situated in the middle of Ashgabat, but was dismantled and relocated to the city outskirts to remove the excesses of the personality cult that Niyazov had created.
Looking down the street to the white marble buildings of Berzengi.
And the last stop before heading back to the hotel, a portrait of President Berdymukhammedov in a traditional Turkmen sheep skin hat. Berdymukhammedov has been accused of setting up a personality cult of his own.
After a morning run through the streets of Ashgabat, I had a decent breakfast at the hotel.
My flight to Türkmenbaşy wasn't until 12:50pm, so I went for a walk to the Teke Bazaar.
Lots of fresh fruit and vegetables, but the stallholders weren't too keen on my camera and I was approached several times to delete photo's (although I just fiddled with my camera controls until they were satisfied).
This guy selling melons was very friendly though and spoke half-decent english. We had a bit of a chat and I managed to convince him to let me take his photo.
The market was open-air under a big roof.
Bread and pastries. I was told to delete this photo by someone who wasn't even in it!
There are several new malls with supermarkets in downtown Ashgabat, but the locals still prefer to get their groceries at the Bazaar.
Again, all the ladies were in traditional Turkmen dress.
Street sweeper. I then went for walk before heading back to the hotel to meet up with Artem for the short ride to the airport.
Outside the domestic terminal at Ashgabat Airport. Unfortunately my 12:50pm flight to Türkmenbaşy was delayed until 2:30pm though. Artem was gracious though to take me back into the city rather than wait out the delay at the airport.
A monument to the Akhal-Teke horse breed in downtown Ashgabat, which are a national emblem. They have a reputation for speed and endurance, intelligence, and a distinctive metallic sheen, and hence the nickname "Golden Horses".
Outside the Russian Bazaar.
The Russian Bazaar is one of the largest and oldest covered markets in the Turkmenistan and was built between 1972 to 1982 by the design of Russian architect Vladimir Visotin. Previous VIP visitors to the Bazaar include current Russian President, Vladimir Putin.
Luckily people here were a little less photo-phobic.
Some of the Russian goods for sale.
I had lunch at one of the Cafés at the bazaar. Some delicious beef kebab and bread for 10 manat.
A little help from Mum.
Back at Ashgabat airport for my flight to Türkmenbaşy, which thankfully was not further delayed.
And a short walk from the terminal across the tarmac to the Turkmenistan Airlines 737.
Tea and water were handed out on the ~45 minute flight.
Reading up on Avaza, the 'National Tourist Zone created on the orders of former President Niyazov ten years ago, in the Turkmenistan Airlines magazine "Lachin". Avaza is a beach resort on the shores of the Caspian Sea and where I would be staying for tonight. The magazine article even tried to address the rationale for building a beach resort where it is only warm for 4 months of the year.
Disembarking passengers walking past a portrait of President Berdymukhammedov after we arrived at Türkmenbaşy International Airport (KRW). In 1993, the city of Krasnovodsk was renamed by former President Niyazov, after his self-proclaimed title Türkmenbaşy ("Leader of all Turkmen"), and hence the KRW airport code.
Outside the airport terminal where I met my guide/driver for Türkmenbaşy, where he was glad to receive a set of Mitsubishi Pajero engine gaskets which Artem asked me to pass on from Ashgabat.
In the Pajero heading into Türkmenbaşy.
We then did a tour of some of the sights of Türkmenbaşy. First stop, the main train station.
The WWII memorial with an eternal flame.
A Russian Orthodox church, testament to the city’s past as a Russian fortress town.
Lots of fresh fruit and vegetables from Azerbaijan, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Armenia as well as Turkmenistan.
Fresh from the Caspian Sea!
It was also possible to buy caviar by the half-kilo here.
We then drove the ~12 kilometres to the Avaza, a resort city where 8 hotels have built under the orders of President Berdymukhammedov for $1.2 billion, and with a few more under construction. Also note the total lack of any other traffic.
The man-made canal. Despite it being September, and still relatively warm, apart from a few workers there was very little other people about.
We stopped at an amusement park which was totally deserted. Avaza has been described as 'the most ill-conceived resort ever built'. While the idea to follow the Dubai philsophy of 'build it and they will come' is admirable, it is probably not 100% compatible with one of the world's most restrictive visa policies.
We then checked into my room at the 'five star' Serdar Hotel. After initally having problems opening my door with the swipe card, a quick visit to the front desk by my guide quickly sorted it out. I would later discover however that they had re-programmed my swipe card to be able to open any door in the hotel!
The view out of my window of the Caspian Sea.
The hotel pool, with I elected to skip due to the green slimy bottom. Although to be fair there was a clean indoor pool also.
And taking a refeshing dip in the Caspian Sea! The water has a salinity of ~1.2% , or about a third of that of typical sea water.
I had dinner at the hotel, fresh fish from the Caspian sea. Apart from a small group of elderly Japanese tourists, I was the only other person in the restaurant. The meal took over an hour to arrive too, but was worth the wait.
And some pastries to finish for dessert.
When I went back to my room, I swiped my card and walked in the doorway, only to see someone sitting on the bed and watching TV! I quickly realised I was in the wrong room and on the wrong floor (room 602 instead of 802), quickly apologised and closed the door. I wondered how I was able to open the wrong door, and after a bit of testing, realised my card was programmed to open any door!