01.07.2012 - 09.07.2012 41 °C
We have made it safely to Central Asia, the land of the 'Stans. After a rather dramatic and expensive exit from Azerbaijan (more on that some other time). Our ship, my namesake, Professor Gul, cruised into the turquoise habour of Turkmenbashi, Turkmenistan.
The 'Stans always seemed like a central part of our trip, and it felt good to arrive. And to see that the exotic radar had cranked right up. Throw in a dose of political insanity and some beauitful freaks of nature and you have yourself an interesting tour of a rarely visited police state.
And we were on tour, it's the law if you want to spend more than the 5 days that a transit visa allows. This entailed Dan and I in a Toyota Hilux with our Russian Turkmen guide Oleg. Not our usual style of travel, and you do really miss out on interactions with locals this way, but as a means to see this country it's not all bad.
We camped in the desert and the steppe, each time filling every pore and folicle with dust and sand. But the views were worth it. Yangkala Canyon rises out of the dull monotonous steppe in stripes of white, pink and yellow, 180km on terrible roads from the nearest city. Past slow moving camels and sad and lonely looking isolated small villages. We took a slightly dangerous trip on foot down into the canyon and watched a spectaular sunset over shots of vodka and some AC/DC supplied by Oleg. In the Karakum Desert we visited Darvaza Gas Crater. The country has an enormous natural gas reserve, and during exploration some time in the 1950s the earth crumbled into a hole that was hiding below the surface, with a vast source of gas. The local animals were soon getting sick from the gas so a resourceful farmer set a tyre on fire and rolled it into the crater - setting the gas on fire, and it has been burning every since. A pretty awesome sight by night.
Turkmenbashi, the former dictator, was, I would say, just a little bit crazy. And nothing drives this home better than a visit to the capital Ashgabat. We travelled over a 1000 kilomteres on terrible roads in the country, but not into Ashgabat, which is surrounded by near empty perfectly groomed six lane highways. The centre of town is a mass of enormous white marble buildings topped with gold or blue mosaic domes, or perhaps a gold portrait of the man himself. I would love to show you photos of the souless desert city filled to overflowing with fountains (which rape the Aral Sea of its source) but you aren't allowed to take photos. Sometimes you can't even walk down the street. And there are police and army guys standing on every corner to enforce this. Dan got it right when he said, 'We have just been walking around lah-lah land'. You have to walk, or preferrably catch a bus, a good way before you get to parts of town that haven't yet been bulldozed to make way for empty marble palaces, and where people actually live. All this in stark contrast to mud brick homes and said terrible roads elsewhere in the country. Such a man kept the people happy by decreeing that until 2030 everyone can have free natural gas, water, petrol and salt (and there is evidence everywhere of all of these resources being carelessly wasted) and not charging taxes. Pretty interesting place.
And then the exotic: camels, i LOVE camels;
the trucks of watermelons that came into every village every day; the beautiful full length colourful dresses that every women wore with an equally colourful headscarf;
the gold teeth so frequently used to replace bad ones; the animist beliefs and especially the cemetery we visited where each head stone was a wooden pole with steps carved up the side to help the deceased get into the afterlife, topped with the horns of a wild goat, to protect them once they are there; the desert and the high dry hills. Increidble kindness and genouristy from the locals and their total curiosity in us. Hopefully the pictures convey a little of this.
Now we are in Uzbekistan. It's a different story, kind of. And I'll get to that soon.
And thanks to everyone for your comments on the blog. It's a bit of a funny way to communicate as it seems so one sided and you never can tell if you are just some crazy lady talking to herself. It's good to know there is some of you out there. xxx