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Knights of the Vine RUSSIA


Luc Jones

Articles on Ashgabat, the Turkmen capital, usually churn out the well-worn quote “Dubai meets the Soviet Union”, which may suit lazy hacks who couldn’t be bothered to actually visit Turkmenistan. But those who do venture into what must to this day be one of the most secretive and bizarre regimes outside of North Korea, and they will certainly be left curiously surprised.

Getting in is the tricky part. Everyone needs a visa; yes, even other CIS citizens, and it’s not simply a case of rocking up at your local Turkmen Embassy (of which there are not a vast quantity), smiling nicely, filling in a form and walking out with a shiny sticker in your passport. Oh no, you’ll need official state approval to enter Turkmenistan But the good news is that there are a handful of accredited tour firms who can ease your passage of entry. The only catch is that they will organize the entire trip for you. There’s no wondering around on your own here; you’ll be chaperoned throughout the day by a local guide, lest you poison innocent Turkmen minds with your evil, foreign ideas!

Turkmenistan was born out of the collapse of the USSR, being one of the last of the republics to declare independence and although it joined the Commonwealth of Independent States (basically the old USSR minus the Baltic States), the newly formed country showed little appetite for openness, change or democracy. Saparmurat Niyazov, the Turkmen Republic’s leader since 1985 was voted President of Turkmenistan in 1991 (he was the only candidate) and shortly afterwards declared himself both President for Life, and Turkmenbashi (Father of all the Turkmen). Niyazov’s eccentricities have been well documented, such as building gold statues of himself in Ashgabat, and changing the months of the year to sound like the names of the parents he never knew, his father dying in WW2 and mother and the brothers and sisters perishing during a massive earthquake which flattened the city in 1948.

Post-USSR Ashgabat is largely a testament to the promotion of Turkmen culture, fronted of course by Niyazov himself and a personality cult which comes close to rivaling that of Kim il Sung. Massive funds have been lavished on marble-fronted palaces, various other government buildings, and most importantly is the Arch of Neutrality complete with a massive, golden statue of Turkmenbashi himself rotating so that he is always facing the sun‑and you can even take the elevator inside it up to the top for great views of the city.

When wondering where the money came from to fund all of this, don’t forget that Turkmenistan boasts some of the world’s largest resources of natural gas, so the country certainly isn’t short of a bob or two. On the one hand, given that most African dictators would have done the square root of bugger all to develop their nation whilst simultaneously siphoning off state funds into Swiss bank accounts, Niyazov has certainly left a legacy (he died in 2006). His dream to turn his country into a central Asian version of Qatar or Dubai is still a long way off, and with large swathes of the population living close to the poverty line, one can’t help thinking that the cash could have been better spent. Niyazov’s successor is Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov and was his personal dentist—hey, what’s wrong with a bit of cronyism, and with a name like that who knows what his parents were smoking!

Your first grabble will be changing money. Keeping pace with Soviet times, there is still a black market for foreign currency, so although $1 will officially buy you 5,400 Manat, you should be able to get around 3-4 times this with the assistance of your driver. Bring a rucksack with you to be ready to carry sackfulls of the stuff around with you—this might not be Germany in the 1920s but you get the picture.

You are likely to spend your first day or two being shown the city sights plus a trip out to the Kipchak Mosque where Niazov is buried, and a chance to sample the city nightlife. Ashgabat itself is beautifully lit up in a vast array of colours after dark, but if you’re a party animal then you’ll find your options somewhat limited after dinner. Officially there is an 11pm curfew on all venues so for many it’s back to the hotel bar, although one place that has a license to stay open later is the Florida bar (worth the trip, if only to see the Plymouth Argyle scarf on the wall; it recently changed its name to The British Pub), where foreign business visitors gather into the early hours to drink beer and play pool. The upstairs disco, called Kumush Ay, is the most kicking place in town and about the best chance you’ll have of pulling any local tottie— just don’t arrange a meeting for 9am the following day as it doesn’t get started until the early hours.

If you only visit Ashgabat then you’ll leave with a pretty lopsided view of the country, since around 70% of Turkmenistan is made up desert; the mighty Karakum which translates as black sand. A four hour drive along the highway parallel with the Iranian border, with a quick stop at a micro-brewery just outside Tejen, brings you to Mary (pronounced ‘Mar-ree’) which is the gateway to the desert and the ancient city of Merv. Founded well before the birth of Christ, you are free to explore the ancient city walls and you’re likely to have the place much to yourself, if you don’t count the wild camels wandering around.

Merv may satisfy the UNESCO World Heritage box tickers, and impressive it is, but this is small beer compared to a trip out to Margush several hours into the unforgiving Karakum. A Russian mad professor has dedicated several decades of his life to unearthing the remains of what he claims could prove to be the world’s fifth ancient civilization (after Ancient Greece, China, India and Mesopotamia). Whether or not he’s right is hard to say, but his excavations cover a wide area and one can only begin to imagine what went on here several millennia ago.

The forty minute flight from Mary back to the capital was on a brand new Boeing, yet cost only $4 for a single (and locals get a 50% discount). We took a trip out to Central Asia’s largest open air market, where you can buy anything from a KAMAZ truck, to a carpet, to a camel. We took the easy route and bought nuts and dried fruit before a cup of green tea and a tasty samsa in a local café which looked as though it might struggle to pass a health and safety inspection back home! Finally, given their love of horses, no trip to Turkmenistan would be complete without a trip out to a local stud farm for a display of how to antagonize a horse to the point that it’s ready to bite or kick you (well, that’s what it looked like to us); fortunately we were quite a distance away, and these guys seemed to know what they were doing.

Getting in: Forget trying to do this yourself, you’ll get nowhere. We used DN Tours ( who were great, as well as efficient. They sorted out the visas, hotel bookings and all transport within the country, plus providing a super guide who actually thought that five drunken English guys were funny!

Wanna buy a Kamaz? Visit the Tolchuka

Getting there: Turkmenistan Airlines (daily) and S7 (2-3 times a week) fly between Moscow and Ashgabat; domestic flights cost peanuts thanks to state subsidies although you may need to secure the services of a travel agency to actually get them.

Getting around: Everything will be taken care of by your tour company. If on business, you’ll be met and shown around by whoever it is you are seeing.

Language: Turkmen is the official language although nearly everyone speaks Russian (perhaps not as well as in other former Soviet Republics due to the country being so closed). People in tourism, and some in business, speak English.

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