We made it to the border and were glad to make it across with all our dollars, as there aren't any cash machines for foreigners in Turkmenistan, and no hassle for our artwork. Across the border, we met Timur, our guide/driver - foreigners aren't allowed in Turkmenistan without paying for a driver and car every day, as the government doesn't want just anyone walking around their country(?!). We set off immediately down to Konye Urgench - another silk road city! This one was slightly different as the main sights are all set out of town, surrounded now by desert as the river changed it's course and the city was abandoned. It was slightly disappointing to have come all this way and for the main sights to be locked as they are trying to erradicate a pigeon problem. But it was interesting to see how all these buildings look without the zealous restoration efforts that we'd seen in Uzbekistan.
It was amusing to watch the Turkmen women undergoing an ancient fertility ritual that involved donning a thick coat and rolling down a hill! It looked quite painful so Fi chickened out!
We set off through the Karakum desert to the Darvaza gas craters....these are the results of Soviet gas exploration in the 1950s. There are three of them....one filled with bubbling water, another with bubbling mud and the last which was to be our campsite for the night is alight.
It was quite a sight when we arrived in the middle of the afternoon....40m in diameter and depth....and flames everywhere! It was quite hot to stand next to....and we made sure not to stray too close to the edge! As the sun went down....it started to glow....it really was an amazing sight....and we had to agree with our guidebook which describes it as the gates to hell. It really was quite quite an astounding sight....and we were able to see the glow all night through our tent!
The next day was a long desert drive south to Ashgabat, the capital. We had loads of fun spotting the camels at the side of the road......Timur had said a few times that they were really dangerous for drivers as despite it being a straight desert road....the small dips and hills means that sometimes people don't see them in time. It turns out that people let their camels roam free in the desert for up to 4 months before they head after them, on motorbike, asking at local villages when their camels were last seen!
Sure enough though, we sadly came across an accident that had probably happened 20 minutes previous. It was shocking to see the driver of the car hadn't made it.....not likely with 300kg of camel crashing into his windscreen.
We arrived into Ashgabat and got settled into our Soviet era hotel, complete with moody babushka on each floor. Definitely one of our more downmarket establishments...complete with scampering mice that died each night in our bathroom! Ashgabat was the jewel in the crown of Dictator Niyazov's regime...and something his successor is keen to build on. It really is quite something.....gold self-obsessed statues interspersed freely in between the gleaming white marble buildings - everything in the centre of town has to use Italian marble. They were very proud of having the biggest flagpole in the world....well done them!
There were public parks everywhere but no one seemed to use them!
Everyone drives everywhere as gas is so cheap but like the parks there were far too many roads for the number of people using them....
It quickly became a little freaky and seemed like some sort of cross between 1984 and the Stepford Wives. It seemed a little odd that the only people on the streets were ourselves, the army of streetcleaners and the military policemen stationed on each streetcorner. Not many photos because the police won't allow it! People seemed to act a little like zombies, their laughter and chatter kept behind closed doors. To be honest the whole place seemed to lack any real soul - the central pedestrian areas of European cities and the hustle and bustle of Asian cities were non-existant. The powerful nanny state actually made China seem pretty soft. On the other hand, it is similar to China in that the people are not used to anything else so what they don't know won't hurt them? The free gas, free electric and practically free petrol keep people pretty happy.
Our feelings of unsettledness deepened as we were randomly refused entry to a couple of markets by plain clothed policemen....only to enter moments later unhassled by another entrance! Enough was enough for Fi though, as we set off one night to find a reccomended Chinese restaurant and after 30 minutes walk a plain clothed cop tried to usher us off the road! Fi, worrying that she was about to be kept from her Chinese feast, demanded to know what was going on from this rather ambivalent/unfriendly cop....thankfully, someone came to our aid and said we only had to get off the main road for 10 minutes while the President's calvalcade came whizzing by....before we could proceed to our Chinese restaurant! Dumplings....Mmmm.
We whizzed round the main sights in Ashgabat....going up the arch of neutrality, complete with a gold statue of their man Niyazov - which spins round every day to ensure he's looking directly towards the sun.
Bryn then enjoyed the rest of the time in Ashgabat viewing every Turkmen carpet in the city and conducting a thorough price/quality comparison.
Enough was enough though of toy town Ashgabat and we were thankful to hit the desert road. Our first stop was the ancient site of Gonur where the current excavations have been dated back to a staggering 3000 BC!! Despite having had our reservations at looking at a pile of sandy mounds in the middle of the desert we really were gobsmacked at what we saw. There were pottery shards everywhere and the foundations were in pretty good nick. We saw ceramics kilns, shashlick ovens, water purification works, the royal palace and even a drainage system! They are still uncovering stuff and we were able to go and have a look at what they were currently working on....no need to cordon off the area etc....we were able to get right in and see what they were up to! We saw the burial tombs where the royalty were buried alongside their horses.
The most staggering thing we saw though was a human skeleton complete with a bronze bracelet and ring still in situ!
Back at the entrance we got chatting with one of the local archaeologists who'd worked there for the last 20 years.....it was amazing watching him undertake what must be the world's most complicated jigsaw puzzle as he restored an ossuary. I don't think they get too many visitors....before we knew it we were being ushered over to meet Viktor Sarianidi...the 79 year old Russian/Greek lead archaeologist. He'd discovered the site 50 years ago and had led the excavations twice a year since then....considering the heat, dust and bumpy journey over the dunes to get there we thought this pretty good going. He thought that this year would be his last though. We got to ask him loads of questions and uncovered that funding was a big issue for them....it turned out that he'd sold his Moscow flat to pay for the excavations.
We also visited Merv....which only dates back to 600 BC, and with many of the remains being dated much later - it's actually a succession of cities spread over about 1000 years. Over the years they'd played host to many of the world's major religions Zoroastrianism, Buddhism, Christianity and Islam. They've only excavated about 10% - so we needed a better imagination than in Gonur, and often what they had excavated had been fairly comprehensively restored which somewhat destroyed the magic of the place.
We then drove 700km through the desert to the SE corner of the country, right next to Afghanistan. We visited the dinosaur plateau in search of the footsteps of Turkmenosaurus Rex who came this way 155 million years ago. The dinosaurs had left loads of footprints on the bed of a muddy lake....which had then dried rock hard in the sun, there was then a volcanic eruption which covered the lakebed in lava sealing the footprints for us to view all these years later. We'd been quite sceptical about this...until we saw it.....it's not just one footprint....we were able to track where the dinosaurs had been heading all over the rock face!
We also visited the Kyrk Gyz cave where we were welcomed by the local mullah who kindly said some prayers for us.
We were then given a bit of cloth each and we had to throw it, and make it stick to the roof of the cave....achieving this would grant us a wish.
They weren't specific about whether we'd still get our wish if we weren't successful on the first attempt....
All that was left to do in Turkmenistan was another long desert drive to catch our $21 flight all the way across the country back to Ashgabat. And then onwards back to India