Wednesday, 1 July 2009

Turkmenistan not another world, another planet....

Turkmenistan, almost…..

We arrived at the port of Turkmenbashi to find 11 other ships waiting to dock. Fuelled by an incident that happened early in the year where a ship from Azerbaijan had damaged the docking bay, the Turkmen authorities had decided to not allow any ship to dock due to high winds in the Caspian Sea.
We all had to wait on a ship with no restaurant and no bar until conditions were more favourable....

I ended up being befriended by a Turkish English professor working in Ashgabat, he’d just come back from a conference in Azerbaijan. The teachers fed me with bread and olives to stop me starving, and I managed to bribe the cooks (cooking meals for the crew) to give me a plate of food on the final day.

On the boat

The Turkish Teachers

We eventually pulled in to dock 2 days after arriving at Turkmenbashi. What a relief to finally be on dry land…..

I would like to caveat that the next section is about what happened to me while in Turkmenistan, I am not deliberately trying to sound negative I’m just reporting on my experiences and the information given to me by locals and people with their ears to the ground. The local people I met were friendly and welcoming to the extreme, always eager to find out what i was doing and why I had come to see their country.

Getting into the country…….

The bureaucracy at customs was comical at times, I had to visit 9 offices and get upwards of 30 stamps. I came away with about a dozen pieces of paper, some of which I had no idea what they were used for. Everything is paper based and each office writes down the same details in a hardback book stashed away on one of the many shelves. Each form and book entry was filled out with extreme care and when a mistake was made on one form a razor blade was produced and the offending mistake carefully removed from the original and each carbon copy. Once customs were exited and one final police checkpoint 50 yards down the road was cleared, where the familiar hardback book was produced, I was free to enter Turkmenistan 5.30 hours after first stepping off the boat.

Ashore at last…….

With 2 days left on my 5 day Transit visa I needed to head straight for the capital, Ashgabat, to see if my visa could be extended, it would be tight but I was sure I could make it that day.

The road to Ashgabat

The camel replaces the cow

Pulling in at Ashgabat at 10.30 at night I spent the next 1.30 hours trying to find a hotel that would take a smelly and unshaven biker before I attracted attention from the police due to a 11.00 curfew for all foreigners visiting or living in the capital.

The next morning resulted in an unsuccessful attempt to get my visa extended; with my visa running out that day it was now a panicked called to the British embassy to try and get the situated sort out.
It was a first for me. In all my travels I’ve never had to contact a foreign embassy for help.
The British Embassy came up trumps and managed to sort me out a 2 day extension which would give me enough time to get across the desert and exit into Uzbekistan.

I would like to say a big thank you to the British Embassy for providing a brilliant service and getting me out of a potentially problematic situation.

While at the embassy I bumped into the Turkish professor I met on the boat from Baku. He took me around and showed me some of the sights of Ashgabat and also took me to his brother’s place of work for lunch and then to his brothers house for some food that evening. A great guy who will always be welcome at my house when he comes to London on his frequent visits for conferences.

After 5 days of hardship things were definitely starting to look on the up…

A bit about Turmenistan‘s history….

Turkmen’s were historically a collection of nomadic horse breeding tribes from the Altay mountains who discovered alternative pasture lands in the Karakum Desert in Persia, Syria and Antolia (in present day Turkey). The tribes terrorised the Russians when they came to civilise the region and sold large amounts of the Tsars troops into slavery at Khiva and Bukhara.
During the Bolshevik revolution in 1917 the communists took Ashgabat which then became a soviet republic. The Turkmen people didn’t want to give up their nomadic ways so a bitter guerrilla war raged until 1936.
Waves of Russian immigrants brought farming and the blue prints for cotton fields. To bring the plans to fruition, work was then started on the construction of a massive irrigation canal running from the Aral Sea stretching across the width of the republic.
The Karakum Canal stands at 1370 Km, the longest canal in the world, cutting straight across the harsh Karakum desert. This has caused one of the worlds most devastating environmental disasters with the shallow Aral Sea being drained of large quantities of water, the level has fallen by 16 meters since the canal was built and the shoreline has receded by up to 80kms devastating local villages and fishing.

In 1985 Niyazov was elected as General Secretary of the soviet Republic and then was forced to declare independence in 1991 with the break-up of the former soviet union. Determined to hang onto power Niyazov banned all other parties and declared the people should call him Turkmenbashi meaning ’the leader of the Turkmen’. He subsequently squandered the countries resources (from a huge reserve of natural gas) on building outrageous marble monuments and gold statues of himself in the capital, Ashgabat. Turmenbashi died in 2006 from a massive heart attack but his legacy lives on in his replacement Berdymukhamedov (the former Deputy Prime Minister) who seized power and has carried on more of Niyazov’’s work to this day….

Mad facts about the country and the Prime Ministers……

The people who can’t afford a home receive free housing.
All people in the capital Ashgabat receive free gas electricity and water. In fact some people leave their stoves burning 24 hours a day due to the cost of matches.
The president provided free bread until he found out that the people were feeding it to their animals so it was stopped.
Un-employment hovers around the 80% mark but the people can practically live on nothing as most things are provided by the state.
After the Prime Minister became ill with a smoking related disease he banned all smoking on the streets with a $500 fine as the punishment for being caught.
If you enter the city with a dirty vehicle you will be fined $200 but you can have 10 cracks in your windscreen.
In Ashgabat there’s an embarrassingly large tower called the Arch of Neutrality with a comical 12 meter polished gold statue of Niyazov on top that revolves to face the sun.
Niyazov wrote a book called the Ruhnama with wildly inaccurate descriptions of the history of Turkmenistan and is used as a text for how the Turkmen people should live their lives. It’s taught in every school and is touted as a book on the same religious level as the Koran.
Marble tower blocks spring up everywhere in Ashgabat. Costing $20 Million dollars each, $10 Million Dollars going on the pure white marble cladding.
Turkmenistan has bought all of Turkey’s reserves of pure whit marble and has almost depleted all of Italy’s existing stock.
There are 300’000 Turkish living and working in Turkmenistan.
Foreigners have different coloured number plates so the police can identify them from the locals.

It costs $300 dollars a month to have internet at home so most people can’t afford it and have no access to information from the outside world.
Flour is a controlled substance with people buying flour imported from Russia on the black market.

Ashgabat is like no other place I have ever been. The only way I can describe it is Las Vegas covered in white marble. Turkmenistan is a dictator lead state at the extreme it’s probably the closest place to North Korea you will likely get to visit. The people are so programmed that they seem incapable of thinking for themselves. Twinned with crippling bureaucracy, and the populations fear of getting into trouble, it’s virtually impossible to get anything done. I also heard tales of people opposing the government disappearing and never been seen again and foreigners wanting to marry locals being deported on trumped up soliciting charges.
There is still a large amount of poverty in the country especially away from Ashgabat. All the countries resources are ploughed into building marble monstrosities and not into the welfare of it’s people which is a real shame considering the level of wealth that comes with having the 4th largest natural gas reserve in the world. Turkmenistan has the reputation of being the safest country in ‘the stans’ which certainly seems true for travellers. Not so for the local population, where the majority of the dangers come from a corrupt police force and authoritarian government.

The next day it was off across the Karakum desert to the North and an overnight stop at Konyeurgench, just before the Uzbekistan boarder, and a stay in an dilapidated old Soviet hotel.

The people certainly seem a bit more relaxed and friendly away from the control of Ashgabat.

The Karakum Canal, the longest in the world

Across the desert

During the evening the local police came to check out the foreigner in town and worried about the safety of my bike insisted that I ride it up the stairs into the hotel! It wasn’t a proposition I relished as the stopping distance between the rear of the bike and the hotel front door was only 2 feet. I gunned it and popped up on to the hotel veranda with a little shove from one of the hotel staff just to get the bike up the last step. I’d made it!

Stunt Riding

I woke in the morning feeling very ill, with severe dehydration and diarrhoea. I had to leave the country so I downed some Imodium and headed for the boarder. I crossed the boarder with a minimum of fuss in 2.30 hours, despite the officer at the Uzbekistan repeatedly asking me if I was a British spy. It became a bit of a joke towards the end as he asked me for the 5th time while laughing. I then limped my way to Nukus, dropped my stuff off at a hotel and went straight to the local hospital.

At the hospital they put me on a drip and gave me some antibiotics and something to help with the diarrhoea. I was then transferred to the infections hospital and tests were started. The hospital was pretty bad, but I was ill and needed some medical attention. After 3 days I was feeling ok again but they insisted that I couldn’t leave until my results had been returned from the lab, due to government regulations. Apparently they’d had an incident a few years earlier were soldiers returning from Afghanistan had brought Cholera into the country and caused a minor epidemic.

Ollie and Jenny turned up on the Friday. They’d managed to get into the country 3 days before their visas started so they could come and see how I was doing, they were a very welcome sight. I was eternally grateful for their efforts and after greetings and hugs we set about trying to get me freed from hospital prison.

Rescued from a fate worse than death, Uzbek hospital food.

As it was Friday the labs would be shut at the weekend and I would have to stay until Monday if the results didn’t come through that day. The prospect of this didn’t sit too well. With time running out the doctor made an end of day call to the labs. The results were negative, I could leave!
I have to say they were really great in the hospital and do an amazing job with very limited resources and i'm very grateful to all the doctors for patching me up and sending me on my way.

Time to head off to Khiva, the old slave capital of Uzbekistan……