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Turkmenistan - the strangest country in the world

Is Turkmenistan the strangest country in the world? This writer thinks so. Follow her experiences for yourself and see if you agree.
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Turkmenistan - the strangest country in the world is written by Line Hansen.

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Departure for Turkmenistan

Turkmenistan is surrounded by neighbors such as Russia, Iran, Kasakhstan, Afghanistan and Uzbekistan and is with Kyrgyzstan og Tajikistan a part of Central Asia. The country is a little out of the ordinary to say the least.

A few days before I have to cross the border into Turkmenistan, my 'Letter of Invitation' has not yet gone through, announces the travel company, which I have been forced to use to even dream of approaching the border. The nerves are starting to press on as an email finally ticks in with an invitation approved through Turkmenistan's 'State Service for Registration of Foreign Citizens'.

The next step is to get the visa in place at the border crossing. That time the grief - even though the familiar turmoil in the stomach manifests itself at the thought of Central Asian border crossings. Turkmenistan is also one of the least visited countries in the world with only about 7.000 visitors a year, even though it is located on the famous Silk Road.

In the meantime, I have become hooked up with two Australian girls who I can share a car and guide with until we get to Ashgabat. The city is the only place in Turkmenistan where tourists are allowed to travel alone without a guide.

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Turkmenistan - dromedaries, desert - travel

Across the border into Turkmenistan

After the usual package out and in, paperwork and stamping me here and there at the Uzbek border, we trudge off along the 300 meter long muddy gravel road in the no man's land, which divides Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan.

At the Turkmen border, they want to know if, in addition to explosives and weapons, we have any religious books with us. My relationship with my Lonely Planet is approaching what I would call a religious relationship - but the border guard obviously does not share my sense of humor… Even though we are the only three who cross the border, it takes a few hours before we get the slightly euphoric ones. silver-sealed Turkmen visas glued to the passports.

Our friendly local guide meets us patiently on the other side of the border. Set off at breakneck speed along something that once seemed to have been a road. All three of us have to hold on to the handles above the windows to stay fairly vertical.

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Turkmenistan - crater - travel

The door to hell is found in Turkmenistan

In less than a few hours, the sun goes down. We have to visit the famous burning gas crater in the middle of the desert, also called 'Door to Hell'. It is a result of the Russians' gas drilling in the 1970s. The soil under the drilling rig collapsed and the gas found was found to be toxic. Therefore, it was set on fire in the hope that the gas would burn off, and then that fart was beaten. 43 years later, the gas crater is still burning!

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Turkmenistan - Highway - Travel

Head towards the edge

We unload our luggage in a small tea house near the road where we will spend the night. Then we drive off into what looks like nothingness in a faintly visible trail in the sand. As we approach the crater, it dawns on us how huge this crater is. It's GIGA and much bigger than I could ever imagine.

The driver is driving with a direct course towards the edge, and in a mixture of overwhelmingness and fear that the brakes will fail, we all three scream. Only 5 meters from the edge, the driver hits the brake. Thank goodness, this is wild.

Standing in pitch-dark darkness a meter of money from the edge and staring directly into the flames is an insane feeling. I have paid well above my normal backpacker budget to experience this, but it is worth all the money and hassle.

We spend the night on rugs on the floor. Awakened only once during the night by a stiff Russian who apparently thinks it's a mighty idea to keep us three girls company in the small room. After a while, he happily daffers on.

You will find accommodation in Turkmenistan here

Turkmenistan - Ashgabat, monument - travel

Ashgabat - the city of world records

Before we arrive in Ashgabat the next day, the car gets the whole major overhaul. A dirty car in Ashgabat is fined. It does not go hand in hand with the government's ideological desire for the perfect capital.

Ashgabat holds various world records; among other things, the world's largest book, the world's largest flag and the world's largest hand-knotted rug are found in Ashgabat. In addition, Ashgabat is the world's whitest city and perhaps also the cleanest. And yes, the city is VERY white! One of many crazy inventions from the previously now deceased dictator Turkmenbashi or translated 'Turkmen leader' as he demanded to be called.

All government buildings are made of marble imported from Italy, while marble for private companies or apartment complexes is sourced from Afghanistan.

Turkmenbashi suffered from massive greatness madness and with his many bizarre ideas has left his mark on the city. Huge monuments and statues are seen everywhere and most often with Turkmenbashi as the focal point. The following is a small 'wiki selection' of Turkmenbashi's initiatives.

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Watermelon - travel

The special day of the melons and other crazy initiatives

  • Opera, ballet and circus are illegal
  • It is illegal to have gold teeth, beards or long hair - probably also applies to women
  • Female news hosts must not wear white make-up because it must be easier to tell the difference between men and women on TV
  • At the end of the news, the narrators must raise their hand and proclaim, "May my hand be cut off if I harm my country, and may my tongue wither if I slander the country, the flag, or the president."
  • All TV channels constantly show a gold-colored profile of the president in one corner
  • All hospitals outside Turkmenistan's capital have been closed
  • It has been forbidden to have more than one dog or cat
  • Violent computer games have become illegal in Turkmenistan
  • It is illegal to criticize the president
  • An ice palace for 1000 people is being built. Turkmenistan is one of the warmest countries in the world; the temperature can reach 50 degrees in summer. "Our children can learn to ski and skate," he said. The ice palace is going to be in a desert
  • The names of days and months have been changed and are now named after himself and his family members
  • The word for "bread" has been changed to the name of his deceased mother
  • He has proclaimed a national holiday in honor of melons
  • He has defined the limit for different age groups in the following way: You are a child until you turn 13, “young” until you are 25, and “younger” until you are 37. To be able to call yourself “old” you must be 85
  • He has appointed himself "President of Lifetime"

Find accommodation in Turkmenistan here

Turkmenistan - Ashgabat, fountain - travel

Top polished and empty

Along the clinically clean sidewalks, flower beds and architectural lampposts adorn each other, making any Danish street lighting fade. Furthermore, a large part of the city is made up of picture-perfect fountain-infested parks, which could well make it next to an excursion destination for a Sunday picnic. The tragicomic thing is just that no people use these parks. It's EMPTY!

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The cameras are constantly looking

In general, Ashgabat is a very empty city and only a few people are seen on the streets. A strange feeling to strut around the city and only pass by guards. On the other hand, there are also many of them, and they do their job, I must say.

If I pull my camera out to a place where I should not, there is flux after a guard - hey, where did he come from? - which clearly signals that I do well to pack the camera away unless I ask for trouble.

On the street there are lots of cameras and often I forget how much surveillance there is in this country. One day, in a momentary frenzy, I jump on one of the statues that fill the city. Cures down it inappropriately while one of the Australian girls takes a picture. Line Hansen you live life dangerously - when do you learn to think BEFORE you act? We sneak on lightning fast in the hope that no one has noticed my misdeed.

Later in the week, I will also receive an email that, in the second after, causes cold sweat on the forehead. I remember the government monitoring all communication over the net. But does not the government have bigger problems to take care of than an innocent backpackers complaint about this country's quirks?

In addition to all online communication being monitored, sites like Facebook, Twitter and many media sites are a closed country. Human Rights Watch also describes Turkmenistan as one of the most oppressive regimes in the world.

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Diet - cleaning - travel - Ashgabat

Cleaning madness

In addition to the many guards, I meet in droves 'cleaner-women', who primarily fill the otherwise empty street scene. All of these women have either a shovel, broom or cloth in their hand doing some manual work. For example, it seems completely crazy in this highly polished and in a way modern city that there are 14 (!) Cleaner women on their knees with their own little sponge down in a fountain in the process of cleaning the tiles.

The contrasts in this country are enormous. On the way to Ashgabat, we passed small towns, which developmentally are at least 100 years behind. There is no doubt about how the oil and gas money in this country is distributed.

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Turkmenistan - fountain - travel - Ashgabat

Asocial in Ashgabat

We visit an underground lake that lies 65 meters underground inside a cliff where a hot spring has its source. A spectacular experience when you ignore the duel shit and the sulfur-smelling water, but a dip was needed now that we were here.

Since my flight is unfortunately canceled, I have 4 extra nights in Ashgabat - juhuu and thumbs up! The few Russian words I have learned in Central Asia do not go far enough. And those 4 days probably hold the record for the most antisocial days in my life.

Apart from the German Heinz, who does business in Turkmenistan, I do not talk to anyone. But in return get time to immerse myself in the coming months of travel in Myanmar and Laos.

I can feel that it's the right time to Move on. I am now starting to look forward to warmer skies, green landscapes and exotic fruits.

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Turkmenistan - textiles, Ashgabat - travel

Luxury in Turkmenistan

The morning before departure, I take a taxi to the nicest and most expensive hotel in the city, where an overnight stay costs around 2000 kroner. The only place in town - besides a shopping mall - where internet is available.

I put on my finest backpacker outfit and put on makeup for the occasion. And crossing fingers that they let me in. I ask the taxi driver to park a good distance away from the hotel as I can in no way board such a hotel in a dilapidated rusty Lada.

The extravagant breakfast buffet is taken. Including smoked salmon, freshly squeezed beetroot juice and small spandauer-like cakes - while I suck everything I can on the hotel's relatively fast internet connections. Ahhh…

Once in a while one has to pamper oneself and my time had come. With my stomach full and my batteries freshly charged, I was driven to the airport and soon set off for Southeast Asia and new exciting adventures.

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Nice trip!

mosque, Ashgabat - travel

What to see in Turkmenistan? Sights and attractions

  • Gas crater 'Door to hell'
  • The pure marble city of Ashgabat - also spelled 'Ashgabat'
  • Gypjak Mosque
  • Turkmenistan's Carpet Museum
  • Turkmenistan Monument to Independence
  • Parthian fortress in Nisa

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About the travel writer

Line Hansen

Line started her travel life as a teenager by going on various charter holidays with her friends, which kick-started her desire to travel. Has always been driven by a great longing as well as urge to experience the world, and see what is hiding in other countries. After the teenage years, it has always been with a backpack around and preferably on a "low-budget".

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