Friday, September 28, 2012

Strange Woman Abroad: Turkmenistan - The Prologue

Flag of Turkmenistan. Wikipedia.org.
Greetings! I decided to finally organize my notes on the interesting places that vertebrate paleontology, and specifically vertebrate ichnology, has taken me over the past few years and turn them into blog posts. I'll start with my trip to Turkmenistan, mostly because I wrote journal entries with creating a blog in mind, and because it is one of the most culturally interesting places I have ever visited. Also, I want to give a presentation on our trip to Turkmenistan at the local "Itchy Feet" travel presentations hosted by the Tumbler Ridge Public Library and the Wolverine Nordic and Mountain Society, so this will give me a great opportunity to organize my thoughts.
Coat of Arms of Turkmenistan. Wikipedia.org

Here is a bit of background. A friend and colleague of ours, Federico Fanti (yup, the very same one that found BC's first hadrosaur skeleton with us) has been working on a track site in the Koytendag Nature Reserve of the Lebap Province in Turkmenistan with his doctoral student since 2011. Wait, you've not heard of Turkmenistan? Here's a map of the country with its neighbors...

A new pin in the world map! Lonelyplanet.com.
...and here is a link to the BBC website archive with a series of news articles on the country. Take a moment to read some of these articles. Yes, I am now renaming the month of February Maia. You'll learn to love it.

I digress. The government of Turkmenistan was very supportive of the work done on the dinosaur tracks by Dr. Fanti, and the track site is considered by the government one of the key heritage and natural resource features within the KNR. The government of Turkmenistan is interested in designating the KNR as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.


Lebap Province, Turkmenistan. The Koytendag Nature Reserve is within the most eastern projection. Wikipedia.org.

The government of Turkmenistan invited representatives from UNESCO to visit the sites, accompanied by a consortium of international researchers in biology, karst geology and ecology, and vertebrate ichnology. This was in conjunction with an international conference planned by the government to promote the Turkmen culture. Richard McCrea and I joined Dr. Fanti, Dr. Martin Lockley, and Dr. Louis Jacobs as part of the paleontology and paleoichnology expertise. We were to accompany the UNESCO representatives, representatives from the Turkmenistan National Academy of Sciences, and the rest of the national and international experts on an expedition to the Koytendag Nature Reserve to assess and document the paleontology resources from May 23 - 27, and then participate in the two day conference held in Turkmenabat (capital of the Lebap Province) from May 28 - 29.

Rich and I decided that this was an opportunity we could not pass up. We were quite honored to be asked to participate in such an expedition, and we were also curious about the process of establishing World Heritage Sites and GeoParks. We also decided to take the opportunity on our return from Turkmenistan to visit friends and colleagues in Germany.  We booked our tickets and tried to figure out what we needed to bring on our adventure.

What style of packer are you? Are you a minimalist or a "for want of a nail" packer? Does your packing style change depending on your intended activity? We were a bit in a bind. First, in all of our correspondence with our contact in the Academy of Sciences, we were told we were participating in a scientific expedition. Naturally, I packed hiking boots, my CamelPak, long sleeved shirts and long pants, extra socks, digital camera, digital video camera, computer, external hard drive, iPad (for email), and the various gear needed to collect track data. I also had to pack "going to meeting" clothes for the conference and any potential meetings with government officials. That includes a separate pair of shoes - hiking boots do not go with a pinstripe skirt, no matter how field-tough you are. Second, other than the climate of Turkmenistan (hot and dry) and predominant culture of the country (Muslim), I could find very little information on what was considered acceptable casual dress for an international woman. Would I be required to cover my hair? Was a knee-length skirt acceptable? Were foreigners expected to conform to the local style of dress? Would my shiny red shoes overly offend?

You know these shoes are up to no good.
We were also informed that we would be outfitted with expedition clothing on arrival: hat, jacket, shirt, boots, and trousers. I debated not packing my regular hiking boots, but didn't want to be the one party-pooper who couldn't keep up with the rest of the team because I had an owie on my foot from chaffing boots. That being said, I decided to be a "for want of a nail" packer. I had a carry-on and a full-sized suitcase. Granted, there was some room within the suitcase for souvenirs, but it was still going to be a bloody heavy mess to carry around.

We left Canada on May 19th. We flew from Grande Prairie to Calgary, Calgary to Frankfurt (a rather productive hop across the pond, as the on-flight entertainment was down and I both started and finished my conference presentation), and then Frankfurt to Ashgabat, Turkmenistan. There was a short stop at Baku in Azerbaijan, but it was only for half an hour and we had no opportunity to leave the plane.

We landed in Ashgabat at 10:00PM local time on May 20th.

Will our heroes(?) see the rumored cobras and scorpions that supposedly crawl willy-nilly through the city? Will my overpacking come back to haunt me? Will we survive our brush with airline "cuisine"? Stay tuned for the next zany installment of "Strange Woman Abroad: Turkmenistan"!

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