Thursday, October 25, 2012

Strange Woman Abroad: Turkmenistan, Day 1

Greetings! The next three posts will be taken directly from the journal I kept while in Turkmenistan.  This first post will describe our initial days in the capital city of Ashgabat, and the first leg of the journey to the Lebap Province and the Koytendag Nature Reserve.

         NOTE: These are my experiences as an invited guest of the Government of Turkmenistan. We were treated very well. I could not find much information online regarding the experiences of tourists/sight-seers who have visited Turkmenistan. If you have visited the country, leave a message regarding your experiences! I would be interested to hear about your trip.

          NOTE #2: I suffered from horrid allergies while I was in Turkmenistan, so for the first three days I was under the influence of decongestants. I likely sound more squirrely than usual. The only editing I've done to the journal entries is to remove the more egregious grammatical and spelling errors. I hope to make up for the remaining errors with many photos. Any of my postscript notes are in brackets. Enjoy!

May 23rd, 2012         Leaving Turkmenabat, 10am local time

I write this as Rich and I trundle our way across the KaraCum Desert out of Turkmenabat. There's a hot pot of loose-leaf green tea, a tray of nuts and dried fruit, a plate of fresh fruit and bottled water  on our small dining table. Liquids and passengers alike are swaying in time to the train's rocking. Rich is fast asleep: we're about 12 hours ahead of our normal schedule. I'm coming down with an allergy-induced cold and am waiting for my allergy tabs to kick in.
I had so many people tell me how pale I looked I had to take a photo. Thanks, Cigarette Smoke Allergy!

We're here as part of an international scientific expedition and conference to assist in the establishment of the track sites (plus the rest of the Koytendag Resource Reserve) in the Koytendag region of Turkmenistan as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. [Please visit my previous post, Strange Woman Abroad: Turkmenistan - Prologue, for the back story.]

An expedition such as this does not start without travel. I won't waste much time talking about the trans-Atlantic hop via AirCanada, the Greyhound of the Skies. We were not serenaded by screaming babies, although at the gate there was a toddler pitching what my Granny would have called a royal fit. He and his mother were flying business class - for once I did not want to be upgraded. We connected in Frankfurt to Baku, arriving in Ashgabat at 11:30pm on the 20th.

Flying into Ashgabat was surreal. The main part of the city was lit up like Las Vegas; many major buildings sported monochromatic lights that regularly changed colour. We left the plane and were shuttled to the customs office. [Obviously, there would be no pictures taken here.] This was the first of many, many buildings we saw displaying a larger than life portrait of the current President, even though the airport is named after the previous President (officially called in English "International Airport named after Sarparmyrat Turkmenbashy the Great"). We waited in line at customs for almost an hour, but we had a chance to observe how foreigners generally enter Turkmenistan. Entry for any reason requires an entry visa of some kind. Most people produced this entry visa - a piece of paper containing all the names of the party. Next, the visitor went to a booth right next to the visa booth labeled "Bank". There the visitor was charged a fee, which when paid allowed for their entry visa to be stamped back at the visa booth. Then the visitor could proceed to the baggage claim through a regular customs gate. Our visa was a Gratis Visa, so we could skip step #2.

Once through customs, we met with Dr. Poladov, the Expedition Leader and Conference Coordinator. He was very welcoming and very happy to see us - we were the first of the foreign party members to arrive. Our bags (handily labeled with large Canadian flag patches) were already on carts for us. We cleared on final customs check and were loaded into a shuttle to take us to the Ak Altyn Grand Hotel (or Oteli Ak Altyn). We checked in (Rich and I were accidentally booked in separate rooms), and then had a briefing in the lobby with Dr. Poladov. He gave us the schedule (no need to go into that here - it will be played out in future posts) and then bid us a good night. We checked out our rooms, showered, changed, and then decided to see what we could grab as a midnight snack (or lunch for our time-zone). We headed out to the Kaktus Cafe, a disco-themed outdoor cafe attached to the hotel.

Here we learned our first interesting Turkmenistan Travel Tip: while every business in the large cities takes US dollars, make sure that this currency is crisp and fresh. Go to the Treasury and get it hot off the press if you have to, but once you do, do not crumple it, fold it, and in the name of the Flying Spaghetti Monster don't dirty it or tear it. We paid for our meal in USD, but the waiter kept coming back to our table for a different bill because the one we gave him was "too old/folded/ripped". Perhaps this is an anti-counterfeiting strategy; I don't know for sure. All I know is that we ran into this problem once more at the Cafe, and once at the money changer. Exchange those USD for some monets [Turkmenistan's currency] - they're good everywhere in Turkmenistan, no matter how worn they look.

We ordered, and while waiting for our meal, we took in the local atmosphere. There was a lit disco ball twirling, two large-screen projectors showing music videos, and quite a lot of nightlife. The dress was not as conservative as I had expected - jeans, tank tops, t-shirts, dresses, and many lengths of skirts were seen. To be honest, some of the really short skirts were worn by women in a very specific line of work, but all in all there were a variety of fashion options. [We didn't feel 100% comfortable taking photos here. No particular reason, but we decided to go with that instinct.] We were propositioned by two neighborhood cats. [Ha! - you thought I was going to say something else, didn't you?] They were very honest about their intentions and would not submit to pets until table scraps were offered.

We went back to our room (well, my room) around 3am local time. Before turning in, we took some pics of the skyline.  

View from our hotel room. Government buildings aglow...

...and changing color...

...and again changing color. The skyline is impressive!
We slept until about 8:30am. We checked out the continental breakfast - fantastic! The three times we've been overseas the hotel breakfasts were bloody phenomenal. Eggs, sausage, potato-cheese dishes, at least three types of fresh pastries, tomatoes (fresh and grilled), cold meat and cheese platter, yogurt, museli, granola, dried fruit and nuts, can stock away enough food to keep you going until dinner and beyond (which comes in handy if no one will take your USDs).

The rest of the 21st is a bit of a blur. We went out on a couple of walks, but spent most of the day sleeping. I did see some local birds, one of them being a Myna.

Acridotheres tristis, the Common Myna.
Interesting Turkmenistan Traveling Tip (TTT)#2: if you, like me, are allergic to cigarette smoke, I'm afraid you're going to suffer. There is only one floor of this hotel that was smoke-free [We did stay in a non-smoking hotel in Turkmenabat]. We also ate at the Kaktus Cafe one more time. Instead of the locally preferred music [techno-hip hop], we heard both Celine Dion and Bryan Adams. Coincidence?

TTT#3: Do you want to access the internet? If you find a reliable way to do it, let me know. We asked at reception about internet and received various answers that all amounted to the same result: no internet. One of the Participants was able to get on for half an hour, but he was the exception. Your cell phone also will not work without a Turkmenistan-specific SIM card. We knew this in advance, and had planned to be ex-communicado for the duration of our visit. However, Rich's cell phone was able to send and receive texts, and could receive some calls, so we kept my dad and Rich's sister informed of our activities.

On the 22nd we saw the arrival of our other party members. Federico and the Italian contingent arrived, as well as several other members. Once they settled in we went on a stroll with Federico, who knows Ashgabat fairly well from his previous visits. We walked past gorgeous parks,
The city parks have ornate paving stones and elaborate light posts.
Brightly colored mosaics feature in most decorative tile work.
Most government buildings feature the name of either the current or past president.

 grand marble-facade buildings, the American Embassy (no pictures allowed, of course), and headed to the largest market in the city. It was mind-boggling to me - so many different food, spice, and miscellany vendors! We sat down at a Piwo (beer) bar, and also got lunch from an open-air wood grill (chicken, lamb, beef, tomatoes, greens, bread).

The downtown part of the city is where we saw both the elaborate gold statues and embellishments, along with a strong city police presence. There were two statues of who I believe were the past and current Presidents, and one statue of a five-headed eagle clutching a large snake in its talons. The Tolkien geek in me could not help thinking about The Watchers at the Gates of Minas Morgul: all the eagle heads were looking in different directions, covering every line of sight. If I can subtly take a photo of this once we are back in Ashgabat, I will. [Unfortunately my stealthy picture attempt resulted in a picture of my sleeve. Rats.]

Many of the items were made from Turkmenistan grown cotton.

The rest of the 22nd was uneventful, as we spent more time sleeping than planned. We did get our Expedition uniforms at 4:30pm in the hotel lobby. The steel-toed black boots will be very useful in the lab back home, but I hope not to offend anyone by not wearing them out hiking. It takes me awhile to break in boots, and I don't want to be the one doing the breaking.

We started bright and early on the morning of the 23rd. Our wake-up call was for 4:00am, but we were out of our rooms and checked out by 3:50am. We just couldn't sleep after all that napping. We also saw a few mini-skirted, high-heeled women leaving the hotel, neighboring disco, and casino with one or two men. One guy even waved and said goodnight to me - I guess he was feeling fairly good.

After all the scientists milled down to the lobby, Dr. Poladov did his best impression of a cat herder and somehow loaded us into the airport shuttles. That was only the beginning of his difficulties. We had to once again clear customs, but this time en mass. We also saw that our entire journey was going to be documented: both media and Expedition-uniformed people were videotaping everything we did. Handy Asia Traveling Tip #1: don't be Canadian. By this I mean don't succumb to the well-conditioned urge to let the person next to you go first. You have to squash that instinct like you would a poisonous spider that tries to nest in your hair. Once you do that, everyone else who is local to the area will stampede your sorry polite self into a puddle of apologetic slime as they rush their way through the queue. 

We flew about an hour from Ashgabat to Turkmenabat. When we landed I saw the cameras setting up again, as well as three people (two men, one woman) in official dress standing right at the bottom of the gangway. We descended, shook hands with the officials, and then were brought to a halt at the metal and marble gate leading out of the runway...and I proceeded to have my mind blown. Standing in a line to the left of the entrance were people in traditional dress. The men were holy men, shaking our hands and bidding us "Salaam". The next in the line were several young women in long, brightly coloured traditional gowns and gold ornamentation holding welcome trays of fruit, nuts and sweets. [It appears I was too blown away to take any photos of this. I also wasn't sure if it would be considered rude.] We then proceeded to the chartered bus (with police motorcade) that took us to the Oteli Jeyhun where our welcome breakfast was hosted. We drew a lot of attention on the drive over. I'm used to being a one-woman spectacle, but usually it's because I've done something klutzy, ditzy, or just plain silly. I'm not used to being a part of an official spectacle. We had the right of way through all the traffic lights, and the streets were cleared for our procession.

The parts of my mind that had survived the previous blowing received the fatal blow: once we were at the entrance to the hotel property, we were greeted with over a hundred traditionally clad men and women singing, playing music, and performing an elaborate and energetic choreographed dance. [I did take a rather poor video of this dance, but for the time being the Video Uploader is fighting with me. I'll work on this.] The entire stage and and entrance was covered with red tapestry-style rugs. We proceeded to breakfast, and then were played out again by the same performers when we left to bus to the train.
Federico Fanti (left) and Martin Lockley (right) next to the emblem for the Expedition. Martin is pointing to the track locality.
The red carpet was literally set out for us and the performance.

We boarded the train and snoodled ourselves in the sleeping cars. Many people fell asleep. This is a logical place to end Part I. I'm going to try to nap and give the allergy meds a chance to work after finishing my pear. Stay tuned! Strange Woman out.

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