„Hello Sir, did you take any pictures or stop?“, I was asked by a policeman at the checkpoint just outside Ashgabat. „Of course not! (Your collegues at the border were quite precise and clear about not stopping for over 40km and not taking any pictures after searching my bags for 3 hours and ripping me off.)“ ‚Not allowed to take pictures‘ is normal in Ashgabat, the capital of Turkmenistan. You are also not allowed to walk on certain paths, rest in the shade of a tree, smoke openly or talk to locals. This is a strange place. The first person I saw, as I entered the city, was cleaning a road sign. I don‘t know why, there were not many cars on the perfectly tarred 8-lane road. A huge difference to Iran, where 8 cars drive in one lane next to each other. But the road signs are important, I guess. On each corner of every crossroad stands a policeman checking if you‘re following the rules; cameras everywhere to back them up. The marble buildings have shaded windows and golden roofs or balustrades. Fountains, gardens and trees decorate the streets and squares. But this is desert land, 40° plus, in the shade! No wonder the bus stops are air conditioned. It‘s a mixture between Pyongyang and Las Vegas, some say. But there are no advertisements, so you have to check behind the doors if there‘s a shop or a restaurant. An ice cream was 5 times more expensive as in Iran, but there‘s beer. Thank god there‘s beer; no beer in Iran!
I feel uncomfortable in this dictator‘s playground, although the few people you see in Ashgabat are friendly, not Iranian friendly, more distant. They won‘t sit half way on your lap when you just met them or hug and kiss you goodbye after 15mins. But they like to talk and want to know what you’re up to. Unfortunatly there are not many people in Ashgabat. I think the people of Turkmenistan don‘t like this city either. But of course they won‘t tell, except a taxi driver told me he wished the USSR back.
Getting a visa for this country is hard. You either get a tourist visa with an agency, which will cost you a lot of money and you will be guided/monitored along your trip. Or you can try to get a transit visa. The chance is 50/50 that they‘ll approve your application. So you might think there won‘t be any tourists. But I met about 30 motorcyclists in the middle of the desert far away from any city at the only petrol station on this 600km long road. Like me they are all heading to the famous gas crater named „The Door to Hell“. I‘ve never seen anything like it. The crater is so big you can‘t get a proper photo of it. The Soviets were drilling holes to search for gas. This one collapsed and gas leaked from the ground. The idea was to light it up and let it burn out in a couple of days or weeks. But it didn‘t. It is still burning after 45 years.
Visited in May 2017