Friday, 15 October 2010

Turkmenbashi to Ashgabat

I wake up and decide to read a little more from the Lonely Planet guide book “Be aware that all top range hotel rooms are bugged, as are many offices, restaurants and anywhere that foreigners meet. Reserve sensitive conversations….” Oooops, I probably should have read that before last night…

Feeling more than a little worse for wear following our Vodka session the night before, we make our way downstairs to check out. A Kiwi oil worker dressed in reflective work gear approaches us “Hey! Are you the nut jobs driving the Porsche out in the parking lot from London to Veeeetnam?” Yep, that would be us….. “Its great, I love it! Make sure you get yourself some thermal underwear for China, you’re gonna freeze your nuts off! Its gonna start getting cold around here soon, I’m on the next flight home. Good luck, you’ll need it!”

We jump in the car and head for the desert. Our first stop is for fuel, incredibly cheap fuel. 40 Litres of Turkmenistans finest 95 (80?!) octane, sets me back a shade over £4. Cheaper than water, result. Unfortunately I think it may well have been partly water, because this was to be the start of yet more fuel quality issues…

I couldn’t believe how cheap the fuel was, but our guide explained that up until fairly recently the typical cost was….Get ready for it……$0.02c a Litre. A shade over 1p.

Talking of cheap stuff, here’s an interesting little fact about Turkmenistan….The country is awash with natural gas, because of this the president kindly supplies it free of charge to all homes. But, the country is still very poor - So, to save the cost of a match, people will leave their gas hob burning 24/7 ! Brilliant.

The roads start off great, but as we head out through the sands they turn incredibly bad. The Russians used a very soft pure tarmac to surface the road 40 years ago - Forty years of HGV use later, deep ruts have been ploughed through the tarmac, making the road look more like a ploughed field….Some of it is beyond words, so I’ll just post some photos up - This drive was like a Porsche destruction derby. My biggest concern was bottoming out the underside of the car, specifically the engine, on the peaks of the ridges.

We pass a huge beer factory which appears closed, Angela explains that it was once a thriving company producing some of the countries best beer. One day the police arrived and arrested the owner, he’s never been seen since. I ask why, but she explains that you never know why, in Turkmenistan people just disappear…

Despite the countless pitfalls, after eleven hours of smashing up the car on insanely bad roads, we arrive safely in Ashgabat, the capital of Turkmenistan.

Just short of the city centre, we stop at a stable yard which specialises in breeding the famous ‘Akhal Teke’ horses. These are considered to be the original horse from which all modern breeds descend. I’m no expert on horses, but these really do look entirely different from your average nag. Narrow bodies and heads, long legs, elongated necks and skin so thin you can see the blood beneath it.

The owner is a friendly chap, he asks one of the staff to parade a few of his best horses out in front of us, whilst we make short work of the green tea and dried dates on offer. Becky, a professional rider, jumps straight onto one of the more lively horses and speeds off into the desert, hot on the heals of the yard manager who is riding a famous Ashgabat based race horse. I head back to the car to make yet more minor adjustments to the timing.

With oil and gas prices rocketing year on year, this poor country is beginning to become increasingly wealthy - However…its somewhat eccentric leader decided to use this new found wealth in a rather unusual way. Perhaps it may have been a good idea to start at the bottom - New roads, bridges, hospitals, schools, maybe even a non-corrupt police force?

No….Instead, he’s ploughed hundreds of millions of US Dollars into transforming the capital into a perfectly manicured, OCD clean, glittering jewel of marble and glass. Even dirty cars are illegal in tinsel town, it’s a $50 instant fine….His latest projects include a $63 million artificial river through the city, $17 million for a library in the shape of a book and countless fountains, large sculptures and palaces.

Another ’interesting’ project was to build a 37km concrete staircase into the side of the nearby Kopet Dag mountains, known as the “Walk of Health”. Once a year, the president required all civil servants to walk to the top dressed in suits and ties, he would see them off at the bottom, then fly to the top by helicopter to check they made it OK.

Ashgabat, a new city surrounded by crumbling Soviet infrastructure - Its ironic that you cant actually reach it by road without almost destroying your car!

We check into our hotel and make our way to the English Bar - A very cool little place just down the road from our hotel. Its full of expats and we enjoy the evening sampling local beers alongside staff from the nearby U.S Embassy.

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