Field Notes:
Turkmenistan
- October 2017

Some jottings from Koryo's most recent Turkmenistan tour

We entered Turkmenistan using the visa on arrival. A letter of invitation is required to obtain the visa and you need to have a printed copy with you when you get to the airport. Applying for the letter of invitation for Turkmenistan is straightforward through a travel company, but sometimes applications are rejected. If you are rejected one time, you can always try again, so apply early. One person on our tour had been rejected three times, only to obtain it on his fourth try.

At the airport the visa issuing is very straightforward (look right before immigration) and the green Turkmenistan visa is affixed in your passport on the spot. As always the price of these visas varies by your nationality and prices are subject to change. You can pay for your visa in USD.

Turkmen immigration is like a cyborg-esque. First a robotic machine checks you in, scanning your passports, eyes, and fingerprints. An immigration officer, dressed in green and sitting in a futuristic cubical, finishes the process.

Our tour was made up of 38 travelers from over ten different countries, divided in two groups each with their own local tour guide and transport. While I am not here to brag, our local guides in Turkmenistan are some of the best in the world. This is no exaggeration.

This year our trip visited followed the following route: Ashgabat-Darvaza-Balkanabat-Yangkyala Canyon-Tukmenbashi.

Sightseeing begins almost immediately begins on arrival to the Ashgabat airport, itself said to have cost around 2.3 billion US dollars. The terminal takes the shape of a huge bird of prey and it is even lit at night to give the impression aloft on hot desert winds. The airport serves as a convenient and comfortable transfer point for cross-Eurasian flights. There is a second terminal, also shaped like a bird, for VIP arrivals. Put a bird on it.

Out tour’s start this year coincided with the end of 2017 Asian Indoor and Martial Arts Games, it’s motto: Health, Inspiration, Friendship! For this year’s games, the city unveiled a flotilla of shiny white new stadiums, constructed a cost of around 5 billion US dollars, and new apartment buildings to house the athletes. These new apartments will hit the market in the coming weeks. Government workers get a discount on apartments.

The games were a success for Turkmenistan, winning the most gold, silver, and bronze medals – 89, 76, and 80, respectively - across all sports for a grand total of 245. The Turkmenistan government awarded Turkmen gold medalists with new apartments and silver medalists with new cars. China and Iran won the next amount of golds at 42 and 36, while Uzbekistan had the second best grand total at 131.One North Korean athlete took part in the games.

Ashgabat’s citizens gave up the drink in solidarity with the athletes by taking part in a city-wide prohibition during the games. Yes, Ashgabat, often compared to hard-drinking cities of Las Vegas and Pyongyang, went dry for two weeks in a city-wide prohibition (at least on paper). No (visible) alcohol in restaurants and grocery stores for the first days of our tour, although this was overcome by a few teapots of special tea-vodka served in teapots in a small nearby café.

North of Ashgabat, we are happy to report that the Darvaza Gas Crater is still burning as it has for the past four decades. Burn, baby, burn!

At a bookstore in Ashgabat, we were unable to find a comprehensive Turkmen-English dictionary but did find a Korean-English dictionary. There are many similarities between the grammar of Turkic language and Korean, although the vocabulary is almost totally different. Some speculate that the Chinese word for ‘lion’ (狮子 shizi) comes from Persian ‘sher’. The Turkmen word for ‘lion’ is ‘şir’, likely from the same Persian source. The Korean for lion, derived from the Chinese, is 'saja'.

Also at the bookstore, we also found a children’s book called The Naughty Cockerel. Koryo Tours’ General Manager’s name is Simon Cockerell. Some of you may know him.

Russian Music Box is by far the most popular channel in the country. The music videos are hypnotic. Both Russian techno music and traditional Turkmen music are surprisingly good for driving long-distances.

A lot of people think that Ashgabat doesn’t have many people since the city, in places, seems almost abandoned. In a country, where gasoline costs 1 manat (about 28 cents per liter on the official exchange rate; 15 center per liter on the black market exchange rate) people tend not to walk around too much. The Turkmens have exchanged horses for cars.

Black lining on apartment windows give the city an appearance of relative quiet. These are used to weaken the bright desert sun. That said, the rapid construction of new apartments across the city means not all have been yet occupied.

A thoroughbred Akhal-Teke horse costs between 15-30,000 USD. One wonders how the cost of forage crops compares to gasoline. These Chinese in antiquity knew Akhal-Teke horses as ‘blood-sweating horses’ (汗血寶馬) or ‘heavenly horse’ (天馬). The Chollima, or ‘Thousand-League Horse’, of Korean (and Chinese) legend likely was an Akhal-Teke. They have good endurance.

We saw some free roaming Akhal-Teke horses in the scrub land near Yangykala Canyon. The leader of the herd was a white horse. It looked like Deckard's dream unicorn in Blade Runner.

Do Turkmenistan immigration robots dream of electric Akhal-Teke?

Camels often make use of human roads. Is there a reason for this?

The Yangykala canyon is carved from an ancient seabed. The plateaus above the canyon are capped with more weather resistant rocks, protecting the softer sedimentary layers below. It is a stratiagraphic dream. You can find many fossil and fossil imprints here.

The Kov-Ata underground cave is the home to a natural sulfuric pool and many bats. ‘Bat’ means ‘strength’ in Turkmen.

Those interested in natural history must visit the National History Museum. Like any former Socialist state, the country was extensively surveyed by Soviet scientists. It has a grand collection of rocks and taxidermy.

In Balkanabat, the local disco is a happening place on a Wednesday night. A local Russian man on the street asked us why we would ever visit Balkanabat. He obviously hadn’t heard of the Wednesday disco.

In 2018 Koryo Tours will once again offer two Turkmenistan trips: Turkmenistan - May Tour (May 12-19; from 2,300 USD) and the Turkmenistan - October Tour (September 29-October 6; from 2,500 USD). Contact us for more details!

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