b e y o n d the mark.
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Sunday, August 15, 2004

Photos from Turkmenistan

Ashgabat -- The golden statue of President Niyazov (Turkmenbashi) on top of the Arch of Neutrality.

Ashgabat -- A larger shot of the whole Arch of Neutrality. Supposedly the three-legged base is supposed to represent the stability of the Turkment cooking pot.

Ashgabat -- If I were a dictator, I'd have a massive copy of my book in my capital city like Niyazov does in Berzengi!

Karakum Desert, Turkmenistan -- There seems to be two ways to get places in Turkmenistan: camel or Lada.

Ashgabat -- Despite the cult around Niyazov, a small statue of Lenin remains in Ashgabat.

Karakum Desert, Turkmenistan -- A traditional yurt, a large round tent found across Central Asia.

Khiva, Uzbekistan -- A telpek, the traditional Turkmen hat made out of wool over a skull cap.

Khiva, Uzbekistan

Saturday, August 14, 2004


It’s a sweltering temperature even though it is now well past midnight. The air terminal is as sparsely populated as the city it serves seems to be; the building could be seen to be as important to the country as the ministries that dot the downtown landscape, it lacks the same style that defines the capital of this odd desert kingdom.

In the heat I elected to part with some of my souvenir-dedicated Manat in order to get a small bottle of water to make the wait until my ship back to the Free World lets me board. A group of men opt for that other clear liquid so cherished in this part of the world: vodka. Otherwise the scene is typical for such a place in Central Asia: businessmen, or as they call them biznismen. There’s no buziniswomen for this is the new wild west of overnight wealth and an elite that seems to have gone from Lenin’s rags to free enterprise’s riches. The room is dotted with the tired and weary, some in that tacky nouveau-riche attire that would fit this town so well, others in the sort of poorly put together business dress that the stereotypical government worker would have. French music vides are fed by satellite to those waiting while some elect to pass the time browsing over the souvenir kitsch stand in the corner complete with overpriced and low quality tuk-muks, or traditional Turkmen hats.


Over a year ago I remember a Lufthansa pilot in one of those normal mid-flight spiels to update the passengers pointing out Ashgabat out the window. I don’t remember his words exactly but still remember him stopping just short of laughing when he mentioned the bright lights being the Turkmen capital. The other day the glow in the desert was just as visible on the horizon, like some sort of peculiar electric show. Once I was in the city late that night I saw just how bright it was and that my first impressions of the place a year ago had not been skewed by the pilot’s tone. It was bright, really bright. Facades of all the buildings were lit up and for no apparent reason. Trees with lights seemed popular; neon signs hanging of wires strung between lampposts were everywhere. On takeoff from Ashgabat that same strange and overwhelming brightness was there again. While I’ve never been to Las Vegas, the electric feel of Ashgabat by night is how I would imagine it to be. At first glance the city looked like Honest Ed Mirvish’s landmark store at Bloor and Bathurst in Toronto.

A woman who was in my van from the border town of Dashoguz was kind enough to try and sort out a taxi to a guesthouse that I wished to go to. The trouble began there. I had no address, only a mark I had copied into my map from another. Describing a location in a foreign location could be simple enough with this if the street names had not been changed about a dozen times since independence. Whereas in other post-Soviet states changed the most offensive street names once, usually shortly after independence, Turkmenistan has seen them change repeatedly, and most if not all are now numbered in the 2000s. The President in Turkmenistan has fashioned himself as some sort of god-like figure and given himself the name Turkmenbashi. His real name is Niyazov and he’s an old-school communist who was a lap-dog of the Soviets in Moscow until he was cut off and let loose on his desert fiefdom.

One would think that if you were in the capital city of a country where there is a giant golden statue of the President who rotates in order to face the sun it would be easy to get to simply on account of it being just so strange. Think again. There seemed to be no way I could communicate that this was the way I wanted to go and as the speeds increased on the drags between lights I figured it was time to get out. Only the universal taxi driver language of opening the car door while it was moving seemed to get the message across. All of this racing cost 15000 Manat – about $3 at the official rate or $0.60 at the real rate. Not wanting to put my life in the hands of another crazed taxi I began searching for this elusive and likely illegal guesthouse. Ashgabat’s main roads radiate from the giant Arch of Neutrality where the President’s gold statue turns to face the sun. Once I could establish another point on the map in the sea of low rise white buildings I figured I was able to get across the main square and over the neighbourhood I was looking for. The police already seemed to be on edge and it was only my going into a high-priced hotel that I had managed to shake them.

As I walked towards the Arch of Neutrality just how strangely surreal this city and country really were hit me. It was all so manufactured, so fake and quite strange. When we were driving into the city my thought was that some of the buildings looked a bit like some sort of alien settlement. The drive all day through the bleak desert combined with the actual architecture made it seem like at any minute some strange Vulcan would emerge from one of these strange buildings. When I got to the edge of the square in front of the arch I was amazed to see the massive police presence. Earlier while in the taxi I had seen police around the city and at one point twelve marching together in rows of three but here at the centre of the regime, it seemed too far too strong a presence even for some crazed novelist writing of futuristic police states. I got about 50 meters across the square before getting detained. I knew he was after me so stretched my stride a little to try and keep ahead until I head the clap of his shoes speed to the point where I knew he was running after me. When I turned out of nowhere this one guy had turned into four and they had brought along two of their comrades in civilian dress. An hour later I was released, but only after asking to use the phone and promptly dialing the number to the US embassy and then having the phone hung up on me as my finger went around on the old rotary phone’s dial for the sixth and last number. Of course I still had to get back across that same square and as my detention had been completely arbitrary I had not got the OVIR paper that was the initial excuse for taking me away. It was a long walk – the police don’t seem to have any cars. Before I could get back to the square and through it I was held up only twice by the police but the look on the faces of the other old recruits seemed as though they wanted to get me but couldn’t because they were too afraid of being disciplined from staying from the exact spot where they had been instructed to stand for the night. Surely my pack with various things tied to the outside combined with what must have been a comical look on my face didn’t calm their nerves. Most of them young conscripts and I wondered whether they had ever seen a foreigner before.

On one of the roads that leads away from the Arch of Neutrality I started looking for this guesthouse of sorts. As I mentioned, the street names have been changed numerous times and construction of various monolithic government buildings also seemed to have upset the road plan as it was in 2000, when my map was printed. After going nervously up one small road and upsetting a dog at one plan I tried to establish what the name of the street was and if it was once called the name that I was looking for. I found a man sleeping outside the door of what could have been some small government agency. The building itself was small but lit up and flew a large Turkmen flag. Just then a young guy appeared on the balcony above, a spoke good English. He knew nobody by the name I was looking for and my second choice a little further away left him with the same blank look on his face. I decided to turn the corner there and start looking for my second choice and a block further down a landmark that another traveler had told me about, the Embassy of Saudi Arabia, appeared. I had been told that three doors down from the embassy was this second option. Just then the guy who had appeared on the balcony came up behind me offering first to help and then to take me in. It was almost three o’clock.

Mohammad, 18, had learned to English in the classroom in Turkmenistan but had not had any time speaking it until he got to the United States to go to college in California two years ago. He explained that he would be spending the next day getting his visa sorted out at the US embassy as he was due to fly back Saturday. Without much more real conversation I went to bed.

The problem with staying with people when traveling is that generally speaking they are more excited about the whole thing than you are and you get no sleep. To no surprise I was woken up at 7.30, after a much too short four and a half hour rest. Time to face the day and see the absurdity that is Ashgabat. Our first destination would be the US embassy and then on to see the sights.

We crossed back near the Arch where one of the police that had given me so much trouble was still standing on duty. His smile was greeted with the same steely look he had given me just a few hours before. In the daylight I could see just how strange the place was. Since 1995 there have been scores of buildings made from white marble built all over the city. This centerpiece is the arch which is really a giant spire rising from a three-legged base. Next to that is the President’s main palace and the Majlis, or parliament. Most of the government buildings are in a strange modern looking style with eastern domes. Apartment blocks still in white marble stuck out from around the periphery. All the buildings flew the Turkmen flag, making a scene that in many ways looked like the view from the old Soviet Union.

Later in the day we would go out to Berzengi, a newly developed area of the city where there a handful of massive buildings, including one that looks like a giant golden plunger that houses the National Museum and another which is a giant model of Turkmenbashi’s book, Ruhnama. It was when we were walking around the grounds here that Mohammad and I started to have a sort of real conversation.

It started regularly enough with my remarking that all the trees in Ashgabat must need a fair bit of water. Mohammad replied by saying that the government had committed to planting two million trees in this town in the middle of the desert. I asked where the water came from and Mohammad replied we have many fountains in Ashgabat so there must be enough water. Later on, almost out of the blue, Mohammad just said “you know, I don’t really like the government here so much”. Suddenly the country seemed more free to me as it would seem to me that people wouldn’t say such things otherwise. But, just minutes later the warnings that Mohammad gave me made me think again about adjusting my opinion. He warned me not to point at anything at all, because people would know we were talking about it. He then went on to say that we should not use Turkmenbashi’s name and instead say things like the ‘ruler’ so that those who could not understand English would not pick up that we were talking about him. From then on the conversation could not exactly be characterized as really open, but we seemed to quickly develop a bit of an understanding and a repertoire of euphemisms developed quickly.

Later in the day I was able to go up the Arch of Neutrality and see the strangeness of Ashgabat from 20 meters up where the emptiness of one whole quarter of the city is really striking. I took a photo of the old Presidential palace and nearly lost my camera after a run-in with the police. Before long it was time to get moving to the airport and out of this Stalinist-neon lit white marble insanity. Thank God.

Photos at last!

Kokand, Uzbekistan -- Young boys outside a madressa, all seemingly quite curious about my camera. Kokand lies in the Fergana valley and is probably the second most important religious city in Uzbekistan after Bukhara; the banned Uzbek Islamist party has most of its support here.

Bukhara, Uzbekistan -- Kids slide down the roof a tomb in Bukhara. Uzbeks still seem to have quite a few children despite the continuing economic difficulties.

Bukhara, Uzbekistan -- A mosque lit up just after sunset. Bukhara has a sizeable old town virtually covered in old mosques and madressas. While Khiva rivals it in overall effect on the visitor, the fact that so many people live in Bukhara makes it a really interesting and spectacular place to visit.

Kabul, Afghanistan -- Alden and I at Camp Julien, the main Canadian camp in Kabul.

Tashkent, Uzbekistan -- The horribly ugly Palace of the Friendship of Peoples in Tashkent. It's a concert hall of sorts with a massive paved area in front. A monument stands there to a Soviet-era hero who supposedly took in 14 orphans during WWII. Of particular interest to me was that a spire in fron of this building still had all the crests of the old Soviet republics and the one of the Soviet Union. Generally speaking, Uzbekistan has made a clear break with the past and quickly got rid of all the Soviet-era monuments after it gained its independence while the other Central Asian republics have been slower to make changes and have not had the same enthusiasm for toppling Lenin.

On the road to Andijan, Uzbekistan --A common sight in Central Asia is roadside melon stands. Turkmenistan even has a national holiday to celebrate the melon (But Turkmenistan does a lot of strange things).

Tashkent, Uzbekistan -- A massive monument of a soldier with a rifle stands in front of the Uzbek military museum in the suburbs of Tashkent.

Samarkand, Uzbekistan -- The spectacular Registan in Samarkand. Three madressas face a central courtyard. Samarkand's buildings are massive and quie ornate but are set in an otherwise modern Soviet city making a visit there quite different from one to Khiva or Bukhara. Of course while Samarkand lacks the overall effect of either Khiva or Bukhara, the individual buildings of interest in Samarkand are across the board far more impressive than anything in the rest of the country.

Tashkent, Uzbekistan -- Like all self-respecting big former Soviet cities, Tashkent has a space needle. Here's me in front of it. A trip to the observation post half-way up to look though the filthy windows costs $0.60.

Tashkent, Uzbekistan -- A statue of Timurlane in central Tashkent where a bust of Marx stood before independence.

Margilan, Uzbekistan -- A woman selling typical Central Asian bread which is great frsh out of the oven but goes stale quite quickly. Sellers usually keep their stock in baby carriages and are re-stocked through the day by young guys on bicycles with giant trays over the handlebars. As soon as you cross the mountains in Afghanistan the type of bread changes from the really flat kind seen in Iran and similar to that in Pakistan and even India to this kind which looks a little like pizza crusts. Some locals will eat meals with the main dish just served in the middle of the bread which acts as a sort of plate.

Back in Canada

I arrived back Friday afternoon. I will be getting some stuff up about Turkmenistan and some photos from the last few weeks that I was unable to upload in Uzbekistan.

Mike emailed me a link to thisBBC article about Turkmenistan's president and his proposed ice palace. I have now seen first hand just how ridiculous some of this guy's excesses are and experienced just how hot the country is. I'll be putting photos up of the Arch of Neutrality, the world's biggest fountain and the giant monument to his book in the strange suburb of Ashgabat called Berzengi.

Friday, August 13, 2004

Heading home...

I left the craziness of Ashgabat behind earlier this morning. I will post something about it when I get back to Canada...it really is a very strange place.


Tuesday, August 10, 2004

Looking forward to the plane food...

Did I mention how awful Central Asian food is in any of my posts? I must have, but to put it in perspective, that wonderful Lufthansa and Air Canada cuisine is looking real good right now. Yum...rubber chicken.

Sorry, no pictures

I have maybe 10 or 12 pictures to put up but the connection is too slow and expensive for my patience and wallet.
I'll post them here when I get back to Canada as I doubt it will be possible before then.



I recently talked about the information dirt-road here in Uzbekistan. Things have remained much the same over the past few days, with Internet access hard to come by. And, the curious obsession with getting only perfect US dollars has left me a little short on money. I have what should be plenty of money left provided I can change my last $100 bill. Because I have been worried about being able to get my money changed, I haven’t been looking too hard for internet access as it has become a luxury I’m not sure I can afford! I would find it funny if it weren’t for the fact that if I can’t change it, I will run out of money for sure. I usually like to pick up some old Soviet-era paraphernalia when I see it, but for now these are things I can’t afford. It's this sort of stuff that I'll keep in a drawer until I'm an old man and then I'll put them on my lapel to complete the 'crazy old man' look. One completely unsympathetic woman told me I could use the bill for a nice meal; as meals generally cost no more than a dollar or two my response to here wise-ass remark is not really suitable for writing here.

Samarkand was crawling with tourists, both independent and in groups. I wasn’t really expecting so many, mostly because Uzbekistan isn’t the easiest country to get to and getting a visa can be a bit of a hassle, particularly outside of the region. Samarkand is probably the worst for this, and the hassle because of the flood of tourists is particularly bad there. While the government here doesn’t do much to respect religion, I would have hoped that foreigners would show a little more care to how they act in what are still working religious buildings. I can’t imagine people visiting churches in Europe to dress so revealingly or smoke, or yell across to one another, so I don’t see why they do it here. Of course I have to admit that usually when there are lots of tourists it is for good reason. Uzbekistan has quite a few tourists, but deservedly so.

However, while one can’t blame the people for trying to eek out a meager living, the tactics employed, combined with the complete lack of regulations on where and when they can try to do business spoils the atmosphere in some places. Moreover, while in other countries, poorer countries, the prices are similarly inflated but the difference here seems to be that the people take foreigners for idiots with no idea as to what the real price should be. For example, in India, the first price for a widget might be five times the regular price, but all through the negotiations to arrive at the final price there is a tacit understanding by both parties that the other side knows what they’re thinking, and both sides see it as only a means to an end, the proper way of doing things. It’s all just part of a big game, full of jokes and laughter. Here, the process can often be completely hostile. If something is 1000% of the real price, attempts to have it lowered to something more reasonable are met with hostility and while this is by no means the rule, often there is little willingness to discuss the real price amicably. If in India and other places this process is a game as I called it, here it really is a fight.

All of that aside, people in the streets do tend to be quite nice, provided you have no reason to be dealing with them and they have no reason to be dealing with you. As soon as there is some real issue to deal with beyond exchanging simple pleasantries, a handshake and a smile, the atmosphere too often becomes poisoned. I hope this feeling I have is due mostly to the influence of the Soviets and because I’m getting ready to go home. Also, I would say it is quite natural to compare the attitude of the people to other people I’ve met on this trip and other people I’ve met seem to have done the same. While there are exceptions to every rule, the impressions people have of Uzbeks seem to be directly related to where people have been before, both on their current trip and others before. Those who have flown in recently seem to be most positive while those who have come overland from other places are less enthusiastic. One thing that seems to be widely agreed upon is that the people here tend to be quite glum and rarely seem to smile. I’ll blame the Soviets for that!

Despite my complaints of too many tourists, Samarkand turned out to be quite the place with massive mosques and madressas dotted around the city. There is little of the old city remaining, with most of the interesting sights in the middle of an otherwise modern city. I had always been told the Samarkand was similar to Esfahan in Iran; most of the big Islamic buildings are larger though less ornate, and there is nothing similar to Esfahan’s King’s Square (Emam Khomeini Square). The Registan, with three madressas facing in towards a central square of sorts is close, though while the buildings themselves are more massive, the overall size of it is less awe-inspiring.

From Samarkand I moved on to Bukhara, west about three and a half hours. On arrival I asked for a street that was close to a guesthouse that had been recommended. I didn’t realize that the street itself was named after a mosque about 14 kilometers outside the city. About half way there I realized where we were going and rather than getting out and turning back I continued and was thankful I did. It was later in the afternoon when I got there, so the light on the building and sunflowers around made it quite beautiful.

Bukhara, unlike Samarkand has a real old city at the core with a modern city on the outside. People still live in the centre city, amongst what seems like hundreds of old Islamic buildings. A handful of the buildings are quite spectacular but what is most amazing is just the number of them and the scale of them all. It seems like around each corner another old mosque or medressa hides. The larger and better preserved or restored ones have the typical tourist shops inside; the lesser ones remain empty or have people with small stands selling goods catering to local people. Of course much of the city has been restored, surprisingly much of during the Soviet era. The Bolsheviks did tear down lots of buildings in the 1920s, but later on the remaining ones seemed to have got some attention from the Soviets.

A number of times I’ve come across older men who can speak German because they had served in East Germany with the Red Army. Some Polish guys I met in Dushanbe were amazed to have found an old man who knew their country quite well, even some small towns. The other day in Bukhara this ancient looking guy called me over. He had this Buddha-like look to him, completely round and the whites of his eyes just barely visible. From his hand gestures I understood that he had fought in World War II and had been seriously injured. He pointed repeatedly to a bunch of places on his body and with his shirt unbuttoned in the heat, there was a massive crooked scar was visible on his torso. From what I could understand he was in Germany for nine years, presumably first during the war and later on stationed in the East.

I’m in Khiva now after taking a six-hour cramped minibus through the desert from Bukhara to a place called Urgench and from there a taxi here. It is about 30km from Urgench to Khiva and believe it or not, there is a trolleybus going the whole way though a bunch of farmland. So far Khiva seems much like Bukhara, though more artificial in many respects because there aren’t the same number of people who live right in the old city.

I arrived in Khiva late Monday and will get going early tomorrow (Wednesday) for the border with Turkmenistan. The first Canadian traveler I’ve met on this trip I met last night here.

From what I’ve heard, Ashgabat (the capital of Turkmenistan) is a very hot ten-hour ride through the desert from the border, and just getting there will take a few hours from here, so it will no doubt be a long, long day. I plan on taking a good look around in the craziness of Ashgabat Wednesday night and Thursday. The plan is to catch my flight home early Friday morning, stopping in Germany and then on to Canada. Generally speaking I don’t like to move so fast, with only two nights in Samarkand, one in Bukhara, two here and one in Ashgabat, but I wanted to get to see these places but also decided it was time to get home so I was forced to pick up the pace. Unfortunately I had to cut out a trip to the Aral Sea, or more accurately where the Aral Sea once was a day’s journey North-West of Khiva.

But, if I saw everything I would have no excuse to come back.

Turkmenistan isn’t exactly the epitome of a vibrant democracy with all the normal requisites such as freedom of speech or press. Internet access is hard to come by there and only for a ridiculously high price at the Sheraton in Ashgabat. I’ll be sure to look for access but don’t expect to be online again until I get out of Turkmenistan. There’s a $25 departure tax payable in Ashgabat and if I still have my tarnished $100 bill and they don’t take it there, look for me in a Turkmen jail on August 16th, the day after my visa expires.