5th – 14th June
On the edge of the vast Karakum desert, the Uzbek – Turkmen border point at Farab lies sweltering amidst nothing but oppressive and dusty heat. Luckily it’s easier to get out of Uzbekistan than it was to get in; Turkmenistan however, as might be expected of one of the world’s most secretive countries, takes a little longer.
We meet Maksat, our compulsory guide, at the border. The government still hasn’t got over its paranoia concerning foreign tourists since the attempted assassination of former president Sapurmat Niyazov (aka Turkmenbashi) – blamed on foreigners – and independent travel is severely limited.
27 years old, stoutly built with short cropped dark hair and a permanently cheeky expression, Maksat as a guide is everything that Chinese Queenie wasn’t. He’s on time, for a start, and he’s already filled in our customs declaration forms.
37 stamps, 10 certificates, 0 bribes and 2 hours later, we’re on our way into the Karakum desert, crossing the vast Amu-Darya (Oxus) River for a third and final time. Turkmenistan is 80% desert and one of the world’s driest countries – in the middle of the Karakum it may only rain significantly once every ten years.
There’s little scenery to slow us en-route to Merv, Turkmenistan’s ancient Silk Road city and its finest archaeological site. We arrive at 5pm, it’s still a ferocious 44°C and the wind feels like a hairdryer on full blast.
Merv is a vast collection of mud and brick ruins, once much larger than Samarkand or Bukhara but now being gradually lost to the desert. Covering an area of five square kilometres, we drive along dusty tracks, admiring the forlorn remains of what was once one of the largest cities in the world. In 1221, Genghis Khan’s hordes sacked the city following an ignored ultimatum and all bar 400 of its 300,000 inhabitants were massacred.
Our hotel in Russian Mary is subtly camouflaged amongst an enormous Turkish – Iranian truck stop. We spend the evening chatting with Maksat, consuming numerous vodka shots and excellent shashlik. Maksat is hugely likeable, as well as being encyclopaedic on his country’s history and an excellent decision maker, thanks to a seven year stint in the Turkmen army. We ask him what like was like under Turkmenbashi, one of the world’s most secretive, narcissistic and oppressive dictators, who died suddenly in 2006.
“In Turkmenistan it is a sin to speak ill of the dead – so all I will say is ‘no comment’” he parries diplomatically. “So were you sad when he died?” Charlie asks. “No. I wasn’t. Some people were, but not many”.
Ashgabat - the ‘White City’
The following morning we drive on, six hours and 400km, to Ashgabat the capital. Turkmenistan has the fourth largest reserves of natural gas in the world and the new government is working hard to open up the country to foreign investment. Despite most of the population still living in economic poverty (very different from material poverty) the country’s infrastructure is good.
Arriving in the capital, we can hardly believe our eyes. The city is one huge monument to the megalomania of Turkmenbashi. Golden statues and busts sprout forth from innumerable pinnacles whilst immaculate marble clad apartment blocks, office towers and hotels dominate a totally contrived landscape. The ordinary population is mostly banished to the Soviet era suburbs that until recently were regularly bulldozed to make way for new parks or buildings deifying the president. Shops, too, are a rarity in the city centre - considered ‘untidy’, they are generally confined to the margins.
We’re booked into the Hotel Aziya, one of dozens of new, marble clad monsters that line a hotel dominated avenue to the south of the city. Whilst seemingly vast from the outside, our hotel only has ten rooms – as do most of the other show pony hotels on this strip.
We spend two days in Ashgabat, driving around (it’s far too hot to walk anywhere) constantly open-mouthed at the cult of personality that drove such an egotistical building craze.
Trouble with the PYGGs
Moving on, we drive 600km north-west to the port city of Krasnovodsk (renamed Turkmenbashi in 1993) where we need to catch the ferry across the Caspian Sea to Baku in Azerbaijan.
Once again there’s little to stop for on the journey. Unfortunately the scenery being what it is, Charlie tries to race through and gets stopped twice by the local police (who’s acronym here is ‘PYGG’).
Amazingly, on both occasions he gets off – a first in an ex-Soviet country. Since 2006 the new president, Berdimuhamedov, has initiated numerous positive reforms in this country, including a massive crackdown on corruption. Notably, we come across absolutely no hint of corruption in this country whatsoever – a first since China.
The Turkmenbashi – Baku ferry carries train freight and has no schedule. The five ships only leave port when they are full and, since there are only two rail berths in each port, often get held up for days at sea waiting for a preceding ferry to fill up and vacate its berth.
We arrive in to Turkmenbashi at 6pm, and head straight to the docks. Maksat’s got a friend at the cash-desk who he’s been calling for inside information – all important in this opaque and unreliable world. The latest is that the one ferry in port doesn’t have a load – and there’s no clue as to when one may arrive. Additionally, if a ferry agrees to carry a ‘wet’ load – i.e. oil – then no passengers are allowed on board anyway. We’re heartened by the fact that they’ve at least heard of health and safety out here.
Some instinct tells Maksat that we’ll be on our way tomorrow– we’ve no idea why, but we’re not so fussed. Turkmenbashi is a surprisingly nice place to hang out – a fresh sea breeze, picturesque pastel coloured imperial buildings, bountiful markets, clean beaches and the deep turquoise clarity of the Caspian. We could spend days here happily, if we had too…
BBQ on the beach
Not going anywhere for a while, we buy some fresh sturgeon, vegetables and beer in the market, and then head down to the beach. Maksat grabs some vodka en-route and we enjoy one of our most truly memorable nights of our entire trip – great company, wonderful freshly cooked food and incredible views out across the Caspian.
Numerous toasts are drunk to and we gossip until the sun sets at 9.30, enjoying the cool sea breeze coming off the bay. We go to bed contented - yet quite sad that tonight could be our last night in Central Asia.
Ferry across the Caspian
So it proves to be. By 10 the next morning a dry freight load has arrived for the Dagistan ferry and an hour later we can start the customs and immigration process. Thankfully Maksat guides us through the numerous channels and ensure we’re loaded on the boat by 2pm, before the trains are rolled on (essential as there’s no space otherwise!)
Over the last few weeks we’ve heard dozens of horror stories about this crossing – of massive corruption, cockroaches, days of delays out at sea. We spend fourteen perfectly pleasant hours on board, chatting to the crew, playing nard (an Azeri form of backgammon) with the local Azeri truckers and sleeping in our surprisingly clean and quiet cabin. We really must be the fortunate ones.
Baku’s immigration authorities appear to be as straight and disciplined as their Turkmen counterparts – two hours after we dock in Baku, the trains are rolled off and we drive on to dry land. Really, really amazing luck.
Bring on Baku
Baku is a big, pleasant surprise for us. Its reputation as the world’s most polluted city may have been deserved once but instead of driving into a grim, oil infested and stinky city we find incredible architecture, beautiful (and clean) sea front promenades, an immaculately restored and atmospheric old town and a plethora of trendy new bars and restaurants.
This is Baku’s second oil boom (thanks to the recently completed Baku-Ceyhan pipeline) and it’s receiving a phenomenal facelift – locals and ex-pats we talk to complain it only runs skin-deep but as far as we’re concerned, they’ve done a great job. New classical sandstone columns rub shoulders with Georgian style imperial mansions whilst trendy City types quaff Sancerre in outdoor restaurants on cobbled streets. At face value, there’s little not to like.
The ‘A’ word
We spend a couple of days in Baku, enjoying the civilization, great food and culture whilst simultaneously evading questions about our onward itinerary. We’re off to Georgia next - which is no problem - but after that we’re heading to Armenia – a word that causes a violent reaction from every Azeri we meet.
The two countries are technically still at war over the Armenian-dominated Nagorno-Karabakh region, thanks to years of Russian ‘divide and rule’ meddling in the 1990’s. We never manage a conversation to get a local’s perspective on the 1994 war and the current situation, so strong are their revulsions.
Leaving Baku, we head north east to the Abseron Peninsula and Artyom Island – supposedly Azerbaijan’s worst polluted areas. Although there are countless oil nodding donkeys and derricks in the north, things do grow here: there are plentiful greenhouses, olive groves and pine copses, all adding colour and life to the dusty plains.
Locals even frequent a beach resort on Abseron’s tantalising cobalt-blue northern coast. The ‘James Bond’ oil field (of The World is Not Enough fame) lies only 5km south of Baku’s centre – another recipient of a government clean up job.
Into the hills
Azerbaijan’s landscape is incredibly diverse. Heading inland and west, the desert yellows soon blend into golden wheat praires and then endless green meadows and rocky hillsides covered with trees. Following the Girdimançay River up to Lahic off the main road, the river valley flattens out, revealing orchards on the lower reaches of the hills, lush summer pastures at the top and dense woodland clinging everywhere in between.
Lahic is a town that time seems to have forgotten; coppersmiths beating samovars (ancient water heating vessels), delicate vases or bracelets into shape then chiselling ornate patterns in their workshops that flank the town’s only street.
After Lahic’s idyllic countryside, we continue west to Kiş (pr. Kish) for another night of the same. Kiş nestles between precipitous forests; like other Caucasian towns, every house has a generous and well tended garden. Here the main attraction is the elegant, 12th century Caucasian Albanian church in the centre. Nothing to do with the modern day country of Albania you understand – maybe that’s why the Azeris are only too happen to mention that this was the Albanian’s church once, whilst acidly noting the ‘direct Armenianization effects’ occurred when the Armenians were in town.
We are so pleasantly surprised by this country – having expected seriously corrupt officials and plain, deserted landscapes, it’s a shame our visas won’t allow us longer to explore other unexpected delights. Every Azeri we meet is kind, generous and hospitable and we’re thankful yet again for knowing a little Russian to converse.
One thing we’ve noticed over the past few months is just how much corruption seems to be talked up in this part of the world, especially by individuals of adjoining countries, eager to talk their neighbours down.
Bold words, but in our experience, the efforts of some former Soviet republics do seem to be beginning to pay off, on the surface at least. We’re hoping the post-Shevardnadze government in Georgia is doing the same…