Turkey / Turkmenistan tour - 2010

After saving some vacation days I managed to book a 1,5-week getaway in the middle of darkest autumn season in Finland. Koryo Tours (the tour operator I used for the North Korea visit) had been making tours to Turkmenistan twice every year and I finally decided to make the visit before the country changes too much.

Getting to Turkmenistan is not that easy - there is only a limited number of international flights. The cheapest and most convenient way seemed to be flying via Istanbul. Therefore I decided to combine a long weekend in Istanbul with the 1-week tour.  

Check out the photo galleries: Turkey and Turkmenistan

Diary part 1 - Turkey

29.10.2010 Helsinki - Istanbul
I have never had to skip trips because of illness but this time it was close... Just two days before the departure I get some weird skin infection in my left ear - it just becomes red and I get some fever. I get some antibiotics from a doctor and fortunately the fever goes down just before my flight!

Again I almost miss the flight - I was not aware that the Turkish Airlines check-in desk closes 60 minutes before the departure (that is actually against regulations?). I arrive just in time though as the ladies are about to close the desk (50 minutes before departure). The flight is a painful experience that takes about 3 hours - there is more than the usual amount of screaming kids and the Airbus is fully booked.

I have booked a 4-star boutique hotel that provides a free airport transfer (no guest houses this time). There is some guy that looks like Fabio waiting for me at the arrivals area. It takes about 45 minutes to get to the Sultanahmet area - the traffic seems to be quite bad. The hotel looks really classy and there is a roof terrace and sauna downstairs. It is already dark but anyway I do a quick sightseeing tour as many of the Istanbul sights are within a walking distance. The famous Blue Mosque is just 10 minutes away and looks very impressive when the 'night lights' are on. I have some kebab for dinner and go to bed early... 

30.10.2010 Istanbul
It is a sunny but a bit chilly day. I make another visit to Blue Mosque as the first thing - it is really crowded there and the lines are long even though it is not high season. I decide to go inside later... The area is huge and there are lot of sights to takes pictures of. After some random strolling I end up in the famous Grand Bazaar that is a huge complex filled with all possible kinds of shops. As expected there is a lot of harassment around - I decide not to support those aggressive vendors so I leave the place empty handed. I enjoy some köfte meat balls in a local place and continue strolling in the area.

It takes almost an hour to walk back to the hotel and I almost get lost in the narrow streets of Istanbul. I feel quite exhausted at the hotel. After some rest I enjoy tasty lamb in a local restaurant. After that it is the time to go to bed - more sightseeing tomorrow then!

31.10.2010 Istanbul
Day 2 in Sultanahmet... The first destination today is Aya Sofya - an impressive palace / church / mosque (the building has served many purposes thoughout its history). It is still hard to say what the building actually looks like - anyway there is a lot of islamic art inside but also a lot of christian influences to be seen.

After Aya Sofya I visit Basilica Cistern that is a fascinating underground experience. It is basically a big pool (with some fish) with some pillars below the ground level - it was used to store water for a church that does not exist anymore. After returning to the ground level I take a tram to the modern downtown area. After crossing the big bridge I need to take the 'Tunel' tram to the top of a hill. This is the Taksim area that is filled with shops and malls. Again I am not in the mood for shopping so I just walk along the main shopping street to the central square. Just before reaching the square I notice a police road block with some ambulances. There seems to be some incident but I cannot see anything happening. After taking a detour to the square I still cannot see anything. Anyway the square is still not accessible and there are a lot of policemen there. The metro station is also closed so it is impossible to continue with public transportation.

I have some lunch in a chinese restaurant and take a taxi to Galata tower. The taxi driver is saying just 'Bomba' - later in the evening I learn that some suicide bomber has attacked a bus filled with policemen just one hour before I came to the area! About 30 people have been injured - I have never been that close to a terrorist attack! There is some Finn in the news that was just minutes away from the actual explosion. Scary stuff!

There is a long line to the tower - fortunately the nearby hotel offers pretty much the same views free of charge (except for the tea at the restaurant). After some photo shooting I return to Sultanahmet by crossing the bridge with lot of people fishing - the catches look like Finnish 'särki' or 'lahna'. I take the tram back to Blue Mosque and return to hotel. I visit the spa floor in the evening and it proves to be a pleasant surprise: there is a Turkish hamam (with menthol scents) and even a decent Finnish sauna! A Turkish lady (that speaks only Turkish) washes me in a steam room. After the spa session I have some kebab in a nearby place - after that it is bed time...

1.11.2010 Istanbul
Today's main destination is Topkapi palace - before that I finally manage to visit Blue Mosque as there are no lines.The building is impressive (and big) - it feels actually rather empty inside as there are no people praying. The palace is huge - you can easily spend a couple of hours there. It is quite crowded there. Maybe I am getting tired of islamic art - for some reasons it does not feel that impressive there... The harem area is the most interesting part of the complex - pictures of black eunuchs are funny indeed!

After the palace visit it is the time to go to Asia. In Istanbul it is a simple task - just take the public ferry to the other side of the Bosphorus. It takes about 30 minutes and you can enjoy some nice views on the way there. The asian side does not look that impressive - the buildings are smaller there and in general it is a much more relaxed vibe there. I buy some takeaway bread with fish and experience some problems in getting the chance from a local vendor. I return to european side and spend some time to watch the people going to Blue Mosque for their evening prayer...

2.11.2010 Istanbul
Last day in Istanbul before the Turkmenistan tour. I decide to make a day trip to Princess Islands - it is a group of four islands an hour away from the downtown area. I have just the city guidebook with me so I don't have much information about the location but anyway I am expecting something that is a bit more laidback than downtown Istanbul.

The ferry leaves at 10.30 and it is an enjoyable journey - sun is shining and the scenery is beautiful. The islands seem to be just what I have been looking for - small villages and peaceful roads just made for walks or bicycling. I take the ferry to the final destination that is the biggest of the four islands. There is a bustling village near the ferry port - narrow streets are filled with day trippers.

I rent a bike for a couple of hours and start my island tour. There are a lot hills and steep cliffs. The interior parts of the island covered by pine trees. There are a lot of luxurious villas on the island - it seems to be a popular vacation spot for the rich people from Istanbul area. I stop by at a local beach that seems to be deserted (as it is winter time now). As I reach the center of the island I head back to the main village. I need to catch my flight so I have to return to Istanbul early - fortunately I have time for a quick meal of fried squid. I could have easily spent a day or two on the island but Turkmenistan is calling soon...

I take the tram back to Sultanahmet and the next task is to locate an Internet cafe as I need to print a couple of documents for Turkmenistan. It proves to be a demanding task even though I have seen numerous cafes during the previous days. Finally I find a dimly lit room filled with teenagers playing some computer games. With the help of a 10-year old kid I manage to get the printouts and I can return to hotel to pick up my backpack. I have a bad iskender for dinner on my way to the tram stop. The tram is completely full and it takes ages to the airport - bad move! Fortunately there are no lines to the dedicated Ashgabat counter. It is even more pleasant surprise to find an ATM that dispenses US dollars (that I will need in Turkmenistan). I feel still sweaty when I reach the gate. Fortunately there is time for a refreshing Efes beer!

Diary part 2 - Turkmenistan

Destinations in Turkmenistan

  1. Ashgabat (and the surrounding area)
  2. Darvaza
  3. Konye-Urgench

3.11.2010 Ashgabat
Turkish Airlines flight is fully booked and far from boring. The arrival is 4.00 am local time - it makes absolutely no sense but that seems to be the case with most of Turkmenistan international flights. About half of the passengers look like foreigners.

I get an emergency exit seat next to a Turkmen babushka that constantly seems to be having some problem. The stewardesses seem like novices - one of them pours some water on the people next to me. There are some really big guys that need stand throughout the flight as they won't fit in their seats - of course they are blocking the traffic all the time!

The flight arrives at Ashgabat in time. Then it is a long wait as first you need to queue for visa and then for the cash counter to pay for it. Anyway it is just a formality and the busy officials don't seem to pay much attention to the invitation letters. After the immigration it is the time for baggage claim that again takes a long time. Finally I see my backpack and then it is time for a long line at the customs. It seems that they are not interested in foreigners so I manage to skip the lines somehow. Finally in the arrivals area I see the local guide with the Koryo Tours sign. There are already some tour group members there but we end up waiting yet another hour for a Spanish guy who never shows up. Later we learn the guy had actually taken an earlier flight and was sleeping in the hotel already!

We take a minibus to the Grand Turkmen Hotel and I go to bed immediately to get just a couple of hours of sleep. The tour starts at noon and the first destination is Nissa fortress some 30 km outside downtown Ashgabat. It is a Unesco world heritage site but not the most impressive one around. It is a very old site with mostly buried or deteriorated sandstone buildings. The local guide is really excited about the site that makes the visit quite interesting but otherwise the place is not that spectacular. We return to hotel later in the afternoon and even though I am dead tired I still want to do some sightseeing.

I go for a random walk and quickly realize that marble palaces are the name of the game here. As advertised the Ashgabat vibe is a combination of Las Vegas and Pyongyang - such an out of this world experience! The streets are wide and there are not that many people around except for armed policemen and soldiers that seem to be everywhere... Taking pictures of governmental buildings seems to be forbidden but otherwise those guys are not harassing tourists by any means.

Next to the hotel is the famous Arch of Neutrality monument but for some reason they are tearing it down. It is one of the crazier monuments built by the previous president - there used to be a rotating golden statue of the guy at the top. As sun sets I am starting feel really tired - on my way back I manage to spot an old Lenin statue before returning to hotel. I go to bed early at around 9...

4.11.2010 Ashgabat - Darvaza
Today's itinerary is going to be one of the most interesting ones during this tour... The day starts with an Ashgabat tour. The first stops are some huge monuments built from gold and marble - for example the Independence Monument. From the bus we seem a lot of big buildings that all seem to be some kind of ministries - silliest ones being Ministry of Horses and Ministry of Carpets! We visit Carpet Museum that is also located in a huge marble palace. It proves to be a really boring place even though they have the biggest carpet in the world (they have a Guiness Book of World Records sign there).

The next destination is much more interesting though. 'The Museum of Gifts to Turkmenbashi' is a bizarre place filled with gold and glitter. There is a unbelievable 30€ photography fee but fortunately we get a group discount which is a pleasant surprise as the place is filled with a lot of really photographic weird stuff. After the museum visit we have lunch in some local fine dining place located at the top of a tall skyscraper.

Aftter the lunch we take 4WD vehicles to Darvaza some 200 km north of Ashgabat. It is a long way and the neverending desert scenery gets boring after a while. The road is a straight line with some potholes. We stop in the middle of nowhere to visit a local camel farm to observe local rural life. As it is getting dark we suddenly head away from the main road to the desert... It is complete darkness soon and there is no proper road there - just some tracks in the dirt. After some 10km we start to see an eerie glow in the dark and we realize that we are almost there! Hell Gate is waiting there...

The famous Darvaza gas crater used to be a gas drilling station. Nowadays it is a big hole with flames because in the Soviet era someone tried to shut it down by creating an explosion. The plan failed big time and still after about 50 years there is an 'eternal flame' burning there... It is really one of the most amazing and fascinating things I have ever seen - especially at night. The diameter of the hole is some 100 meters and you can feel the heat from afar. There is not much else to do except for staring at the flames but it is just something that is hard to describe in words...

The plan is to stay overnight in tents and sleeping bags. We have some barbeque party at the camp with local vodka - after the dinner I return to the crater several times, it just keeps dragging you back! Closer to midnight it starts to get really cold and soon it is freezing. Fortunately I brought some warm clothes but the sleeping bag proves to be made for warm summer nights. I don't sleep that much and it is still cold in the morning when sun rises... My throat is aching as the guides wake us up to enjoy some breakfast.

5.11.2010 Darvaza - Ashgabat
Fortunately it is sunny again so soon it is not that cold anymore. I feel hangoverish. I again return to the crater - it looks completely different in the daytime (not that impressive of course). We leave the crater at around noon. On the way back there are two other craters - both of them also caused by industrial accidents as well! The other one is filled with water and the other one contains mud. Turkmenistan feels even more bizarre after these sights...

The way back to Ashgabat is pretty much snoozing and it is almost dark when we get back there. I still have some energy to visit the nearby Russian Bazaar that is a marketplace filled with all things possible. I don't feel like buying anything so again it is the time to go to bed early...

6.11.2010 Ashgabat  area
After a good rest the plan for this day was to visit a number of sights around Ashgabat. We took a 100 km drive west of the town to visit an underground lake in the middle of mountains. The place was pretty much in the middle of nowhere. There was a narrow entrance by the mountain wall - steep and slippery wooden stairs descending into darkness... After descending for a while in the dimly lit cave we saw the 'dressing rooms' - basically just two makeshift booths covered by piece of cloth. There was a sulphuric smell in the air. The lake itself was warm - almost hot (temperature being always at around 35 degrees). It was quite big indeed - the group swam to the dark end some 50 meters away. It was a very pleasant experience indeed - we stayed for more than half an hour in the water. After getting back to the ground level I try to use the toilet that is one of the filthiest squat toilets I have seen...

We continue the tour and visit a big mosque (with no one inside) before driving to another place to have lunch. It is a nice outdoor restaurant in the middle of mountains again. The food is an excellent selection of kebabs - one of my favourite dishes during this tour! After the lunch break we drive to yet another mosque - this time it is nothing else but the biggest mosque in Central Asia (of course built by Turkmenbashi). It is a huge complex built for 10.000 people that also has the mausoleum of Turkmenbashi's family. The style is the usual gold and marble. The funny thing is the texts from Ruhnama that have been used to decorate the building - wonder what fundamentalists would think about this kind of unholy alliance...  Anyway this mosque is quite different from the ones in Istanbul!

We return to hotel in the afternoon. There is still time for sightseeing on your own so I decide to go looking for the Ruhnama monument that I have seen in a documentary. Our guide says that the area is under renovation currently but it should still be possible to see the monument. I make a long walk to the monument - should have taken a bus instead as there is nothing really interesting there on the way (except for the local 'Olympic Stadium'). I finally locate the monument when it is almost getting dark. Unfortunately there is a big fence that is blocking the access to the monument but I can see enough to understand the size of this crazy things. The book is some 10 meters high and there should be some mechanism that opens it and plays some audio and video! Seems that it is not turned on at the moment and I just take some pictures behind the fence. I notice some guys staring at me from the construction yard - I think they are some guards so I decide to move on...

I walk to the nearby mall that looks like a spaceship - actually it should be the biggest fountain in the world as there are a lot of pools and artificial waterfalls there. It looks quite impressive with the evening lights though... I decide to experiment with the local buses that seem to be brand new chinese ones. I take number 38 that fortunately takes me almost directly to the hotel. It costs about 5 euro cents and you pay by throwing some money to a plastic bucket!

I take some rest before checking out Ashgabat night life with some of group members. There is a bar called British Pub (surprisingly!) opposite the hotel. There is also a night club called Florida in the same premises. The pub is exactly the stereotype of the typical expat bar that you could find anywhere - all the compulsory football and Beatles stuff is there! The nightclub is an interesting mix of local and Russian vibes - the music is mostly some trance influenced ruspop. Some of the group members stay there until very late...

7.11.2010 Ashgabat - Dashogus
Today is the day for the bazaar visit - one of the biggest bazaars in the world is located some 10 km from downtown Ashgabat. We start the tour by checking out the livestock section - it is a really fascinating place where locals buy and sell all kinds of animals from sheep to camels. It is just a big outdoor area full of people, cars and animals. Most of the people wear traditional Turkmen dresses and I take a lot of interesting photos there.

We continue to the main bazaar area where people sell basically anything! Clothes, carpets, household items, food, old car parts, cassettes... Just to name a few items! I buy a traditional Turkmen cap (1,5€), Turkmenistan passport covers (1€) and some kebab bread. Some of the group members buy cool Turkmen sheepskin hats - cheap but not quite my style...

The next stop is Hippodrome that is basically a modern horse racing arena (made of marble of course!). The race has already started and the locals seem to be really excited there. We arrive just in time to watch a couple of races and the group starts gambling immediately. I am lucky as my horse wins the first race - that means I have just earned about 50€! After the race we return to hotel.

There is still some free time before going to the airport. I manage to locate a rare local Internet cafe nearby and drop some emails about my whereabouts. The connection seems to be working fine and I don't notice any restrictions. They just want to have your passport while browsing!

Later in the afternoon we go again to the airport - this time we will be taking a Turkmenistan Airlines domestic flight to the northern city of Dashogus. The flight is uneventful - the Boeing plane is brand new but the landing is not that smooth... The airport is yet another marble building. We take a bus to a hotel that seems to be located in an abandoned area in the middle of highways. There is not much to do except for the dinner and some drinks. Fortunately there is a F1 race tonight and there seems to be several enthusiasts in the group. So we gather around the big flatscreen TV to watch the race until we need to move to the bar as there is some local wedding party starting! Fortunately there is a TV also in the bar. Funnily bottles of vodka and beer cost pretty much the same there so it is hard to decide what to order... Additionally they serve local cognac there (yes that is what it is called)!

8.11.2010 Dashogus - Konye-Urgench - Ashgabat 
The plan for today is to visit Konye-Urgench area some 100 km away. It is another Unesco world heritage site from the 13th century. It contains mostly religious buildings like mosques that are not that well preserved. There seems to be a lot of locals there as the site is obviously a holy one. There is a very weird tradition in the area - they have a low hill where ladies basically roll down to hill to get an idea of their future!

We spend about two hours in the area before returning to Dashogus. We stop for lunch but the food is nothing special. We are back in Ashgabat after dark. I take the final sightseeing walk in the city to get some pictures with the evening lights. After visiting some of the familiar monuments I try to get a peek on the local fun fair 'Turkmenbashi World of Fairytales' that unfortunately seems to be closed (as usually?).

I return to the hotel and have some tasty lamb in the hotel restaurant. It is already getting late and there is an early wakeup tomorrow. Some of the group members are in the hotel bar so I sit down for some farewells. There are quite a few hookers there as well - the ladies look quite desperate indeed... I need to wake up early so I need to go to bed soon.

9.11.2010 Ashgabat - Istanbul - Helsinki 
Again another flight in the middle night - well it actually takes off at 5 am this time. The wakeup time is at 2 am and a minibus takes me and some of the group members to airport. There are at least five security checks before getting to the gate! Otherwise there is no bureaucracy... The poor check-in clerk has trouble with my two separately purchased flights. The flights departs about half an hour late and is uneventful this time. Because of the different time zones it is again early morning in Istanbul and I feel tired. After a long wait I board the Helsinki flight that is another boring one. I feel some possible diarrhea coming as I get closer to Finland (it takes actually two day to recover)...

Anyway a truly memorable tour to a very, very bizarre country. The tour group was excellent - never thought I could enjoy this trip so much!  

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