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
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
part 1 - Turkey
29.10.2010 Helsinki -
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...
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!
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...
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
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
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!
part 2 - Turkmenistan
Destinations in Turkmenistan
- Ashgabat (and the surrounding
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
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
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
Ashgabat - Darvaza
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
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.
Darvaza - Ashgabat
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...
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...
Ashgabat - Dashogus
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
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)!
Dashogus - Konye-Urgench - Ashgabat
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
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.
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!