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Ashgabat and Nisa

Our first day in the Forgotten Stan

33 °C
View The Forgotten Stan - Turkmenistan 2019 on Grete Howard's travel map.

As he dropped us off at the hotel last night, or rather early this morning, Meylis (our guide for the trip) suggested meeting at 11:00 today, allowing us time to catch up on a little sleep. We are therefore rather surprised when we get a call from reception at 08:30: “There is a man from your company here who needs your passport for registration”. Reception sends the bellboy up to collect the passports, which is great as we then don't have to get dressed yet.

Five minutes later there is another call from reception: “There is a man from your company here who needs your passport for registration”. David tries to explain that we have already dealt with this and that the bellboy has our passports. They don't understand and after a few minutes of trying to explain in every different way possible, David ends up having to go down to talk to them in person. By the time he gets down there, it is all sorted, of course. So much for sleeping in!

This is what we were woken so early for – several copies of a 'Entry Travel Pass'. Ironically we were never asked for copies of this during our two week tour.

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This was our first sight of the capital city of Ashgabat in daylight, the view from our hotel window.

We later ask the guide what the amazing monument is. "Oh, that is just a roundabout" he said. As the trip goes on, we find that every large roundabout in the major cities has such beautiful white marble and gilded monuments in the centre. Quite surreal.

This is what the roundabout looks like from Google Maps:

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The 8-pointed star seen on the aerial view of the roundabout is found everywhere in Turkmenistan. And I mean EVERYWHERE: railing, lifts, walls, lamp posts, the country's flag, trash cans, emblems.... you name it, it probably has a star on it! Apparently it signifies the Muslims' belief that there are eight steps to heaven.

White Marble Buildings

As I mentioned in yesterday's blog post, the former president of Turkmenistan had a thing for white marble, a tradition that his successor has carried on. Today Ashgabat holds the Guinness World Record for the most marble buildings in any city, with 80% of public buildings covered, using 5 million cubic metres of marble.

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It certainly makes for a bright and clean look for the city, something that is further enhanced by the total lack of advertising hoardings, graffiti, litter and traffic. Ashgabat has to compete with Pyongyang in North Korea as the capital city with the least amount of cars on the road.

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We see a few of the many gleaming buildings as we drive through the empty streets this morning.

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Owadan Tourism

Our first stop this morning is at the office of our local agent, where we are introduced to the General Director.

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They have created a small one-room ethnographic museum where tourists can learn about the history and culture of the various aspects of Turkmen life.

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Here we see two different types of carpets – the white one, made from felt, symbolising spring; while the red carpet, coloured by pomegranate, indicates autumn.

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The Dutar - a two-stringed musical instrument

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I love these colourful boots. On the shelf above you can see the traditional skull
caps many of the local men wear.

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David 'playing' the Dutar

Silk Road Map

The Silk Road Map on the carpet is prepared according to the map from Seyahatname 'Book of Travels' written by the well known 17th century Turkish traveller Evliya Chelebi (1611-1684), who travelled for more than 40 years, mostly on the western part of the Silk Road.

UNESCO considered Chelebi 'Man of the Year' in 2011 on the 400th anniversary of his death.

The carpet was woven by the General Director's family in 1999.

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Before we leave we are encouraged to have a cup of tea, and are given a box of chocolates to take away, as well as a couple of traditional wallets.

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Nisa

By the time we arrive at the ruins of this 3rd century capital of the Parthian Empire, which are reached via a long staircase, I am very hot, my back is hurting, the two blisters on my feet are painful, and the jet lag is catching up with me. It all seems too much trouble.

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Known as Midridatkert city in ancient times, the fortress of Old Nisa had walls that were nine metres thick with 43 rectangular towers and has now been given a UNESCO Heritage status.

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The so-called Round Hall, with a diameter of 17 m. The Old Nisa architecture is unique, original and is unprecedented in whole Central Asia, merging architectural traditions of antique Greece, Rome and the East.

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Old Nisa's walls protected the royal palace, Zoroastrian temples and the power and prestige of successive ruling dynasties until its eventual destruction at the hands of the Mongols in the 13th century.

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Old bricks and shards. I am utterly disgusted to see some Australian tourists picking up bits to take home as souvenirs, boasting about the age and historical importance of the fragments. Shame on them! I really regret not saying anything at the time.

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Restored pillars showing the old and new bricks.

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The necropolis. Only about 30% of the site at Old Nisa has been excavated.

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The Red Hall; so called because remains of red walls have been found underneath the mud.

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Looking out over New Nisa in the distance. It has not been excavated as yet, so does not feature on our itinerary.

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Lunch

Returning to Ashgabat, we stop for lunch at a tourist restaurant where seating is offered in private yurts with no furniture where you sit on a carpet on the floor; or at 'proper' seating areas in the leafy gardens.

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The waitress brings over a menu in tablet form, with photos of each dish and a clickable caption in English which brings up more information about the dish. Love this idea, especially when you don't speak the language.

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For starters we choose a dish called Dograma, consisting of lamb, bread, green onion, fresh tomatoes, water, salt and pepper. It is very tasty, and extremely filling.

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Main course is Manty, which is delightful little dumplings, a very traditional Turkmen dish. They are usually filled with a choice of meat, pumpkin or spinach. We decide on the meat variety. They are served with a small dish of smetana (a type of soured cream).

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The choice of salads in Turkmenistan really impresses me. Each and every restaurant has a huge selection of interesting salads, not at all what I am used to from the UK. Today we choose a concoction called Men's salad: green leaves, boiled beef, gherkins, mayonnaise, white cheese, salt and pepper.

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Independence Square

The Independence Monument is an extravagant affair, covering an area of more than 80,000 m². The entire structure is 118m high, with the minaret-like tower standing at 91m.

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The monument is surrounded by statues of 27 of the most prominent Turkmen heroes.

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Quite by accident we manage to time our visit to coincide with the changing of the guards; which takes place every two hours.

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The square is also home to a number of spectacular fountains.

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The founder emperor of the Seljuc Empire that reigned in this region prior to the Mongolian invasion in 1037.

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Statue to the first Turkmen leader. In his hand he holds three arrows. Legend has it that he demonstrated the power of team work by breaking an arrow in two, quite easily. Then, holding all three arrows in his hand, breaking them was not so easy; and when he had six halves together, it was impossible to break them – proving that alone you are weak, together you become strong.

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The five heads of the eagle on this symbol represent the five states of Turkmenistan, protecting both internal and external enemies (the two-headed snake)

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Everything in Ashgabat is ornate, include the street lamps; here decorated with the crescent (symbolising the new moon = new country) with five stars representing the five states, and the ubiquitous eight-pointed star denoting the eight steps to heaven.

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One of the numerous gold-plated statues to the former president Saparmurat Niyazov. As the self-declared 'President for Life', Niyazov gilded the country with his own image in a cult of personality that makes Kim il Jong look like an amateur.

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National Museum

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As with nearly all museums and archaeological sites in Turkmenistan, we have to pay a 'camera fee' in order to be able to take photos inside. Mostly the price is 50 manat as here, around US$14 according to the official exchange rate of 3.5 manat to the dollar.

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Like so many of the places we visit on this trip, the museum is housed in a grand building, with lots of gold and marble.

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Map showing the five states that make up Turkmenistan

The museum covers several sections, from prehistorical man to more recent finds.

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Archaeological finds from the 3rd Millennium BC at Altyn Depe

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Model of how Gonur Depe - which we shall be visiting later on during our trip - would have looked in its heyday in the 3rd millennium BC

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Bronze Tools from Gonur Depe, dating back to the 3rd - 2nd millennium BC

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Also found at Gonur Depe

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Terracotta fragments of Ossuary found at Munun Depe, from 1st century AD

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Beautiful Rhytons (horn-shaped ceremonial drinking vessels)

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Buddhist sculpture found at Merw

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The campaign of Alexander the Great in the 4th Century BC

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A much more recent ceremonial sword, set with 98 precious stones

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Items found at New Nisa, 3rd century AD

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Turkmenistan has been very much a crossroads of cultures over the years, including being part of the famed Silk Road.

Flag

Everything is grand in Turkmenistan, including this flag pole, complete with a jet engine at the bottom to ensure the flag billows even on windless days. There is no need for it today.

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After independence from the USSR in 1991, a new flag was designed for the independent Turkmenistan, and it is the only country in the world that has carpet designs on its flag. The red stripe on the left with the five patterns, shows the various traditional design of carpet from the five different states in the country. These five motifs, like the eight-point star, feature in so many places within the country: boxes of chocolates, hotel door frames, posters, building decorations, the airport etc. The crescent moon, as well as being a traditional Islamic symbol, also represents the rising of a new country, and the five stars its separate states.

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Arch of Neutrality

While countries like Switzerland and Sweden have neutral foreign policies, Turkmenistan in the only country which is officially recognised by the United Nations as truly neutral. This has been recognised by the addition of a wreath below the carpet symbols on the country's flag.

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Note the five carpet designs on the plaque, as well as the eight-pointed star decorations.

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On top of the 75 metre high monument stands a 12 metre high gold statue of Saparmurat Niyazov, the infamous previous leader. His statue was designed so that it would rotate in order for the great leader to always be facing the sun. Upon his death in 2006, it was agreed that the statue should 'die' with him, and the rotations were turned off.

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Wedding Palace

On a small hill outside the otherwise very flat capital city, sits the bizarre and eccentric Wedding palace – also known as the Palace of Happiness. Built in 2011, the Wedding Palace is created of a number of star shaped floors topped with a 'disco ball' featuring a map of Turkmenistan in gold. Note the eight-pointed stars around the globe and the carpet pattern decorations on the sides of the stars.

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As well as six halls for wedding ceremonies, there are banquet halls for parties and receptions, shops, hair dressers, beauty salons and photography studios, and a small hotel with 22 rooms for newly-weds, Apparently, you can get a divorce here as well, as it is said that divorce can bring some people happiness too! There is also a huge portrait of the current president, Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow, and one of the conditions for being granted a marriage licence is to have your photograph taken in front of his picture.

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The (white, obviously) wedding cars in the country are always lavishly decorated.

Further up the hill stands the equally offbeat building that houses Yildez Hotel. The roads, like elsewhere in the capital, are totally empty for cars, and the numerous street lamps sport unusual, and elegant shapes.

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Being just slightly higher than the main part of town, we do get a bit of an overview of the White City below.

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Grand Turkmen Hotel

When we get back to the hotel, we notice a couple of little things that we later realise will come to be standard in most the places we are staying on this trip: just one set of towels and no spare toilet paper.

The view from the balcony is pretty darn good though, with changing coloured lights on the monuments.

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Considering this is supposed to be a four star hotel there are a few other annoyances too: the bedside table and the glasses in the bathroom have not been cleaned when they made the room up today; one of the bedside lamps do not work; neither does the standard lamp next to the TV, and there are no spare sockets for charging our phones, so we have to unplug one of the bedside lights. I suppose as it is not working anyway, it doesn't really matter.

We are too tired to even contemplate going out for dinner tonight, and settle for a glass or two of Duty Free rum and some nibbles. My back is hurting, and I now have two more blisters on my feet!

Thank you to Undiscovered Destinations for arranging this private tour for us.

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Posted by Grete Howard 15:11 Archived in Turkmenistan Tagged fountains ruins monuments flag museum necropolis lunch unesco carpets turkmenistan ashgabat nisa silk_road united_nations central_asia national_museum manty undiscovered_destinations wedding_car smetana ethnographic_museum lamp_posts guinness_world_record neutrality dutar grand_turkmen_hotel ex-ussr entry_travel_pass eight_pointed_star white_marble empty_streets owadan_tours turkmenistan_national_museum old_nisa parthian_empire parthian tablet_menu dograma independence_square changing_of_the_guards seljuc saparmurat_niyazov arch_of_neutrality neutral_country wedding_palace gurbanguly_berdimuhamedow yildez_hotel Comments (11)

Bristol - Gatwick - Dubai - Ashgabat

We're on our way


View The Forgotten Stan - Turkmenistan 2019 on Grete Howard's travel map.

At this point I will admit that I put very little thought into this trip. It was only much later it became obvious that at the time of booking, I was a little scatterbrained, my mind still very foggy following my dad's death. I would have done some things slightly differently if I had really thought about it, but more about that as we go along.

There were a couple of reasons why I wanted to go to Turkmenistan:

1. The main draw was the “Gates of Hell” burning gas crater that I had seen photos of some years ago and really wanted to visit.

2. I was in need of a 'proper adventure' after a few 'vanilla' trips recently – I wanted my trip to be a voyage of discovery, not a ritual of reassurance.

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Getting very excited when seeing a group tour advertised on line, I asked our agent Undiscovered Destinations if they could arrange something similar as a private tour for the two of us. Turkmenistan is a highly regulated country, akin to North Korea in many ways, and independent tourists are not permitted to enter: you have to travel with a tour company.

After a few minor adjustments to the itinerary, I booked it, flight inclusive as I didn't have the time, nor the inclination to sort out logistics myself.

It wasn't until I started to read up about the places we were going to visit that I realised just how much the country has to offer and how incredibly unique it is. Even Undiscovered Destinations, who obviously (from their name) arrange tours to some pretty unusual places, claim that “this is one of our most exciting trips”.

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What I learned about Turkmenistan before I left:

With only 7,000 visitors a year, it ranks as the 7th least visited country in the world.

Turkmenistan is one of the richest countries in the region as they have the 4th biggest natural gas reserve on earth.

The country is 3.5 times the size of England and slightly larger than California, with a mere 6 mill inhabitants.

Fewer than 1% have (highly censored) internet access, with all social media and mainstream news channels banned. Even my chiropractor's website was blocked!

90% of the workforce are employed by the government

80% of the country is covered in desert

The country's first president after independence in 1991, Saparmurat Niyazov, made a number of demands as part of his dictatorship:

Banning:
lip syncing at public concerts
recorded music at weddings
dogs from the capital
long hair and beards on men
TV presenters wearing make-up
opera, ballet and circuses
gold teeth (very popular at one time in Central Asia)
cars not registered in Ashgabat from entering the city
any cars that are not white from the capital

Renaming:
the word for bread with the name of his mother
names of the months based on other family members
days of the week
a meteorite
the airport
cities
a breed of horse
a canal

He also closed all hospitals outside Ashgabat, as well as the libraries, stating that the people only need two books: the Quran and the book he wrote himself (the Ruhnama, a spiritual guide made mandatory reading in school. Knowledge of the book was also required in order to get a driving licence).

He also decreed that all public buildings in the capital should be made of white marble – the city now holds the Guinness World Record for the most white marble buildings in any capital city (5 million cubic metres of marble mostly imported from Italy)

Continue reading if you'd like to find out how my pre-trip perceptions match up with reality.

In order to enter the country, we needed a letter of invitation, a pre-booked guided tour and a visa.

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As I mentioned earlier, my planning was a little off for this trip, and it wasn't until a couple of weeks before we were going that I realised that the flight was very early from Gatwick the morning after the opening night at my camera club. Normally we'd go up to the airport the night before and book into a hotel, but as I am the chairman of the local camera club, I felt I really ought to be there for the first meeting of the season. Hence we're up at 02:00 and on the road by 03:00.

At least Gatwick Airport is quiet at this time in the morning, with no queue for check in at Emirates. That is fuddled brain quandary number two – as we are flying with Emirates, why did we not try to get a flight from Heathrow? Even more perplexing – as we found out through a Facebook post - is that there are direct flights from Birmingham to Ashgabat five time a week. Really? With only 7,000 tourists a year (and only a small number of those would be British), and not a great deal of trade between the two countries; how can they fill those planes?

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Anyway, we are here now, and there is nothing we can do about it. The lady on the check-in desk insists that we take our bags to the 'Oversized Luggage' counter as they have wheels on them. Really? Those bags have travelled on three dozen flights already without their wheels being called into question; several on them on Emirates. Who are we to argue with her logic, so we do as asked.

The main terminal and eating area is very, very busy, and we struggle to find a table in any of the restaurants for breakfast. Eventually we unintentionally queue-jump in the Sonoma restaurant, by arriving from a different direction than the main entrance (where there are around a dozen or more people waiting). I do feel a little guilty when I realise, but not guilty enough to give up my seat.

London – Dubai

The first flight goes without incident or excitement, and we find ourselves with a long walk to the food court at Dubai T3, where we grab something to eat at the Hard Rock Café.

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Beef Sliders

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Pulled lamb roll with a delicious kale and beetroot salad, coleslaw and chutney

We spend some time chatting to the very friendly Brazilian waitress who promises to cook for me if I ever make it back to Brazil.

Dubai - Ashgabat

We have plenty of time here at the airport, but once we have bought our Duty Free rum for pre-dinner drinks in the room, we decide to move on to the gate for our next flight and just chill.

Heading for the Connections board, we check out the gate details for flight EK2214 at 23:55.

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No sign of the flight. This is rather worrying. Gate F7 is printed on our boarding card and was showing on the Connections board as we stepped off the previous flight, but now it seems to have disappeared off the face of the earth.

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When asking the lady at the Information stand for confirmation about our gate and she is unable to find it on the system using her tablet, and asks for our boarding cards instead, we really do start to get a little concerned. Has the flight been cancelled?

We follow the directions she gives us (a very long and convoluted route including a train and numerous escalators up and down) and finally see the arrows point to F Gates, but nowhere to get through the barriers or the X-ray machines which are all for arrivals, not departures. We ask the man at the end of one of the security lines. He points us through the opposite direction X-ray arch (which beeps but they still wave me though), and when we get the other side we have to move some barriers in order to continue. Eventually we make it to where we see an affirmative sign for F gates.

There is a bus to take us to the departure lounge (which is in the other terminal), but the doors from the waiting area refuse to open until someone with a key comes along. Stepping outside, it's like stepping into an oven at 36 °C, and we are grateful for the A/C bus. We now embark on a sightseeing tour of Dubai Airport. Driving around, under, and across the runways, we regularly have to stop and wait for planes to cross, and by the time we get to the actual gate, the bus journey has taken us 25 minutes.

Much to our relief, we see F7 with our flight mentioned as soon as we enter T1. Phew. The flight is just starting to board (there was us thinking we had a lot of time to waste), and a long queue has formed. An official is shouting “One line please, one line” over and over again, but organising the passengers is like herding cats. He spots us, and beckons us over. We, and four other westerners, are taken to the front of the queue and led on to the bus first. Much as it is nice to be treated like VIPs, this sort of cringeworthy segregation always make me feel uncomfortable.

This bus journey takes a mere ten minutes, but we spend a further 15 minutes waiting for the plane to be ready for boarding. We are in the row behind the Emergency Exit, and the plane is not full. The chap next to David has bought a huge display of chocolates on a wooden tray with legs, about the size of a dustbin lid (for those of you who can remember the old fashioned dustbins), and a good 18” tall. It won't go in the overhead locker. He therefore places it on one of the emergency exit seats. The air steward tries to explain that it has to go on a spare seat (but NOT on the exit row), and in the window, not the aisle; and that he has to strap it in and sit next to it; or it goes in the hold. He does not understand, or maybe chooses not to understand. The 'discussion' goes on for at least ten minutes, and finally he walks down the aisle with the display and comes back without it.

The ladies behind us are talking extremely loudly and when the announcements come on, they just up the volume to drown it out. There is a constant sound of cellotape being torn and applied, and a chaotic battle for the overhead lockers. We eventually leave 20 minutes late. As soon as the flight has taken off, the chocolate-man goes back down the plane to retrieve his display and places it in the emergency exit seats again. The same crew member comes over and the argument starts all over again. And again. And again. Eventually he reluctantly returns the chocolates to the back of the plane and sits down in the emergency exit row for the rest of the flight (which we find rather annoying as David asked if he could move there but was told he had to pay extra for the privilege).

As expected, as soon as the plane touches the ground in Ashgabat, we hear the sound of seatbelts being unclipped, and seconds later 95% of the passengers are standing in the aisle (while the plane is still moving) despite repeated announcements asking for them to sit down. I swear the pilot makes a couple of deliberate jerky stops, sending the offending passengers tumbling.

Ashgabat Airport is clean, bright and very modern. At the Visa counter we hand over our passports and are given a printed form in return which we take over to the cashier at another window.

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Once we have paid our dues - US$109 for me and US$129 for David, we are given back the form and return to the first counter where the visa is now issued.

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Armed with the visa, we are totally taken aback when we are faced with automatic passport control stands like they have in some airports in the US. Wow! I really didn't expect that. We still have to go to a manned booth too, but it all seems to be a formality and we are soon in the luggage hall awaiting our bags. A number of locals have enormous amounts of luggage, including the lady in front of me at customs. Like so many places throughout the world, there is an X-ray on entry to the country, and she has been asked to open her huge cardboard box. Inside there must a hundred pairs of trainers. All white. I am beckoned to bypass her, and I am whisked through without even as much as a peek. I had been warned that I would have to show them all my medicines as they have a very strict policy of drugs – we were sent a complete list of 249 banned drugs with our booking confirmation – and I have heard of other travellers who have been asked to produce the original prescription for certain pain killers. The customs officials didn't even mention drugs to us – they barely looked up from their screen.

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A last cursory glance at the passports and luggage tickets, and we are out. Or is that in? Maylis is waiting for us just the other side of the barriers, and leads us to the car park. As I said earlier, all the cars in Ashgabat are white, and finding our driver is proving a little difficult.

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After a short ten minute journey we arrive at the Grand Turkmen Hotel, check in and collapse into bed. It is now 04:30. Welcome to Turkmenistan: our 141st country and the last of the 15 ex-USSR states we've visited.

Thank you to Undiscovered Destinations for organising this private tour for us.

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Posted by Grete Howard 02:16 Archived in Turkmenistan Tagged travel flights aircraft hard_rock_cafe emirates_airlines dubai_airport turkmenistan gatwick central_asia undiscovered_destinations visa_application visa_on_arrival check_in flydubai fly_dubai ashgabat_airport grand_turkmen_hotel Comments (14)

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