So I was very happy to have survived the camping adventure and was even happier to begin the drive to Ashgabat. We had some fresh melon, bread and yoghurt for breakfast and while the boys packed up, I took one last look at the Darvaza Crater. We were on the road by 8:30 for our three plus hour trip to the capital of Turkmenistan, Ashgabat.
Before we left the area, we stopped at two more gas craters, a mud crater and a crater filled with water. The mud crater was particularly interesting because I could hear the mud bubbling below the surface, although I did not see any bubbling mud. Rather, there were spots were flames were visible suggesting that this crater could become a fire crater like the Darvaza Crater.
The second crater, the water crater, was actually really pretty with the greenish coloured water sparkling in the sunlight. The water did have a bit of sheen from the gas, but otherwise you would not know you were standing on a massive gas field.
After the two brief stops, we continued through the Karakum Desert, past waves of soft brown sand, little scrubby brush, the occasional nomad village and herd after herd of camels who felt the need to wander into the road and take their sweet time moving out of the way. The closer we drove to Ashgabat the better the roads, although there was the occasional backwards slide to potholes, gravel and general rough roads.
We reached the outskirts of Ashgabat just before 11:30 a.m. Now In 1948, 90% of Ashgabat was destroyed and 90% of its population (110,000 people) killed by a massive earthquake. While the Soviets rebuilt the city, when Ashgabat gained independence in 199 the country began a renovation project. The city of Ashgabat is known as the “White City” because all buildings are now constructed of white marble and when any old building is torn down it too is replaced by a white marble high rise. You read that right, ALL buildings are now constructed of white marble with all of the old city comprised solely of white marble.
So as we entered the city, the first thing I thought was that the city resembles Las Vegas on steroids. Everywhere I looked, there were massive white marble buildings, Bellagio style fountains, flashing signs and over-the-top statutes at round-a-bout intersections. The city was quirky, to say the least, and apparently reflects the desire of the President in this totalitarian country to create a sense of unity and uniformity in the city. (Again, no advertisements except in special cases where the name of a business may be placed on a building for a price paid to the government.)
As we drove past block after block of white marble buildings, may of which Tachmurad said were apartments, the biggest thing that struck me was there were virtually no people. I mean there were a few cars driving around in what I came to learn was the “new” area, but there were no people on the sidewalks and no one entering or leaving any buildings. It was very odd.
Anwway, we reached my hotel, the massive, opulent and over the top Oguzkent Sofitel Ashgabat. As we approached the entrance (completely void of people) the massive gold and glass double doors opened automatically to an over the top massive gold and marble lobby. It approached the size of a quarter of a football field. It was enormous. Once I was checked in, and taken to my HUGE room, I showered (let out a Hallelujah) and changed for my half day visit to Ashgabat. (We would spend more time in the city on Sunday after my day trip to Mary on Saturday.)
So feeling clean and fresh, Tachmurad and I met our new city driver Murad (Ilia has a four wheel drive and is only used for desert and mountain driving), and we set off to visit the Akhal-Teke horses, for which Turkmenistan is renowned. In fact, the horses are the country’s national emblem. So we drove outside Ashgabat to the Ashir Farm located about a half hour from Ashgabat to see these gorgeous horses.
When we arrived, we were met by the owner, Ashir, who invited us for tea. He understood and spoke a bit of English, but preferred to converse in Russian so Tachmurad translated. He wanted to know about my horse experience so I told him I was a fan of horse racing and recently road a horse in Kyrgyzstan. As we were sitting there chatting, a young camel walked by me. Seriously. My first reaction was, Uh oh. It turns out the camel is kind of like a house pet and was in search of biscuits. I grabbed one off the table to see if the camel was truly as friendly as Tachmurad was telling me. As is typical with me and camels, the camel completely ignored me and walked over to a young man who worked at the farm who fed him some biscuits before he moved on to the stable where the horses were kept. OK then. Pretty much typical of my experience with camels. They hate me and I hate them. Get lost buddy.
So Ashir had some of his groomsmen bring out some of the fabulous horses for me to see. Now these horses have been bred for centuries, in fact dating back to the days of nomadic tribesman, and are prized for their intelligence, speed, strength, endurance and agility. The first horse brought out was a young 1 ½ year old. I was told the horses begin racing at 2 years of age and females are retired at 3 to mate.
As I was admiring the horses, the camel decided to make his return. I was back in my chair as he wandered past, and I once again tried to feed a biscuit to him. This time, I was successful. Hey, I am feeding a camel and he is not spitting at me or trying to bite me. The camel actually nuzzled my face.
Anyway, as the camel was waiting for more biscuits, another horse was brought out and my attention was diverted from the camel to the horse. So rather than waiting for me, the camel leaned in and started eating fom the plate. Ashir started yelling at the camel, and the poor thing dropped its head and slunk away as Ashir continued to yell at him. I was in absolute hysterics at the shame displayed by the camel as he was banished to his pen. By the time the camel had reached his pen, we were all laughing, including Ashir.
So after the camel left us, Ashir had his prize horse brought out. This horse was the horse of the year in Turkmenistan last year and was set to race in a couple days. The horse was a beautiful ginger colour and absolutely regal. As soon as I saw him being led out of the barn, I knew he was special. He held his head high and almost strutted into the little ring in front of me. He was gorgeous and he knew it.
After about an hour visit, and despite me desire to stay, Tachmurad said it was time to go. We left the lovely farm and stables and drove back towards Ashgabat where we stopped at the Turkmenbashi Mosque and Museum, which is the burial place of Turkementistan’s first president, Saparmyrat Niyazov aka Turkmebashi (“leader of the Turkmen”) who ruled Turkmenistan from its time of independence in 1997 until his death in 2006. He apparently designed his own mausoleum and mosque. The mausoleum contains the remains of his father who died in World War II and his mother and two brothers who died in the 1948 earthquake. The mausoleum was, of course, made of marble and is guarded by two soldiers 24/7 (who are supposed to stare straight ahead and not move, but I saw the eyes of the guard on the right watch me as I climbed the stairs past him).
After a quick look at the mausoleum, we walked through a door into the massive (as seems to be typical of this city) mosque that can fit 7,000 men and 3,000 women. The only other mosque I have seen even close to this size was the mosque in Casablanca. The mosque was very modern looking, made of marble, of course, and was surrounded outside by massive water features. Not your typical mosque.
Our last stop of the day was to the remains of the Seyit Jamal mosque constructed in the 15th century and destroyed (except for a few remnants) in the 1948 earthquake. The remaining pillars and ruins were barely recognizable, but a picture of the site before the earthquake made me sad that there has apparently been no effort to rebuild the lovely monument.
By now, it was after 5:00 p.m. and I was exhausted. However, the real bad news. My camera was giving me fits. It was clear that the desert sand was affecting my ability to use the zoom. Tachmurad insisted that we go to a camera shop to see if it could be repaired. I knew Tachmurad was tired and had not yet been home to see his family so I told him no, but he insisted. So Murad dropped us off at Tachmurad’s apartment, we jumped into his vehicle and drove to the mall (past more zany marble monuments and even a massive white marble stadium built for the 2017 Asian Games). We went into shop number 1 and unfortunately, the camera repairman had left for the day so we went to a camera shop in the mall to see if anyone could help. Strike 2 at the camera shop. We tried one more shop and this man took one look at my camera, shook his head and told me there was sand in the lens and he would not touch the camera. Strike 3.
By now I was pretty despondent. I absolutely needed a camera so we went back to the camera shop to take a look, but nothing compared to my beautiful Panasonic LUMIX camera. I told Tachmurad it was time he got home to his family, and I simply wanted to go to my hotel. I would figure out what to do on Saturday. In an attempt to cheer me up, Tachmurad called his wife and she invited me to their home for dinner. I politely declined and said I really just wanted to rest.
Anyway, on the drive to my hotel Tachmurad told me our driver in Mary was a photographer and he was going to give him a call to see if he could help. One phone call later, and Tachmurad advised me that our driver knew a master repairman in Mary who might be able to help. And if that didn’t work, he would help us find a store to buy a new camera. So with this news, Tachmurad dropped me off at my hotel and told me he would pick me up at 5:00 a.m. for our 45 minute flight to the far southern regions of Turkmenistan to see the ancient city of Merv and to visit the master repairman. I was excited about Merv, but had no expectations anyone could salvage my camera. In the mean time, I needed to get some sleep.