As the sun rose over the desert, I had no choice but to wake with it. To my knowledge, there were no spiders or other creepy crawlies that wanted to get cozy. Nonetheless, I inspected every crack and fold of my backpack for nearly an hour, unwilling to leave until I was 100% certain that I had no stowaways. Once I was sure that my backpack was devoid of arachnids and reptiles, I shouldered it once again and went to find the people with whom I had arranged a ride to Ashgabat the previous night; the same ones who had brought me a beer by the crater.
I found them packing their gear into their truck, along with a French couple who had also come on transit visas (side note: it doesn’t matter where or how weird the place is, you’re guaranteed to find French people). I had agreed to a price of 15 USD for the ride. Steep, but it’s what I was told to expect by the few travel blogs that had covered this place. Once we were all ready, we piled into the back seat and our driver gunned it for the highway a few miles away. As we made the surprisingly long journey back to the Dashoguz-Ashgabat highway through the blowing sand and shimmering heat, I was once again grateful for the ride, no matter the price.
Once back on the road, it was only a couple hours to Ashgabat. Turkmenistan isn’t huge, and the central highway is a lawless frontier, devoid of speed limits or police to enforce them. We just blew down the road, sometimes swerving around dunes that had begun to migrate onto the cracked pavement. But slowly but surely, the dunes began to give way to larger and larger shrubs before oases appeared, shimmering and inviting under the desert sun. Dilapidated villages were clustered around these precious oases, their residents wrapped in cloth from head to toe to shield themselves from the heat. Camels and cows stood miserably in the sun, though the camels seemed to fare better.
The road wound on, through small oases and the villages that they hosted, until we saw it: Ashgabat, golden and white, glittering in the sun like the promised land. Beyond the blinding rooftops loomed the Kopet Dag Mountains, Iran just beyond. For several minutes, we watched in awe as the glowing city approached.
As we got closer, we began to pass groups of workers, clustered under the few trees that provided shade, their faces covered to protect from the heat and exhaust. Trucks and cars were lined along the highway for miles. Shanty villages in construction sites built of wood and aluminum dotted the road sides. The Golden City, it seemed, was closed to many.
I had heard tell of the utter strangeness of Turkmenistan’s capital, but was still caught by surprise. Almost immediately after entering, our driver pointed to the right.
We looked, and looking back at us was an absolutely MASSIVE white marble eagle, its wings spread a kilometer in each direction. Beyond that, we could see fins of 747’s, dwarfed by the enormous bird-building.
Looking out on the skyline from the elevated highway, Ashgabat was laid out before us. Every building was white marble, many with golden domes atop them. The green canopy of resilient trees lined the major roads.
We exited the highway and were brought to the interior of the city. It was 100 degrees, and the white marble skyscrapers turned the city into an oven. I walked to a nearby hotel with my backpack and, after some difficulty, got them to watch my pack for me for the day as I explored. The woman behind the counter was adamant that I pay for a room if I was to leave my bag, but another woman bailed me out and the situation was resolved.
Once my backpack was secure, I began my brief exploration of Ashgabat. In the interest of saving money and getting out of the heat a little sooner, I decided the best course of action would be to catch a train that night out of Ashgabat. But this gave me several hours to battle the extreme heat and cover as much ground as I possibly could. Unfortunately, high noon on a cloudless day in a desert city made entirely of extremely reflective surfaces made for poor photos (and positively brutal walking; there’s not that much shade).
Walking through Ashgabat is a surreal experience. Very few foreigners come to Turkmenistan. The ones that do are usually part of a tour group and as such are not alone. Walking wherever you want in such a city is unusual. It’s a closed ecosystem. People are so unused to travelers coming through that they just don’t expect you to be one. Anyone who did approach me would speak in Turkmen and then switch to Russian when they realized I didn’t understand. Telling them that I speak English often got me some genuinely surprised faces. Despite me not looking Turkmen in the slightest (Russian maybe), I blended in because people just don’t consider the possibility that I’d be a traveler. It’s so overt, it’s covert.
My point is that it’s strange to be in a place that is so cut off. Life goes on much like it does in the rest of the world, but there’s something different. To Turkmenistan’s credit, Ashgabat is surprisingly normal. Shockingly, really. Turkmenistan has been compared to North Korea many times, but when it comes to security, there’s really no comparison. No traveler with a camera is walking around alone in Pyongyang taking photos of whatever they feel like.
The streets are quiet during the day due to the heat. I hear they’re quiet at night due to the 11:00 PM curfew. Still, people are out and about. Restaurants are open. Old men play chess in the park in front of the mosque. I cannot undersell how normal Ashgabat feels from the ground. I stopped for food at a cafe, and a girl my age laughed and said, “Sorry, my English is not so good,” when I ordered.
These places always seem like such an abstract concept that it’s easy to forget the people in them are just like you and me. Of course, they face the unique challenges of living under a repressive dictatorship that, to an outsider’s perspective, is almost invisible. Still, police were on every corner. Everywhere I looked, SOMEONE was being detained by at least one officer. Security guards refused to allow me to walk within a few meters of government buildings. Despite the apparent normalcy of Ashgabat, there is a very abnormal vibe throughout the city. The people are very kind, but there’s just something in the air. Besides the police presence that, frankly, isn’t nearly as heavy as in China or even Nepal, there’s nothing I can point to and say, “Yeah, that’s weird.” It’s very intangible, yet hangs over everyone and everything like a forecast for rain despite clear skies.
Yet for all its reputation and rumors, Turkmenistan isn’t nearly as cut off as one might believe. Definitely not as closed off as North Korea. Malls sell Polo and Ralph Lauren from designated stores. Signs in windows advertise study and work abroad programs in Turkey and Eastern Europe.
I even met an English-speaking Turkmen soldier at the train station who went right out and told me that he hates living under the dictatorship. That he was a university student in Romania but had to come back for his mandatory two-year military service, and that he will move to London in five months when he’s finished.
Another man at the train station came to talk to me despite the language barrier. After some work and lots of hand motions, I learned that he was a carpenter who specialized in fireplaces. He asked me for my phone number (I think), and I showed him that I had no data or service. He gave a knowing nod and said, “Turkmenistan,” while making a closed bubble with his hands.
Ashgabat is certainly Turkmenistan’s gleaming jewel, but her people are very aware of the illusion.