I could hear two sets of footsteps behind me. The lights of my hotel ahead guiding my way in the dark I quickened my pace. A plain white car appeared from nowhere screeching to a halt in front of me. The driver looked at me as he hurried out of the vehicle. I dismissed him stepping around the car, unable to register that he was after me. My focus on the safety of the hotel. And then the footsteps turned into a run. I braced myself and turned to face my pursuers.
Surrounded by three men now, one spoke English and showed me his ID. They were Turkmen Secret Police. He was polite but firm and asked if I’d taken a photo of them. I said I didn’t think so, as I’d never seen them before. He asked if I’d taken a photo down the next street to which I said yes and as requested showed him. My collection of night photos did look a little suspicious in places, why would someone take photos of boring buildings, a bank and I was a little worried about the exploring I’d done above the bar we went to, it didn’t feel like somewhere we were supposed to be. Finding the dark shot of the road, it was a dark open road with sporadic street lighting. I assume they were in the car parked down the road. I was told to delete them which I did. Satisfied I wasn’t a spy or that if I was I didn’t have any useful photographs anymore they let me go.
I’d been out for a late night walk with my camera and ironically had checked with my guide what the situation with photos was here. She said it was fine, there’s no problem as long as you don’t photograph government buildings. This was my warm welcome to Turkmenistan and other than the fiery gates of hell it didn’t really get much warmer than that.
Turkmenistan is not an easy country to visit. They are notorious for denying visas, my guide told me they do so randomly to keep people on their toes. The result is fewer tourists than North Korea. For a country that was holding the 2017 Asian Indoor and Martial Arts Games it’s a strange approach to take. But, as with any dictatorship they need to limit access to the outside world for fear of propaganda — or knowledge — being spread.
As is starting to become obvious, Turkmenistan is a pretty crazy country. The first President for Life Saparmurat Niyazov renamed himself Turkmenbashi, 'leader of the Turks' and apparently banned beards. He renamed the months and days of the week after himself. His former dentist, Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov, was the obvious choice for his successor. Gurbanguly is more progressive than his predecessor but that's a very relative term. There’s an 11pm curfew. It's illegal to smoke outside. And iIllegal to have a dirty car in the city.
Like any good dictator, the former president Saparmurat Niyazov wrote his own book, the Ruhnama, providing spiritual guidance to the masses which is compulsory reading — for your driving test.
The capital, Ashgabat, is a sea of shining white. All the buildings and monuments here are white marble with a dash of gold and of course neon lights for the night. In fact it holds the Guiness World Record for highest density of white marble buildings among many other equally obscure records of questionable value.
I was getting a distinct feeling of unfriendliness from the locals. To be fair I did see some other people have more luck than me, especially when it came to photographing people. Perhaps it was my beard.
Outside the shining white beacon of marble that is Ashgabat, the country's mainly desert but there are a few curiosities worth seeing.
A long drive through nowhere takes you to the crater at Darvaza. Like a scene from Dantes inferno, the ground was on fire, the temperature reaching 1,000 celsius. They're known as the gates of hell. A 69m wide crater in the middle of the desert that's been on fire since 1971. The result of a Soviet drilling accident, they were drilling for oil but hit gas and the result was a big explosion and a crater leaking large quantities of gas. The solution to stop the local population from suffocating or combusting was to set fire to it, and here it lays still. Over the years they've attempted to fill the hole but with no success, it's a challenging feat of engineering. It does make a great place to camp for the night and toasting marshmallows couldn't be easier.
Having donned my swimming shorts on the bus I was ready for the Kow Ata underground lake. Descending the damp slimy stairs 200 feet underground, my eyes were slowly adjusting to the handful of electric lights positioned along the way. My nose was still adjusting to what I hoped was the smell of sulphur from the water. Slipping into the warm water I headed for the back of the cave at a leisurely swim. My eyes just able to make out the walls around me now —and then it all went black, the lights had gone out, and I was swimming in a cave 200 feet below the surface. I was trying not to panic so tried to head towards the voices of everyone at the entrance to the lake. I really didn't want to drown in a smelly bat ridden cave in Turkmenistan. Eventually I made it and was able to stand on the slippery rocks by the entrance just in time for someone to find their phone and provide a little lighting. Assuming the power would be out for a while we gave up, tried to locate our things in the dark and headed back out of the cave.
On my way back out I realised the slimy stairs were covered in bat shit. It turns out the cave is also home to the largest colony of bats in Central Asia. It was at this point I put my flip flops back on.
We headed to the seaside resort of Avaza. Another vanity project from the President and best described as a seaside Vegas ghost town. Wandering the empty amusement parks, hotels, canals and beaches was a strange feeling. I wanted to believe it was just the off season and I'm sure some people do come here — but not many. It was the same in Ashgabat, there were no people enjoying the parks and shiny white marble public spaces.
Unable to spend the night in Avaza we stayed in Turkmenbashy (renamed after the previous President). A few of us went for a walk to escape the confines of the hotel. We ended up wandering through an area of run down Soviet housing. At first people seemed put off by our presence, keeping their distance and retreating into their doorways. I mustered the courage to ask a crazy old cat lady if I could take her photo. Stood on her steps surrounded by a dozen cats she looked perfect. She shook her head and went inside. As we were giving up and preparing to head back the local children took an interest in us and it just snowballed from there.
The next thing I know there's a local man shouting “America” in my ear and asking where I was from, I tried explaining I was English but the language barrier proved too much. I couldn't even tell if he was speaking Turkmen or Russian. Unperturbed he looked on the ground, found a large rusty screw and started to demonstrate writing on the back of his hand. He wanted me to cut him, but with the words of my nationality. At least I think that's what he wanted. The next thing I know there's a child wanting the same tetanus tattoo from me. His name was Andrei and over the next few minutes he became obsessed with me.
Fortunately a little girl was trying to get my attention, she wanted to show me something so I gladly followed her across the road to a patch of grass. It was here she pointed out the dead dog, her stare deep in realisation. I'm no veterinary coroner but it looked to me like it had been shot in the head, it was an odd sight to say the least.
The usual group photos were happening when one of the girls who was learning English offered to give us a tour of their community. Behind the brutal uniform blocks lay a world of goats, pigeons and corrugated iron.
Andrei very excitedly introduced me to his mum, she was a lot less excited — quite unimpressed in fact. I still think it was the beard. Eventually, waving a thousand goodbyes we managed to pull ourselves away from the crowd, our thoughts turning to dinner.
"Rob! Rob! Rob!" someone was shouting my name. Turning round, at the top of the stairs was my new best friend Andrei. So, I wave and we walk back to the hotel, a little further on I hear the familiar shouts again, "Rob! Rob! Rob!". Turning again I see Andrei up on a ledge waving and shouting. Turning my back once again we continued down the main road to our hotel. I could hear footsteps behind me again, crunching against gravel. This time they were much lighter, about the right weight for a 9 year old boy.