Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and Beijing

Apologies for the lateness of the blog updates. In Turkmenistan internet access was difficult, in China my blog site was blocked and in North Korea there was no internet access at all! So I will start from where I left off in Uzbekistan....

After leaving Bukhara we had a long day drive to Khiva on the most ridiculously bumpy road (I seem to be saying that a lot on this trip!), which was filled with massive trucks carrying pipes for a gas pipe line being built alongside. The whole drive was through barren desert, flat and dry. Khiva is an ancient walled town with similar architecture to Samarkand and Bukhara.

Main road with pipe-trucks attempting to overtake each other, made for interesting driving!

Khiva, view from the top of city wall

Melons - cant get enough of them in this part of the world

The Olympic brand is reaching far and wide with branded toilet paper in Uzbekistan

Entrance to Khiva with our hotel and truck in the background
From Khiva we had a short drive to the border with Turkmenistan. The border was heavily guarded with a wide section of no-mans land with a carefully raked section of sand (to detect footprints) and several sets of barbed wire fences. The whole crossing process took about 4 and a half hours, mainly due to the border guards having an hour lunch break half way through processing our visas! There were many local people walking across the border carrying various things including massive carpets and huge bottles of beer. We met our Turkmen guide, Murat, who is a friendly guy who, in his own words, "loves football more than women"! We had a bush camp in the desert, with a slight panic on my part as someone pointed out to me that tarantulas were listed as being indigenous to Turkmenistan...anyone who knows me knows this would cause me great distress! Thankfully they are rarely seen, and I didn't see anything more creepy-crawly than a small yellow scorpion.

The roads are so bad we drive slow enough for a man on horseback to pass us!

Dinner around the campfire (fire necessary to keep away the spiders)
At our second camp in the desert our camp was located near a massive gas crater which is constantly on fire. It was left over from Soviet gas explorations in 1971 when the drilling rig collapsed and the crater caught fire and it has been blazing ever since, despite efforts to extinguish it a few years ago. Its one of the most crazy things I have ever seen...we went to see it at night by 4WDs from our camp. Its just this massive blazing hole, about 70m across. We were able to get up close (health and safety nearly non-existent in this part of the world!), and the heat and wind generated by it was incredible. We also visited two other craters of similar size the next day, one bubbling mud, the other filled with bubbling water.

Posing in the desert sunset with our camp in the background

Camels on the skyline above my tent
The sun sets in the west

Giant gas crater - you can see the scale of it with the people standing on the far edge

Crater from a distance and head torches in the foreground!

Bubbling mud crater
Turkmenistan looks similar to Uzbekistan, both the countryside (mostly dry desert-like landscape) and the people. Turkmenistan has a great wealth of oil and gas resources (even though some are burning out of control!). The local people are given free gas at home, an allotment of electricty per month and 120 litres of petrol a month (extra petrol is then available at 20cents (US) per litre).

The money being earned from these resources is not noticeable in terms of investment in infrastructure until you reach Ashgabad, the capital. The desert and smaller citys are still seemingly very poor and infrastructure as worn and battered as anywhere else we have been in Central Asia. However, Ashgabad was a step into another world. Someone described it as a cross between Las Vegas, Dubai and Canberra on steroids. The contrast to other parts of the country can be seen in the roads (transport engineers delight!) - in parts of Ashgabad the roads are so smooth they have heating under them to melt snow and ice in the winter whereas in most of the rest of the country the pot holes make driving so bad that people just drive along in the dirt on the side of the road for a smoother ride!

I have never seen so much marble and gold before, as well as wide boulevards with beautiful parks and trees. All this was built in the late 90s with money from oil and gas and is as much a shrine to the president at the time, Niyazov (who was like a cult figure and one of the only leaders of the Soviet states who wished to remain as part of the Soviet Union after its collapse). In Ashgabad there was a massive ministry building for everything you could imagine, the most comical being a Ministry of Carpets, Ministry of Horses and a Ministry of Fairness (?!). The Ministry of Health was supposed to be shaped like a giant injection and the Ministry of Publishing shaped like a giant book. Its hard to describe the city so will let the pictures do the talking, but what struck me the most was the feeling that there was no one around in the new parts of the city, it was almost like a display town waiting for people to come and live there.

We had to travel to the older parts of the city, where there were all soviet style buildings, to see any semblance of normal life in Ashgabad. The city was destroyed in 1948 after a massive earthquake that killed 110,000 (although Stalin put offical figures at 14,000 as disasters were not a good look for the Soviet regime). One main building survived, a flour mill. The man in charge of building the flour mill was jailed by Stalin after its completion for using too much concrete in its construction. He was then released from jail and instated as a hero after it became the only building to survive the quake!

Our hotel in Ashgabad was typical of the Soviet era...we had a lady on every floor who was responsible for looking after the room keys and the rooms (you had to ask for soap and towels). We had a great view from our room and could just see the Presidents Palace in the distance (it is forbidden to photograph it - I was yelled at from the staff on the ground for taking photos from the balcony) and the mountains and border with Iran (30km away).  There were many restrictions including an 11pm curfew and we had to follow our itinerary closely and also register in every town we stayed in. There were also frequent police checkpoints on roads throughout the country and many policemen on the streets of Ashgabad. You cannot be an independent tourist here, you must hire a guide.

You guessed it...the Ministry of Publishing

Enourmous statue that we went up in to get a view of the city - It was built to remember the day in 1991 when Turkmenistan was signed up as a neutral country by the UN

View of desert city and crazy buildings. Big circle-like building towards left of picture in background is the world's largest indoor ferris wheel!

No cars in sight, or people for that matter, despite it being a Saturday afternoon
One of the many golden statues of the President

Empty streets along boulevard with apartments for government elite

Statues dedicated to all things Turkmen

The other side of the city - old style apartments and people and cars!

A statue to remember the big quake: Legend has it the earth rests in the horns of a bull and the bull shifted its neck resulting in the earthquake

View from hotel window with Iranian border in mountains in the background. The gold dome just peaking out is the Presidents Palace which it was not allowed to be photographed, hence being told off for taking photos on the balcony!

Kipchak mosque, which has script on the walls inside from a book written by the president Niyazov called Ruhmana (Book of Soul) which was compulsory reading for all Turkmen people. There is also a tomb next door where he is buried.
You can sell anything you like from the boot of your car at the farmer's market
Katrien and I on the last night on tour. Girls were served beer with straws to apparently make it more ladylike, yea right!
It was the end of my Dragoman trip in Ashgabad, and I was really sad to say goodbye to all the crew. Myself and 10 others finished here, with the remainder continuing on to Azerbaijan, Georgia and Turkey. It feels wierd after spending 29 days with the same people and then all of a sudden travelling on my own again! Had some great laughs and experiences along the way. We played a lot of the card game 'shit-head' on the trip, essential at long waits at the borders, with the loser having the title of shit-head until the next game...and unfortunately I now hold the esteemed title of 'eternal shit-head' for losing the last game before I left!!

After leaving Ashgabad I flew to Urumqi in Western China. At Ashgabad airport I went through four lots of xray bag checks, and then a 20min wait at passport control for the border guards to turn up. The impression I got from local authorities here is that everything is done very much by their time frame and the concept of customer service is mostly unheard of!

I arrived in Urumqi at 7am, but the sun was still not up...despite being 3 hours flying time from Beijing in the east, Urumqi, and the whole of China, bizzarly share the same timezone. It was a shock getting off the plane to 8 degrees after leaving Ashgabat in the mid 30s! I had originally planned on catching the overnight train from Urumqi to Beijing but could not get a seat as it was "Golden Week" in China (National holiday week) when most of the country travels to see family. So I had a day and night to explore the city, mainly famous for being the farthest main city in the world from the sea. The Tianshan mountain range borders the city, the same mountain range we saw in Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan. There is a large presence of Uyghurs (Turkic ethnic group) who also live in Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, in Urumqi, so I saw much of the same food and people as I had in Central Asia.

I thought I was pretty clever negotiating with taxi driver in Urumqi using my very best charades (have had a lot of charades communication practice on this trip!) to get a cheap rate and not use the meter which worked a treat, but then was not so clever when I ordered a cup of coffee at the airport without first checking the price - ended up paying $18 for a luke warm cup of instant coffee with powedered milk sachet, big ouch!

I flew to Beijing and into muggy smog. It was strange flying in as the last time I was here was for the Olympics in 2008. I went out to visit the Olympic stadium, and sat inside which was very weird, but it was a great tonic to be able to sit in the stadium and reflect on life's ups and downs over the past four years. Next stop North Korea!

Self portrait at Beijing Olympic Stadium

Inside the Olympic stadium - preparing for some kind of show

"Golden week" travel chaos at Beijing train station

1 comment:

  1. I was so fascinated by your descriptions and experiences. Thank you Becky.