Overland! Over what? With who?
Our trip to Central Asia was decided and agreed to during an evening in the pub. Would I never learn? I decided to climb (the not so wonderful) Kilimanjaro after an evening in the pub, a feat I shall never repeat. Oh well, this trip was cheap, someone else would be in charge, the website described the wonders of the East, they promised to be flexible and the group would be filled with like minded travellers. It sounded amazing. Even when I had to tidy up my Facebook page to pass the requirements for Iran, scan a document or send over a cv at short notice, I was still looking forward to it. Even after the third email stating that we were no longer going to Iran, and that this was a budget trip and we all had to get stuck in, the smile stayed fixed in place. Though the smile slipped and the glitter dulled after the last email reiterating the point. My 'shit, who the hell is on this trip?' antennae started twitching. Why did they feel we needed reminding what was clearly stated on their website, again? Were we about to be faced with a bunch of not so like minded travellers? Oh well, it was done. 10 weeks with 40 strangers in a large orange truck travelling across Central Asia. Pants! We arrived in Ashgabat late on the 6th of September after a day travelling from London. For those wishing to fly to Central Asia, Lufthansa run a pretty good service, not too expensive, the food is pleasant and they still serve alcohol. The only downside would be that you have to make your own entertainment. But Cedric and I were content.
Oh, before we move on let me introduce you to the core travelling team. 'The Man', the other half, my travelling partner for the last few trips, but not Kilimanjaro (even he wasn't stupid enough to do that). We also refer to him as the 'shopping killer'. He doesn't understand the need to buy souvenirs, send postcards, bargain or just wander bazaars. I blitz shop now, leaving him behind to fulfil my need to buy. Though my bags are lighter and my pockets heavier so it's not all bad. And, Cedric has also joined us for the first time. He replaces Sparky who I lost, correction, who was stolen in Colombia. [For those who don't know, Sparky had been my travelling companion for over 10 years and had been everywhere with me.] Right, now you know us, let's return to Ashgabat. Our flight actually arrived at 23.15, and we made our way through a very clean, shiny new airport. We saw people dressed in blue, green and yellow track suits waiting patiently for athletes and delegates attending and participating in the Asian games (Indoor games & martial arts), which Turkmenistan are hosting. 'The Man' and I strode forward to the visa registration window with our Letters of invitation (LOI), and started the visa process. The guard stopped us and said we had to wait another 30 minutes until it was 12am on the 7th. Sure, we thought that may be the case. We changed money, used the clean toilets, watched the Games officials get organised and become more excited,, and attracted the attention of security and administrative staff. In case you have not already heard, ‘black people are a rarity’! Finally, it was 12. 'The Man' went through easily, but my passport picture was taken after an overnight flight from Boston, and after a dodgy tummy. Let's say I don't look good or fresh in it. And, I had short bright red hair as opposed to the foot long braids I was sporting. Try explaining that to people who have never seen braids before. But, I was in! Our transport had been arranged by the company, and we learnt a little about the city. The games were coming so the taking of photographs were prohibited near government buildings and streets were closed. There were people cleaning the streets at midnight and building roads. This was going down to the wire, like most games around the world. Alcohol had been banned, the country was dry! W T F? The hotel was nice, and so far the most luxurious we have stayed in. We settled in and tried to get a beer, no joy. But they had vodka, whisky or wine! Did I miss something? I thought it was dry. I settled for a glass of Turkmen wine. A nice sweet wine, but chilled and not too sweet. I shared it with 'The Man'. This trip didn't seem too bad. The next day the group had still not arrived as they were driving from the border of Azerbaijan / Turkmenistan. Free day for us! A free day is when you don’t travel, can do your own thing and do not need to hang out with the group!, This is something I would come to cherish.. Ashgabat was rebuilt by the soviets after an earthquake destroyed most of the buildings, and now the Turkmens are replacing the buildings with marble, parks with confers are dotted around the city. Women clean obsessively throughout the day, there is no dirt, the buildings and monuments are pristine, there is not an unruly blade of grass let alone person. And, allegedly it is illegal to have a dirty car. Still trying to confirm this fact. At night a group of workers, mainly women seem to descend on the city and replace wilting plants and scrub the streets clean. There is no dust, with this being a desert country should give you a sense of how they work to keep the city clean.
It was 40 degrees, with very little shade. There are a number of sites to see, and we tried but the roads were closed to both pedestrians and traffic as the government are wary of pictures and people visiting (and possibly dirtying) their monuments. All very odd and controlling. so we ended up in the Russian market, getting fleeced, but at least in a bit of shade. Oh well it's got to happen at least once. I paid over the odds for a shitty watch, as I don't travel with anything expensive on show. The watch now has a rubber band holding the strap together. We then ended up at a bar / restaurant, and they had real beer. Oh my god, cold, alcoholic beer in an air conditioned space. And, salty cheese. It's like cheese flavoured salty rubber string. Odd, but good with beer, and perfect in this heat.
After lots of staring and a group of women and their children grabbing us to take photos of and with, we later ended up at ‘Gunes’ with a friend of 'The Man's', who was in Ashgabat for the Asian Games. We tried the tongue, BBQ chicken and more salty cheese. Oh their salads are also great. More beer, locals dancing and getting drunk. The service is interesting in that your aim as a patron is not to piss off the waitress. For which we failed, first by moving table and then by complaining to the manager as we could not get served. Otherwise they’re great there, the atmosphere is good, and if you like meat you’ll love it. Tomorrow we were to meet the group! We had seen them earlier in the day arriving from the monstrous orange truck that is known as Alice. All sweaty and grimy as they walked across the car park towards the cool hotel. Let the fun begin…