Ashgabat is not such a hip destination as New York where I was a few weeks ago - in that journey we were packed as sardines on the plane, but now only 20 passengers arrived on the 221-seat Airbus. I had enough place to stretch out...
I booked a trip with a Canadian agency, not my usual Explore. This company is way more expensive than my UK favorite, but neither Explore nor the other agencies I usually travel with come to this area, so I had to pay a premium. It is very unusual for me to travel in a 40-seater aircon Mercedes and stay in 4 star hotel... but nothing to complain about.
When I arrived to Ashgabat, I thought for a while that I boarded a wrong plane and landed in Dubai instead. The road from the airport to the hotel is absolutely littered with fantastic, brand new marble high-rise buildings. The new president has a policy that every single building must be covered with white marble from Italy, so the whole city shines.
They have plenty of money from oil and gas, but unlike Dubai, they do not spend it on the wealth of their citizens, but rather to carry out ambitious building programs. There are also a huge number of parks with hundreds of fountains and golden statues of the first president, Niyazov, or Turkmenbasi, who died last December. He left USD 3 billion wealth and a country which is listed by the Reporters without Borders the second to last in terms of press freedom. The situation is worse only in North-Korea.
I dress as usual - took along all clothes which are too small, too boring, and sentenced to get rid of. Usually I leave these behind (often used by locals) and make place in the suitcase for presents. This time, however, traveling with a more upscale crowd, I feel a bit strange as all other passengers dress really fancy and put make-up for breakfast already. But I do not really care. I am the youngest in the group, there are 12 of us, mostly from the US and Canada, but there is a Scottish guy as well from Europe.
Apart from the sights of the capital, we visited the 3 UNESCO sights of the country, all three of them are excavations of old cities flourished in the 11-12 centuries as trading cities on the Silk Route and later ruined by the mongols. There are Nisa, Merv and Kunya Urgech, all of them were quite interesting. Traveling in the countryside showed another face of the country - run-down living quarters, old factories, museums with non-functioning toilets... what we really expected.
Crossing the border to Uzbegistan was a real adventure. We saw a huge number of Turkmens, carrying flat-screen TV, microwave, aircon, fridge, etc to Uzbegistan. They buy it in the cheaper Iran and make some profit with the trade. It reminded me how 20-25 years ago all Hungarians traveled to Austria to buy similar goods. Oh, those lovely old days of communism... :-))
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