Saturday, 18 August 2012


The ferry crossing was mesmerising, sailing across a black vacuum, the lights of distant stars muddled with those of the drilling platforms. We arrived in Turkmenistan the next morning. With the constant spread of freedom and democracy across the globe, it’s becoming more and more difficult to visit a bona-fide police state these days. On paper Turkmenistan definitely looks like a sound bet; closed off country with poor human rights record, universal censorship and an eternal president who builds rotating gold statues of himself etc.

One aspect that certainly lives up to my expectations of a dictatorship is the Capital City Ashgabat. It is a hyper-reality, full of countless fountain lined avenues running between white-marble-clad hotel complexes, government buildings and embassies. From a distance it almost looks like Vegas. However, the city is so devastatingly lacking in character that you get a headache just from walking around the monotonous emptiness of the place. None of the buildings serve any purpose other than to impress, there are hardly any shops or restaurants and everything is set back from the street and guarded by fences. The place is so boring it makes downtown Singapore on a Sunday morning look exciting. The most similar experience I can think of is walking around a city in a video game where only the facades of the buildings have been designed to a low level of detail and you know that there is nothing inside any of the buildings. This sensation of emptiness is in itself an impressive featand makes Ashgabat a phenomenon that I have never seen before.

Unfortunately the massive investment in Ashgabat stops about 5km out of the city when the highway disintegrates into desert with the sporadic helping of asphalt. Unfortunately this is the only road through thedesert and up to Uzbekistan. As if the 47°Cof the Karakum Desert isn’t hot enough, right in the middle lies the Darvaza burning gas crater. It’s an old gas mine that collapsed and caught fire in the 60s and has been burning ever since. Watching it slowly light up as the sun sets is one of the most incredible things that I’ve ever seen.

After crossing over into Uzbekistan I travelled to the fishing town of Moynaq. This town is perhaps the strongest example of the effects of the well documented shrinking of the Aral Sea. It now lies hundreds of kilometres from the coast and its fishing boats have been left sitting in the desert. The town lies downwind from an old Soviet Bioweapons testing facility, originally built in the safety of Vozrozhdeniya island, it is now part of the desert and it’s semi-buried anthrax containers are a constant threat to locals. From this bleakness I am now travelling to the relatively popular tourist destinations of Khiva and Samarkand and along the silk road as I gradually get closer to Beijing.

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