6 days in Turkmenistan

Well I've been promising this for ages, and I'm still only half way through it.

And I'm off on my next trip tomorrow (to some more ex-soviet states)

So I'll post what I've done and come back to it later. It's not like this is a busy forum and it will shoot off down the page

so:

The first 3 days of Five Stans of The Silk Road - Exodus Travel.

Firstly, Exodus need to be applauded for running this trip, as the most comprehensive single trip to the region that is available at this price point. It's booking well, this year there were 5 trips arranged and the same for next year, It has proved so popular doubled to 10, filling up fast for trip over a year away.

It is the kind of tour that requires the possibility of a score of 6 out of 5. Not because I think that it deserves 6, but because it was too good not to score it as a 5, but had enough flaws to need to knock a point off the total, so that's 5 out of 6 I am giving it.

So, advertorial over (I promise, I'm wasn't paid for that), onto the trip.

Day 0 - after an overnight journey with a change at Istanbul, I arrive at Ashgabat at 07:00 the day before the tour starts. I already have in my pocket a copy of the Letter of Invitation required by TKM that Exodus, eventually, obtained for me. I think you'll find that saga detailed elsewhere. Despite warnings on the letter that it is no guarantee of entry, changing this letter into the actual visa is easy. You just queue up at the visa counter, hand it over with your passport, get given an invoice which you have to take to the adjacent bank counter, pay the 99 dollar fee and return to collect your passport with visa duly affixed. Whilst at this queue I get talking to an Australian couple who, quite by chance, are on the same tour, we'll meet again later as I follow my way through the rest of the immigration process.

Back in the arrivals hall, despite having queued up at the visa counter there is still a sizable number of people still waiting to be processed, so get on this queue. The immigration process is quite long with lots of desks to stop at. At the first my passport and visa is checked, but oh you need the receipt for the payment as well! What do they think I did? Put my hand over the counter and ran off with my passport without paying? And no burly policemen are following me? Finger prints and photo are taken, off to the next desk, pass by a couple of official by the door, Oh you want to see my passport again, what do you think it might have done with it in the last 20 yards? Collects bags from carousel and exit luggage reclaim, passports checks at exit. Oh well at least this time they actually check that the name on the luggage label matches. Need to put bags on scanner to be checked, operator takes my passport from me. He doesn't like something in my bag and insists on it being searched. Turns out to be my head torch, laughs and give me my bag, and my passport. About an hour and a half after we landed, leave the hall via "nothing to declare" exit not without another "passport please!".

Oh well, I suppose that's what's to be expected in the 5th most authoritarian country in the world! Having said that, all of the people conducting these entry formalities were very pleasant whilst they did their job. There was no systemic East German unfriendliness here.

Met in arrivals by the Exodus rep. Originally, I had declined this offer as the hotel is only 2Km away and the fee for this pick up was extortionate. But it later transpired that Turkmen law requires me to be escorted on all parts of my trip. Making my own way from airport to hotel is not allowed, so they had to add this to my tour at no cost to me. Fortunately for Exodus, it didn't costs them an extra trip because they were picking up the two Aussies anyway, so I don't fell guilty about it.

The rep is just a driver and doesn't speak very good English. We tell him that we need to stop off somewhere to change money, and then visit a supermarket. We are quite happy to go to some official change place but he arranges to get us some money on the black market at a "better" rate. I changed 60 Euro for 300 Manat. I do hope I'm not getting anyone into trouble by this comment. He then takes us to a supermarket for some, drinks and snacks. (This turns out not to be necessary as there are quite a few supermarkets walking distance of the hotel, but we didn't know that then). International brand drinks are hard to find so we buy some local brands. Biscuits and snacks are expensive so I just buy some flat bread. This was very salty, I hope that this isn't normal. (Fortunately it turns out that it isn't.)

The drinks aren't great either. They all have that nasty "I've been made with artificial sweetener" aftertaste. The Aussies didn't like them either. I resolve to stick with International brands for the rest of the trip. It's not like (when you can fine them) they are expensive 30 cents per can is normal shop price. 60 cents in a bar/restaurant.

We are staying at the Ak Altyn, a hotel that seems to be used by all of the UK companies that come to Ashgabat. It's a reasonable good hotel, in an out of the way location for sight seeing. It is too early to check in so I have to wait in the lounge until a room is ready for me (the Aussies had originally expected to arrive the previous night so their room is available). At about 12:30 I am allocated a room and I spend the afternoon asleep catching up with lost sleep from last night.

Did I mention it's been 36 degrees today, so when at about 18:00 I take a walk outside, it is still too warm to do anything. I use Google maps (offline mode) to help me find somewhere to eat. It takes me past a beer garden and a bar, neither of which seem to offer a choice of food. And I end up at the cafe Altyn Acar just opposite the Pushkin Theatre.

Good choice of food, well cooked, well presented and with a "picture" menu for those of us who can't read the local language (or Russian). For cheap eats can't fault this place really. I have a Borsch soup to start and chicken with rice for main, plus a drink and bread, for 40 Manat (8 Euro).

I walk back to the hotel a different way and discover supermarkets and a bar just around from the hotel. These may prove useful in the next days.

Day 1. the rest of the group arrive today, but not until after midnight, so I have the day to myself. Breakfast at this hotel is not the greatest, with the aromatic cordials that pass for juice being particularly dislikeable. But what can you do wrong with eggs and toast, so it fills a hole.

It is going to be very hot again, and I don't feel like walking into downtown, so just spend the day in the hotel and in the evening walk a bit further around the hotel, this time past the Kopetdag Stadium (the home of Köpetdag Asgabat, one of the most successful Turkmen teams) and, not having found anything better, back to the same cafe as before. I randomly pick a soup from the picture, which turns out to be chicken noodle, and what looks like fish, but which turns out to be chicken - again. No bread served today, so the bill is slightly smaller.

Day 2. Start off with breakfast with the Aussies and they tell me that on their trip into town the previous day they got "nabbed" by the police for taking a photo of an official building and were made to delete it. More authoritarian nonsense. If I were a spy casing the place and taking photos I'd be doing it with a discrete hidden camera not standing in the middle of the road being obvious about it.

We start off with a group meeting at 10:00 and meet both the English guide, who is to accompany us on the whole trip, and our local Turkmen guide. The group is a full complement of 16, 4 couples, 6 singles and 2 friends travelling together in a double. All from the UK except for the Aussies couple and 2 (single) Irish. We start the trip off properly with a bus tour of the city at 12:00 driving past some of the "famous" white buildings of Ashgabat. This tour is bit too rushed and it's difficult to take photos, so at one of the breaks I make this comment to the guide. He says that he will ask the driver to slow down for photos, which, to his credit he does, to the absurdity of us driving around one roundabout three times to the amusement of a group of watching workmen.

We stop off a few places in the city on this trip, I've noted Independence square, though I can't recall it. The most interesting stop was at the arch of Neutrality where we joined half a dozen wedding parties all engaging in the practice of having photos at a historic spot (not something we do where I come from, but I have seen it elsewhere). These groups seem quite happy to have us group of foreigners join in their party and have their photo taken with the bride and groom. Bit weird that.

One of the things that disappointed me one this tour was that we rushed past the optimistically named Olympic complex without a stop. I would have preferred a stop to walk around and take photo here too rather than driving past at 30mph.

Last stop of the day is the National Museum, and for some unknown reason we are rushed around here too in 40 minutes. Definitely not enough time here.

With hindsight, I regret not using yesterday usefully to visit the city centre, as the tour today was definitely too rushed. Everything was given half the time that it really deserved. And Ashgabat is somewhere that I shall never go back to. Even if I can find the time in my diary, the far too prescriptive Visa rules make it a Non!

After a short break in the hotel we make an evening visit to the Iceburg beer garden. The one just a few 100 metres from the hotel, that I passed yesterday. Now that we have the advantage of our guide as a Russian translator we can understand what is on the menu. It seems that for drinks there is really only beer. I'm not a great beer drinker but as there isn't anything better I have a glass. For food there is Shashlik, that's kebabs to everyone else. Lamb, chicken or (something else), plus chips and, for the vegetarians, a vegetable plate. This is actually one of the few places that we go on the trip that actually had anything at all for vegetarians (of which the tour had 2), often the response from the waiter is that they can have chips or rice!

This was not a great choice of venue. Whist it was OK for me, the beer fans reckoned that the beer was not great and my lamb shashlik was 30% gristle (something which put me off ordering the dish again on this trip - other dishes might be equally poor meat, but shashlik is always at the higher priced end of the menu!). Reports from the people who had chicken was that that was poor too. Hopefully Exodus will find somewhere else to take later groups.