One of the best parts about our trip has been filling in the blanks on the world map for all those countries we had no real impression of. Who really knows what Turkmenistan is like? For us, aside from a few vague ideas about grand statues of a dictatorial president and natural gas, we certainly didn’t. Now we’re starting to get an image of a country where gold teeth are definitely in vogue along with dark tinted car windows and pleasant cafes. Government buildings are made of gleaming white stone and the towns are surprisingly green and reasonably pretty with many well-kept parks.
Sometimes, looking at the Ladas and old apartment blocks, you feel as if you’ve been put in a time warp 30 years back to the Soviet Union and then you turn a corner and are confronted with some very new kitsch. But if Turkmenistan is keen on building tributes to its dearly departed leader, they aren’t putting half as much focus on the roads. We’ve been shaken up, down and all around really as we navigate endless potholes and patchy tarmac and this is on the main artery going through the capital and linking one end of the country to the other! It’s perhaps the first and only country in the world where we could say the current fashion for owning an SUV is truly justified. On a bicycle, it’s just bone-rattling most of the time.
The poor roads have been more than made up for by the friendly people. We get the feeling that if the police weren’t everywhere, watching to make sure we don’t talk too long to any one person, the Turkmens might give the Iranians a run for their money in the hospitality business. One fellow stopped his car today to thrust some cash into our hands, pointing to the sky and saying Allah as he insisted we take his gift. We’ve received many a smile and “Welcome to Turkmenistan” as we wander through the markets and the few people who speak a bit of English are very curious to know more about us. The women in particular always have broad smiles and never seem to mind posing for a picture. When we joined them at a water tap today, they welcomed us with open arms as we waited in the queue to fill our bottles, although they seemed to think it funny that two Canadians would need to wait at the local water point.
Despite our initial fears, we haven’t yet felt like prices are being increased whenever we approach a shop. Quite the contrary. At less than $5 U.S. dollars, we thought our lunch of freshly fried chicken and a zingy carrot and garlic salsa with bread and a drink was well worth the money. Thank goodness for that because at the rate we’re going we’re going to need all the hearty lunches we can get. We’re hoping that we’ve made up enough time to allow us to see the great site of Merv tomorrow – a formerly glorious city ruined by Ghengis Khan – before carrying on to the next set of roadside cafes where we should be able to get a room for the night.