Turkmenistan’s cities are the most bizarre of our trip so far.
Today we arrived in Turkmenabad, the country’s second biggest city. When we reached Mary a few days earlier we found it oddly deserted so this time we were hoping for a bit of life on the streets. We cycled down a long boulevard, wide and reasonably modern with a string of government buildings in white, polished stone. A larger-than-life statue of Turkmenistan’s dearly departed dictator sat in front of each one. He died in late 2006 but so numerous are the pictures and sculptures of Niyazov, with no sign of Turkmenistan’s current president, you could be forgiven for wondering if he died at all.
After going several kilometers and never seeing a sign or more than a solitary shop, we started to wonder just where the centre was. We stopped to ask directions from a group of taxi drivers. “Centre?” we said, speaking first in English and then using broken Russian. “Da,” they replied, pointing to the ground beneath them. Here, right here, they seemed to be saying but all we saw running off the boulevard was a string of Soviet apartment blocks with flaking paint, sagging shutters, rusting satellite dishes and a few depressed citizens outside smoking cigarettes.
It turned out this was the centre and our hotel was in one of these vintage buildings. Not long afterwards a slim woman with streaks of red in her blond hair was showing us to our suite in Hotel Lebapgurlushyk. Yes, here in Turkmenistan $25 U.S. buys you a real three-room hotel suite. Before you get too jealous, it’s hardly the Ritz with fading, ripped wallpaper, flaking paint and dusty sofas. Still, it’s almost certainly the only suite we’ll be able to afford on our travels so we’ll just close our eyes and bask in our imagined glory. To be honest, we thought the price was inflated compared to what we’ve paid elsewhere in Turkmenistan, and at five times the going rate for Turkmen citizens, but our choices were limited. This hotel seems to be the only game in town at the moment and they seem to know that. Anyway, the shower was hot and after a few days in the desert that was all that really mattered.
Later, we set out once again to try to find some excitement in Turkmenabad. Every street was almost empty. Once in a while we’d stumble across a Turkmenbashi Bank on one block, a cafe a few hundred meters away, but you could hardly call it a lively atmosphere. Eating out is cheap here so we wandered into a dark restaurant for a meal that ran us all of $7 U.S for bread, a starter, main course, drinks and a tip. With Russian music videos booming away in the background, most of the tables empty and barely enough light to see what we were eating, our big night out in Turkmenistan felt just like the city of Turkmenabad itself; certainly memorable, easy on the wallet but more than a little strange!