From the border we took a taxi to the center of Ashgabat for 10 USD. The ride takes some 20 minutes and here is where you start to be in shock. When you enter Ashgabat you feel you are entering a 22nd century city: wide avenues filled with white street lamps, everything clean, white marble buildings all around... wow, after Iran this was a big shock.
We walked a bit to see a couple of nearby squares, some buildings and everything the same: empty, clean and white. All buildings in Ashgabat, at least in the downtown, are white marble and new. We then went to the Russian Market, quite close to our hotel and it was the first time we saw "normal" people and how probably looked Ashgabat before the marble time. Not a lot of people, but there were people shopping and walking around. And even some nice souvenirs shops! There's something special about Turkmens, too. Almost all of them are wearing traditional hats. Men wear a round colorful one whereas women have two types of hats: single ones wear one similar to men and they are all with braids, while married women wear a colorful scarf more like in Iran and their hair is totally covered. Besides, a lot of young girls are wearing a traditional dress, which are actually beautiful, colorful with different patterns.
Back in the center we went to the train station to book an overnight trai ticket to Turkmenabat, in the border with Uzbekistan, just to make sure we had a place in the train, as we could only be in the country 5 days and we had to plan everything well.
Anyway, with our train ticket we went to the station restaurant to eat something. And what a nice surprise: the kebab, pizza, hamburger diet was over!! The restaurant was like the ones you have in Russia, home-made food on display and you choose what you want to have. The options were several, such as stew, soup, baked potatoes... like paradise after Iran!
And later it was the moment to go to the British Pub and have the first beer in one month! The Pub was a European looking one, quite appreciated after one month in Iran, and we could enjoy our good but pricey beer. As we qute liked the Turkmen beer we went to a nearby Pivobar (Beer Bar) to have another one, this time at the better price of 3 manats. In the bar there were even some local people and the owner even tried to communicate wth us and he was nice! Maybe Turkmenistan is not that bad....
So, we woke up early and started the sightseeing tour. The plan was going to the Independence Park, Independence Square, the Presidential Palace... typical sights. We started by taking a bus to the Independence Park. Buses are really cheap and, to match with the city, totally white.
You get to the Park, a massive one with the biggest fountain in the world to make sure all the city is the same: No people (only cleaning women and police), clean and marble buildings. We walked along the park, saw a big sculpture of the Ruhnama (the national book explaining the history and culture of the country according to the president), mandatory to study at schools, and some golden statue of Niyazov, the former crazy president who started building what is today Turkmenistan. While trying to take pictures in the park we noticed that is not as easy as in other countries. If the police sees you taking a picture of anything they wil shout at you and tell you it is forbidden. So you better hide a bit.
On the way to the mosque is the first time you see how Ashgabat looked like before the marble craze. Soviet neighbourhoods quite run-down and with even a few people walkig on the street. Nothing special but quite a contrast from the city center. The mosque is totally avoidable, so we took a bus which was going out from city to have like a sightseeing tour. Again, the bus drives through wide avenues with 4 lanes but totally empty. Clean, wide avenues and no cars. What's the point? On the way you get to see more and more marble buidings and hundreds of white streetlamps, plus Ashgabat flagpole.
After that, we just went to buy some beers and to the hotel (watch out not to be out late, as there is a curfew at 23:00). The feeling was now quite different from the day before. Turkmenistan is just a country where there's a guy ruling it and everybody does what he wants to. For tourists almost everything is forbidden and actually there's not much to see, only white marble buildings which look pretty much the same.
The next morning was our last day in the capital before heading to Turkmenabat. We went to the bazar outside town. It used to be one of the best ones in Central Asia, but this damn goverment has ruined it. Now it is just a big concrete area with numbered buildings and shops inside. Not worth going at all. Still, there are some really beautiful things to buy, like traditional dresses or bracelets. Actually, before Niyazov came to power and also before Soviet times, Turkmenistan must have been a really nice country according to the handicrafts and stuff you see, but now is everything totally ruined.
We arrived in Turkmenabat at 6 in the morning and we just waited to be light. Then the problem was to find some accomodation. We checked the hotel next to the station: 60 USD. Not an option, so we took a bus to another one. Not knowing where the bus was going we ended up in a bazar outside the city. Back to the city and to another hotel. 38 USD for a room totally wasted and with no hot water. Discarded. We sterted asking on the street and we came accross a nice hairdresser, who offered us to stay at her place for free. Wow!! There are really nice Turkmen people, at least in Turkmenabat! He took us home, introduced us to her children and gave us plenty of food. It was like going back to Iran. We left the backpack there and went to explore a bit the city.
Turkmenabat is more a normal city than Ashgabat. No marble buildings, not as much police... but it has nothing interesting to see. We just went to the bazar, which as being Sunday was very busy. Shopkeepers there were very nice, trying to talk to us and stuff, you felt more like in a normal place after being scared all the time in Ashgabat in case you did something wrong. we had something to eat and back to the hairdresser's place to find out bad news. She had talked to her husband and he told her she couln't take strangers home. She was really sorry about it, but we were with no place to stay overnight and it was already quite late. After she gave us food and put us in a taxi we went to a hotel the woman told us. It was closed, do the onlyoption we had was going back to the 38 USD with no hot water hotel. It was a total rip-off, but we had no choice.
And so we did. We woke up early in the morning, went to the train station to take a taxi to the Uzbek border and said "hope to not see you again" to Turkmenistan. Ahead of us there were 3 days of express sightseeing in Uzbekistan, as we only got a 3-day transit visa, quite a pity, as Uzbekistan is supposed to be much more interesting than Turkmenistan.
As a conclusion, the 5 days in Turkmenistan were not the best ever, but still it was a fulfilling experience in terms of seeing a totalitarian country with plenty of restrictions and where a lot of things are forbidden. Turkmenistan is just a place you don't want to spend your holidays in, because even as a tourist you have a lot of restrictions, but if you have to go there, just try to make the best of it. Anyway, I hope the situation changes and they have a change in the goverment because it cannot be that a big city is totally empty of people and that they have prohibitions for everything: no pictures, no internet, no smoking, no being out after 11 at night, no walking next to some places... And of course, people are scared of talking to you, scared of going out... a totally tourist-unfriendly place. Thanks God we are not Turkmens!
Still, if you are heading to Turkmenistan, you can check our travel guides of Ashgabat and Turkmenabat and have a look at our Turkmenistan picture gallery!