I was surprised and honoured to be nominated for the Mystery Blogger Award by Julie from Dark Blue Journal
Julie blogs about a little bit of everything and even gets philosophical at times. Her main focus is on our environmental impact and practical ways to reduce our affect on the earth. If you care for our little blue marble and want to see it preserved after we’re gone, the Dark Blue Journal has a wealth of information for you. Go check it out, now!
What is the Mystery Blogger Award?
The award was created by Okoto Enigma. It was created as a way for blogs that haven’t been discovered to gain some recognition.
“Mystery Blogger Award” is an award for amazing bloggers with ingenious posts. Their blog not only captivates; it inspires and motivates. They are one of the best out there, and they deserve every recognition they get. This award is also for bloggers who find fun and inspiration in blogging; and they do it with so much love and passion.
– Okoto Enigma
Mystery Blogger Award Rules
1) Put the award logo/image on your blog
2) List the rules
3) Thank whoever nominated you and provide a link to their blog
4) Mention the creator of the award and provide a link as well
5) Tell your readers 3 things about yourself
6) Nominate 10 – 20 people
7) Notify your nominees
8) Ask your nominees any 5 questions of your choice; with one weird or funny question (specify)
9) Share a link to your best post(s)
Three Facts About Me
So as not to bore you by rambling on about myself, I’m gonna keep my answers here short. If you need more elaboration, let me know in the comments!
1) I’m a Third Culture Adult.
2) I’m shorter and older than you think.
3) I really, REALLY hate adulting.
What are your thoughts about the paranormal?
I believe that some people believe, but I’m gonna need some proof.
Do you think humans will overcome the climate problems, and why?
Sadly no. For several reasons, the biggest being money. People with money that have interests in industries that are environmentally destructive aren’t about to lose money over the environment. Greed is a bitch.
Aside from that, there are still too many people denying that climate change even exists. It’s impossible to take the required action when you can’t get the proper consensus.
Furthermore, even if we stopped producing everything that’s environmentally harmful and implemented clean strategies TODAY, we’d still have an impossibly large amount of waste left behind that would take years to eliminate.
I’ll still keep doing my part regardless.
What’s a story that really stuck with you?
Not so much stories, but things that I’ve seen while travelling tend to stick with me and remind me how lucky I am to be in the situation I’m in.
What’s your favorite trait about yourself?
I’m awesome! Haha, just kidding. I’m tenacious. I will keep going long after I think I can.
What is your hope for 2020?
I think you can guess what I want; more travel!
I nominate the following awesome bloggers who offer amazingly helpful content. Go visit them now. I’ll wait.
1) Life isn’t perfect. What gets you through the bad times?
2) How many languages can you curse in?
3) Are rules made to be followed or broken? Why?
4) Would you rather be trapped somewhere with humans or dogs/cats?
5) Have you ever tried something/been somewhere and thought, “Never again!”?
I’m excited to say that I have once again been nominated by April from Rodes on the Road for a blogging award. This time it’s the Sunshine Blogger Award. The award aims to recognise positive bloggers who act as an inspiration to others.
Obviously I’m grateful to April for this nomination, but I’m also quite humbled by the fact that anyone would see me as an inspiration. To me, I’m just an average person doing what I do. Sure, some of what I do involves crazy adventures in far-off lands, but that’s nothing that can’t be done by any other average person. Go on, give it a try! ;o)
What is the Sunshine Blogger Award?
The Sunshine Blogger Award is an award for bloggers from bloggers. It is given to bloggers who are creative, positive and inspiring. A ray of sunshine in the blogging community. People who entertain you and make you smile :o)
Sunshine Blogger Award Nomination Rules
As with all awards of this type, there are some simple rules that the nominee needs to follow.
1) Thank the blogger who nominated you in your blog post and link back to his/her blog.
2) Answer the 11 questions the blogger asked you.
3) Nominate 11 new bloggers to receive the award and write 11 new questions.
4) List these rules and display the Sunshine Blogger Award logo in your post and on your blog.
1. What inspired you to write?
I love writing. I like saying things that no one else has said, or taking something that someone else has said and making it sound better. That’s what got me through high school English!
In relation to my blog, I just love sharing some of the crazy stuff that happens when I travel. From the feedback I’ve gotten, you guys love reading it too!
2. If you’re given a chance to talk to unfortunate young children, what would you say? *Teacher Mode Enabled* Children have an insane capacity to learn and do, if only they are encouraged. So I encourage. I push them. I let them know that they can do anything they think they can do. They might hate me now, but they’ll thank me later!
3. When you have to do an inspirational poem or message, how does it sound?
Inspirational I hope! I don’t normally have to write inspirational stuff, but I do have to motivate kids to learn every day, does that count?
4. Life hits us hard sometimes, and when you hit bottom what do you do? Do you write something about it? In what way? Journal, poem, and or song?
I spent a few years at the bottom and I’m pretty sure it’s writing that got me through it. I wrote hundreds of poems and songs. They may be shared one day. Or not.
5. Who you look up to?
People who do their own thing and don’t follow the crowd. People who are unapologetic about the fact that they are themselves and don’t have to answer to anyone but themselves.
I also have all the time in the world for people that can debate an issue that they have a different opinion about and still keep stuff civil. Embracing differences is what helps us grow.
6. Do you have a favorite book and or author that helps you positively change your life? If yes, what book and who is the name of the author?
Unfortunately, I don’t read books that much these days. When I did, I really loved reading fantasy books by Raymond Feist.
7. Blogging is not an easy task to do. So what difficulties you encountered and how you handle them?
It’s not as glamorous as some would make it out to be! I haven’t really encountered any difficulties yet. Well, except that time that my hosting company couldn’t handle a boost in traffic and my site was down for the best part of 3 days. I’m glad to say that my new hosting company really stepped up.
8. Why should readers follow you?
I hope that I can entertain people and show them that the world is more accessible than they think. I’d also like to show people that travel isn’t just for the rich. I often provide tips and guides for getting through places on a budget.
9. What inspires you to travel, and why?
The world is a wondrous place. Travel enables me to see cultures first hand and have amazing experiences that I can’t have at home. It helps me to not only see the best scenery, but also the best of people. That’s what keeps my faith in humanity alive.
10. Do you find a life quotation that can describe your life journey as a whole? What would it be?
“Life begins on the edge of your comfort zone”. I’m not actually sure that I have a comfort zone anymore, as I spend so much time out of it.
11. In what way you can help spread positivity to your community and to the world we live in?
I try to help out where I can. There are a few charities here in Hong Kong that I offer my time to when I have it.
1) If money wasn’t an issue, what would be your dream trip?
2) Cats or Dogs? Why?
3) What’s your favourite pun?
4) Are you a morning person or a night owl?
5) What’s your travel style? Plan every little detail, or go with the flow?
6) When was the last time you went to a live show? How was it?
7) You have an accident which is either going to cause loss of sight or loss of hearing; which would you prefer and why?
8) What’s something you’re super proud of?
9) What would your superhero name be?
10)Do you think that social media connects us to the world, or disconnects us from real-world interaction?
11) What are 4 things you simply cannot live without?
So you want to see a beautiful Western Asian city but you’re short on time and cash? Then this list of 9 fun things to do in Baku is for you!
Aside from being beautiful, Baku is also unique in so many ways. It’s the only metropolis in the whole of Azerbaijan. Furthermore, it’s situated below sea level on the shores of a sea that isn’t really a sea. Keeping yourself occupied in this city won’t break the bank. In fact, there are many cool and quirky things to do for free!
The activities below will definitely keep you occupied for at least 2 days, but possibly longer if you like to do things at a more leisurely pace.
3 Fun Things to do in Baku For Free
1) Go on a Fountain Hunt
If you love fountains, you’ll love this! The city of Baku has a crazy amount of fountains. Who can blame them really. I mean, who doesn’t love stylised water jets? Seeing how many you can find is a great way to introduce yourself to some of the quirks of the city while you find your bearings.
To save water, most fountains do not run during the daytime, so fountain hunting is some thing that you might want to try after 7pm in the summer season. the added bonus there will be that everything gets cooler in the evening.
2) Admire the Architecture
While you’re hunting fountains, you’ll see a lot of pretty buildings, in both the new and old town. If you love architecture, you can wax lyrical about the different structural influences that can be seen around town.
If you’re not architecturally inclined, there’s certainly still a lot to appreciate about the city’s buildings. Maybe you can take pictures for your friends on Instagram?
3) Find Some Pop-out Friends
You may notice that some of the pretty buildings have heads popping out of them. These are sculptures of people that played a part in the city’s history. Most have a short explanation about how the person contributed.
Some even pop right out of the ground.
3 Fun Things To Do In Baku For Free, With Optional Budget Extras
4) Visit Baku Boulevard/Denizkenari Milli Park
Denizkenari Milli Park, the biggest park in the city, is also known as Baku Boulevard. It stretches along the southern shore of the Caspian Sea for almost 4km. That means you should easily be able to find a quiet spot where you can sit and admire the sea.
You can continue your fountain hunt while walking through the park.
When you finish your walk at Flag Square, you can play chess with little-people-sized chess pieces under the Azerbaijan flag.
Here are some optional extra things to do in the park if you don’t mind spending a little bit of money.
Go to the carnival area and go on some rides. This area may be aimed at children, but they don’t have any signs saying that child-like adults can’t join in the fun!
Maybe if you have kids, you can leave them at the carnival and take a gondola ride on the canal a short walk away.
Finally, to escape the heat, you can head to the Azerbaijan National Carpet Museum. It comes highly recommended by locals and costs 7 Manat for entry.
5) Rise Above It All
There is a place where all the locals in the city gather for the best view. It’s known as ‘The Hill’. You can also find it on Maps.me as ‘Panoramic View’. The beginning of the stairs that lead to the hill can be seen across the road from Flag Square in Denizkenari Milli Park/Baku Boulevard.
If you want to go for the free and fit option, you can walk the 700 metres up the stairs. Make sure you take enough water as there isn’t really an option for resupply on the way up!
If it’s too hot, or you’re feeling a bit lazy, there is a funicular near the start of the stairs that goes up to the Flame Towers. The towers are a little bit past the hill, so you’d have to backtrack a bit, but at least it won’t be uphill! The funicular costs 1 manat each way.
You could also take a taxi. I’m sure all the drivers will know what you mean if you say ‘The Hill’. It shouldn’t cost more than 5 manat/US$3.
6) Get Lost in the Old Town
It’s free to wander around the UNESCO Heritage Listed old town of Baku and soak up the old timey-ness of the narrow alleyways and cobbled roads. There are also handy maps and markers to show you where the points of interest are. Audio guides available to explain the importance of the points of interest, but they cost 5 manat/US$3.
Among the many attractions of the old town is the Miniature Book Museum. It is free to enter and quirky to boot. It’s definitely something to tell your friends about. Unfortunately, it’s closed on Mondays and Thursdays, so plan accordingly.
3 Fun Things to do in Baku on a Budget
7) Qobustan Mud Volcanoes
Looking for a fun adventure outside of the city? Then get yourself to Qobustan, (pronounced Gobustan)! This unassuming little town hides some quirky little secrets away from the main road. Mud volcanoes! These ‘volcanoes’ are about 10 minute drive down a dirt road into the middle of nowhere.
The sounds as the volcanoes ‘erupt’ are giggle-worthy. This place is guaranteed to put a smile on your face without burning a hole in your pocket. To get there, you can take the 125 bus from the city to Bina Ticaret Merkezi, then get the 195 bus and let the driver know you want Qobustan. The combined cost of these buses is less than 1 manat. You’ll get dropped off on the side of the road, where a taxi will be waiting to take you the rest of the way. They will barter hard, but it shouldn’t cost you any more than 10 manat/US$5.
8) Bibi-Hebyat Mosque
This is an amazing mosque and adjoining cemetery perched high above the Caspian Sea. You can catch the 125 bus from the city, so it can be combined quite easily with your visit to Qobustan.
9) Take a Bus or a Train
The transport in Baku is efficient, clean and cheap! You shouldn’t have to pay more than 1 Manat to go anywhere in the city. Each bus stop and metro station has machines where you can purchase a Bakikart for you trip.
Above is a one-time use BakiKart, but there are also BakiKarts available for everyday use, that can be recharged at the machines at all stops. It could be a good idea to purchase one if you plan to spend more time Baku, because you’ve fallen in love with the city. I did! You can see why here.
When I say Beautiful Baku, I mean it’s beautiful in every possible way. It could be described as a little bit of Europe, a little bit of Asia and a whole lot of love. After travelling in Central Asia for 2 months, Baku presented a totally different aesthetic to what I had become accustomed to. While Central Asian cities are fairly low rise and spread out, Baku was definitely rocking a lot more high-rises, but it was also fairly spread out. Even though it’s a huge city, it’s still had a very homely feel to it.
Baku is definitely impressive from the first time you lay eyes on it, even if that time happens to be 2am. That’s when the coach transporting us from the port of Alat arrived. Even at that time, there were middle-aged taxi drivers ready to hassle us to get into their taxi. But in a friendlier way than most around the world.
Myself and my new friends, who had crossed the Caspian Sea with me, decided that we would walk to our hostel. It was only a 10 minute walk away. We were surprised when we arrived at the address and the hostel didn’t seem to be there. We saw a small convenience shop that was opened and asked if they knew where the place was. They didn’t, but they let us use their internet to see if we could find the correct address. We had no luck there, but a local found a phone number and called the place, then gave us a lift there!
Where is it?
When we moved the next day, we encountered another hostel that wasn’t at the location that the map indicated. I also came across this anomaly when I’d booked a hostel across town. A wonderful local saw that I was looking a bit lost and asked if I needed help. He and his friend ended up finding a phone number for the owner and called him for directions.
The helpful locals also had difficulties finding the place when following the numbers on the street. After speaking with the owner, they explained that the street numbers had recently been changed in some areas of the city. They weren’t sure what the reason for this change was but agreed that it was kind of weird. In essence, the numbers found on the buildings, as well as maps, are the old numbers. The new numbers, which for some strange reason were not sequential, were nowhere to be seen. I’m glad to say that this was really the only quirk of Baku that could be a tad annoying.
Beautiful Baku – City of Wind, Fountains and Parks
I met the owner of my hostel, Farid, and he was only too happy to give me information on the city’s history and the best places to go. He informed me that the word Baku, or Баку́ in Russian, came from the old Persian word Bad-kube, which when roughly translated means windy. This probably gave rise to the city’s modern nickname, City of Wind.
I was lucky to not be subjected to the city’s infamous strong winds during my stay, but I did notice there were fountains everywhere.
Fountains of Baku
Most were found in parks that are scattered around the city. They were nocturnal and slept during the day.
Then woke up in the evening.
Some were huge.
And some had pretty lights.
Parks of Baku
Baku is blessed with many parks. It’s hard to walk more than 5 minutes in the city without stumbling upon one. One of the major parks in the city, located on the shore of the Caspian Sea is Denizkenari Milli Park. It is also known as Baku Boulevard and is a popular hangout for locals. You’ll see many people sitting by the sea, or eating ice cream from one of the many vendors there.
There are many things to do in the park. Like visit the carpet museum there, which locals will tell you is a must see. They really do love their carpets.
Or you could take a train
Or play chess under the Azerbaijan flag
Beautiful Baku – Old and New
Apparently, when developing the city, a Parisian-style aesthetic was envisioned. To achieve this coveted look, European architects were brought in to design the city’s buildings. This is why the old city could easily be mistaken for a quaint European town.
The old town, or Icherisheher, while lovely, has become a bit of a tourist destination these days. This means that some areas in it have been overrun by expensive hotels, cafes and restaurants aiming for the tourist dollar. It is however, still free to walk around the town’s narrow walkways and cobbled streets.
There are also many souvenir shops selling local arts and crafts. Some of these still seem to have reasonable prices and very friendly shopkeepers that are eager to have you in their shop. The old town is also home to the Maiden Tower. This tower has a viewing area at the top which is said to offer a fantastic view of the city. Unfortunately, they charge a ridiculous entry fee.
Baku is unique in that it’s the only metropolis in Azerbaijan, as well as being the largest city below sea level. It is also a city where old and new have blended together seamlessly. If you walk just outside of the old city walls, you’re standing in a 21st century metropolis surrounded by mountains and hills. I guess everything’s a hill when your city is 30 metres below sea level. One of these hills has a viewpoint that offers a panoramic view of beautiful Baku.
Beautiful Baku from Above
The mysterious hill with a view doesn’t seem to have a name. All the locals refer to it as ‘the hill’. It’s about a 700m climb up a decent amount of stairs from near Denizkenari Milli Park/Baku Boulevard.
To be honest, the walk up to the hill could be a little overwhelming during the day in the summer if you’re not used to the Baku heat. But there are plenty of places to stop, rest and admire the view on the way up.
There is a road that intersects the path just before the last section of stairs. Many people choose to take a taxi to that point.
On the last sections of stairs, I came across some locals selling fresh fruits. I also noticed some rest points on the way up, for anyone that needs a bit of a break from climbing.
There were incredible views from a few levels going up the stairs, I made sure I checked them all out!
Of course the money shots were at the top. From there you get a panoramic view of the city and the Caspian.
It’s almost enough to make you forget for a moment that you aren’t anywhere near an actual sea. You are in fact probably the furthest inland you could be on almost the entire earth.
While it was lovely during the day, I had a thought that it would be even cooler to see at night when the city is lit up. So I walked back up just before sunset.
It is much busier at this time, but watching night descend upon the city was pretty awesome.
Then just after sunset, at about 21:30 during the summer, you’ll get to watch a light show for free!
There’s Something Quirky in Qobustan
Farid had advised me that if I do only one thing in Baku, it should be a trip to Qobustan, pronounced Gobustan. When I looked on the map, I realised it wasn’t far from Alat, where I had entered Azerbaijan. I decided to hop on one of Baku’s very modern looking buses to get to Bina Ticaret Merkezi, which is an interchange station about 30 minutes from the city centre. From there, I hopped on the 195 bus which stops in Qobustan. Both buses cost only 0.30 Azerbaijani Manat/US$0.18 each.
The bus dropped me off on the side of the road, where there was of course a taxi driver waiting. This taxi driver initially wanted to charge me 20 Manat/US$10 to take me on the 10km round trip to Qobustan’s main attraction. I was firmly against that and said I would pay no more than 10 Manat/US$5. That was a bit of a fail on my part, because I was tired and confused about the exchange rate. It should’ve cost less.
He said his fuel would cost 10 Manat/US$5, which I totally didn’t believe. I knew Azerbaijan had a lot of oil reserves under the Caspian Sea. I’d seen the oil rigs on the way in! He wasn’t budging and neither was I, so he took me to an area where some other taxis had gathered and one of them agreed to take me.
So what’s the main attraction of Qobustan? Mud Volcanoes! I kid you not. I told you there was something quirky in Qobustan!
Okay, so they’re not really volcanoes in the true sense of the word, but the mud ‘erupting’ from them has shaped them into volcano-like structures. The mud being expelled from the mounds is actually being pushed to the surface by bubbles of natural gas trying to escape from the earth. Perhaps the most surprising thing was about them was that despite the ambient temperature being above 30 degrees, the mud was pretty cold to touch.
When I was done taking a million pictures, the taxi took me back to a road. The first driver, Fazid was waiting there to take me back to the road where I could catch the bus. He took me to his barber shop first, which is situated in front of his house. He said I could wait inside for the bus, but as there was a wall between us and the main road, I wondered how we would see when the bus was coming.
Back to Beautiful Baku
After making sure he got a photo with me, which I was clearly not into, Fazid and I went out to the road. Another guy on the side of the road flagged down a car and was also going to Bina Ticaret, so Fazid said I should get in. The driver wanted 1 Manat for the ride, which is about double what the bus would cost. It was more comfortable though. When we arrived, he didn’t have change for a 20 Manat note, so he said not to worry about it.
From Bina Ticaret, I hopped on the 125 bus heading back to the city. I had one more stop I wanted to make before I went back to the city.
The Bibi-Heybat Mosque is still a little bit outside of the city, but it’s absolutely amazing. I was in awe from the moment I stepped off the bus.
The first thing that caught my eye, was the graveyard across the road that had been built into a hill. Some of the graves looked better than my house!
Once I walked into the grounds of the mosque, I was captivated not only by architecture and stature of the mosque, but also by the view.
As if the building itself isn’t impressive enough, it’s perched right above one of the shores of the Caspian Sea.
Bye Bye Beautiful Baku
As always happens when travelling, it has to come to an end at some point. Although I’m not usually a big fan of cities, Baku and its people had left an impression on me. From the people that helped me find my accommodation, to the airport bus driver who left his bus to show me how to use the ticket machine that had no English display. But you know what I’m going to miss most of all? The purple taxis. A city has reached next-level coolness when most of their taxi fleet is purple.
A journey across the Caspian Sea, the world’s largest inland body of water, from Turkmenbashi to Baku sounds like fun right? The prospect was quite exciting, as it’s not a common thing for people to do. I waited patiently at the Turkmenbashi port departure building until 11am. That was when ticket sales for the ferry to Baku, Azerbaijan were set to begin. Myself and 3 other people I’d met at the Turkmenbashi port made our way to the ticket sales window. This ticket sales window was, strangely, at the back of the port hotel, not in the departures building as you would think it would be. Even though there was a ticket sales window in the departures building, it seemed to be permanently closed, along with everything else that was supposed to be operating in the departures building.
The lady at the ticket window insisted that the truck drivers going on the ferry would be processed first. That meant we were only able to purchase our tickets for the Turkmenistan owned ferry ‘Bagtyyar’ starting from 11:30am. We had tried to get on the Azerbaijan owned ferry, Academik Topcubasov, that was also at the port. That one only cost US$60 per person for a bed in cabin. The Turkmen staff at the Turkmenistan port had told us that only the Turkmenistan owned ferry was taking passengers. Clearly it was a ploy to get people on to the more expensive Turkmenistan ferry. US$100 per person for just a seat on a 12 hour ferry. Sounds awesome, doesn’t it?
We were told the boat wouldn’t leave until the evening. We all had Turkmenistan Manat that we needed to spend, as it would be useless to us once we left Turkmenistan. Unfortunately, the currency exchange facilities that were supposed to be available at the port weren’t. So we headed to the port hotel restaurant for some lunch. Considering that it was the only restaurant in the area, it turned out to be a lot more reasonable than one would figure. I paid about US$1.60 for a steak.
Back in the port departures building, the four of us joined the line to go through to the immigration area. They were only letting small groups of people through at one time, so we had to wait a while. When we finally got in, our luggage was scanned and we headed upstairs to the immigration clearance area. We were directed to use machines that scanned our passports and took our pictures. The machines didn’t give us any kind of receipt, though. We had to then go to an immigration officer to be stamped out, so the machines seemed to be quite redundant.
From there, we entered the departure lounge to wait for boarding. The port departures building was quite huge but there was almost nothing there. It seems they had reserved the third floor for shops but forgot to rent out the spaces. There was only 1 duty free shop there and all it sold was sheets and towels. I guess they figured that was a niche market for people taking the ferry.
Starting the Journey from Turkmenbashi to Baku. Or Not.
Luckily, boarding started not long after that. We all quickly found ourselves rows of 3 seats each that we could use to sleep on. We waited on the boat for many hours, completely unsure of when it was going to leave. We asked around during the evening meal and no one was sure when we would leave. When I saw trucks still being loaded on to the ferry at 11pm, I figured we wouldn’t be moving for a while. We ended up going to sleep while still in port.
I woke up at about 4:30am because the airconditioning in the lounge area, where we were sleeping, was set to freezing. The sheet I’d managed to acquire was no longer protecting me from the arctic breeze. I decided to go outside where it was warmer. We still weren’t moving and we were still in the port area. We’d been on the ship for 16 hours and not moved a single centimetre. Obviously, ferries work differently in Turkmenistan!
Not long after that, just before sunrise at around 5am, we started moving, albeit slowly. Great, we were finally on our way from Turkmenbashi to Baku! Or were we?
I presumed we were moving super slowly because we were exiting the port area. Surely we’d gain some speed once further out. But shortly after that, I went outside and realised that we’d stopped moving. The port was still clearly visible not far behind us. By the time they opened the galley for breakfast at 10am, we still weren’t moving and nobody really knew what was going on. Would our journey from Turkmenbashi to Baku start that day? Or would we spend another night on the ‘sea’ in a stationary boat?
By this stage, we hadn’t showered for a few days owing to this being our second day on the ship and having caught an overnight train to get to the Turkmenbashi port the day before. Thankfully, one of the nice kitchen staff allowed all four of us to shower in his personal cabin. That was much needed and awesomely refreshing!
There was a rumour that the captain of the ship for this sailing was relatively new. Being new, he apparently thought there was a storm coming. The thing is, the sky looked absolutely clear for as far as the eye could see and the water all around us was calm. Staff on the boat didn’t even know what was going on. They actually thought that we would be on the way to Baku that day.
By the evening we still weren’t moving and still had no idea what was going on. When we went to have the evening meal, we got a bit of a surprise. Despite having already paid US$100 for our seat and onboard meals, the ship staff wanted to charge us for that meal. In Turkmenistan Manat, which we had gotten rid of. Luckily, some other passengers on the ship came to our rescue. Firstly, some Azerbaijani drivers made sure that the 4 of us got meals. Then a really nice Turkmen lady, who spoke English really well, shared some meat that she had made at home and brought on board with her.
This lady had figured out that I was a teacher because she’d heard me explaining something to someone earlier. I’m not sure whether this is a good thing or a bad thing. Maybe it is true that teachers never stop teaching. Or maybe she picked it up because she was also a teacher. As the only person on board that could speak English, she became our communication conduit. It was a bit weird when passengers asked for invitations to South Korea, from my companions. They had only started talking to them one minute beforehand.
That night we went to sleep again on the water, but still not moving. We were anchored just outside the port area, but still within Turkmenistan waters. At that point, we had officially been on the ferry for over 30 hours and we had been anchored in the same spot for about half that time. We were possibly waiting out a storm that never came. We’d been stamped out of Turkmenistan early afternoon on the 25th, but still hadn’t left Turkmenistan waters by the early hours of the 27th, almost 2 days later.
Turkmenbashi to Baku, Finally!
I managed to sleep in until 7am, probably because I was so exhausted from my lack of sleep over the last 3 days. It was about that time that we finally started moving, for real. We checked with the staff and they said we would be in Baku by 7pm. Collectively, we were still a bit dubious about that claim, as we had also been told that the day before.
We kept checking our progress on our map periodically during the day. It was extremely comforting to see that we were actually moving nicely across the Caspian Sea. Around 3pm it looked like we were very close to Baku and would make it quite a bit before 7pm. The prospect of getting in earlier than expected was exciting. We just knew that exiting the ship was going to be chaotic and time-consuming.
Then our final surprise came at about 17:30. We were looking at the map to check how far we had to go. It was then that we realised that we’d sailed right past Baku! Despite all the information that we’d read online that our ferry goes to the port in Baku, we were heading to the port of Alat. That’s 70km away from Baku!
Furthermore, we were only making our way past the sandbar island outside of the port area after 7pm. We were barely crawling at that point, I guess due to speed restrictions near the port. Then we had to wait for the Azerbaijani tug boat to come out and guide us in.
You can’t imagine the joy we felt at finally being in Azerbaijan. But the challenges were not over yet. We still had to get off the boat, go through immigration and find a way to get Baku. It was 9pm by the time we docked. Staff became crowd controllers as they had to ensure that all the drivers exited first, in groups of 20. There were 50 drivers and the staff had their work cut out for them trying to keep the passengers at bay.
Waiting patiently, instead of pushing and shoving like all the other passengers were, paid off for us. The staff-member-turned-crowd-control dude let us go with the last lot of drivers. That happened an hour after the boat had docked. There were only 2 immigration officers, so even with such a small amount of people, there was still a pretty long wait.
It wasn’t far away from midnight by the time we had all made it through immigration. We found out at that point that it wasn’t possible to get a taxi from where we were, in the port area. We had to get a port shuttle to the main road first. Luckily, while we were waiting, a port coach entered and we were told it would take us all the way to Baku for US$3. Sounded great to us! I even managed to get a bit of sleep on the way in.
As fun as a ferry across the Caspian sounds, I wouldn’t recommend it. Unless you absolutely can’t live without the ‘I’ve travelled across the Caspian’ bragging rights.
Turkmenistan is a strange country in many respects. It is completely different to its Central Asian neighbours in that it has tried to close itself off from the world. This means that it can be a confusing and frustrating country to travel in. If you’re planning a trip there, the following list of things to know about Turkmenistan could come in very handy for you.
Important Things to Know About Turkmenistan, No 1 – Currency
Of all the things to know about Turkmenistan, this one is probably the most important as it could affect how much money you’ll have available to you. The local currency is the Turkmenistan Manat. You cannot exchange Turkmenistan Manat outside of the country as the official government stance is that the currency must stay in the country. There are 2 exchange rates for the currency. The official exchange rate is 3.5 Manat to US$1. This is the rate at which the banks sell the currency. The black market exchange rate however can range from 15-20 Manat to US$1. Yes, you read that right. The black market rate can be 5 to 6 times more than the official rate.
As you can imagine, the rate you change your cash at will influence how much you spend in Turkmenistan. Obviously, the black market rate is much better and would allow you to eat like a king while only spending a small amount of money, comparatively. The problem with exchanging at the black market rate is that it is forever fluctuating. If you change to Manat when the rate is 15 to 1, but the rate goes up to 20 to 1 when you want to change back, you stand to lose a fair amount of money.
Blackmarket or Official?
If you want to play it safe, you can exchange at the bank rate of 3.5, but that means things will end up being much more expensive and you will spend a lot more money. Another disadvantage of changing at the bank rate is that you may not be able to change any leftover money back to US Dollars at the bank, because the laws of the country only allow Turkmenistan citizens to exchange into US Dollars. This means you’ll be forced to change back at the black market rate, which could see you lose more than half of your money.
The best course of action is to only exchange a small amount, say $20 at the black market rate, to minimise the chances of losing money with exchanges. Hotels will generally exchange US Dollars for you. Some bazaars are also known for their black market exchanges. Locals always know where the best place to exchange is.
The Mashrutkas (minivans) that are prevalent in other central Asian countries are not as common in Turkmenistan. I only saw a few operating and only within Ashgabat.
Shared taxis are readily available for intercity journeys and normally cost 50-100 Manat (US$3.30-6.60 at the black market rate). Taxis around the city in Ashgabat should cost between 10-20 Manat (US$0.60-1.30). Bear in mind that drivers will try to double the price for foreigners and they sometimes negotiate hard to get you to pay more. You can always walk away from them and find another, more cooperative driver.
As Turkmenistan only consists of a few cities, it’s easy to travel between them by train. Train tickets are cheaper than shared taxis, but can take up to twice as long. Some trains will get to their destinations at inconvenient times as well. Train tickets to Turkmanbashi and Turkmenabat are 31 Manat/US$2 for a 12 hour journey on a sleeper train. Train tickets to Mary are around 34 Manat/US$2.20 for a 12 hour journey on a sleeper train.
By far the cheapest form of transportation in Turkmenistan is the public bus system in Ashgabat. It is quite well developed and each ride only costs 0.50 Manat, or 1 Manat if the bus driver doesn’t have any change. The buses are not airconditioned, but as long as they’re moving, there’s generally enough airflow to keep you from overheating in the summer.
Important Things to Know About Turkmenistan No 3 – Tourist Traps and Money Makers
Even though Turkmenistan isn’t all that open to tourism, locals still seem to find ways to put tourists in situations where they have to spend more money than they should. This starts before you even enter the country. Want to get a tourist visa to travel to Turkmenistan? You need to pay for a guide to accompany you for your entire stay in Turkmenistan, which of course does not come cheap. Want to opt for the cheaper option of a Transit visa? You’ll need to pay a US$14 entrance fee to the country at the border.
Perhaps you want to spend a night in a yurt with no amenities near the infamous Darvaza Gas Crater? That’ll be US$20. You want to get a taxi somewhere? You’re guaranteed to be quoted double the price as a foreigner. Even visiting a smelly underground lake in a sauna-like cavern can set you back up to US$20. In Turkmenistan, they know what tourists want to see and they’re prepared to charge you extra for the privilege of seeing those places.
There are some even more nefarious ways that locals will try to make money off visitors. Even though it’s illegal, locals will often try to force tourists to pay in US dollars, so they can take the money and make a profit by exchanging it on the black market. Always try to pay in Turkmenistan Manat where you can.
4) Social Media and Internet
All social media, from Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, to WhatsApp and WeChat are blocked in Turkmenistan. That can make it very hard to keep in contact with the outside world without a VPN. In truth, it can still be impossible to connect, even with a VPN. Many VPNs have been blocked by the Turkmenistan government, as I found out.
As you can imagine, when a government starts screwing with the internet, things get very slow and annoying to use. I was only able to connect to WiFi twice during my visit and each time connectivity waxed and waned, to the point where it was just easier to give up and do something else.
Weird Things to Know About Turkmenistan No 5 – Presidential Pictures
Of all the things to know about Turkmenistan, this is possibly the weirdest. A ridiculous amount of pictures of the current Turkmenistan president can be seen around Ashgabat. You can’t walk more than 500 metres without seeing him. He’s everywhere.
You’ll see him in parks, at train stations, on government buildings and even in buses. I’m not quite sure of the purpose of all these obviously photoshopped pictures of the president. Or if there is some law in the country about his pictures being displayed everywhere.
Whatever the deal is, it just seems odd to have photos of the country’s leader in so many places. I suspect it’s because the leader somehow expects that the people of his country should idolise him, but that just seems a bit arrogant and narcissistic. I guess that’s just about what you would expect from a guy that does donuts around the Darvaza Gas Crater to quell rumours that he’s in poor health.
6) Police State
There is a huge and noticeable police presence in Turkmenistan, on the roads and in the capital city, Ashgabat. Police Checkpoints are set up at intervals along the country highways in Turkmenistan. They may or may not stop cars that are going through and check that their paperwork is in order, especially if they’re carrying tourists. I personally was never stopped at any of these checkpoints, but I definitely noticed that they were there.
In the Ashgabat city centre, police are ever-present, normally standing on the side of roads in front of buildings. For the most part, they don’t interact with people passing by, although they do seem to use their extra curious ‘WTF are you doing’ stare when a foreigner happens to be walking past their building. Most of them always look stoic and often menacing, whereas others are a little more friendly and willing to answer questions.
Important Things to Know About Turkmenistan No 7 – Agressive Drivers
When compiling this list of things to know about Turkmenistan, I was reticent to include this one, but eventually decided it should be included because cars outnumber pedestrians substantially in Turkmenistan. Turkmen drivers seem to believe that they are the only ones that have the right to use the road. They do not take kindly to pedestrians being on roads, even at pedestrian crossings. Do not expect them to stop if they see you crossing. In fact, they are more likely to speed up and honk their horn at you. Be prepared to run at intersections, if you want to live.
Hostels don’t really exist in Turkmenistan and hotels are quite expensive, especially when you take into account what you get for your money. In Ashgabat, US$15 will get you what would be considered a super budget room anywhere else in the world. You will have to share a bathroom and there won’t be any WiFi. Or perhaps you could take the next step up and get a budget room for US$22 at a hotel that has WiFi, although there won’t be WiFi in your room. Also, expect room configurations to be weird.
One of the more quirky things to know about Turkmenistan is that accommodation generally can’t be booked from outside of the country, unless you go through a tour agency. Luckily, it seems to be easy to get accommodation sorted by just walking into a hotel. At $15, the Kuwwat Hotel seems to be the cheapest in Ashgabat, but it doesn’t have WiFi. It’s also in a pretty good location. Syyhat Hotel has WiFi in the reception area only, but their price is $22 and the location isn’t as good. Hotels generally expect payment in US Dollars as well. If they do take payment in Manat, they will use the black market exchange rate to jack up the price. Apparently, the accommodation in other Turkmenistan towns outside of Ashgabat is even more expensive.
In South Turkmenistan, the country’s capital city, Ashgabat is a strange, impressive and confusing place. The first odd thing about it is that the government has absolutely mad licensing rules for cars that carry passengers for hire. Cars are either licensed to drive passengers in the capital city or in the rest of the country, not both. Cars licenced to carry passengers in the rest of Turkmenistan cannot enter Ashgabat with their passengers. Because of this, there is a change-over station about 15 kilometres outside of the city. Country taxis drop passengers off there and city taxis can pick them up. I presume they have the same rules for intercity buses, as the Ashgabat bus station is relatively close to the change-over station.
First Impressions of the South Turkmenistan Capital, Ashgabat (Aşgabat)
As I had entered the city from northern Turkmenistan, the first thing I saw was the Ashgabat International Airport. Someone was definitely trying to make a big impression there. It was like the city was going all-out for some gala show. There were massive statues and fountains of water shooting high into the air. I was, unfortunately, unable to capture the grandness of it all from the car, so you’ll just have to imagine.
As I moved further into Ashgabat, I realised that every building was white. Every single one. They all looked fairly new as well. Once the novelty of seeing shiny, new, white buildings everywhere wore off, it seemed that the Turkmenistan capital had no soul. It was almost like Ashgabat was the unpopular kid who suddenly became popular and was trying too hard to impress, but offered nothing of real value.
Furthermore, it seemed that all the cars and buses in Ashgabat were either white or grey. I heard a rumour that it was illegal to own black cars in the city. I can’t really confirm if it’s true or not, but I can say for sure that I didn’t see one single black car during my time there. Only grey and white cars.
Ashgabat continued to try to make huge impressions with many green spaces, monuments and fountains within the city centre. What it seemed to lack was the openness and friendliness of other Central Asian cities. In fact, the ever-present contingent of police officers stationed strategically around the city felt kind of ominous.
Some of these officers were intent on telling you off for stupid stuff. Like having the audacity to take your phone out of your pocket, to look at your map, near some buildings they didn’t want people to take photos of. Others were a little more friendly and willing to help with directions. One park even had men dressed in plain clothes stationed there. Why? To stop people taking pictures of the huge screen featured in the middle of the park. The screen played a loop of the president, looking all presidential and photoshopped in the middle of 2 digitally produced Turkmenistan flags.
Another quirk of Ashgabat is the pictures of the president everywhere. You couldn’t walk more than 500 metres within the city without seeing his picture. Maybe you could go to a sports centre to escape his watchful eyes? Nope, he’s front and centre there too. Surely you could catch a bus to get away from him. Nope, he’s watching you from above the windscreen. The point is, the dude is everywhere.
I’m not sure of the reason for having these pictures everywhere in Ashgabat. Is it to remind people that the president does actually exist, even though he rarely goes out in public? There weren’t really that many pictures of him in the north of Turkmenistan though. Or maybe it’s done to illicit an undying love and admiration for him. If you are Turkmen you must love your president. Who knows, but it seems kinda weird and narcissistic. Especially seeing as rumour has it that he is ill and not even in Turkmenistan at the moment.
Ashgabat in South Turkmenistan at Night
For all the weird things about the city of Ashgabat, it was much nicer at night. This probably had a lot to do with the fact that nightfall brought a drop from 45 degrees plus to a much more bearable temperature. You could walk around more comfortably at night. The lights of the night also added a dash of colour to break up the monotony of everything being white.
I had heard rumours of an 11pm curfew for foreigners in Ashgabat. Locals seem to think that it is enforced. I met a local who told me I might have problems when walking back to my accommodation after leaving them at 10:30pm. I did not have any problems. I was out past 11pm for both the nights I spent in Ashgabat. I walked past several police officers standing guard outside buildings or near roads. They gave no indication that I shouldn’t be there. In fact, they barely even acknowledged I was there. So I was either lucky, or there is no curfew in effect now.
Sights Near Ashgabat, South Turkmenistan
There are a few interesting sights that can be easily accessed from Ashgabat, but you can expect to part with more money than you should have to if you want to see them. First, there is Old Nisa, or Kone-Nusay. You can hop on the #50 bus from the Teke Bazaar Bus Terminus to get there. The bus takes about 30 minutes and only costs 0.5 Manat. The entrance to Old Nisa is about a 20 minute walk from where the bus route terminates. There is a small shop there if you’re short on supplies.
Old Nisa Ruins – (Konenusay)
To enter the Old Nisa Ruins area, you need to pay 21 Manat. Considering that half of the ruins are not accessible and the other half seem to be barely maintained, it really doesn’t seem worth it. It could be worth it if you’re passionate about ruins though.
To be honest, the town surrounding the ruins, Nusay was much more interesting to walk around.
Kow Ata Underground Lake in Ahal
Another site in South Turkmenistan that seems like it would be fun to visit is the Kow Ata underground lake in Ahal. It is less than an hour from the Ashgabat city centre, or a 30 Manat taxi ride. What might blow your mind about this one is the 50 Manat entrance fee. The less than warm reviews of the place might also make you want to think twice. But I guess if you have money and time to burn, you might want to check it out; just keep your expectations low.
Turkmenbashy Monument and Mosque
The Turkmenbashy Mosque, Mausoleum and Monument may prove to be the best value for money in South Turkmenistan, if you want to see a local site. You can hop on a bus from the Teke Bazaar Bus Terminal to Kipchak/Qipchak and all three sites are within 500 metres of each other.
Train to Turkmenbashi (Türkmenbaşy)
I’d decided to take the overnight train to Turkmenbashi in western Turkmenistan, which would be my exit point from the country. Trains in Turkmenistan are a very economical option for travelling between cities, but they are quite slow. There is an online ticketing system, but it requires a Turkmenistan card to purchase tickets and often shows that there are no tickets, even when they are available at the train station.
Buying Train Tickets
The best option for tourists in Turkmenistan is to go to the building next to the train station, with ‘Kassalar’ written on the top of it in big yellow letters. Some say you should purchase your ticket at least 2 days in advance, but I purchased on the same day with no problems. Ticket counters open at 7am. Counters 4-7 sell tickets for Turkmenbashi in western Turkmenistan and Turkmenabat, in eastern Turkmenistan. It is pretty much chaos at the ticket counters as people don’t seem to know how to line up straight and people like to try to push through to get to the counter before you.
After waiting for about 20 minutes, I was finally at the counter and let the lady behind the window know that I was going to Turkmenbashi in the west of South Turkmenistan. She told me that the departure time and asked for 31 Manat. The departure time she gave me was different to what I thought it would be, but then I figured that there might be more than one train. It wasn’t until I looked at the ticket that I realised that she’d somehow mistaken Turkmenbashi for Turkmenibat, which was literally at the other end of the country.
I alerted her to her mistake but instead of giving me back 31 Manat, she only gave me 22 Manat, then made me pay another 31 Manat for the correct ticket. I was annoyed that she’d charged me for her mistake and indicated that I wanted the 9 Manat back. She said I could come back later to get my money back. That was probably something she said just to try to get rid of me, as there was no one at the counter later. So a 31 Manat train ticket ended up costing me 40 Manat.
The train takes a fairly straight route to the most western part of South Turkmenistan; the port of Turkmenbashi on the Caspian Sea. It was quite comfortable, but each cabin had 6 beds, in the form of 2 triple bunks. That meant that the person on the top bunk wouldn’t be able to sit up without hitting the roof of the cabin. The people in my cabin were eager to share their food with me. They tried to chat with me, but it was hard because we couldn’t really understand each other.
Turkmenbashi, South Turkmenistan – Gateway to the Caspian Sea
The train arrived in the western Turkmenistan city of Turkmenbashi at 05:50, about an hour later than scheduled. The city of Turkmenbashi seemed a lot nicer than Ashgabat. For a start, it was a lot more modest and there were buildings that weren’t white. As an added bonus, it was surrounded by mountains.
I had figured that the port wouldn’t open until 8 or 9am, so I decided to have a bit of a look around Turkmenbashi. The early hour made it quite pleasant to walk around as there weren’t many people out and the sun wasn’t yet in full force.
The Turkmenbashi Port looked shiny, new and of course, white. There were a few huge buildings, but there didn’t seem to be much going on in the area. I entered the port area just before 8am, only to find out that tickets for the boat wouldn’t go on sale until 11am. Luckily, I found some people to talk to, who were also taking the ferry to Baku. Little did we know, that we would be spending a lot more time together than we’d originally thought.
Keep an eye out for an upcoming post to find out how an estimated 12 hours on the Caspian Sea turned into 3 days.
With a fresh visa for travel to Turkmenistan in my passport, I made my way to the Nukus border to cross over and see the historic Turkmenistan city of Kunya-Urgench. But first I had to contend with some border chaos. From the outside, the immigration building was possibly one of the cutest I’ve ever seen. It was a lovely white building with a golden, mosque-like domed roof. The red, green and white Turkmenistan flag was flying freely on a pole shooting up from the centre of the dome.
That interesting vision gave way to a picture of an unorganised mob crowding around a luggage scanning machine as soon as I opened the door to the building. I had absolutely no idea where to go. The immigration desk wasn’t marked, or even findable from where I was. I tried to have a peak in the next room, where everyone was gathered. Then I heard a man calling me from behind. There was a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it room to the left of the entrance, where the man was seated. Upon entering the room, the man looked at my passport and gave me a customs form to fill out. He then gestured for me to head to towards the crowd.
Where To Now?
I still had no idea where the immigration desk was, as I couldn’t see anything with the crowd in the way. Luckily the crowd dispersed as the immigration officers slowly scanned and checked everyone’s luggage. I finally noticed a small window tucked away on the lefthand side of the room and figured it must have been where I needed to go. It was indeed. The officer perused the stamps in my passport for a bit, then said I had to go to the next window to pay the US$14 entrance tax. Paying the fee was quick of course, but I had to wait a while for the guy to write out 2 receipts.
Back at the first window, the officer asked me for my detailed itinerary, then took issue with one of the cities I had indicated that I would visit. He told me that I was only allowed to continue in one direction towards my exit port in the southwest and I wasn’t allowed to visit any cities to the east. I told him that I had indicated that I would visit that town in my application, so there shouldn’t be a problem. He repeated himself a few more times and I did the same until he eventually said, “Okay” and stamped me in.
Searches and Small Talk at the Luggage Scanner
By the time I got to the luggage scanner, there was no line. The staff were busy checking every small article in the bags of the Belgian guy who had passed through in front of me. They spent at least 30 minutes going through his luggage. All the while, I stood there thinking that I would be subjected to that next. I was pleasantly surprised when the officers on the other side of the machine didn’t really seem too interested in looking too closely at my bag.
Instead, after asking if I had any weapons or medications, one of the officers asked me why I wanted to travel to Turkmenistan what I planned to do and see. He did this in a friend chatting kind of way, not an immigration officer kind of way. He also asserted that I would like Turkmenistan a lot. The other officers half-heartedly looked at my bag while this guy chatted to me for several minutes. I ended up leaving the building at the same time as people that had arrived 2 hours earlier than me. The guide that was with two of those people, organised a car. That car took us all from the immigration area to an area 500 metres down the road. That’s where the people on tourist visas could meet their drivers and I could get a taxi onto Kunya-Urgench.
Travel to Turkmenistan – Historical Kunya-Urgench (Köneürgench)
Before crossing the border to travel to Turkmenistan, I knew that the taxi to the northern town of Kunya-Urgench should only be US$1. It’s only a 10 minute drive. The waiting taxi drivers were intent on charging me $4. They negotiated hard and it seemed like they weren’t going to budge from $2, but finally, they relented. I got the ride for US$1.
Before we reached Kunya-Urgench, my driver stopped on the side of the road. Another driver approached us. He wanted to take me on to Darvaza from Kunya-Urgench. That driver initially wanted to charge me US$50 for the 3 hour ride. Of course, my reply was a firm no. The lowest he was willing to go was US$30, so I told him no thanks and got the current driver to continue on to Kunya-Urgench.
The driver dropped me off at a UNESCO site that comprised of the Piryarvali, Nedjmeddin Kubra, Sultan Ali and Matkerim Ishan Mausoleums, as well as the Dash Mosque Museum. It was a fairly interesting site that I spent quite a while walking around and admiring. The Nedjmeddin Kubra Mausoleum had a very interesting front. It was built on an angle away from the rest of the building.
Near the Sultan Ali Mausoleum, there was a small tree trunk with coloured bits of cloth wrapped around the end of it. It seemed to have some significance. I saw locals walk around it several times while making some gestures, like it was some kind of ritual.
Making New Friends
While wandering around, I bumped into the Belgian guy that I’d met at the border. We chatted for a bit about the history of the area. It was at that point that our presence started generating some interest among the locals at the site. That’s when the standard, “Where are you from?”, “Why did you travel to Turkmenistan?” and “Where will you go in Turkmenistan?” questions started. Then came the requests for photos with us. So much for blending in.
I then continued onto the town mosque, which I could easily see from the mausoleum area. Meanwhile, Martin, the Belgian guy, headed off to check out some more historical sites with his guide. He was a bit of a history buff, you see. That wasn’t the last time on my trip that I would bump into him though.
Negotiating Passage to Darvaza
I managed to sneak in one more monument before I made my way back to the mausoleum area. I’d noticed that some taxi drivers had gathered near there. These drivers started negotiations at more reasonable prices than previous drivers. They also seemed to be having fun interacting with me. At one stage there were even 2 drivers fighting over who was going to take me. Then someone put me on the phone to a man who spoke English. He said he would be there soon to help me out.
That man was Murad, a tour guide based in Kunya-Urgench. He said that he was heading to Ashgabat to pick up a tourist. He suggested that I could join him in a taxi and he would ask the driver to drop me off at the Darvaza Gas Crater, then I could hitchhike to Ashgabat the next day. Murad was very interested in my motivation for travel to Turkmenistan.
Darvaza Gas Crater – The Gate to Hell
When we arrived at Darvaza, which is towards the centre of the Karakun desert in Turkmenistan, I didn’t realise that the taxi had pulled up right next to the crater. It’s not all that impressive during the day. I did, however, notice that it was hot as hell when I got out of the car. I actually felt like my face was going to melt. As much as I wanted to get a closer look, it just wasn’t humanly possible at that time. I guess that’s why they call it the Gate to Hell.
Murad introduced me to his friend who works near the crater and said he would look after me. Murad then left me his number to call if I needed any help while I was in Turkmenistan. I was then whisked away on a motorbike to an area near a yurt. There were tents set up there for a tourist group that was coming in later that day. While still warm, it was much cooler than it was near the crater.
To be honest, I was pretty excited about being there. This crater was the main reason I wanted to travel to Turkmenistan. Ever since I heard about it many moons ago, it had been very high on my to-do list. It’s a perfect example of how the human lack of foresight can showcase the power of nature.
Nature’s Fury Brought By Scientific Blunder
If you don’t know how the crater came to be, it happened around the mid 70’s in what was then part of the USSR. Soviet scientists accidentally collapsed an underground cavern full of natural gas. The natural gas started flowing freely into the surrounding desert. The scientists decided that the best way to deal with the escaping gas was by adding fire. They had expected the natural supply would be exhausted within a few weeks, but 45 years later, it’s still going strong.
Just after sunset, I bumped into some young guys close to the edge of the crater. They were trying to get the perfect ‘look, I’m breathing fire’ shot. For Instagram, I presume. That would be ironic considering that social media is blocked in Turkmenistan. While I was chatting to them, Martin, the Belgian guy from earlier, joined us. There were many pictures and videos taken. Just after sunset is the best time to capture the essence of the crater.
The people working near the crater offered for me to sleep in a yurt, but it was quite stuffy inside. There was a nice breeze outside, so I decided to sleep under the stars. It was lovely. The next morning, they wanted to charge me US$25 for eating some food and sleeping outside. I got them down to $10, but this was only the first example I encountered of how Turkmenistan is geared towards parting travellers with their money. It wasn’t the last time.
I decided to walk out to the main road, but barely 5 minutes into my walk, a car leaving the crater stopped for me. It was Martin and his guide and they were heading for the other 2 craters in the area. The first one was much smaller than the main crater, with only one little fire burning in a more shallow, rounded crater. There were a few muddy patches not far from the little fire where bubbling gas could be seen and heard.
The second one was probably about the same size as the first, but had a bit of a lake happening at the bottom. It looked quite lovely, until you walked around the crater a bit and saw a ridiculous amount of plastic bottles floating in it. Just like the first crater, there was a section where you could see and hear gas bubbling through, but obviously there was no fire there.
As the rules regarding tour guiding are very strict in Turkmenistan, guides are only allowed to have the tourists whose names are on their paperwork in their vehicles. Martin’s guide said he would take me all the way to the capital, Ashgabat if that wasn’t the case. Instead, he would take me to a service station just before the next police checkpoint, about 100km down the road. Once we got to the service station, he found someone to drive me the rest of the way to Ashgabat.
Stay tuned for more Turkmenistan adventures in my next post.
Rumours about the difficulty of getting a visa for travel to Turkmenistan and the low approval rate are abundant on the internet. But it’s really not as hard to acquire as some people would have you believe. Below are accounts of the visa application process from the recent experiences of 10 travellers that were granted both tourist and transit visas in July 2019.
Tourist Visa for Travel to Turkmenistan
As stated above, there are 2 visa options for travel to Turkmenistan; a tourist visa and a transit visa. The tourist visa is issued for up to 30 days but comes with a huge caveat. A certified guide must accompany for your whole trip. As you can imagine, that will get expensive. Three of the ten people, who coincidentally happened to be European, went for this option. They paid around US$150-200 a day for their guide, including the guide’s accommodation, food and fuel. That was without their own food and accommodation expenses. Applicants must state their entry and exit point when applying.
All 3 chose a 6 day itinerary, as that was about the limit of what they could afford to spend. One of them chose to take flights between some cities, to maximise their time. That meant that they met different guides in different cities. While guides are being hired by tourists, they can’t officially have anyone else in the car with them. All their paperwork shows the name of the tourist/s allowed in their car and the dates they can carry them. There are many police checkpoints along Turkmen roads and they often check, so guides will always err on the side of caution.
Documents Required and Payment
For this visa, you need proof that you’ve hired a local guide or joined a local tour. Normally the travel agent would take care of the visa application for you as they would be the ones with the documents. From what I can gather, this visa can be picked up at the border upon presentation of an invitation letter and US$50. This letter is either emailed to you or given to you by the travel agent. There may be delays at the border and you may have to hand over more money. The 3 people I met on tourist visas spent around 3 hours at the border waiting for paperwork. That could’ve possibly been because the travel companies they booked through missed something.
Transit Visa for Travel to Turkmenmistan
The second option, the transit visa, is said to be one of the hardest visas to attain. Seven people managed to get this visa from both the Bishkek and Tashkent Turkmenistan Embassies in the first 3 weeks of July 2019 with no problems. This visa is issued for 5 days. It is valid for transit through any Turkmenistan border with Uzbekistan to Azerbaijan via the Caspian Sea or Iran via Artyk. No other exit points, ie: Afghanistan or Kazakhstan, are accepted. Entry and exit points must be listed on your application and will be stated on the visa placed in your passport.
Getting the Transit Visa for Travel to Turkmenistan in Tashkent at the Embassy of Turkmenistan in the Republic of Uzbekistan
Discussions online indicate that you need to get to the Embassy of Turkmenistan in Tashkent, (found at Afrosiyob Street, 19, about a 400m walk from the Kosmonavtlar Metro station), at 7am. Then put your name on a waiting list and wait for the embassy to open at 9am. This actually isn’t necessary. As long as you arrive at any time before 1pm, they will see you and let you submit your application. Even if you end up leaving after 1pm. Some waiting outside the embassy could be required. No more than 20 minutes worth. The processing officer will come out to guide you in. You can wait in a nice shaded area across from the embassy so that you don’t melt in the Uzbek heat.
Once the officer comes out, you must leave your mobile phone with security. You’ll get a numbered tile so you can claim your phone back on the way out. They will also ask if you have any other cameras, but they won’t check. There’s a big sign out the front saying that no photos are allowed. I guess they want to make sure you don’t have the chance to break their rules. This Turkmenistan embassy only requires you to fill out 2 one page forms. The first form is the application form, in English and Uzbek. You need to attach a passport-sized photo to the top right-hand corner of it. The second form is completely in Uzbek, but the staff will guide you. Both forms are available at the embassy.
Documents Required and Payment
The documents required for submitting your application for a transit visa for travel to Turkmenistan in Tashkent are –
* Colour copy of the information page of your passport
* 2 passport size photos with a white background
* Copy of visa for country of transit, ie: Azerbaijan or Iran
Upon submission of your documents, you need to pay a US$10 fee to the embassy. Staff will give you a receipt. They will tell you that you will need to bring that receipt with you when you pick up the visa. I wasn’t asked for it when I returned though. Staff initially told me to come back in 10 working days. I managed to convince them to have it ready in 10 days/a week and a half.
I had heard that they can email the visa approval letter to you so that you don’t have to physically attend the embassy again. The first staff member I spoke to said that they could email the visa approval letter to me and I could pay the visa fee at the border. The officer who took my application said that wasn’t possible anymore, so I would have to attend the office. Three other people were given similar information by the embassy in Tashkent.
Picking Up the Visa
When you pick up the visa, you’ll need to pay the US$45 visa fee directly to the embassy. They will ask you what your exact entry date is. That is the date that they will put on the visa. The visa is valid for five days including the day of entry and exit. Make sure you’ve allowed enough time to get yourself to the border you want to use to enter Turkmenistan. Keep in mind that the closest Uzbek/Turkmen border to Tashkent is about 10 hours away by car, with the most popular entry point, Nukus, being a 16-20 hour drive from Tashkent. The Tashkent Turkmenistan Embassy website is here
Getting the Transit Visa for Travel to Turkmenistan in Bishkek at the Embassy of Turkmenistan to the Kyrgyz Republic
The Embassy of Turkmenistan to the Kyrgyz Republic in Bishkek, located on Baytik Baatyr Street, opens at 10am. It is a lot quieter than it’s counterpart in Tashkent. Do take note that it appears to be closed on Wednesdays. There’s no need to rush as you will most likely be the only one there at the time of application.
Like the embassy in Tashkent, there’s a big sign saying that no photography is allowed, but they do allow you to keep your phone on you when you enter the building. There’s no waiting at this embassy, you can just go straight to the window and submit your application. This Turkmenistan embassy requires you to fill out 2 application forms, one with 2 pages and one with 1 page. Both forms are in Russian and English. They also require a hand-written letter stating the visa you’re applying for and a detailed itinerary. A sample letter for you to follow is available at the embassy. The application forms can be downloaded from the embassy website, or are available at the embassy.
Documents Required and Payment
The documents required for submitting your application for the visa to travel to Turkmenistan in Bishkek are –
* Colour copy of the information page of your passport
* 2 passport size photos with a white background
* Copy of your visa for the country you’re transiting to, ie: Azerbaijan or Iran
Before you can lodge the forms with the embassy, you will have to go to the KICB bank to pay the US$10 application fee. It’s a 3km Mashrutka (minivan) ride from the embassy. When done, take the receipt for the transaction back to the embassy, as proof of payment. The processing time for the visa at this embassy is one month, unless you write ‘urgent’ on your hand-written letter. In that case, the processing time will be 10 working days. They will email the invitation letter for the visa to you on the 10th working day.
This invitation letter will be valid for entry for up to 3 months, but you still only have 5 days, inclusive of your entry and exit dates, once you enter. When you present the letter at the border, you will need to pay a US$55 visa fee and they will place the visa in your passport with a validity of 5 days, including your entry and exit dates.
Pros and Cons of Getting the Visa for Travel to Turkmenistan at Each Location
Acquiring the visa for travel to Turkmenistan at the Turkmenistan Embassy in Tashkent is US$10 cheaper. That could be negated by the fact that you will either have to wait in Tashkent for 10 days or re-enter Uzbekistan later to collect the visa. Getting the visa through the Turkmenistan Embassy in Bishkek is US$10 more expensive, but not having to return to the embassy later could save some time.
Now that you know that the application process for the visa for travel to Turkmenistan is relatively painless, what are you waiting for?
Check out my next post to see what the north of Turkmenistan had to offer.
Travels in Tajikistan – Crossing Over from Uzbekistan
Around an hour drive from Tashkent, you’ll find the Oybek border control point in Uzbekistan. After passing relatively painlessly through the Uzbek side, I found myself walking through a dimly lit no man’s land. After a few minutes of walking, I had made it to Fotekhobod border control point on the Tajikistan side. The first stop was a gate that marked the start of my travels in Tajikistan. There, a friendly officer asked to see my passport. He thanked me and motioned for me to move forward.
Then after a breezy walk, I came to another gate where another friendly officer checked my passport. While he was doing so, his partner inside a little booth started talking to me in broken English. We were all laughing by the time I made my way to the building where I’d get my entry stamp.
Inside the building, the guy behind the desk was really friendly and smiley. He even asked how I was! After stamping me in, he said “Welcome to my country”. This is definitely one of the friendlier borders I’ve passed through. Although I was tired, given the late hour, I was feeling good after such a painless border crossing. I was also a little confused about where I should be going. There was no signage and I couldn’t see any buildings in front of me. Thankfully, I wasn’t the only one who was a little confused.
A local man behind me said, “I guess we go here”, pointing to a passage on the right. The nearby officers told us we had to use the walkway to the left. Then that was it, I was officially in Tajikistan! The man who had tried to lead me down the wrong path then started chatting to me. His name was Malik and he was a paediatric doctor from Dushanbe, the Tajikistan capital. He was returning from a conference and was eager to practice his English.
As there was very little chance of getting a car all the way to Dushanbe at that time of night, we decided to go to the northern Tajikistan town of Khujand, which was less than 2 hours away. Malik found us a taxi and we chatted all the way. Upon arrival in Khujand, he found a hotel for us to stay in and paid for my room. It wasn’t the best hotel I’d ever come across and it didn’t have WiFi, but it was somewhere to rest and have a cold shower.
Travels in Tajikistan – Khujand
In the morning, Malik informed me that a notorious part of the road to Dushanbe would be closed until 3pm. That meant we wouldn’t be able to get a car until then. I wondered if that was a regular occurrence in Tajikistan? I wouldn’t be surprised it was. It did give me a bit of time to explore Khujand though.
Malik took me to the local market, where it seemed most people were selling bread and seeds. We walked to a large section at the back of the market which looked like it’d be a great place to do some shady black market deals. Or buy seeds. Malik bought a huge amount of seeds. I figured he’d bought them for himself. It wasn’t until we got to the mosque across the square from the market that I found out they had a different purpose. The people of Khujand go to the grounds of this Mosque to feed the pigeons.
This is a tradition that has been followed for a very long time in Khujand. Locals mainly do it when they have health issues that are affecting their lives. It is believed that by giving something important, like food, to the birds, you put yourself in god’s favour. God will, in turn, heal your ailments and make you better.
Mosque and Motorised toys
Between the market and the Mosque was a huge square where locals seem to love hanging out and having fun. There were people there hiring out motorised toy cars. I guess it’s a nice way to keep the kids occupied while feeding the birds. There were also scooters available for the older kids.
Khujand is actually a pretty small place and fairly easy to walk around. Although, with the summer heat, most people opt to take taxis. I prefer to walk, so I walked the 3 kilometres to the shared taxi station. I wanted to continue my travels in Tajikistan by heading to the capital, Dushanbe. Drivers wanting to take me to Dushanbe had surrounded me before I knew it. Most initially wanted to charge me 120 Somoni/US$12, but after some hard negotiating, a driver agreed to take me for 70 Somoni/US$7.40.
To be honest, the treacherous mountains roads combined with crazy Tajikistan drivers meant the ride wasn’t all that enjoyable, despite the awesome scenery.
Travels in Tajikistan – Dushanbe
Owing to the fact that I’d left Khujand in the afternoon, I got into Dushanbe just after 10pm. The taxi dropped me about 8km from the town centre, where I needed to go. I noticed electric buses were still running and went to the nearest stop. When I checked the schedule at the stop, there was a bus due in a few minutes. That brought me great relief, until it didn’t show up. Neither did the next one.
Finally, after 20 minutes of waiting, a bus that wasn’t even on the timetable at the bus stop showed up. I figured it followed the road I was on, so I got on. The ticket man took money from all the people in front of me but when it was my turn to pay, he turned away before I could give him my money.
That free ride reduced the distance I need to walk by more than half. When walking the last little bit to my accommodation, I noticed that there were a lot of white red and green lights. Those are also the 3 colours on the Tajikistan flag. Coincidence? I think not!
The next morning, I decided to do some web surfing during breakfast, because I finally had internet in Tajikistan. Unfortunately, it was absolutely terrible. Every webpage took a ridiculously long time to load, so I gave up and went walking. On the way out I met an English guy and Scottish guy who were heading to the nearby Bazaar. I walked along with them for a bit, then headed off to get some food. It seems that the Tajik government is trying hard to make the Dushanbe city centre look very pretty.
There was also a lot of construction going on. Roads, bridges and buildings seemed to be in the process of construction in many areas. There was definitely an aesthetic difference between the city centre and the areas just outside of the city centre.
Travels in Tajikistan – Meeting Locals
As I was walking around, a local named Iso started walking and chatting with me. He was eager to practice his English and invited me to stay with him. I graciously accepted his offer, because I couldn’t think of a better way to see how locals live. He was also happy to share information about life in Tajikistan.
Iso’s house was quite simple, with no airconditioning. He told me about how he dreamed of upgrading his flat when he gets some money. He also dreams of travelling, but of course, needs money for that too! I would guess that the area he lived in was a poorer area of town, but it seemed like some locals had found interesting ways of having fun and making money. I noticed that several kids in the complex were sharing the same bicycle, so that everyone had a chance to have a ride. There were also some women in the complex cleaning things, including glass jars and cars, to make some extra cash.
I did get some curious looks from people, as I guess they don’t see foreigners walking around their complex too often. At many different times, one or two kids would come up to me and try to chat. They would be really confused when I replied to them in English, which they obviously didn’t understand. It was kinda cute watching them try to work out what was going on.
Iso was immensely helpful. He was always looking out for me. He was always worried if I had eaten enough. I offered to cook my own food due to my special dietary needs, but he wouldn’t have it. His sister would happily cook for me instead. If I wanted anything, he would go to the local market to buy whatever I wanted. Then he would refuse to take my money for it.
Aside from practicing his English, Iso was also keen to have a Shisha partner. Whenever I wanted to go somewhere, he would usually come with me to make sure that I didn’t get lost. If he was busy and unable to join me, he would take me to a Mashrutka (mini van) and explain to the driver where to drop me off. It was such a wonderful way to experience some Tajik culture and hospitality.
If you ever make it to Dushanbe in Tajikistan, you might want to visit MagDoner which is most definitely not a copy of a well known American fast food chain!