September 1: Ashgabat, Turkmenistan
8:39. Xara is fixed and we’re on the road. Happy days are here again!
8:45. As we make our way out of Ashgabat our guide mentions that more than 500 buildings in Ashgabat that are covered in white marble. This seems odd given that it’s an area prone to earthquakes. The newly independent country’s first president was orphaned in 1948 when a massive quake levelled all but 7 buildings in the city and killed 170,000 of the city’s 200,000 residents.
Our guide admits that the economy of Turkmenistan is in for a rough ride with natural gas prices where they are and oil at $40 a barrel. They also produce cotton and denim but natural gas has put dinner on the table and marble on the walls ever since the breakup of the Soviet Union. Incidentally, Turkmenistan doesn’t actually export any oil. It’s one of the largest exporters of natural gas but Its oil is withheld for domestic consumption. A litre of diesel retails for 1 manat or about 33 cents.
9:00. Rustam points out the home of the world’s largest hand woven carpet, the largest collection of monuments, the largest seven-pointed star-shaped building, and the largest indoor Ferris wheel. I don’t see the point of an indoor Ferris wheel but it’s quite popular with locals.
9:40. A speeding car crosses the raised median into our lane, narrowly misses us, then rolls several times and lands in its side. It was a bit of a wakeup call.
9:47. We pass the Golden Mosque which has room for 10,000 men and 2000 women. It’s 62 meters tall — 62 being the age at which Mohamed died. The country’s First President is resting in an adjacent gold plated mausoleum.
9:50. The current president is an ex dentist with very nice teeth and a good PR team. The first president was very well respected. We hear someone say, “Some people say he was a dictator. I say he was our favourite dictator.” With so many secret service agents lurking about, few people will comment on the current dictator… I mean president.
18:30. We set up camp in what one would assume to be the middle of nowhere. After a while we discover that sounds from the highway traffic, a nearby train track and some road and bridge construction never let up.
19:50. Now that Andrew has left the group, I am in charge of starting a fire on camp nights. I get one going and create a bed of coals on which Duncan promises to make lemon meringue squares.