Day 270: Entering Virtuality

bling bling!

Craaaaaazy. Of all our border crossings, the transition from Iran to Turkmenistan is the most dramatic. Felt like entering a surreal world as we approached Ashgabat, the Turkmen capital. From the mountains shortly after leaving the border post, we could see the city sprawled out in the distance, white marble and golden domes gleaming under the desert sun. Once inside the city, the surreality only grew. It was like walking into a computer world.

Every building is magnificent, grand, built in white marble and conform with a somewhat communist architectural feel. Yet the city felt empty, very quiet and laid back. I must have been in Iran too long. The city isn’t completely empty, but compared to the usual jam-packed, traffic-honking streets of Iran, the sense of space and slowed-down pace came as a bit of a shock. Like a dreamscape, I suspected people on the streets were also unreal, all projections of my mind. Were they just sims, computer programmed walking objects? I have never seen faces like these before – not quite Turkish, not quite Asian, not quite Russian, but somewhere in between. Every now and then we saw the juxtaposition of Russian blondes in horribly outdated 90s fashion walking pass Turkmen women in colourful traditional dress. My first reaction: Woah, hair. And curves! What a shock. Feels like I’ve not seen a woman in years. And indeed so, I’ve been in Iran too long…

Next realization… Beer is freely available? This shop is selling hard licquor? That’s real vodka? What? WE CAN DRINK??? But I shouldn’t be fooled by the sudden discovery of “freedom”. Everything here is bugged – phone lines, computers… conversations are listened, internet traffic monitored, postcards read. Big Brother is watching…

People have also gone from 30ºC to 3ºC. Nobody smiles here. Nobody looks happy. Nobody knows Jumong. Stern faces, must be the Soviet influence.

The glorius ‘toilet plunger’, symbol of Ashgabat’s greatness

We met our couchsurfing host Sir Khan, a young Turk living and working here, who told us over dinner that it was like living in a “virtual world”: you could be here today, deported tomorrow. Nightclubs are minefields – foreigners or expats seen to be courting locals face the risk of being kicked out the country immediately. That woman at the bar table revealing more flesh than I had seen in the last 2 months (and that’s just a knee-high skirt) could be an undercover government agent who’ll play along and lead you to the police just when you thought you’d scored. Now that’s jailbait.

Turkmen statues with rows of white marble residential buildings in the backdrop

Come nightfall, Ashgabat transformed into a crossover of Vegas and Dubai. All the buildings were floodlit like electricity were free. There’s an obsession with lighting, this place could have the world’s highest lightbulbs per capita. There’s a lot of construction work going on but why? 80% of what already exists seem to be empty! There are grand buildings for seemingly useless government functions such as the “Ministry of Carpets” and “Ministry of Horses”. Just how much work goes on behind those gleaming white marble walls is anyone’s guess. A new road was being ripped up and made over with addition of underground heating just because the president thought it was too slippery.

do you really need all those lights?

Obviously, this is a country with too much gas, and too much money from gas to burn…

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  1. Malena says:

    I simply love your blog! And honestly I didn't know anything about Turkmenistan, so now I know at least a bit :-)

    Enjoy your travels,

  2. Leslie says:

    wow that an interesting city! no, too many lights indeed, what an experience!

  3. ace says:

    interesting read. big brother is watching.

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