The hum of the plane’s engine marked the beginning of an unforgettable adventure to the mysterious lands of Turkmenistan. Departing from Almaty, the mountainous landscape gradually faded beneath the plane’s wings, leaving room for a limitless horizon, heralding a destination full of wonders.
On the plane that took me to Turkmenistan, the president’s face became a symbol that guided my journey, reminding me of the strangeness of this country and its Soviet legacy. The photos are taken with an old phone, dated 2016, so don’t expect an incredible quality.
After landing in the lush city of Ashgabat, I chose to immerse myself in the local culture, the true nature of the country. I decided to stray off the beaten path and found a treasure in the form of Couchsurfing: a stay in the home of a local host. The warmth and generosity of the host (Igor and Sabina, I hope you’re doing well!), welcomed me like a lost member of the family. The stories about everyday life in Turkmenistan, shared on those welcoming walls, enriched my trip with a unique and authentic perspective.
The days in Ashgabat became an exploration of astonishing contrasts. From the futuristic modernity of its buildings and avenues to the cultural richness impregnated in its museums and traditional markets — every corner resonated with the history and identity rooted in this land. Sabina, my host, was still coming home from school (yes, she was about 16 years old) and always wore a dress characteristic of the Central Asian country.
The days slipped by with unexpected grace, exploring the historic wonders of Merv and the golden sands of the Karakum Desert. Every corner revealed an ancient story, immersing me in the grandeur and mystery of the past civilizations that inhabited these lands.
To give a little context for the reader, Turkmenistan is the second most closed country in the world, behind North Korea, and I am going to explain why. With five million souls and heir to the former USSR, with the riches of oil and gas caressing its coasts, it stands as a reliquary of a timeless authoritarian communism. So much is its singular aura that the very ties of history demand a visa even from those coming from the same land that was once their home (Russia). It is a place where the limits are borders between realities, where each step is a dance between the past and present.
Between the borders that embrace its territories, Turkmenistan stands majestically, a link between worlds. From its borders with Afghanistan, Uzbekistan, Iran and Kazakhstan, emerges a land where Ashgabad, the city of white marble, stands as the jewel of an enigmatic nation. In the middle of 80% desert, homes stand where water, light and the heat of the home are gifts of daily life (subsidized by the rich hydrocarbon deposits).
Traversing reality, a unique narrative takes shape: here, doors to the outside world are few and exceptions are counted. The restrictions paint a picture of long-held beliefs, where the air is purified of smoke, banning smoking after an incident that changed the course of the tobacco trade. A unique chapter in its history, where the state monopoly was challenged by an episode that led the government to redefine the regulations, limiting the sale of tobacco and its consumption, a distinctive feature in the cultural fabric of this land of contrasts and singularities.
Such an event was none other than a massive fight between buyers in a noisy tobacco shop in the capital, after which the government decided to strictly prohibit the sale of tobacco in the country. However, tobacco is allowed, so I presented my host with a few packs of Marlboros bought at the airport in Kazakhstan.
Exploring the images of Ashgabat is like entering a canvas where loneliness walks through deserted streets, evoking the tranquility of a sunset in Pyongyang. A strange sensation, yes, but in every corner, the impeccable neatness and splendor of its streets shine with a charm worthy of the most beautiful European cities.
The white marble, like brushstrokes of elegance, stands as the common thread of this urban landscape, weaving an architectural harmony that dazzles in every detail captured by the lens. It is a visual testimony of the grandeur built with the purity of marble, where each building appears to be a masterpiece sculpted by the hand of excellence and meticulousness.
The fascination with the gate of hell, a gas well ignited by the human hand, is a journey that awakens the deepest curiosity. A surreal retelling of history, where Soviet scientists ignited a flame that defies time.
The five-hour distance across the desert, although long, seems like an initiatory journey, a journey through the arid vastness that culminates in this spectacle of eternal fire. The trip, although exhausting, becomes a path of discovery, where the path, inhospitable and challenging, reveals the grandeur and uniqueness of this natural phenomenon modified by man. The lesson learned, perhaps, is that even the most unexpected actions can generate beauty, creating a mystical landscape that captivates those who venture to explore the limits of the possible and the impossible.
We reach the threshold of Darvaza. Without guards or protection, vertigo takes over as he recognizes that any wrong step could mean an immediate fate in these lands of fire. The heart pounds while contemplating this surreal scenario. Without walls or barriers, the feeling of vulnerability is mixed with the emotion of witnessing the majesty and rawness of this fiery phenomenon. Here, human frailty comes face to face with the indomitable force of nature, a delicate dance between risk and wonder that is etched in memory forever.
As I leave the wonders of Turkmenistan behind, I say goodbye with gratitude and amazement for the experiences I have had. The images captured of the city of white marble, with its pristine streets and majestic architecture, will be visual treasures that I will cherish forever. From the tranquility of its deserted avenues to the imposing presence of the eternal fire in Darvaza, each photo tells a unique story of this unforgettable journey. Each image is a reminder of the greatness, uniqueness and beauty I discovered in this corner of the world, a place where history and nature intertwine in a tapestry of unrivaled wonder.