Day 461: The Forbidden Stan


Groggy and grumpy I awoke from my nightborn passage through Uzbekistan. Like Alexander The Great so many years before (and Michael Caine and Sean Connery more recently), I was in Samarkand – the legendary and (arguably) most famous city of Central Asia. Stumbling bleary-eyed out of the taxi I lost my phone and before I knew what the hell was going on I had slept-walked into another taxi and was hurling out of town.

Sacrilege, I know. I’m sorry. I’ll tell you a little story: About eight years ago I was travelling through the Andes with an old flame of mine (she’d hate me saying that, but watchagonnado?) and I got increasingly ratty with what I saw as her lack of interest in the soaring grandeur of one of the most spectacular mountain ranges in the world.

I couldn’t believe somebody would come all this way and then not relish the moment. And here I was, in Gramarkand – a place where history, politics and religion smash together like quarks in a Large Hadron Collider – a place that couldn’t be more – you know, me – and I buzz through it like it’s the suburbs of Milton Keynes.

If I was Tyler Durdan, I’ll so be giving myself a slap around now.

But like the Cylons have a plan, I have an excuse.

It’s not a good one, it’s not even a great one, but an excuse nonetheless. I don’t want to go everywhere… yet. What’s that quote from Die Hard? – “And when Alexander saw the breadth of his domain, he wept, for there were no more worlds to conquer”.

Ah, the benefits of a pop-cultured education.

I don’t want there to be no more worlds to conquer. I’ve already been to far too many places for my tender years and I don’t want to ruin the thrill of the new for my future self – I’ve got to leave some stone unturned and Samarkand is going to have to be one of them – hell, it just gives me one more excuse to come back!! And when I do come back I’ll give Samarkand and Khiva a real run for their money. I promise!! But not today.

Today I’ve got Turkmenistan to cross – one of the last great Forbidden Kingdoms of the world, up there with North Korea, Bhutan and Eritrea (still to go, kids!).

I got to the border early enough to make it exceptionally painless. The guys at the border (on both sides) were as jolly as their counterparts on the other side Uzbekistan and I got through with no headaches at all. It goes to show – if you’ve got your paperwork in order, Central Asia is a cinch.

And then I was in Turkmenistan. By the afternoon I had cut through Merv (yes it’s called Merv) on the way to Mary (yes it’s called Mary) and after a rather interesting lunch of Turkmen pie I pressed on to the border with Afghanistan.

I arrived at the tiny little bordertown of Kushka at around 10pm. My friendly taxi driver dropped me off at an unmarked hotel and I tentatively knocked on the door as the taxi sped off into the night. A little old lady answered and explained in her best Turkmen that the hotel was full. I tried to get directions for another hotel, but all she could do was wave her arms in the vague direction from whence I had just come.

Considering her hotel didn’t feel it necessary to put up a sign saying ‘hotel’, I guessed nobody else would bother putting up a sign either and that at this point I was pretty much stuffed. So I drudged off back down the dark deserted road keeping my eye out for anything that even gave the vague impression that I could stay there for the night.

Don’t forget: it’s late, it’s dark, I’m on my own in one of the most isolationist countries in the world, in a town that nobody has ever heard of.

And less than one mile down the road is a sleepy little place called Afghanistan.

Everything was quiet – too damn quiet. There was literally NOBODY around. No cars, no people, no pubs, restaurants, cafes, NOTHING. Not even a street dog barking in the distance. Nada. My buttocks were clenched so tightly it’s a miracle that I could actually walk. As I passed the deserted lock-ups, picking my way over the twisted concrete that blocked the road, a group of three youths swung into view. Now if this was anywhere else, my natural reaction would be to run like a sissy – YES I’VE SEEN HOSTEL.

But if there is one thing I’ve learnt on the road it’s that sometimes you gotta swallow your pride and ask for directions, especially if you have no map, no bearings and utterly no idea where you’re going to sleep.

Luckily one of the lads spoke enough English to understand what I was bleating on about. He said there were no other hotels. Yep, a one horse town alright – and somebody had shot the horse. But then he said it was no worries – I could kip at his. Ah, Central Asians – why can’t the rest of the world be more like you?

So what’s Turkmenistan like? Well I’ll tell you and I’ll be blunt. It’s boring. Possibly the most boring place on the planet – at least Cape Verde has a vibrant crime scene and the odd paedophile to liven things up.

You see this will always be a problem in places in which a bunch of faceless bureaucrats decide what’s good for ya. Top down cities – think of the rampant joylessness of Canberra, Brasilia or Milton Keynes. A place with no nooks and even fewer crannies, a place that people have not built for themselves but has been built for them, the result of which is a characterless vacuum of convenience. Yummy.

Now I know what I’m saying flies in the face of my warm regard for Uzbekistan, Tashkent being about as charming as a flaming bag of poo that’s been left on your doorstep by mischievous scallywags. But that was my point – the people of Uzbekistan won me over despite their country’s charmless architecture and diabolical government.

The only thing Turkmenistan has got going for it is as a curio; like a traffic warden with six fingers. What makes it worth a visit is to clamp eyes on one of the (many) hilarious statues of Saparmurat Niyazov, aka ‘Turkmenbashi’, the first president of independent Turkmenistan (1991-2006); and by all accounts, an UTTER NUTCASE.

Seriously – he renamed the month of April after his mum, demanded that an ice palace be built in Ashgabat, the capital city (even though Ashgabat is pretty much in the middle of a desert) and in 2004 he banned long hair and beards (I would have been stuffed) along with gold teeth (which are incredibly and terrifyingly popular around these parts). He also changed the words of the national anthem so it was all about him, banned news reporters from wearing make up and instituted a bank holiday called Melon Day. NO I’M NOT MAKING THIS STUFF UP.

One good thing he did was make lip syncing at public concerts illegal. Seriously.

But his biggest and most lasting legacy was his fondness for unveiling golden statues of himself. Having seen some up close, I’m happy to report that they look like oversized Kenner toys dipped in gold. My only regret is that I didn’t get to see the big daddy of the golden Turkmenbashis – the one atop the ‘Arch of Neutrality’ in Ashgabat. Arms aloft, it rotates to follow the sun. Or rather, the sun rotates to follow Turkmenbashi.

Graham Hughes

Graham Hughes is a British adventurer, presenter, filmmaker and author. He is the only person to have travelled to every country in the world without flying. From 2014 to 2017 he lived off-grid on a private island that he won in a game show, before returning to the UK to campaign for a better future for the generations to come.

This Post Has 4 Comments

  1. PedroZZZ

    I have read most of your postings until now, but I am not sure if I can continue anymore. Most of the stuff you are saying is good, but a couple of things bother me:

    1. The border-hops. I kind of understand that you are in a hurry, but hopping to places where you could so easily get a visa does not make sense to me. For example Russia, Belarus and later North Korea. The border-hop is not really entering a country to me. If you do it Chad style that you actually get the stamps then yes, even if that is a bit silly also. Anyways those are the rules so fine.

    2. Not seeing any sightseeing. I understand that most places don’t have much to offer, but going twice via Samarkand and not even stopping for 1 hour to see the amazing sights is just wrong.

    3. But the most annoying thing is your ability to call a place the worst place in the earth just because of a few unlucky incidents and now saying Turkmenistan as boring, when you are speeding through without even staying one night in the capital. (most likely you are right, but to say it as a fact based on your few hours is wrong). For Paraguay you were able to at least justify it by saying that you have stayed there a few nights before. And for me 2 nights may be enough (I am not those persons who claim that you have to be a month to really see and experience the place, bollocks to that).

    1. Graham

      The world isn’t some sideways-scrolling platform game from 1985. There is nothing to stop me going back to these places – it’s not like they crumble to dust once I depart, and thanks to me completing The Odyssey Expedition, it looks like I’m going to get paid to – get this – continue travelling for the rest of my life.

      I missed out Samarkand (and Khiva) on purpose to give myself a damn good reason to go back to Uzbekistan. I’m only 34 – I wanted to leave some stones unturned. But mark my words: I will return!!!

      1. Rusty

        OMFG, never thought something this awesome would pass me by in my own country, too sad that you had a not-so-great experience in Turkmenistan. Kushka is one of the shithole border villages, no wonder you had problems there. You missed the gates to hell, the dinosaur trails, the magnificent caves and mountains in south-east part, underground lake in Koytendag, and many more. If I had only heard about your arrival before you did so, I would personally be your guide and give you a grand “tour de TM” (not on bicycles of course) to show you all the good places of this forbidden stan. You got my e-mail, if you decide to visit us again, let me know.

  2. sim

    You seem like a nice enough guy but it saddens me that someone who seems so poorly able to “grin and bear it” writes publicly and with such feigned authority about the places they’ve traveled. Your having passed through a place at night and had a mildly uncomfortable experience there hardly gives you the right to describe it as “boring”. It’s your own inability to find interesting things to say about it that bores me. And what impression are you leaving with the people in these places? That of an overprivileged white ingrate who hasn’t suffered near enough in his life? Ever consider the possibility that the owner of that “leaky boat” may read your description some day and be insulted by it? He got you there, didn’t he? Did you notice how none of the rest of the crew seemed remotely phased by the little bit of bailing they had to do? Man up, dude! Even the unpleasant experiences in life will offer up their own brand of joy to those willing to perceive it and this is the experience travel is supposed to give you. Until you’ve realized that you’re only putting your audience off. Poor little guy, you had to spend a whole month seeing Cape Verde. How Awful! Go home, already.

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