The Gates of Hell

Another installment of my trip to Turkmenistan:

I can’t remember day what this was, but we had the Sunday of the opening ceremony off. The command centre thought that it would be impossible to get in, and once you’re in, impossible to get out of the Olympic complex. (They were right, we later learned). So on the Saturday afternoon, after our shift, 6 of us hopped into two cars (Toyota fortuner and a pajero) and we went to the gates of hell. I’ve since posted extensively (with pictures) about this on Facebook, so I won’t elaborate too much (if you want to see the pics, please send me a message and I’ll send you the link to the Facebook post!). We drove for about 3.5/4 hours. The road is exceptionally bad and we only left at 6pm to take on the 260km. So although it doesn’t sound so far, it took very long. We eventually reached the crater after stopping for desert sunset pictures. It was the first time I was truly in a desert. On the way, I was reminded of the Karoo at times. The scenery changed quite a bit as we drove. Our guides were great. They spoke enough English for us to comfortably understand each other. We reached the crater and got out to take some pictures. In the glow you could see the methane gas escaping. It’s really quite alien and quite the sight. It’s difficult to describe, and I would highly recommend it to anyone traveling through this country. Have a look on facebook for more info and detailed descriptions on the photos.derwaza gas crater.jpg

We then set up camp in the desert. Because of the gas, you’re not allowed to camp within 200m of the crater. There were only 2 other ‘camps’. I say ‘camp’ quite loosely. The desert is gigantic – so you just drive around until you find a flattish spot. There is no water, no structure, no toilets, no nothing. Just – a desert and a massive, burning hole.

Our guides cooked us dinner – shish kebaps with salad (tomatoes, cucumbers, some herbs) and some warmed bread. Enough food for an army. We were starving so we finished most of it. Then some Turkmen green tea before bedtime.

The next morning they cooked meatballs on the fire (frikadelle!) with more bread and the last of the veggies from the previous evening. Some more green tea and some coffee for the others! One of the girls brought some tinned tuna from her country, so she made us a delicious salad with it.breakfast.jpg

We then took the road back, stopping at two of the other craters (one with mud and one with water). We saw LOTS of camels on our way home. LOTS. I still find it quite astonishing that we made it to the crater in the dark safely the previous night, with all those camels wandering around.

There was an accident (veggie truck hit a camel) on our way home. Our guide mentioned that they would never hear about this accident (or any other) in any form. This kind of information is kept quiet.

When we got home, all the roads were closed and we couldn’t get to our hotel. On our way into the city we got stopped multiple times by the police. The car was even searched once. Once we reached the city, we ended up walking the last 1.5km because the cars couldn’t get close to the hotel.

It was a fantastic experience. My favourite thus far in this country. There was absolutely nothing negative about it. I would do it again without hesitation. The stars were the brightest I’ve ever seen. The desert was the quietest I’ve ever experienced. The food was probably some of the best I’ve ever had!


Turkmenistan Days 4 – 9

We started working  so my time to write got a bit less (and I am lazy, wanting to not sit in front of my laptop in the evenings!). So these are more general impressions of the last few days, than a day by day recollection of all the events.

There are some really bizarre things in this country. For example, everything gets washed, constantly. Even the roads. And the pedestrian crossings. And the bridges. Everything has to be super shiny in the city. Everything is also super controlled. Everyone looks similar (in the national dress, with hair worn mostly in braids or men cleanly shaven, because if you pitch up to work unshaven, odds are that you will be fired) and act without questioning anything.  It is the 19th of September today as I write this, and this morning I went down to reception to ask directions to a pharmacy (I have a bit of a cold). The girl at reception has bright pink hair when I checked in, but her hair is now back to normal. I asked her what happened and she said that the minister of tourism didn’t like the pink…

There are pictures of the president EVERYWHERE. In every shop (like in the Pharmacy, or the supermarket!). In every bus. In every hotel. On huge screens along the roads (but don’t try to take pictures where anyone can see you!) Literally everywhere. (Spot the president in the next pic)hotel lobby.jpgA big frustration for us is when he decides to go anywhere. Because then everything goes on lockdown and you literally can’t go anywhere. You also have no idea how long it will take (and it doesn’t help that the police don’t speak English and are completely unwilling to help you). Additionally, there are police on every single street corner. They just stand there and blow a whistle at you if you cross a road when you are not supposed to, or you take a picture of a building. That’s another thing – this city is obviously meant to show off. It’s immaculately clean, it’s super pretty (white marble, gold, green and glass like I’ve said) but you are not allowed to take pictures of anything!

When we arrived at the Olympic complex yesterday, as we got off the bus to go through security, one of the security (which we assume is police in different uniforms for the games) approached me, telling me that I took a video as we came in. I certainly had not taken a video which I told him, but he insisted. I was quite annoyed at the time (because our transport was 2 hours late – another story…) and I wasn’t feeling well having come down with a cold. So I opened my phone and showed him, asking him (perhaps a bit too aggressively!) “so, where is the video? Huh? Where is the video?” he mumbled ‘sorry’ and turned away. I just said “ja I would think so” (perhaps still a bit more aggressively than I should have!) and went through security. (Later edit: I later learned that we, as internationals, could be quite difficult with security. The locals would end up in deep trouble if they were as snarky as we were at times. More on that, later)

The locals in TM are lovely, mostly. They are very pleasant, keen to learn, keen to help, very very friendly. The police are the complete opposite – they don’t greet, they don’t smile. It’s as if they were told to not show any facial expression (which is not impossible…). However, the locals are also very nervous. No one puts a foot wrong. You don’t drive 61km in a 60km zone. If the light is red (or about to turn red), you stop. You don’t cross the road when you are not supposed to. You don’t drive without a seatbelt even for 100m. And it’s not because they are law abiding or very disciplined, it’s because they are scared. People in higher ranks often threaten those they deem ‘below’ them (even openly) and it works. Simple example: we were on a bus, and there are many stops for the buses, but this particular bus’s stop was about 200m down the road of where we wanted to get off – we were the only ones on the bus, it was the only car on the road, it was the middle of the night. But the bus driver wouldn’t stop early, because he is not allowed to. No thinking outside the box here – you are not allowed to.

The city is surprisingly, and bizarrely, empty. It’s something I read on many online blogs before I came here, and I’ve mentioned it before but I didn’t think it was real and it’s just absolutely bizarre. But it’s true. When you drive, wherever in the city, there are no people. There are a handful of women out tending to the gardens (in the scorching heat) but there are no people walking around. No one. It’s almost eerie at times. Also, when you do happen to see people, they are young and healthy. I did not see a single disabled person during my nearly three weeks in this country. When you move out of the city centre, you start seeing more people – women with children, students going to university (they’re easy to spot because of the uniforms), people going to work. But in the city, it’s like a big, empty, sterile bubble.

Interestingly, more than one person has likened the city to a snowglobe and it’s very apt. A little bubble that you can’t escape – completely different from the outside world. And it’s all for show. It’s not real.

They are hosting this massive event. For the first time ‘opening’ the country a bit more (normally it’s nearly impossible to get into the country as a tourist, you need to work through a tourist company which is government controlled) yet they are seemingly clamping down more and more (such as closing roads constantly, prohibiting the sale of any alcohol etc). It’s not quite clear what the rationale is.

I will write a bit later of my experience outside of Ashgabat. A handful of us visited the “gates of hell” over the weekend. It’s 260km outside of the city. A much more pleasant experience!

Turkmenistan day 3

Today was a work orientated day. So I’ll share some impressions. The city is ridiculously clean. People wash even the sidewalks and bridges.

clean city (Sneaked pic through the car window, taken by a friend).

There is not a leaf out of place. But, the city centre if also very clinical and sterile. Also very much free of people as well (you don’t see people walking at all) and free of any other form of life. (Pictures taken by friends)

No birds, no animals, no bugs, no flies. Nothing. It’s very odd. There are many, many beautiful parks, but not a soul in them. (Later edit: people are not allowed in most of the parks. A colleague nearly got arrested because he went for a jog and ended up running in a park which happened to be connected to something of the president.)

The entire city centre is made up of 4 colors – white marble (overwhelmingly so), gold, green (trees and roofs) and glass. Nothing else. Buildings typically do not have names on, so how you know which building is which –  I don’t know. Some do have names but then it’s very small and quite hidden. (Later edit: on the last day I realised that I’ve been living right next to a large restaurant with decent food. But I never knew because there is no indication of it being a restaurant).

The women dress very nicely. They were long dresses, mostly velvet type material. If it’s green it means they’re in school. Red is the university uniform and other long dresses are worn to work or leisure. In their free time they can wear what they want, but most choose the dresses and I’ve been told that they are expected to wear the dresses since it’s the national dress code. (Later edit: learned that the dresses are not worn by choice). It’s gorgeous but I can’t imagine how hot they must be! The women also wear hats. A bigger hat means she’s married. A smaller one means she’s not. The men wear black pants, white shirts and ties to school/varsity or work. Although a Muslim country, they are not very conservative in that alcohol is consumed (usually, not during the Games!) and that women do not cover their heads.

Today was about 36 degrees. The president visited the Olympic Complex so all roads were instantly closed and all transport services stopped. We ended up walking about 9.5km (according to my phone) the whole day. It was HOT! And apparently a week or two ago it was a good 5 degrees hotter. (Later edit: the weather changed substantially in the time we were here. From super hot to even raining one evening. Now, nearly a week later and the day temperatures are in the mid teens!)

Turkmenistan Day 2


Starting with breakfast. There was some sort of porridge that I didn’t eat which I later learned was just rice with milk, and then a spread of little bowls with different cheeses and some meats. Lots and lots of types of pastries and breads. Some things that I later learned was NOT croissants as I originally thought and some flat flapjack type things, but more of a vetkoek consistency (but sweeter). There are probably 10 types of bread with different fillings and stuff as well. Also always watermelon and melon. Unfortunately the breads and pastries were rarely fresh. Warm foods included spaghetti or Vienna-type sausages on some days, bread on others, slices of pizza on others, mixed vegetables on others. Even a type of French toast on some days!)

We went to get our first briefing close to the Olympic Complex (OC) and got our uniforms. Then lunch at a Turkish restaurant. I had water again with Turkish pizza or Pide. Not bad but very rich  (lots of cheese!). At every restaurant you get bread to start with. Here we got some complimentary watermelon and melon afterwards. We ordered tea but they didn’t bill us for that, so we guessed that’s complimentary as well.

I went to do my first supermarket inspection – Prices vary. Dairy products are very expensive, but my other products are very cheap. Fresh fruit and veggies were expensive at the supermarket but much cheaper at the Russian bazaar opposite our hotel (later edit: and even cheaper at the Teke Bazaar a bazaar that the locals seem to frequent, more on that later). We were warned not to drink the water at all (even accidentally), but luckily water is cheap (2M for 1.5litre at the hotel, 3.75M for 5l of water at the supermarket). Considering that we paid about R2 per M, it’s not expensive at all.

Later we went to the Russian Bazaar – first thing: NO PHOTOS. There are guards everywhere keeping an eye. I have a translator app on my phone which I use to communicate in Russian (the Turkmen all speak Russian) so I was walking with my phone in my hand – I was told repeatedly to not take photos.

The stall owners at the bazaar were incredibly friendly. They speak no English but they all showed us their products and asked (by gestures or single words) where we were from. Of course no one believes I’m from Africa… I’m white! We got so many things to taste, everyone wanting to show off their products! Some tiny pears, fresh melon, sundried melon (delicious by the way, I’m definitely bringing some home!), nuts (some from Iran, Turkey and Turkmenistan to compare) and people try to start up conversations everywhere. At one point two stall owners were chatting to each other in Turkmen when I heard one say something sounding like “America”. I realised they were guessing where we were from, I turned around and said “South Africa actually”. I swear the poor boy blushed redder than his tomatoes! We had a good laugh about that! If you show interest, the stall owners will start to bargain with you. Bargaining is big in this part of the world, same with Azerbaijan before. If you’re a good haggler, you can have lots of fun with the locals. They seem to like a good ‘fight’!

I ended up buying some tomatoes, grapes and a pretty shopping bag with a horse on. I will go back for more stuff though, especially to take home! You can buy anything, from a cellphone, an outfit, hair accessories to any fruit/veggies/bread/sugar and even camel’s milk!! Sweets and cookies are sold loose. You say how much you want of what, and you pay per weight. Hand gestures work well for language barriers!

(Later edit: the fermented camel’s milk was really, really not my taste! It’s literally like sour milk! But, at least I can say that I’ve tried it!)

Turkmenistan Day 1

Turkmenistan Day 1

We arrived on a FlyDubai flight from Dubai to Ashgabat. My first impression of the Turkmen was that the women dress really nicely. There were a number of Turkmen on our flight and that was the very first thing I noticed. The very second thing…? Hand luggage. By golly they brought a lot of hand luggage. The airline optimistically had a sign indicating the hand luggage dimensions. All the internationals (a few of us, arriving for the Games) were sticking to our meagre 7kg bags but the Turkmen came with bags and bags and bags! Bags so heavy they could hardly lift them to take them onto the plane! The flight wasn’t full, so all available empty seats were taken up by hand luggage as well. Later I learned that the locals are allowed to bring 60kg of luggage into the country. They go and buy stuff from Turkey and Dubai which they then sell at the local markets. Interesting experience!

The next impression was as we flew into Ashgabat, the capital. Just before (as we were flying over Iran) it was all dessert. You could clearly see as we approached the new country because there were specs of green (some trees or tiny plantations of I don’t know what). But as we flew into the city, it was all white with green roofs. More on that later.

Coming into the country was much easier than has been written in any travel blog I’ve seen. Whether this is just because of the Games, I don’t know. (later edit: it was indeed because of the Games! Some of my colleagues that came earlier had very different experiences.) Mine were however all pleasant. Everywhere were people directing us and we had a dedicated shuttle to take us to our hotel. There was a policeman standing with a young German Shepherd at the luggage carousel. I always try my luck in asking them if I may pet the dog (no matter which country), and I’ve never had a positive answer since the dogs are normally on duty. However, even though not overly friendly, the guard let me pet his dog as long as I wanted. Aya was her name. He was probably taken aback by a blue haired chick wanting to pet his dog… (Later edit: this was the first and last dog I saw until much much later where I saw one or two people with dogs. When venturing out into the countryside, stray dogs were more common. Animals are not a big part of the culture.)

We arrived at the hotel and checked in without issues. The hotel is supposedly 5 star. It’s certainly not 5 star by western standards, but it’s really comfortable and large. Each room has a balcony and the rooms are decorated Soviet style (see pics). There is a souvenir shop and a small little shop selling snacks and cold drinks (which is very necessary! It is HOT!).

One of the first things we were told is to be very, very careful of taking pictures. There are police everywhere (literally everywhere) and they will make you delete pictures. No pictures of people or buildings. (Later edit: You will also be accused of taking pictures when you most certainly did not! Most pictures had to be sneaked).

Supper I had at a small café close by – a burger and chips with some water  (all restaurants in the city were banned from selling alcohol during the Games) (later edit: this was probably the best meal I had in my entire time there!) Which ended up costing 30 manat. More on money later.

Travel blog: Turkmenistan experiences

10 September 2017 and I had just arrived in Ashgabat to work at the 5th Asian Indoor and Martial Arts Games. Because of internet restrictions and local laws, I will post my experiences when I return to South Africa. However I will write a short bit every day to ensure I don’t forget, so I can share them later with those interested.

Turkmenistan, the home of the ‘most beautiful  horse in the world, the Akhal-Teke, has been cited to be the second most unfriendly country in the world for tourists, beaten only by North Korea… With reading a lot of negatives online about this country, you can’t help going with some preconceived ideas. But, I’m going to take each day as it comes, it will surely be an adventure!

Traveling is one of my absolute favourite things to do. I feel like I change a little bit, each time I experience a new culture or part of the world. I certainly learn each time what to really appreciate from my own!

Herewith, the experiences of a South African in Turkmenistan in September 2017.

(Later edit: I will post each day’s posts as I get a chance. It won’t all be at once, since I still  have to edit, add pictures and also have to write a final chapter on the experience as a whole!)

Slippery slopes

I just came across this article of a disgruntled ‘animal welfare activist’ who lost the team competition after a team mate was DQ as a result of the blood rule.

In my profession, there can be no ambiguity, no possible alternative interpretation of the words on the paper, and absolutely no gaps. So, I’m quite good at finding them. This open letter has many.

But besides that – if we start allowing the little things , how long before the big things are allowed?

Being Grateful for Things You Don’t Like.

Love this.

Relaxed & Forward: AnnaBlakeBlog

WMDodgerRideMy favorite training mentor had a habit that drove me nuts. She would be working with a horse who spooked or flipped his head or had some other issue that made him a disaster and when she climbed on, if you were close, you could hear her say in a low and quiet voice, “Goody, goody.” She would have a small smile and be cheerful.

The woman was nuts. It was like she couldn’t tell right from wrong. She loved a bad ride. It wasn’t that she wanted the adrenaline thrill of trying to stay on, and she didn’t pick fights. She just thought a conversation with a horse got more interesting once some resistance showed up.

I was a novice rider just beginning to compete a young horse and neither of us was very confident. One of us was trying way too hard. And it was so important that…

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My take on the Olympics (because everyone has one!)

Since everyone who knows what dressage means, have had an opinion about the recent Olympics, I thought I want to have my say on it too.

I have been consistently disgusted with what has been ‘dressage’, over the last few years. After WEG last year (or was it 2014?) I thought that dressage couldn’t possibly sink any lower. My personal experience at grassroots level, trying to find a show that will allow me to participate in a bitless bridle didn’t help my overall opinion either. And then the comments I got when I finally did participate, which was more focused on my choice of tack than my or my horse’s ability. All in all – negative. Very negative.

And then came the Olympics…

I know there are comments to be made about what was bad or horrible, but I want to comment on what stood out for me, that stood out more than the bad/horrible. Also, I only ever managed to watch the performance of the top 10/15. And of those, I want to talk about my favourites.

What I saw in those rides, was noses that were consistently on or in front of the vertical. I saw open throatlatches. I noticed normal looking extended trots with hind ends that matched the front, rather than excessive front leg movements with hindlegs that were left at the previous letter. I saw superb, goosebumpy piaffes and passages. One horse had a passage that was probably the most lovely to watch of every horse that I had every seen.

I saw uphill, and horses sitting rather than those bouncy piaffes that  seems like little bucks disguised as advanced dressage movements, that dressage had been littered with before

And you know what I picked up the most? The fact that several riders, had absolutely zero contact on the curb.

I saw horses that were relaxed and seemed to be enjoying what they were doing. And FINALLY, I saw that this was rewarded, rather than those that I am not referring to here.

Dressage has a long way to go to where all of us would like to see it. But for the first time, I actually think that Dressage have moved in the right direction.

This was what I picked up in my favorites at the Games. Of course there are others, but I thought it necessary to, for a change, focus on the good 🙂