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New Years In Turkmenistan And Madrid (LH/TK/SN J)

New Years In Turkmenistan And Madrid (LH/TK/SN J)

Old Nov 22, 13, 3:35 pm
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New Years In Turkmenistan And Madrid (LH/TK/SN J)

In 2010, my then girlfriend (now wife) Lil and I tried but failed to obtain visas to visit her grad school friend who lives in Ashgabat, Turkmenistan. We never found out the reason why, but ended up having a wonderful vacation in Turkey that summer instead. But you know the old saying goes, “If a government denies your visa for no apparent reason, try, try again.”

So that’s what we did two years later, this time employing the services of STANTOURS, a local travel agency which promised to shepherd our application through the halls of Turkmen bureaucracy and hopefully produce the coveted “Letter of Invitation.” The LOI is a prerequisite to obtaining a visa, and once you have it, getting the stamp is as easy as mailing your passport to the Turkmen embassy in DC.

Below was our routing, combining a paid transcon ticket to visit relatives for Christmas with a UA partner JCL award. On the way back we spent a week in Madrid since neither of us had ever been to Spain before.

AA Y: JFK-LAX (Paid)
LH C: LAX-FRA-GYD-ASB
TK C: ASB-IST-MAD
SN C: MAD-BRU-JFK

This report picks up in December 2012 as we prepare to leave Los Angeles for Central Asia


Last edited by gluedtothewindow; Nov 22, 13 at 3:50 pm
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Old Nov 22, 13, 3:45 pm
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Part 1

After a kind lift from Lil’s folks, we arrived at LAX’s TBIT with loads of time to spare. Naturally the check-in agent spent a little extra time to make sure all of our Turkmen documents were in order, which they were, and we were through security and into the Star Alliance lounge in no time.












Here I took the opportunity to call UA and get us switched to a later ASB-IST-MAD flight, which ensured we wouldn’t have to wake up at 2AM to catch the early flight. The food offerings in the lounge were more than adequate. If memory serves me correct, I enjoyed a tasty soup and a club soda.







I was very excited to be flying on the upper deck of Lufthansa’s new 747-8 to Frankfurt. At that point it had only been on the route for a short period of time. First impressions of the cabin were positive – bright, comfy seats, ample storage space, large IFE screen – really no complaints.














The most memorable part of the flight occurred during my first drink order. It went something like this.

FA: What would you like to drink before the meal?
Me: I’d like a Johnnie Walker Black on the rocks please.
(FA leaves for a moment, then returns)
FA: I’m so sorry, we don’t have any of the black. But I’ve brought some Johnnie Walker Blue from first class instead.
Me: <ear-to-ear grin>

And it wasn’t just one glass, either — she kept me topped up for the entire 10-hour flight. Dankeschön Lufthansa!












Last edited by gluedtothewindow; Nov 22, 13 at 3:53 pm
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Old Nov 22, 13, 3:48 pm
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Part 1 - Additional Pics











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Old Nov 22, 13, 4:24 pm
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Part 2

Upon disembarking in Frankfurt we somehow made the mistake of getting in the EU transit immigration line (note: typing this now, I’m realizing that 10-hours of bottomless JW Blue might have had something to do with it). The immigration officer took a look at our onward BPs and pointed us where to go, and by that time the correct transit security area was deserted.

At the LH J lounge, I had a refreshing shower and fixed myself a plate of food while Lil did some exploring. A friendly lounge attendant was passing out nicely wrapped Christmas gifts, which consisted of a LH-branded ceramic cup and some cookies. It was a very nice gesture!

















By the time our ASB-bound flight began boarding, we were starting to fade. This flight, aboard an A332, would be making a brief pit stop in Baku, Azerbaijan before continuing onto Ashgabat, arriving around 1AM local time. First class was completely empty, while our forward business class mini-cabin was filled with American contractors who would be deplaning in Baku. I knew this because they were discussing it—as well as their mutual contacts in the Washington DC-area—loudly.







Lil conked out as soon as the doors were shut and slept soundly until we landed in Baku. I took a short nap, but woke up just in time for the meal.







The architecture of the GYD terminal is quite exotic looking. In my mellow jet-lag haze it might as well have been a colony on Mars. As door 2R sprung open to accept delivery of a new bit of catering, we felt a whoosh of cold air. That, combined with the adrenaline of being less than two hours away from Turkmenistan, was enough to keep us awake for the rest of the flight.





On the second leg we were the only two passengers in the forward JCL cabin. The FAs were mostly nonexistent except for a quick meal service, the highlight of which was dessert. On approach to ASB, we noticed a beautifully lit mosque.







After a silky smooth landing and taxi to a remote stand, we disembarked only to find out that every single passenger on the flight (~35) could fit into one bus.

Immigration was surprisingly easy. I was asked for my passport, my LOI, and $20 USD and was stamped into the country. The entire process took no more than five minutes. This was followed by a half-hour wait for our bags. One our way out, there was one more quick bag x-ray/metal detector/passport check combo. Waiting for us on the other side was our STANTOURS driver, who walked us to his heated van to take us to our hotel.
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Old Nov 22, 13, 4:32 pm
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Part 3

The thing about Turkmenistan is that they’re fairly restrictive about where you can and can’t go within the country. For example, our visas specified we could only stay within Ashgabat. We were also not allowed to stay overnight with the friend we were visiting—which ended up being fine since the hotel was comfortable, but kind of odd.

Given our price range, STANTOURS had selected Hotel Aziya (Asia) for us. It’s along a strip of other mid-range places just outside the center of the city. In the evenings its downstairs nightclub seemed to be quite popular, yet almost every other time of day the place was deserted. I’m talking “The Shining”-level deserted. It’s a big place, and the entire time we were there we only saw one other guest.

That said, the room was wonderful! It was spacious, with two queen-size beds and functional heat and hot water — an absolute must for December/January. Breakfast was also included. Making use of this benefit involved walking down the hall to the Chinese-themed restaurant and standing there until someone noticed us over the din of Russian disco blasting from a CD boom box. Please don’t interpret this as negative, though. The whole stay was an experience unlike any other we’ve had on our world travels and we savored every minute of it.





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Old Nov 22, 13, 7:41 pm
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Part 4

Over the next four days we took in all the sights of Ashgabat with our friend and her amazing family as tour guides. Every day after breakfast a new relative picked us up from the hotel and showed us a different part of the city. If you don’t have a car (which they didn’t), the way to get around is either by foot, by bus, or by “taxi.” Taxi, as we learned, is another word for a private car you flag down and negotiate a price for where you want to go. Since neither Lil nor I know Turkmen or Russian aside from the basic pleasantries, we were entirely reliant on our hosts. For reference, we never paid more than $3 USD to get anywhere.

Monument to the constitution of Turkmenistan


Stargate-looking indoor amusement park


Looking out from park


Inside


Turkmen arcade game


More games


Hiking around the mountains. On the other side is Iran


Dinner at friend's house


Ministry of Education (shaped like a book)


Ashgabat at dusk


Inside the carpet museum. Note the presidential portrait hanging on the wall. We were the only people there, although with our friend's brother as guide we actually learned a lot about the traditional patterns.


Forgot which ministry this is


Statue of old president


Ministry of Press (shaped like newspaper)


Turkmenistan is a muslim country, so most people don't celebrate Christmas. But they do have a New Years holiday featuring a patriarch named Father Frosty, who bears a striking resemblance to Santa.


Ashgabat skyline. Lots of white marble buildings.


Old president facing new president


The city's nicest hotel, where diplomats stay apparently


Ministry of Music (shaped like organ)


Turkmenistan Airlines office

Last edited by gluedtothewindow; Nov 22, 13 at 11:57 pm
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Old Nov 22, 13, 8:18 pm
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excellent photos!

So weird seeing Ashgabat with snow! It was like +40C there in the summer

Just curious, why did you use STANTOURS with the other (much cheaper) options out there?
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Old Nov 22, 13, 8:26 pm
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Nice report.. my sister was in the Peace Corps in a remote village in Turkmenistan from 2000-2001.. I was going to visit her but then 9/11 happened and she got pulled out..

FDW
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Old Nov 22, 13, 8:58 pm
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My wife went there on a trip working for USAID in 1999. Of all of the countries in central Asia she worked in, she described Turkmenistan as the most bizarre place on earth she's ever been to. Keep in mind the Turkmenbashi (the ruler and guy in the gold statue) was still alive then. This is a character who renamed all the days of the week and months of the year after him and his family.

My wife also described a line of hotels with no guests (other than my wife and her work colleague). It was "The Shining" deserted other than the occasional staff to help them.

If you're wondering where all the people are in the capital city in these photos, the Turkmenbashi kicked out all the poor people (and their camels) years earlier, making things look mostly deserted.
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Old Nov 22, 13, 11:28 pm
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Originally Posted by rankourabu View Post
excellent photos!

So weird seeing Ashgabat with snow! It was like +40C there in the summer

Just curious, why did you use STANTOURS with the other (much cheaper) options out there?
Thanks rankourabu! We'd contacted them in 2010 based on good reviews online and found their communication to be excellent, even though we ultimately applied for visas on our own. I think the second time around we wanted to be positive everything went through without a problem and didn't mind paying a little extra for the peace of mind. I'm sure other tour operators would have been fine, but based on our experience I would highly recommend STANTOURS.
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Old Nov 23, 13, 10:30 am
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Part 5

Older apartment building with satellite dishes.


Lunch at a restaurant where you eat in a traditional yurt, though I suppose not exactly strictly traditional with electric heating and a flat-screen TV.


The food here was spectacular. That soup at the top of the picture was one of the best soups I've ever tasted.


Outside the yurts.


Mosque on outskirts of the city. At one time its dome was supposedly the largest in Central Asia. The former president is buried in a mausoleum adjacent to this building.


Our chariot awaits. Ladas are plentiful in Ashgabat.


Roundabout in the center of the city.


Arch of Neutrality. This unique structure is topped by a gold-plated statue of the former president which rotates throughout the day to always be facing the sun. During his rule this was located in the center of the city, but it's since been moved to the outskirts. Interesting fact: Turkmenistan one of only a handful of completely neutral countries in the world.


Ashgabat National History Museum. Again, we were the only people there. Inside there were three exhibits and we were told we could only pick two to see. We selected archaeology and Turkmen history, saving the Turkmenbashi (former president) exhibit for a future visit


The world's third-tallest flagpole. Check that off the bucket list.


Ministry of Health (shaped like serpent)


Ashgabat bazaar. It was toward the end of the day on New Years eve and all the souvenir stalls were closed. But our friend tracked down a guy who opened his shop just for us.


New Turkish-owned shopping mall. Kind of an interesting hybrid between a grocery store and a Western-style mall with an internet cafe and food court on the top level.

Last edited by gluedtothewindow; Nov 23, 13 at 10:38 am
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Old Nov 23, 13, 10:44 am
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Part 6

On New Years Eve, the tradition is to house-hop around with family and friends, eating and drinking a little at each place. We began at our friend’s parent’s apartment, where an enormous spread awaited us. We were told her father made a world-class pilaf, and it didn’t disappoint. Then they brought out a bowl of lukewarm innards (heart, kidney, lungs), which I managed to nibble on although my gag reflex did make its presence known. We both felt kind of bad for not eating more since the food was considered a delicacy, but I reasoned that getting ill would have been a far worse cultural faux pas.

Our first stop on the New Years eve apartment crawl. Note the bowl of innards at the center right.


More food


Our next stop was our friend’s aunt and uncle’s house, where an even bigger spread was presented. The uncle was a hunter and had personally shot some of the meat. Our friend’s younger cousin had also recently gotten an acoustic guitar for his birthday. As a moderately proficient guitarist myself, I showed him how to play power chords and just might have launched the career of Turkmenistan’s first international rock star.

Great cake, nuts, and dried fruit at stop #2


With only minutes to spare before midnight, we jumped into a “taxi” and sped off to a party at our friend’s husband’s friend’s apartment. The guy apparently had some lucrative business interests in Moscow and it certainly showed. The apartment was thoroughly modern, complete with a giant flat screen TV and other brand new electronic gadgets. Even though I was completely stuffed by this point, I indulged in their offering of sushi and homemade vodka, finally ringing in the New Year with a vanilla ice cream cone.

Yet it soon became clear that the night was only just getting started. Keeping with the guitar theme, our host (at the behest of his wife) plugged in his Fender Strat and absolutely shredded along to a concert DVD of a prog-rock band I was unfamiliar with. We struck up a conversation with another Russian fellow at the party who wanted to practice his English.

At approximately 4AM, our friend informed us it was time to go. She cautioned that it would be difficult to find a taxi at this hour, but that we’d try anyway. I should explain that up until this point, we’d always had someone as our chaperone. But now, since we were heading in different directions, the plan was that after a price was negotiated we’d get in the car alone. This made me slightly nervous. Complete stranger, language barrier, 4AM, Turkmenistan. On top of this, once a car pulled over, our friend’s husband tried to persuade the driver to take us by announcing, “Please, these Americans are guests in our country.”

I tried to imagine what this scene might look like two years from now in the Discovery Channel recreation of our kidnapping.

Well, of course I was completely wrong. Not only did the guy drive us directly to our hotel, but he refused to accept payment.
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Old Nov 23, 13, 10:52 am
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Part 7

New Years day was our last in Ashgabat before heading onward to Madrid. We met up with our friend for lunch and some last minute shopping. On a whim I asked to borrow her cell phone to check our reservation. That’s when I discovered that United had canceled my ticket on Turkish Airlines.

You heard that right. Ticket canceled. With our departure scheduled for the following morning, this was a problem. To make matters worse, the Turkish Airlines office in Ashgabat was closed, the city’s internet cafés were closed, and the long distance rate to the US was ~$15/minute. Even if I could get a UA agent on the line in the wee hours of January 1st, there’s no way I was shelling out that kind of money for a phone call.

Just when it seemed like we’d have to show up at the airport and hope for the best, our friend had an epiphany. She works at an international organization in the city, and the computer in her office had Skype. Hurrah! As expected UA’s US call center was closed, but the UK line only took two rings before someone picked up. The agent confirmed the error and reissued my ticket – the only problem was she could only get the ASB-IST leg in economy. I was so relieved at that point I didn’t care. With my MileagePlus account now showing the new itinerary, I could enjoy my last day in Turkmenistan.

Getting back into a car near our friend's office. In response to my attempt to take a picture without the guard noticing, our friend remarked "If you don't want people to think you're a spy, don't act like a spy."


Our final drive past the Stargate during our last night in Turkmenistan


Sure enough, before sunrise the next morning when we got to the lobby of the hotel, our STANTOURS driver was waiting. The drive back to the airport was just as surreal this time as it was when we arrived. Ashgabat really is a beautiful city in the dark. The gigantic, uniquely designed buildings and liberal use of LED lights give it a kind of post-Soviet Las Vegas feel.

Last edited by gluedtothewindow; Nov 23, 13 at 11:01 am
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Old Nov 23, 13, 12:37 pm
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Great report of a country that doesn't appear frequently on FT.
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Old Nov 23, 13, 5:14 pm
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Part 8

It took a while to check us in, presumably because of the last minute canceled/reissued ticket. My actual boarding pass was hand-written while Lil’s was printed the normal way. Since she was planning to sleep anyway, she was kind enough to let me sit in her seat in J (definitely married a winner).











Still smarting from the whole canceled ticket fiasco, at departure I was even more annoyed to find the J cabin only half full. In a later exchange with UA, they agreed to refund the two $50 change fees I’d paid to move to the later TK flight, but refused to credit me any miles for the involuntary downgrade.





The view out the window was stunning. Our flight path took us along the northern Iranian border, over the Caspian Sea to Baku and onward through western Azerbaijan into Turkey. I was also surprised and elated to receive an amenity kit on this medium-haul daytime flight.













As it’s been reported in the past, the TK lounge in IST is top notch. I used the fast wifi to call our AirBnb host in Madrid to inform him we were on the later flight and then took a tour of the lounge’s extensive food and drink offerings.









Our connecting flight to Madrid boarded from a remote stand. For whatever reason this leg was unaffected by the ticket cancellation, so Lil and I both had our original seats. The flight was more or less uneventful, punctuated by a tasty meal of lamb and cous cous.





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